Three new opinions: criminal, copyright, and ERISA [guest post]

This is a guest post by David Goodwin.

It’s August, and to quote Neil Hannon: here comes the flood. Judge Hardiman has all three opinions.

United States v. Porter—Criminal Law (issues abandoned by guilty pleas)—affirming—Hardiman

After the district court denied defendant-appellant Porter’s motion to suppress drugs found in his bag, Porter decided to enter an unconditional plea of guilty. Observing that defense counsel had made noises about wanting to appeal, the district court advised Porter of his appellate rights at sentencing. Porter appealed, and argued that he should be able to attack the district court’s suppression ruling because he had never affirmatively waived his right to do so and because the district court had broadened the scope of appeal rights at sentencing—an apparent attempt to get around the usual rule that suppression rulings cannot be attacked on appeal of unconditional guilty pleas.

In an opinion by Judge Hardiman, the Court disagrees. First, Judge Hardiman performs some doctrinal housekeeping, clarifying that language about how only “jurisdictional” issues survive unconditional pleas is incorrect and the product of label creep; the proper test is whether the issue is “constitutionally relevant” to the conviction. Second, Judge Hardiman observes that there was no “waiver” of appellate rights here (and thus no required intentional relinquishment), but rather something more akin to an automatic forfeiture. Third, the district court’s statements at sentencing did not serve to restore any appellate rights.

Two short comments. First, it is not entirely clear to me whether this decision functionally narrows the scope of claims that survive an unconditional plea or simply preserves the well-established status quo against a novel challenge. Second, I’m surprised that the Court did not resolve the “expanded rights” part of the argument by disentangling the right to appeal from the right to argue certain claims on appeal. But no matter; the Court would have arrived at the same destination.

Joining Judge Hardiman were Judges Cowen and (appropriately) Judge Porter. James Brink argued for the appellant and former Hardiman clerk (and current Pitt adjunct) Ira Karoll argued for the government, in front of his old boss.

Caesars Entertainment Corporation v. International Union of Operating Engineers Local 68 Pension Fund—ERISA/MPPAA—affirming—Hardiman

If you’re anything like me, that caption caused you to recoil, and the subsequent mention of the Multiemployer Pension Plan Amendments Act (MPPAA) to tremble. But 13 pages is a good omen.

This is an appeal by a pension fund from the reversal of an arbitration decision. At issue is a kind of partial pension withdrawal called “bargaining out,” where an employer “permanently ceases to have an obligation to contribute under one or more but fewer than all collective bargaining agreements under which the employer has been obligated to contribute . . . but continues to perform work . . . of the type for which contributions were previously required.” Caesars stopped contributing to an ERISA pension fund at one of its casinos that had closed, but continued doing so for three others. The Fund claimed that Caesars was liable under the “bargaining out” language, and an arbitrator agreed. The district court, however, did not.

Judge Hardiman concludes that the district court got it right. The central issue is whether the statutory language of “work . . . of the type for  which contributions were previously required” includes work of the type for which contributions are still required. He holds that here, “previously” is most properly understood to mean “no longer.”

To get to this point, Judge Hardiman engages in a historical original-public-meaning analysis of the word “previous,” using the “ordinary meaning at the time Congress enacted the relevant provision.” An archaeological dive into genuine historical sources—a dusty copy of Random House, the rare second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, and the forgotten-to-time Fifth Edition of Black’s Law Dictionary—confirms that the learned congressional scribes used “previous” to mean “occurring before.” And the “largest structured corpus of historical English” backs up that “the word’s most common synonyms in the 1970s–80s were ‘before’ (the synonym used roughly 86% of the time), ‘earlier’ (12%), and ‘formerly’ (1%).” Also, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation had said that “merely ceasing or terminating an operation” shouldn’t trigger withdrawal liability. Against this backdrop, the Fund’s “appeal[s] to purposivism”—an argument that the Court’s holding would defeat the purpose of the statute—are unavailing.

Joining Judge Hardiman were Judge Chagares and sitting-by-designation-MVP Judge Siler. Michael T. Scaraggi of Oransky, Scaraggi & Borg argued for the Fund and James Tysse of Akin Gump argued for Caesars.

Silvertop Associates v. Kangaroo Manufacturing—Copyright—affirming—Hardiman

The Copyright Act does not allow for copyright of certain features of “useful articles.” “But how,” you may ask, “does this apply to the validity of copyright vis-à-vis a full-body banana costume?”

Glad you asked! Rasta Imposta holds a copyright in its full-body banana costume. Appellant Kangaroo Manufacturing makes a full-body banana costume that is very, very similar to Rasta’s (the history of this banana mash is set forth in the opinion). Rasta sued and secured a preliminary injunction. On appeal, Kangaroo argued that Rasta’s copyright was not valid.

Relying on recent Supreme Court precedent, the Court holds that while the banana costume is indeed a “useful article,” its artistic features considered as a whole rendered it capable of independent existence as a copyrighted work. And the fact that a banana design can be “found in nature” did not defeat copyrightability because Rasta’s banana had more than a “minimal level of creativity.” Finally, the copyright doctrines of merger and scenes a faire—essentially, “would allowing copyright here grant a monopoly on banana costumes?”—did not apply because . . . well, there are lots of ways to make banana costumes.

Having tweaked Judge Hardiman’s 1980s originalism analysis in Caesars, I must course-correct by expressing my admiration for how he keeps a straight face in the presence of undeniable whimsy (and a citation to a case actually called Whimsicality, Inc. v. Rubie’s Costume Co.) until the very last moment: Rasta may protect the “veritable fruits of its intellectual labor.” Judge Hardiman, you deserve that one. (Also, there’s a really great Appendix that better show up on the Westlaw copy of the opinion.)

Joining Judge Hardiman were Judge Chagares and E.D. Pa. Judge Goldberg sitting by designation. Alexis Arena of Flaster Greenberg argued for Rasta and David Schrader of Paykin Krieg & Adams argued for Kangaroo.