Five precedential opinions today! I was in Harrisburg today for a Third Circuit Bar advocacy CLE event with Judges Vanaskie and Krause, which was super but perhaps not perfectly timed for Five Opinion Day.
Preston v. Superintendent Graterford SCI — habeas corpus — affirmance — Rendell
Damien Preston was tried for third-degree murder, convicted, and sentenced to 20 to 40 years in prison. The Third Circuit today held that, at his trial, his constitutional right to confront the witnesses against him was violated when the prosecution introduced a witness’s prior statements to help convict Preston and the witness refused to answer any substantive questions on cross-examination. But, because this is a habeas corpus case, he lost anyway for opaque reasons.
Preston’s trial lawyer missed the Confrontation Clause issue, a blunder the opinion describes as “clearly substandard.” Then his direct appeal lawyer and his post-conviction lawyer did, too. Preston was able to overcome post-conviction counsel’s mistake based on Martinez v. Ryan. Significantly for habeas nerds, the court held that Martinez requires only trial counsel’s deficient performance, not prejudice, and that Martinez‘s substantiality requirement is the same as COA reasonable debatability. And he even proved that his trial counsel’s performance was deficient. But Preston lost in the end because the court held that he failed to show a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s error, the outcome would have changed.
So, in the end, important good news for future defendants and habeas petitioners, but bad news for Mr. Preston.
Joining Rendell were Greenaway and Fuentes. Arguing counsel were Tom Gaeta of the EDPA federal defender (and former CA3 staff attorney) for the petitioner and Max Kaufman of the Philadelphia DA’s office for the Commonwealth.
Lee v. Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church — civil — affirmance — Shwartz
When a church fired its pastor, the pastor sued for breach of contract. The district court granted summary judgment on the ground that deciding the claim would violate the Establishment Clause by entangling the court in religious doctrine, and today the Third Circuit affirmed.
Joining Shwartz were Roth and Rendell, a rare Third Circuit panel where all three judges are women. By contrast, all five lawyers listed in the caption for the parties appear to be men. Arguing counsel were Gregg Zeff of Zeff Law Firm for the pastor and Daniel Blomberg of Becket Fund for the church.
In re: Tribune Media — bankruptcy — affirmance — Ambro
The Third Circuit today affirmed a district court’s ruling rejecting employment discrimination claims brought by a former television station employee. The opinion’s conclusion aptly summarizes:
Younge challenges the Bankruptcy Court’s statutory and constitutional authority to decide his employment discrimination claims and asks if he can recover for an incident of racial harassment by Schultz, a co-worker at WPHL. We lack any basis to question the Court’s authority at this stage, as Younge never objected to it during bankruptcy proceedings
and instead knowingly and voluntarily submitted to the Court’s jurisdiction.
When we turn to the merits, we also see no reason to disturb the District Court’s decision affirming that of the Bankruptcy Court. Although Schultz exhibited racial animosity toward Younge, we cannot impute liability to WPHL for a hostile work environment claim because we have no evidence that it had knowledge of Schultz’s racial bias at the time of the incident. Similarly, we cannot say that Younge was wrongfully terminated because WPHL provided a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for his discharge. More importantly, its rationale was not pretextual because Younge and Schultz were both fired for engaging in the same conduct. Younge gives us no examples of similarly situated individuals who were disciplined more leniently for the same type of conduct. Without this type of evidence, we cannot rule in his
favor. Thus we affirm.
Joining Ambro were Scirica and Siler CA6 by designation. Arguing counsel were Timothy Creech of Philadelphia for the plaintiff and Robert Hochman of Sidley Austin for the station.
Vorchheimer v. Philadelphian Owners Assoc. — civil / disability — affirmance — Bibas
The Third Circuit affirmed dismissal of a suit brought under the Fair Housing Act by a woman with a disability alleging that her apartment building owners failed to accommodate her disability by rejecting her request to leave a walker in the lobby but offering alternative accommodations: ” Necessity is a demanding legal standard. For a housing accommodation to be “necessary” under the Act, it must be required for that person to achieve equal housing opportunity, taking into account the alternatives on offer.”
Joining Bibas were Hardiman and Roth. Arguing counsel were Stuart Lurie of Rosenthal Lurie for the woman and Christopher Curci of Freeman Mathis for the building owners.
Twp. of Bordentown v. FERC — civil / environmental — partial reversal — Chagares
Two New Jersey townships and an environmental group brought “a bevy of challenges” to the approval of an interstate natural gas pipeline by FERC and New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection. The Third Circuit rejected their challenges to FERC’s approval, but remanded to the NJDEP because it misinterpreted federal law in denying the challengers’ request for a hearing. Not often do you see a 69-page opinion, complete with table of contents, in a case decided without oral argument.
Joining Chagares were Greenberg and Fuentes.