Feenstra v. Sigler

Oklahoma’s court system is funded almost entirely by fines and fees collected from criminal defendants. Eighty percent of criminal defendants are indigent. Oklahoma has the highest incarceration rate in America.

Against this backdrop, the complaint alleges Judge Jared Sigler, Judge John Gerkin, and former Judge Curtis DeLapp (Judicial Defendants) failed to conduct inquiries into individuals’ ability to pay before imposing fines and fees or before sanctioning individuals for nonpayment. The Judicial Defendants incarcerated individuals unable to pay the fines and fees and imposed daily incarceration fees, without ever inquiring into the individuals’ ability to pay. They also often denied requests to lower monthly payments.

Plaintiffs allege that the Judicial Defendants’ practices violate the Due Process Clause and Equal Protection Clause because they: (1) fail to provide defendants with notice that ability to pay is a critical issue and with a meaningful opportunity to be heard on the question of their financial circumstances; (2) punish defendants solely on the basis of poverty, which the Court ruled unconstitutional in Bearden; and (3) deny defendants of their constitutional right to counsel, which also violates the Sixth Amendment. Plaintiffs similarly allege Judicial Defendants’ practices fail to comport with the due process requirements of the Oklahoma Constitution. Further, they allege violations of Oklahoma statutes which require courts to: (1) conduct an inquiry as to a defendant’s ability to pay prior to the imposition of fines and fees; (2) conduct an inquiry as to a defendant’s ability to pay after a defendant has missed an installment payment prior to incarcerating such defendant, as well as provide such defendant with a meaningful opportunity to be heard; and (3) relieve defendants who are unable to pay due to physical disability or poverty of fines and/or costs.

Additionally, Plaintiffs allege that the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System, the Executive Director of the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System, and the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System Board of Directors (“OIDS Defendants”) denied them their right to counsel in violation of the assistance of counsel clause of the Sixth Amendment, as well as the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. Specifically, they allege that through the manner in which the OIDS contracts with private attorneys, “the OIDS created a system that denies Plaintiffs conflict-free counsel in relation to the imposition and challenge of fines, fees, and costs.”

On May 3, 2019, the case was removed from Oklahoma State Court to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma. Within a week, the Defendants moved to dismiss.

The Judicial Defendants sought to dismiss Plaintiffs’ claims on several grounds. They asserted that: (1) the claims were time barred by the statute of limitations; (2) plaintiffs lacked standing to bring the claims; (3) declaratory relief was unavailable; (4) plaintiffs were not entitled to the injunction sought; and (5) the Oklahoma Governmental Tort Claims Act (OGTCA) barred the state-law tort claims. The court: (1) determined that the Complaint plausibly stated a basis for tolling the statute-of limitations; (2) concluded that plaintiffs had standing with respect to all counts except count seven (failure to conduct ability to pay hearings at judgment and sentencing), which the court dismissed; (3) declined to exercise its discretion to refrain from hearing the declaratory action; (4) found that because plaintiffs plausibly alleged an ongoing constitutional violation that entailed sufficient allegations of a great and immediate harm absent injunctive relief, plaintiffs could be entitled to injunctive relief; and (5) resolved that the OGTCA did not apply to suits seeking only equitable relief and not money damages. For these reasons, Judicial Defendants’ motion to dismiss was ultimately granted in part and denied in part.

The OIDS Defendants sought to dismiss Plaintiffs’ claims, asserting that: (1) OIDS complied with applicable Oklahoma statutes; (2) OIDS has no attorney-client relationship with any of the plaintiffs; (3) plaintiffs failed to allege that the OIDS defendants personally participated in any of the alleged constitutional violations; (4) plaintiffs failed to meet the standards for injunctive relief; (5) plaintiffs failed to allege their convictions were overturned or otherwise negated pursuant to the Supreme Court’s decision in Heck v. Humphrey; and (6) OIDS is not a state actor for purposes of a § 1983 claim. With respect to the first proffered ground for dismissal, the court determined that the Complaint plausibly alleged that “the OIDS Defendants acted in a manner so as to deprive plaintiffs of their constitutional rights to the extent that plaintiffs’ § 1983 claim is premised on the OIDS Defendants’ alleged implementation of the applicable statutes in a manner so as to create a ‘powerful, person financial incentive’ to avoid expending time to challenge the imposition of fines and fees against the plaintiffs, including through the ability-to-pay hearing mandated by [Oklahoma law].” However, it also determined that plaintiffs failed to state a plausible claim based on the OIDS Defendants’ failure to proffer advice regarding, or provide representation at “cost docket” appearances. Thus, the motion to dismiss was granted in part and denied in part on the ground that OIDS complied with applicable Oklahoma statutes.

With respect to the remaining grounds, the court: (1) declined to dismiss the §1983 claim for failure to allege an attorney-client relationship; (2) concluded that plaintiffs plausibly alleged that the OIDS Defendants engaged in conduct and policies which they knew or should have known would cause plaintiffs and other criminal defendants to be deprived of their constitutional rights; (3) found that plaintiffs met the standards for injunctive relief; (4) held that Heck did not “bar suits challenging incarceration for failure to pay fines and fees in the absence of an ability-to-pay hearing,” and thus did not apply to preclude plaintiffs’ claim; and (5) determined that because plaintiffs challenged a state administrative function rather than an exercise of independent professional judgment, they plausibly alleged that the OIDS Defendants were state actors for purposes of a § 1983 claim.

On January 23, 2020, the Court granted in part and denied in part Plaintiffs’ motion for leave to file an amended complaint. Consistent with the Court’s order, Plaintiffs filed an amended complaint on January 31, 2020, to which the Judge Defendants and the Defense System Defendants filed their respective answers.

On July 23, 2020, the parties stipulated to the voluntary withdrawal of Plaintiff Lonnie Feenstra from the case. A settlement conference before a magistrate judge was held on November 13, 2020 . A jury trial is set for March 15, 2021 at 9:30 AM.

You can read the complaint here and the MTD opinions here.

42 USC § 1983 (alleging due process and equal protection violations)
March 21, 2019
November 13, 2019; November 14, 2019
Bryan & Terrill, Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and Latham & Watkins