Virginia Lawyers Weekly//February 10, 2019
Virginia Lawyers Weekly//February 10, 2019//
Defendants who collected fines imposed in traffic and misdemeanor cases in municipal court were sued for overseeing and enforcing policies and practices that allegedly violated plaintiffs’ constitutional rights. The defendants could not immediately appeal the denial of their pre-discovery immunity motion because resolution of that motion turned on facts that needed to be developed during discovery.
Plaintiffs allege that Lexington County is a municipal government entity that relies on the collection of fines and fees imposed on defendants in traffic and misdemeanor cases in the magistrate courts as an essential revenue source. To generate this revenue, defendants Reinhart and Adams, as the chief administrators of the magistrate courts, and defendant Koon, as the chief law enforcement officer, exercise their administrative authority to establish, oversee, enforce and sanction two unwritten administrative policies and practices.
Under both policies, when indigent people fail to pay money owed to the magistrate courts, bench warrants ordering their arrest and incarceration for nonpayment issue automatically. They are then arrested and incarcerated by the sheriff’s department unless they can immediately pay their entire debt to the magistrate courts. At no point prior to or after their arrest and incarceration are these individuals afforded court-appointed counsel or a determination by a magistrate court or bond court regarding their ability to pay the fines and fees.
Plaintiffs raise claims for violations of their Fourth, Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment rights against defendants for their oversight and enforcement of the alleged policies and practices that caused plaintiffs’ unlawful arrests and incarceration.
Before engaging in discovery, defendants filed multiple motions for summary judgment, including a motion as to plaintiffs’ damages claims. Defendants argued that those claims should be dismissed because they are entitled to judicial, quasi-judicial or legislative immunity.
The district court denied defendants’ motion without prejudice. Defendants filed this interlocutory appeal, seeking review of the district court’s order under 28 U.S.C. § 1291. Plaintiffs moved to dismiss the appeal, arguing that this court lacks jurisdiction under the collateral order doctrine.
The narrow question here is whether, based on the limited record before it, the district court’s order is properly before us on appeal. We conclude that we lack jurisdiction because the district court’s order did not conclusively determine the disputed question. Based on the limited record before it, the district court found that there were genuine issues of material fact outstanding as to whether the defendants are entitled to the asserted immunities, and subsequently ordered that the matter proceed to discovery.
Contrary to defendants’ contention, whether the asserted immunities apply in this case is not a purely legal question. Instead, the district court correctly determined that whether defendants are immune from suit is a fact-intensive inquiry that will turn on the record as it develops at least through discovery.
With respect to their arguments regarding judicial and quasi-judicial immunity specifically, defendants attempt to frame the immunity inquiry here as purely legal–namely, whether the arrests and incarcerations ordered by defendants were judicial or quasi-judicial acts. This misconstrues the complaint. Plaintiffs are not suing defendants with respect to individual judicial determinations, e.g., denials of bond or incarceration orders. Instead, plaintiffs allege that defendants, acting in their administrative capacities, oversaw and enforced policies and practices that violated plaintiffs’ constitutional rights.
We therefore conclude that the district court’s order did not conclusively resolve the disputed question, and the court’s order fails to meet the threshold requirement of the collateral order doctrine. Because we lack jurisdiction over the appeal, this opinion does not address defendants’ arguments on the merits as to the asserted immunities, nor does it foreclose the possibility that defendants may be successful in so arguing following discovery on this issue.
Wilkinson, J., concurring:
I concur in the majority opinion because the majority has made it clear, and the district court likewise made it clear, that its opinion was only tentative and not necessarily a forecast of what its ultimate ruling on summary judgment might be.
Brown v. Reinhart, Appeal No. 18-1524, Jan. 23, 2019. 4th Cir. (Duncan), from D.S.C. at Columbia (Seymour). Kenneth Paul Woodington for Appellants, Nusrat Jahan Choudhury for Appellees. VLW No. 019-2-033, 13 pp.