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Fowler v. Johnson

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

December 14, 2017

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.



         On May 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.

         I. Background

         Under 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.

         Michigan 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).

         An 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. § 257.732a(2)(b)(iii).[1]

         Within fourteen (14) days of the suspension or revocation of an individual's license, the individual may file an appeal with the Secretary of State.[2] 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).

         Plaintiffs 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.[3] (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 debts.[4] (Id.)

         Ms. 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. (Id.)

         Ms. 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. 1.)

         Ms. 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 suburbs.[5]

         Ms. 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.)

         In 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.)

         Each 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. ¶ 6.)

         Ms. 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.)

         II. Defendant's Jurisdictional Arguments

         In 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 arguments first.

         A. The Rooker-Feldman Doctrine

         Defendant 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 order.

         As 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 Plaintiffs' claims.

         The 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 Cir. 2006)).

         Specifically, 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 judgments.

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.

         B. Pullman & Younger Abstention

         Defendants 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).

         In 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 omitted).

         Defendant 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.

         The 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)); Middlesex ...

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