When former Mobile County License Commissioner Kim Hastie was convicted of improperly disseminating the email addresses of tens of thousands of local motorists, the decision required a jury to find that she did so while acting as an employee of the state of Alabama.
In fact, one of the ways Hastie attempted to appeal her conviction was by arguing that federal prosecutors failed to prove she was an agent of the state during her trial — an idea the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals has since rejected.
While Hastie’s criminal cases are over, she still faces a pending class action lawsuit brought on behalf of motorists whose email addresses she turned over to Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s campaign in 2013. When it was filed in 2015, the lawsuit named Hastie as a defendant both as an individual and in her official capacity as the license commissioner.
Now Mobile County Revenue Commissioner, Hastie is still named individually but the official capacity claim was inherited by her successor, current License Commissioner Nick Matranga. As is usual in claims against public officials, Matranga quickly sought to be dismissed from the lawsuit.
In response, the plaintiffs’ attorneys have argued that Matranga is not an employee of the state but of the Mobile County Commission, which — unlike employees of the state — can be sued in federal court and could potentially have a financial liability in the lawsuit.
Though the commission has not been sued directly, because it funds Matranga’s office any judgment against him in an official capacity would leave the county writing the check.
Hastie’s conviction, which was upheld in July after a two-year appeals process, resulted from her violation of the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act (DPPA), a federal statute prohibiting the release of personal information collected by state departments of motor vehicles.
One of the named plaintiffs in the initial lawsuit was Mobile resident Anitra Diamond, who claimed her email address was among those Hastie released. Since then, a federal appeals court and the Alabama Ethics Commission have concluded Hastie’s actions violated the DPPA.
The DPPA includes a $2,500-per-violation penalty for noncompliance, and if that is imposed, the fee could theoretically be applied to each of the 30,000 bits of personal information Hastie released in 2013 — creating a potential penalty of $75 million.
That figure is why Matranga’s dismissal from the lawsuit is important to Mobile County, which was evident during a hearing last week before Judge William E. Cassady. Though Mobile County isn’t technically involved in the case, two out of three commissioners attended the hearing along with the county’s primary attorney, Jay Ross.
For the plaintiffs, keeping Matranga in the case is crucial because, were he to be dismissed, the only remaining defendant would be Hastie as an individual, which would likely reduce any payout the plaintiffs could realistically collect by a significant margin.
Though other procedural issues were raised at last week’s hearing, whether Matranga is a state or county employee was the primary focus. While it might seem easy to determine who a public official works for, state and county functions overlap quite a bit at the License Commission.
While the licenses and plates residents obtain there are issued from the Alabama Department of Motor Vehicles and the salary and duties of a license commissioner are governed by state statute, the office is not listed among Alabama’s state agencies.
What’s more, funding and personnel decisions for the License Commission are handled at the county level, and it also has other legal characteristics of a county agency, such as the ability to enter into or terminate contracts, the capacity to sue or be sued and the ability to raise its own funds.
Matranga’s attorneys argue that any doubt the license commissioner is a state employee should have been alleviated by the court’s decision in Hastie’s criminal trial — adding that because the plaintiffs in the civil case are citizens, their interests were represented in the government’s case.
However, Kasie Braswell, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs in the class action, argues that because the class members were not parties to the criminal litigation, they have yet to have a “full and fair opportunity” to litigate the issue themselves as required by law.
Braswell said the issue should come down to whether the act in question — the release of the email addresses — was performed in furtherance of a state interest, arguing that, even if Hastie was an agent of the state, that wouldn’t mean all of her actions were taken on the state’s behalf.
Asking why that would matter, Judge Cassady noted the sheriff’s office often claims state immunity even though they are viewed as county employees. He added that same state immunity routinely protects deputies in civil cases even when they’re accused of acting outside the law.
In response, Braswell said many of the cases regarding sheriff’s immunity in the 11th Circuit originated from Georgia, where a large portion of the office’s budget and oversight comes from the state. In Alabama, sheriff’s offices are entirely funded at the county level.
Ultimately, the decision of whether to dismiss Matranga from the case will fall to Judge Cassady, who agreed to grant a few additional weeks for both parties to articulate their positions in written briefs to the court.
However, Cassady did say “it would be an odd event” for the court to review the same information presented in Hastie’s criminal trial to reach different outcome in civil court, adding that, in general, courts try to avoid litigation on the same event with differing results because it can create confusion.
Finally, Cassady asked for written clarification that the plaintiff class in the lawsuit excludes federal employees to avoid a potential cause for his recusal. Cassady said that, like other residents, he gets his licenses “from Mrs. Hastie,” who could have likely had access to his personal email address in 2013 as well.
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