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Can Government Officials Ever Be Sued?



There are many times when a government entity enacts policies that we personally do not agree with. Sometimes, we may even think that the policy was unconstitutional. How can we best voice our opposition to these policies? Can we ever hold those in charge accountable for the decisions they make? The 11th Circuit recently considered a case that alleged that the City of Montgomery created a system of forced wage labor and false imprisonment in order to increase revenue. The decision in that case helps to answer some of those questions. There has been several new cases that protect innocent people for going to jail because that cannot pay a fine.

In McCullough v. Finley, some jailees filed a claim arguing that the City of Montgomery created this system by strictly enforcing people to pay court fines and costs. Those who could not afford to pay their fines were jailed. Each day they were in jail counted as $50 towards their fines. Additionally, they could participate in a work program to earn another $25 a day.

This work program is the basis of the jailees’ claim of forced labor. They argue that they were forced to participate in the program and were threatened with more jail time if they chose not to participate. The main issue in the case was who the jailees decided to sue. They named two municipal judges, the mayor of Montgomery, and two police chiefs as defendants. Government officials enjoy immunity in most cases that deal with their employment. Thus, the 11th Circuit had to determine whether they had immunity in this case.

The Court first looked at whether the judges had immunity. The law states that judges have complete immunity for judicial acts no matter how the decision was made. To determine whether this allegation should be considered a judicial action, the Court looked at four factors: (1) whether the act alleged in the complaint is something that would normally be considered as part of a judge’s job; (2) whether it took place in the judge’s chambers; (3) whether the issue had to do with a case that the judge was currently deciding; and (4) whether the issue was directly due to the outcome of meeting with the judge in his official capacity. In this case, the Court decided that the factors weighed in favor of the policy being considered a judicial act. Thus, the judges were granted immunity.

The Court next looked at whether the mayor and police chiefs should be granted immunity. Under Alabama law, government officials have immunity for actions taken when making decisions in their official capacity, unless they acted in bad faith or beyond the scope of their authority. In this case, the jailees admitted that the mayor and police chiefs were acting within the scope of their authority. Because of this, the Court had to conduct an additional test to determine whether the claim should be dismissed.

The first part of the test is to look at the claim and determine which parts, if any, of the allegations are only conclusory statements. If there are any conclusory statements, those are ignored. The second step is to look at the remaining allegations and determine whether there are enough facts to support the claim. In this case, the Court determined that the allegation of creating a scheme to create revenue was conclusory. After throwing this part of the allegation out, there was not enough factual evidence left to support any claim of forced wage labor or false imprisonment. Therefore, the mayor and police chiefs were given immunity.

This case demonstrates just how incredibly difficult it is to bring a case against a government entity. Even if the policy seems terrible to you, you may not get past the initial stages of a lawsuit unless you are armed with ample evidence. Another big thing that will make or break your case is whether you have an experienced attorney.

An experienced attorney will know what types of evidence to present and what arguments to make. If you need help with a civil appeal, contact Joe Ingram of INGRAM LAW LLC today at (205) 335-2640.

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