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Fontenot v. City of Houston

United States District Court, Fifth Circuit

January 9, 2014

BERTHA M FONTENOT, et, al. Plaintiffs,
CITY OF HOUSTON, et al, Defendants.


KENNETH M. HOYT, District Judge.


Before the Court is the defendants', the City of Houston and Jane Doe 1 ("City"), motion to dismiss [Dkt. No. 62] pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, 12(c) and 12(b)(1). The plaintiffs, Bertha M. Fontenot and others similarly situated, have responded to the City's motion to dismiss [Dkt. No. 100], and the City has, in turn, filed a reply to the plaintiffs' response [Dkt. No. 103]. The Court has completed its review of the motion, response reply, and supporting documents and legal arguments and determines that the City's motion should be denied in all respects.


The plaintiffs were convicted of violating § 521.025 of the Texas Transportation Code, which requires an operator of a motor vehicle to possess the class of driver's license appropriate for the vehicle being operated. The Texas Driver Responsibility Program ("DRP") permits the imposition of a surcharge for certain traffic violations. See Tex. Transp. Code § 521.021. However, Section 521.025 is not listed as one of the violations for which a surcharge may be imposed. Nevertheless, when the plaintiffs, and allegedly tens of thousands of others, were convicted of Section 521.025 violations, the City reported the convictions to the Texas Department of Public Safety ("DPS") as though they were violations of § 521.021. As a result, the plaintiffs were assessed a surcharge by the state of Texas pursuant to the DRP.

According to the City, its reports to the DPS were transmitted automatically by way of a computer program. The City contracted with a private vendor, Maximus (also a defendant), to "design, configure, implement, and support the Municipal Courts Integrated Case Management System ("ICMS"). ICMS was a new management system, nearly paperless, that replaced the City's old system. One of the functions of ICMS was to transmit data concerning traffic violations to the DPS. The City admits that it erroneously reported § 521.025 to the DPS as § 521.021 offenses resulting in the DPS assessing each reported offender a surcharge of up to $300. The City contends, however, that the reporting was erroneous or due to negligence, as it had no knowledge of the reporting error until the plaintiffs filed their suit. The City also asserts that it has replaced the ICMS system for reason other than those alleged in the plaintiffs' suit.


A. The City and Jane Doe's Contentions

The City seeks a judgment on the plaintiffs' pleadings on the basis that the plaintiffs' suit fails, as a matter of law, because it does not state a claim for which relief may be granted and it fails to establish that the plaintiffs have standing to sue. The City points out that the plaintiffs bring this suit, under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, for violation of federal Constitutional rights, and that employees and/or agents of the City and state of Texas engaged in ultra vires acts for which the plaintiffs seek declaratory relief. Neither of these claims should be permitted to proceed, argues the City.

The City further asserts that the plaintiffs Section 1983 suit fails because the plaintiffs have not: (a) pled facts identifying a policy maker; (b) identified a policy or pled that the City was consciously indifferent to its erroneous reporting; (c) or cannot establish that the City's alleged misconduct was more than a "mere tort"; and (d) cannot establish that the alleged policy was the "moving force" behind the alleged constitutional violations.

B. The Plaintiffs' Contentions

The plaintiffs challenge each of the City's contentions that a "heightened pleading" standard applies to their § 1983 claims. Instead, asserts the plaintiffs, the Supreme Court has spoken to the Fifth Circuit's circumvention of the dictates of FRCP, Rule 8. See Leatherman v. Tarrant County Narcotics Intelligence and Coordination Unit, 507 U.S. 163, 168 (1983). Under Rule 8 a statement of pleading merely needs to give fair notice of what the claim is and the ground upon which it rests. Relying upon Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly , the plaintiffs argue that more specific facts or details on which their claims rest should be left to discovery. See 550 U.S. at 544 , 445 (2009).

In response to the City's contention that the plaintiffs have failed to identify the policymaker responsible for the implementation of the ICMS system, the plaintiffs answer that the particular knowledge of whom the policymaker is, resides in the specific knowledge of the City. Therefore, the identity of that person should be left to discovery, contend the plaintiffs.

Regarding the City's argument that the plaintiffs have failed to plead facts showing "deliberate indifference, " a required element of a § 1983 claim, the plaintiffs respond that where the official policy itself is unconstitutional, a showing of deliberate indifference is unnecessary. In this regard, the plaintiffs rely upon reasoning from City of Newport v. Fact Concerts, 453 U.S. 247 (1981), and Shepherd v. Dallas County, 591 F.3d 445 (5th Cir. 2009), to argue that the City's official policy is the ICMS system, and that system is unconstitutional. Similarly, the plaintiffs' response to the City's allegation that their pleadings fail to allege facts supporting causation, the plaintiffs suggest that the City does not understand the basis for their alleged injuries. The plaintiffs argue that their injuries do not arise from misreporting of their convictions; rather, their injuries, and potential for future injuries, are a result of the City's official policy that reports 521.025 violations as 521.021 violations. This conduct is "deliberate indifference" in light of the plain language of the statutes. See Tex. ...

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