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Nelson v. Constant

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

September 25, 2018


         SECTION “B” (1)


         Plaintiffs Tamara G. Nelson and Timothea Richardson filed a “Motion to Certify Class” (Rec. Doc. 2), seeking to certify two classes of prospective plaintiffs.


         On December 05, 2017, Plaintiffs filed a class action complaint seeking to rectify “[d]ue [p]rocess and [e]qual [p]rotection violation[s]” in the Mayor's Court of Gretna, Louisiana.[1] Rec. Doc. 1 at 1-2. Specifically, Plaintiffs allege that the Mayor's Court is improperly operated by Defendants as a source of income for the municipality. See id. The fines and fees that are assessed by the Mayor's Court fund the City of Gretna, the Mayor's Court, and the salaries of police officers, prosecutors, and judges. See id. at 2. Defendants and other officials of the Mayor's Court, who none of are disinterested or neutral, are incentivized to maximize arrests and prosecutions. See id. “A disproportionate number of those arrested are African American citizens of Gretna.” Id. Plaintiffs further allege that Defendants target the poor through their Deferred Prosecution Program[2]. See id. at 2-3.

         The instant motion seeks to certify two classes of prospective plaintiffs, Class A and Class B. See Rec. Doc. 2. Class A, purportedly represented by Plaintiff Nelson, is comprised of “all persons with criminal prosecutions pending before the Gretna Mayor's Court who are awaiting trial of their criminal or traffic offenses.” Rec. Doc. 2-1 at 2; see also Rec. Doc. 28-1 at 14. Class B, purportedly represented by Plaintiff Richardson, is comprised of “persons who in the past year were denied participation in, terminated from, or threatened with termination from the Deferred Prosecution Program due to their inability to pay program fees.” Rec. Doc. 2-1 at 2; see also Rec. Doc. 28-1 at 15.

         On June 20, 2018, this Court held oral argument on the Motion (Rec. Doc. 2). Since then, pursuant to an Order by this Court (Rec. Doc. 47), the parties have completed limited discovery and submitted additional briefing on legal questions raised at oral argument, including but not limited to sub-classes, standing, applicability of Younger, and numerosity. See Rec. Doc. Nos. 50, 51, 52, 54, 55, 56, 59.

         Plaintiffs' Contentions

         Plaintiffs contend that they easily satisfy Rule 23(a) and 23(b)(2). See Rec. Doc. 2-1 at 3. The number of class members, for both classes, range from the hundreds to the thousands. See id. at 4. That number will continue to grow as the Mayor's Court continues to hold court sessions. See id. The indeterminate number of future class members makes joinder impracticable, further satisfying numerousity. See id. There is a common question as to whether Defendants are violating the class members' equal protection and due process rights, satisfying commonality. See id. at 9. Plaintiffs were subjected to the same practices and constitutional violations as alleged in their complaint for the class members, satisfying typicality. See id. at 9-10. Of the two named Plaintiffs, one has a case pending before the Mayor's Court and the other is a current participant in the Mayor Court's Deferred Prosecution, satisfying adequate representation. See id. Their counsel, MacArthur Justice Center, has experience in litigating complex civil rights matters, further satisfying adequate representation. See id. at 11. The relief sought by Plaintiffs for the class is declaratory or injunctive, satisfying Rule 23(b)(2). See id. at 12.

         In their supplemental briefing, Plaintiffs further contend that they meet the numerousity prong. See Rec. Doc. 51 at 1-2. Plaintiffs offer more exact numbers[3] and suggest that Class B be split into two sub-classes. See id. at 2-3. Sub-class B1 consists of approximately 50 people and sub-class B2 consists of an unknown number of people because of the shifting of people as new people are cited and go to trial. See id. at 3. Plaintiffs believe that this case “must be maintained as a class action because of the scope of relief sought and to ensure that this Court's ultimate orders are enforceable.” Id. at 5. A class action is the only efficient way to secure relief because a declaration that the Mayor's Court violates due process will not operate as an injunction against the practices of the court and this Court would have to continuously adjudicate individual cases in the future. See id. at 6-7. The availability of declaratory relief does not weigh against class certification. See Rec. Doc. 59 at 2. Younger abstention does not apply here because the Mayor's Court is biased and there are no ongoing state court proceedings. See Rec. Doc. 51 at 7-8.

         In their reply, Plaintiffs clarify that their action challenges only the Mayor's Court's practices not the Lawrason Act. See Id. at 3. Plaintiffs contend that Defendant's concerns regarding Class B and its potential sub-classes are unwarranted. See id. at 2. Defendant's settlement negotiations and policy changes are allegations of voluntary cessation and do not serve as a basis to deny class certification. See id. at 1. This Court will be able “to quickly and accurately determine membership of Class B and its potential sub-classes” through financial affidavits. Id. at 2. Plaintiffs restate that Younger abstention is not applicable and that this Court should not make a ruling on its applicability without allowing parties a “full opportunity for discovery.” Id. at 4-9.

         Defendants' Contentions

         (1) Defendants Arthur Lawson, Jr. and Terri Brossette (“Defendants 1”)

         In their response, Defendants 1 contend that class certification should be denied and that jurisdiction over this matter should be declined. See Rec. Doc. 55 at 15. Defendants 1's contentions regarding the denial of class certification focus on Class B and its sub-classes. For example, the alleged numerousness of the sub-class may be moot due to settlement negotiations and policy changes. See id. at 5. Several of Plaintiffs' requests for relief are in the process of being remedied or have already been remedied. See id. at 6. Further, the definition that Plaintiffs offer for Class B is not as fitting as they make it seem because a class member's ability to pay requires individual, case-by-case determination, making it hard for this Court to determine who is and who is not a member of the class. See id. at 4-6. Lastly, a class action is not the only method available to Plaintiff to adjudicate their alleged controversies. See id. at 7. The proper avenue for Plaintiffs is a declaratory judgment action, without class certification. See id. at 14-15.

         Defendants 1 also contend that Younger abstention is appropriate. See id. at 8. Plaintiffs' assertion that the Mayor's Court is biased does not preclude Younger abstention because Plaintiffs do not have to file a declaratory judgment action in the Mayor's Court. See id. They can also file it in the District Court as to the constitutionally of the Lawrason Act. See id. Further, the mayor does not solely appoint court representatives and the salaries of those representatives are not based on the number of convictions they obtain. See id.

         (2) Defendants Mayor Belinda C. Constant, Magistrate Raymond A. Osborn, Jr., Magistrate Olden C. Toups, Jr., and Prosecutor Walter J. LeBlanc (“Defendants 2”)

         Defendants 2 adopt all arguments and position advanced by Defendant 1. See Rec. Doc. 54 at 1. Defendants 2 add that the cases Plaintiffs use to support their contentions are “inapposite to the actual structure of Gretna's Mayor's Court and the Magistrates who preside over it.” See id. Magistrate Toups and Osborn ...

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