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Burford v. Delaware County

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

December 20, 2019



          John Milton Younge Judge

         In this 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action, Plaintiff Tony Burford, a state criminal defendant who was found not guilty, complains that local county policies and procedures associated with the retention of bail money to support court costs are unconstitutional, and that his Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated through such retention. Plaintiff seeks to represent the interests of other state criminal defendants who were similarly found not guilty and who had bail money unlawfully retained. Plaintiff names as defendants: Delaware County, Angela Martinez (Prothonotary/Clerk of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas), Patricia Oreskovich (Director of Court Financial Services), and Philip Pisani (Director of Pre-Trial/Bail Services) (collectively, “Defendants”).

         Now before the Court is Defendants' Motion to Dismiss pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6) (“Mot., ” ECF No. 20). The Court finds this matter appropriate for resolution without oral argument. Fed.R.Civ.P. 78; L.R. 7.1(f). For the reasons that follow, Defendants' Motion will be granted in part and denied in part.


         A. Facts

         Unless otherwise noted, the following facts and allegations are taken from Plaintiff's First Amended Complaint (“FAC, ” ECF No. 19).

         “On January 15, 2016, the Plaintiff was arrested by the Darby Borough Police Department and charged with a number of criminal offenses[.]” (Id. ¶ 19.) “Bail was set . . . to $60, 000.00, and the Plaintiff posted 10% or $6, 000.00, which, pursuant to Delaware County Rule of Criminal Procedure 526(d) was delivered to the Delaware County Office of Judicial Support.” (Id. ¶ 20.)[1] “On March 1, 2017, all of the charges against the Plaintiff had either been withdrawn, dismissed, or the Plaintiff was found not guilty.” (Id. ¶ 21.)

         Plaintiff alleges that “Defendants impermissibly failed to return a significant portion of his bail money, retaining the money to cover various court costs. Specifically, Defendants retained $811.80 to pay the Constable fees, $5.00 for Constable Education Training, $16.25 for Constable Certification, and $300.00 to the arresting agency[.]” (Id. ¶¶ 22-23.) Plaintiff avers that “[w]hen Defendants returned the bail money to the Plaintiff, he questioned the amount that was returned, and was informed by the Clerk that those were customary deductions and there was no means or procedure by which to contest the deductions or seek a refund.” (Id. ¶ 25.) Plaintiff further notes that he “was informed when he tried to get the court costs returned to him, [that] there is no [r]ule or procedure that permits an arrestee who had his or her charges dismissed to challenge the retention of bail to cover court costs[.]” (Id. ¶ 40.)

         Plaintiff now contends that because he “was found not guilty of the criminal charges, he must be presumed innocent of all the charges and the Defendants cannot, consistent with the Due Process Clause, impose any court costs on him, including those court costs imposed by the Defendants by the retention of [his] bail money.” (Id. ¶ 29.) Plaintiff maintains that 44 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 7161(g)(16) “makes clear that where the criminal charges are dismissed or the defendant is found not guilty, constable fees cannot be assessed against the defendant, either by the court or through the retention of bail money, and instead must be assessed against the county[.]” (Id. ¶ 44.)[2] Plaintiff also contends that Pa. R. Crim. P. 535(D) does not permit “the assessment of costs upon the criminal defendant where the charges are dismissed or the defendant is found not guilty, and the costs can only be taken out of bail money where the defendant has been convicted[.]” (Id. ¶ 45.)[3]

         Plaintiff concludes that “there is no law that authorized Defendants to assess the Plaintiff, who had some of his charges dismissed or withdrawn and who was found not guilty on the others, with court costs, including the imposition of constable service fees, and there is no law or [r]ule that authorized Defendants to take any court costs out of the Plaintiff's bail money; instead, under the circumstances of this case, the law clearly placed the burden of paying the constable related fees on Defendant Delaware County.” (Id. ¶ 46.)

         Lastly, Plaintiff asserts that Delaware County “directly engaged in unconstitutional conduct when it adopted an unconstitutional policy, practice and/or custom to retain the bail money of persons whose criminal charges were dismissed, withdrawn and/or were found not guilty in order to pay certain costs of the prosecution, where the law clearly placed the payment of these costs on the County itself.” (Id. ¶ 62.) Plaintiff also notes that “Defendants unconstitutional and illegal custom and/or practice and/or policy of taking court costs from the bail money . . . was part of a continuing, on-going pattern and was well-entrenched and permanent, extending over a period of many years[.]” (Id. ¶ 51.)

         B. Procedural History

         Plaintiff filed this action against Defendants on February 8, 2019. (ECF No. 1.) On June 3, 2019, Plaintiff filed the FAC, in which Plaintiff asserts six claims for relief:

COUNT 1: 42 U.S.C. § 1983-Fourteenth Amendment violation of procedural due process, asserted against all Defendants;
COUNT 2: 42 U.S.C. § 1983-Fourteenth Amendment violation of substantive due process, asserted against all Defendants;
COUNT 3: 42 U.S.C. § 1983-Eighth Amendment violation for imposition of excessive fines, asserted against all Defendants;
COUNT 4: 42 U.S.C. § 1983-Fifth Amendment violation for taking of property, asserted against all Defendants;
COUNT 5: 42 U.S.C. § 1983-Monell liability, asserted against Defendants Delaware County and Martinez; and
COUNT 6: Conversion, asserted against Delaware County and Martinez.

(Id. ¶¶ 53-97.) Plaintiff brings this case as a putative class action, seeking to represent one class consisting of: “[A]ll persons who had their criminal charges dismissed or who were found not guilty and had a portion of their bail money retained by Delaware County for the payment of court costs, including but not limited to, Constable fees, Constable Education Act fees, Constable Certification fees and other court costs in violation of their rights under Pennsylvania law and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution.” (Id. ¶ 13.) Plaintiff seeks injunctive relief and monetary damages, including compensatory damages, attorneys' fees and costs, and all other relief the Court deems just and equitable. (Id. ¶¶ 1, 64, 75, 83, 88, 92, 97.)

         Defendants filed the instant Motion to Dismiss on June 5, 2019. Plaintiff filed his opposition to Defendants' Motion on July 3, 2019 (“Opp., ” ECF No. 24). Defendants filed a reply on July 15, 2019 (“Reply, ” ECF No. 25).


         Defendants move to dismiss Plaintiff's claims under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1), based on Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity, and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), for failure to state a claim. (Mot. at 7-8.)[4]

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) permits the Court to dismiss a proceeding for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1). This includes cases where Eleventh Amendment immunity bars the plaintiff's claims, as the Third Circuit Court of Appeals has noted that “the Eleventh Amendment is a jurisdictional bar which deprives federal courts of subject matter jurisdiction.” Blanciak v. Allegheny Ludlum Corp., 77 F.3d 690, 693 n.2 (3d Cir. 1996) (citing Pennhurst State Sch. & Hosp. v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89, 98-100 (1984)). “An actual determination must be made whether subject matter jurisdiction exists before a court may turn to the merits of a case.” Tagayun v. Lever & Stolzenberg, 239 Fed.Appx. 708, 710 (3d Cir. 2007).

         The motion to dismiss standard under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) is set forth in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009). After Iqbal, it is clear that “[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice” to defeat a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss. Id. at 678; see also Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). “To survive dismissal, ‘a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Tatis v. Allied Interstate, LLC, 882 F.3d 422, 426 (3d Cir. 2018) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678). Facial plausibility is “more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Id. (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678). Instead, “[a] claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678).

         Our Court of Appeals requires us to apply a three-step analysis under a 12(b)(6) motion: (1) “[the district court] must tak[e] note of the elements [the] plaintiff must plead to state a claim;” (2) “it should identify allegations that, ‘because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth;'” and, (3) “[w]hen there are well-pleaded factual allegations, [the] court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.” Connelly v. Lane Constr. Corp., 809 F.3d 780, 787 (3d Cir. 2016) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 675, 679).

         When a motion to dismiss is granted, the court must decide whether to grant leave to amend. The Third Circuit has a liberal policy favoring amendments and, thus, leave to amend should be freely granted. See, e.g., Oran v. Stafford, 226 F.3d 275, 291 (3d Cir. 2000); Dole v. Arco Chem. Co., 921 F.2d 484, 486 (3d Cir. 1990). However, a court need not grant leave to amend when it would be an exercise in futility. City of Cambridge Retirement Sys. v. Altisource Asset Mgmt. Corp., 908 F.3d 872, 879 (3d Cir. 2018) (“Leave to amend is properly denied if amendment would be futile, i.e., if the proposed complaint could not ‘withstand a renewed motion to dismiss.'”) (quoting Jablonski v. Pan. Am. World Airways, Inc., 863 F.2d 289, 292 (3d Cir. 1988)); see also In re Burlington Coat Factory Sec. Litig., 114 F.3d 1410, 1434 (3d Cir. 1997) (recognizing that denial of leave to amend is not an abuse of discretion where the pleadings before the court demonstrate that further amendment would be futile).


         A. Eleventh Amendment Sovereign Immunity

         As a threshold matter, the Court must determine whether Defendant Martinez, in her official capacity as “Prothonotary/Clerk of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas[, ]” may invoke sovereign immunity. (FAC ¶ 4.)[5] The Eleventh Amendment provides that “[t]he judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by citizens of another state, or by citizens or subjects of any foreign state.” U.S. Const. amend. XI. The Amendment affords states and state agencies immunity from suits brought by citizens in federal court, regardless of whether legal or equitable relief is sought. See Pennhurst State Sch. & Hosp., 465 U.S. at 89; see also Thorpe v. New Jersey, 246 Fed.Appx. 86, 87 (3d Cir. 2007) (“The Eleventh Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects a state or state agency from a suit brought in federal court by one of its own citizens regardless of the relief sought . . .”). Thus, “[u]nless a ...

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