Pendant State Law Claims in Federal Civil Rights Actions in Louisiana- A Collection Problem

Pendant State Law Claims in Federal Civil Rights Actions in Louisiana- A Collection Problem

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In federal civil rights practice, pendent state law claims are often filed alongside the main allegations of federal civil rights violations. In an excessive force case, for example, the plaintiffs might allege that police officers not only violated their constitutional rights under color of law, thereby violating 42 USC sec. 1983, but also that they committed the state tort of battery through unjustified and offensive contact with the plaintiff. Although district courts have discretion to dismiss such state law claims–which absent the alleged federal law violation would not be a federal concern (unless the parties are from different states, ie. are diverse)–most of the time courts will agree to hear the tag-along state claims under the doctrine of “pendent jurisdiction.”

Now, skip ahead and say that the plaintiff ultimately loses on the federal civil rights claim, but wins on the pendent state claims. What are the implications of that scenario?

Well, unfortunately for civil rights plaintiffs in Louisiana, the law gets a bit murky at this point, and whether and how much the plaintiff is ultimately able to collect depends on a lot of things. Rule 69(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that, unless a federal statute specifically applies, the law of the state in which the court sits governs collection procedures. In Louisiana, the state constitution contains an “anti-seizure” provision that prohibits state courts from executing against public property. See LA Const. Art. XII, Sec. 10. The provision further requires an act of the legislature or the political subdivision before funds can be paid to satisfy the judgment.

What do these two pieces of law mean for federal courts in Louisiana? That depends on the specific factual scenario. Consider first the scenario presented in Freeman Decorating Company v. City of New Orleans, et al., 352 Fed. Appx. 921 (5th Cir. 2009). In that case, a Texas-based decorating company sued the City of New Orleans for an unpaid bill for services rendered. The case was in federal court because the parties were diverse (from different states). No violations of federal law were alleged.

The plaintiff in Freeman won a judgment, but the City refused to pay. The plaintiff sought to seize some of the City’s property to satisfy the judgment, but the district court refused and the Fifth Circuit ultimately affirmed. The reason: Louisiana’s anti-seizure provision precluded enforcement of the judgment because, under Rule 69(a), the law of the state where the court sits governs execution on a judgment. There was no federal interest in the case sufficient to trump the state’s law. Thus, because Louisiana state law precluded enforcement of the judgment, the federal courts ruled that they too could not enforce it through seizure of state property. See also Specialty Healthcare Mgmt., Inc. v. St. Mary Parish Hosp., 220 F.3d 650 (5th Cir. 2000).

Now consider the scenario presented in Bowman v. City of New Orleans, 914 F.2d 711 (5th Cir. 1990) (litigated by friend-of-the-firm and veteran civil rights attorney Mary Howell). In that case, street musicians sued the City to strike down an ordinance that banned all street music during Mardi Gras. The plaintiffs alleged that the ordinance violated their federal civil rights. The City entered into a consent judgment and the district court awarded the plaintiffs attorneys’ fees under civil rights laws. But after paying a portion of the judgment for fees, the City refused to pay the rest.

On plaintiffs’ motion, the district court ordered the seizure of City property to pay the judgment. The Fifth Circuit affirmed. The reason in this instance: The award was based on federal law, specifically, the attorney fee provisions of the civil rights laws, and so there was a substantial federal interest in execution on the judgment that trumped Louisiana’s anti-seizure provision.

So, what about the scenario posited above, where a Louisiana civil rights plaintiff loses on federal claims but wins on state law claims related to the incident? If the plaintiff is trying to collect against the state or a city, could they do it?

I have been unable to find any cases addressing that precise scenario. On the one hand, it would seem that because the judgment was only on the state law claims, the state law controls and the state or city would be immune from execution on the judgment. On the other hand, the state torts arose out of alleged civil rights violations, and although there was no finding of a constitutional violation, preventing abuses of state power seems to be more of a core concern for federal courts than, say, enforcing state-law contracts. So I think there’s an argument that the federal interest in enforcing these types of judgments on state-law claims should trump Louisiana’s anti-seizure provision.

Even if a court were to reject the argument that the anti-seizure provision should be overridden, there may be other creative ways for Louisiana plaintiffs to enforce such judgments. For example, the Fifth Circuit has held that where the state or city flat out refuses to pay, a sufficient federal interest might arise. Gates v. Collier, 616 F.2d 1268 (5th Cir. 1980). And of course you can always try to execute against any individuals that have been sued in the case.

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