Graves v. Mo. Dep't of Corr.

Decision Date05 October 2021
Docket NumberNo. SC 98501,SC 98501
Citation630 S.W.3d 769
Parties Randall GRAVES, Appellant, v. MISSOURI DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, the DIVISION OF PROBATION AND PAROLE, Respondent.
CourtMissouri Supreme Court

W. Brent Powell, Judge

Randall Graves appeals a judgment dismissing his petition for declaratory judgment for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Graves sought a declaration that his federal supplemental security income ("SSI") is exempt under federal law from paying the required monthly intervention fees to the Missouri department of corrections, division of probation and parole (the "Division") as a condition of his supervised probation. Because the Division has not yet compelled Graves to pay monthly fees, his request for declaratory relief is not ripe for adjudication and the circuit court properly dismissed his claim. Graves may be able to state a claim ripe for adjudication in the future, however, if the Division does compel payment of monthly fees; therefore, the circuit court improperly dismissed his claim with prejudice. For these reasons, the circuit court's judgment of dismissal is affirmed in part and reversed in part.

Background

In 2018, Graves pleaded guilty to one count of receiving stolen property. The circuit court sentenced him to serve six years’ imprisonment but suspended execution of the sentence and placed him on a five-year term of probation supervised by the Division. One of the conditions of probation requires Graves to "pay a monthly intervention fee in an amount set by the Missouri Department of Corrections." Approximately two months into his probation, the Division sent Graves a letter advising "per standard condition #10 ... you are required to pay a monthly intervention fee of $30 throughout the duration of [his] supervision" and he had accrued an overdue balance of $60. The letter further stated, "Making timely payments in the future will avoid additional collection efforts." Finally, the letter stated failure to pay intervention fees "may place [Graves] in violation status."

This letter prompted Graves to file a petition for declaratory judgment. In his petition, Graves alleged he has no assets or income other than his $771 monthly SSI and sought a declaration that the Division could not lawfully attempt to collect the $60 balance from his SSI. Graves maintained the Division violated the anti-attachment provision of 42 U.S.C. section 407(a), which instructs no "moneys paid or payable" as SSI "shall be subject to ... other legal process." Graves asserted the letter constituted an attachment as "other legal process" and petitioned the circuit court to declare his SSI exempt pursuant to 42 U.S.C. section 407(a).1 The Division filed, and the circuit court sustained, a motion to dismiss with prejudice the petition for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Graves appealed. This Court granted transfer after an opinion by the court of appeals. Mo. Const. art. V, sec. 10.

Standard of Review

"This Court reviews a circuit court's sustaining of a motion to dismiss de novo. " Mo. State Conf. of NAACP v. State , 601 S.W.3d 241, 246 (Mo. banc 2020) (quoting Mitchell v. Phillips , 596 S.W.3d 120, 122 (Mo. banc 2020) ). In reviewing such a motion, the "Court must accept all properly pleaded facts as true, giv[e] the pleadings their broadest intendment, and construe all allegations" in the pleader's favor. Id. A motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim tests only whether the petition adequately alleged facts that give rise to a cognizable cause of action or of a cause that might be adopted. State ex rel. Henley v. Bickel , 285 S.W.3d 327, 329 (Mo. banc 2009). This Court may liberally draw "all reasonable inferences" from the allegations raised in Graves’ petition. Id. (emphasis added) (quoting Bosch v. St. Louis Healthcare Network , 41 S.W.3d 462, 464 (Mo. banc 2001) ).

Analysis

On appeal, Graves claims the circuit court erred in sustaining the Division's motion to dismiss because his petition for declaratory judgment adequately pleads a controversy ripe for judicial review and facts that entitle him to a judgment in his favor. The Division counters that the petition fails to state a controversy ripe for judicial review.2

As this Court explained in NAACP :

[A petition states a claim for declaratory judgment if the court is] presented with: (1) a justiciable controversy that presents a real, substantial, presently-existing controversy admitting of specific relief, as distinguished from an advisory decree upon a purely hypothetical situation; (2) a plaintiff with a legally protectable interest at stake, ...; (3) a controversy ripe for judicial determination; and (4) an inadequate remedy at law.

601 S.W.3d at 246 (alteration in original) (quoting Mo. Soybean Ass'n v. Mo. Clean Water Comm'n , 102 S.W.3d 10, 25 (Mo. banc 2003) ). Because Graves’ petition did not allege a controversy ripe for judicial determination, his petition failed to state an adequate claim for declaratory relief.

This Court employs a two-fold test in ascertaining whether a controversy is ripe for judicial determination: (1) whether the issues presented are fit for judicial resolution, and (2) whether denying relief would create hardship for either party. Mo. Soybean Ass'n , 102 S.W.3d at 27. "A case is ripe if ‘the parties’ dispute is developed sufficiently to allow the court to make an accurate determination of the facts, to resolve a conflict that is presently existing, and to grant specific relief of a conclusive character.’ " Calzone v. Ashcroft , 559 S.W.3d 32, 35 (Mo. banc 2018) (quoting Schweich v. Nixon , 408 S.W.3d 769, 774 (Mo. banc 2013) ). When litigants petition courts to review an agency action,

[t]he basic rationale of the ripeness doctrine is to "prevent the courts, through avoidance of premature adjudication, from entangling themselves in abstract disagreements over administrative policies, and also to protect the agencies from judicial interference until an administrative decision has been formalized and its effects felt in a concrete way by the challenging parties."

Mo. Soybean Ass'n , 102 S.W.3d at 26 (quoting Abbott Lab'ys, Inc. v. Gardner , 387 U.S. 136, 148-49, 87 S.Ct. 1507, 18 L.Ed.2d 681 (1967) ). "A declaratory judgment is not a general panacea for all real and imaginary legal ills. It is not available to adjudicate hypothetical or speculative situations that may never come to pass." Id. at 25 (internal citations omitted).

Graves alleged the Division "required" that he "pay a monthly intervention fee" and that "[f]ailure to do so may place [him] in violation status" pursuant to section 217.690.3 (Emphasis added). But section 217.690.3 specifically affords the Division the discretionary authority to collect an intervention fee from offenders; it does not require the Division to do so. Specifically, section 217.690.3 provides:

The division ... has discretionary authority to require the payment of a fee, not to exceed sixty dollars per month, from every offender placed under division supervision on probation, parole, or conditional release, to waive all or part of any fee, [and] to sanction offenders for willful nonpayment of fees[.]

(Emphasis added). Considering the lack of immediacy and conclusiveness in the Division's letter and the fact that the statute does not compel the Division to place Graves in violation status and collect the fee, the likelihood of the Division collecting the fee or sanctioning Graves for nonpayment under the facts alleged is purely speculative and hypothetical. Mo. Soybean Ass'n , 102 S.W.3d at 25. Even interpreting the facts as alleged in his petition in the light most favorable to Graves, it is not reasonable to infer the Division will take any further action to collect the intervention fee. Bickel , 285 S.W.3d at 329.

Graves’ case could be ripe if the Division made a concrete, binding, immediate decision to classify him with violation status should his nonpayment continue or the Division took other definitive action to collect the fee. But the Division has made no effort to collect the fee other than sending the letter to Graves, and the letter itself was non-binding. It had no legal effect on Graves’ rights. The letter did not state Graves was in violation status for nonpayment, nor did it bind the Division to placing him in violation status if he failed to pay the fee within a certain timeframe.4 The Division remained free to take or avoid such action in the future. Graves merely alleged the Division advised him in a single letter his failure to pay the fee may put him in violation status. What is not clear is whether the Division would take any action upon discovering Graves’ financial status.5

The Missouri Code of State Regulations further ensures individuals who cannot pay the intervention fee will not be found in violation and forced to pay the fee. First, the code directs supervising probation officers to assist offenders who have not paid the intervention fee by suggesting programs and services that could address the issues causing nonpayment. 14 C.S.R. 80-5.020(1)(I)3. Second, the code specifically limits the imposition of any sanction to "willful nonpayment." 14 C.S.R. 80-5.020(1)(I)4. Graves has not alleged the Division would categorize his nonpayment as willful, nor has he demonstrated the Division would consider nonpayment willful due to his income being limited to SSI. Third, the code allows the Division to waive the fee based on Graves’ limited income. 14 C.S.R. 80-5.020(1)(H) (For "offender[s] ... unable to pay because of having insufficient income, fees may be waived in whole or in part."). Graves has not sought and been denied a waiver of the fee as set forth in the code. Nothing in his petition or the record suggests Graves advised his probation officer or the Division of his limited income and the federal anti-attachment provision. Neither does the petition or the record suggest the Division would refuse to...

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4 cases
  • Smith v. Stewart
    • United States
    • Missouri Court of Appeals
    • April 12, 2022
    ...the court is presented with [, inter alia ,] a controversy ripe for judicial determination." Graves v. Missouri Department of Corrections, Division of Probation and Parole , 630 S.W.3d 769, 772-73 (Mo. banc 2021) (citation omitted). Additionally, in order to state a claim for injunctive rel......
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