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Case Name Brown v. Lexington County CJ-SC-0002
Docket / Court 3:17-cv-01426-MBS-SVH ( D.S.C. )
State/Territory South Carolina
Case Type(s) Criminal Justice (Other)
Special Collection Fines/Fees/Bail Reform (Criminalization of poverty)
Attorney Organization ACLU Chapters (any)
Case Summary
On June 1, 2017, nine indigent residents of South Carolina filed this class action lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina. The plaintiffs sued Lexington County, South Carolina, the Chief Judge for Administrative Purposes of the Summary Courts in Lexington County, and ... read more >
On June 1, 2017, nine indigent residents of South Carolina filed this class action lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina. The plaintiffs sued Lexington County, South Carolina, the Chief Judge for Administrative Purposes of the Summary Courts in Lexington County, and the Associate Chief Judge for Administrative Purposes of the Summary Courts in Lexington County all under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The plaintiffs, represented by the ACLU, sought declaratory, injunctive, and monetary relief, as well as attorneys' fees and costs. The case was assigned to District Judge Margaret B. Seymour and referred to Magistrate Judge Shiva V. Hodges. The plaintiffs claimed that the defendants had created a modern-day debtors' prison through a system that routinely deprived indigent people of their rights under the U.S. Constitution.

Under what was called the Default Payment Policy, Lexington County magistrate courts routinely ordered the arrest and jailing of people who could not afford to make payments toward court fines and fees in traffic and misdemeanor criminal cases. When an indigent person was unable to pay in full at sentencing, the magistrate court imposed a payment plan that required steep monthly payments that were usually beyond the individual's financial means. According to the plaintiffs, if the indigent person failed to pay, the magistrate court ordered law enforcement to arrest and jail the individual. The plaintiffs claimed that, by regularly jailing indigent persons despite their inability to pay court fines and fees, the defendants had violated the plaintiffs' rights under the Fourth Amendment, Sixth Amendment, as well as the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.

On July 21, 2017, the plaintiffs moved to certify a class consisting of "[a]ll indigent people who currently owe, or in the future will owe, fines, fees, court costs, assessments, or restitution in cases handled by Lexington County magistrate courts."

On August 18, 2017, the defendants moved for summary judgment regarding the plaintiffs' claims for declaratory and injunctive relief on the grounds that such claims were either moot or would require intervention by the district court in ongoing state criminal proceedings. Later, the defendants filed a supplemental motion, adding the argument that such claims by the plaintiffs had been rendered moot by a Memorandum to Magistrates and Municipal Judges that Chief Judge Donald W. Beatty issued on September 15, 2017.

The September 2017 memorandum addressed the right to counsel by noting that "[a]ll defendants facing criminal charges that carry the possibility of imprisonment must be informed of their right to counsel and, if indigent, their right to court-appointed counsel prior to proceeding with trial." The defendants claimed that this sentence cured any concern the plaintiffs may have had with regard to the right to counsel in situations carrying the possibility of imprisonment.

On October 19, 2017, the plaintiffs filed an amended complaint, adding two plaintiffs and one defendant with additional details in the factual allegations to accommodate the new parties.

On October 31, 2017, the defendants moved for summary judgment of the damage claims, arguing that the claims were barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, judicial immunity, and legislative immunity. The defendants also argued that as a matter of law, no defendant had the legal authority to create the policies alleged by the plaintiffs.

On February 5, 2018, Magistrate Judge Hodges filed a report and recommendation regarding the two motions for summary judgment and the motion to certify class. She recommended that the court deny the plaintiff's motion to certify class, grant the defendants' motion for summary judgment as to declaratory and injunctive relief and deny the defendants' motion for summary judgment as to the plaintiffs' damages claim against Lexington County for failure to afford counsel on grounds of mootness based on a memorandum from the South Carolina Supreme Court and grant the motion as to all other claims.

Partially agreeing with Judge Hodges, Judge Seymour denied the motion to certify the class without prejudice on March 29, 2018 because it relied on claims for prospective relief. Contrary to the recommendation, however, the court denied both motions for summary judgment, finding that there were genuine issues of material fact. 2018 WL 1556189.

In response to the court's order, the plaintiffs filed a second motion to certify the class on April 17, 2018 and the defendants filed a motion for reconsideration as to the denials of summary judgment on April 24, 2018. Without first waiting for a ruling on their motion, the defendants appealed the denial of the two motions for summary judgment to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

Before the Fourth Circuit could rule on the summary judgment motions, Judge Seymour denied the defendants' motions for reconsideration on July 10, 2018, rejecting the defendant's argument that the claims were now moot. After several motions and conferences in the fall, Judge Seymour referred the case to mediation under the guidance of Judge Hodges on October 19, 2018. Upon moving the case to mediation, Judge Seymour dismissed the motion for class certification without prejudice, granting the plaintiffs' leave to refile should mediation fail.

During mediation negotiation, a Fourth Circuit panel composed of Judges J. Harvie Wilkinson, Diana Gribbon Motz, and Allyson K. Duncan found that they lacked jurisdiction to provide judgment on the defendant's interlocutory appeals on the summary judgment motions on January 23, 2019. They found that the record before them did not give them the opportunity to tell if the defendants were eligible for immunity, which was the subject of the appeal, and they remanded the case to the District Court to resolve this question of material fact.

Mediation is ongoing as of June 2020.

Jake Parker - 06/13/2018
Ellen Aldin - 06/01/2020


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Issues and Causes of Action
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Issues
Constitutional Clause
Assistance of counsel (6th Amendment)
Due Process
Equal Protection
Unreasonable search and seizure
Defendant-type
Jurisdiction-wide
General
False arrest
Fines/Fees/Bail/Bond
Poverty/homelessness
Plaintiff Type
Private Plaintiff
Causes of Action 42 U.S.C. § 1983
Declaratory Judgment Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2201
Defendant(s) Lexington County, South Carolina
Plaintiff Description All indigent people who currently owe, or in the future will owe, fines, fees, court costs, assessments, or restitution in cases handled by Lexington County magistrate courts.
Indexed Lawyer Organizations ACLU Chapters (any)
Class action status sought Yes
Class action status granted Pending
Filed Pro Se No
Prevailing Party None Yet / None
Public Int. Lawyer Yes
Nature of Relief None yet
Source of Relief None yet
Filed 06/01/2017
Case Ongoing Yes
Additional Resources
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  See this case at CourtListener.com (May provide additional documents and, for active cases, real-time alerts)
  Brown v. Lexington County, et al
https://www.aclu.org
Date: Jul. 22, 2017
By: American Civil Liberties Union
[ Detail ] [ External Link ]

Docket(s)
3:17-cv-1426 (D.S.C.)
CJ-SC-0002-9000.pdf | Detail
Date: 06/04/2020
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
General Documents
Class Action Complaint [ECF# 1]
CJ-SC-0002-0001.pdf | Detail
Date: 06/01/2017
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
Class Action Second Amended Complaint [ECF# 48]
CJ-SC-0002-0002.pdf | Detail
Date: 10/19/2017
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
Report and Recommendation [ECF# 74] (2018 WL 3120676)
CJ-SC-0002-0003.pdf | WESTLAW | Detail
Date: 02/05/2018
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
Opinion and Order [ECF# 84] (2018 WL 1556189) (D.S.C.)
CJ-SC-0002-0004.pdf | WESTLAW | Detail
Date: 03/29/2018
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
Opinion and Order [ECF# 107] (2018 WL 3359019) (D.S.C.)
CJ-SC-0002-0005.pdf | WESTLAW | Detail
Date: 07/10/2018
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
Opinion [Ct. of App. ECF# 41] (760 Fed.Appx. 175)
CJ-SC-0002-0006.pdf | WESTLAW| LEXIS | Detail
Date: 01/23/2019
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
show all people docs
Judges Duncan, Allyson Kay (Fourth Circuit) show/hide docs
CJ-SC-0002-0006
Hodges, Shiva V Court not on record [Magistrate] show/hide docs
CJ-SC-0002-0003
Seymour, Margaret B. (D.S.C.) show/hide docs
CJ-SC-0002-0004 | CJ-SC-0002-0005 | CJ-SC-0002-9000
Wilkinson, James Harvie III (Fourth Circuit) show/hide docs
CJ-SC-0002-0006
Plaintiff's Lawyers Choudhury, Nusrat Jahan (New York) show/hide docs
CJ-SC-0002-0001 | CJ-SC-0002-0002 | CJ-SC-0002-0006 | CJ-SC-0002-9000
Dunn, Susan K. (South Carolina) show/hide docs
CJ-SC-0002-0001 | CJ-SC-0002-0002 | CJ-SC-0002-0006 | CJ-SC-0002-9000
Marshall, Toby James (Washington) show/hide docs
CJ-SC-0002-0001 | CJ-SC-0002-0002 | CJ-SC-0002-0006 | CJ-SC-0002-9000
Nusser, Eric (Washington) show/hide docs
CJ-SC-0002-0001 | CJ-SC-0002-0002 | CJ-SC-0002-0006 | CJ-SC-0002-9000
Snodgrass, Carl Gavin (New York) show/hide docs
CJ-SC-0002-0006 | CJ-SC-0002-9000
Defendant's Lawyers Davidson, William Henry II (South Carolina) show/hide docs
CJ-SC-0002-0006 | CJ-SC-0002-9000
Woodington, Kenneth P. (South Carolina) show/hide docs
CJ-SC-0002-0006 | CJ-SC-0002-9000

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