Fowler v. Benson, 050819 FED6, 17-2504

Docket Nº:17-2504, 18-1089
Opinion Judge:ALICE M. BATCHELDER, CIRCUIT JUDGE
Party Name:Adrian Fowler; Kitia Harris, on behalf of themselves and others similarly situated, Plaintiffs-Appellees, v. Jocelyn Benson, Michigan Secretary of State, in her official capacity, Defendant-Appellant.
Attorney:John G. Fedynsky, OFFICE OF THE MICHIGAN ATTORNEY GENERAL, Lansing, Michigan, for Appellant. Phil Telfeyan, EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER LAW, Washington, D.C., for Appellees. John G. Fedynsky, OFFICE OF THE MICHIGAN ATTORNEY GENERAL, Lansing, Michigan, for Appellant. Phil Telfeyan, Rebecca Ramaswamy, EQUA...
Judge Panel:Before: BATCHELDER, DONALD, and THAPAR, Circuit Judges. BERNICE BOUIE DONALD, Circuit Judge, dissenting.
Case Date:May 08, 2019
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
 
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Adrian Fowler; Kitia Harris, on behalf of themselves and others similarly situated, Plaintiffs-Appellees,

v.

Jocelyn Benson, Michigan Secretary of State, in her official capacity, Defendant-Appellant.

Nos. 17-2504, 18-1089

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

May 8, 2019

Argued: October 3, 2018

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan at Flint. No. 4:17-cv-11441-Linda V. Parker, District Judge.

ARGUED:

John G. Fedynsky, OFFICE OF THE MICHIGAN ATTORNEY GENERAL, Lansing, Michigan, for Appellant.

Phil Telfeyan, EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER LAW, Washington, D.C., for Appellees.

ON BRIEF:

John G. Fedynsky, OFFICE OF THE MICHIGAN ATTORNEY GENERAL, Lansing, Michigan, for Appellant.

Phil Telfeyan, Rebecca Ramaswamy, EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER LAW, Washington, D.C., John C. Philo, MAURICE & JANE SUGAR LAW CENTER FOR ECONOMIC & SOCIAL JUSTICE, Detroit, Michigan, for Appellees.

Before: BATCHELDER, DONALD, and THAPAR, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

ALICE M. BATCHELDER, CIRCUIT JUDGE

This is a case about the constitutionality of Michigan's driver's-license suspension scheme, as applied to indigent drivers. Plaintiffs claim that the Michigan Secretary of State's suspension of an indigent person's driver's license, on the basis of unpaid court debt, violates the Fourteenth Amendment. Plaintiffs contend that suspending the driver's licenses of the poor is irrational because license suspension makes their commuting to and from work, for instance, much harder, and therefore reduces the chances that they will pay the debt. Whatever merit Plaintiffs' argument might have as a matter of policy, its merit as a constitutional argument is diminished by the fact that our review of state legislative choices in this arena is markedly deferential. Because Plaintiffs have not shown that Michigan's legal scheme is devoid of a rational basis, we decline Plaintiffs' invitation to etch their preferred driver's-license policy into constitutional bedrock.

The district court granted Plaintiffs' motion to enjoin Michigan's Secretary of State from enforcing Michigan's driver's-license suspension law. Because we find that the Secretary's enforcement of Michigan law does not run afoul of the Fourteenth Amendment, we REVERSE.

I.

Adrian Fowler and Kitia Harris ("Plaintiffs") are Michigan residents who claim that their driver's licenses were suspended due to their inability to pay court debt.1 Fowler lived in Georgia between 2008 and 2012, where she acquired three tickets for civil infractions. She has not paid the court debt associated with those tickets. In 2012, after moving to Michigan, Fowler attempted to renew her Michigan driver's license, but was unable to do so because she had outstanding court debts in Georgia. In 2013, Fowler was cited for driving with a suspended license as well as speeding. Fowler claims that she went to the Ferndale, Michigan, court to explain that she could not pay the costs associated with her ticket-nearly $600-and was told that if she did not return in three weeks with full payment, a warrant would be issued for her arrest.

Fowler works 20 hours a week making $8.90 per hour. She claims that she lacks the resources to repay her court debts. Fowler claims that she is unable to find good-paying work as a result of her suspended license because many desirable jobs require a commute for which there is no reliable public transit.

Harris was ticketed in Michigan in 2016 for "impeding traffic." She claims that the citing officer told her to call a particular phone number to determine the amount she owed for the ticket. Harris called the number (which put her in touch with the Michigan 43rd District Court-Ferndale Division) and was told that she owed $150. Because she could not make that payment, Harris claims, she asked if she could be placed on a payment program, but was told that she could not, and that if she waited too long to pay off the ticket, her driver's license would be suspended. Roughly a month after her phone call, Harris received a notice in the mail saying that her failure to pay the fine resulted in an increase in the amount she owed and that her driver's license had been suspended. After this lawsuit was filed, Harris' license was subject to suspension on three new grounds unrelated to her failure to pay the court debt stemming from her impeding traffic charge.

Michigan's Secretary of State, Jocelyn Benson ("Secretary Benson"), 2 disputes Harris' account of her interaction with the Ferndale court. Secretary Benson claims that when Harris contacted the court in October 2016, she was given an extension to permit her to make a payment by November 7, 2016, and was informed that a payment by that deadline would give her another extension on the balance and keep her license from being suspended. But because Harris failed to make a payment, the Ferndale court entered default judgment against her on November 14, 2016, and her license was suspended. Secretary Benson claims that, had Harris contacted the Ferndale court again, the court would have made a payment arrangement with her to avoid the suspension of her license. In support of this claim, Secretary Benson provided the affidavit of Linda Carroll, the Court Administrator for the Ferndale court, who explained that "[a]nyone that calls in and makes any type of payment will always be granted an extension." These repayment plans can be started at as little as $1 per payment. Carroll also claims that individuals are informed that they can raise their inability to pay at a show-cause hearing.

According to Harris, having her license suspended has been a burden, and she lacks the resources to pay her court debt. Although she receives disability benefits, she claims that, after accounting for living expenses, caring for her daughter, and paying off her medical debt, she lacks sufficient resources to pay the amount she owes in order to have her suspended license reinstated. Harris claims that, on account of her suspended license, among other consequences, she struggles to attend her regular medical appointments.

Plaintiffs brought a putative class action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Secretary Benson for unlawfully suspending their driver's licenses. Plaintiffs sought injunctive relief, claiming that Secretary Benson's suspension of the driver's licenses of the indigent who are unable to make payments violates the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Constitution. The district court found only one of Plaintiffs' constitutional claims likely to succeed on the merits-Plaintiffs' procedural due process claim that they were constitutionally entitled to an "ability to pay" hearing prior to the deprivation of their driver's licenses. The current version of the preliminary injunction order issued by the district court is as follows: Defendant is enjoined 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; (2) provides a hearing when requested; (3) provides reasonable notice to drivers of the hearing opportunity; and (4) institutes alternatives to full payment for those unable to pay (e.g. realistic payment plans or volunteer service).

II.

Before reviewing the district court's preliminary injunction order on the merits, we must address Secretary Benson's four challenges to the district court's subject-matter jurisdiction.

Standing.

We review de novo the district court's conclusion regarding standing. Friends of Tims Ford v. Tennessee Valley Auth., 585 F.3d 955, 966 (6th Cir. 2009). Secretary Benson challenges on two distinct grounds Plaintiffs' standing to bring suit. First, Secretary Benson disputes Plaintiffs' factual account of the process the Ferndale court afforded to Plaintiffs. The district court, following Gentek Building Products, Inc. v. Sherwin-Williams Co., 491 F.3d 320 (6th Cir. 2007), correctly held that Secretary Benson's factual dispute implicates the merits of Plaintiffs' claims, and therefore a factual inquiry into the allegations was inappropriate to determine standing. Secretary Benson argues that Gentek is inapplicable because it concerned a motion to dismiss rather than what we have here-a standing challenge to a claim seeking injunctive relief. This is a distinction without a material difference as Gentek's holding-"a district court engages in a factual inquiry regarding the complaint's allegations only when the facts necessary to sustain jurisdiction do not implicate the merits of the plaintiff's claim"-...

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