Five (!) new opinions, plus some housekeeping [guest post]

This is a guest post by David Goodwin.

Due to a briefing deadline, today’s summaries will be mercifully short. [ETA: In retrospect, this effort failed.]

First, though, some quick housekeeping: on Friday, the Court issued its formal remand in Knick v. Township of Scott, which the Supreme Court reversed in a 5-4 decision back in January. At issue was whether a Takings Claim can only be brought after a plaintiff has sought compensation under state law in state court. In his opinion, Chief Justice Roberts answered “no,” overruling the case the Third Circuit had relied on to the contrary. However, as Chief Judge Smith observes in his judgment order, the Court’s opinion “stands with respect to the Fourth Amendment claim.”

Without further ado, we address the fast five. Apologies for any typos.

Bastardo-Vale v. Att’y Gen.—immigration (particularly serious crimes)—denying petition—Shwartz (en banc)

An alien convicted of a “particularly serious crime” cannot obtain asylum or withholding of removal. In Alaka v. Att’y Gen., 456 F.3d 88 (3d Cir. 2006), the Circuit (Judge Ambro writing, with Judge Becker and a district judge joining) held that particularly serious crimes were limited to aggravated felonies. Today, the en banc Court overrules Alaka to hold that “particularly serious crime” means the same thing with regard to both asylum and withholding of removal and is not limited to just aggravated felonies. Rather, the Attorney General has the authority to designate certain offenses as per se serious and can also adjudicate crimes as serious on a case-by-case basis.

I imagine Stephen Miller will get right on declaring all crimes to be “particularly serious.”

Judge Shwartz’s opinion for the Court, apparently joined by everyone save Judges McKee and Ambro, engages in a lengthy statutory analysis, and includes a 3-page-long footnote responding to an argument raised in Judge McKee’s dissent. Intriguingly, Judge Shwartz also castigates the Board of Immigration Appeals, which elected to ignore Alaka entirely in favor of the Board’s own precedent, an act Judge Shwartz characterizes as a “blatant disregard of” binding precedent.

Judge McKee and Judge Ambro (the Alaka author) both dissent, writing separately but substantially joining each other’s opinions. In a classic demonstration of the Third Circuit’s emphasis on collegiality, both dissenting Judges praise Judge Shwartz’s opinion for the Court.

Cherylle Corpuz argued for petitioner Bastardo-Vale, Benjamin Moss argued for the government, and Joseph C. Hohenstein of Landau, Hess, Simon & Choi argued for amicus American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Paul Shifflett v. Korszniak—Prison Litigation Reform Act exhaustion—vacating and remanding—Ambro

Under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”), a prisoner must exhaust administrative remedies before filing a conditions-of-confinement lawsuit. In his opinion for the Court, Judge Ambro makes official what a prior opinion, Robinson v. Superintendent Rockview SCI, 831 F.3d 148 (3d Cir. 2016) (Hardiman, J.) “strongly implied”: a prisoner’s remedies are exhausted (or, more precisely, the administrative process becomes “unavailable”) as soon as the prison fails to respond to a properly submitted grievance in a timely fashion, because the PLRA requires “strict compliance” by prisoners and prisons alike. Thus, the plaintiff’s remedies were exhausted as soon as the prison missed the grievance-policy response deadlines, and so the District Court erred in dismissing his complaint for nonexhaustion. Judge Ambro also directs the District Court, on remand, to appoint counsel for Shifflett.

Joining Judge Ambro were Judges Greenaway and Scirica. The Yale Law School Appellate Litigation Project represented Shifflett on appeal, with Elise Wander arguing three days after commencement. Chase Defelice argued for the Department of Corrections. Argued for individual appellees were Emily B. Ryan-Fiore of Weber Gallagher Simpson Stapleton First & Newby, Carol A. VanderWoude of Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin, and Ava M. Plakins of Bonner Kiernan Trebach & Crociata.

Donna Dinaples v. MRS BPO—Fair Debt Collection Practices Act—affirming—Chagares

The Third Circuit had previously held in Douglass v. Convergent Outsourcing, 765 F.3d 299 (3d Cir. 2014) (Scirica, J.), that a debt collector violates the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”), 15 U.S.C. § 1692f(8), by sending a collection letter displaying the debtor’s internal account number on the envelope. Does the same rule apply when the envelope doesn’t show the account number itself, but instead contains an unencrypted QR code that can be scanned to reveal the number? The District Court said yes, and Judge Chagares’s opinion for the Court agrees, applying the reasoning of Douglass and giving the FDCPA the requisite broad construction.

As a threshold issue, the Court also holds that the plaintiff had standing under Spokeo and its Circuit progeny, because the implication of “core privacy concerns” is enough to show a concrete injury. The Court also holds that the collector cannot claim a “bona fide error” defense, which does not apply to mistakes of law, but rather to clerical or other errors.

(If you, like me, were momentarily confused by the appellee: MRS BPO is a debt collection company, and not a person named Mrs. Bpo.)

Joining Judge Chagares were Chief Judge Smith and Judge Greenaway. Michael D. Alltmont of Sessions Fishman Nathan & Israel argued for MRS BPO and Yitzchak Zelman of Marcus and Zelman argued for the prevailing appellee.

Dexter Hillocks v. Att’y Gen.—Immigration (categorical approach)—granting petition and remanding—Fuentes

In determining whether convictions fall into categories that bar certain immigration relief (or lead, for that matter, to enhanced sentences under the Armed Career Criminal Act), courts are supposed to use the “categorical approach,” which looks to the essential elements of the conviction and disregards the actual facts of the conviction. For divisible statutes having multiple elemental paths, however, courts can use the “modified categorical approach,” peeking at the facts of the conviction to decide which path was taken.

The whole area is . . . somewhat complicated, and this case amply demonstrates why. The petitioner, Dexter Hillocks, had been convicted of using a communication facility (a phone) to facilitate a felony. The statute says:

A person commits a felony of the third degree if that person uses a communication facility to commit, cause or facilitate the commission or the attempt thereof of any crime which constitutes a felony under this title or under [35 P.S. § 780-101 et seq.], known as The Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act. 

Is this Pennsylvania offense an “aggravated felony” or “conviction relating to a controlled substance?” The agency, employing the modified categorical approach, looked at the plea colloquy, determined that Hillocks used the phone to facilitate the sale of heroin, and said “yep!”

Judge Fuentes agrees that the categorical approach, and not the modified categorical approach, was warranted here. Both possible paths to conviction, through the Pennsylvania Criminal Code and the Controlled Substance Act, did not amount to a categorical match to a federal felony that would fall under either definition, in part because an offender could “facilitate” basically anything, including any non-aggravated felony. Thus, “[b]ecause the Government ha[d] not identified divisible categories, at least one of which would match a generic federal aggravated felony,” the modified categorical approach was not appropriate.

With regard to whether this was a “conviction relating to a controlled substance,” Judge Fuentes observed that his prior en banc opinion in Rojas v. Att’y Gen, 728 F.3d 203 (3d Cir. 2013), had established that the categorical approach did not apply in “related to” controlled substance analysis for state convictions. But in an intervening case, Mellouli v. Lynch, 135 S. Ct. 1980 (2015), the Supreme Court had used the categorical approach in these circumstances. Judge Fuentes holds that Mellouli partially abrogated Rojas, that the categorical approach should be used, and that, for substantially the same reasons the conviction was not an aggravated felony, the conviction also did not “relate to” a controlled substance.

Joining Judge Fuentes were Judge Ambro and Judge Bibas. Former Fisher clerk M. Patrick Yingling of Reed Smith argued for Hillocks and Gregory Pennington argued for the government.

United States ex rel. Charte v. American Tutor—False Claims Act/Entire Controversy Doctrine—vacating and remanding—Fuentes

Jean Charte sued her former employers twice, first in New Jersey state court and second as a relator under the federal False Claims Act (“FCA”). While the FCA was under seal pending the government’s decision to intervene, the state-court action was settled. The question: does New Jersey’s “entire controversy doctrine,” a res-judicata-on-steroids requirement that all claims relating to an underlying controversy be resolved in a single proceeding, require the dismissal of the FCA action given the settlement of the state-court action?

In his opinion for the Court, Judge Fuentes says it does not. First, FCA qui tam claims belong to the government, not the individual relator, so it would be unfair to give Charte the ability to essentially settle out the government’s claims during the pendency of the FCA proceeding. Second, that FCA actions are filed under seal meant that Charte couldn’t inform the defendant of the under-seal portion of the controversy (Judge Fuentes observes that Charte nevertheless tried to “litigate this case out in the open”). Third, as a matter of fairness, a contrary holding would allow potential FCA defendants to “smoke out” relators by suing them and settling with them, thereby barring qui tam suits, an outcome equity could not abide. Finally, while Charte could have brought the FCA claim as a state-court counterclaim, she did not have to do so, and it would have been filed under seal anyway.

(Based on the citations, that federal FCA claims can be brought in state court appears to be a partly novel holding, although the Second Circuit has also held that 3732(a) is nonjurisdictional in United States ex rel. Thistlewaite v. Dowty Woodville Polymer Ltd., 110 F.3d 861 (2d Cir. 1997)).

Judge Ambro joined Judge Fuentes’s opinion. Judge Hardiman dissented on the basis that fairness cut against Charte, as the District Court had found that Charte engaged in gamesmanship, and had never alerted the state court about the qui tam proceeding.

Sean F. Byrnes of Byrnes O’Hern & Heugle argued for Charte, while Michael F. Bevacqua, Jr. of Mandelbaum Salsburg argued for American Tutor.