Hunter v. Etowah Cnty. Court Referral Program, LLC

Decision Date30 March 2018
Docket NumberCase No.: 4:15–CV–0839–VEH
Citation309 F.Supp.3d 1154
Parties Ricky L. HUNTER, et al., Plaintiffs, v. ETOWAH COUNTY COURT REFERRAL PROGRAM, LLC, et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Northern District of Alabama

Charles J. Lorant, Lorant Law Group, Birmingham, AL, for Plaintiffs.

Bradley W. Cornett, Ford Howard & Cornett PC, Gadsden, AL, David J. Canupp, George W. Royer, Jr., Lanier Ford Shaver & Payne PC, Huntsville, AL, Robert M. Ronnlund, William A. Scott, Jr., Scott Sullivan Streetman & Fox PC, Birmingham, AL, for Defendants.


VIRGINIA EMERSON HOPKINS, United States District Judge


Plaintiffs1 initiated this civil rights lawsuit and purported class action on July 1, 2013, against Defendants City of Attalla (the "City"), the Etowah County Court Referral Program, LLC (the "ECCRP"), and the ECCRP's Executive Director, Lenesha Zaner ("Ms. Zaner").2 (Brannon , Doc. 1). Plaintiffs have amended their complaint multiple times. The last version was filed on April 9, 2015. (Brannon , Docs. 22, 43, 45, 63). By virtue of the pro tanto stipulated dismissal entered on August 9, 2016 (doc. 43), Plaintiff Charles Cantrell is no longer a party to this action.

Pending before the Court are the following motions:

Motion for Summary Judgment (doc. 66) filed by the City (the "City's Motion") on May 22, 2017;
Motion for Summary Judgment (doc. 73) filed by the ECCRP and Ms. Zaner (the "ECCRP Defendants' Motion") on May 25, 2017; and
• Objection to Admissibility and Motion To Strike Declaration of Richard Rhea filed by Plaintiffs (the "Strike Motion") on October 19, 2017.

The Court has reviewed the parties' filings offered in support of and opposition to the motions. (Docs. 67–72, 74–76, 79–83, 87–89, 91). For the reasons set out below, the City's Motion is due to be granted in part and otherwise termed as moot. The ECCRP Defendants' Motion is due to be granted in part and otherwise denied or termed as moot. Finally, the Strike Motion is due to be termed as moot.

A. Summary Judgment

Summary judgment is proper only when there is no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. FED. R. CIV. P. 56(a). All reasonable doubts about the facts and all justifiable inferences are resolved in favor of the non-movant. See Fitzpatrick v. City of Atlanta , 2 F.3d 1112, 1115 (11th Cir. 1993). A dispute is genuine "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc. , 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). "Once the moving party has properly supported its motion for summary judgment, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to ‘come forward with specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.’ "

International Stamp Art, Inc. v. U.S. Postal Service , 456 F.3d 1270, 1274 (11th Cir. 2006) (citing Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp. , 475 U.S. 574, 586–87, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986) ).

B. Evidentiary Rulings

"All evidentiary decisions are reviewed under an abuse-of-discretion standard" without regard to the type of proof challenged. General Elec. Co. v. Joiner , 522 U.S. 136, 141, 118 S.Ct. 512, 139 L.Ed.2d 508 (1997) ; id. at 143, 118 S.Ct. 512 (concluding that the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals committed reversible error "[i]n applying an overly ‘stringent’ review to [the district court's experts' testimony] ruling [because] it failed to give the trial court the deference that is the hallmark of abuse-of-discretion review"). "An abuse of discretion can occur where the district court applies the wrong law, follows the wrong procedure, bases its decision on clearly erroneous facts, or commits a clear error in judgment." United States v. Estelan , 156 Fed.Appx. 185, 196 (11th Cir. 2005) (citing United States v. Brown , 415 F.3d 1257, 1266 (11th Cir. 2005) ).

Moreover, as the Eleventh Circuit has made clear, not every incorrect evidentiary ruling constitutes reversible error:

Auto–Owners' second argument is that it is entitled to a new trial on the basis of what it describes as a number of erroneous evidentiary rulings by the district court. Evidentiary rulings are also reviewed under an abuse of discretion standard. Finch v. City of Vernon , 877 F.2d 1497, 1504 (11th Cir. 1989). Moreover, even if Auto–Owners can show that certain errors were committed, the errors must have affected "substantial rights" in order to provide the basis for a new trial. See FED. R. EVID. 103(a). "Error in the admission or exclusion of evidence is harmless if it does not affect the substantial rights of the parties." Perry [v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co.] , 734 F.2d [1441,] at 1446 [ (1984) ]. See also Allstate Insurance Co. v. James , 845 F.2d 315, 319 (11th Cir. 1988).

Haygood v. Auto–Owners Ins. Co. , 995 F.2d 1512, 1515 (11th Cir. 1993). Therefore, even the existence of many evidentiary errors does not guarantee the party appealing a new trial. Instead, such erroneous rulings by a district court must "affect the substantial rights of the parties" for reversible error to occur.


Both Plaintiffs have been convicted and/or pled guilty to misdemeanor offensives within the jurisdiction of the Attalla Municipal Court (the "AMC"). Plaintiffs' civil rights suit challenges Defendants' practices under a court referral program (the "CRP") that the AMC ordered them to participate in as a requirement of their probation and a suspension of their sentences tied to their misdemeanor convictions.

Plaintiffs have summarized their respective AMC and CRP proceedings (doc. 83 at 7–26 ¶¶ 1–105) as follows.4


On July 23, 2009, Mr. Loyd was sentenced by the AMC on a misdemeanor charge of public intoxication (MC09–0461). Mr. Loyd received a 60–day jail sentence, which was suspended, and was ordered to enroll in the CRP. Based upon the ECCRP records filed in the Brannon case that relate to Mr. Loyd, on September 22, 2009, the ECCRP issued a return to court form notifying Judge Kenneth Robertson of the AMC that Mr. Loyd had been terminated from the CRP with respect to AMC case number 09–461.5 (Brannon , Doc. 165–3 at 6 (N.D. Ala. July 3, 2017) ).6 On March 1, 2011, the ECCRP call logs note that Mr. Loyd was supposed to re-enroll in the CRP, however, no AMC written order to that effect can be found. At the same time, the absence of a written order does not mutually exclude an oral order by the AMC. CAF. Mr. Loyd was scheduled for an evaluation on March 14, 2011.

On March 15, 2011, AMC records show that Mr. Loyd contacted the AMC to request his time for participation in the CRP run concurrent with an Etowah County case he had in front of Judge Rhea. The AMC set the matter for hearing on April 21, 2011.

Throughout March, April and May, Mr. Loyd was doing well with the CRP requirements, showing up for drug tests, color-code screening, and paying his fees. There are no notes in the ECCRP call log indicating that he failed to show up or complete a requirement. However, on July 14, 2011, the ECCRP notes that Mr. Loyd "owes too much to test."

Because Mr. Loyd was sentenced on July 23, 2009, he maintains that the two-year statutory maximum period for probation and/or the CRP should have expired on July 23, 2011. There is no AMC record to indicate that his probation was revoked or that his probationary period was tolled for any reason. At the same time, the record lacks any evidence of a written order from the AMC indicating that Mr. Loyd's obligation to complete the CRP was no longer a condition of his suspended sentence for his AMC misdemeanor case. CAF. Mr. Loyd continued to be subjected to the CRP requirements beyond July 23, 2011.

On July 26, 2011, Mr. Loyd failed to show up for a color-code drug test. On August 1, 2011, Mr. Loyd paid his June and July color-code fees and late fees. On August 3, 2011, Mr. Loyd returned to the ECCRP for a color-code drug test. On August 16, 2011, Mr. Loyd came to the ECCRP for a color-code drug test.

On August 24, 2011, the ECCRP called Mr. Loyd to report in by August 31, 2011, and pay $100 or he would be terminated from the CRP. There is no indication that he was notified in writing of this deadline. At the same time, the absence of a written notice does not mutually exclude an oral contact being made by the ECCRP. CAF. On August 30, 2011, Mr. Loyd returned to the ECCRP for monitoring. He paid monitoring fees, August color-code fees, and late fees. It is noted that he had a "bad attitude about fees."

On September 1, 2011, Mr. Loyd reported to the ECCRP for color-code testing. On September 12, 2011, Mr. Loyd was a no-show for a color-code drug test. On September 21, 2011, Mr. Loyd reported to the ECCRP for color-code testing. At this time, he claims to have started over in the CRP because of his failure to show up for drug testing on September 12, 2011. There is no record of a return to court form for the failure to show up for the drug test. There is no record of a AMC written order for Mr. Loyd's participation in the CRP to start over. At the same time, the absence of written order does not mutually exclude an oral order by the AMC. CAF. Finally, there is no indication that the ECCRP had ever started Mr. Loyd over previously due to his failure to show up for testing.

On October 11, 2011, Mr. Loyd reported to the ECCRP for color-code screening but was not drug tested because he "owe[d] too much to test." On October 24, 2011, Mr. Loyd reported to the ECCRP for color-code screening, but was not drug tested because he "owe[d] too much to test." On November 2, 2011, Mr. Loyd was a no-show for color-code screening and was terminated from the CRP.

On November 3, 2011, the ECCRP issued a return to court form notifying the AMC that Mr. Loyd failed to report for color-code screening on September 12, 2011, and November 2, 2011. The ECCRP also noted that he owed too much to test on October 11,...

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    • September 26, 2019
    ...this court has relied on Owens in making tolling calculations inanother private probation case. Hunter v. Etowah Cty. Court Referral Program, LLC, 309 F. Supp. 3d 1154, 1182 (N.D. Ala. 2018) ("As Owens reveals, however, Plaintiffs' calculation of the maximum probation period [] is substanti......

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