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Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse
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Case Name Robinson v. Purkey CJ-TN-0010
Docket / Court 3:17-cv-1263 ( M.D. Tenn. )
State/Territory Tennessee
Case Type(s) Criminal Justice (Other)
Public Benefits / Government Services
Special Collection Fines/Fees/Bail Reform (Criminalization of poverty)
Attorney Organization Civil Rights Corps
Case Summary
On September 13, 2017, a middle-aged man with a disability, a single mother of five children, and middle-aged man who lived with his ailing father filed a putative class action complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee. The case was assigned to Judge Aleta A. Trauger ... read more >
On September 13, 2017, a middle-aged man with a disability, a single mother of five children, and middle-aged man who lived with his ailing father filed a putative class action complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee. The case was assigned to Judge Aleta A. Trauger. The plaintiffs sued the Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security (TDSHS) and various county and city clerks under 42 U.S.C § 1983 for alleged violations of the Due Process and the Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.

This is second of two cases challenging Tennessee’s practice of rescinding the driver’s licenses of Tennessee drivers who were unable to pay the fines without consideration of their indigence. The initial case, Thomas v. Haslam (in this Clearinghouse) ended with the judge granting summary judgment in favor of the plaintiff and finding that there was no rational basis for revoking the driver’s license of an indigent debtor. The court prohibited TDSHS from revoking drivers’ licenses for unpaid court fines and fees unless and until the State lawfully provided an exception for the inability to pay.

In this case, plaintiffs were represented by the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, the Civil Rights Corps, Just City, and private counsel. The plaintiffs sought class action status for a statewide class of those whose driver’s licenses were suspended under Tennessee state law because they could not afford to pay their traffic fines.

They also sought subclass status for members within Wilson and Rutherford Counties and those who had their licenses revoked statewide under the Tennessee state laws. Moreover, plaintiffs sought a preliminary injunction preventing defendants from revoking or suspending licenses without due process in the future, and preliminary relief reinstating licenses that had been suspended or revoked under current policy with all reinstatement fees waived, and cost of litigation paid for.

Plaintiffs claimed that defendants did not allow them to set up payment plans to pay off traffic fines, making it impossible for low income plaintiffs to pay their debts. This resulted in county and city clerks imposing additional fees and penalties that plaintiffs were further unable to pay. Upon default of payment of fines, clerks would forward the plaintiff information to the Commissioner of the Department of Safety and Homeland Security, who would suspend or revoke plaintiffs' licenses. Plaintiffs also alleged that they often received no notice when their licenses were suspended or revoked, resulting in them facing additional penalties when they unknowingly drove without a valid license. One plaintiff served jail time, and plaintiffs alleged that others across the state had also been imprisoned under similar circumstances. In addition, suspension and revocation of driver's licenses limited plaintiffs’ ability to maintain employment, care for their children, or receive critical medical care because they were unable to drive to their destinations. This created a vicious cycle by making it more difficult for plaintiffs to pay their fees, reinstate their licenses, and pay for other basic living expenses such as rent.

On October 5, 2017, the court issued an opinion granting a temporary restraining order restoring the driver’s licenses for two of the plaintiffs. The Court concluded that the two plaintiffs' claims were both likely to succeed, and recognized that a driver’s license was “crucial” to “economic self-sufficiency” necessary for plaintiffs to pay back their traffic debt. In addition, the facts that plaintiffs needed driver’s licenses to get vital medical care and support themselves economically factored into the judge’s decision. 2017 WL 4418134. The order was extended on October 17, 2017, pending a hearing to resolve whether to convert the order into a preliminary injunction.

The defendants moved to dismiss the case on November 15, 2017. A month later, the plaintiffs submitted an amended complaint adding a single mother of two who allegedly lost her job after losing her license due to the policies of the Bristol City Court Clerk, who was also added as a defendant on the date of the amended complaint.

On June 11, 2018, Judge Trauger resolved many of the outstanding issues in the case. Although the defendants claimed that the plaintiffs failed to state a claim, the court denied the motion to dismiss, finding that there was an actionable constitutional violation. However, the court dismissed plaintiffs' claims alleging violation of procedural due process where the plaintiffs had actual notice of the suspension of their licenses more than one year before the filing of this case.

Judge Trauger granted certification of a statewide class defined as, “[a]ll persons whose Tennessee driver’s licenses have been or will be suspended under Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-50-502(a)(1)(H) or (I) for nonpayment of traffic debt and who cannot now and could not at the time of suspension afford to pay such debt.” She also granted three subclasses for plaintiffs whose licenses had been suspended by (1) Wilson County, (2) Rutherford County, (3) or under Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-24-105(b) (described as the Multi-Barrier Subclass). 326 F.R.D. 105.

On October 16, 2018, the plaintiffs' motion for preliminary injunction was granted in part. The court ordered Tennessee to immediately cease suspending driver’s licenses for failure to pay fines, costs or litigation taxes related to traffic violations. The court further ordered the state to reinstate licenses that had been suspended solely because the driver had failed to pay fines, costs or litigation taxes related to traffic violations. 2018 WL 5023330.

The State appealed the preliminary injunction on October 18, 2018; as of February 2019, that appeal is pending. The State also filed a Motion for Partial Stay Pending Appeal; it argued that if the preliminary injunction went into effect but was later vacated on appeal, that would unnecessarily disrupt TDSHS’s functioning and revenues.

On November 5, 2018, the district court granted a temporary stay, to allow the Court of Appeals time to consider a full stay. Judge Trauger also clarified her prior injunction by explaining that the State was only required to waive requirements related to the suspension of driver’s license for failure to pay fines, costs, or litigation taxes but not requirements or fees required for renewal of a driver’s license that would have expired naturally during the suspension of their license.

Meanwhile, the appeal proceeded; the State sought a say pending completion of the appeal, and that application was fully briefed by the end of November 2018, but as of February 19, 2019, there has been no ruling. 2018 WL 5786236.

The suit is still ongoing.

Will McCartney - 01/24/2018
Averyn Lee - 02/08/2019


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Issues and Causes of Action
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Issues
Constitutional Clause
Due Process
Equal Protection
Content of Injunction
Preliminary relief granted
Defendant-type
Jurisdiction-wide
Law-enforcement
General
Drivers Licenses
Fines/Fees/Bail/Bond
Plaintiff Type
Private Plaintiff
Causes of Action 42 U.S.C. § 1983
Defendant(s) Rutherford County
State of Tennessee
Wilson County
Plaintiff Description “All persons whose Tennessee driver’s licenses have been or will be suspended under Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-50-502(a)(1)(H) or (I) for nonpayment of traffic debt and who cannot now and could not at the time of suspension afford to pay such debt.”
Indexed Lawyer Organizations Civil Rights Corps
Class action status sought Yes
Class action status granted Yes
Filed Pro Se No
Prevailing Party Plaintiff
Public Int. Lawyer Yes
Nature of Relief Preliminary injunction / Temp. restraining order
Injunction / Injunctive-like Settlement
Source of Relief Litigation
Order Duration 2018 - n/a
Filing Year 2017
Case Ongoing Yes
Case Listing CJ-TN-0008 : Thomas v. Haslam (M.D. Tenn.)
Additional Resources
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  See this case at CourtListener.com (May provide additional documents and, for active cases, real-time alerts)
  TENNESSEE: STATE-WIDE DRIVER'S LICENSE SUSPENSIONS
https://www.civilrightscorps.org/work/case/tennessee-state-wide-drivers-license-suspensions
Date: Oct. 16, 2018
By: Civil Rights Corps
[ Detail ]

Docket(s)
3:17-cv-1263 (M.D. Tenn.)
CJ-TN-0010-9000.pdf | Detail
Date: 01/24/2018
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
General Documents
Complaint – Class Action [ECF# 1]
CJ-TN-0010-0001.pdf | Detail
Date: 09/13/2017
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
Memorandum [ECF# 62] (2017 WL 4418134) (M.D. Tenn.)
CJ-TN-0010-0002.pdf | WESTLAW | Detail
Date: 10/05/2017
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
Memorandum [ECF# 111] (2017 WL 4418134) (M.D. Tenn.)
CJ-TN-0010-0003.pdf | WESTLAW | Detail
Date: 12/19/2017
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
Memorandum Opinion on Motion to Dismiss and Certify Class [ECF# 151] (326 F.R.D. 105) (M.D. Tenn.)
CJ-TN-0010-0006.pdf | WESTLAW| LEXIS | Detail
Date: 06/11/2018
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
Order [ECF# 223] (2018 WL 5023330) (M.D. Tenn.)
CJ-TN-0010-0004.pdf | WESTLAW | Detail
Date: 10/16/2018
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
Memorandum and Order [ECF# 236] (2018 WL 5786236) (M.D. Tenn.)
CJ-TN-0010-0005.pdf | WESTLAW | Detail
Date: 11/05/2018
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
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Judges Trauger, Aleta Arthur (M.D. Tenn.) show/hide docs
CJ-TN-0010-0002 | CJ-TN-0010-0003 | CJ-TN-0010-0004 | CJ-TN-0010-0005 | CJ-TN-0010-0006 | CJ-TN-0010-9000
Plaintiff's Lawyers Cole, Jonathan Cole (Tennessee) show/hide docs
CJ-TN-0010-9000
Dharia, Premal T. (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
CJ-TN-0010-0001 | CJ-TN-0010-9000
Halperin, Eric I. (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
CJ-TN-0010-9000
Krugman, Edward P. (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
CJ-TN-0010-9000
Lau, Theresa (New York) show/hide docs
CJ-TN-0010-9000
Mikkilineni, Tara (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
CJ-TN-0010-9000
Spickler, Josh (Tennessee) show/hide docs
CJ-TN-0010-0001 | CJ-TN-0010-9000
Wang, Jonas (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
CJ-TN-0010-0001 | CJ-TN-0010-9000
White, Matthew G. (Tennessee) show/hide docs
CJ-TN-0010-0001 | CJ-TN-0010-9000
Wilner, Claudia (New York) show/hide docs
CJ-TN-0010-0001 | CJ-TN-0010-9000
Defendant's Lawyers Berexa, Kristin Ellis (Tennessee) show/hide docs
CJ-TN-0010-9000
Campbell, Andrew B. (Tennessee) show/hide docs
CJ-TN-0010-9000
Cope, Edward Evan (Tennessee) show/hide docs
CJ-TN-0010-9000
Dix, Katherine (Tennessee) show/hide docs
CJ-TN-0010-9000
Jennings, Michael Ray (Tennessee) show/hide docs
CJ-TN-0010-9000
Marchetti, Louis Gino Jr. (Tennessee) show/hide docs
CJ-TN-0010-9000
McCreary, Josh A. (Tennessee) show/hide docs
CJ-TN-0010-9000
McGrady, Mark Ennis (Tennessee) show/hide docs
CJ-TN-0010-9000
Meyer, Michael Alan (Tennessee) show/hide docs
CJ-TN-0010-9000
Michels, Charles S. (Tennessee) show/hide docs
CJ-TN-0010-9000
Ohlman, Sara (Tennessee) show/hide docs
CJ-TN-0010-9000
Rieger, Alexander Stuart (Tennessee) show/hide docs
CJ-TN-0010-9000
Sutherland, Scott C. (Tennessee) show/hide docs
CJ-TN-0010-9000
Wright, Phillip Andrew (Tennessee) show/hide docs
CJ-TN-0010-9000

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