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Fowler v. Johnson

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

April 11, 2018

RUTH JOHNSON, Michigan Secretary of State, Defendant.



         This is a 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. The matter presently is before the Court on remand from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to address Plaintiffs' standing. See Order, Fowler v. Johnson, Case Nos. 17-2504/18-1089 (6th Cir. Feb. 7, 2018).

         Factual Background

         Plaintiffs Adrian Fowler and Kitia Harris are Michigan residents who claim to have had their driver's licenses suspended pursuant to Michigan Compiled Laws § 257.321a. 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. 42-2 at Pg ID 676.) 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.) Defendant explains that Michigan law precludes the Secretary of State from issuing a driver's license to someone whose license is revoked or suspended in another state. See Mich. Comp. Laws § 257.303(1). According to Defendant, Georgia suspended Ms. Fowler's license for nonpayment of court debts.

         In Winter 2013, a police officer stopped Ms. Fowler for speeding in Ferndale, Michigan, and issued her a citation for speeding and driving while license suspended (“DWLS”). (Fowler Decl. ¶ 6, ECF No. 42-2 at Pg ID 676.) The total cost of the ticket was almost $600. (Id.) According to Ms. Fowler, she subsequently went to the Ferndale courthouse to report that she was unable to pay the $600 and was told to return in three weeks with the full amount or a warrant would be issued for her arrest. (Id. ¶ 7.) Ms. Fowler has been unable to pay the amount owed. (Id. ¶ 11.)

         In October 2016, a Ferndale police officer stopped Ms. Harris and issued her a ticket for “impeding traffic.” (Harris Decl. ¶ 7, ECF No. 42-4 at Pg ID 682.) According to Ms. Harris, the officer instructed her to call a number to see how much she owed for the ticket. (Id.) Ms. Harris called the number a couple of days later and was told the cost was $150. (Id. ¶ 8.) Unable to pay that amount, Ms. Harris asked the person on the phone if she could be placed on a payment plan. (Id. ¶ 8.) According to Ms. Harris, she was told no and that she had to pay the amount in full. (Id.) Ms. Harris was further informed that if she waited too long to pay, her license would be suspended. (Id.) Ms. Harris avers that she was never told to come to court to discuss a payment plan or provided other alternatives to paying the fine in full. (Id. ¶ 9.)

         About a month later, Ms. Harris received a notice in the mail reflecting that the amount she owed had increased and that her license had been suspended because of her failure to pay the fine. (Id. ¶ 10.) Ms. Harris claims that she received three additional suspensions of her license for failure to pay fines in November 2017. (Id. ¶ 12.)

         Defendant informs the Court that these additional suspensions were not due to Ms. Harris' failure to pay traffic fines, but rather her failure to appear in court in response to traffic citations. (See ECF No. 25-2 at Pg ID 300-01.) These citations were accumulated after this lawsuit was filed. In the Sixth Circuit and here, Defendant has argued that these additional suspensions for failure to appear-rather than failure to pay-“remove [Ms. Harris'] situation from the terms of [this Court's] injunctive order because now there are independent grounds for suspending her driving privileges.” (See, e.g., ECF No. 25 at Pg ID 290-91.)

         Defendant also has asserted that when Ms. Harris contacted the Ferndale court regarding her October 2016 citation, she in fact received an extension to make a payment by November 7, 2016. Defendant claims Ms. Harris also was informed that any payment would result in another extension on the balance and that her license would not be suspended. (See ECF No. 33-5.) Defendant relates that Ms. Harris failed to make any payment, which resulted in a default judgment on November 14, 2016. According to Defendant, if Ms. Harris had again contacted the court, the court would have made a payment arrangement with her to avoid the suspension of her license. (Id.)

         Defendant also offers the affidavit of Linda Carroll, Court Administrator for the Ferndale court, who provides:

For civil infractions, defendant[s] that ask are given a payment extension for 2 weeks. They are told that if they bring in a payment, preferably half, we will grant another 2 week extension. If they are unable to pay in full at that time, we will give them another extension. We will give an extension until they are paid in full. Very often, we will give the defendant several extensions. Anyone that calls in and makes any type of payment will always be granted an extension.

(See Carroll Aff. ¶ 4, ECF No. 25-4 at Pg ID 307.) Ms. Carroll further attests that the court allows defendants to enter into payment plans for fees that cannot be waived and that such plans can be started for as little as a dollar. (Id. ¶¶ 6-7, Pg ID 308.) She further states that individuals are informed that they can raise their inability to pay at a show cause hearing. (Id. ¶ 8, Pg ID 308.)

         Procedural Background

         On the day they initiated this action, Plaintiffs also filed a motion for preliminary injunction to enjoin Defendant from suspending the driver's licenses of individuals unable to pay their traffic debt. Concluding that Plaintiffs are likely to prevail on their claim that Defendant violated their procedural due process rights by suspending their driver's licenses without first affording them an “ability to pay hearing”, the Court granted Plaintiff's motion and entered a preliminary injunction on December 14, 2017.[1] (See ECF No. 21.) Specifically, the Court ordered “that Defendant is enjoined from enforcing Michigan Compiled Laws § 257.321a to suspend the driver's licenses of people unable to pay their traffic debt.” (Id. at Pg ID 268.)

         Defendant appealed and asked the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to stay the injunction. On December 28, 2017, the Sixth Circuit issued an order stating that Defendant had “not demonstrated a strong likelihood of success on the merits of its challenge to the district court's ruling on procedural due process.” (ECF No. 30 at Pg ID 450.) Nevertheless, the court of appeals stayed the injunction for thirty days and remanded the matter “for the limited purpose of modifying the injunctive relief granted … to provide direction to the State as to the type of process required to comply with the court's order.” (Id. at 450-51.)

         In response to the Sixth Circuit's remand order, this Court issued an order on January 5, 2018, clarifying its injunction. (ECF No. 31.) The order stated:

To be clear, in its December 14, 2017 decision, this Court intended to enjoin Defendant from suspending any further driver's licenses of individuals because of their inability to pay their traffic debt until the State: (1) provides drivers a hearing where they have the opportunity to demonstrate their inability to pay; (2) provides reasonable notice to drivers of the hearing; and (3) institutes alternatives to full payment for those unable to pay (e.g., realistic payment plans or volunteer service).
(Id. at Pg ID 452-53, emphasis in original.) The Court further scheduled a hearing to address any questions or concerns the parties may have had concerning the intended modification to the preliminary injunction order. (Id. at Pg ID 453.)

         Prior to the hearing, Defendant filed a supplemental brief presenting evidence to convince the Court that Plaintiffs in fact “were provided well established and readily available procedural due process in state court that they willfully ignored” and that “[t]heir suspensions resulted from conscious failure to appear as required by law, and not the alleged inability to pay.” (ECF No. 33 at Pg ID 465.) Defendant also presented evidence of Ms. Harris' November 2017 infractions and suspensions for failure to appear, arguing that these infractions deprived her of Article III standing.

         This Court ultimately concluded that the Sixth Circuit's remand order did not permit it to consider new evidence and revisit the merits of Plaintiffs' procedural due process claim. On January 24, 2018, the Court entered an Amended Preliminary Injunction that enjoined Defendant

from suspending any further driver's licenses of individuals because of nonpayment of any fine, cost, fee or assessment under Michigan Compiled Laws § 257.321a unless and until Defendant or another entity: (1) offers drivers the option to request a hearing where they have the opportunity to demonstrate their inability to pay a fine, cost, fee and/or assessment; () provides a hearing when requested[ ]; (3) provides reasonable notice to drivers of the hearing opportunity; and ...

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