Robinson v. Purkey, Case No. 3:17-cv-01263

CourtU.S. District Court — Middle District of Tennessee
Writing for the CourtJudge Aleta A. Trauger
PartiesFRED ROBINSON et al., Plaintiffs, v. DAVID W. PURKEY, Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security, in his official capacity, et al., Defendants.
Decision Date16 October 2018
Docket NumberCase No. 3:17-cv-01263

FRED ROBINSON et al., Plaintiffs,
DAVID W. PURKEY, Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Safety
and Homeland Security, in his official capacity, et al., Defendants.

Case No. 3:17-cv-01263


October 16, 2018

Judge Aleta A. Trauger


Fred Robinson, Ashley Sprague, and Johnny Gibbs have filed a Motion for Preliminary Injunction (Docket No. 25), to which Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security ("TDSHS") Commissioner David W. Purkey ("Commissioner") has filed a Response (Docket No. 187), and Robinson, Sprague, and Gibbs have filed a Reply (Docket No. 212). For the reasons set out herein, the plaintiffs' motion will be granted in part and denied in part.


This is the second of two cases challenging Tennessee's practice of rescinding the driver's licenses of qualified Tennessee drivers who are unable, due to their indigence, to pay the fines, costs, and/or litigation taxes assessed against them in criminal cases or cases involving certain quasi-criminal civil offenses. In the first case, Thomas v. Haslam,1 a plaintiff class challenged the Commissioner's statutorily-mandated revocation of the driver's licenses of indigent debtors who, for a period of a year or more, were unable to pay the fines, costs, and/or litigation taxes assessed

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against them related to a criminal conviction. This court concluded that the challenged statute, Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-24-105(b), ran afoul of a long line of Supreme Court precedents invalidating criminal procedures that, in effect, imposed harsher consequences on defendants based on their indigence. See Griffin v. Illinois, 351 U.S. 12 (1956); Douglas v. California, 372 U.S. 353 (1963); Roberts v. LaVallee, 389 U.S. 40 (1967); Williams v. Illinois, 399 U.S. 235 (1970); Tate v. Short, 401 U.S. 395 (1971); Mayer v. City of Chicago, 404 U.S. 189 (1971); Bearden v. Georgia, 461 U.S. 660 (1983). The court, therefore, granted summary judgment to the Thomas plaintiffs and enjoined the enforcement of the statute. This court's decision in Thomas is currently on appeal to the Sixth Circuit.

The statute at issue here, Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-50-502(a)(1)(H),2 also empowers the Commissioner to take away the driver's licenses of some Tennessee drivers who, because of their indigence, cannot pay fines, costs, and/or litigation taxes against them. This statute differs from the statute at issue in Thomas, however, in that (1) the statute at issue here applies only to fines, costs, and litigation taxes related to convictions for traffic offenses—also known as "traffic debt"; (2) this statute does not require a year of nonpayment before a debtor's driver's license is taken away but, rather, empowers TDSHS to rescind the license as soon as it receives notice of nonpayment; (3) this statute merely authorizes the Commissioner to take the debtor's license but does not require him to do so—although, in practice, the Commissioner appears to treat the

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suspensions as automatic; and (4) the loss of the debtor's driver's license is classified as a "suspension" rather than a "revocation." See id. Although this case has not advanced to the point where either party has moved for a final judgment, the plaintiffs here have sought a preliminary injunction to halt the suspensions at issue and provide relief to those whose licenses have already been suspended. Accordingly, this court is called upon to determine whether (1) these plaintiffs are likely to succeed in establishing that the rule that this court applied in Thomas would also prevail here; and, (2) if so, whether any other factors counsel against providing preliminary relief.

Plaintiffs Robinson, Sprague, and Gibbs are among the thousands3 of Tennesseans who have had their driver's licenses suspended for failure to pay traffic debt. (Docket No. 19 ¶ 11.) On September 13, 2017, the plaintiffs filed the Class Action Complaint in this case against the Commissioner and a few representative local government defendants involved in imposing traffic debt and informing TDSHS of drivers' eligibility for suspension. (Docket No. 1.) The plaintiffs raised three constitutional challenges to the state's laws governing suspension of driver's licenses for nonpayment of traffic debt:

1. Count I alleges that the defendants' effecting and continuing the suspension of people's driver's licenses for nonpayment of traffic debt without any inquiry into, or consideration of, the license holder's ability to pay violates the right to fundamental fairness guaranteed by the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment (Docket No. 1 ¶ 156);

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2. Count II alleges that the defendants' effecting the suspension of driver's licenses—either with no notice or right to an ability-to-pay hearing, or with notice but only a right to a hearing on whether the license holder has failed to pay the relevant traffic debt—violates the right to procedural fairness guaranteed by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (Id. ¶¶ 157-58); and

3. Count III alleges that the defendants' effecting and continuing the suspension of driver's licenses from indigent people who owe traffic debt to the state and its counties and municipalities, but not imposing similar sanctions on other judgment debtors, violates the Equal Protection Clause of the the Fourteenth Amendment (Id. ¶ 159).

The plaintiffs sought declaratory and injunctive relief, including reinstatement of the driver's licenses of Robinson, Sprague, and all members of the putative class, other than those facing additional legal barriers to having a driver's license, such as a suspension or revocation for a reason other than the failure to pay traffic debt. (Id. at 30.)

On September 21, 2017, Robinson, Sprague, and Gibbs filed a Motion for Preliminary Injunction (Docket No. 25), as well as a contemporaneous, more narrowly tailored Motion for Temporary Restraining Order ("TRO") focusing on Robinson and Sprague (Docket No. 24). On October 5, 2017, the court granted the requested TRO, ordering the Commissioner to restore Robinson's and Sprague's licenses. (Docket No. 63 at 1.) The court set a hearing regarding whether the TRO should be converted to a preliminary injunction, but the parties came to an agreement to allow the TRO to remain in place until the resolution of the broader Motion for Preliminary Injunction. (Docket No. 69.) On December 15, 2017, the plaintiffs filed an Amended Complaint (Docket No. 109), followed shortly thereafter by a Corrected Amended Complaint (Docket No. 111). The plaintiffs' constitutional theory of the case remained the same, although they revised

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some facts and added a fourth plaintiff, Brianna Booher, who has since voluntarily withdrawn from the case. (Docket No. 170.) Additional motions were filed, and, on June 11, 2018, the court issued a Memorandum and Order resolving several motions to dismiss, certifying a statewide class, and concluding that the court could not resolve the Motion for Preliminary Injunction without an evidentiary hearing. (Docket Nos. 151-53.)

The local government defendants have since filed Motions to Dismiss as Moot, to which they attached affidavits, suggesting that their respective local government entities have adopted procedures consistent with the protections to which the plaintiffs argue drivers are entitled. (Docket Nos. 177 & 181.) As a result of the new factual issues raised by the local government defendants, the plaintiffs have withdrawn their request for a preliminary injunction with regard to those defendants, and a separate briefing schedule has been established with regard to those defendants' motions. (Docket Nos. 195 & 197.) The plaintiffs now seek a preliminary injunction only against the Commissioner. (Docket No. 195 at 1.) Because the Commissioner's policies affect all Tennesseans, the plaintiffs' request for a preliminary injunction against the Commissioner is unaffected by changes in policies by any isolated local government or governments.

With regard to the Commissioner, the plaintiffs ask the court to grant a preliminary injunction providing for the following relief:

• On behalf of all Named Plaintiffs and the . . . Statewide Class, enjoining Defendant Purkey from suspending or permitting the suspension of any driver's license pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-50-502(a)(1)(H) or (I) without either

• notice to the licensee that includes the offer of a fact-based inquiry, with participation by the licensee, as to the licensee's ability to pay and, if such inquiry is requested, a factual determination, prior and as a prerequisite to license suspension, that the amount sought is within the licensee's ability to pay, or

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• certification from the reporting county that notice containing such offer has been afforded and (if inquiry is requested) such factual determination has been made. . . .
• On behalf of Plaintiffs Robinson and Sprague and the . . . Statewide Class except for the members of the Multi-Barrier Subclass,4 enjoining Defendant Purkey to

• reinstate all driver's licenses that were suspended for nonpayment of Traffic Debt prior to the date of entry of the preliminary injunction, at no cost to the license holders;

• waive all reinstatement fees; and

• notify all persons whose licenses were suspended of the reinstatement.

(Docket No. 25 at 1-2.) A preliminary injunction hearing was set for September 5, 2018, but, after the parties submitted the written and documentary materials on which they intended to rely, they concluded that an in-person hearing would be unnecessary and agreed to submit the question to the court on the written record.


The Sixth Circuit has held that the district court must balance four factors when considering a motion for preliminary injunction under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 65: (1) whether the movant has a strong likelihood of success on the...

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