501 F.3d 592 (6th Cir. 2007), 06-3460, Powers v. Hamilton County Public Defender Com'n

Docket Nº:06-3460.
Citation:501 F.3d 592
Party Name:Michael POWERS, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. HAMILTON COUNTY PUBLIC DEFENDER COMMISSION, et al., Defendants-Appellants.
Case Date:August 29, 2007
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

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501 F.3d 592 (6th Cir. 2007)

Michael POWERS, Plaintiff-Appellee,



No. 06-3460.

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit.

Aug. 29, 2007

Argued: Jan. 30, 2007.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio at Cincinnati. No. 02-00605-S. Arthur Spiegel, District Judge.

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David Todd Stevenson, Hamilton County Prosecuting Office, Cincinnati, Ohio, for Appellants.

Robert B. Newman, Newman & Meeks Co., Cincinnati, Ohio, for Appellee.


David Todd Stevenson, Pamela J. Sears, Hamilton County Prosecuting Office, Cincinnati, Ohio, for Appellants.

Robert B. Newman, Newman & Meeks Co., Cincinnati,

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Ohio, Stephen R. Felson, Cincinnati, Ohio, for Appellee.

Before: NORRIS, COLE, and CLAY, Circuit Judges.


R. GUY COLE, JR., Circuit Judge.

Defendants-Appellants Hamilton County Public Defender Office (the "Public Defender Office") and Hamilton County Public Defender Commission (the "Public Defender Commission") (collectively, the "Public Defender") appeal the judgment of the district court granting class certification and summary judgment to Plaintiff-Appellee Michael Powers. The Hamilton County municipal court ordered Powers to pay a fine in connection with a reckless-driving charge. Powers was subsequently incarcerated for non-payment of that fine. He then filed this § 1983 class action, alleging that his constitutional rights were violated by the Public Defender's policy or custom of failing to seek indigency hearings on behalf of criminal defendants facing jail time for unpaid fines.

For the reasons set forth below, we AFFIRM the district court's ruling that Powers's § 1983 claims are cognizable, and AFFIRM the grant of class certification. We REVERSE the district court's grant of summary judgment to Powers and REMAND for further proceedings.


On January 23, 2002, Powers pleaded no contest in Hamilton County, Ohio municipal court to a charge of reckless operation of a motor vehicle, a fourth-degree misdemeanor. Powers was convicted on the same day and sentenced to thirty days of incarceration. The court suspended twenty-seven of those days and ordered Powers to serve the remaining three days in a driver-intervention program. The court further ordered Powers to pay a $250 fine and court costs.

Two months later, on March 23, 2002, Powers was arrested for violating his probation by, among other things, failing to pay the court-ordered fine. He again pleaded no contest and was found guilty. The court terminated Powers's probation and reinstated his original sentence of thirty days of incarceration, minus credit for one day served. Powers alleges that he served at least one day in the Hamilton County jail for his failure to pay the fine. At oral argument, the Public Defender conceded that Powers spent some portion of his time behind bars exclusively in connection with the unpaid fine.

Attorneys with the Public Defender Office represented Powers at both his January plea and sentencing for the reckless-driving charge, and the March hearing at which his probation was revoked. Powers alleges that he was deprived of an indigency hearing because the Public Defender has a policy or custom of failing to request such hearings when its clients face jail time for nonpayment of court-ordered fines.

On August 21, 2002, Powers filed a class-action complaint seeking damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 on the theory that his incarceration, in the absence of any inquiry into his ability to pay the court-imposed fine, violated his Fifth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Powers also asserted a legal-malpractice claim. In his original complaint, Powers named as defendants the Public Defender Office; the Public Defender Commission; and Simon L. Leis, Jr., the Sheriff of Hamilton County (the "Sheriff"). On June 4, 2003, Powers amended his complaint to add as

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defendants Hamilton County (the "County") and Hamilton County's Board of Commissioners (the "Board of Commissioners").

Powers moved for class certification on August 5, 2003. Defendants moved for summary judgment on November 5, 2003. The district court held a hearing on both motions and issued a joint order on August 23, 2005, 2005 WL 2033696. The district court granted the Defendants partial summary judgment by dismissing the Sheriff, the County, and the Board of Commissioners and further dismissing Powers's legal-malpractice claim. The district court declined to grant summary judgment as to the Public Defender Office and the Public Defender Commission. The court rejected these Defendants' argument that Powers's § 1983 claims are not cognizable. The court further concluded that the evidence established that the Public Defender "had a well-settled custom or policy of not asking for an indigency hearing before a probationer is incarcerated for failure to pay a fine," and that the Public Defender was a state actor for purposes of § 1983. (District Court's Order [On Plaintiff's Motion For Class Certification And Defendants' Motion For Summary Judgment] at 13-14.)

After disposing of the Public Defender's motion for summary judgment, the district court went on to grant Powers's class-certification motion. The court concluded that Powers had satisfied all the prerequisites of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(a) and that certification was proper under Rule 23(b)(3) because Powers's case presents questions of law or fact common to the class that predominate over questions affecting only individual class members. Although the court periodically tinkered with the class definition, it ultimately certified a class consisting of

[a]ll persons who, without an indigency hearing, were committed to the custody of a Hamilton County correctional facility by a Hamilton County municipal or common pleas court from August 21, 2000, to the present in satisfaction of a fine and/or court costs, including persons who violated probation following a "stay to pay" sentence.

(Final Judgment Order at 1.)

Powers subsequently brought his own motion for partial summary judgment on liability, arguing that "the [c]ourt's rejection of Defendants' [summary-judgment] motion clearly establishes liability in his favor and in favor of the class." (Order [On Powers's Motion For Partial Summary Judgment] at 2.) The district court granted Powers's motion. Even though the Public Defender submitted additional evidence to negate the existence of the alleged policy or custom of failing to request indigency hearings, the district court concluded that the Public Defender's showing was insufficient to raise a genuine issue of material fact.

Finally, the district court approved the content and dissemination of the class notice and claim form, to be sent to a stipulated list of class members via United States mail and published in the Cincinnati Enquirer. The court further approved a damage award equal to $100 per day for each day of a class member's incarceration. The court then stayed its judgment pending the resolution of the Public Defender's appeal.


The Public Defender asserts that the district court erred in several respects. First, the Public Defender argues that the district court was obligated to dismiss Powers's § 1983 suit as barred by the Supreme Court's holding in Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477, 114 S.Ct. 2364, 129 L.Ed.2d 383 (1994). Second, the Public Defender contends that a proper balancing

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of the relationship between state and federal courts as embodied in the Younger abstention doctrine and the Rooker-Feldman doctrine precludes Powers's § 1983 claims. Third, the Public Defender argues that the district court erred in granting summary judgment to Powers because (1) it did not cause the deprivation of Powers's rights, (2) it is not a state actor for purposes of § 1983, and (3) the evidence showed at least a disputed question of fact as to the existence of its alleged policy or custom of failing to seek indigency hearings for clients threatened with jail time for the non-payment of fines. Finally, the Public Defender contends that the district court erred in certifying a class.

We begin by considering whether Powers may even maintain his § 1983 action and then move on to consider whether he is entitled to summary judgment and class certification.

A. Standard of Review

We review the district court's grant of summary judgment de novo. Watkins v. Battle Creek, 273 F.3d 682, 685 (6th Cir. 2001). Summary judgment is appropriate where the record shows that "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). "Summary judgment is appropriate if a party who has the burden of proof at trial fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element that is essential to that party's case." Beecham v. Henderson County, 422 F.3d 372, 374 (6th Cir. 2005).

B. Powers's § 1983 Claims Are Cognizable

The Public Defender argues that the district court erred in holding that Powers's § 1983 claims are cognizable. Citing Heck v. Humphrey, the Public Defender contends that a § 1983 damages action in connection with an allegedly unlawful conviction or sentence cannot be maintained unless the conviction or sentence has been invalidated. 512 U.S. 477, 114 S.Ct. 2364, 129 L.Ed.2d 383 (1994). Because the municipal court never set aside Powers's conviction and sentence, the Public Defender argues that Powers cannot proceed on his § 1983 suit.

Powers responds that Heck poses no obstacle to his case for two reasons. First, Powers argues that Heck is inapplicable to § 1983 claimants who, like himself, were precluded from challenging the...

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