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Catherine Harper, et al v. Professional Probation Services, Inc.

Summary of the cause of action

Defendants in the Gardendale Municipal Court are placed on probation when they are unable to pay court fines and fees in full. Professional Probation Services, Inc. (PPS) is the sole probation provider through a contract with the City and the Municipal Court judge. PPS charges a $40 monthly fee which is paid before the court’s fines and fees. To prolong the probation period, PPS often misrepresents that probationers are non-compliant. Both plaintiffs were jailed because of these false or inadequate representations by PPS. Indigency is never assessed.

Under the contract, probationers are allowed to reschedule their in-person appointments. However, in practice, PPS treats the rescheduling as non-compliance. The primary purpose for these appointments is fee payment. No rehabilitation fees are provided to probations. Further, probationers are almost never allowed to perform community service instead of paying the fees.

Status

On November 1, 2017, the Municipal Court Judge ordered each defendant sentenced to a term of probation supervised by PPS to cease reporting and making payments to PPS. Those unable to pay their balance in full by January 1, 2018 were to appear before the Municipal Court and request a payment plan which must take into account the defendant’s ability to pay. On March 6, 2018, the plaintiffs and Judge Gomany who was also a party to the case, entered into a settlement agreement and filed a joint motion to dismiss plaintiffs’ due process claim and two other claims.

In Nov. 2018, the District Court dismissed the plaintiff’s due process claim because there was an adequate post-deprivation remedy, but the case is still pending on the abuse of process claim.

Professional Probation Services had moved to dismiss Plaintiffs’ Second Amended Complaint, and the Court had granted that motion with respect to Count One, Plaintiffs’ due process claim, and denied the motion with respect to Count Two, Plaintiffs’ state law abuse of process claim. On December 10, 2018, the Court granted Plaintiffs’ motion for reconsideration and vacated its prior order. It did so because its previous order granting Defendant’s motion to dismiss was based, in part, on grounds not raised by Defendant. The Court, however, allowed for further briefing and again took the motion to dismiss under submission.

After considering that supplemental briefing, the Court dismissed the due process claim with prejudice and declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the abuse of process claim, dismissing it without prejudice. The Court found that because there was no law supporting Plaintiffs’ argument that probation officers owe a duty of neutrality to probationers, Plaintiffs could not state a due process claim against PPS.

On August 30, 2019, Plaintiffs appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

On September 25, 2020, the Eleventh Circuit reversed the district court’s dismissal of the Plaintiffs’ due process claim and remanded for further proceedings. The Eleventh Circuit held that, according to the allegations that the court accepted as true for purposes of its review, PPS violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause when it unilaterally extended the duration of probationers’ sentences, increased the fines that they owed, and imposed additional conditions of probation. The court’s determination hinged on how it answered three subsidiary questions:

First, in considering what exactly the obligation of judicial impartiality entails, the court noted that the Supreme Court has held that Due Process Clause forbids a judge from adjudicating a case in which he has s  financial interest sufficiently substantial to give rise to a “possible temptation” to abandon the judicial obligation of impartiality. The court explained that there need not be any actual bias, nor must the financial interest be personal or direct. As an example, the court explained that in Tumey v. Ohio, the Supreme Court voided convictions arising from a municipal court where a mayor, sitting as a judge, imposed fines that funded both his salary and the town’s general fund for repairs and improvement, finding that both the direct pecuniary interest in the outcome and the official motive to convict to help the town’s financial needs presented Due Process Clause violations. 273 U.S. 510, 520-21 (1927). In sum, the Court found: “The Due Process Clause forbids adjudication by a judge who has a financial interest in the outcome of his decisions, provided that the interest–personal or otherwise–is substantial enough to give him a ‘possible temptation’ to forsake his obligation of impartiality.” (citing and quoting Ward v. Vill. of Monroeville, 409 U.S. 57, 58-60 (1972)). 

Second, in evaluating whether the obligation of judicial impartiality apply to PPS, the court held that the obligation of judicial impartiality governs not only judges, but anyone acting in a “judicial or quasi judicial capacity.” (quoting Tumey, 273 U.S. at 522). The court explained that PPS undoubtedly performed a judicial function – and thus acted in a “quasi-judicial capacity” – when it imposed sentence enhancements on probationers because they were never subject to plenary factual and legal review in court, and they were binding. The Eleventh Circuit determined that the district court was wrong in holding that PPS was not performing a judicial function because “it imposed sentence enhancements on a form that had been pre-signed by a judge.” The court explained: “Taken to its logical conclusion PPS’s theory implies… neither actor violates the Due Process Clause – the court skates because it’s not partial, and the delegate gets off because it’s not judicial. That can’t be the law.”

Third, in considering  whether PPS violated its obligation of judicial impartiality, The court held that PPS had a direct pecuniary interest in maximizing the length of probation because PPS received its $40 monthly fee only as long as a probationer remained on probation. Therefore, the court determined that PPS could not determine probation sentencing matters impartially because its income depended directly on how long probationers remained on probation, i.e., the sentencing decisions PPS made. 

For these reasons, the Eleventh Circuit held that the Plaintiffs adequately stated a claim under the Due Process Clause and reversed the district court’s dismissal of the claim.  Accordingly, the Eleventh Circuit also revived the Plaintiffs’ state law claim, and remanded it to the district court for further proceedings, as the denial of the due process claim was the sole basis on which the district court dismissed the state law claim.   

You can read all relevant court documents via the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Southern Poverty Law Center
42 USC § 1983 (alleging due process and equal protection violations)
2:17-cv-01791
October 2017, amended December 2017
August 5, 2019
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