Butler v. Parks, 012221 ALSC, 1190043

Docket Nº1190043
Opinion JudgeMITCHELL, Justice.
Party NameKelly Butler, in his official capacity as Alabama Director of Finance, and Chris Roberts, in his official capacity as Director of the Alabama Office of Indigent Defense Services v. Will J. Parks III and Claire Porter
Judge PanelParker, C.J., and Bolin, Wise, and Stewart, JJ., concur. Shaw, Bryan, Sellers, and Mendheim, JJ., concur in the result. SELLERS, Justice (concurring in the result).
Case DateJanuary 22, 2021
CourtSupreme Court of Alabama

Kelly Butler, in his official capacity as Alabama Director of Finance, and Chris Roberts, in his official capacity as Director of the Alabama Office of Indigent Defense Services

v.

Will J. Parks III and Claire Porter

No. 1190043

Supreme Court of Alabama

January 22, 2021

Appeal from Montgomery Circuit Court (CV-18-901008)

MITCHELL, Justice.

Two attorneys filed a complaint to recover fees they billed in the course of representing indigent defendants in criminal cases and sought to certify several classes of plaintiffs. Specifically, they asserted that State officials improperly refused to pay bills for fees that exceeded statutory payment caps. The trial court entered a class-certification order, and the State officials appealed. Because State immunity bars the attorneys' request for retrospective monetary relief, and because the attorneys lack standing to bring a constitutional challenge on behalf of indigent defendants, we reverse and remand.

Facts and Procedural History

Alabama law provides for the appointment of attorneys for indigent defendants in criminal cases. It also provides a process to compensate those attorneys, but it caps the amount they can be paid based on the class of the defendant's criminal charge. Attorneys could previously recover legal fees in excess of the caps if the court found "good cause." See Act No. 1999-427, § 1, pp. 766-68, Ala. Acts 1999 (codified as amended at § 15-12-21, Ala. Code 1975). But that changed in 2011 when the Legislature amended § 15-12-21. See Act No. 2011-678, Ala. Acts 2011. Among other changes, Act No. 2011-678 omitted the good-cause exception to the payment caps and created the Office of Indigent Defense Services ("OIDS").

Section 15-12-21(d) sets forth the process by which appointed attorneys can be paid their fees: "[A]ppointed counsel shall be entitled to receive for their services a fee to be approved by the trial court. The amount of the fee shall be based on the number of hours spent by the attorney in working on the case. The amount of the fee shall be based on the number of hours spent by the attorney in working on the case and shall be computed at the rate of seventy dollars ($70) per hour for time reasonably expended on the case. The total fees paid to any one attorney in any one case, from the time of appointment through the trial of the case, including motions for new trial, shall not exceed [$1, 500 to $4, 000, depending on the criminal charge, excluding cases involving a capital-offense charge or a charge carrying a possible sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole]."

Section 15-12-21(e) expands on that process and on the role OIDS plays. It instructs counsel to "submit a bill for services rendered" to OIDS and states that the bill "shall be accompanied by a certification by the trial court that counsel provided representation to the indigent defendant, that the matter has been concluded, and that to the best of his or her knowledge the bill is reasonable based on the defense provided." § 15-12-21(e). The trial court, however, "need not approve the items included on the bill or the amount of the bill, but may provide any information requested by" OIDS. Id. After the bill is submitted to OIDS for "review and approval," OIDS recommends "to the [State] Comptroller that the bill be paid." Id. OIDS may also "forward the bill to the indigent defense advisory board for review and comment prior to approval." Id. Attorneys who dispute the amount they are entitled to can pursue the resolution process set forth in Ala. Admin. Code (Dep't of Fin.), r. 355-9-1-.05.

Operating within this statutory framework, attorneys Will J. Parks III and Claire Porter ("the Attorneys") accepted an appointment in 2016 to represent an indigent defendant who had been charged with murder. After the defendant pleaded guilty to manslaughter, the State of Alabama paid the Attorneys $4, 000 each for the legal services they had provided to the defendant -- which is the maximum amount § 15-12-21(d) allows for that defendant's crime. Parks then submitted a bill to the court for $17, 731, and Porter submitted a bill for $6, 398. The trial court certified both fee submissions as reasonable to the best of its knowledge, but it noted that its certification was "not an approval of the amount[s] submitted by" the Attorneys. OIDS refused to pay either of the additional fee submissions. The Attorneys did not pursue the administrative remedy set forth in r. 355-9-1-.05 regarding the rejection of their additional fee submissions.1

The Attorneys then sued, in their official capacities, Kelly Butler, the Alabama Director of Finance, and Chris Roberts, the Director of OIDS ("the Officials") in the Montgomery Circuit Court. The Attorneys sought a judgment declaring that the omission of the good-cause exception in the 2011 amendment to § 15-12-21 was a drafting error, which they say can be "cured" by reading that exception back into the statute, and that trial judges have inherent authority to order payment of fees to satisfy constitutional requirements. Alternatively, they asserted that the lack of a good-cause exception in § 15-12-21 violates the federal and state constitutions by, among other things, depriving indigent defendants of their rights to a fair trial and effective assistance of counsel.

The Attorneys also asserted class claims and sought to certify three classes of plaintiffs: (1) attorneys who submitted bills that OIDS refused to pay because the bills exceeded the payment caps; (2) attorneys who reduced their bills due to the payment caps; and (3) attorneys whose pending or future bills might be denied because they exceed the payment caps. The trial court certified the first and third classes. In doing so, it held that State immunity did not bar attorneys in the first class from seeking retrospective monetary relief.

The Officials have appealed the trial court's class-certification order, arguing that State immunity bars the claims asserted on behalf of the first class and that the Attorneys lack third-party standing to raise certain constitutional challenges on behalf of indigent defendants.

Standard of Review

Because this appeal raises issues of subject-matter jurisdiction, our review is de novo. See Barnhart v. Ingalls, 275 So.3d 1112, 1121 (Ala. 2018).

Analysis

The Officials raise two issues on appeal. First, they argue that State immunity bars the Attorneys from obtaining monetary relief for fees in excess of the payment caps that OIDS has refused to pay in past cases. Thus, they say, the trial court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction and erred by certifying the first class. Second, the Officials argue that the Attorneys lack third-party standing to assert indigent defendants' rights to a fair trial and effective assistance of counsel and, therefore, cannot make those arguments with respect to either class that the trial court certified. We agree with the Officials on both points and thus reverse and remand.

A. State Immunity Bars Retrospective Monetary Relief

The Alabama Constitution provides that "the State of Alabama shall never be made a defendant in any court of law or equity." Ala. Const. 1901 (Off. Recomp.), Art. I, § 14. That doctrine, known as State immunity, not only renders the State and its agencies immune from suit, but also renders "State officers and employees, in their official capacities and individually," immune from suit "when the action against them is, in effect, one against the State." Barnhart, 275 So.3d at 1122; see also Patterson v. Gladwin Corp., 835 So.2d 137, 142 (Ala. 2002) (" 'In determining whether an action against a state officer is barred by § 14, the Court considers the nature of the suit or the relief demanded, not the character of the office of the person against whom the suit is brought.'" (citation omitted)). "The wall of immunity erected by § 14 is nearly impregnable." Id. And State immunity is not just a defense -- when it applies, it "divests the trial courts of this State of subject-matter jurisdiction." Alabama State Univ. v. Danley, 212 So.3d 112, 127 (Ala. 2016).

This Court has, however, recognized several categories of lawsuits against the State, its agencies, or its officials or employees that do not constitute suits against the State. The Officials address two of those categories, often referred to as "exceptions" to State immunity, as potentially relevant. But they argue that those two categories -- actions brought to compel State officials to perform their legal duties and actions to compel State officials to perform ministerial acts -- are ultimately inapplicable here. See id. at 123 (summarizing the six "exceptions" to State immunity). We agree with the Officials.

The trial court's order granting the Attorneys' motion for class certification did not directly address whether the exceptions to State immunity would apply to claims challenging § 15-12-21. Instead, it relied on several cases in which this Court permitted claims for retrospective monetary relief against public actors. Of those cases that addressed State immunity at all, there were allegations that the State officials or employees had misinterpreted or misapplied governing legal authority. See, e.g., Barnhart, 275 So.3d at 1124-25 (holding that State immunity did not bar suit against State commission that had allegedly incorrectly interpreted statute that would, if plaintiffs were correct, impose a ministerial duty).

But that is not what the Attorneys alleged here. In fact, they conceded below that the Officials applied § 15-12-21 as written. See R. 49 (agreeing "[a]bsolutely" with the trial court's assertion that § 15-12-21 "does not give [the Officials] a ministerial duty to do what you're asking"); R. 62...

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