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$3.25 Million Settlement Reached With Defendants Jailed in Missouri “Debtor’s Prison” for Unpaid Fines, Fees

by Matthew Clarke

On April 5, 2023, the federal court for the Eastern District of Missouri gave final approval to a $3.25 million settlement in a class-action lawsuit alleging the City of Maplewood improperly jailed defendants in a modern-day debtor’s prison simply because they were unable to pay fines, fees, court costs and/or surcharges, without inquiring into their ability to pay.

In 2016, attorneys from St. Louis-based Keane Law and ArchCity Defenders filed the complaint alleging the St. Louis suburb wrote thousands of tickets to raise millions of dollars in revenue while using the threat of jail and actual jailing to coerce even indigent defendants to pay exorbitant fines, fees, costs and surcharges without so much as an inquiry into their ability to pay. The plaintiffs alleged that this “resulted in poor people, and mostly Black people, [being] jailed for days at a time until Maplewood had extorted as much money as possible from them.” The lawsuit covers the period from November 2011 until November 2021 and included over 7,000 class members.

U.S. District Judge Catherine D. Perry certified four classes of Plaintiffs in 2021. The Injunctive Class included all those who paid or owed warrant bonds to the City of Maplewood arising from cases in Maplewood court. The Jailed Class included those who had been jailed for nonpayment of fines, fees, costs, or surcharges without being provided an opportunity to prove indigence before they were locked up – provided they were not considered a danger to the community by notation in Maplewood’s file and not designated a flight risk prior to being jailed. The Narrowed Paid Fines Class included those who were arrested and jailed on a Maplewood warrant for failure to appear or failure to pay fines, fees and/or costs which were assessed without the court conducting an inquiry into their ability to pay. The Remaining Paid Fines Class included those who paid fines, fees and/or costs which were assessed without the court conducting an inquiry into their ability to pay who do not fall into the Narrowed Paid Fines Class. See: Webb v. City of Maplewood, 340 F.R.D. 124 (E.D. Mo. 2021).

The parties then proceeded to reach their settlement agreement, which included attorney fees of $1,083,333.33 and litigation costs of $132,365.76 to be paid from the settlement fund to Plaintiffs’ attorneys: Andrea R. Gold, Jonathan K. Tycko and Leora Friedman of Tycko and Zavareei in Washington, D.C.; Blake A. Strode, Nathaniel R. Carroll, Maureen Hanlon and John Waldron of ArchCity Defenders in St. Louis; Ryan A. Keane and Steven W. Duke of Keane Law, also in St. Louis; and John M. Waldron of Khazaeli and Wyrsch LLC in St. Louis.

“For years, the City of Maplewood wrote thousands of tickets to raise millions of dollars in revenue,” said attorney Carroll in a written statement. “Plaintiffs alleged that the City would either use jail or the prospect of jail to get money from people who were ticketed in the form of exorbitant fines and bonds, with little to no legal process.”

The named plaintiffs, Cecelia Roberts Webb, Frank Williams and Logan C. Yates. as the personal representative of the Estate of Darron T. Yates, each received a Class Representative Award of $7,500.00. Judge Perry lauded the agreement as “a result of aggressive, persistent litigation over a period of approximately seven years.” See: Webb v. City of Maplewood, 2023 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 59850 (E.D. Mo.).

Since the lawsuit was filed in 2016, Maplewood’s municipal revenue has dropped by 64%, according to ArchCity Defenders. Citing state court data, the firm noted that the number of tickets issued in Maplewood had also decreased 70% by 2022. ArchCity is pursuing similar claims against the nearby cities of St. Ann, Ferguson and Florissant.   

Additional source: Missouri Lawyers Media

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