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Edwards v. City of Tupelo

United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Aberdeen Division

September 24, 2019

VINCENT EDWARDS, Individually, and on behalf of all others similarly situated PLAINTIFF
v.
THE CITY OF TUPELO, MISSISSIPPI, et al. DEFENDANTS

          ORDER

          DEBRA M. BROWN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Vincent Edwards seeks to challenge on a class action basis the incarceration of persons unable to pay debts owed to the City of Tupelo and/or Lee County, Mississippi. Before the Court are a number of pending motions as well as the July 24, 2019, Report and Recommendation of United States Magistrate Judge David A. Sanders.

         I

         Procedural History

         On August 18, 2017, Vincent Edwards, “individually and as class representatives, ” filed a “Complaint for Violation of Civil Rights” against the City of Tupelo, Mississippi; Lee County, Mississippi; Ramierre Warren; and certain fictitious parties. Doc. #1. In addition to individual claims asserted by Edwards, the complaint proposed a class action based on certain allegedly unconstitutional practices of the City and the County. Id. at 3–5.

         On October 12, 2018, Edwards filed a motion to certify a class defined as:

all individuals assessed fines by the City of Tupelo’s sitting Municipal Court Judges who were incarcerated for their inability to pay those debts/fines owed without an inquiry being done to determine their ability to pay; all individuals who were imprisoned for their inability to pay debts/fines without appropriate counsel being appointed on their behalf; all indigent individuals who were forced into Work Programs in order to pay off their debts/fines assessed to them by the City of Tupelo Municipal Court; all individuals who were either threatened with the possibility of incarceration, or who were actually incarcerated to pay off fines/debts; all individuals deprived of their right to personal safety and security; and, all individuals deprived of their right to liberty.

Doc. #41. However, on November 2, 2018-after he sought leave to amend the complaint[1] and after the City and the County responded in opposition to class certification[2]-Edwards filed a motion to stay a ruling on the motion to certify “until discovery is complete and the class has been identified or at least until discovery issues are resolved.” Doc. #54 at 2.

         One week after seeking the stay on his motion to certify, Edwards, with leave of the Court, filed an amended complaint against the same defendants. Doc. #57. In addition to individual claims not pertinent here, the amended complaint asserts four proposed constitutional claims, titled as (1) “The City Violated Plaintiffs’ Rights by Incarcerating them for Non-Payment of Debts without a Constitutional Inquiry into their Ability to Pay, ” (Count One); (2) “The City Violated the Plaintiffs’ Rights by Imprisoning them for Inability to Pay Debts without Appointing Adequate Counsel, ” (Count Two); (3) “The City of Tupelo and Lee County’s Scheme of Forcing Indigent Prisoners to Labor in Order to Work off their Debts Violates the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Federal Law, ” (Count Three); and (4) “The use of Incarceration and Threats of Incarceration to Collect Debts Owed to the City Violates the Equal Protection Clause, ” (Count Four). Id. at 10–13.

         On February 28, 2019, Edwards filed a supplemental motion for class certification, seeking certification of the following proposed class:

all individuals assessed fines by the City of Tupelo’s sitting Municipal Court Judges who were ultimately found to be in contempt of court and incarcerated for their inability to pay those debts/fines owed without a “willfulness” inquiry to determine their ability to pay either the assessed fines or their payment plans for fines; all individuals who were imprisoned because they were unable to pay their debts to the City of Tupelo or fines, or who were coerced into pleading guilty, or who were incarcerated without advice of counsel; all indigent individuals who were placed into work programs in order to pay off their debts/fines assessed to them by the City of Tupelo Municipal Court; all individuals who were either threatened with the possibility of incarceration or who were actually incarcerated to pay off fines/debts; all individuals deprived of their right to personal safety and security as a result of these practices; and, all individuals deprived of their right to liberty delineated herein for reasons directly or indirectly stemming from their poverty. Finally, the proposed class will include persons unconstitutionally imprisoned as a result of the City’s “Pay or Stay” policy that was implemented through a joint effort of the City of Tupelo and Lee County, Mississippi to collect fines and operating revenue.

Doc. #82 at 1–2. After the City filed a response opposing the supplemental motion[3] and the County joined the response, [4] Edwards replied. Docs. #87, #88. In support of his reply, Edwards submitted a declaration from one of his attorneys, Halbert E. Dockins, Jr. Doc. #88-2. Shortly after, the City moved to strike the Dockins declaration. Doc. #89.

         On July 24, 2019, United States Magistrate Judge David A. Sanders issued a Report and Recommendation (“R&R”) recommending that (1) the motion for class certification, “as supplemented by” the supplemental motion for class certification, be denied; (2) the motion to stay ruling be denied as moot; and (3) the motion to strike be granted in part and denied in part. Doc. #94. On August 13, 2019, Edwards filed objections to the R&R, [5] Doc. #97; a motion for voluntary dismissal, Doc. #98; and a motion for an evidentiary hearing on the issue of class certification, Doc. #99. All motions are fully briefed.

         II

         Standard of Review

         Following a report and recommendation, “[a] judge of the court shall make a de novo determination of those portions of the report … to which objection is made.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). “[W]here there is no objection, the Court need only determine whether the report and recommendation is clearly erroneous or contrary to law.” United States v. Alaniz, 278 ...


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