New opinions — Third Circuit takes sides in circuit split on federal jurisdiction over suits seeking declaratory and legal relief

Rarick v. Federated Mutual — civil / jurisdiction — reversal — Hardiman

Federal courts have broad discretion to refuse to hear declaratory-judgment suits, but a “virtually unflagging” duty to hear suits seeking legal relief. Today, the Third Circuit addressed the intersection of these two standards, deciding how much discretion federal courts have about whether to hear suits seeking both declaratory and legal relief.

Other circuits have split over what jurisdictional standard to apply to these hybrid declaratory/legal suits. The Seventh and Ninth Circuits have ruled that if the legal claims are not independent of the declaratory claims, the court may decline jurisdiction over the entire suit. Three other circuits apply the virtually-unflagging standard. And one has focused on which claims constitute the “heart of the matter,” and this is the standard that district courts within the Third Circuit had followed, including in the two cases decided in today’s appeal.

Today, the Third Circuit adopted the independent-claim test, reversing the district courts. It explained, ” The independent claim test is superior to the others principally because it prevents plaintiffs from evading federal jurisdiction through artful pleading.”

Joining Hardiman were Chagares and Scirica. Arguing counsel were Charles Spevacek of Minnesota and James Haggerty of Haggerty Goldberg.

 

US v. Repak — criminal — affirmance — Smith

The Third Circuit today issued a 68-page opinion affirming a public official’s conviction for extortion and bribery. Ronald Repak, the longtime head of Johnstown, PA’s redevelopment authority, was convicted of getting contractors who did business with the authority to replace the roof on his home and excavate land for his son’s gym. (Something tells me indicted admitted-new-roof-gift-receiver Philadelphia DA Seth Williams won’t enjoy reading this opinion much.)

The opinion addressed a flurry of claims:

  • The court affirmed admission of other-bad-acts evidence under FRE 404(b), even though the district court had failed to explain how the evidence was relevant to the defendant’s mental state or why the unfair prejudice did not outweigh its probative value.
  • The court affirmed admission of evidence that Repak had an affair, rejecting his FRE 403 claim.
  • The court rejected the defendant’s challenges to the sufficiency of the evidence for the Hobbs Act extortion counts and the bribery counts.
  • The court rejected Repak’s plain-error challenges to the extortion and bribery jury instructions.
  • The court rejected Repak’s argument that the indictment was constructively amended.
  • The court denied Repak’s claim that the prosecutor committed misconduct during closing arguments. The court did say that the prosecutor’s reference to Repak’s affair was “inappropriate, irrelevant to any issue at trial, and unnecessarily prejudicial.”

Joining Smith were McKee and Shwartz. Arguing counsel were Laura Irwin for the government and Timothy Lyon of Pittsburgh for the defendant.

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