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Perkins v. County of Cook

March 30, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Honorable David H. Coar


Plaintiff Eric Perkins ("Plaintiff") brings an action for civil rights violations pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §1983, alongside various state law claims.*fn1 Before this Court are two motions brought by the County of Cook (the "County" or "Cook County") and the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County (the "Clerk") to dismiss all counts of Plaintiffs' First Amended Complaint, pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). For the reasons stated below, the motions are GRANTED.

I. Background

Plaintiff is a civil litigant who filed one or more lawsuits before the Circuit Court of Cook County. Upon filing, Plaintiff was charged fees for the court's automated record keeping and document storage services. Under Illinois statute -- 705 ILCS 105/27.3a and 705 ILCS 105/27.3c, respectively -- these fees are specifically earmarked to defray the court's costs of automated record keeping and document storage. The authorizing statutes further specify that collected fees shall be retained in special, designated funds and audited by the county auditor. 705 ILCS 105/27.3a(3); 705 ILCS 105/27.3c(c). By law, the circuit court may charge a fee of no less than $1 and no more than $15 for either of these services. 705 ILCS 105/27.3a(1); 705 ILCS 105/27.3c(a).

Plaintiff alleges that none of the fees collected for automated record keeping or document storage are maintained in separate bank accounts, nor are they used for the purposes required by statute. Plaintiff further asserts that no separate audit has been performed on these funds. All fees, including surplus amounts, are allegedly placed into the General Revenue Fund of Cook County, and put towards discretionary general income funds and other unauthorized purposes. Plaintiff alleges that the Clerk uses court fees to fund her personal political campaigns and hire consultants. The Clerk has also allegedly disposed of the Circuit Court's computer system and placed the court's files on a system owned and maintained by Cook County.

Plaintiff also alleges that Cook County has been remiss in its duties under local ordinance and state law to require the Clerk to reimburse the public for the personal use of these funds. The County is allegedly aware of the Clerk's activity, and continues to approve an annual budget which permits the Clerk's abuse of court funds. Cook County has allegedly authorized the deduction of 9% of all litigation fees for a "Cook County Administration Fund," also known as Fund 883. Plaintiff alleges that, over the last two decades, Fund 883 has taken between $14 million and $20 million per year from the Court Automation Fund and the Court Document Storage Fund.

Finally, Plaintiff alleges that the Clerk has co-opted, for her personal use, the public website maintained by the office of the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County. The website contains advertisements promoting the services of private individuals and corporations, including various attorneys at law. Plaintiff argues that, in doing so, the website implicitly endorses the advertising attorneys, while suggesting that attorneys not displayed are "officially sanctioned" by the court. Plaintiff also alleges that the corporations advertising on the website receive their advertisement space free of charge, in return for services rendered to the Clerk and the County. This illicit activity is allegedly supported in part by the money appropriated from the Court Automation and Court Document Storage Funds.

II. Standard of Review

The purpose of a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) is to test the sufficiency of a complaint. Weiler v. Household Finance Corp., 101 F.3d 519, 524 n. 1 (7th Cir.1996). To survive the motion, a complaint need only describe the claim in sufficient detail to give the defendant fair notice of the claim and its basis. Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2); Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, (2007). A plaintiff's factual allegations must suggest a plausible, rather than merely speculative, entitlement to relief. Tamayo v. Blagojevich, 526 F.3d 1074, 1083 (7th Cir. 2008); see also Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009); Bell Atlantic, 550 U.S. at 555. In ruling on a motion to dismiss, the court must construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, accepting as true the well-pleaded allegations, and drawing all reasonable inferences in plaintiff's favor. Tamayo, 526 F.3d at 1081.

III. Analysis

This is the seventh case in a string of state court actions alleging the same substantive issues, brought by various plaintiffs represented by the same counsel of record. Unfortunately for Plaintiff and his counsel, the attempt to shoehorn Plaintiff's complaint into claims plausibly entitled to relief under § 1983 fails.

To state a claim under § 1983, a plaintiff must allege that (1) he was deprived of a right secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States, and (2) a person acting under color of state law caused this deprivation. See Flagg Bros., Inc. v. Brooks, 436 U.S. 149, 155-56 (1978). In other words, § 1983 is not a source of substantive rights, but rather "a means for vindicating federal rights elsewhere conferred." Ledford v. Sullivan, 105 F.3d 354, 356 (7th Cir. 1997) (citing Baker v. McCollan, 443 U.S. 137, 144, n. 3 (1979)). Accordingly, "the first step in any [§ 1983] claim is to identify the specific constitutional right infringed." Albright v. Oliver, 510 U.S. 266, 271 (1994).

Plaintiff alleges that Defendants used court fees and usurped the Clerk's public website in a manner not permitted by state law. Yet, "the violation of state law is not itself the violation of the Constitution." Archie v. City of Racine, 847 F.2d 1211, 1217 (7th Cir. 1988). As the Seventh Circuit explained in River Park, Inc. v. City of Highland Park, "[f]ailure to implement state law violates that state law, not the Constitution; the remedy lies in state court." 23 F.3d 164 (7th Cir. 1994). Plaintiff attempts to salvage his claims by invoking constitutional doctrines. Characterizing the fee collection as a deprivation of his property without due process of law, Plaintiff primarily argues that his Fourteenth Amendment rights have been violated.

Plaintiff's strategizing fails. In Booth v. Lemont Mfg. Corp., 440 F.2d 385 (7th Cir. 1971), a taxpayer suit challenging a municipality's wasteful leasing practices as a deprivation of property without due process, the Seventh Circuit quoted heavily from Owensboro Waterworks Co. v. City of Owensboro, 200 U.S. 38 (1906), to demonstrate the inadvisability of interference in the administration of municipal affairs. As in the instant case, the Supreme Court in Owensboro considered allegations that a municipal corporation had diverted funds collected from taxpayers for a specific ...

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