Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Fourth District: Clerk Has Judicial Immunity In Suit To Recover Payment for Fines in Unauthorized School Zone

In Zoba v. Coral Springs (4D14-1182), the "boundaries of judicial immunity are challenged." The Fourth District's majority opinion, written by Judge May and joined by Judge Gillen, explained that the plaintiff/appellant argued "that the clerk of court (“clerk”) is not entitled to judicial immunity for collecting, apportioning, distributing, and retaining monies, in conjunction with alleged illegal traffic fines." 

The facts are simple: "The plaintiff received a $600 traffic ticket for speeding in the school zone. He paid his fine in full because failure to comply would result in the suspension of his driver’s license." Later, "Plaintiff’s counsel received a ticket for the same violation on a different date. He fought the ticket arguing that the school zone was illegal because it was established in violation of county ordinance 23-6(d). He was acquitted." The plaintiff sought a return of the money collected by the clerk for fines issued and paid in what was later determined to be an illegal school zone. 

The question in the case was whether the clerk of court was entitled to judicial immunity for collecting the fines before the school zone was found to be illegal. 

The Fourth District explained judicial immunity as follows:
"[J]udicial immunity ‘insures that judges are immune from liability for damages for acts committed within their judicial jurisdiction [and] is essential to the preservation of an independent judiciary.’” Fong v.Forman, 105 So. 3d 650, 652 (Fla. 4th DCA 2013) (second alteration in original) (quoting Berry v. State, 400 So. 2d 80, 82–83 (Fla. 4th DCA 1981)). “This doctrine has been extended to quasi-judicial officials, such as a clerk of court, performing judicial acts.” Id. (citations omitted). “The reason for extending immunity to quasi-judicial officers is because a strict guarantee of immunity is necessary to preserve the[ir] effectiveness and impartiality.” Fuller v. Truncale, 50 So. 3d 25, 27–28 (Fla. 1st DCA 2010) (alteration in original) (citation omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted).
Further, the court explained that "[t]wo prerequisites must be met for judicial immunity to apply: '(1) the ruling in question [must be] a ‘judicial act;’ and (2) there [must be] jurisdiction to issue the ruling.' Fuller, 50 So. 3d at 28 (citations omitted). 'When these two prongs can be shown, the judge or quasi-judicial official may claim judicial immunity, even if the ruling in question was unwise, reckless, or malicious.” Id. (citation omitted)."

After analyzing the statutory authorization for the fines and the collection by the clerk, the court stated that:
These statutes and rules read together support the clerk’s argument that his collection, apportionment, and disbursement of traffic fines is part and parcel of the overall judicial process. Prior to the fine collection, the person who has received the noncriminal traffic infraction may appear before a court, or may waive that right and simply pay the ticket or enter into a payment plan. Either way, the person participates in the adjudicatory process or waives it. The clerk’s act of collection, apportionment, and disbursement is part of that judicial process—it is a judicial act entitling the clerk to immunity. And no one disputes the jurisdiction of the court and the clerk to perform their respective statutory duties.
Because the clerk’s collection, apportionment, and distribution of the fines are both statutorily and judicially ordered, they fall within the protection afforded by judicial immunity. 
Having resolved the issue of judicial immunity, the court addressed "the elephant in the room," which was whether the clerk could be required to refund the money. The court stated that "Here, if the school zone is found to be illegal, then a traffic fine for an infraction committed in the school zone is unconstitutional, but the administrative costs the clerk earned by statutorily collecting the fine are not. The clerk earned the costs for performing his statutorily and judicially directed job. Judicial immunity bars the clerk from having to defend against the plaintiff’s claim and incur attorney’s fees. We therefore affirm the dismissal of the clerk."

The majority opinion concluded by stating:

In the complaint, the plaintiff alleged an unjust enrichment claim against the clerk seeking to recoup all monies paid and retained. Today, we hold the clerk immune from the underlying suit and defense of the suit, and affirm the trial court’s decision on immunity. What has yet to be litigated is whether the plaintiff can recoup monies paid to the clerk should he succeed in obtaining a favorable final judgment. There are several hurdles the plaintiff must first overcome: (1) proving the school zone was illegally created; (2) defending the voluntary payment waiver defense; and (3) whether the clerk must refund monies beyond the administrative fees authorized by statute. Wisely, the trial court foresaw the issue, but the case was not yet in the procedural posture for the trial court to rule on it. See, e.g., State v. Barber, 301 So. 2d 7, 9– 10 (Fla. 1974). We save that issue for another day.
Judge Warner wrote a dissenting opinion that began: "Although I agree that the clerk of court can assert judicial immunity for the acts of collecting and distributing the traffic fines, including the administrative fee, I cannot agree that there is any judicial immunity for the retention of the portion of the fine which the clerk is allowed to keep in a fine and forfeiture fund pursuant to statute. That is directed by statute, not judicial discretion. See §§ 28.246(3); 318.21, Fla. Stat. (2010). In fact, pursuant to section 28.246(3), as quoted by the majority, such funds are disbursed “in accordance with authorizations and procedures as established by general law,” not judicial authority. § 28.246(3), Fla. Stat. (emphasis added). The ultimate action is not judicial, but statutory. The clerk was not acting as an arm of the court in retaining the funds; he was retaining a portion of the funds at the legislative directive to help fund the clerk’s office, the funding of which is a legislatively controlled action."


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