Five new opinions, four of them reversals

Five opinions again today! Some long ones, too. “What a pleasure,” and “I’m doomed,” both.

Northeastern Pa. Freethought Society v. County of Lackawanna Transit System—First Amendment—reversal—Hardiman

[Disclosure: I assisted counsel for the atheist group on appeal, mainly by serving as a judge at an oral-argument moot.]

The Third Circuit today held that a county bus system violated the First Amendment by refusing to display an ad that read “Atheists” on the sides of its busses. The bus system barred any ads with religious messages, and the court held that this policy was viewpoint discrimination, splitting with a D.C. Circuit case with a pending certiorari petition. Even if barring speech on religious issues weren’t viewpoint discriminatory, the policy here still would fail as a content-based restriction because the bus system failed to show that its policy was reasonable.

Joining Hardiman was Porter; Cowen dissented, arguing that the bus system’s policy was not viewpoint-discriminatory and was reasonable. Arguing counsel were Molly Tack-Hooper of the Pa. ACLU for the atheist group and Thomas Specht of Marshall Dennehey for the bus system.


USA ex rel. Bookwalter v. UPMC—civil / qui tam—reversal—Bibas

The Third Circuit today reversed the dismissal of a suit under the False Claims Act and the Starks Act alleging healthcare fraud. From the introduction:

This appeal revolves around two questions: First, do the relators offer enough facts to plausibly allege that the surgeons’ pay varies with, or takes into account, their referrals? Second, who bears the burden of pleading Stark Act exceptions under the False Claims Act?

It answered the first question yes, and the second the defendants.

(Have I opined already that Judge Bibas’s opinions have the best typography on the court by a country mile?)

Joining Bibas was Fuentes; Ambro concurred in the judgment, arguing that the majority construed the Stark Act too broadly. Both opinions are masterfully written. Arguing counsel were Gregory Simpson of Georgia for the appellants and Jessica Ellsworth of Hogan Lovells for the appellees.


Howell v. Superintendent Rockview SCI—habeas corpus—affirmance—Fisher

After an all-white jury convicted a man of felony murder in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County, the man filed a habeas corpus petition claiming that the county systematically excluded African Americans from the pool of potential jurors. His evidence showed that African Americans were over 10% the jury-eligible population but less than 5% of the jury pool. Today, the Third Circuit affirmed the denial of relief on his fair cross-section claim, on several grounds: his data was unreliable because it was derived from returned jury questionnaires without adequately accounting for unreturned questionnaires, the absolute and relative disparities he showed weren’t big enough, there was no readily identifiable cause for the disparity, the process was facially neutral, the disparity study only covered six months, and the county took various steps purportedly to reduce the disparity. On the bright side for habeas petitioners, the court held that the state court’s ruling had been contrary to and an unreasonable application of federal law under 28 USC § 2254(d)(1).

Judge Porter concurred, noting that he would not have reached the data-reliability point and underscoring that the county’s jury-selection goes beyond what the constitution requires by using motor-vehicle records in addition to voter-registration lists.

Judge Restrepo dissented, arguing that the petitioner’s evidence was strong enough and the Commonwealth had presented no contrary evidence, that the majority opinion “sets forth a new standard of statistical purity that will foreclose nearly all fair-cross-section claims,” and that the majority’s reasoning forecloses relief any time the excluded group constitutes less than 10% of the population: “Such an interpretation simply cannot be an accurate statement of the law.”

Arguing counsel were Loren Stewart of the EDPA federal defenders for the petitioner and Rusheen Pettit of the Allegheny County D.A.’s office for the Commonwealth.


Bank of Hope v. Chon—First Amendment—reversal—Bibas

When a bank sued a former executive for embezzlement, the former executive sent letters to shareholders disputing the banks allegations hoping to pressure it to settle. The district court banned the former executive from contacting shareholders, but today the Third Circuit vacated its order on the grounds that it “marshaled no evidence that this restriction on speech was needed to protect the trial’s fairness and integrity” and it failed consider less-restrictive alternatives.

Joining Bibas were Jordan and Matey. Arguing counsel were Stephen Harvey of Steve Harvey Law for the former executive and Michael Yi of New York for the bank.


Fed Cetera v. National Credit Services—civil / contract—reversal—Fuentes

A debt collector signed a contract with another company promising to pay the company a finder’s fee if it “consummated” a deal with the government during a set time period. The debt collector signed a contract with government during the time period, but didn’t start work on that contract until after the period was over. The debt collector argued that it didn’t owe the finder’s fee  because the deal wasn’t “consummated” when its deal was signed, only when it began performance. The Third Circuit concluded otherwise.

Joining Fuentes were Krause and Cowen. Arguing counsel were Michael McMcCaney Jr. (formerly?) of Keller & Goggin for the finder and Arthur Fritzinger of Cozen O’Connor for the debt collector.