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Mendoza v. Garrett

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Portland Division

May 16, 2019

CINDY MENDOZA; GLORIA BERMUDEZ; LORI SPANO; CEKAIS TONI GANUELAS; REBECCA HEATH; and KARL WADE ROBERTS, on behalf of themselves and all others similarly situated, Plaintiffs,
v.
MATTHEW GARRETT, in his official capacity as Director of the Oregon Department of Transportation and TOM MCCLELLAN, in his official capacity as Administrator of Driver and Motor Vehicles Division, Oregon Department of Transportation, Defendants.

          Emily Teplin Fox Marisa Samuelson Beth Englander Kelsey Heilman OREGON LAW CENTER, Jonathan M. Dennis OREGON LAW CENTER, Attorneys for Plaintiffs

          Ellen Rosenblum, ATTORNEY GENERAL Renee Stineman Sadie Forzely Beth Andrews ASSISTANT ATTORNEYS GENERAL, Department of Justice, Attorneys for Defendants

          OPINION & ORDER

          Marco A. Hernandez, United States District Judge.

         Plaintiffs bring this action on behalf of themselves and a putative class, challenging Oregon's practice of suspending an individual's driver's license for failure to pay "traffic debt."[1]More specifically, the six named Plaintiffs, each of whom lives on an extremely limited income and has had a driver's license suspended because of the inability to pay one or more traffic violation fines and attendant fees and costs, contend that suspending a driver's license for failure to pay traffic debt absent an assessment of an individual's ability to pay, violates the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. Defendants are Matthew Garrett, the Director of the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT), and Tom McClellan, the Administrator of ODOT's Driver and Motor Vehicles Division. Together, they are "the DMV."

         This case was filed in September 2018. Simultaneously with filing the original Complaint, Plaintiffs moved for a preliminary injunction and to certify the class. After the October 11, 2018 oral argument on the preliminary injunction motion, Plaintiffs filed a First Amended Complaint (FAC). In a December 12, 2018 Opinion & Order, I denied Plaintiffs' motion for preliminary injunction. Mendoza v. Garrett, 358 F.Supp.3d 1145 (D. Or. 2018) ("the PI Opinion"). In January 2019, Plaintiffs withdrew the class certification motion. ECF 44. In February 2019, the parties reported that they had stipulated to Plaintiffs' filing a Second Amended Complaint and that Defendants would challenge the sufficiency of that pleading with a motion to dismiss. The Second Amended Complaint (SAC) was filed February 25, 2019, ECF 47, and the motion to dismiss briefing is now complete.

         Plaintiffs bring four claims, each alleging a violation of due process, equal protection, or both. In their motion to dismiss, Defendants raise several jurisdictional challenges and additionally argue that all of the claims fail to state a claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Because I agree with Defendants that the claims fail to state a claim, I assume without deciding and for the purposes of this Opinion only, that the Court has jurisdiction. Nonetheless, I grant Defendants' motion.

         BACKGROUND

         The PI Opinion contains an extensive discussion of the alleged facts, the Oregon statutory scheme, and the evidence presented in conjunction with the preliminary injunction motion. PI Op., 358 F.Supp.3d at 1150-62. I do not repeat that discussion here because much of it is still relevant even in the context of a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss. Many of the factual allegations noted in the PI Opinion are repeated in the SAC. All references in the PI Opinion to the text of Oregon statutes remain valid. Any other relevant factual assertions are noted in the discussion below.

         STANDARDS

         A motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim may be granted only when there is no cognizable legal theory to support the claim or when the complaint lacks sufficient factual allegations to state a facially plausible claim for relief. Shroyer v. New Cingular Wireless Servs., Inc., 622 F.3d 1035, 1041 (9th Cir. 2010). In evaluating the sufficiency of a complaint's factual allegations, the court must accept all material facts alleged in the complaint as true and construe them in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Wilson v. Hewlett-Packard Co., 668 F.3d 1136, 1140 (9th Cir. 2012). However, the court need not accept unsupported conclusory allegations as truthful. Holden v. Hagopian, 978 F.2d 1115, 1121 (9th Cir. 1992); see also Warren v. Fox Family Worldwide, Inc., 328 F.3d 1136, 1139 (9th Cir. 2003) ("we do not necessarily assume the truth of legal conclusions merely because they are cast in the form of factual allegations") (internal quotation marks and alterations omitted). To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint "must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face[, ]" meaning "when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         DISCUSSION

         I. Nature of the Claims in the SAC

         In the SAC, Plaintiffs bring the same three claims they previously raised, plus one more. All of the claims assert violations of rights under the Fourteenth Amendment's due process and/or equal protection clauses. The SAC's first claim is identical to the FAC's first claim and relies on the "fundamental fairness" concept of substantive due process and equal protection as explained by the Supreme Court in cases such as Griffin v. Illinois, 351 U.S. 12 (1956), and Bearden v. Georgia, 461 U.S. 660 (1983). SAC ¶¶ 234-39. Plaintiffs contend that under Griffin, "states must provide an evaluation of ability to pay to assess an individual's indigence prior to [] taking any measure that could result in any additional punishment beyond that imposed upon financially solvent individuals." Id. ¶ 237; see also Id. ¶ 238 (citing Bearden and alleging that the "Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses prohibit punishing individuals for non-payment without first determining that they had the ability to pay and willfully refused to make a monetary payment.").

         In their second claim, a repeat of the previously-asserted second claim in the FAC, Plaintiffs rely only on the Equal Protection Clause. Id. ¶¶ 240-42. Specifically, they rely on James v. Strange, 407 U.S. 128 (1972), to contend that the state may not distinguish indigent traffic debt debtors from other indigent debtors. Id. They assert that under Strange, equal protection principles are violated by statutes which result in the DMV treating indigent traffic debtors worse than indigent debtors who ...


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