Adrian Fowler; Kitia Harris, on behalf of themselves and others similarly situated, Plaintiffs-Appellees,
Jocelyn Benson, Michigan Secretary of State, in her official capacity, Defendant-Appellant.
Argued: October 3, 2018
from the United States District Court for the Eastern
District of Michigan at Flint. No. 4:17-cv-11441-Linda V.
Parker, District Judge.
G. Fedynsky, OFFICE OF THE MICHIGAN ATTORNEY GENERAL,
Lansing, Michigan, for Appellant.
Telfeyan, EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER LAW, Washington, D.C., for
G. Fedynsky, OFFICE OF THE MICHIGAN ATTORNEY GENERAL,
Lansing, Michigan, for Appellant.
Telfeyan, Rebecca Ramaswamy, EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER LAW,
Washington, D.C., John C. Philo, MAURICE & JANE SUGAR LAW
CENTER FOR ECONOMIC & SOCIAL JUSTICE, Detroit, Michigan,
Before: BATCHELDER, DONALD, and THAPAR, Circuit Judges.
M. BATCHELDER, CIRCUIT JUDGE
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.
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
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. 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.
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
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.
Secretary of State, Jocelyn Benson ("Secretary
Benson"),  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.
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.
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
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).
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
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"- applies equally in this
situation. 491 F.3d at 330.
Secretary Benson argues that Plaintiffs' claimed injury
is not redressible. For Article III standing, the relief
sought by a plaintiff "must provide redress for the
injury." Parsons v. United States Dep't of
Justice, 801 F.3d 701, 715 (6th Cir. 2015). The district
court rightly found this requirement met by Plaintiffs
insofar as "a favorable decision would remedy the
violation of Plaintiffs' procedural due process rights .
. . [and] puts Plaintiffs one step closer to regaining their
driving privileges." The district court acknowledged
that "other impediments" may remain for Plaintiffs
to regain their driver's licenses but held that the
elimination of one substantial obstacle for Plaintiffs to
regain their licenses constituted "substantial and
meaningful relief" sufficient to render their claimed
injury redressable. The district court's conclusion was
justified under Supreme Court precedent. In Village of
Arlington Heights v. Metropolitan Housing Development
Corp., the Court held that even if "[a]n injunction
would not . . . guarantee that" a plaintiff will achieve
his desired final outcome, the injunction will have provided
constitutionally sufficient redress if it "removed"
a "barrier" to doing so. 429 U.S. 252, 261 (1977).
v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413 (1923), and
District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman,
460 U.S. 462 (1983), hold that only the Supreme Court may
review judgments entered by state courts in civil litigation.
The doctrine, therefore, bars a lower federal appellate court
from reviewing a plaintiff's claim when a state
court's judgment is the source of the plaintiff's
injury. See Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Indus.
Corp., 544 U.S. 280, 283-84 (2005).
Benson argues that Plaintiffs are appealing the adverse
judgment of Michigan trial courts, thereby contravening the
Rooker-Feldman doctrine. But the Michigan statute is
clear-it is the Secretary who suspends licenses, even if the
Secretary does so only after getting certain information from
trial courts. Mich. Comp. Laws § 257.321a(2). As we
explained in McCormick v. Braverman:
The inquiry then is the source of the injury the plaintiff
alleges in the federal complaint. If the source of the injury
is the state court decision, then the Rooker-Feldman
doctrine would prevent the district court from asserting
jurisdiction. If there is some other source of injury, such
as a third-party's actions, then the plaintiff asserts an
451 F.3d 382, 393 (6th Cir. 2006). Plaintiffs' suit seeks
review of Secretary Benson's suspension of their licenses
regardless of the validity of any state court decision. The
fact that state court decisions form part of the basis for
the Secretary's suspension action is immaterial.
Id. at 394 ("To the extent that Defendants
argue that these claims, even though they do not assert
injury from the state court judgments, are 'inextricably
intertwined' with those judgments so as to fall within
the reach of Rooker-Feldman, that argument must
Benson argues that the district court should have abstained
from exercising jurisdiction over Plaintiffs' claims
under Railroad Commission of Texas v. Pullman Co.,
312 U.S. 496 (1941), and Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S.
37 (1971). Pullman abstention instructs courts to
avoid exercising jurisdiction in cases involving an ambiguous
state statute that may be interpreted by state courts so as
to eliminate, or at least alter materially, the
constitutional question raised in federal court. Jones v.
Coleman, 848 F.3d 744, 749-50 (6th Cir. 2017). Secretary
Benson argues that because Michigan law already requires the
protection of federal constitutional rights when driver's
licenses are suspended,  state courts might interpret the
challenged law in a way that would eliminate the
constitutional question. But the Supreme Court has rejected
applying Pullman abstention on those grounds.
See Zwickler v. Koota, 389 U.S. 241, 251 (1967)
(explaining that Pullman "abstention cannot be
ordered simply to give state courts the first opportunity to
vindicate the federal claim").
Younger abstention doctrine, meanwhile, cautions
federal courts against exercising jurisdiction in cases where
they are asked to enjoin pending state proceedings. See
New Orleans Pub. Serv., Inc. v. Council of City of New
Orleans, 491 U.S. 350, 364 (1989). But the district
court did no such thing. There are no ongoing state
proceedings here, only hypothetical proceedings that
Secretary Benson claims Plaintiffs may pursue.
Benson also claims that the district court abused its
discretion by holding that it had jurisdiction to decide
Plaintiffs' request for declaratory relief. But no
declaratory judgment has been issued, and our holding on the
merits below moots the possibility that one will be issued.
established that the district court properly exercised
jurisdiction over Plaintiffs' claim, we now review the
merits of the district court's decision granting a
preliminarily injunction against Secretary Benson. While the
party seeking a preliminary injunction "is not required
to prove his case in full at a preliminary injunction
hearing," Cert. Rest. Dry Cleaning Network L.L.C. v.
Tenke Corp., 511 F.3d 535, 542 (6th Cir. 2007) (citation
omitted), it remains the case that preliminary injunctions
are an "extraordinary and drastic remedy,"
Munaf v. Geren, 553 U.S. 674, 689 (2008) (citation
omitted). A preliminary injunction "may only be awarded
upon a clear showing that the plaintiff is entitled to such
relief." Winter v. Nat. Res. Def. Council,
Inc., 555 U.S. 7, 22 (2008).
determine whether a party moving for a preliminary injunction
has made that showing by weighing whether the party (1)
"establish[ed] that he is likely to succeed on the
merits," (2) "that he is likely to suffer
irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief,"
(3) "that the balance of equities tips in his
favor," and (4) "that an injunction is in the
public interest." Id. at 20. However, in a case
such as this, where "a party seeks a preliminary
injunction on the basis of a potential constitutional
violation, the likelihood of success on the merits will often
be the determinative factor." Bailey v.
Callaghan, 715 F.3d 956, 958 (6th Cir. 2013) (citation
review for abuse of discretion the district court's
decision to grant a preliminary injunction, but we review de
novo conclusions of law-such as whether Plaintiffs are likely
to succeed on the merits-that undergird the district
court's decision. See City of Pontiac Retired Emps.
Ass'n v. Schimmel, 751 F.3d 427, 430 (6th Cir. 2014)
begin by reviewing the district court's legal conclusion
that Plaintiffs were likely to succeed on the merits of their
procedural due process claim. The Fourteenth Amendment
prohibits "any State" from depriving "any
person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of
law." U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1. Plaintiffs claim
that they have been deprived of a property interest-their
driver's licenses-without due process of law.
"Property interests, of course, are not created by the
Constitution. Rather they are created and their dimensions
are defined by existing rules or understandings that stem
from an independent source such as state law-rules or