United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division
ADRIAN FOWLER and KITIA HARRIS, on behalf of themselves and others similarly situated, Plaintiffs,
RUTH JOHNSON, in her official capacity as Secretary of State of the Michigan Department of State, Defendant.
OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING PLAINTIFFS' MOTION FOR
V. PARKER U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE
4, 2017, Plaintiffs filed this putative class action lawsuit
challenging Defendant's practice, pursuant to Michigan
Compiled Laws § 257.321a, of suspending the driver's
licenses of individuals who fail to pay court-ordered fines,
costs, fees and assessments resulting from traffic violations
(“traffic debt”). On the day Plaintiffs initiated
this action, they also filed a motion for preliminary
injunction to enjoin Defendant from suspending the
driver's licenses of people unable to pay their traffic
debt. (ECF No. 2.) The parties have fully briefed the motion.
(ECF No. 11, 13.) The Court held a hearing with respect to
Plaintiffs' motion on November 15, 2017. For the reasons
that follow, the Court is now granting the motion.
Michigan's Motor Vehicle Code, the failure to follow
certain traffic laws results in a civil infraction that
includes a fine. For each civil infraction, a judge can order
costs of up to $100 and, in the majority of cases, must also
impose a mandatory justice system assessment of $40. Mich.
Comp. Laws § 257.907(4), (13). Any fine, cost, or fee
remaining unpaid after fifty-six (56) days incurs a
twenty-percent (20%) late fee. Id. § 600.4803.
law provides that twenty-eight (28) days after a person fails
to answer a traffic citation or notice to appear in court for
a citation, the court must notify the person that the failure
within fourteen (14) days to appear in court or comply with
an order or judgment of the court (including the failure to
pay all fines, costs, fees, and assessments) will result in
the Secretary of State suspending his or her driver's
license. Mich. Comp. Laws § 257.321a(2). The statute
requires the Secretary of State to “immediately
suspend” a person's license if the person does not
appear or payment is not made within fourteen (14) days and
to notify the person of the suspension by regular mail at his
or her last known address. Id. Additionally, an
individual who fails to pay their traffic debt is guilty of a
misdemeanor, punishable by imprisonment for not more than
ninety-three (93) days or a fine of not more than $100, or
both. Id. § 257.321a(1).
individual seeking to get his or her license reinstated must
pay each underlying debt, as well as a $45 driver's
license clearance fee for each unpaid ticket or cost. Mich.
Comp. Laws § 257.321a(5). If a person is caught driving
on a suspended license (“DWLS”), he or she faces
a second misdemeanor punishable by up to ninety-three (93)
days' imprisonment or a fine of up to $500, or both.
Id. § 257.904. Subsequent DWLS violations may
lead to up to one years' imprisonment or a fine of up to
$1, 000, or both. Id. An individual receiving an
additional suspension due to a DWLS must pay a reinstatement
fee of $125 to the Secretary of State before his or her
license can be reinstated. Id. § 257.320e(1).
That individual also must pay a Driver Responsibility Fee of
up to $1, 000 over two years. Id. §
fourteen (14) days of the suspension or revocation of an
individual's license, the individual may file an appeal
with the Secretary of State. Id. § 257.322(2).
The appeal must be in writing. Id. The Secretary of
State then is required to appoint a hearing officer to hear
the appeal. Id. § 257.322(1). After the
administrative appeal is concluded, the individual may
petition for review in a Michigan circuit court. Id.
§ 257.323. The petition must be filed within sixty-three
(63) days from the hearing officer's determination, or
within one hundred and eighty two (182) days if good cause is
shown. The circuit court may set aside the Secretary of
State's determination if it finds inter alia
that the individual's “substantial rights have been
prejudiced because the determination is … [i]n
violation of the Constitution of the United States
…” Id. § 257.323(4)(a)(i).
Adrian Fowler and Kitia Harris are Michigan residents who
claim to have had their driver's licenses suspended
pursuant to the aforementioned statutory provisions. While
living in Georgia from 2008 to 2012, Ms. Fowler was issued
three tickets for civil traffic infractions, which she was
not able to pay. (Fowler Decl. ¶ 4, ECF No. 2-1.) When
she moved back to Michigan in 2012, Ms. Fowler tried to renew
her Michigan driver's license and was informed that it
was suspended because she had not paid her Georgia court
debts. (Id. ¶ 5.) According to Defendant, Ms.
Fowler was not able to renew her license because Michigan law
precludes the Secretary of State from issuing a license to
someone whose license is revoked or suspended in another
state. (Def.'s Resp. Br. at 3, ECF No. 11 at
Pg ID 117.) Defendant indicates that Georgia suspended Ms.
Fowler's license for nonpayment of court
Fowler is the sole caretaker of her three-year-old daughter.
(Fowler Decl. ¶ 2.) They reside in Detroit.
(Id. ¶ 1.) In winter 2013, during an ice storm,
Ms. Fowler's daughter developed a high fever.
(Id. ¶ 6.) Fearing that the ice would inhibit
an ambulance from quickly arriving to transport her daughter
to the hospital, Ms. Fowler decided to drive her there.
(Id.) A police officer stopped Ms. Fowler for
speeding in Ferndale, and issued her a speeding ticket and
DWLS citation. (Id.) The total cost was almost $600.
Fowler claims that when she went to the Ferndale courthouse
to report that she was unable to pay the $600, she was told
that a warrant would be issued for her arrest if she did not
return in three weeks with the full amount. (Id.
¶ 7.) As of May 3, 2017, Ms. Fowler also had unpaid
fines in Eastpointe for $752 and Oak Park for $703.
(Id. ¶ 9.) She indicates that those fees are
the result of warrants issued when she missed court dates.
(Id. ¶ 8.) Ms. Fowler's driving record
reflects a citation issued in Eastpointe for driving while
her license was suspended and multiple traffic violations in
Oak Park (prohibited turn, disobeying a stop sign, and
failing to display a valid license). (Def.'s Resp., Ex.
Fowler claims that she is unable to pay these fines, but that
the lack of a driver's license severely hampers her
ability to find better employment and any chance that she
will be able to pay them in the future. (Fowler Decl.
¶¶ 11, 12.) Ms. Fowler currently works part-time
for a security company, earning $8.90 per hour or about $712
per month. (Id. ¶ 3.) Each month, she pays $850
in rent and an additional $500 to $600 for utilities,
groceries, and other everyday needs for herself and her
daughter. (Id. ¶ 11.) Ms. Fowler was offered a
$12.50 per hour job with Blue Chip Endeavors. (Id.
¶ 15.) She had to turn it down, however, because it
required her to travel throughout the metropolitan area,
which she cannot do without a valid license and viable public
transportation options between the city and
Harris is a single mother with an eight-year-old daughter.
(Harris Decl. ¶ 2.) They reside in Detroit.
(Id. 1.) In November 2014, Ms. Harris was diagnosed
with interstitial cystitis, a chronic condition that prevents
her from working. (Id. ¶ 4.) Ms. Harris
previously worked at Blue Cross Blue Shield in Rochester,
Michigan. (Id. ¶ 5.) She was fired in December
2015, however, because her medical condition interfered with
her job performance. (Id.) She has not held a job
since then. (Id.)
October 2016, a police officer in Ferndale stopped Ms. Harris
and issued her a ticket for “impeding traffic.”
(Id. ¶ 7.) The fine was $150, which Ms. Harris
claims she is not able to pay. (Id.) About a month
later, after receiving notices that her payment was due, Ms.
Harris received a notice stating that her driver's
license had been suspended. (Id. ¶ 8.) Ms.
Harris must pay a total of $276 to have her license
reinstated. (Id. ¶ 9.)
month, Ms. Harris pays $600 in rent, $350 for food, and $400
for her utilities and other living expenses. (Id.
¶ 10.) She also has to pay her landlord $100 each month
to build up a security deposit. (Id.) Any additional
income Ms. Harris has goes to reducing her medical debt and
buying clothing and school supplies for her daughter.
(Id.) Ms. Harris receives $938 per month in
disability benefits, plus an additional $280 in benefits for
her daughter, and $300 in food stamps. (Id. ¶
Harris' medical condition requires her to have regular
medical appointments, usually bi-weekly. (Id. ¶
11.) Her doctor's office is a thirty-minute drive from
her home. (Id.) Ms. Harris cannot ride the bus,
because her medical condition makes it unsafe for her to
stand for more than a few minutes. (Id. ¶ 12.)
Lacking a driver's license, Ms. Harris must pay people to
drive her where she needs to go. (Id.) Because she
relies on other people for rides, Ms. Harris is frequently
late for her medical appointments and often has to cancel or
reschedule her appointments at the last minute, which
negatively impacts her health. (Id. ¶ 13.)
Defendant's Jurisdictional Arguments
response to Plaintiffs' motion, Defendant first argues
that this Court lacks or should decline to exercise
jurisdiction over this matter. The Court must address these
The Rooker-Feldman Doctrine
contends that this Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction to
adjudicate Plaintiffs' claims under the
Rooker-Feldman doctrine because “they are at
bottom launching a collateral attack against valid state
court orders.” (Def.'s Resp. Br. at 8-9, ECF No. 11
at Pg ID 122-23.) Contrary to Defendant's assertion,
Plaintiffs are not collaterally attacking any state court
Plaintiffs' counsel made clear at the motion hearing,
Plaintiffs are not contesting their liability for violating
the traffic laws for which they received citations. Nor are
they challenging the imposition of any fines, costs, or
assessments resulting from those violations. Instead,
Plaintiffs are challenging Defendant's revocation of
their driver's licenses for failing to pay their traffic
debt without consideration of their willfulness or ability to
pay. The Rooker-Feldman doctrine does not extend to
Supreme Court made this clear in Exxon Mobil Corporation
v. Saudi Basic Industries Corporation, 544 U.S.
280 (2006), when it stated:
Variously interpreted in the lower courts, the doctrine has
sometimes been construed to extend far beyond the contours of
the Rooker and Feldman cases, overriding
Congress' conferral of federal-court jurisdiction
concurrent with jurisdiction exercised by state courts, and
superseding the ordinary application of preclusion law
pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1738.
Id. at 283. Since Exxon Mobil, the Sixth
Circuit “has tightened the scope of
Rooker-Feldman[, ]” explaining that it
“is a doctrine with only limited application.”
Kovacic v. Cuyahoga Cty. Dep't of Children &
Family Servs., 606 F.3d 301, 309 (6th Cir. 2010)
(quoting Coles v. Granville, 448 F.3d 853, 857 (6th
as the Exxon Mobil Court explained,
The Rooker-Feldman doctrine we hold today, is
confined to cases of the kind from which the doctrine
acquired its name: cases brought by state-court losers
complaining of injuries caused by state-court judgments
rendered before the district court proceedings commences and
inviting district court review and rejection of those
544 U.S. at 284. The Sixth Circuit has “explained that
the pertinent inquiry after Exxon is whether the
‘source of the injury' upon which [the] plaintiff
bases his federal claim is the state court judgment, not
simply whether the injury complained of is
‘inextricably intertwined' with the state-court
judgment[.]” Kovacic, 606 F.3d at 309. A state
court judgment is not the source of Plaintiffs' injuries.
The Rooker-Feldman doctrine therefore does not
deprive this Court of subject matter jurisdiction.
Pullman & Younger Abstention
alternatively argue that the Court should abstain from
exercising its subject matter jurisdiction under the
doctrines set forth in Railroad Commission of Texas v.
Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496 (1941), and Younger v.
Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971).
Pullman, the Supreme Court “held that federal
courts should abstain from decision when difficult and
unsettled questions of state law must be resolved before a
substantial federal constitutional question can be
decided.” Hawaii Hous. Auth. v. Midkiff, 467
U.S. 229, 236 (1984). “[T]he primary scenario for a
district court's application of Pullman
abstention is one in which the state-law question is an
unsettled issue best decided by state courts.”
Jones v. Coleman, 848 F.3d 744, 750 (6th Cir. 2017)
(citing Harris Cty. Comm'rs Court v. Moore, 467
U.S. 229, 236 (1984)). More recently, the Supreme Court has
recommended the certification of a novel question of state
law to the state courts as more preferable to abstaining
under Pullman. Id. (citing Arizonans
for Official English v. Arizona, 520 U.S. 43, 75-76
(1997)). “‘In cases involving a facial challenge
to a statute, ' the threshold question is ‘whether
the statute is fairly subject to an interpretation which will
render unnecessary or substantially modify the federal
constitutional question.'” Id. at 750-51
(quoting City of Houston, Tex. v. Hill, 482 U.S.
451, 468 (1987)) (additional quotation marks and citation
has not identified anything ambiguous about the relevant
Michigan Motor Vehicle Code provisions to necessitate
Pullman abstention. Instead, Defendant argues that
Pullman abstention is appropriate because
“Michigan law expressly provides that federal
constitutional rights are to be protected when driver's
licenses are suspended.” (Def.'s Resp. Br. at 11,
ECF No. 11 at Pg ID 125.) In other words, Defendant maintains
that “because Michigan law is already written in a way
that recognizes constitutional limitations[, ]” this
Court should abstain. Abstain to allow the state courts to do
what, however? According to Defendant, the only possible
interpretation of Michigan's license revocation scheme is
that it protects drivers' constitutional rights. Thus,
Pullman abstention is inapplicable.
Supreme Court's decision in Younger “bars
a federal district court from intervening in a state civil
proceeding … when the proceeding is based on a state
statute believed by the district court to be
unconstitutional.” Huffman v. Pursue, Ltd.,
420 U.S. 592, 594 (1975). The Supreme Court and Sixth Circuit
“have mandated three requirements for a district court
to properly invoke Younger abstention.”
Squire v. Coughlan, 469 F.3d 551, 555 (6th Cir.
2006) (citation omitted); Middlesex Cty. Ethics Comm. v.
Garden State Bar Ass'n, 457 U.S. 423, 432 (1982).
Those factors are: “‘(1) there must be on-going
state judicial proceedings; (2) those proceedings must
implicate important state interests; and (3) there must be an
adequate opportunity in the state proceedings to raise
constitutional challenges.'” Squire, 469
F.3d at 555 (quoting Sun Ref. & Mktg. Co. v.
Brennan, 921 F.2d 635, 639 (6th Cir. 1990));