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Fowler v. Benson

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

May 8, 2019

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

          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.


          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.



         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.


         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).


         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.


         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"- applies equally in this situation. 491 F.3d at 330.

         Second, 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).


         Rooker 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).

         Secretary 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 independent claim.

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 fail.").

         Pullman and Younger.

         Secretary 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, [3] 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").

         The 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.

         Declaratory relief.

         Secretary 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.


         Standard of Review.

         Having 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).

         Courts 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 omitted).

         We 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) (en banc).


         We 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 understandings ...

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