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Justice Network Inc. v. Craighead County

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

July 26, 2019

Justice Network Inc. Plaintiff - Appellant
v.
Craighead County; David Boling, Judge, in his individual and official capacity; Tommy Fowler, Judge, In his individual and official capacity; Bay, City of; Bono, City of; Brookland, City of; Caraway, City of; Cash, City of; Egypt, City of; Jonesboro, City of; Lake City, Arkansas; Monette, City of Defendants - Appellees

          Submitted: April 17, 2019

          Appeal from United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas - Jonesboro

          Before SMITH, Chief Judge, KELLY and KOBES, Circuit Judges.

          SMITH, CHIEF JUDGE.

         The Justice Network Inc. (TJN) appeals from the district court's[1] dismissal of its 42 U.S.C. § 1983 suit against Judge David Boling, in his individual and official capacity; Judge Tommy Fowler, in his individual and official capacity; Craighead County, Arkansas; the City of Jonesboro; and the Cities of Bay, Bono, Brookland, Caraway, Cash, Egypt, Lake City, and Monette.[2] The suit arises from Craighead County District Judges Boling and Fowler's implementation of an Amnesty Program forgiving all fees that probationers owed to TJN for probation services. We hold that Judges Boling and Fowler are entitled to judicial immunity on TJN's claims. Additionally, we hold that Judges Boling and Fowler are state government officials whose actions are not attributable to Craighead County or the City Defendants. Accordingly, we affirm the district court's dismissal of TJN's § 1983 suit.

         I. Background[3]

         TJN is a private probation company, and it offers services to probation clients in Craighead County. Services offered to the probation clients include program and counseling coordination, public service work, random drug screening, curfew monitoring, or any other condition of probation ordered by the court. TJN also offers a variety of classes to its probation clients, including life skills, parenting skills, anger management, alcohol safety school, and drug offender school.

         Since 1997, TJN has provided probation services to probation clients under the jurisdiction of the district and circuit courts of Craighead County. Since that time, it has also provided probation services to probation clients under the jurisdiction of the City Defendants' courts ("City Courts"). TJN's Jonesboro branch employed 12 fulltime employees, all residents of Craighead County.

         From 1997 until February 3, 2017, all misdemeanor offenders who had been charged in Craighead County District Court ("District Court") or the City Courts, and who required probation services, were placed under TJN's supervision. TJN contracted individually with each probation client. The Probation Fee Agreement set forth a $35 monthly fee for probation services and included a $15 monthly fee for the supervision of public service work (a typical condition of probation). A court order issued in conjunction with the Probation Fee Agreement directed each probation client to pay all probation supervision fees to TJN for each month of supervised probation.

         If the probation client failed to abide by the probation order and failed to complete his or her court-ordered special conditions, TJN would file an affidavit with the court indicating what conditions were not completed. The Craighead County prosecutor and the judge would then countersign the affidavit. The judge of the District Court would order the probationer to pay restitution for all outstanding fees owed to TJN. The same process was followed in the City Courts, including the court order directing the probationer to pay fees to TJN. For cases pending in the District Court, the District Court would collect the fees that the probation clients owed to TJN and forward those funds to TJN. For cases pending in the City Courts, the City Courts would collect the fees that the probation clients owed and forward those funds to TJN. This system operated for nearly 20 years, from 1997 until 2016.

         In early 2016, Judges Boling and Fowler were elected Craighead County District Judges. During the election, Judge Boling stated that if he were elected, he would end the use of TJN's probation services in his court. Likewise, Judge Fowler stated during his campaign that he opposed the privatization of probation services.

         On August 11, 2016, Judge Boling was reported in a local newspaper as stating "that he dismissed the case of one defendant on probation and 'purged' the remaining debt that had not paid." Compl. at 13, ¶ 81, Justice Network, Inc. v. Craighead Cty., No. 3:17-cv-00169-JM (E.D. Ark. June 30, 2017), ECF No. 1. This "purged" debt included court costs and fees that the defendant owed to TJN pursuant to a contract between the defendant and TJN. On August 12, 2016, the local newspaper reported that Judge Boling said he would "consider nonpayment cases on a case-by-case basis." Id. at 14, ¶ 84.

         On December 7, 2016, the local newspaper reported that Judges "Fowler and Boling planned to implement an 'Amnesty Program' in January and February 2017." Id. at ¶ 86. "As part of that program, [Judges] Fowler and Boling met with probation offenders who had outstanding fines that were due, to discuss payment options." Id. at ¶ 87.

         On January 26, 2017, the local newspaper reported that Judges Fowler and Boling had implemented a "temporary amnesty program," which "allow[ed] offenders who were delinquent on their payments to reset their payment plan." Id. at ¶ 88. The fees owed to TJN were summarily stricken from each new order of probation. Judges Boling and Fowler forgave the fees owed to TJN as part of the "Amnesty Program." Id. at ¶ 90. Judges Fowler and Boling also instituted a "Jail Credit" program. Id. at ¶ 91. This program forgave the costs owed to the court and fees owed to TJN in lieu of time served in prison. "[M]any of the probation clients given 'Jail Credit' were never incarcerated." Id. at 15, ¶ 93.

         As a result of the Amnesty Program, and the consequent loss of revenue, TJN has ceased all operations in Craighead County and has been forced to terminate its 12 employees. TJN has suffered significant economic loss and will continue to sustain that loss in the future if the Amnesty Program continues.

         TJN brought suit against Judges Boling and Fowler; Craighead County; and the City Defendants pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of the Contracts Clause, U.S. Const. art. I, § 10, and the Takings Clause, U.S. Const. amend. V. TJN also alleged violations of the Arkansas Constitution's Takings Clause. See Ark. Const. art. II, § 22. TJN sought a declaratory judgment that the defendants effectuated a custom and policy of annulling fees owed by probation clients to TJN, in violation of Article1, Section 10 and the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article 2, Section 17 and Article 2, Section 22 of the Arkansas Constitution. It also sought injunctive relief enjoining the defendants from executing a custom and policy of annulling fees owed by probation clients to TJN.

         The defendants moved to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6).

         The district court granted the defendants' motions to dismiss. First, the court found that Judges Boling and Fowler are entitled to absolute judicial immunity against all of TJN's claims because "[u]nless judges act completely outside all jurisdiction, they are absolutely immune from suit when acting in their judicial capacity." Justice Network, Inc. v. Craighead Cty., No. 3:17-cv-00169-JM, 2017 WL 5762397, at *2 (E.D. Ark. Nov. 28, 2017) (citing Martin v. Hendren, 127 F.3d 720, 721 (8th Cir. 1997)). The court also noted, "In Arkansas, '[a]ll courts of record, district courts, and city courts . . . shall have the authority to suspend the imposition of sentences or the imposition of fines, or both, in all criminal cases pending before the courts unless specifically prohibited by law.'" Id. (alteration and ellipsis in original) (quoting Ark. Code Ann. § 16-90-115). According to the district court, Arkansas law also provides that" [d]uring a period of . . . probation, upon the petition of a probation officer or a defendant or upon the court's own motion, a court may: (1)

          Modify a condition imposed on the defendant." Id. (alteration and ellipsis in original) (quoting Ark. Code Ann. § 16-93-312). The district court concluded that the judicial decisions "modifying, suspending or terminating the terms of probation, previously imposed by the Court, are judicial acts." Id. (citing John Chism Bail Bonds, Inc. v. Pennington, 656 F.Supp.2d 929 (E.D. Ark. Aug. 31, 2009) (finding the judge defendants were acting in a judicial capacity, and were entitled to absolute immunity, when they signed and enforced a court order disallowing "credit bonding")).

         Second, the district court granted Craighead County and the City Defendants' motions to dismiss because "[s]tate district court judges are state government officials and are not employees of the cities. Further, even if the judges were employees of the cities, Judge Boling and Judge Fowler's judicial decisions were 'not a final policy decision of a type creating municipal liability under § 1983.'" Id. (internal citations omitted).

         Finally, the court concluded that TJN's remaining claims for unjust enrichment, ratification, and supervisory liability also failed because

[n]o supervisor or employee relationship exists between the judges and the City and County defendants. Plaintiff failed to state any facts which would support a finding that the City or County defendants had any authority or control over the judges. And, the probation services at issue were provided to the probation clients. Plaintiff has failed to state facts which demonstrate that the City or County defendants received something of value ...

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