Category Archives: Cases

New opinion—Third Circuit rules that county employee’s complaint about being eavesdropped was protected citizen speech

Javitz v. County of Luzerne—constitutional—partial reversal—Restrepo

The human resources director for a Pennsylvania county complained to her superiors that another county employee had broken the law by recording her meeting with union representatives without her consent. Things went downhill from there: she alleged that the county then retaliated against her, and it eventually fired her without explanation. She sued, alleging that her firing violated her First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The district court ruled for the county on both claims, but today the Third Circuit reversed and remanded on her First Amendment retaliation claim. The court rejected the district court’s ruling that her speech was unprotected because she spoke as a public employee rather than a private citizen: “Who Javitz spoke to, what she spoke about, and why she spoke at all each fall outside the scope of her primary job duties and evidence citizen speech.”

Joining Restrepo were Porter and Fisher. Arguing counsel were Donna EM Davis of Throop, Pa., for the plaintiff, Vernon Francis of Dechert for the ACLU as amicus supporting the plaintiff, and Mark Bufalino of Elliott Greenleaf for the county.

New opinion: getting a TRO to block sports betting turns out to have been a bad gamble

NCAA v. Governor—civil—reversal—Rendell

A party seeking a temporary restraining order has to pay a bond to cover damages sustained if the other side is found to have been “wrongfully enjoined.” So if the district court grants your TRO request but the court of appeals reverses, it’ll cost you. But what if your TRO request was rock solid under controlling precedent at the time you sought the TRO, but the other side persuades the Supreme Court to overrule that precedent? Do you still have to cough up damages?

On Tuesday, the Third Circuit answered that question affirmatively. If the TRO was right when it issued but turns out to have been wrong in the end, then enjoining was wrongful and the TRO’s seeker has to pay.

The issue arose in an interesting context. Recall that, in 2013 and then again in 2016, en banc, the Third Circuit rejected New Jersey’s effort to legalize sports betting. During the second round of litigation, the NCAA and four pro sports leagues got a TRO barring sports betting from starting. But the Supreme Court unexpectedly granted cert and then reversed both Third Circuit decisions, holding that the federal statute barring sports betting violated the Tenth Amendment’s anti-commandeering principle. So the operators of a racetrack argued that they’d been wrongfully enjoined and sought damages on the $3.4 million bond. The district court said no, but the Third Circuit vacated and remanded to calculate the damages. Ironic that the sports leagues’ effort to block gambling turned out to have been a gamble.

Joining Rendell was McKee; Porter dissented in part, arguing that the injunction wasn’t wrongful because it was based only on the statute not its constitutionality. Fascinating split. Arguing counsel were Jeffrey Mishkin of Skadden for the leagues and Ronald Riccio of McElroy Deutsch for the racetrack operators.

New opinion on SEC enforcement injunctions

SEC v. Gentile—civil / securities—reversal—Hardiman

The Third Circuit held today that the statute of limitations which applies to civil fines and penalties, 28 USC § 2462, does not apply to Securities and Exchange Commission enforcement actions seeking injunctions barring future violations and limiting future trading, deepening a circuit split on the question. The court remanded for the district court to decide whether the injunctions sought here are authorized by law.

Joining Hardiman were Krause and Greenberg. Arguing counsel were Dnaiel Staroselsky for the SEC and Adam Ford of New York for the appellee.

Two new opinions

These two opinions issued yesterday but were posted on the court’s website late due to technical issues and I didn’t see them until this morning.

 

Pomicter v. Luzerne County Conv. Ctr.—First Amendment—partial reversal—Scirica

An animal-rights group sought to protest a circuit being held at a county convention center and were told that they must stay inside enclosed areas near the entrance and must not use profanity or voice amplification. The group sued, alleging that these protest policies facially violated their First Amendment free speech rights. The district court agreed, but yesterday the Third Circuit reversed in part. The protesters conceded that the convention center was a nonpublic forum, where restrictions on speech are constitutional if reasonable, and the Third Circuit held that the enclosure requirement was reasonable, but that the bans on profanity and voice amplification were not.

Joining Scirica were Ambro and Greenaway Jr. Arguing counsel were Thomas Campenni of Rosenn Jenkins & Greenwald for the convention center and former Greenberg clerk Alexander Bilus of Saul Ewing for the protesters.

 

Prometheus Radio Project v. FCC—civil / telecom—partial affirmance—Ambro

“Here we are again,” begins the Third Circuit’s opinion in the latest round of litigation challenging Federal Communications Commission rules on broadcast media ownership. The court (1) upheld the FCC’s rule barring mergers by two of the top four stations in a market, and (2) upheld provisions of the FCC’s incubator program for helping new entrants break into the broadcast industry, but (3) vacated the bulk of the FCC’s actions over the past three years involving broadcast ownership by women and racial minorities: ” Although it did ostensibly comply with our prior requirement to consider this issue on remand, its analysis is so insubstantial that we cannot say it provides a reliable foundation for the Commission’s conclusions.”

Joining Ambro was Fuentes; Scirica dissented in part, arguing that the FCC’s actions all pass muster and should be allowed to go into effect. Arguing counsel were Cheryl Leanza of Washington D.C. for one group of petitioners, Dennis Lane of D.C. for another petitioner group, Jack Goodman of D.C. for another petitioner group, Helgi Walker of Gibson Dunn for an intervenor, and Jacob Lewis for the FCC.

New opinion—Rooker-Feldman again

Malhan v. Secretary U.S. Dep’t of State—civil—partial reversal—Hardiman

Two big Third Circuit Rooker-Feldman opinions in less than a week is either a nightmare or pinch-me-I’m-dreaming, depending on your civpro-nerdiness quotient. On the heels of last week’s epic Rooker-Feldman opinion in Weber v. McGrogan, today the court ruled that a man’s federal suit challenging his child-support payments was free to proceed despite an interlocutory state-family-court order that made findings against him. The opinion synthesizes tricky Supreme Court and Third Circuit Rooker-Feldman precedent quite impressively. Younger abstention, too.

Joining Hardiman were Chagares and Goldberg EDPA by designation. Arguing counsel were Paul Clark of Jersey City, New Jersey for the father and Ragner Jaeger of the New Jersey attorney general’s office for the defendants.

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.

Two new opinions: insurance coverage and arbitration

Sapa Extrusions v. Liberty Mutual Insurance—civil / contract / insurance—partial reversal—Porter

The Third Circuit today decided a Pennsylvania insurance-coverage dispute, partially reversing a ruling in the insurers’ favor.

In the underlying lawsuit, a company that made parts used in windows was sued by the window maker after customers complained that the parts were rusting. The partmaker settled with the window company for “a large sum.”

The partmaker then sought to recover under the 28 (!) different commercial general liability policies it had purchased. One might imagine that, if you’re a company who makes a part, the big reason you buy liability insurance is precisely to cover you if you get sued over your part, no? But evidently that point was in doubt given Pennsylvania caselaw involving what occurrences trigger insurance coverage, and the district court ruled that the 28 policies provided zero coverage.

Today, the Third Circuit reversed in part. Focusing on the specific language of the different policies, the court held that under Pennsylvania law most of the policies did not provide coverage because the problems with the part were not unforeseeable, fortuitous events. But the court revived the partmaker’s claims as to nine of the policies which used different language to define coverable occurrences.

Joining Porter were Restrepo and Fisher. Arguing counsel, all three of them top-shelf advocates, were James Martin of Reed Smith for the partmaker, and Teresa Ficken Sachs of Marshall Dennehey and Stephen Cozen of Cozen O’Connor for the insurers. Audio of the argument is here.

 

In re: Remicade Antitrust Litigation—civil / arbitration—reversal—Krause

The Third Circuit today held that a drug wholesaler’s antitrust claims against a pharmaceutical maker for price inflation were covered by an arbitration agreement between the two companies covering any “controversy or claim arising out of or relating to” their distribution agreement. A key issue in the appeal was whether federal or state law governed interpretation of the arbitration clause; the opinion’s bottom line was that non-preempted state law generally governed when it dictated a clear outcome. Applying New Jersey law, the court concluded that the arbitration clause covered the antitrust claims here.

Joining Krause were Shwartz and Fuentes. Arguing counsel were William Cavanaugh Jr. of Patterson Belknap for the pharmaceutical maker and David Sorensen of Berger Montague for the wholesaler.

Five new opinions

Weber v. McGrogan—civil—dismissal—Matey

A woman filed a pro se lawsuit in federal court arising from “her experiences dealing with New Jersey public officials during a child custody matter.” When she filed it, the custody dispute was still being litigated in state court. The district court dismissed her suit on Rooker-Feldman or Younger-abstention grounds, but its dismissal was without prejudice. The pro se plaintiff filed a notice of appeal, was notified by the court the ruling wasn’t final, asked the district court to issue a final ruling, and then agreed to dismiss her appeal. The defendants then asked the district court to dismiss with prejudice because she hadn’t amended, and response, the district court entered a docket entry stating that the case was terminated and citing the prior dismissal with prejudice.

So, was either (1) the docket entry terminating the case, or (2) the earlier order dismissing with prejudice as appealable final order? Today, the court answered this “surprisingly elusive” question in the negative. The docket entry wasn’t a final order because it was a “utility event” instead of a text order. The earlier dismissal wasn’t appealable either, despite prior Third Circuit cases allowing appeals by litigants choosing to stand on their complaint without securing a dismissal with prejudice because the pro se woman’s intent to stand on her complaint here wasn’t clear enough. So the court concluded that the woman still has a live action in district court and that she is free to appeal, again, after the district court enters a final order.

Starting in the introduction and continuing throughout the opinion, Judge Matey employs an epic-journey theme. For example, the opinion opens with a quote from Ulysses and then observes that finality is required for appellate jurisdiction because “an epic poem of problems often follows when charting any other course.” The recitation of the procedural history notes at one point, “And that is where the story begins its journey into mystery.” This style of writing has not been common in the Third Circuit, and it will be interesting to see whether Judge Matey, uh, continues down this path.

Joining Matey were Jordan and Bibas. Arguing counsel were Christopher Zirpoli of Covington & Burling as court-appointed amicus for the plaintiff and Michael Sarno of the NJ office of the attorney general for the state. The court thanked court-appointed counsel for his “able assistance.”

 

Sorry, dear reader, but when the court issues five opinions (!) in one day, and you go on for four paragraphs about the first one, and you’re actually a busy lawyer not a blogger, then the other four cases don’t get their due.

U.S. v. Aviles—criminal—reversal—Rendell

The Third Circuit today vacated a defendant’s sentence because it held that at least two of the prior convictions upon which the sentence was based did not qualify as felony drug offenses under 21 USC § 841.

Joining Rendell were McKee and Roth. Arguing counsel were MDPA AUSA Stephen Cerutti II for the government and MDPA AFPD, and former Fisher clerk, Quin Sorenson for the defendant.

 

North Sound Capital v. Merck—civil—reversal—Krause

The introduction:

In these consolidated appeals, we consider whether the Securities Litigation Uniform Standards Act (SLUSA) prohibits investors from bringing individual actions under state law if they exercise their constitutionally protected right to opt out of a class action. Hewing to SLUSA’s text, we conclude that these opt-out suits and the class actions from which these plaintiffs excluded themselves were not “joined, consolidated, or otherwise proceed[ing] as a single action for any purpose.” 15 U.S.C. § 78bb(f)(5)(B)(ii)(II). Accordingly, we will reverse the District Court’s dismissal of these suits and remand for further proceedings.

Joining Krause was Bibas; Shwartz dissented, arguing that the opt-out actions functioned as a single action with the class action and thus were properly dismissed. Arguing counsel were Daniel Hume for the appellants and Daniel Kramer for the appellees.

 

Chang v. Children’s Advocacy Center of Del.—civil / qui tam—affirmance—Porter

The Third Circuit today ruled that district courts are not statutorily required to hold an in-person hearing before dismissing a complaint under the False Claims Act and Delaware’s state-law analog.

Joining Porter were McKee and Rendell. Arguing counsel were Michael Confusione of Hegge & Confusione for the appellant and Dylan Steinberg for the government.

 

In re: Hackler—bankruptcy—affirmance—Roth

The Third Circuit held that a real-estate-title transfer under New Jersey’s tax foreclosure procedures may be voided under section 547(b) of the bankruptcy code.

Joining Roth were McKee and Porter. Arguing counsel were Elliott Almanza of Goldenberg, Mackler for the appellant and Leonard Walczyk of Wasserman, Jurista & Stolz for the appellee.

Two interesting reversals: one on Eleventh Amendment grounds, the other in a prisoner-civil-rights case

This fall I’m fortunate enough to be a lecturer at Penn Law teaching appellate advocacy. (Co-teaching actually, with Pa. Innocence Project legal director and fellow Third Circuit Bar board member Nilam Sanghvi.) Yesterday I was scrambling to prepare last night’s class, so I’m posting about yesterday’s two interesting published decisions the day after.

 

In re: PennEast Pipeline Co.—civil / Eleventh Amendment—reversal—Jordan

The PennEast Pipeline Company plans to build a controversial natural gas pipeline through New Jersey and Pennsylvania. To acquire the land where the pipeline would go, PennEast wants to seize lots of properties through eminent domain, including 42 properties that are owned by the state of New Jersey. The company claimed authority to seize the properties under the Natural Gas Act of 1938, which lets private gas companies use the federal government’s eminent-domain power. New Jersey fought the company’s condemnation actions, asserting Eleventh Amendment state sovereign immunity, but the district court rejected the state’s argument and let the company’s condemnations proceed.

The Third Circuit vacated and remanded, holding that the company’s condemnation suits involving state property were barred by Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity.  It held that (1) the NGA did not abrogate states’ sovereign immunity and (2) delegating federal eminent-domain power did not delegate federal power to overcome state sovereign immunity. The court recognized that its ruling could disrupt how the natural gas industry has long operated. It explained that gas pipelines “can still proceed” with the government itself doing the condemning of state property, but it acknowledged that new Congressional authorization could be required for this. “In any event, even if the federal government needs a different statutory authorization to condemn property for pipelines, that is an issue for Congress, not a reason to disregard sovereign immunity.”

Joining Jordan were Bibas and Nygaard. Arguing counsel were Jeremy Feigenbaum of the NJ attorney general’s office for the state and James Graziano of Archer & Greiner for the pipeline company.

 

Garrett v. Wexford Health—prisoner civil rights—reversal—Smith

Courts are often criticized for treating cases with wealthy litigants more seriously than cases with poor ones. It’s a fair criticism in my view, but there are exceptions and this case is a glimmering one.

Kareem Garrett was a state prisoner who needed a wheelchair and a walker to get around. After he was transferred to a different prison, the new prison allegedly took away his wheelchair and walker and forbade him from getting assistance from his fellow inmates. Unable to get around, he injured himself falling and wasn’t able to get to the doctor, bathe himself, or get food to eat. So, with no lawyer to help him, Garrett filed a civil rights complaint against officials at the prison, alleging that they denied him needed medical devices, disciplined him for asking for help walking, and laughed when he fell and struggled on the floor.

The corrections office rejected his grievances, concluding that his medical care had been reasonable and no evidence of neglect was found. In district court, Garrett asked for appointment of counsel but was denied. He filed various amendments alleging more factual details and trying to refine his legal claims, with his final amended complaint filed after his release from prison. The district court ultimately dismissed some of his claims for failing to administratively exhaust, and it dismissed the rest for failing to comply with Civil Rule 8’s “short and plain statement” requirement. Undaunted, Garrett appealed.

On appeal, Garrett finally got counsel to represent him pro bono: a Penn Law student supervised by two lawyers at Dechert. (The opinion doesn’t say it, but my understanding is that the decision to seek appointment of pro bono counsel in deserving prisoner appeals is made by the court.) And yesterday, in a 49-page precedential opinion that is thorough, careful, and magnificent, the Third Circuit ruled in Garrett’s favor.

First, the court held that Prisoner Litigation Reform Act’s administrative-exhaustion requirement doesn’t apply to claims filed by former prisoners after their release. So refiling his claims after his release cured any administrative-exhaustion defect, it held, disagreeing with an Eleventh Circuit decision. The court also held that the post-release-filed claims were timely because they related back to the original complaint, acknowledging that this holding conflicted with a recent Tenth Circuit decision.

Second, the court held that the district court abused its discretion by broadly dismissing Garrett’s pro se claims on Rule 8 short-and-plain-statement grounds, underscoring the “even more pronounced” liberal construction courts should apply to pro se pleadings and noting that the defendants’ responses to his claims demonstrate their ability to engage them.

Joining Smith were Chagares and Greenaway Jr. Arguing counsel were Justin Berg (then a Penn Law student, now clerking for an EDPA judge) for the prisoner and, for various defendants, Samuel Foreman of Weber Gallagher, Kemal Mericli of the Pa. attorney general’s office, and Cassidy Neal of Mattis Baum & O’Connor. The opinion expressed the Court’s gratitude to Berg and Stuart Steinberg and Cory Ward of Dechert “for donating their time and talent in accepting this pro bono appointment and for zealously representing Kareem Garrett before our Court.”

 

Third Circuit grants panel rehearing on § 924(c) issue

The Third Circuit today granted panel rehearing to reconsider a criminal appeal. The order granting rehearing is here, and the prior non-precedential opinion is here. The case is U.S. v. Walker, No. 15-4062.

The original panel opinion, inter alia, denied the defendant’s challenge to his firearms conviction under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(3). A couple weeks after the panel issued its opinion, the Supreme Court held in U.S. v. Davis that § 924(c)(3)(B) is unconstitutionally vague.

Today’s rehearing order states:

The petition for rehearing filed by appellant in the above-entitled case having been submitted to the judges who participated in the decision of this Court, it is hereby ORDERED that the petition for rehearing by the panel is granted. The opinion and judgment entered on June 5, 2019, are vacated. The parties are directed to file supplemental letter briefs, limited to five single-spaced pages, addressing the significance of United States v. Davis, 139 S. Ct. 2319 (2019), for the proper disposition of this case. The supplemental letter briefs should be directed to the panel and must be filed within fourteen days.

The prior panel opinion was authored by Judge Krause and joined by Judges Jordan and Roth, and today’s order was signed by Judge Krause for the court.

Third Circuit upholds procedural challenges to man’s deportation

Luziga v. Attorney General—immigration—reversal—Fisher

Here’s the introduction of today’s Third Circuit opinion granting a Tanzanian man’s immigration petition for review:

An Immigration Judge (IJ) decided, and the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) agreed, that Petitioner Ayub Luziga is ineligible for withholding of removal under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) and the Convention Against Torture (CAT) because he was convicted of a “particularly serious crime,” and that he is not entitled to deferral of removal under the CAT  because he failed to carry his burden of proof. Luziga requests our review, arguing that the IJ and BIA made two legal errors. First, Luziga argues that the IJ and BIA misapplied the framework for making particularly serious crime determinations, a framework the BIA itself has established in its precedential opinions. Second, Luziga argues that the IJ failed to observe the rule we articulated in Abdulai v. Ashcroft, 239 F.3d 542, 554 (3d Cir. 2001), requiring immigration judges to notify a noncitizen in removal proceedings that he is expected to present corroborating evidence before finding that failure to present such evidence undermines his claim. We agree that the IJ and BIA erred in these respects; therefore, we will grant Luziga’s petition for review, vacate the underlying order, and remand.

On the first point, misapplication of the particularly-serious-crime framework, the IJ and BIA were required to consider separately the elements of his crime but failed to do so, focusing instead on the facts of the crime.

On the second, corroboration point, the opinion was blunt: “what we prohibit is failing to notify the noncitizen of an unspoken expectation and then penalizing him for failing to meet it,” and “we strictly enforce this rule.”

Joining Fisher were Ambro and Restrepo. Arguing counsel were Khary Anderson for the petitioner and Jennifer Khouri of the DOJ for the government. In a footnote, the court ” express its gratitude to a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, Khary Anderson, and his supervising lawyers, Joseph Patrick Archie and Christopher J. Mauro of Dechert LLP, for their excellent pro bono representation of the Petitioner in this matter.” Not a bad way to start a legal career.

Divided Third Circuit rules that immigration statute’s differential treatment of fathers and mothers violates equal protection

Tineo v. AG—immigration / equal protection—reversal—Greenaway Jr.

Today’s lone precedential Third Circuit case involves an interesting gender-based equal protection challenge to the statutory regime that controls how parents who are U.S. citizens are able to pass citizenship to their children. To over-simplify, the statutes impose some limits on fathers’ ability to pass citizenship to their children that don’t apply to mothers. The petitioner in this case is a citizen of the Dominican Republic who came to the U.S. as a teenager but now faces deportation. His father was a naturalized citizen who was unable (due to the workings of the statute) to pass his citizenship along to him, while his mother would have been able to were she still alive. So he challenged his removal by challenging the statutory regime on gender-discrimination grounds.

The Third Circuit ruled in the petitioner’s favor. It held that intermediate scrutiny applied, and that the gender classification here failed because the government failed to show that it served an important governmental interest today. It further rejected the government’s argument that it should leave any remedy to Congress, holding that the petitioner was entitled to the statutory benefit available to petitioners with similarly situated mothers.

Chief Judge Smith dissented in part, agreeing that intermediate scrutiny applied but arguing that the classification met it.

Joining Greenaway Jr. was Krause, with Smith dissenting in part. Arguing counsel were Nick Curcio of Michigan for the petitioner and Stefanie Hennes of the DOJ for the government.

 

New opinion: a noteworthy habeas reversal

Velazquez v. Superintendent Fayette SCI—habeas corpus—reversal—Greenaway

In a notable habeas case, the Third Circuit today reversed a district court’s denial of relief and held that the petitioner’s trial counsel provided ineffective assistance of counsel in connection with his attempted defense of guilty but mentally ill (GBMI). Pennsylvania law provides that no GBMI plea may be accepted until the judge has examined  the relevant mental-health-expert reports, held a hearing, and determined whether defendant was mentally ill at the time of the offense. In this case, the defendant said he wanted to plead GBMI, but the trial court took a straight guilty plea while promising to hold a GBMI hearing later. The trial lawyer never submitted reports, and the court never reviewed reports, held a hearing, or decided whether the defendant was mentally ill.

A claim for ineffective assistance of counsel has two prongs: deficient performance and prejudice. In the part of the case likely to have the broadest future application, the Third Circuit held that trial counsel’s performance “easily” qualified as deficient given his failure to research a key point of law, namely the applicable GBMI procedures. The harder question was whether the inmate had shown prejudice, especially because a GBMI plea wouldn’t have reduced the length of the sentence he received. The court held that proving prejudice required only demonstrating that he would have pled GBMI, not that the plea was likely to be accepted nor that a lesser sentence would have resulted.

The case also had a jurisdictional wrinkle. The court held that the district court erred by taking at face value the petitioner’s characterization of the relief sought and thus concluding that his claim wasn’t cognizable. The district court should have recognized that the claim was cognizable, imperfect pleading notwithstanding, and even if it weren’t the district court shouldn’t have dismissed it yet.

Having held that the petitioner was entitled to relief on his ineffective-assistance claim, the court remanded to district court with instructions to grant the habeas petition and to vacate the petitioner’s present judgment.

Joining Greenaway were Smith and Chagares. Arguing counsel were Rosemary Auge of the EDPA federal defenders for the inmate and Travis Anderson of the Lancaster County DA’s office for the Commonwealth. The opinion praised the petitioner’s current counsel, Auge and Arianna Freeman, for “skillfully and diligently” catching a misreading of the record made by every court and lawyer before and persuading the court to hear the petitioner’s GBMI claim.

It’s Judge Ambro Day at the Third Circuit

I posted earlier about the en banc decision issued today in the TSA-tort-liability case, in which the opinion for the court was authored by Judge Ambro. The court issued two panel opinions today too, and both of them were authored by Judge Ambro as well. Three published opinions by one judge issued on the same day? Impressive. Pretty sure this is the first time that’s happened in the five-plus years I’ve been doing the blog.

Verma v. 3001 Castor, Inc.—civil / employment — affirmance —Ambro

The cogent introduction:

A jury in the District Court awarded more than $4.5 million to a class of dancers at the Penthouse Club, an “adult gentleman’s club” in Philadelphia owned and operated by 3001 Castor, Inc., for unpaid minimum wages and unjust enrichment under Pennsylvania law. The Court denied the motion of Castor to set aside the verdict, and it appeals to us. We join our District Court colleague, Judge Brody, in concluding that, as a matter of “economic reality,” the dancers were employees of Castor, not its independent contractors, and we reject Castor’s novel argument that the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) precludes the class’s claims for unjust enrichment. We also conclude that Castor is not entitled to any credit or offset against the jury award for payments already received by the dancers. We thus affirm across the board and sustain the jury’s verdict.

Joining Ambro were Greenaway and Scirica. Arguing counsel were John Innelli of Philadelphia for the club and Jamisen Etzel of Carlson Lynch for the dancers. So, two men argued this appeal in front of a panel made up of three men: not how it oughtta be.

 

Matheis Jr. v. CSL Plasma—civil / disability—reversal—Ambro

The Third Circuit held that plasma-donation centers are subject to the Americans with Discrimination Act’s bar on unreasonable discrimination by “service establishments,” joining the Tenth Circuit in a split with the Fifth.  The court further held that the district court erred in dismissing an ADA challenge to a center’s bar on plasma donations by anyone who uses a psychiatric service animal.

Joining Ambro were Restrepo and Fisher. Arguing counsel were Zachary Nahass of the CGA law firm for plaintiff, Bruce Douglas of Ogletree Deakins for the center, and John Delacourt of the Plasma Protein Therapeutics Association for amicus.

En banc Third Circuit rules that TSA screeners aren’t immune from tort suit

Pellegrino v. U.S.A. Transportation Security Admin.—civil—reversal—Ambro

The en banc Third Circuit today held that TSA officers not immune from suit for intentional torts. The Federal Tort Claims Act waives federal sovereign immunity for specified intentional torts “investigative or law enforcement officers,” defined as “any officer of the United States who is empowered by law to execute searches, to seize evidence, or to make arrests for violations of Federal law.” TSA screeners meet that definition, the court held, and “Words matter.”

The en banc court split 9 to 4. The majority: Chief Judge Smith and Judges Ambro, McKee, Chagares, Greenaway, Shwartz, Restrepo, Bibas, and Porter. The dissenters: Judges Jordan, Hardiman, Krause, and Scirica. (Judges Matey and Phipps joined the court after the oral argument and thus did not participate per circuit practice.) It’s a fascinating, ideologically fractured split sure to generate lots of conversation and tea-leaf reading by court watchers.

The panel decision had come out the other way, with Judges Krause and Scirica the majority and Judge Ambro dissenting.

Judge Krause dissented with gusto, describing the majority’s reading of the statute as “breathtaking”  and “textually unsound” and arguing that it creates a circuit split.

Arguing counsel were Paul Thompson of McDermott Will for the plaintiffs and Mark Sherer for the screeners and the government.

New opinion: plaintiff adequately alleged deliberate indifference in suit arising from mentally ill man’s suicide during police encounter

Haberle v. Borough of Nazereth—civil rights / disability—reversal—Scirica

The first time this case was before the Third Circuit, the court partially reversed the district court’s dismissal, holding that the American with Disabilities Act applies to police officers making an arrest and remanding to let the plaintiff amend her claim. I summarized that opinion as follows:

A severely depressed man with a gun was in an apartment threatening to kill himself. Fearing for the man’s life, his longtime partner called the Nazareth, PA, police to help. But instead of waiting for trained crisis negotiators to arrive, a local police officer called his fellow officers “a bunch of fucking pussies” and decided to go in himself because “[t]his is how we do things in Nazareth.” When the officer knocked on the door and identified himself as a police officer, the man inside killed himself.

The man’s estate sued the officer and the borough, alleging various constitutional violations and violation of the Americans with Disability Act. The Third Circuit yesterday upheld the dismissal of the constitutional claims, holding that the officer’s conduct does not shock the conscience, but remanded to allow the plaintiff to amend her ADA claim, holding that the ADA applies to police officers making an arrest.

On remand, the plaintiff amended her ADA claim, the district court dismissed again, and the plaintiff appealed again. Today, the Third Circuit reversed again, holding that the plaintiff’s allegations of deliberate indifference were sufficient because she “alleges facts that support a history of encounters between disabled individuals and Department personnel that resulted in harm to those individuals, the Department’s awareness of those encounters and their risks, and its failure to adopt an offered policy to address them.”

Joining Scirica were Ambro and Greenaway. The appeal was decided without oral argument.

New opinion—trial court erred in reducing punitive damages based on nominal-damages award

Jester v. Hutt—civil—partial affirmance—Hardiman

The Third Circuit today upheld a civil verdict in favor of a horse-boarding facility for breach of contract and defamation. The boarding facility had brought the claims against an owner of horses it had boarded, and the horse owner had countersued for negligence and related claims. The jury found for boarding facility and awarded compensatory and nominal damages plus $89,999 in punitive damages, which the trial court reduced to $5,500.

Both sides appealed, and the Third Circuit sided with the boarding facility. The court rejected the horse owner’s challenges to the verdict, and it vacated the trial court’s reduction of the punitives award. It held that precedent requiring proportionality between punitive damages and compensatory damages doesn’t apply to nominal damages, so the trial court erred in relying on the $1 nominal-damages award for defamation as a basis for slashing the jury’s punitives award.

Joining Hardiman were Porter and Cowen. Arguing counsel (not labeled as such in the opinion, but confirmed by the audio) were Gordon Einhorn of Thomas Thomas & Hafer for the horse owners and Mark Bradshaw of Stevens & Lee for the boarding facility.

Third Circuit rejects challenge to legislative prayer, grants en banc rehearing in Amazon third-party-vendors case

Fields v. Speaker of the Pa. House of Representatives—civil / First Amendment—partial affirmance—Ambro

The Pennsylvania House of Representatives opens legislative sessions with a prayer by a guest chaplain, but it bars nontheists from giving these prayers. Today, the Third Circuit rejected several constitutional challenges to the theistic-prayer-only policy. “As to the Establishment Clause, we uphold the policy because only theistic prayer can satisfy the historical purpose of appealing for divine guidance in lawmaking, the basis for the Supreme Court taking as a given that prayer presumes a higher power.” The court also held that the House’s request that visitors rise for the prayer was constitutional because it was not coercive.

[Disclosure: I provided some minor consulting assistance on appeal to counsel for the challengers.]

Joining Ambro was Fisher. Restrepo dissented in part, arguing that the House policy violates the establishment clause because it “purposefully excludes adherents of certain religions and persons who hold certain religious beliefs from serving as guest chaplains.” Arguing counsel were Karl Myers of Stradley Ronon for the House Speaker and Alexander Luchenitser of Americans United for Separation of Church & State for the challengers.

 

Also today, the court granted rehearing en banc in Oberdorf v. Amazon.com. In Oberdorfer, a divided panel had held that, under Pennsylvania law, Amazon was a seller in third-party-vendor sales and thus strictly liable for defective products sold by other vendors on its website. The now-vacated panel opinion is here, my blog post is here.

New opinion—filing deadline for railway-worker whistleblower claims isn’t jurisdictional

Guerra v. Consolidated Rail Corp.—civil—affirmance—Porter

The Federal Railway Safety Act requires employees alleging whistleblower retaliation to file an agency complaint within 180 days. The Third Circuit held today that this FRSA filing deadline is a claim-processing rule, not jurisdictional. The Court nevertheless affirmed dismissal of the complaint on timeliness grounds, rejecting the employee’s mailbox-rule argument on the facts. Judge Porter’s opinion was well-crafted, a model of clear and readable judicial writing.

Joining Porter were Hardiman and Cowen. Arguing counsel were Lawrence Katz of Coffey Kaye for the employee and Joseph Sirbak, II of Cozen O’Connor for the railroad.

 

 

Three new opinions, zero affirmances

Stone v. Troy Construction—civil—reversal—Jordan

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, the statute of limitations to bring suit is a year longer if the FLSA violation was willful. Today, the Third Circuit reversed a district court’s ruling that employees’ claims were barred by the shorter deadline for non-willful violations, holding that the district court applied an overly burdensome standard for assessing wilfulness when it effectively required employer conduct worse than recklessness.

Joining Jordan were Krause and Roth. Arguing counsel were Matthew Miller of Swartz Swidler for the employees and James Boudreau of Greenberg Traurig for the employer.

 

Secretary US Dept. of Labor v. Bristol Excavating—civil—reversal in part—Jordan

In the second of today’s Jordan-authored FSLA reversals, the Third Circuit held that bonuses paid by third parties to employees do not automatically count as “remuneration” that employers must include when calculating the employees’ over time rate. Instead, whether bonuses paid by third parties must be included in the overtime-pay calculation depends on the understanding of the employer and the employees, to be determined case-by-case.

Joining Jordan were Smith and Rendell. (Smith replaced Vanaskie on the panel after the latter’s retirement.) Arguing counsel were Casandra Blaney of Brann Williams for the employer and Rachel Goldberg for the labor department.

 

Wolfington v. Reconstructive Orthopaedic Assocs.—civil—partial reversal—Fuentes

A surgery patient alleged that his medical provider violated the Truth in Lending Act by failing to make certain disclosures about installment payment of his deductible. The Third Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the claim on the ground that TILA’s disclosure requirement did not apply to the oral agreement here. But the Third Circuit vacated the district court’s sua sponte imposition of Rule 11 sanctions, holding that substantive grounds for the sanctions were mistaken and that sua sponte awards of attorneys’ fees under Rule 11 are not allowed.

Joining Fuentes were Krause and Cowen. Arguing counsel were Peter LeVan Jr. of the LeVan Law Group for the appellant and Laura Ruccolo of Capehart Scatchard for the medical provider.

New opinion: Third Circuit revives abortion-clinic buffer zone

Turco v. City of Englewood—civil—reversal—McKee

In response to ongoing incidents outside a local health clinic that provided women’s health services including abortion—members of an antiabortion group were gathering outside the clinic and engaging in “extremely aggressive, loud, intimidating, and harassing behavior” towards patients and others—the city of Englewood, New Jersey enacted a buffer-zone ordinance. The ordinance had the effect of requiring the aggressive protesters as well as others to keep a set distance from the clinic. The ordinance was challenged in federal court by a sidewalk counselor who alleged that the buffer-zone ordinance violated her First Amendment speech and free-association rights, and the district court granted summary judgment in her favor.

Today, the Third Circuit reversed, holding that genuine factual issues precluded summary judgment and that the Supreme Court’s 2014 McCullen decision was distinguishable because it involved a substantially larger buffer distance (35 feet versus 8 feet).

Joining McKee was Siler CA6 by designation; Vanaskie had been the third panel member before he retired. Arguing counsel were Donald Klein of the Weiner Law Group for the city and Francis Manion of the American Center for Law and Justice for the plaintiff.

New Opinion: University of Immigration Honeypot [guest post]

This is a guest post by David Goodwin.

Fang v. USCIS—immigration—vacating—McKee

Much as there is no North Orange, there is also no University of Northern New Jersey. Apparently, DHS created a fake university in order to catch brokers of fraudulent F1 student visas, but managed to ensnare plenty of actual students as well. The plaintiff students were informed by DHS, by letter, that their valid F-1 status had been terminated due to their “fraudulent enrollment” in the fake school. They sued, but the District Court dismissed under 12(b)(1), determining that there had been no final agency action and also that the case was not ripe.

Writing for the Court, and expressing a great deal of displeasure with what appears to have been the government’s shifting position on the students’ culpability, Judge McKee disagrees. Under the APA, the order terminating the visas was final, and thus subject to federal court challenge, because 1) “there is no statutory or regulatory requirement that a student seek reinstatement after his or her F-1 visa has been terminated” (or even a clear way to do so), and 2) removal proceedings at which the plaintiffs could challenge the visa revocation might not ever happen, and the plaintiffs could not actually raise such a challenge in removal proceedings. Judge McKee elevates the second part of this discussion to an independent holding: “We therefore hold that removal proceedings cannot serve as an opportunity to review the USCIS’s denial of reinstatement because neither immigration judges nor the BIA have jurisdiction to review those decisions.” With regard to ripeness, Judge McKee applies the Circuit’s ripeness test and concludes that all factors are satisfied.

(Judge McKee observes, in footnote 100, that the agency might not have had statutory authority to cancel the visas in the first place.)

Joining Judge McKee were Judge Restrepo and Judge Fuentes. The original District Judge was Judge Linares, who has since retired; I’m curious to see who picks this up on remand.

Ira Kurzban of Kurzban, Kurzban, Tetzeli and Pratt argued for the students. Joshua Press argued for the government.

Three of a Perfect Pair [guest post]

This is a guest post by David Goodwin.

In re. Various and Sundry § 2244(b) Applications—§924(c)(3) residual clause—granting—Greenaway

In United States v. Davis, 139 S. Ct. 2319 (2019), the Supreme Court held that 18 U.S.C. §924(c)(3)(B) is unconstitutionally vague, the latest in a line of decisions invalidating “crime of violence” residual clauses. Decided while these applications to file second or successive § 2255 motions were pending,  Davis essentially answered the question posed by each; while the government continued to oppose aspects of some individual applications, Judge Greenaway’s short opinion for the court observes that they all involve merits inquiries and can be addressed by the relevant District Courts.

(I know of at least one person whose head will explode at the references to § 2255 motions as habeas petitions…)

Joining Judge Greenaway were Judge Ambro and Judge Chagares. Arguing were Arianna Freeman for the applicants and former Cowen clerk Steve Sanders (back in the appeals division!) for the government.

Mammana v. BOP—prison conditions/8th amendment—vacating—Fuentes

Former federal prisoner Anthony Mammana alleged that, while in disciplinary segregation, he was placed for four days in the ominously named “Yellow Room”: a chilled room with constant lighting, no toilet paper, no bedding and an extremely thin mattress, and only paper-like clothing. He claimed that these conditions of confinement violated the Eighth Amendment. The District Court dismissed, deeming these conditions “uncomfortable,” but not unconstitutional.

Writing for the Court, Judge Fuentes vacates and remands under the standard of Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825 (1994); although since Mammana had pleaded that the defendants were aware of what was happening, the “sole issue” on appeal was whether the deprivation was sufficiently serious. Although individual conditions may not themselves amount to a deprivation, “mutually enforcing” conditions can add up to a deprivation. Here, Mammana had adequately alleged individual deficiencies that added up to a plausible deprivation of “the minimal civilized measure of life’s necessities,” such as warmth and sufficient sleep. His Eighth Amendment claim should have been allowed to proceed.

A curiosity: according to the opinion, the Magistrate Judge recommended that this part of Mammana’s complaint (I think?) be allowed to go forward. While Mammana lodged objections, the government did not. Nevertheless, the District Court appears to have reviewed the Report and Recommendation de novo anyway, knocking out the “only claim currently surviving.” (In the Third Circuit, the District Court’s decision to review de novo despite a failure to object can set up a blank slate for appeal, which appears to have happened here.)

Joining Judge Fuentes were Judge Shwartz and Judge Krause. The case was decided without oral argument. Matthew B. Weisberg of Weisberg Law and Gary Schafkopf of Schafkopf & Burgess are listed as Mammana’s counsel. AUSA D. Brian Simpson represented the government defendants.

Golden v. NJIT—attorney fees—reversing—C.J. Smith

The plaintiffs in this case submitted records requests to the New Jersey Institute of Technology (“NJIT”) under a state law authorizing them to do so. (The law in question gets abbreviated as “OPRA,” which I will not use because it conjures the fanciful mental image of Ms. Winfrey personally ordering the disclosure of public records and having opinions about fees.) Some of the requests implicated documents originating with the FBI, which refused to allow their disclosure. But once litigation began, however, the FBI and NJIT reversed course and produced many additional records. “A-ha!” crowed the plaintiffs. “This New Jersey state law is a fee-shifting statute, and so we can now go after you for attorney’s fees, you fools!” But the District Court shook its head. “Not so fast, you Pulitzer-winning putzes. The defendants acted reasonably and no nexus existed between your lawsuit and the disclosure. No fees!”

Writing for the Court, Chief Judge Smith frowns upon this conclusion. Under the “catalyst” theory, which the NJ Supreme Court follows, plaintiffs can recover if there’s a “factual causal nexus” between the litigation and the relief ultimately received (even if not actually ordered by the court) if the relief had a “basis in law.” Here, there was a causal nexus, and NJIT’s reliance on the FBI’s directives does not change its status as the relevant custodian. With regard to reasonableness, Judge Smith does not think the relied-upon NJ Supreme Court decision supports NJIT’s position; “the ‘reasonableness’ language in [the decision] refers to the reasonableness of an agency’s efforts to comply with a document request before a lawsuit is filed—not whether the proffered basis for denying access is reasonable.” Thus, the plaintiffs were entitled to fees, and the Circuit remands back to the District Court to decide dollars and cents.

There’s a bunch of fascinating stuff going on here, including a threshold jurisdictional holding about federal officer removal under 28 U.S.C. §1442(a)(1), which comes up far less often than you’d expect. The FBI removed the case to federal court as a third party, but did so in a “facially inadequate” notice that failed to enumerate the required conditions for removal. Chief Judge Smith concludes that all four are, in fact, satisfied; the most interesting factor, in my view, is a proposed federal defense that the relevant records were not subject to the state law of disclosure (rathe than, say, FOIA). Also, in footnote 13, the Court appears to join the Fifth and Eighth Circuits (among others, possibly; it’s a see, e.g. cite) to hold that third-party defendants can remove under the federal officer statute.

Joining the Chief were Judge Chagares and Judge Greenaway.

Katie Townsend of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press argued for the appellants, and Gary Potters of Potters & Della Pietra is listed as counsel for the appellees; I guess the FBI wasn’t actually participating despite appearing on the caption (it didn’t have to pay).

 

A new opinion on the Dormant Commerce Clause and right to interstate travel [guess post]

This is a guest post by David Goodwin.

Owner Operator Independent Drivers Association v. Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission—Dormant Commerce Clause (!)/right to travel (!!)—affirming—Shwartz 

The Pennsylvania Turnpike is, apparently, really expensive—Verrazzano Bridge levels of expensiveand has gotten more so in recent years. No less an authority than Pennsylvania’s Auditor General has sounded the alarm. Intriguingly, the revenue actually collected exceeds what is needed to run the Turnpike, and is distributed to four different state programs—projects that, as will become important momentarily, are authorized by the federal Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (we’ll call this “the Act”).

The plaintiffs sued, alleging violations of the Dormant Commerce Clause and the constitutional right to interstate travel. The District Court dismissed, and the Third Circuit affirms.

Under the Dormant Commerce Clause, states may not discriminate against or unduly burden interstate commerce. Writing for the Court, Judge Shwartz observes that Congress may authorize states to take actions that burden interstate commerce, at which point the Dormant Commerce Clause doesn’t apply at all. Here, the Act, which is excerpted at length, is an expression of Congress’s “unmistakably clear” intent to allow for the use of toll revenues for non-toll projects, which in turn must contemplate that toll revenues can exceed the operating costs of the toll road. A failure to comply with annual certification requirements of the Act did not bring the defendants’ actions outside of the authorization or within the scope of a Dormant Commerce Clause challenge.

With regard to the right to interstate travel, Judge Shwartz holds that simply making one mode of travel less attractive or more burdensome does not implicate the right. That some may switch from toll roads to non-toll roads, in other words, does not rise to the level of impermissible deterrence.

(Because I am compelled to do so, I note that the font size changes suddenly for a single paragraph at the bottom of page 19, before popping back up to regular size at the end of the affected paragraph. A contribution from another panelist, perhaps?)

Joining Judge Shwartz were Judge Krause and Judge Fuentes. Paul D. Cullen, Sr.  of The Cullen Law Firm argued for the appellants (Junior was also on the brief). Duane Morris’s Robert L. Byer, a former Pennsylvania judge and founding member of the Third Circuit Bar Association, and Schnader’s Bruce P. Merenstein, a former Becker clerk, argued for the appeellees.  The Miguel Estrada filed one of the amicus briefs.

 

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.

 

Three new opinions: disability rights in prison, establishment clause echoes, and habeas [guest post]

This is a guest post by David Goodwin.

Robert Furgess v. Pennsylvania DOC—ADA/§ 504—vacating—Roth

Robert Furgess, a Pennsylvania prisoner, suffers from a serious neuromuscular disorder. When he was transferred to the prison’s Restrictive Housing Unit, he was no longer provided with accessible showers, and was not able to shower for months. When the prison finally cobbled together a makeshift replacement, Furgess injured himself and has since been confined to a wheelchair.

Under the ADA and § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, a person may not be prevented from participating in a program, service, or activity, or otherwise be subject to discrimination, by reason of his disability. So is a prison shower a program, service, or activity? And even if it was, did the prison deprive Furgess of access to it “by reason of” his disability?

Writing for the Court, Judge Roth answers both of these questions in the affirmative.

First, case law and administrative guidance make plain that the “program, service, or activity” label is to be construed broadly, and Judge Roth distinguishes a relied-on Seventh Case that could be read to narrow the scope of the statute. Requests for accessible showers, Judge Roth concludes, “are requests for reasonable accommodations so that inmates with disabilities can take a shower—just like able-bodied inmates.”

Second, although the prison argued that Furgess lost access to the shower because of his transfer to the RHU, Judge Roth reads his complaint as alleging that the actual causal factor was his disability itself, not the transfer. Besides, “a prisoner’s misconduct does not strip him of his right to reasonable accommodations.” And Furgess had otherwise adequately alleged deliberate indifference, as his complaint recited the myriad occasions where Corrections officials had been alerted to, yet failed to address, his request for an accessible shower.

(A small point of curiosity: the opinion recites a short pre-Twombly version of the 12(b)(6) boilerplate, although the Court has held that this particular formulation survived Twombly/Iqbal.)

Joining Judge Roth were Judges Jordan and Krause. John F. Mizner of the Mizner Law Firm argued for Furgess, and Kemal Mericli in the AG’s office argued for the Commonwealth.

Freedom from Religion Foundation v. Lehigh County—Establishment Clause—affirming—Hardiman

For almost 75 years, the official seal of Lehigh County, Pennsylvania has included a Latin cross surrounded by nearly a dozen secular symbols of historical, patriotic, cultural, and economic significance to the community.” This is an Establishment Clause challenge, and those particular facts should sound more than a little like the facts from American Legion v. American Humanist Association, 139 S. Ct. 2067 (2019). As that challenge failed, it should not surprise that this one does, too.

As Judge Hardiman explains, American Legion clarified that the much-unloved three-prong Lemon test does not apply to certain longstanding symbols, which instead enjoy a presumption of constitutionality. Freedom from Religion had not adequately shown that the presumption of constitutionality did not apply, and then failed to rebut the presumption. While the Court does not dismiss on standing grounds, Judge Hardiman’s opinion appears to invite an en banc (or Supreme Court) challenge to Establishment Clause “offended bystander” standing.

Joining Judge Hardiman are Judges Krause and Bibas. Marcus B. Schneider of Steele Schneider argued for the appellants; I checked, and Pierce Brosnan has never played a character named Steele Schneider, although there’s still time. Eric Baxter of the Becket Fund argued for Lehigh County. There were many amicus briefs filed.

Steven Romansky v. Superintendent Greene SCI—state habeas—affirming—Ambro

This case, described as a “procedural quagmire,” encompasses trials, retrials, and various applications for state collateral relief, all culminating in a federal habeas petition. What follows is a gross oversimplification.

The main claim before the Court is that, during his 1987 trial, Romansky was tried for a crime different from the one actually charged. But Romansky did not file his federal habeas petition until 11 years after the time to do so apparently expired, and so his claim would appear to be time-barred. Romansky argued that a 2000 retrial “reset” the habeas timeline under Magwood v. Patterson, 561 U.S. 320 (2010), which held that a resentencing results in a new judgment and, thus, that a subsequent habeas petition cannot be “second or successive” for at least certain challenges to that new judgment.

Complicating Romansky’s Magwood argument, however, is the fact that the challenge he now raises derives from his 1987 trial, not the retrial on other counts that had been vacated. And on these facts, Judge Ambro concludes, the habeas timeline was not restarted by the revised partial judgment entered in connection with the retrial. Judge Ambro acknowledges that the outcome might be different in jurisdictions following a “sentencing package” doctrine, where even a partial vacatur results in an entirely new sentence on everything, but “the Pennsylvania counts [sic? I think this should be “courts”] imposed separate sentences for each count and conducted only a ‘limited’ resentencing after the retrial.” As a result, Romansky’s main claim is time-barred.

Romansky also argued that his 2000 retrial counsel was ineffective for failing to raise a certain defect (apparently conceded by the Commonwealth to be an actual defect, on which he never received relief) with his 1987 trial despite repeated requests. This claim, while timely, fails on the merits; Judge Ambro holds that 2000 counsel had no obligation to raise claims affecting counts not before the court in the 2000 retrial, and that Romansky could not bring an federal constitutional ineffectiveness claim based on 2000 counsel’s failure to file a PCRA petition or other collateral attack. Whew.

Judge Ambro declines to expand the certificate of appealability to reach additional claims. Of note, one of them alleged that Pennsylvania, in deciding to adopt a grand jury system, was essentially bound by Supreme Court precedent on federal grand juries, even though the constitutional grand-jury requirement has not been incorporated to the states. The Court rejects this “creative” argument.

Joining Judge Ambro were Chief Judge Smith and Judge Restrepo. Ronnie J. Fischer of Bugaj Fischer argued for Romansky, and James P. Baker of the A.G.’s office argued for the Commonwealth.

Four new opinions, including a debut [guest post]

This is a guest post by David Goodwin.

It’s a veritable law of nature, as regular and predictable as the sun rising each day. You’re at a cocktail party, chatting away, and you mention the name “Judge Anthony Scirica.” Always the same response: “Oh!  General Electric Credit Corporation v. Nardulli & Sons!” Or maybe, during your weekly North Bowl league, someone spies retired Judge Timothy Lewis a few lanes down, leans over, and whispers, “Look over there! Mr.  Geisinger Health Plan v. Commissioner himself . . .  whoah, 215?” And who can forget learning in law school about “the legendary Learned Hand, author of  Metropolitan Trust Co. v. McKinnon?”*

Among today’s opinions is a similar debut. Without further ado . . .

United States v. Ronald Damon—Criminal Law (scope of appeal waivers)—affirming—Matey

When Ronald Damon pleaded guilty, he signed a waiver of his rights to file any appeal, collateral attack, writ, or motion challenging” a within- or below-Guidelines “sentence imposed by” the court. The issue: in this context, does a request for early termination of a period of supervised release, brought under 18 U.S.C. 3583(e)(1),  fall within the scope of the waiver? The District Court thought the answer was “yes,” and enforced the waiver to bar Damon’s challenge.

Writing for the Court, Judge Matey agrees. “Sentence,” Judge Matey holds, refers to “all penalties” imposed on Damon, and therefore must extend to his term of supervised release. And while Damon had argued that he was not challenging his sentence in the manner contemplated by the plea agreement, Judge Matey sees this as a distinction without a difference: a request for a modification seeks also to challenge the underlying sentence. Both parts of the analysis, I note, rely heavily on dictionary definitions.

While this decision arrives in the context of supervised release, it may plausibly extend to the more-common 3582(c)(2) discretionary sentencing challenges, too. Whether 3582(c)(2) motions fall under the ambit of broad appeal waivers is, I think, still an open question in the Circuit;  Damon may shut that door.

Joining Judge Matey were Judges Jordan and Bibas. Federal Defender Julie McGrain argued for Damon and AUSA John Romano argued for the government.

Nicholas Bergamatto v. Board of Trustees of the NYSA-ILA Pension Fund—ERISA—affirming—Jordan

This complex ERISA appeal has, as its core, two main issues: 1) was the plaintiff entitled to more benefits from his plan than he received, and 2) does the Third Circuit recognize a “de facto administrator” theory, where a plan participant sues not the plan’s actual administrator, but an entity that is alleged to function as the administrator, under a statute penalizing the late provision of plan information?

On the first point, Judge Jordan rules that the deferential standard applicable to ERISA review—”arbitrary and capricious/abuse of discretion” when, as here, the plan administrator exercises discretionary authority—dooms the plaintiff’s claims. The plan language was not ambiguous, and the administrator’s decision aligned with that language.

On the second point, Judge Jordan’s opinion for the Court makes plain that the Circuit does not recognize a de-facto plan administrator theory. The plaintiff sued the Executive Director of the plan, arguing he was a “de facto” administrator and thus subject to suit under 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(A), which is explicitly limited by § 1132(c)(1) to “administrators” who fail to comply with requests for information. As Judge Jordan notes, most other Courts of Appeals, save the 11th and 1st Circuits, have rejected the idea that someone can be liable to suit as an administrator despite not being an administrator under ERISA, and both the plain language of the statute and relevant Third Circuit precedent cut against the de facto administrator theory. “In short,” Judge Jordan writes, “we must restrict application of the title ‘administrator’ to those who fit the statutory definition and not stretch the term to authorize penalties against others whom a disappointed plan participant might like to reach.”

Joining Judge Jordan were Chief Judge Smith and Judge Matey. The case was submitted without oral argument.

Abdul Jaludi v. Citigroup—arbitration/Sarbanes-Oxley/contracts—partial reversal—C.J. Smith

Jaludi, a former Citigroup worker, allegedly blew the whistle and was laid off for his troubles. He sued under RICO (apologies to Ken White) and Sarbanes-Oxley. Citigroup moved to compel arbitration, relying on a 2009 employee Handbook with expansive arbitration clauses that explicitly encompassed Sarbanes-Oxley claims, even though Dodd-Frank amended Sarbanes-Oxley to prohbit pre-dispute agreements to arbitrate whisleblower claims (and which, in turn, led the 2011 Handbook to delete Sarbanes-Oxley from the list of arbitrable claims). The District Court held that arbitration was nevertheless required.

Chief Judge Smith’s opinion for the Court reverses in part. The “in part” here is due to the presence of the RICO claim, which did fall within both Handbooks’ arbitration provisions. Judge Smith otherwise holds that the 2011 Handbook, which eliminated Sarbanes-Oxley from the list of arbitrable claims, superseded the 2009 Handbook. Taking an opportunity to clarify the state of Circuit law on whether there is an agreement to arbitrate, Judge Smith emphasizes: “we make clear today that the question of whether a later agreement supersedes a prior arbitration agreement is tantamount to whether there is an agreement to arbitrate. It is therefore a question to which state law, not federal law, applies.” And, under Pennsylvania law, “the later of two agreements between the same parties as to the same subject matter generally supersedes the prior agreement.”

This is the same panel as the case above, so joining Chief Judge Smith are Judges Jordan and Matey.

Jaludi originally proceeded pro se. Drexel’s Federal Litigation and Appeals Clinic was appointed as pro bono counsel, with recent graduate Sydney Melillo arguing for Jaludi mere days after graduating (and, hopefully, before bar prep got too out of hand). Thomas Linthorst of Morgan Lewis argued for Citigroup.

In re: Google Inc. Cookie Placement Consumer Privacy Litigation—class actions/cy pres awards—vacating—Ambro

This is a sequel to a 2015 decision about Google’s successful manipulation of browser cookie-blocking features—”don’t be evil” indeed. On remand, the parties agreed to a settlement and moved to certify a Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(b)(2) class. The  cy pres settlement, though, didn’t benefit any of the class members, and instead directed Google to cover class counsel’s fees and donate money to data privacy organizations, in exchange for which Google would obtain class-wide release.

The Ted Frank objected to the settlement, arguing that the cy pres money properly belongs to the class as compensation.

Judge Ambro’s opinion for the Court strikes a middle ground: while cy pres settlements may be appropriate for some 23(b)(2) classes, the District Court’s fairness analysis here was not sufficient. As a threshold issue, Judge Ambro concludes that the plaintiffs have standing under In re Nickelodeon Consumer Privacy Litigation, 827 F.3d 262, 273–74 (3d Cir. 2016). On the merits, the Court “see[s] no reason why a cy pres-only (b)(2) settlement that satisfies Rule 23’s certification and fairness requirements could not ‘belong’ to the class as a whole, and not to individual class members as monetary compensation.” But although the District Court here ran through the appropriate factors, Judge Ambro was “not persuaded the Court sufficiently assessed the fairness, reasonableness, and adequacy of the settlement,” and particularly the broad class-wide release of money-damages claims and the selection of specific cy pres recipients. The Court remands, warning:

The vista view of this case is not pretty. According to the complaint, an internet behemoth with unprecedented tools for monitoring private conduct told millions of Americans it would not track their personal browser history, and then it did so anyway to profit from the data. Through the proposed class-action settlement, the purported wrongdoer promises to pay a couple million dollars to class counsel and make a cy pres contribution to organizations it was already donating to otherwise (at least one of which has an affiliation with class counsel). By seeking certification under Rule 23(b)(2), the defendant and class counsel avoid the additional safeguards that apply to Rule 23(b)(3) actions. One might think this would leave room for class members to pursue damages individually; yet that relief is foreclosed as well, as the settlement contains a nationwide release of claims for money damages that arose or could arise were there unauthorized snooping, presumably covering tens if not hundreds of millions of Americans. In this context, we believe the District Court’s factfinding and legal analysis were insufficient for us to review its order certifying the class and approving the fairness, reasonableness, and adequacy of the settlement.

Joining Judge Ambro were Judge Krause and Judge Rendell. Enthusiasts of PDF-creation intrigue—I mean,  who isn’t these days?—will note that this opinion, alone of the 4, does not hyperlink footnote calls to the actual corresponding footnotes.

The Ted Frank of the Competitive Enterprise Institute argued for the appellants. Brian R. Strange of Strange & Butler and Anthony Weibell of Wilson Sonsini argued for the appellees. Oramel Skinner of the Arizona AG’s office argued on behalf of a grab-bag of amicus appellant states.

*: Yes, yes, I know, this is an opinion he issued as a District Judge sitting by designation. It was legitimately hard to tell which opinion was his first for the Second Circuit proper, as Court did not distinguish between its two Hands for quite some time.

 

 

New Decision: Applying McDonnell on 2241 Review [guest post]

This is a guest post by David Goodwin.

Robert Cordaro v. United States—Criminal Law (corruption/habeas)—affirming—Chagares

Robert Cordaro, a former Lackawanna County commissioner, allegedly wasted no time using his office for private financial gain, chiefly by influencing the awarding of contracts. Classic! He was convicted of bribery, Hobbs Act extortion, and racketeering. After the Third Circuit affirmed his conviction, Cordaro unsuccessfully challenged it via 28 U.S.C. § 2255.

But then the Supreme Court decided McDonnell v. United States, 136 S. Ct. 2355 (2016), which narrowed the definition of “official act”—a development, Cordaro claimed, that rendered his conduct non-criminal. He initially tried to file a second 2255 motion, but his application was denied. So instead, Cordaro filed an actual federal  habeas corpus petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2241, which he could do only if 2255 was inadequate or ineffective to test the legality of his detentionthe “Dorsainvil” exception, which applies when subsequent statutory developments have rendered a person’s underlying conduct non-criminal. The District Court agreed with Cordaro that he was entitled to take advantage of the Dorsainvil exception, but denied his petition on the merits, concluding that he had failed to show that no reasonable juror would have convicted him if properly instructed under McDonnell.

The Third Circuit affirms. First, Judge Chagares holds that the Dorsainvil exception was proper here, as a retroactive application of McDonnell could conceivably render Cordaro’s conduct non-criminal (but see more below).

Second, Judge Chagares agrees with the District Court that, even under McDonnell, Cordaro had failed to show his conduct was non-criminal. Cordaro used his influence in the awarding and maintenance of contracts, specifically agreed to act on the contracts in question, and apparently received direct payments from some of the contractors. “Taking this evidence together,” Judge Chagares writes, “would some reasonable juror conclude that Cordaro committed official acts as defined by McDonnell? The answer is yes.” To Cordaro’s point that the various firms contracted with independent agencies, not the county itself, Judge Chagares concludes that the flow of authority makes no difference. “[W]hatever the chain of technical legal authority . . . there is ample evidence that Cordaro agreed to, could, and did influence who kept and lost contracts with county entities.” Judge Chagares likens this aspect of the case to the Court’s recent decision in United States v. Repak, where the appellant had argued, unsuccessfully, that making recommendations about contracts was different than directly acting on them.

At least one aspect of Cordaro’s argument appears to have been affected by the constricted procedural posture: he argued that erroneous jury instructions could have led the jury to convict him for the noncriminal meetings, as opposed to the influencing of contracts. Since this isn’t a direct appeal, but is instead a collateral attack under 2241, the standard is what a properly instructed jury would do under McDonnell, not what the actual jury in the case actually did.

Finally, the Court defers decision on several open questions:

  • Whether 2255(e), the safety valve that allows for the Dorsainvil exception to function, is a jurisdictional restriction that affects whether the District Court can entertain a 2241 petition on the merits from a federal prisoner.
  • Whether McDonnell applies retroactively on collateral review at all (the government conceded that it did, but its concession does not actually govern, and the Court says only that McDonnell “arguably satisfies” the retroactivity test).
  • Whether the “official acts” holding of McDonnell applies to Hobbs Act extortion and racketeering (which neither party questioned) or § 666 bribery (which was contested; the Court assumes it does because the claim fails anyway).

Joining Judge Chagares were Judge Ambro and Judge Greenaway. AUSA Stephen Cerutti argued for the government and Nixon Peabody’s Brian T. Kelly argued for Cordaro.

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.

New opinion: The 4th Amendment and Exclusionary Rule in Immigration Proceedings [guest post]

This is a guest post by David Goodwin.

Erick Yoc-Us v. Att’y Gen.—Immigration—Granting Petition—Rendell

Today’s PO addresses the  other major non-DC Circuit area of administrative law: immigration petitions for review. Many immigration cases incorporate elements of criminal law, often with regard to whether certain crimes are deportable offenses.   This one, though, is a variation on the theme, asking whether the exclusionary rule of the Fourth Amendment, which prevents the government from using the fruits of an illegal search or seizure in a criminal prosecution, applies in immigration proceedings when state officials, not federal officials, are responsible for the underlying violation. In an opinion by Judge Rendell, the Court holds that the answer is “yes,” grants the petition, and remands for an evidentiary hearing so that the constitutional claim can be developed further.

Petitioners Yoc-Us and Espantzay were passengers in a van that was pulled over by a Pennsylvania state trooper, ostensibly for speeding. Greatly condensed, the officer allegedly prolonged the stop once he determined that some of the passengers were non-citizens, ordering them to a nearby rest stop and refusing to allow them to leave until ICE arrived.

At the outset of deportation proceedings, the petitioners moved to suppress the evidence of their alienage discovered as part of the traffic stop, arguing that the stop violated their Fourth Amendment rights. The immigration judge (“IJ”) denied the motion without a hearing, ruling that the exclusionary rule was not available because the sovereign that committed the violation—here, Pennsylvania—had nothing to do with the non-criminal deportation proceeding. The IJ also thought that the stop was constitutional. The Board of Immigration Appeals (“BIA”) affirmed, relying on INS v. Lopez-Mendoza, 468 U.S. 1032 (1984), for the proposition that the exclusionary rule is only available in deportation proceedings when there are “egregious Fourth Amendment violations” that are fundamentally unfair. The BIA also agreed with the IJ that there was no prima facie case for suppression, so a hearing was not warranted.

Judge Rendell’s opinion for the Court disagrees with the agency. I will tackle the issues in a slightly different order than presented in the opinion.

First, in the main holding, Judge Rendell concludes that a “partial” exclusionary rule is available in deportation proceedings where state action (as opposed to federal action) is challengedthe “intersovereign” problem noted by the IJ. Relying on the Supreme Court’s post-Lopez-Mendoza “reluctance to have state and local officers engage in enforcement of federal immigration laws,” as expressed in recent decisions such as Arizona v. United States, 567 U.S. 387 (2012), Judge Rendell reasons that the rationale for applying the partial exclusionary rule in instances of federal officer misconduct operates with equal force when state officials have allegedly acted outside the bounds of the Constitution.

The upshot: the exclusionary rule can apply to state conduct when the record shows 1) a constitutional violation that is “fundamentally unfair,” 2) a violation that undermines the reliability of evidence, or 3) a pattern of widespread violations. In so holding, the Court joins the Fourth Circuit, which uses a similar rule.

Second, the record suggested that the petitioners had shown a prima facie violation of the Fourth Amendment because the officer arguably prolonged the stop to contact ICE and investigate their status.

Third, the allegations were egregious enough to warrant an evidentiary hearing, at least, because seizures or arrests based on race or perceived ethnicity can indeed amount to “egregious” violations of the Constitution. “The facts alleged by Petitioners,” Judge Rendell writes,” if supported by evidence, could support the conclusion that the illegal extension of the stop was solely based on race or perceived ethnicity.” Because the full facts of the claim awaited further development, Judge Rendell did not pass on its ultimate merits.

It’s a fascinating decision, although the underlying relief (basically, finding that the denial of the evidentiary hearing was an abuse of discretion) was fairly narrow, and the effect doctrinally appears to be simply extending the Third Circuit’s preexisting federal rule to the state-officer context. Of course, the opinion’s reliance on the Supreme Court’s aversion to state enforcement of federal immigration law sounds an ominous note; the author of Arizona is no longer on the Supreme Court, although Chief Justice Roberts did vote with the Arizona majority.

Joining Judge Rendell were Judges Ambro and Scirica. Joanna J. Cline of Pepper Hamilton argued for the petitioners and OIL’s Dana M. Camilleri for the government.

New opinion: a reversal in favor of the Social Security Administration [guest post]

This is a guest post by David Goodwin.

Russell Hess v. Commissioner of Social Security—Social Security—Reversal—Jordan

Approximately 1,500 federal lawsuits challenging the denial of Social Security or SSI benefits are filed each month. “[N]o other type of appeal from an administrative agency,” two law professors have remarked, “generates anywhere near the volume of litigation for district courts that disability claims do.” Wildly divergent outcomes in the agency yield wildly divergent outcomes across the district courts—even though Social Security cases, like other administrative cases, are ostensibly characterized by deference to the agency’s decision-making.

Today’s decision is about that central tension in the face of a perceived eagerness, on the part of district courts, to deny the agency the deference it is due. In Hess, the claimant lost before the agency, but prevailed in District Court. The government appealed, arguing that the Social Security Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) gave “valid” reasons for denying benefits that the District Court had incorrectly overlooked. The Third Circuit agreed and, in a decision by Judge Jordan, reversed with instructions to enter judgment in favor of the government.

The “somewhat complicated question” presented by the government’s appeal is whether the ALJ’s finding that Hess suffered from “moderate difficulties” in concentration, persistence, and pace undermined both a limitation to jobs requiring only simple instructions and questions along those lines to a vocational expert, as part of the complex interplay among the five steps used to determine whether a claimant is disabled. The District Court had thought that Ramirez v. Barnhart, 372 F.3d 546 (3d Cir. 2004), required any questions posed to the vocational expert at step five to include the limitations found at previous steps. Not so, Judge Jordan says: “the findings at steps two and three will not necessarily translate to the language used at steps four and five,” even though the statement of limitation does need to reflect the claimant’s particular impairments.

Next, Judge Jordan concludes that a “simple tasks” limitation fairly reflected the finding of moderate difficulties, because the ALJ offered a “valid explanation” for it. Ramirez, Judge Jordan writes, “did not hold that there is any categorical prohibition against using a ‘simple tasks’ limitation” after a finding that a claimant “often” faces concentration, persistence, or pace difficulties. A “valid explanation” satisfies Ramirez‘s requirements.

The final piece of the puzzle is whether the ALJ’s decision was a true “valid explanation.” Central to Judge Jordan’s answer of “yes” are the ALJ’s extensive findings about the extent of Hess’s disabilities, such as the relative weight assigned by the ALJ to various expert reports, which are summarized across several pages of the decision.

Joining Judge Jordan were Judge Roth (whose statement about “magic word” requirements in a 1993 partial concurrence is cited with approval) and Judge Krause. Jordana Cooper argued for the government and Thomas F. Meister of Marzzacco Niven & Associates argued for the claimaint-appellee.

New opinion: Third Circuit approves attachment of U.S.-based assets of Venezuela’s state-owned oil company [guest post]

This is a guest post by David Goodwin.

Crystallex International v. Venezuela—Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act—affirmance—Ambro

In 2011, Venezuela nationalized its gold mines and seized gold deposits belonging to plaintiff Crystallex. Crystallex won an international arbitration award against Venezuela, confirmed its arbitration award in D.C., and set about trying to collect. An attempt to thwart asset transfers to various other entities using Delaware’s Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act was unsuccessful, but Crystallex also went after the U.S.-based holdings of PDVSA, Venezuela’s state-owned oil company. Arguing that PDVSA was an “alter ego” of Venezuela under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976, Crystallex prevailed below, and today, the Third Circuit affirmed.

Judge Ambro’s opinion for the Court acknowledges the fraught political backdrop, but is anything but tentative; rather, it is a muscular, confident opinion in a very technical area of law. Jurisdictional pitfalls abound, but the primary issue is the proper application of First National City Bank v. Bancec, 462 U.S. 611 (1983), which allows judgment creditors to go after instrumentalities of foreign sovereigns if they are so “extensively controlled” that a principal/agent relationship is created. Judge Ambro summarizes the topline conclusions on pages 13 and 14, and I can do no better than to simply quote them below:

(A) whether the Bancec “alter ego” doctrine determines the District Court’s jurisdiction to attach PDVSA’s assets (it does), (B) the scope of the Bancec inquiry and whether its factors are satisfied here (they are), and (C) whether PDVSA’s shares of PDVH [the holding company for CITGO] are immune from attachment under the Sovereign Immunities Act (they are not).

There are several innovations along the way. For instance, the Court concludes that under 28 U.S.C. § 1963, sovereign immunity exceptions extend to subsequent enforcement actions that arise out of earlier litigation—which is what happened here, in what Judge Ambro terms a “continuation” of the arbitration confirmation proceedings in D.C. district court. And, in particular, Judge Ambro looks to two recent Supreme Court decisions—Republic of Sudan v. Harrison, 139 S. Ct. 1048 (2019), and Rubin v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 138 S. Ct. 816 (2018)—as clarifying application of the Sovereign Immunities Act and the Bancec inquiry. With regard to the latter, Judge Ambro’s opinion applies slightly different factors (from Rubin) than the District Court applied, but comes to the same conclusions. In fact, Judge Ambro writes on page 33 that actual application of Bancec is “straightforward.”

Joining Judge Ambro were Greenaway and Scirica.

The opinion cites extensively from oral argument, and with good reason: it was a four-hour tour de force. Joseph Pizzurro of Curtis Mallet-Prevost Colt & Mosle argued for PDVSA, Gibson Dunn’s Miguel Estrada argued for Crystallex, Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer’s Kent Yalowitz argued for Venezuela, and Sullivan & Cromwell’s Amanda F. Davidoff argued for amicus appellants Blackrock Financial Management and the delightfully named Contrarian Capital Management. While he didn’t argue, former DNJ U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman was on Venezuela’s brief.

New opinion: Third Circuit rejects argument that immigration law’s stop-time rule applies to character requirement

Mejia-Castanon v. A.G.—immigration—affirmance—Scirica

Dissents in the Third Circuit are rare enough, but dissents authored by non-Third Circuits sitting by designation are rarer still. Once a year, maybe? It happened today in an immigration appeal, where Sixth Circuit Judge Siler (who must be the circuit’s most-frequent sitter-by-designation) dissented.

Immigrants subject to deportation can apply for cancellation of removal if they can show (a) 10 years of continuous physical presence and (b) good moral character. Congress modified the physical presence requirement with the stop-time rule, which says that physical-presence clock stops once the government serves a notice to appear.

The question in today’s appeal was whether the stop-time rule applies to the moral-character requirement, too. If an immigrant’s presence after notice service can’t help him for accruing 10 years, does that mean that bad acts after service can’t hurt him for proving good character? The court held that the stop-time rule does not apply to the moral-character requirement, holding that the relevant statute was ambiguous and applying Chevron deference to the BIA’s interpretation. The dissent disagreed, arguing that the statute wasn’t ambiguous. In my view the dissent’s reading would be less unfair but the majority’s reading is correct, alas.

Joining Scirica was Ambro; Siler CA6 by designation dissented. Arguing counsel were Theodore Murphy of the Murphy Law Firm for the immigrant and Sabatino Leo for the government.

 

Two new opinions, two interlocutory appeals, and two dissents

Obashi Investment Ltd. v. Tibet Pharma., Inc—civil / securities—reversal—Hardiman

In a rare certified interlocutory appeal, the Third Circuit today held that, as a matter of law, non-voting board observers affiliated with an insurer’s placement agent were not similar to directors for purposes of Section 11 of the Securities Act and therefore were not subject to suit under that provision.

Joining Hardiman was Scirica; Cowen dissented. Arguing counsel were A. Neil Hartzell of Boston and Michael Tremonte of New York for the appellants and Laurence Rosen of the Rosen Law Firm for the appellees.

 

Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. v. Permanent Easement for 7.053 Acres—civil—reversal—Greenaway

From the introduction of today’s majority opinion:

On interlocutory appeal, this case now presents us with a single legal issue: whether state law or federal law governs the substantive determination of just compensation in condemnation actions brought by private entities under the [Natural Gas Act]. Because federal law does not supply a rule of decision on this precise issue, we must fill the void with a common law remedy. In doing so, we opt to incorporate state law as the federal standard. Accordingly, we will reverse the District Court’s order reaching the opposite result.

Joining Greenaway was Ambro. Chagares dissented, acknowledging that the “Supreme Court may well agree when it considers this legal issue” and that other courts’ holdings support it but arguing that the contrary outcome was compelled by a 1943 Supreme Court case. Arguing counsel were Elizabeth Witmer of Saul Ewing for the gas company and John Stieh of Levy Stieh for the landowners.

Immigration cases are awful

Radiowala v. A.G.—immigration—affirmance—Greenaway

In an unflinching opinion that reflects the workaday grotesquery of our immigration laws, the Third Circuit today denied a deportation challenge brought by a man who came to America from India fleeing violence 20 years ago, raised a family, built a successful business, and lost it all after a traffic stop.

The Board of Immigration Appeals denied cancellation of removal, ruling that the man met every requirement but one: that removing him would cause sufficient hardship to his family. The BIA accepted that the man’s business was the sole financial support for the entire family, providing food and shelter, college tuition for three kids, and medical care for a fourth in high school. All four of his kids are here legally, two as Dreamers and two as U.S. citizens. But the BIA ruled that eliminating the family’s sole source of rent, tuition, and medical care wasn’t family hardship enough. Its ruling on that score, the Third Circuit held today, in a pained opinion that begins, “We are a nation of immigrants,” was “unreviewable.”

Joining Greenaway were Chagares and Greenberg. The appeal was decided without oral argument.

New opinion—Third Circuit rules for challengers to Pa. billboard laws

Adams Outdoor Advertising v. Pa. DOT—civil—partial reversal—Ambro

A billboard company challenged Pennsylvania’s laws regulating billboards, alleging that (1) the ban on billboards near exits was (a) vague or (b) a content-based speech restriction barred by First Amendment scrutiny and that (2) the permit process violates the First amendment because there is no time limit for processing permit applications. Today, the Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the vagueness challenge, remanded the First Amendment content-based challenge for intermediate-scrutiny review, and affirmed the district court’s ruling that the lack of an application-decision time limit violates the First Amendment.

Joining Ambro were Smith and Restrepo. Arguing counsel were Victor Cavacini of Gross McGinley for the billboard company and Claudia Tesoro for the state.

Four new opinions, including an ACA blockbuster

Commonwealth of Pa. v. President United States of America—civil—affirmance—Shwartz

The Third Circuit on Friday upheld a preliminary injunction blocking the Trump administration’s effort to provide major exemptions to the ACA’s contraceptive-care requirement. Pennsylvania and New Jersey challenged the administration’s attempted action under the Administrative Procedures Act. The Third Circuit held that the states had standing given their costs for state-funded health care resulting from lack of access to contraception. On the merits, the court held that the administration violated the APA by proceeding without notice-and-comment procedures, that its action was neither authorized by the ACA nor required by RFRA, and that the district court did not abuse its discretion by entering a nationwide injunction. Without a doubt this is one of the Third Circuit’s highest profile recent opinions. (And the panel was impressively quick for a major case, issuing the opinion less than two months after oral argument.)

I imagine the government is certain to seek Supreme Court review; it may seek rehearing en banc first, but I’d predict the odds are against it being granted. Stay tuned.

Joining Shwartz were McKee and Fuentes. Arguing counsel were Michael Fischer, chief deputy for impact litigation for the Pa. AG’s office, for the states; Hashim Moopan for the government (who in the linked profile lists his daily habit as reading How Appealing); and Mark Rienzi of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty for intervenors.

 

Tilija v. AG—immigration—reversal—Greenaway

The Board of Immigration Appeals improperly denied a Nepali petitioner’s motion to remand his removal proceeding, the Third Circuit held. The BIA failed to accept his new evidence as true, and under the correct standard the man successfully made a prima facie claim for remand.

Joining Greenaway were Shwartz and Bibas. Arguing counsel were Rachel Horton of Schnader Harrison for the petitioner and Andrew Oliveira for the government.

 

U.S. v. Blunt—criminal—reversal—Restrepo

A husband and wife were convicted of benefits fraud after a joint trial, and on appeal they argued that the district court erred in denying their motions to sever. The Third Circuit agreed, vacating both defendants’ convictions: the husband’s because he was prejudiced by his wife’s otherwise-inadmissible testimony, and the wife’s because she was forced to choose between her privilege against testifying against her spouse and her right to testify in her own defense.

Joining Restrepo were Smith and McKee. Arguing counsel were Jennifer Wilson (whose MDPA nomination is pending before the full Senate) for the wife, former Fisher clerk Quin Sorenson of the MDPA defenders for the husband, and Kim Daniel for the government.

 

Nkomo v. AG—immigration—affirmance—Hardiman

The Third Circuit rejected an immigration petitioner’s argument that the immigration judged lacked jurisdiction over her removal proceedings because the notice to appear failed to specify the time and place of the hearing. It also rejected her challenges to removal on the merits.

Joining Hardiman were Chagares and Siler CA6 by designation. The appeal was apparently decided without oral argument.

Catching up on the summer opinion tidal wave—part II [updated]

Coba was issued July 8, the other two on July 5.

Coba v. Ford Motor Co.—civil—affirmance—Krause

[Update: in response to a panel-rehearing petition, the court issued an opinion on July 26 revising footnote 10 to remove its assertion that the appellant had mischaracterized evidence and to clarify why the evidence did not support the appellant’s position. The amended opinion is now linked above, the old opinion is here.]

Ford sold vehicles for a decade with gas tanks whose linings flaked off into the gas, and, as you might imagine, that wasn’t a bit good for the vehicles’ fuel filters, injectors, or engines. The plaintiff here sued in New Jersey federal court, alleging various state-law theories. The district court entered summary judgment for Ford, and the Third Circuit affirmed. After confirming that the district court had jurisdiction under CAFA even though it denied class certification before its final ruling, the court upheld summary judgment on all grounds, including that a warranty for defects in materials or workmanship does not cover design defects.

Joining Krause were Jordan and Roth. The case was decided without oral argument.

 

Spartan Concrete Prods. v. Argos USVI—antitrust—affirmance—Hardiman

Two Virgin Islands concrete companies engaged in a price war. The companies used the same concrete supplier, and that supplier gave a 10% volume discount to the bigger one but not the smaller one. The smaller company sued the supplier, alleging antitrust price discrimination. The district court entered a directed verdict for the supplier, and the Third Circuit affirmed. The court held that the plaintiff failed to show antitrust injury essentially because it failed to show that its inability to win the price war was caused specifically by the 10% discount. The court also upheld the denial of the plaintiff’s belated motion to amend its complaint to add other claims.

Joining Hardiman were Chagares and Restrepo. Arguing counsel were Christopher Kroblin of Kennerhals Ferguson for the plaintiff and Howard Feller of McGuire Woods for the supplier.

 

U.S. v. Santarelli—habeas—reversal—Restrepo

In a decision that’s notable for habeas lawyers but likely rather impenetrable for everyone else, the Third Circuit held that (1) a petitioner’s amended claims related back to those in her original petition and (2) the petitioner’s motion to raise additional claims that she filed after the district court’s denial was not a successive petition because it was filed before she exhausted all of her appellate remedies from the denial of the initial petition.

Joining Restrepo were McKee and Ambro. Arguing counsel were Connor Baer (formerly of K&L Gates, now clerking for a Third Circuit judge) for the petitioner and Sean Camoni for the government. K&L Gates was appointed by the Third Circuit to represent the petitioner on appeal pro bono.

The summer opinion tidal wave is upon us—recent opinions, part I

It’s July, which means Third Circuit clerkships are wrapping up and the scramble to get opinions out the door is on. Last month was the calm before the storm. This month: the storm. I’m out of town this week and had two deadlines yesterday so I’m sadly behind on my blogging. This is my first of two posts summarizing the recent opinions.

United States v. Payano—criminal—reversal—Krause

This is a significant criminal opinion. The Third Circuit held that a district court’s miscalculation of a defendant’s statutory sentencing range was plain error. The court emphasized the difference between the plain-error “substantially affects” standard for prejudice and a preponderance standard, and it held that the error here met that standard largely due to the prosecution’s reliance on the error in its sentencing arguments. The court rejected the argument that statutory-sentencing-range errors are presumptively prejudicial like Guidlines-range errors are.

Joining Krause were Jordan and Roth. Arguing counsel were former Restrepo clerk Abigail Horn of the EDPA defenders for the defendant and Bernadette McKeon for the government.

 

GN Netcom v. Plantronics—civil—partial reversal—Fisher

Hard to beat this intro for clarity:

GN Netcom, Inc. filed an antitrust lawsuit against competitor Plantronics, Inc. Plantronics executives deleted emails relevant to the litigation and instructed others to do the same. Many of these emails were unrecoverable, prompting GN to move for default judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37. The District Court acted within its discretion when it denied the motion for default judgment, instead instructing the jurors that they were permitted to draw an adverse inference against Plantronics because of the missing emails. However, the District Court committed reversible error when it excluded GN’s expert testimony on the scope of Plantronics’ spoliation. Accordingly, we will affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand for a new trial.

Joining Fisher were Smith in part and McKee; Smith dissented in part, disagreeing that excluding expert testimony on spoliation warranted reversal. Arguing counsel were Elisabeth Theodore of Arnold & Porter for GN and Jon Dean of California for Plantronics.

 

Forrest v. Parry—civil rights—partial reversal—Greenaway

“Woefully deficient” is how the Third Circuit described the Camden Police Department’s investigation of officer-misconduct complaints, and things only went downhill for the defendants from there. The Third Circuit held that the district court improperly granted summary judgment on some claims, improperly excluded evidence, and issued jury instructions that confused to the relevant law. The core problem was that the district court drew artificial lines between different theories supporting the claims and the evidence supporting them.

Joining Greenaway were Bibas and Fuentes. Arguing counsel were former Fisher clerk Elizabeth Rose of Sullivan & Cromwell for the plaintiff, and Daniel Rybeck and Lilia Londar of Weir & Partners for the defendants.

 

Simon v. Gov’t Virgin Islands—criminal—partial reversal—Rendell

The Third Circuit reversed the denial of habeas corpus relief on two claims, holding that (1) the petitioner was entitled to an evidentiary hearing on his claim that the prosecution failed to disclose a prior deal with a witness and (2)  he also was entitled to an evidentiary hearing on his ineffective-assistance claim where his trial counsel also represented a co-conspirator.

Joining Rendell were Smith and Jordan. Arguing counsel were Joseph DiRuzzo III of Florida for the petitioner and Su-Layne Walker for the Virgin Islands.

New opinion—Third Circuit holds that one of world’s largest sellers is a “seller”

Oberdorf v. Amazon.com—civil—partial reversal—Roth

Amazon is subject to strict liability for injuries caused by defective products sold by other vendors on its website, the Third Circuit held today.

A woman sued Amazon after a dog collar she bought on Amazon from a third-party vendor broke and the recoiling dog leash left her blind in one eye. Her claims included strict liability, negligence, and failure to warn. Amazon moved for summary judgment on two grounds, both improbable-sounding. First, it argued that it wasn’t a “seller” in sales on its website involving third-party vendors and thus couldn’t be held strictly liable under Pennsylvania product-liability law. Second, it argued that it was a “provider … of an interactive computer service” posting “information provided by another information content provider” (think Craigslist or an online chat room) and thus shielded from liability by the Communications Decency Act. The district court sided with Amazon on both counts.

Today, the Third Circuit largely reversed. It held that (1) under Pennsylvania law, Amazon is a “seller” in third-party-vendor sales from its website, and (2) Amazon is not shielded from liability by the CDA for third-party-sale claims that are based on its “role as an actor in the sales process,” but it is shielded for claims based on its failure to add information such as warnings to vendors’ content.

Joining Roth were Schwartz in full and Scirica in part. Scirica dissented as to strict liability, arguing that “well-settled Pennsylvania products liability law precludes treating Amazon as a ‘seller’ strictly liable” for third-party-vendor claims. Arguing counsel were Eric Miller—formerly of Perkins Coie, now of the Ninth Circuit—for Amazon and David Wilk of Lepley Engelman for the woman.

New opinion: pretrial-release order no barrier to ICE detainer

United States v. Soriano Nunez—criminal / immigration—affirmance—Shwartz

A defendant was indicted for falsely claiming U.S. citizenship and related crimes. The magistrate judge denied the government’s motion for pretrial detention and set conditions for her pretrial release, but ICE blocked her release by lodging a detainer. The defendant moved to dismiss the indictment or release her, and the district court denied both requests. Today, the Third Circuit held that (1) it lacks jurisdiction to hear the motion to dismiss the indictment before judgment, and (2) the criminal-case release order does not foreclose ICE detention.

Joining Shwartz were McKee and Fuentes. Arguing counsel were Robert Zauzmer for the government and Jose Campos of Philadelphia for the defendant.

Three new opinions

E.D. v. Sharkey—civil rights—affirmance—Restrepo

[Disclosure: I helped to author an amicus brief filed on behalf of the ACLU and other groups in support of the immigration detainee, and I assisted the detainee’s able counsel with oral-argument preparation as a moot court judge.]

An employee at the controversial immigrant family detention center in Berks County, Pennsylvania, had sexual contact with a woman being detained there. The woman had fled Honduras with her three year-old child to escape violence and sexual assault. She filed a civil-rights suit alleging that the employee coerced her into giving in to his sexual demands and that the other staffers failed to stop him. The defendants moved for summary judgment, asserting qualified immunity and challenging the merits and municipal liability, and the district court ruled largely in the woman’s favor.

Today, the Third Circuit affirmed the denial of qualified immunity, holding that immigration detainees are entitled to the same due process protections as pretrial detainees, that the right not to be sexually assaulted by a state employee while confined was clearly established, and that the right to be protected by co-workers aware of ongoing assaults also was clearly established. The court observed that the disputed question of consent did not support summary judgment given both Pennsylvania law and ICE policies barring detainee sexual abuse regardless of consent, and the court questioned whether consent will be relevant at trial. Finally, the court denied the county’s appeal for lack of jurisdiction because it challenged municipal liability not qualified immunity.

Chief Judge Smith concurred to express concern about the form of the district court’s order, which (as EDPA opinions often do) set out its reasoning in a single footnote. He observed that, while footnote opinions are not inherently problematic, this one’s failure to identify undisputed facts and its cursory discussion without referring to record evidence fell short of what the Third Circuit requires in qualified immunity cases.

Joining Restrepo were Smith and Fuentes; Smith also concurred. Arguing counsel were Matthew Connell of MacMain Law Group for the appellants and Su Ming Yeh of the Pa. Institutional Law Project for the woman.

 

TD Bank v. Hill—civil / intellectual property—partial reversal—Krause

A long-running dispute between a bank and its former CEO culminated in a messy copyright squabble over a book the CEO wrote. Parts of his book, it seems, were adopted from a manuscript he’d written when he was still CEO for which the bank held a copyright. The district court rejected the CEO’s defenses on the copyright claims, but it vacated the broad injunction that the district court had entered blocking him from selling the book because no presumption of irreparable harm applied and because the bank had no real plans to publish its manuscript. The opinion includes nods to the case’s subject matter like “the latest chapter,” “the plot thickened,” “the best laid plans of mice and men,” and “peripeteia.”

Joining Krause were Fuentes and Cowen in part; Cowen dissented in part, arguing that the majority erred in ruling that the bank hadn’t waived its copyright-assignment argument. Arguing counsel were William Tambussi of Brown & Connery for the bank and Howard Hogan of Gibson Dunn for the CEO.

 

United States v. Baker—criminal—affirmance—Jordan

At the government’s request, the Third Circuit today published a previously non-precedential opinion in a criminal appeal, holding that the district court did not err in (1) refusing to give an entrapment instruction, (2) refusing to instruct the jury on an “I only meant to borrow it” defense to stealing public money, or (3) barring testimony by the defendant’s wife about her medical expenses.

Joining Jordan were Krause and Roth. The case was decided without oral argument.

New opinion: Third Circuit upholds denial of plea withdrawal

U.S. v. James—criminal—affirmance—Jordan

A Virgin Islands man with no criminal record and a third-grade education pled guilty to conspiracy to sell drugs. Several months later, he sought to replace his lawyer, asserting that counsel had coerced into pleading guilty. New counsel was appointed and quickly moved to vacate the man’s plea, asserting entrapment by an informant. The district court denied the motion, reasoning that entrapment did not justify withdrawal of a guilty plea because it was merely legal innocence not factual innocence.

Today, the Third Circuit rejected the district court’s reasoning but affirmed anyway. First, the court held that the plea agreement’s waiver of appellate challenges to his sentence was not a waiver of challenges to his conviction including denial of motion to withdraw his plea. Second, joining the majority of a lopsided circuit split, the court held that an assertion of legal innocence such as entrapment can support withdrawal of a guilty plea. Here the court clarified that its 2001 Brown decision rejected an effort to withdraw a guilty plea based on insufficiency of the evidence, not legal innocence.  But third, it held that the defendant’s entrapment claim was factually insufficient to make the district court’s denial of plea withdrawal an abuse of discretion.

Joining Jordan were Smith and Rendell. Arguing counsel were Daniel Lader of Florida for the defendant and Sigrid Tejo-Sprotte for the government.

Three new opinions, including a notable employee-retaliation-suit reversal

Baloga v. Pittston Area School Dist.—contsitutional / public employment—partial reversal—Krause

The unimprovably clear introductory paragraph:

Mike Baloga, a custodian for the Pittston Area School District and vice president of the custodial union, alleges that the District and its maintenance director, Jim Serino, violated his First Amendment rights by retaliating against him based on his union association and related speech. Treating Baloga’s speech and association claims together, the District Court granted summary judgment in favor of the District and Serino, concluding that Baloga’s activity was not constitutionally protected because it did not implicate a matter of public concern. As we recently emphasized in Palardy v. Township of Millburn, however, where a public employee asserts retaliation in violation of the First Amendment as a free speech claim and a pure union association claim, those claims must be analyzed separately, and consistent with longstanding Supreme Court precedent, there is no need to make a separate showing of public concern for a pure union association claim because membership in a public union is “always a matter of public concern.” 906 F.3d 76, 80–81, 83 (3d Cir. 2018), cert. denied, No. 18-830, — S. Ct. —, 2019 WL 2078114, at *1 (May 13, 2019). Because Baloga has raised a triable issue about whether he was retaliated against based solely on his union association, we will affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand for further proceedings.

Joining Krause were Cowen and Fuentes. Arguing counsel were Cynthia Pollick of the Employment Law Firm for the custodian and Thomas Specht of Marshall Dennehey for the school district.

 

In re: S.S. Body Armor I, Inc.—bankruptcy—affirmance—Greenaway

Honestly, I struggled while reading this opinion to get over the fact that someone decided to name their company “S.S. Body Armor I.” It ended badly. In this appeal, the Third Circuit held that the district court’s denial of an emergency stay motion qualified as an appealable final order because denying the stay prevented “a full airing of the issues on appeal and a decision on the merits.” On the merits, it held that the district court properly denied the stay motion, a holding ultimately derived from its rejection of one side’s striking argument that $5 million in attorneys’ fees was inadequate compensation for its preservation of a specific legal claim.

Joining Greenaway were Ambro and Scirica. Arguing counsel were Alan Kornfeld of California for the appellee and Gary Sesser of New York for the fee challengers.

 

U.S. v. Greene—criminal—affirmance—Hardiman

Can an officer patting down a suspect identify a bulge in the suspect’s pocket, “by its feel and texture” alone, as a bag of marijuana? Indeed he can, held the Third Circuit today.

Joining Hardiman were Porter and Cowen. The case was decided without oral argument.

New opinion—separate accrual of trade-secrets claims saves bone-cement suit

Heraeus Medical GmbH v. Esschem—civil—partial reversal—Krause

The Third Circuit today held that, under Pennsylvania law on statutes of limitations, each act in a continuing trade-secret misappropriation accrues separately, so that even if the misappropriations began outside the limitations period a party can sue for the ones that occurred within the period. The appeal arose from “another skirmish in a long-running, cross-border court battle over the alleged theft of a trade secret: Heraeus Medical GmbH’s recipe for its bone cement.”

Joining Krause were Cowen and Fuentes. Arguing counsel were 1990 World University Debate Champion Matthew Wolf of Arnold & Porter for the appellant and Richard Harris of Greenberg Traurig for the appellee.

 

New opinions — federal bar on mentally ill persons possessing firearms doesn’t violate Second Amendment

Beers v. A.G.—civil / constitutional—affirmance—Roth

A man who was involuntarily committed to a psychiatric facility in 2005 after telling his mother he was suicidal and put a gun in his mouth. He had no mental health treatment after 2006. After a doctor opined in 2013 that he was able to handle firearms safely without risk of harm to himself or others, the man filed a Second Amendment as-applied challenge to the federal statute barring persons who had been committed to a mental institution from possessing guns. The district court dismissed the suit, and today the Third Circuit affirmed: ” Even though he claims to be rehabilitated, Beers cannot distinguish himself from the
historically-barred class of mentally ill individuals who were excluded from Second Amendment protection because of the danger they had posed to themselves and to others.”

Joining Roth were Shwartz and Rendell. Arguing counsel were Michael Gottlieb of Vangrossi & Recchuiti for the challenger and Tyce Walters of the DOJ Civil Division for the government.

 

Fan v. Stonemor Partners LP—civil / securities—affirmance—Restrepo

The Third Circuit affirmed dismissal of a securities-fraud suit against a company that sold funeral services to living people (“pre-need sales”), which evidently leads to accounting issues. The court held the company’s financial disclosures were sufficient to render various alleged misrepresentations immaterial.

Joining Restrepo were Smith and McKee. Arguing counsel were David Goldsmith of New York for the plaintiffs and Michael Holmes of Texas for the company.

The Great Opinion Drought of 2019 hath ended

The Third Circuit issued two precedential opinions today, it’s first precedential opinions since May 28. Has the court ever before not issued its first precedential opinion of the month before its 19th day? I wonder. Anyhow, it’s been a remarkable drought. Of course, this drought is the calm before the traditional end-of-clerkship summer deluge.

To the opinions!

Blake v. JP Morgan Chase Bank—civil—affirmance—Bibas

The Third Circuit today affirmed the dismissal of a consumer class action on timeliness grounds, agreeing with the consumers that each violation of the relevant statute accrues separately, but rejecting their argument that their class claims warrant American Pipe tolling because they were filed while a prior related class action was still pending.

Joining Bibas were Shwartz and Krause. Arguing counsel were Donna Siegel Moffa of Kessler Topaz for the consumers and Jonathan Massey of Massey & Gail for the bank.

 

Houser v. Superintendent—prisoner rights—affirmance—Chagares

The introduction:

Darien Houser filed a pro se lawsuit against prison officials for deliberate indifference to his medical needs. The District Court appointed him counsel. When counsel withdrew, however, the District Court declined to appoint a new lawyer. Houser tried the case himself and lost. He now argues that the District Court abused its discretion by denying him new counsel without considering the six factors that this Court set forth to guide district courts in Tabron v. Grace, 6 F.3d 147 (3d Cir. 1993). We hold that Tabron applies to successive motions to appoint counsel, but that denying Houser new counsel was not an abuse of discretion. Accordingly, we will affirm.

Joining Chagares were Ambro and Greenaway. Arguing counsel were Teresa Akkara, now of Paul Weiss but formerly of Penn Law, I suspect she argued this as a law student) for the prisoner and Sean Kirkpatrick of the state Attorney General’s office and John Hatzell Jr. for the defendants.

Panel grants do-over of Vanaskie-authored shareholder-suit opinion

This past December 26, days before Judge Thomas Vanaskie’s retirement from the Third Circuit took effect, the court issued an opinion authored by Judge Vanaskie in Jaroslawicz v. M&T Corp., link here. The opinion reversed the dismissal of a shareholder suit arising from a bank merger.

Yesterday, with this order, the panel (Judges McKee and Siler CA6 by designation) granted the petition for rehearing, vacated its opinion, and reconstituted the panel to replace Judge Vanaskie with Judge Paul Matey.

In a separate order, the court directed the parties to submit supplemental briefs on whether a 1976 Third Circuit opinion conflicted with a later Third Circuit opinion and opinions from two other circuits on the degree of culpability required for claims under § 14(a) of the Exchange Act and on when certain regulatory risks must be disclosed.

Two new opinions

Sambare v. AG — immigration — affirmance — Restrepo

Imagine being deported from the country where you’ve lived, legally, for over a decade for driving a vehicle after smoking marijuana. Today, the Third Circuit denied a man’s petition for review challenging his order of removal, holding that the man’s Pa. DUI conviction supported his removal as a “violation of … any law or regulation of a State … relating to a controlled substance …, other than a single offense involving possession for one’s own use of 30 grams or less of marijuana.”

Joining Restrepo were Ambro and Greenberg. The case was decided without oral argument.

 

Mauthe v. Optum Inc. — civil /consumer — affirmance — Greenberg

A company that sells data about health care providers sought to gather that data by sending providers unsolicited faxes asking them to submit their data. A fax recipient sued the company, alleging that the faxes violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, but the district court granted summary judgment in favor of the alleged spam faxer and today the Third Circuit affirmed. The TCPA bars unsolicited advertisements, and the court held that to qualify as an advertisement the fax must “directly or indirectly encourage[] the recipient to influence the purchasing decisions of a third party.” Alas.

Joining Greenberg were Ambro and Restrepo. Arguing counsel were Philip Bock of Chicago for the fax recipient and Jessica Ellsworth of Hogan Lovells for the fax sender.

New opinion–Third Circuit vacates order sealing Avandia appeal documents

In re: Avandia Marketing (United Food & Commerical Workers Local 1776)—civil—reversal—Smith

In an interesting procedural opinion issued late yesterday, the Third Circuit vacated a district court’s ruling sealing some documents at GlaxoSmithKline’s request that the appellant wanted to include in the appendix on appeal:

We conclude that the District Court failed to apply the proper legal standard for the common law right of access, which requires as a starting point the application of a presumption of public access. See Bank of Am. Nat’l Tr. & Sav. Ass’n v. Hotel Rittenhouse Assocs., 800 F.2d 339, 344 (3d Cir. 1986). By applying, instead, our standard for a protective order under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26, the able District Judge incorrectly placed a burden on the plans to show an interest in disclosure—rather than on GSK to justify continued sealing. We will therefore vacate and remand to allow the District Court to consider GSK’s motions for continued confidentiality under the appropriate standard.

The panel majority declined, on constitutional-avoidance grounds, to reach the appellant’s argument that disclosure was required by the First Amendment’s right of access to civil trials. Judge Restrepo dissented on this point, expressing his view that avoidance was not required and that access to the documents was constitutionally required.

Joining Smith were Ambro in full and Restrepo in part; Restrepo dissented in part. Arguing counsel were former McKee clerk Hannah Brennan of Massachusetts for the appellant and Sean Fahey of Pepper Hamilton for GSK.

A few thoughts on en banc oral argument: splitting time, the Soliloquy Rule, and flip flops somehow

I had the pleasure of attending the Third Circuit’s en banc oral argument this morning in Bastardo-Vale v. Attorney General. The heart of the issue was whether the en banc court should overrule prior circuit precedent rejected by other circuits in interpreting an immigration statute. It was a lively argument and I encourage Third Circuit practitioners to listen to it once audio is posted (or watch it, if the video is posted).

In the meantime, watching the argument inspired a few practice thoughts:

  • The petitioner’s side divided argument between counsel for the petitioner and amicus counsel. I’m never a fan of splitting argument, and I think the dynamics of en banc argument, where time is limited and the judges are scrambling more than usual to get a question in edgewise, make it even less attractive. Sometimes splitting up the argument among multiple advocates is unavoidable, as in multi-party appeals where the different parties have truly diverging interests, but I think counsel should view the argument-splitting option with real skepticism, especially in en banc arguments. Everyone made do well enough this morning, but my advice is to make the tough choice and pick the best advocate to present.
  • Specifically here, petitioner’s counsel proposed to split their rebuttal time. Chief Judge Smith denied the request, fortunately for them in my view, observing that it is difficult enough for individual judges to get their questions in and fracturing the rebuttal would make it even more difficult.
  • The Third Circuit has a well-established procedure in en banc arguments of giving each side five minutes at the start uninterrupted by questions. I very much wish I knew more about how that procedure came to exist and whether the judges currently view it as beneficial. I haven’t argued an en banc case, and maybe I’d change my tune if I did, but I don’t like the circuit’s uninterrupted-start procedure, which I’ve decided to call the Soliloquy Rule. As an advocate, I see the briefs as my chance to say my piece uninterrupted; oral argument is my chance to find out what the judges think and respond as best I can. While I get that articulating a coherent overview is a bigger challenge for counsel when there are a dozen or more judges firing questions, I just question whether that problem warrants the time it consumes.  Also, while the best advocates can use their monologues effectively, less experienced ones often head off down unhelpful paths, and the rule prevents judges from steering them to surer ground. Anyhow, the practice idea I’d offer is that the Soliloquy Rule can be waived, in full or in part, and I’d encourage counsel to consider doing so.
  • Finally, I’ve banged this drum before, but: don’t talk over judges. Don’t. Talk. Over. Judges. It’s a lot harder than it sounds, so make it a focus of your argument preparation. Practice it at home the week before (if nothing else, a welcome arg-prep consolation prize for your spouse). Write it in all caps across the top of your podium notes. It’s the most common argument blunder I see, but a blunder it is. Would you show up for your oral argument in cut-off shorts and flip flops? Not in a million years. That’s how we should feel about talking over judges, too.

New opinion — Third Circuit clarifies standard for government to re-open its case

United States v. Trant—criminal—affirmance—Smith

The Third Circuit today affirmed a Virgin Islands man’s conviction for being a felon in possession of a gun, rejecting various challenges including the defendant’s argument that the court shouldn’t have allowed the prosecution to reopen its case after it forgot to introduce a stipulation. The court clarified that the standard for reopening the government’s cases-in-chief focused on prejudice to the defendant and did not disfavor re-opening. The court observed, “A trial should be a solemn exercise in a search for truth, not a game of ‘gotcha,'” which I can’t quite restrain myself from observing is a sentiment not often enough invoked to the benefit of persons facing deprivation of liberty.

Joining Smith were Jordan and Rendell. Arguing counsel were Sigrid Tejo-Sprotte for the government and Gabriel Villegas of the DVI federal defender’s office for the defendant.

 

New opinion

SHI Partners v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue—tax—affirmance—Greenberg

The Third Circuit affirmed today in a tax case. The court rejected an Administrative Procedures Act challenge to the relevant tax regulations because it was based on hindsight, relying on the IRS’s practice since adopting the regulations. More than that I hesitate to venture on a first read.

Joining Greenberg were Ambro and Restrepo. Arguing counsel were Thomas Dupree of Gibson Dunn for the taxpayer and Judith Hagley for the government.

Two new opinions

U.S. v. Vailey-Snyder—criminal—affirmance—Hardiman

The Third Circuit today held that an inmate’s placement in administrative segregation while under investigation for a new crime does not trigger his constitutional or statutory rights to a speedy trial. The right is triggered by arrest or indictment, and placing an inmate in administrative segregation during investigation of an offense is neither. The court also rejected the defendant’s vouching and cumulative-error claims.

Joining Hardiman were Scirica and Rendell. Arguing counsel were Todd Hinkley for the government and Brandon Reish of Stroudsburg, Pa. (the caption has a typo, “Strousburg”) for the defendant.

 

U.S. ex rel. Doe v. Heart Solution (revised op.)— civil — partial affirmance — Roth

The Third Circuit issued a revised opinion today in this case. The original opinion, now vacated, is here.

The vacated conclusion read:

For the foregoing reasons, we will affirm the District Court’s judgment on the issue of Ms. Patel’s liability under the FCA for false claims submitted to Medicare for unsupervised neurological tests and on the issue of Ms. Patel’s common law fraud. We will reverse the remaining portions of the District Court’s summary judgment orders and remand this case to the District Court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

The new conclusion reads:

For the foregoing reasons, we will affirm the District Court’s judgment on the issue of Ms. Patel’s liability and damages under the FCA for false claims submitted to Medicare for unsupervised neurological tests and on the issue of Ms. Patel’s common law fraud. We will reverse the portions of the District Court’s summary judgment orders with respect to Heart Solution and with respect to Nita Patel’s liability and damages for the remaining common law claims and remand this case to the District Court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Joining Roth were Jordan and Stearns D.Mass by designation. Arguing counsel were Mark Cedrone of Cedrone & Mancano for the woman and the company and Charles Graybow of the N.J. U.S. Attorney’s office for the government.

Two new opinions, including a split-panel win for class suing Penn over retirement-plan fees

Sweda v. Univ. of Pa. — ERISA — partial reversal — Fisher

The Third Circuit revived an ERISA class-action against the University of Pennsylvania today, reversing the district court’s dismissal of claims for breach of fiduciary duty by paying excessive recordkeeping and investment fees. The court joined the Eighth Circuit in holding that Twombly‘s pleading rule for antitrust cases does not apply to ERISA fiduciary-breach claims.

Joining Fisher was Shwartz; Roth dissented, spotlighting her concern that the university will face undue pressure to settle given the large amount at stake. Arguing counsel were Michael Wolff of Missouri for the class and former Hutchinson clerk Brian Ortelere of Morgan Lewis for Penn.

 

Tundo v. County of Passaic — civil rights — affirmance — Bibas

The Third Circuit held that New Jersey’s civil-service commission did not violate the due process rights of two laid-off corrections officers when it removed them from its rehire lists, even though the two had a reasonable expectation of staying on them, because the commission had left itself broad discretion to remove them from the lists.

Joining Bibas were Chagares and Sánchez EDPA by designation. The case was decided without oral argument.

Court issues updated Greenspan opinion—and shows its work

Today the Third Circuit re-issued a recent opinion with minor changes.

The court partially granted the government’s motion to amend the criminal-appeal opinion it issued in United States v. Greenspan. My summary of the old opinion is here, the order partially granting the motion is here, the new opinion is here. The order helpfully describes the changes as “minor.” Among the changes, the new opinion adds a citation to the standard for reviewing a defendant’s failure to raise cumulative error on direct review, p.29, and removes one reference to sandbagging, p.3.

Of little interest to most, but of great interest to close court followers, was the panel’s identification in its order of the pages on which the changes occurred. I’ve mentioned here past instances where the court hasn’t done this. I believe providing this sort of information is an excellent practice and am rooting for future panels to follow suit.

Two new opinions

In re: NFL Players’ Concussion Injury Litig. (RD Legal Funding LLC) — civil — partial reversal — Smith

After approval of the NFL concussion-suit settlement, some former players and family members sold their recovery rights to litigation funders in exchange for immediate payment. The district court voided these deals to protect the class members from predatory lending practices, and three of the litigation funders appealed. Today, the Third Circuit reversed in part. While commending the district court’s “very able” handling of the case, the court held that the court went too far in voiding the cash advance deals in their entirety. The court dismissed some of the appeals on timeliness grounds and another on appellate-jurisdictional grounds.

Joining Smith were Chagares and Bibas. Arguing counsel were Samuel Issacharoff of NYU Law School for the class, and (1) Michael Roth of Boies Schiller, (2) Raul Sloezen, and (3) Peter Buckley of Fox Rothschild for the litigation funders.

 

ADP LLC v. Rafferty — civil — partial reversal — Krause

The Third Circuit today held that, under New Jersey law, an employer’s non-compete agreements were not per se unenforeceable and remanded for the district court to determine whether their enforcement should be limited due to overbreadth. The introduction:

In this appeal, we must determine whether certain restrictive covenants, which high-performing employees enter into as a condition of a stock award, constitute an impermissible restraint on trade under New Jersey law. We conclude that these restrictive covenants are not unenforceable in their entirety because they serve a legitimate business interest, but they may place an undue hardship on employees because they are overbroad. Accordingly, we will remand for the District Court to consider whether and to what extent it is necessary to curtail the restrictive covenants’ scope, which is the approach prescribed by the New Jersey Supreme Court when confronted with overbroad restrictive covenants such as these.

Joining Krause were Hardiman and Bibas. Arguing counsel were Timothy Lowe of McDonald Hopkins for the employer and John Schmidt Jr. of Lindabury McCormick for the former employees.

Two new opinions

League of Women Voters of Pa. v. Commonwealth of Pa. — civil / attorney fees — partial affirmance — Scirica

Last year, the Pennsylvania Supreme threw out the state’s Republican-drawn congressional districts, ruling that they amounted to a partisan gerrymander that violated the Pennsylvania Constitution. One brief chapter in that litigation took place in federal court. After an unfavorable state-court ruling, GOP State Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati removed the case to federal court, but then, on the eve of a federal-court hearing on the removal, moved to remand it back to state court, asserting a misunderstanding.

After the case returned to state court, the plaintiffs sought attorney’s fees and costs for opposing removal. The district court granted the motion, ruling that Senator Scarnati had no basis for believing that removal was proper and awarding about half the fees requested. The district court held Senator Scarnati personally liable for the fee award, per the plaintiffs’ request to avoid making taxpayers foot the bill.

Today, the Third Circuit rejected Senator Scarnati’s challenges to the decision to award fees and to the fee calculation based on a $400 hourly rate, but it held that the Senator, sued only in his official capacity, could not be held liable in his personal capacity, at least without a finding of bad faith. Sorry, taxpayers.

Joining Scirica were Ambro and Rendell. Arguing counsel were Matthew Haverstick of Kleinbard for the senator and Elisabeth Theodore of Arnold & Porter for the plaintiffs.

 

Hildebrand v. Allegheny County — employment — reversal — Fisher

The Third Circuit today vacated the dismissal with prejudice of an age-discrimination suit for failure to prosecute, concluding that the district court improperly assumed that the party was responsible for the delay, failed to consider the merits of his claim, and failed to honor the circuit’s established preference for decisions on the merits. The plaintiff was a fired Allegheny County DA’s Office detective who alleged that the office had a practice of forcing out older detectives.

Joining Fisher were Smith and McKee. Arguing counsel were Marjorie Crist of the Crist Law Center for the plaintiff and Charles Porter Jr. of Brucker and Porter for the employer.

New opinions — two Third Circuit rulings recognizing limits on religious-based discrimination

Fulton v. City of Philadelphia — civil — affirmance — Ambro

Catholic Social Services sued the City of Philadelphia because it wanted to continue to receive foster referrals from the city but it refused to comply with the city’s general anti-discrimination requirements because it refused to work with same-sex couples wanting to be foster parents. The Catholic foster agency claimed that the First Amendment’s Free Exercise, Establishment, and Free Speech clauses required the city to renew its contract with them despite the groups unwillingness to comply with the city’s anti-discrimination laws. The district court ruled that Catholic Social Services was not entitled to a preliminary injunction, and today the Third Circuit affirmed, holding, “It has failed to make a persuasive showing that the City targeted it for its religious beliefs, or is motivated by ill will against its religion, rather than sincere opposition to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.”

The heart of the opinion:

CSS’s theme devolves to this: the City is targeting CSS because it discriminates against same-sex couples; CSS is discriminating against same-sex couples because of its religious beliefs; therefore the City is targeting CSS for its religious beliefs. But this syllogism is as flawed as it is dangerous. It runs directly counter to the premise of Smith that, while religious belief is always protected, religiously motivated conduct enjoys no special protections or exemption from general, neutrally applied legal requirements. That CSS’s conduct springs from sincerely held and strongly felt religious beliefs does not imply that the City’s desire to regulate that conduct springs from antipathy to those beliefs. If all comment on religiously motivated conduct by those enforcing neutral, generally applicable laws against discrimination is construed as ill will against the religious belief itself, then Smith is a dead letter, and the nation’s civil rights laws might be as well.

The Catholic foster agency’s discrimination first came to light in this news story last year by Julia Terruso in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

[Disclosure: I assisted counsel for intervor-appellees by serving as an argument-moot judge.]

Joining Ambro were Scirica and Rendell. Arguing counsel were Lori Windham of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty for Catholic Social Services, Jane Lovitch Istvan for the city, and Leslie Cooper of the ACLU for intervenor-appellees.

 

Curto v. A Country Place Condominium Assoc. — civil  — reversal — Ambro

A condominium community with a large Orthodox Jewish population had a swimming pool. To accommodate Orthodox principles, it aside over 60 hours a week for mens-only or women’s only swimming, leaving only 25 hours a week for mixed-gender swimming. Condo residents sued, alleging that the gender-segregation of the pool violated the Fair Housing Act. The district court ruled in favor of the condo, but today the Third Circuit reversed, holding that the pool segregation violates the FHA because it reserves most of the after-work hours to men.

Joining Ambro were Bibas and Fuentes. Fuentes also concurred to express skepticism that merely allocating the evening hours more evenly would save the condo’s sex-segregation policy. Arguing counsel were Sandra Park of ACLU for the plaintiffs and Angela Maione Costigan of Costigan & Costigan for the condominium association.

New opinion — Third Circuit affirms doctor’s criminal conviction despite multiple errors [updated]

U.S. v. Greenspan — criminal — affirmance — Bibas

UPDATE: on May 1 the court granted the government’s motion to amend the original opinion and issued a new opinion. The link above is the new opinion; the prior one is here.

“Sometimes, the only plausible explanation for a lab’s stream of payments to a doctor is cash for blood.” Quite an opening to today’s Third Circuit opinion affirming a doctor’s convictions for fraud and taking bribes and kickbacks. In an opinion that’s a model of lucidity, the court found that the district court committed multiple errors—limiting an advice-of-counsel defense by suggesting that the defendant bore the burden of proof and excluding evidence in support of the defense, and at sentencing asking the defense counsel rather than the defendant himself whether he wished to allocute—but affirmed due in part to overwhelming evidence of guilt.

A practice point for criminal defense practitioners to note: the court noted but did not answer the question of whether cumulative error is a discrete claim that defendants must raise in district court or forfeit on appeal. [On reflection, I believe I was wrong that the opinion was discussing whether cumulative error must be raised in district court; instead, I now believe, it was talking about whether it must be preserved on appeal or forfeit on appeal. Thanks to a helpful reader for flagging this.]

Joining Bibas were Hardiman and Krause. Arguing counsel were Peter Goldberger for the defendant and Steven Sanders of the N.J. Office of the U.S. Attorney for the government. The opinion observed that defense counsel “thoroughly examined the extensive record and skillfully highlighted the errors and potential errors,” adding, “We are grateful for their expert assistance in doing so.”

 

 

New opinion — Third Circuit issues revised panel opinion in Delaware courts appeal

Adams v. Governor of Delaware (amended)–civil–partial reversal–Fuentes

The Third Circuit today granted panel rehearing, vacated its original panel opinion in the case striking down Delaware’s requirement that its judges be Democrats or Republicans, and issued a new panel opinion. The order granting panel rehearing stated in a footnote, ” As the merits panel has vacated the prior opinion and judgment, action is not required by the en banc court. Judges Jordan and Bibas have voted for rehearing en banc.”

What changed in the amended opinion? The new opinion itself does not say, but the changes I notice are:

  • a corrected footnote 16,
  • a new footnote 32 discussing standing and severability, and
  • a new section starting on page 35 concluding that the political-affiliation requirement is not severable.

The rest of the opinion, including the three-judge concurrence, appears unchanged; here is my prior summary:

The Delaware Constitution sets out a unique method for selecting state-court judges: the Governor appoints them (based on recommendations from nominating commissions, and without legislative involvement) subject to a requirement that the judges of each court contain a balance of Democrats and Republicans. For example, ” three of the five Justices of the Supreme Court in office at the same time, shall be of one major political party, and two of said Justices shall be of the other major political party.” The goal was to create a bipartisan state judiciary, but one effect was to exclude candidates who aren’t members of either of the two major parties.

A Delaware lawyer who is registered as an Independent challenged the political-affiliation requirement as a violation of his First Amendment rights. The district court denied his challenge, ruling that restricting judgeship eligibility based on political affiliation was allowed because judges qualify as policymakers. Today the Third Circuit reversed, holding that judicial officers, whether appointed or elected, are not policymakers. In so holding, the court split with the Sixth and Seventh Circuits. The court also rejected the governor’s argument that the state’s interest in political balance supports its requirement, holding that even if the interest qualifies as vital the rule is not narrowly tailored to meet it. The court also rejected the Governor’s challenge to standing.

Judge McKee concurred, joined (unusually) by both of the other judges on the panel, emphasizing that the Delaware judiciary is highly regarded and expressing confidence that the state can preserve its esteemed legal culture without the current political-affiliation requirement.

Joining Fuentes were McKee and Restrepo. Arguing counsel were David McBride of Young Conaway for the challenger and David Finger of Finger & Slanina for the governor.

UPDATE: according to this post on Ballot Access News, the court denied en banc rehearing on May 7 by a vote of 9-4, with Judges Jordan, Hardiman, Krause, and Bibas voting to grant.

New opinion — a divided panel splits from a sister circuit on waiver

In re: Asbestos Prods. Liability Litig. (Schroeder) — civil — reversal — Smith

The Third Circuit today held that asbestos-litigation defendants waived their personal-jurisdiction defense and that the district court’s ruling to the contrary was an abuse of discretion. The defendants asserted personal jurisdiction as a defense at the outset, but they implicitly waived the defense by, among other things, asking the court for certain rulings before deciding whether to waive jurisdiction and objecting to transfer to a court with jurisdiction. In so holding, the court expressly split with the Sixth Circuit. Only in asbestos litigation is it not surprising when the opinion ends, ” Barring any additional preliminary matters, these 30-year-old cases should at last proceed to adjudication on the merit.”

Joining Smith was McKee; Fisher dissented, vibrantly. Between the dissent and the circuit split, I suspect there’s a bit of battling ahead before any proceeding to adjudication actually transpires. Arguing counsel were Louis Bograd of Motley Rice for the plaintiffs and Harold Henderson of Thompson Hine for the defendants.

New opinion — Third Circuit reissues opinion to clarify elements/means analysis

U.S. v. McCants — criminal — affirmance — Hardiman

In a decision reissued upon granting the appellant’s motion for panel rehearing, the Third Circuit again rejected a criminal defendant’s Fourth Amendment challenge to his conviction and his challenges to his sentencing as a career offender based on prior NJ convictions for second-degree robbery as crimes of violence.

While the new opinion does not indicate what changes it made, the changes appear to focus on elaborating on why the court concluded that New Jersey’s robbery statute set out alternative elements rather than means. I notice a new sentence on page 15 (beginning “‘At a trial, they are what ….”) and three new paragraphs on pages 16 and 17 (from “By contrast, in Mathis” through “list elements, not means.”)

Joining Hardiman are Krause and Bibas. Arguing counsel were Leticia Olivera of the NJ FPD for the defendant and Richard Ramsay of the NJ USAO for the government.

New opinion — Third Circuit decides a big case on drug-quantity aggregation

U.S. v. Rowe — criminal — reversal — Fisher

It is a crime to distribute, or to possess with intent to distribute, illegal drugs, and the distribution or possession of larger quantities triggers mandatory minimum sentences. For heroin, distribution or possession of 100 grams or more means a 5-year mandatory minimum, and 1000 grams means a 10-year mandatory minimum.

But how are those drug quantities calculated? Suppose a defendant acquires 600 grams of heroin, sells it all at once, then does it again. Are the two quantities added together, 600+600=1200, such that the defendant gets the 1000-gram 10-year mandatory? And does the answer depend on whether the crime was distribution (not a continuing offense) or possession (a continuing offense)?

Drug crimes are the most common federal crimes, so the answers to those questions matter a lot to lots of criminal defendants.

Today, in a major criminal-appeal ruling, the Third Circuit vacated a defendant’s drug conviction, holding that convictions and their resulting mandatory minimum sentences under 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1) must be based on discrete distributions or possessions that exceed the drug-quantity thresholds, not a series of smaller quantities aggregated to meet the quantity threshold.

The distribution holding is important in the Middle District of Pennsylvania, where aggregation of sale quantities to trigger mandatory minimums has been a longstanding outlier practice. The possession holding will apply more broadly. The key passage: “possession of 1000 grams of heroin begins when a defendant has the power and intention to exercise dominion and control over all 1000 grams, and ends when his possession is interrupted by a complete dispossession or by a reduction of that quantity to less than 1000 grams.”

The court vacated the defendant’s conviction and remanded for resentencing for distribution and possession of 100 grams with the government barred from offering new drug-quantity evidence on remand. (The district court had calculated the defendant’s sentence under the Sentencing Guidelines based on over 10 kilograms, relying on evidence that had been excluded at trial and not introduced at sentencing, which on appeal the the government conceded was error.)

Joining Fisher were Smith and McKee. Arguing counsel were Peter Goldberger for the defendant and Stephen Cerutti II of the MDPA US Attorney’s office for the government.

This was already Goldberger’s second major Third Circuit win of 2019, following Piasecki; not surprisingly, Goldberger recently was honored by a publication based on peer voting as lawyer of the year for appellate practice in eastern Pennsylvania. His co-counsel on the case was Goldberger’s long-term senior associate and former Third Circuit staff attorney Pamela Wilk.

New opinion — employer loses case by waiving its winning argument

Robinson v. First State Community Action Agency — civil — affirmance — Fuentes

The defendant in an employment-disability suit waived a meritorious legal argument by failing to assert it prior to appeal after accepting the plaintiff’s erroneous case theory, encouraging the court to adopt an erroneous jury instruction, and failing to raise the error in post-trial briefing. Because the error was waived, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that the court should review its jury-instruction claim for plain error.

The waived error? In district court, the plaintiff admitted that she could not prove that she was actually is dyslexic, but she alleged that her employer violated the Americans with Disabilities Act when it regarded her as dyslexic yet refused to accommodate her perceived disability. But a 2008 amendment to the ADA made clear that so-called regarded-as plaintiffs are not entitled to accommodation.

The court’s willingness to find waiver of a winning legal argument is correct in my view, but I still wonder why it has refused to do that in some other cases, most recently Bistrian.

Joining Fuentes were Krause and Cowen. The appeal was decided without oral argument.

 

Juvenile-sentencing appeal argued en banc last month put on hold

Last month the Third Circuit held en banc oral argument in United States v. Grant, an appeal presenting the issue of whether a de facto life sentence can be unconstitutional under Miller v. Alabama‘s rule barring mandatory life sentences for juveniles. Audio of the en banc argument is here.

The Third Circuit has now put Grant on hold for a related Supreme Court case. On March 18, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in Mathena v. Malvo  to examine the scope of Miller and whether it was expanded by the subsequent decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana. Four days after the Mathena cert grant, the Third Circuit put Grant on hold C.A.V. pending the decision in that case. (C.A.V. is an acronym for the Latin phrase curia advisari vult, literally “the court wishes to be advised.”)

Thanks to a reader for alerting me.

New opinion — continuing-violation doctrine doesn’t apply to probation-violation detainer by another jurisdiction

Randall v. City of Phila. Law Dep’t — civil rights — affirmance — Bibas

A man was arrested and prosecuted in Philadelphia; as a result of that prosecution, other jurisdictions filed detainers for violating his probation. When Philly dropped the charges , the man was released into the other jurisdictions’ custody and was held another four months. Later, the man sued Philadelphia for malicious prosecution. His suit was timely filed if the statute of limitations started when the other jurisdictions released him, but untimely if it started when Philadelphia released him; stated differently, it was timely if the continuing-violation doctrine applied to his custody by non-parties on the resulting detainers, untimely if it didn’t. Yesterday, the Third Circuit affirmed dismissal of his suit as untimely, holding that the continuing-violation doctrine did not apply.

Joining Bibas were Smith and Chagares. The case was decided without oral argument.

New opinion on the collateral estoppel use of a prior criminal proceeding on a subsequent civil suit [updated]

U.S. ex rel. Doe v. Heart Solution — civil — partial affirmance — Roth

UPDATE: the court vacated this opinion and issued a new one on May 3.

To what extent do admissions made during a criminal conviction for fraud dictate the result of a subsequent civil suit based on the same fraud? For the individual who pled guilty, the Third Circuit held today, the district court was correct to grant summary judgment against her by treating her plea colloquy as admissions of all the elements of civil liability. But for the company that she owned, which was not party to the prior criminal case, the Third Circuit held that the district court erred in granting summary judgment using the same collateral estoppel theory. “[T]he District Court failed to dissect the issues that were determined in the criminal case from those that were not.”

Joining Roth were Jordan and Stearns D.Mass. by designation. Arguing counsel were Mark Cedrone of Cedrone & Mancano for the woman and the company and Charles Graybow of the N.J. U.S. Attorney’s office for the government.

New opinion

Komis v. Secretary U.S. Dep’t of Labor — employment — affirmance — Scirica

In an appeal from a jury verdict against a former OSHA employee who sued the Secretary of Labor for creating a hostile work environment in retaliation for her filing more than 60 (!) workplace complaints, the Third Circuit held that any error in instructing the jury on the standard for retaliatory-hostile-workplace-environment claims involving federal employees was harmless because the former employee couldn’t prevail under the standard she sought. Along the way, the court held that federal employees may bring Title VII retaliation claims.

Three and a half years went by between the oral argument and today’s opinion, which is unheard-of in the Third Circuit. The opinion doesn’t mention it, and I haven’t looked the the docket, but my offhand guess is that the appeal was stayed for a Supreme Court case or two that ended up not providing an answer.

Joining Scirica were Greenaway and Roth. Arguing counsel were Mark Sheffer of Birchrunville, Pa., for the former employee and Richard Mentzinger, Jr., for the government.

New opinion

Kamal v. J. Crew — civil — reversal — Scirica

A federal statute bars retailers from printing more than the last five digits of credit card numbers on receipts. A J. Crew consumer discovered that his receipts included the first six numbers of his credit card, so he sued. The district court dismissed with prejudice for lack of standing due to lack of concrete injury. The Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal under Spokeo and its progeny, joining the majority in a circuit split, but held that it was error to dismiss with prejudice because the district court lacked jurisdiction.

Joining Scirica were Chagares and Rendell. Arguing counsel were Marvin Frank of New York for the consumer and Andrew Bunn, formerly of DLA Piper, for J. Crew.

New opinion — Judge Porter’s first precedential opinion

Madar v. U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Svcs. — immigration — affirmance — Porter

The Third Circuit today rejected an immigrant’s argument that he was entitled to citizenship because his father had been a citizen and constructively satisfied the statutory requirements for retaining citizenship. The opinion assumed that the father retained his citizenship but held that any citizenship did not transfer to the son, joining other circuits in refusing to infer an equitable exception to the relevant statutory requirements.

The lucid opinion is the first precedential opinion authored by the Third Circuit’s newest judge, Judge David Porter.

Joining Porter were Greenaway and Shwartz. The case was decided without oral argument.

New opinion

U.S. v. Ayala — criminal — affirmance — Chagares

Yesterday the Third Circuit affirmed the conviction and 11-year sentence of a Virgin Islands woman who played a supporting role in the gunpoint robbery of a St. Thomas jewelry store. Her defense was that her involvement (securing plane tickets, hotel rooms, and a rental car for the robbers, sitting in the getaway car, and paying the robbers afterward) was the product of duress because she feared for her life and that of her brother at the hands of two violent men who told her to do it.

The court rejected a number of interesting challenges, including that D.V.I. courts lack jurisdiction to hear federal criminal cases and that D.V.I. judges lack authority serve after their 10-year terms have expired. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that certain evidence was erroneously excluded under Federal Rule of Evidence 403, but it noted that it was troubled that the district court did not give its reasoning on the record. Finally, the court upheld the district court’s decision to shackle her during sentencing based on the marshals’ view (the basis for which apparently was not discussed and is anything but obvious to this reader) that there was a security concern.

The court’s opinion presents the facts of the crime and the trial without comment, but, for me at least, it’s hard to read it without wondering whether justice was done here.

Joining Chagares were Hardiman and Restrepo. Arguing counsel were Joseph Diruzzo III of Florida for the defendant and Kim Chisholm for the government.

New opinions — two Speedy Trial Act reversals (!)

U.S. v. Reese — criminal — reversal — Ambro

“This is one of the rare cases in which the Speedy Trial Act … requires that we vacate a conviction and remand for dismissal of the indictment,” begins today’s first opinion.  And “rare” is both true and ironic, because today’s other opinion, issued by a different panel, does the same thing.

Here, with less than three weeks left on the defendant’s Speedy Trial Act clock, the district court continued the trial sua sponte for another two-and-a half months. The Third Circuit held that dismissal was required but left it to the district court to decide first whether re-prosecution would be allowed.

In a concurrence that, unusually, lists two judges as co-authors, Judges Ambro and Greenaway criticized five other circuits’ rulings that defendants can waive Speedy Trial Act claims by failing to seek dismissal on that basis in district court. The concurrence observed that waiver was not an issue here because the government had not raised it its brief or in oral argument.

Joining Ambro were Chagares and Greenaway. Arguing counsel were Jacob Schuman of the EDPA federal defender for the defendant and Michelle Olshefski of the MDPA U.S. Attorney’s office for the government.

 

U.S. v. Williams — criminal — reversal — Restrepo

The Third Circuit reversed on Speedy Trial Act grounds here, too, but in this case the panel directed the district court to dismiss with prejudice, precluding re-prosecution. The court joined three circuits in splitting with the Second Circuit and holding that “periods of unreasonable delay of more than ten days in the transport of a defendant to the site of a psychological examination conducted in the course of a proceeding to determine a defendant’s mental competency are non-excludable” for Speedy Trial Act purposes.

Joining Restrepo were Chagares (who sat on both panels) and Hardiman. Arguing counsel were Omodare Jupiter of the DVI federal defender for the defendant and Everard Potter of the DVI U.S. Attorney’s office for the government.

 

Close Third Circuit followers will note that today’s opinions were posted earlier than normal. The Court’s consistent practice is to post the day’s precedential opinions on its website around 12:35 (with rare late-afternoon postings, too), a couple hours after counsel receive them through ECF, but I stumbled upon today’s opinions around 10:30. I assume this earlier posting was a blip rather than a change in procedure, but we’ll see.

New opinion

Piasecki v. Bucks County Court — habeas — reversal — McKee

[Disclosure: as explained below, I assisted Peter Goldberger in representing the petitioner-appellant in this appeal.]

For a federal court to consider a habeas petition, the petitioner must be “in custody” at the time the petition is filed. Past cases have found custody to include parole restrictions, own-recognizance release pending appeal, and community service obligations. Today, the Third Circuit held that the requirements that come with registration under Pennsylvania’s Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act satisfy the habeas custody requirement because SORNA restricts registrants’ physical liberty in various ways, including banning computer internet access and requiring them to appear frequently at a state police barracks, in person. The court distinguished rulings from other Circuits involving other, less-restrictive sex-offender-registry statutes.

In an interesting footnote, the opinion focused more deeply on the condition banning computer internet access and observed that computer and internet bans are common, “Yet it is not at all clear that the judges imposing such sweeping  and unconditional bans appreciate the impact they would have if literally interpreted and enforced,” barring things like using an ATM, having a smartphone, navigating by GPS, or simply driving a late-model car. It noted with a lengthy stringcite that “many courts have struck down statutes or vacated sentences that impose broad bans on computer and internet usage.”

Joining McKee were Ambro and Restrepo. Arguing counsel were Stephen Harris of the Bucks County district attorney’s office for the Commonwealth and me for the petitioner — I had the privilege of arguing in place of Mr. Piasecki’s counsel, Peter Goldberger, who wrote the briefs, because he was out of state attending to a compelling family matter.

Two new opinions

US v. Island — criminal — affirmance — Scirica

A divided Third Circuit panel today answered a question that also has divided the circuits, holding that a criminal defendant’s term of supervised release is tolled while the defendant is absent from supervision as a fugitive. The majority reasoned that the relevant statutory text was silent on the matter and joined the Second, Fourth, and Ninth Circuits against the First.

Judge Rendell dissented, arguing that the text did answer the question and that the majority’s rule will prove burdensome for courts to apply.

Joining Scirica was Ambro, with Rendell dissenting. Arguing counsel were Keith Donoghue of the EDPA federal defenders for the defendant and Bernadette McKeon of the EDPA USAO for the government.

 

Sköld v. Galderma Labs. — civil — partial reversal — Jordan

The Third Circuit vacated a jury’s verdict in favor of an investor for unjust enrichment in a trademark dispute with a drug company. The investor’s claim was premised on his ownership of the mark, and the court held that the plain terms of the relevant contract gave ownership of the mark to the company. The interpretative issue boiled down to the contract’s use of “hereof and thereof” instead of “hereof or thereof,” and somewhere that contract drafter now feels either euphoric or terrible, depending.  The court also rejected the investor’s claims that he was entitled to directed verdict on other claims.

Joining Jordan was Chagares; Vanaskie had been the third judge on the panel before he retired. Arguing counsel were Bruce Clark of Clark Michie for the investor and Richard Rochford Jr. of New York for the company.

 

New opinion — FTC’s suit against drug maker was filed too late [updated]

FTC v. Shire Viropharma — civil — affirmance — Smith

The Federal Trade Commission brought a federal action against a drug company, alleging that the drug company wrongfully delayed approval of generic competition to its lucrative drug through a string of meritless FDA filings. The FTC brought the action over 4 years after the company’s challenged actions, under a statute that permits the FTC to sue a company that “is violating” or “is about to violate” the law. Today, the Third Circuit held that this statutory provision does not authorize suit based on a long-past action plus a reasonable likelihood of recurrence, affirming judgment in favor of the company.

Here’s the (exceptional, in my view) introduction:

Shire ViroPharma, Inc. … manufactured and marketed the lucrative drug Vancocin, which is indicated to treat a life-threatening gastrointestinal infection. After Shire got wind that manufacturers were considering making generic equivalents to Vancocin, it inundated the United States Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) with allegedly meritless filings to delay approval of those generics. The FDA eventually rejected Shire’s filings and approved generic equivalents to Vancocin, but the filings nonetheless resulted in a high cost to consumers—Shire had delayed generic entry for years and reaped hundreds of millions of dollars in profits. Nearly five years later—and after Shire had divested itself of Vancocin—the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) filed suit against Shire in the United States District Court for the District of Delaware under Section 13(b) of the Federal Trade Commission Act, 15 U.S.C. § 53(b). The FTC sought a permanent injunction and restitution, alleging that Shire’s petitioning was an unfair method of competition prohibited by the Act. Shire moved to dismiss, arguing that the FTC’s allegations of long-past petitioning activity failed to satisfy Section 13(b)’s requirement that Shire “is violating” or “is about to violate” the law. The District Court agreed and dismissed the case.

On appeal, the FTC urges us to adopt a more expansive view of Section 13(b). According to the FTC, the phrase “is violating, or is about to violate” in Section 13(b) is satisfied by showing a past violation and a reasonable likelihood of recurrent future conduct. We reject the FTC’s invitation to stretch Section 13(b) beyond its clear text. The FTC admits that Shire is not currently violating the law. And the complaint fails to allege that Shire is about to violate the law. We will therefore affirm the District Court’s judgment.

And the notable concluding paragraph:

The FTC’s improper use of Section 13(b) to pursue long-past petitioning has the potential to discourage lawful petitioning activity by interested citizens—activity that is protected by the First Amendment. Because we affirm the District Court’s judgment dismissing the complaint, we need not address the issue further but suggest that the FTC be mindful of such First Amendment concerns.

Joining Smith were McKee and Fisher. Arguing counsel were Matthew Hoffman for the FTC and Steven Reed of Morgan Lewis for the drug company.

Update: here is a provocative analysis by Debevoise, entitled “The Third Circuit Sharply Curtails the FTC’s Preferred Enforcement Power.” Highlights:

On February 25, 2019, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upset
decades of Federal Trade Commission (FTC) practice by significantly limiting when the
FTC can bring competition and consumer protection enforcement actions in federal
court.

***

THE FTC’S NEXT STEPS

The FTC could seek a rehearing or a rehearing en banc from the Third Circuit, and may
ultimately seek Supreme Court review. But given Shire’s bad facts and a strong
possibility that the current Supreme Court would agree with the Third Circuit’s “plain
language” analysis, the FTC may not want to risk extending this ruling beyond the
Third Circuit. The FTC may instead prefer to seek legislative intervention. Many FTC
reform bills have been introduced in Congress in recent years, and this decision could
lead to the introduction of additional bills in the 116th Congress.

HOW THIS DECISION MIGHT AFFECT YOU
Section 13(b) has been a cornerstone of the FTC’s consumer protection and competition
enforcement efforts. This decision will have immediate, far-reaching ramifications on
that strategy’s use in the Third Circuit for both antitrust and consumer protection
(including false advertising and privacy/cybersecurity) matters.

New opinion — debt purchasers who outsource collections are subject to FDCPA

Barbato v. Greystone Alliance — civil — affirmance — Krause

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act aims to protect consumers by regulating the actions of “debt collectors,” defined to include those “in any business the principal purpose of which is the collection of any debts.”  A company that purchased charged-off consumer debt and then contracted out to another company the job of actually haranguing the consumers, argued that it was not subject to the FDCPA because it was not a debt collector. Today, the Third Circuit disagreed, relying mainly on past circuit precedent and the statute’s text.

Grammarians will rejoice at this footnote:

At both oral argument and in its supplemental briefing, Crown argued that the word “collection” is a verb. It is not. It is a noun. See Collection, Webster’s Third at 444 (denoting with the abbreviation “n” that the word being defined is a noun).

Joining Krause were Hardiman and Bibas. Arguing counsel were Matthew Rosenkoff of Atlanta for the debt collectors and Daniel Edelman of Chicago for the consumer.

New opinion

In re: Titus — bankruptcy — affirmance — Ambro

The opening paragraph:

When his old law firm broke its lease, attorney Paul Titus was on the hook for millions of dollars in unpaid commercial rent. The landlord tried to recover the rent by targeting the wages Mr. Titus was earning at his new firm. But Mr. Titus’s wages never passed through his hands alone; instead, they were deposited by his new firm directly into a bank account owned by both Mr. Titus and his wife as tenants by the entireties.

Not the first paragraph Mr. Titus was hoping for, I suspect. It continues:

Eventually, Mr. Titus was forced into bankruptcy and the landlord’s claim became a claim of the bankruptcy trustee. Now, after two trials in the Bankruptcy Court and two appeals to the District Court, we reach three conclusions. First, Mr. and Mrs. Titus are liable for a fraudulent transfer. When the wages of an insolvent spouse are deposited into a couple’s entireties account, both spouses are fraudulent transferees. Second, as for the precise measure of the Tituses’ liability, the bankruptcy trustee waived any challenge to the method used by previous courts to calculate fraudulent-transfer liability. Going forward, however, we clarify how future courts should measure liability when faced with an entireties account like the Tituses’ — an account into which deposits consist of both (fraudulent) wages and (non-fraudulent) other sources, and from which cash is spent on both (permissible) household necessities and (impermissible) other expenditures.1 Until now, a trustee somehow had to show that wage deposits were impermissibly spent on non-necessary expenditures, even though wage and nonwage deposits had become commingled in the account. Rather than expect a trustee to trace the untraceable, future courts should generally presume that wage deposits were spent on non-necessary expenditures in proportion to the overall share of wages in the account as a whole. Third, in evaluating the Bankruptcy Court’s application of the method in play at the time of its decision, we perceive no clear error. Thus we affirm.

In the footnote, the opinion noted that Judge Shwartz did not join the opinion’s discussion of the pro rata approach because it was unnecessary given the court’s finding of waiver and that instead choosing the liability-calculation method should be left to trial judge.

This case is one of many that arose out of the 1999 dissolution of the Pittsburgh firm Titus & McConomy. Third Circuit Judge Hardiman was a partner there from 1996 to 1999 and was a party to at least one of those other cases. In 2016, another Titus & McConomy appeal was decided by three non-Third Circuit judges, presumably because the entire court had recused.

Joining Ambro were Shwartz (with the exception noted) and Fuentes. Arguing counsel were Douglas Campbell of Campbell & Levine for the lawyer and his wife and Neal Levin of Chicago for the bankruptcy trustee.

Two new opinions

Bryan v. Gov’t of Virgin Islands — civil — affirmance — Hardiman

The Third Circuit today rejected various challenges by a Virgin Islands government employee to a territorial law designed to encourage more-senior employees to retire by making them pay 3% more into the retirement system than other employees have to.

Joining Hardiman were Chagares and Restrepo. Arguing counsel were Richard Rouco of Alabama for the employee and Su-Layne Walker for the government.

 

Contreras Ayabar v. Secretary DHS — immigration — affirmance — Ambro

A provision of the Immigration and Nationality Act authorizes the government to grant permanent-resident status to a child of an adult permanent resident. Here, a mother applied for that status for her son when he was still a minor, but while the application was pending he turned 21, and for that reason the DHS denied it. Today, the Third Circuit rejected the mother’s and son’s challenge to this denial, holding that age eligible must be assessed the time of the agency’s action, not when the application is filed, in light of the unambiguous language of the applicable statute.

Joining Ambro were Scirica and Rendell. Arguing counsel were Benjamin Zhu of Davis Polk for the mother and son and Alexander Halaska for the government.

Third Circuit rules against Trump administration in major sanctuary-cities appeal

City of Philadelphia v. Attorney General of the United States — civil — partial affirmance — Rendell

In a stinging loss for the Trump administration that they’ll surely ask the Supreme Court to review, the Third Circuit today rejected the Attorney General’s effort to deny federal grant money to Philadelphia in an effort to coerce the city into help federal law-enforcement “detain[] and remov[e] aliens upon their release from local criminal custody.” The court held that the AG lacked statutory authority to set policy conditions on the grant money:

Underlying this question, and potentially complicating its resolution, is the stark contrast in the priorities of the City and those of the Executive Branch regarding immigration policy. In resolving the discrete legal question before us, however, we make no judgment as to the merits of this policy dispute. Rather, our role is more confined, and our focus is only on the legality of the particular action before us.

Concluding that Congress did not grant the Attorney General this authority, we hold that the Challenged Conditions were unlawfully imposed.

Today’s ruling was a disaster for the Trump administration’s attack on sanctuary cities. The only sliver of good news for the administration was that the panel vacated the district court’s requirement for a judicial warrant to transfer a “criminal alien” to federal custody, holding that this injunction went beyond the bounds of the complaint.

My crystal ball says that the government is certain to ask the Supreme Court to grant certiorari, and that they’re quite unlikely to have the votes for rehearing en banc.

Joining Rendell were Ambro and Scirica. Arguing counsel were Neal Katyal of Hogan Lovells for the city and Katherine Allen for the government. Video of the oral argument—the best Third Circuit oral argument I’ve ever seen—is in my argument-compilation post here.

Two new opinions

Dessouki v. Secretary — immigration — affirmance — Bibas

The Third Circuit denied an immigrant’s petition for review today. The applicable statute offers a path to citizenship to immigrants whose custodial parent becomes a naturalized citizen if there has been “a legal separation” of his parents. But here the immigrant’s parents never married, and the court held that without marriage there cannot be a legal separation.

Joining Bibas were Greenaway and Fuentes. Arguing counsel were Douglas Grannan of Philadelphia for the immigrant and Elizabeth Fitzgerald-Sambou for the government.

 

McKinney v. Univ. of Pittsburgh — civil — reversal — Krause

The Third Circuit today held that a university faculty contract provision guaranteeing faculty an annual salary increase does not give them a property interest in the their salary not being reduced.

Joining Krause were Hardiman and Bibas. Arguing counsel were Kim Watterson of Reed Smith for the university and Sean Ruppert of Kraemer Manes for the professor. The opinion also acknowledged an “insightful and well-researched” amicus brief on behalf of other universities by Shannon Farmer and Burt Rublin of Ballard Spahr.

 

Two new opinions, including Workman

Workman v. Superintendent — habeas corpus — reversal — Fuentes

In an amended opinion, the Third Circuit today held that a habeas petitioner had shown that his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance of counsel by failing to mount a defense and, while that issue was procedurally defaulted, his post-conviction counsel’s ineffectiveness excused the default. [As I’ve disclosed in prior posts about this case, I did some minor consulting for petitioner’s counsel.]

In the court’s original opinion (and again in an amended one that it also later withdrew) the panel had presumed prejudice from trial counsel’s errors under US v. Cronic, but today the court held that the petitioner had shown prejudice under Strickland v. Washington. I wrote that the prior amended opinion was “puzzling” and that “something seems not quite right here,” and urged readers to stay tuned, so today’s ruling isn’t surprising and strikes me as substantially sounder than the previous ones. So, all’s well that ends well.

Joining Fuentes were Ambro and Restrepo. Arguing counsel were Marshall Dayan of the WDPA FD for the petitioner and Catherine Kiefer of the Philly DA’s office for the superintendent.

 

Patterson v. Pa. Liquor Control Board — civil — affirmance — Restrepo

The Third Circuit held that the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board is an arm of the state (arm of the Commonwealth?) entitled to Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity, affirming dismissal of a former employee’s civil rights suit against it.

Joining Restrepo were Greenaway and Bibas. Arguing counsel were Charles Sipio of Kolman Ely for the former employee and Claudia Tesoro of the PA Attorney General’s office for the LCB.

In Workman, may the third time be the charm

A Third Circuit panel this week granted panel rehearing—for a second time—in Workman v. Superintendent, a case in which the panel originally granted relief for ineffective assistance of counsel, but did so by presuming that counsel’s error prejudiced the defendant instead of requiring a prejudice showing (in habeas-speak, by applying Cronic not Strickland). I explained matters in this post after the second opinion. As I noted there, the second opinion was perplexing in light of the first rehearing petition, so the panel’s decision to grant rehearing again is not as surprising as it might seem.

[I’ll disclose again that I’ve done some minor consulting for counsel for the petitioner.]

There may be an impulse to view panel-rehearing grants in a negative light, but, as I’ve written here before, that’s not how I see them. I believe the panel rehearing serves a valuable function and I applaud the court’s willingness to take a second (or third!) look where needed to be confident of getting it right.

New opinion

US v. Garner–criminal–affirmance–Ambro

Today, the Third Circuit affirmed a defendant’s convictions for bank robbery and related crimes, rejecting his challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence. The court joined other circuits in holding that a defendant cannot be criminally liable for conspiring with a government informant.

Joining Ambro were Shwartz and Fuentes. The case was decided without oral argument.

Two new opinions, including an emphatic sentencing reversal

US v. Chapman–criminal–reversal–Restrepo

In a calmly scalding opinion, the Third Circuit today vacated a criminal sentence and remanded for resentencing by a different district judge because the sentencing judge refused to postpone sentencing despite knowing that the defendant’s lawyer had failed to notify the man beforehand of his sentencing hearing, which deprived the man of the chance to offer witnesses and letters seeking sentencing leniency.

When an opinion chooses to quote the district judge’s “pique” and “irritation,” when it says “it is plain the District Court erred” and it “unfairly” deprived the defendant’s rights, when it describes a position the sentencing judge rejected as “manifestly reasonable,” when it states that “the District Court improperly compromised the appearance of fairness” and describes this “appearance of unfairness” as “especially stark,” and when it orders resentencing by a different judge, I’d say the court is sending a stern message.

I’d guess that the court is aware that the district judge in question has been mentioned (here, for example) as a potential nominee to fill Judge Vanaskie’s seat, and also that a 2017 non-precedential CA3 opinion also was critical of a ruling by same district judge. If those guesses are right, today’s opinion is all the more remarkable.

Joining Restrepo was McKee; Vanaskie had been the third judge on the panel prior to his retirement. Arguing counsel were Candace Cain of the WDPA defender for the defendant and George Rocktashel of the MDPA AUSAs for the government.

 

US v. Daniels–criminal–affirmance–Cowen

The Third Circuit today affirmed a defendant’s career-offender sentence, holding that attempted drug dealing qualifies as a serious drug offense under the ACCA and that “the scope of attempt and accomplice liablity under Pennsylvania law is coextensive with the meaning of those terms under federal law.”

Joining Cowen were Krause and Fuentes. The case was decided without oral argument.

New opinion — Third Circuit strikes down Delaware’s requirement that state judges be Democrats or Republicans

Adams v. Governor of Delaware–civil–partial reversal–Fuentes

UPDATE: the Third Circuit vacated this opinion on panel rehearing and issued a new one, link here.

The Delaware Constitution sets out a unique method for selecting state-court judges: the Governor appoints them (based on recommendations from nominating commissions, and without legislative involvement) subject to a requirement that the judges of each court contain a balance of Democrats and Republicans. For example, ” three of the five Justices of the Supreme Court in office at the same time, shall be of one major political party, and two of said Justices shall be of the other major political party.” The goal was to create a bipartisan state judiciary, but one effect was to exclude candidates who aren’t members of either of the two major parties.

A Delaware lawyer who is registered as an Independent challenged the political-affiliation requirement as a violation of his First Amendment rights. The district court denied his challenge, ruling that restricting judgeship eligibility based on political affiliation was allowed because judges qualify as policymakers. Today the Third Circuit reversed, holding that judicial officers, whether appointed or elected, are not policymakers. In so holding, the court split with the Sixth and Seventh Circuits. The court also rejected the governor’s argument that the state’s interest in political balance supports its requirement, holding that even if the interest qualifies as vital the rule is not narrowly tailored to meet it. The court also rejected the Governor’s challenge to standing.

Judge McKee concurred, joined (unusually) by both of the other judges on the panel, emphasizing that the Delaware judiciary is highly regarded and expressing confidence that the state can preserve its esteemed legal culture without the current political-affiliation requirement.

Joining Fuentes were McKee and Restrepo. Arguing counsel were David McBride of Young Conaway for the challenger and David Finger of Finger & Slanina for the governor.

Two new opinions

Roman v. City of Newark — civil rights — partial reversal — Ambro

A man was arrested for possession of illegal drugs, but the charges were dropped when the search ruled unlawful. The man then sued the officers and the city for violating his civil rights. The district court dismissed his claims, but today a divided Third Circuit majority reversed in part, holding that the man’s claims against the city based on a custom of unconstitutional searches and failure to train were adequately pled.

Joining Ambro was Jordan, who also authored a short concurrence. Hardiman dissented, faulting the majority for mentioning facts not alleged in the complaint and disagreeing with the majority as to the custom-of-searches (but not the failure-to-train) theory, and strenuously. Arguing counsel were Justin Santagata of Kaufman Semararo for the plaintiff and Wilson Antoine for the defendants.

 

Bedoya v. American Eagle Express — civil — affirmance — Shwartz

The Third Circuit rejected an employer’s argument that a federal statute pre-empted New Jersey law in defining employees and independent contractors, allowing a suit by delivery drivers alleging that the employer misclassified as contractors to proceed.

Joining Shwartz were Greenaway and Bibas. Arguing counsel were Harold Lichten for the plaintiffs, Joseph DiBlasio of Jackson Lewis for the employer, and Christopher Weber for New Jersey as amicus.

Two new opinions

Jean Louis v. AG — immigration — affirmance — Bibas

Judge Bibas has been a judge for only about a year, but his opinion-writing style already is instantly recognizable. Radical clarity, with lots of short sentences. I can’t think of any other circuit judge who could have written this introduction:

A non-lawyer “immigration expert” advised Dieuland Jean Louis that he could miss his asylum hearing without consequence. I App. A6-7. So he did. But the “immigration expert” was wrong—and an immigration judge relied on Jean Louis’s absence to order his removal in absentia. Id.

Jean Louis now contends that we should reopen that order because the non-lawyer’s advice qualifies as an exceptional circumstance. But that is not the law. Exceptional circumstances must be grave and beyond the applicant’s control. And holding the hearing without Jean Louis did not violate due process because he had the opportunity to attend. He chose not to.
So we will deny his petition for review.

Joining Bibas were Greenaway and Shwartz. The case was decided without oral argument.

 

FTC v. Penn State Hershey Medical Ctr. — civil — affirmance — Nygaard

The Third Circuit today rejected Pennsylvania’s argument that it was entitled to attorney’s fees for its work in derailing a hospital merger, concluding that the basis for the state’s win was a federal statutory provision that did not provide for attorney-fee recovery. The opinion ran a brisk 18 paragraphs, which is less than a paragraph per lawyer listed in the caption.

Joining Nygaard were Shwartz and Rendell. Arguing counsel were Howard Hopkirk for Pa. and William Coglianese of Jones Day for the hospitals.

Two new opinions

G.S. v. Rose Tree Media School Dist. — civil / education — affirmance — per curiam

Today the Third Circuit granted a motion to publish a previously unpublished opinion. Interestingly, the motion was filed by amici, not by a party. The non-published opinion had been authored by Judge Vanaskie, who has since retired, so the motion to publish was granted by the other two panel members and the opinion was issued as an unsigned per curiam.

The appeal arose from a suit brought under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, in which a boy and his parents alleged that a school district’s refusal to enroll the boy was illegal. In a previous suit between the parents and the district, the school had agreed to pay for the boy to go to a different school for one year, and the parents agreed to waive prior and also agreed to make no future McKinney-Vento claims. The court today held that the future-claim waiver was unenforceable for lack of consideration in light of a recitation of consideration in the settlement agreement which only referred to the prior claims, which strikes me as debatable. The court also rejected the district’s argument that the student was not homeless because he was living along with his family in his grandparents’ house for several years, given statutory language included as homeless children living doubled up with no durational limit.

The panel was Ambro and Jordan (and originally included Vanaskie). Arguing counsel were Katherine Meehan of Raffaele Puppio for the district and Michael Raffaele of Kershenbaum & Raffaele for the student and parents.

 

US v. Goldstein — criminal — affirmance — Roth

The Third Circuit held that the government’s warrantless use of cell-site location data violated the Fourth Amendment, reversing its prior ruling on that point in this case (captioned US v. Stimler, link here) in light of the Supreme Court’s intervening ruling in Carpenter. But the court affirmed the conviction again, this time under the good-faith exception.

Roth was joined by Chagares and Restrepo. Arguing counsel were Aidan O’Connor of Pashman Stein for the defendant and Norman Gross and Glenn Moramarco for the government.

Another stealth amended opinion

Late Friday the court issued an amended panel opinion in US v. Hird, the appeal from the Philadelphia traffic-court convictions that it originally decided last August, link here. Unfortunately, the amended opinion does not indicate what it changed in the 53-page opinion (the outcome appears the same), nor does it indicate in the opinion’s caption that it’s an amended opinion. Again. (The letter “a” at the end of the opinion pdf’s filename is the only giveaway in the opinion itself.)

New opinions

US v. Wright — criminal — affirmance — Shwartz

Today, a fractured Third Circuit panel reversed a district court’s order dismissing a criminal indictment with prejudice after two trials and two hung juries. The lead opinion held that the district court lacked inherent authority to dismiss the indictment absent misconduct or “any prejudice beyond the general anxiety and inconvenience of facing a retrial.”

Judge McKee concurred in the judgment and Judge Nygaard dissented. Although both separate opinions refer to Judge Shwartz’s opinion as a majority opinion, at first blush I read Judge McKee’s rationale as narrower than Judge Shwartz’s so it is unclear to me which opinion will be viewed as binding precedent by future panels.

The case originally was decided yesterday without Judge McKee’s opinion.

Arguing counsel were Donovan Cocas of the WDPA US Attorney’s office for the government and Renee Pietropaolo of the WDPA federal defenders for the defendant.

Bryan v. US — civil rights — affirmance — Roth

After customs agents searched the cabins of three cruise-shop passengers, the passengers brought Bivens claims against the agents and the a claim under the Federal Tort Claims Act against the government. Today, the Third Circuit affirmed summary judgment against the passengers, holding that the Bivens claims were barred by qualified immunity and the FTCA claim by the discretionary-function exception.

Joining Roth were Krause and Fisher. Arguing counsel were David Nissman of McChain Nissman for the passengers and Samantha Chaifetz for the government.

New opinion — Third Circuit vacates some of former Congressman Fattah’s convictions, but reinstates others [updated]

US v. Fattah — criminal — partial affirmance — Smith

[UPDATE: when I saw this opinion, I briefly thought, “wait, wasn’t that already decided? But the opinion wasn’t captioned as being amended as it normally would be, and I was distracted with something else, so I forgot to check and I just wrote a summary. Sorry. Today’s ruling amends the one the court issued back in August. Today’s opinion is 4 pages longer and, sorry again, I haven’t figured out yet what changed beyond the fact that the typeface is larger.]

In a sprawling 165-page, 12-section opinion, the Third Circuit today issued a mixed-bag opinion for former US Congressman Chaka Fattah Sr. and three co-defendants, vacating five counts of conviction, reversing judgements of acquittal on two counts, and otherwise affirming. The five vacated counts were for bribery and honest-services fraud, which the court vacated under the Supreme Court’s 2016 ruling in McDonnell v. US.

Joining Smith were Greenaway and Krause. Arguing counsel were: Jonathan Kravis for the government, Bruce Merenstein of Schnader for Fattah, Ann Flannery of Philadelphia for one co-defendant, Barry Gross of Drinker Biddle for another, and Glen Nager of Jones Day for the third. Video of the oral argument, which ran over two and half hours, is here.

New opinion

T Mobile Northeast v. City of Wilmington — civil — reversal — Jordan

A federal law required wireless providers challenging denials of permission to build cell towers to bring their challenge “within 30 days after” the denial. Here, the wireless provider raised its challenge before the denial was final, and didn’t supplement it within 30 days after. The district court held that the claim was unripe when filed and not saved by relation back, granting summary judgment against the provider. Today, the Third Circuit reversed, agreeing that the initial complaint was unripe but holding that the belated supplemental complaint related back to the unripe complaint and thus cured the timeliness problem.

Joining Jordan was Nygaard; Vanaskie had been the third judge on the panel. Arguing counsel were Scott Thompson of D.C. for the wireless provider and Joseph Van Eaton of D.C. for the municipal appellees.

Two new opinions, both authored by retired Judge Vanaskie [updated]

The Third Circuit posted two new precedential opinions today, both authored by Judge Vanaskie, who has retired. Both opinions contain the following footnote:

“The Honorable Judge Vanaskie transmitted the opinion to the Clerk for filing prior to retiring from the bench on January 1, 2019. Due to the intervening holiday, the opinion has been entered on the docket by the Clerk this day.”

At the risk of being accused of Stiegler sticklerism, I think it would have been preferable (assuming that post-retirement issuance was unavoidable) to issue the opinions as two-judge per curiam opinions with footnotes indicating that Judge Vanaskie authored and submitted them prior to his retirement. Doing it the way the court did here invites controversy over the issuance of opinions after a panel member’s death or retirement, unnecessarily in my view.

[UPDATE: the court also issued two non-precedential opinions today that listed Judge Vanaskie on the coram but, unlike the published opinions, stated that the opinion is filed by a quorum of the panel pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 46(d) and 3d Cir. IOP 12.

IOP 12.1(d) speaks directly to this situation:

If the author of an opinion or member of the panel becomes unavailable after transmission of the opinion to the clerk, but before the opinion is filed, the chief judge may direct that the opinion be filed listing the unavailable judge on the coram, provided neither of the remaining judges has authored a concurrence or dissent. Ordinarily the opinion will be filed as a per curiam opinion but the chief judge may in his or her discretion direct that the opinion be filed with the unavailable judge listed as author. The clerk will note on the opinion that it was received in the clerk’s office before the panel member became unavailable.

So, while the internal procedures appear to favor the course I suggested above, they specifically give the Chief Judge the discretion to do exactly as he evidently did here.]

 

Simpson v. AG — civil — affirmance — Vanaskie

The Third Circuit upheld the ATF’s revocation of a gun dealer’s firearm licenses based on over 400 willful violations of gun laws, holding that such violations are willful if they involve “knowledge of a legal obligation and purposeful disregard or plain indifference to it.”

Joining Vanaskie were Chagares and Jordan. Arguing counsel were Joshua Prince of the Prince Law Offices for the dealer and Carlo Marchioli of the MDPA’s US Attorney’s office for the government.

 

Ku v. AG — immigration — affirmance — Vanaskie

The Third Circuit today held that an immigrant’s conviction for wire fraud resulted in a loss of over $10,000 and was a crime involving moral turpitude. The court further held that it lacked jurisdiction to review ruling of the Board of Immigration Appeals reversing an Immigration Judge’s grant of a waiver based on the extreme hardship that deportation would cause her U.S. citizen children.

Joining Vanaskie were Jordan and Nygaard. Arguing counsel were Thomas Griffin of Surin & Griffin for the immigrant and Gregory Pennington Jr. for the government.

New opinion — Third Circuit allows Bivens claim for failure to protect prisoner to proceed

Bistrian v. Levi — civil rights — partial affirmance — Jordan

Peter Bistrian was being held in prison awaiting trial for wire fraud and earned the privilege of working outside his cell as an orderly. Another inmate, Steven Northington, asked Bistrian to pass notes from Northington to other prisoners. Northington was being held for a federal capital trial for being a leading member of the violent drug operation headed by Kaboni Savage. [Disclosure: I represent a co-defendant of Northington and Savage in a pending Third Circuit criminal appeal.]  Bistrian, who must be mind-bogglingly brave, told prison guards about Northington’s request and then agreed to pass Northington’s notes to the guards for them to photocopy before Bistrian delivered them. But when one of the prison guards screwed up and gave Bistrian the photocopy instead of the original, Bistrian’s cooperation was discovered, and Bistrian received multiple threats. Even though the guards were aware of these threats, they one day sent Bistrian into the recreation yard with Northington and two others, who commenced to “brutally beat” him, causing him “severe physical and psychological injuries.” What an unfathomable nightmare.

Bistrian sued the guards and the government, asserting Bivens claims for failing to protect him and for retaliating against him for filing inmate grievances. The defendants asserted qualified immunity and the district court granted summary judgment on this basis for some claims but not others. Yesterday, the Third Circuit affirmed in part, holding that Bistrian’s Bivens claims for failure to protect survived summary judgment but that his retaliation claims did not.

The court also refused to find that the defendants had waived their key legal argument by failing to raise it below, explaining that “[t]o rule otherwise would be to allow new causes of action to spring into existence merely through the dereliction of a party,” although I don’t follow how recognizing waiver of a legal argument by a party in one appeal would spring anything into existence.

Joining Jordan were Rendell and the about-to-retire Vanaskie. Arguing counsel were Jeffrey Scott of Archer for the defendants and Richard Bazelon of Bazelon Less for Bistrian.

New opinion [updated]

Jaroslawicz v. M&T Bank — civil — partial reversal — Vanaskie

UPDATE: on June 4, 2019, the court granted panel rehearing, vacated this opinion, and reconstituted the panel.

Today the Third Circuit reversed in part the dismissal of a shareholder suit in the wake of a 2012 bank merger, holding in a detailed opinion that the shareholders pleaded actionable claims for failing to disclose risk factors prior to the merger and plausibly alleged loss causation.

Joining Vanaskie were McKee and Siler CA6 by designation. Arguing counsel were Deborah Gross of Kaufman Coren for the appellants and Barry clerk Bradley Wilson of Wachtell for the appellees (George Conway III was on the brief).

Three reversals

Bedrosian v. US — tax — reversal — Ambro

Says the introduction:

This appeal presents two issues of first impression in our Court concerning the Internal Revenue Service’s assessment of civil penalties for violation of 31 U.S.C. § 5314 and its implementing regulations, which require certain persons annually to file a Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts (colloquially called a “FBAR” or simply “Report”). First, we examine federal court jurisdiction over actions challenging the IRS’s assessment of civil FBAR penalties. We conclude that jurisdiction exists here but reserve the question whether it is established in the District Court when a taxpayer files suit to challenge a FBAR penalty before fully paying it. Second, we clarify that, to prove a “willful” FBAR violation, the Government must satisfy the civil willfulness standard, which includes both knowing and reckless conduct. To ensure this action accords with that standard, we remand for further proceedings consistent with our opinion.

The court sided with the government in holding that the district court applied the wrong standard for willfulness insofar as implied that the issue turned on the taxpayer’s subjective motivations and the overall egregiousness of his conduct.

Joining Ambro were Chagares and Greenaway. Arguing counsel were Andrew Weiner for the government and Patrick Egan of Fox Rothschild for the taxpayer.

 

US v. Bey — criminal — reversal — McKee

The Third Circuit today vacated a defendant’s criminal conviction, holding that, while the initial stop was lawful, the continuation of the stop after the officers should have realized that he did not meet the physical description violated the Fourth Amendment.

Joining McKee were Vanaskie and Restrepo. Arguing counsel were Brett Sweitzer of the EDPA federal defender for the defendant and Robert Zauzmer of the EDPA US Attorney’s office for the government.

.

And, yesterday:

In re: Community Bank of Northern Va. Mortgage Lending Practices Litig. — civil / jurisdiction — reversal — Shwartz

An attorney-fee-allocation dispute broke out after the final order approving a class action settlement. After one side filed a state action alleging breach of contract, the other side asked the federal court that had presided over the class action to halt the state litigation and decide the fee issue itself, which it did. The Third Circuit reversed, holding that the district court erred in exercising ancillary jurisdiction over the state litigation.

Joining Shwartz were Roth and Fisher. Arguing counsel were Stanley Stein of Pittsburgh for the appellant and Gary Lynch of Carlson Lynch for the appellee.

NRA group files for rehearing in NJ large-capacity gun-magazines appeal

The Association for New Jersey Rifle & Pistol Clubs on Wednesday filed a petition for en banc rehearing in ANJRPC v. AG, in which the Third Circuit denied the group’s Second Amendment challenge to New Jersey’s law limiting gun magazines to 10 bullets. The group posted its petition online, link here.

The petition asserts five grounds for rehearing, including that the Court should adopt “eschew tiers of scrutiny” and adopt in its place “[a]n approach based on text, history, and tradition.”

It unloads on the panel-majority opinion with a  barrage of sinister verbs: “refused,” “disregarded,” “directly contravenes,” “avoided that conclusion by grafting a new requirement,” “arrogated to itself,” “allowed the suppression of a fundamental right ‘for mere convenience,'” “invented,” “manufactured,” “proceeded to shift the burden of proof,” “made factual assertions that are dubious, irrelevant, or based on flawed empirical methodologies,” “ignoring almost all contrary evidence and counterargument,” “never even analyzed,” “refusing to hold the State to its burden of proof,” “flipped the burden,” and “created a circuit split without even trying to justify doing so.” This is a frankly bewildering approach to seeking a majority for Third Circuit en banc rehearing.

In the weeks since it issued, the panel-majority opinion in this case has been targeted for extraordinary criticism on pro-gun websites and conservative news outlets. A few examples:

  • here (graphic: “IN THE 1770S, THE BRITISH DEMANDED WE HAND OVER OUR WEAPONS. WE SHOT THEM.”),
  • here (graphic: “I WILL NOT COMPLY”), and
  • here (headline: “Venezuela Banned Gun Ownership Before Country’s Collapse”)

As I observed on Twitter, I don’t remember ever seeing a circuit case in which the public criticism focused so heavily on identifying the majority and dissenting judges by name and by the president who had nominated them, and I find it scary as hell.

The petitioner’s announcement states that, “If the court declines en banc review, ANJRPC is prepared to eventually seek review from the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Two new opinions [updated]

NLRB v. Imagefirst Uniform — labor — partial reversal — Cowen

The Third Circuit today partially granted the National Labor Relations Board’s application for enforcement of its decision holding that an employer violated the NLRA. The employer broke the law when it tried to block union representatives from handing out literature on the public sidewalk outside its building, but not when it called the police.

Joining Cowen were Krause and Fuentes. Arguing counsel were Kellie Isbell for the NLRB and Christopher Murphy of Morgan Lewis for the employer.

 

US v. McCants — criminal — affirmance — Hardiman

UPDATE: the panel granted rehearing and issued a new opinion, link here.

The Third Circuit today rejected a criminal defendant’s challenge to legality of a search that resulted from an anonymous 911 call, as well as his challenges to his sentencing as a career offender based on prior NJ convictions for second-degree robbery as crimes of violence.

Joining Hardiman were Krause and Bibas. Arguing counsel were Leticia Olivera of the NJ FPD for the defendant and Richard Ramsay of the NJ USAO for the government.

[post updated to correctly identify arguing counsel for the government.]

Today’s en banc vote: one more thing

A quick note that I only thought of after my original post: Judge Vanaskie is listed as participating in the vote on whether to grant rehearing en banc, although he took senior status effective November 30. I would have thought that whether a judge participated in a vote on whether to grant en banc rehearing was determined by his status on the date of the decision (today), not on the date the rehearing petition was filed (presumably before November 30). It seems I would have been mistaken.

The relevant procedure, IOP 9.5.3, doesn’t clearly answer this point, saying, “Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. ‘ 46(c), only active judges of this court may votefor rehearing en banc. Therefore, rehearing en banc shall be ordered only upon the affirmative votes of a majority of the judges of this court in regular active service who are not disqualified.”

(An obscure point perhaps, but it wouldn’t be all that far-fetched to imagine Judge Vanaskie being the decisive seventh vote in favor of rehearing here.)

Third Circuit grants en banc rehearing on PLRA three-strikes issue

The Third Circuit today granted rehearing en banc in Brown v. Sage. In Brown, a panel majority (Judge Fuentes, joined by Chief Judge Smith) had ruled that a prisoner had not accrued three strikes under the Prisoner Litigation Reform Act, while Judge Chagares had dissented vigorously and urged the court to hear the case en banc. My summary of the panel opinion is here, the now-vacated panel opinion is here.

New opinion — a Pa. conviction for endangering the welfare of a child is not a deportable child-abuse crime

Liao v. AG — immigration — reversal — Shwartz

A Chinese citizen who had been a legal permanent US resident for a decade was convicted in Pennsylvania of endangering the welfare of a child after a physical altercation with his girlfriend. Yesterday, the Third Circuit held that his conviction was not a “crime of child abuse” under the Immigration and Naturalization Act because the elements of the criminal statute allowed conviction on a lesser showing  than the INA. The court accordingly vacated the man’s removal order and remanded.

Joining Shwartz were Roth and Fisher. Arguing counsel were former Ambro clerk Joshua Bolian of Robbins Russell for the immigrant and Jonathan Robbins for the government. The opinion noted that Bolian appeared pro bono, noted that his service is in highest tradition of the profession, and thanked him for his representation.

New opinion

Castellanos Monzon v. De La Roca — international — affirmance — McKee

The Third Circuit today affirmed a district court’s denial of a father’s petition under an international agreement (the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction Remedies) for the return of his child from the mother after they divorced and she moved with the child from Guatemala to the U.S.

Joining McKee were Ambro and Restrepo. Arguing counsel were John Boehler, formerly of Rutgers Law Associates and now of Beattie Padovano, for the father and Kennedy clerk Mark Taticchi of Drinker Biddle for the mother.

UPDATE: this story by Charles Toutant for New Jersey Law Journal provides helpful context on the procedural history.

New opinion — divided Third Circuit rejects initial challenge to NJ large-capacity-gun-magazine ban

Ass’n of NJ Rifle & Pistol Clubs v. AG — constitutional — affirmance — Shwartz

A divided Third Circuit panel today ruled against challengers to New Jersey’s law limiting gun magazines to 10 bullets, affirming the district court’s denial of a preliminary injunction.

Given the issue, the panel’s split, the high level of amicus involvement, and the current Supreme Court, petitions for en banc rehearing and/or certiorari seem highly likely.

Joining Shwartz was Greenaway; dissenting was Bibas. Arguing counsel were David Thompson of Cooper & Kirk for the challengers and Jeremy Feigenbaum for the state.

Two new opinions

(The Third Circuit issued two published opinions yesterday. I had a Third Circuit brief due that I filed at 10:22 pm, so blogging had to wait.)

US v. Hester — criminal — partial reversal — Restrepo

The Third Circuit affirmed the denial of a motion to suppress evidence seized during a traffic stop, but reversed the application of a sentencing enhancement for evidence tampering.

On the suppression issue, the court held that the traffic stop was a seizure and that the defendant submitted to authority despite his eventual failed attempt to flee, but that the stop was supported by reasonable suspicion.

On the sentencing issue, it held that application of the enhancement was erroneous for two reasons: (1) factually, the defendant’s actions didn’t amount to tampering (“we cannot agree that ex post expressions of regret about not having committed a potentially criminal act amounts to an attempt to commit that same criminal act” is a cool line), and (2) legally, the enhancement didn’t apply because it required possession of a gun “in connection with” another offense and no connection was present here. The court rejected the government’s argument that remand was pointless because the judge had already departed downward due to uncertainty about the enhancement’s application.

Joining Restrepo were Smith and McKee. Arguing counsel were John Romano for the government and Leticia Olivera of the NJ federal defenders for the defendant.

 

In re: Revel — bankruptcy — affirmance — Ambro

The Third Circuit affirmed a ruling leaving in place a tenant’s favorable lease terms after the landlord declared bankruptcy and was purchased free and clear. Best line: “The Lease is long and neither simple nor direct. Indeed, it is an almost impenetrable web of formulas, defined terms, and cross-references–a ‘bloated morass,’ in the words of the Bankruptcy Court.”

Joining Ambro were Chagares and Greenaway. Arguing counsel were Stuart Moskovitz for the new landlord and Jeffrey Cooper of Rabinowitz Lubetkin for the tenant.

 

New opinion

In re: IMMC Corp. — bankruptcy — affirmance — Rendell

The Third Circuit today held that, because a bankruptcy court lacked the power to adjudicate an adversary proceeding, it properly denied a trustee’s motion to transfer the adversary proceeding to a district court. The court sidestepped the statutory question of whether a provision authorizing “courts” to transfer proceedings included bankruptcy courts, but noted in a footnote that Judge Roth would have answered that question in the negative.

Joining Rendell were Shwartz and Roth. Arguing counsel were Mara Beth Sommers of Florida for the trustee and Clair Wischusen of Fox Rothschild for the appellees. I do believe this is the first time since I started this blog that a Third Circuit panel composed of three women precedentially decided a case argued by two women. Pretty cool.

Two new opinions, including a partial reversal of the Bridgegate convictions

US v. Baroni — criminal — partial reversal — Scirica

The introduction admirably summarizes things:

Defendants William E. Baroni, Jr. and Bridget Anne Kelly engaged in a scheme to impose crippling gridlock on the Borough of Fort Lee, New Jersey, after Fort Lee’s mayor refused to endorse the 2013 reelection bid of then-Governor Chris Christie. To this end, under the guise of conducting a “traffic study,” Baroni and Kelly, among others, conspired to limit Fort Lee motorists’ access to the George Washington Bridge—the world’s busiest bridge—over four days in early September 2013: the first week of Fort Lee’s school year. This scheme caused vehicles to back up into the Borough, creating intense traffic jams. Extensive media coverage ensued, and the scandal became known as “Bridgegate.”

In 2015, a grand jury indicted Baroni and Kelly for their role in the scheme. Each Defendant was charged with seven counts: conspiracy to obtain by fraud, knowingly convert, or intentionally misapply property of an organization receiving federal benefits, 18 U.S.C. § 371, and the substantive offense, id. § 666(a)(1)(A); conspiracy to commit wire fraud, id. § 1349, and two counts of the substantive offense, id. § 1343; and conspiracy against civil rights, id. § 241, and the substantive offense, id. § 242. A jury convicted Defendants on all counts. They appeal only their judgments of conviction.

For reasons that follow, we will affirm Defendants’ judgments of convictions on the wire fraud and Section 666 counts but will reverse and vacate their civil rights convictions.

Criminal liability on the civil rights convictions turned on whether their actions were subject to qualified immunity. The court today held that they were protected by qualified immunity, even though their actions had been clearly illegal in the Third Circuit for almost three decades, because there was not a robust consensus on the point among the rest of the circuits. It wrote, “The Supreme Court has suggested that a single binding case from the defendant’s jurisdiction is insufficient to give notice that certain conduct could lead to criminal punishment. See Carroll
v. Carman, 135 S. Ct. 348, 350 (2014).” But Carroll assumed for the sake of argument that a single prior decision could constitute clearly established law, and instead held that the case relied on there did not answer the question. So today’s holding appears, at least at first blush, to expand significantly the scope of qualified immunity.

Joining Scirica were Ambro and Siler CA6 by designation. Arguing counsel were Michael Levy of Sidley Austin for one defendant, Jacob Roth of Jones Day for the other, and Bruce Keller for the government.

 

Weitzner v. Sanofi Pasteur — civil — affirmance — Smith

The Third Circuit upheld a grant of summary judgment in favor the defense in a suit under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, holding that the plaintiffs’ untimely claims were not subject to class-action tolling under American Pipe.

Joining Smith were McKee and Restrepo. Arguing counsel were Todd Bank of NY for the appellants and Carl Greco of Scranton for the appellees.

New opinion–NJ child-porn possession is not an aggravated felony

Salmoran v. AG — immigration — partial reversal — Greenaway

Today the Third Circuit held that a New Jersey conviction for possessing child pornography is  crime of child abuse but not an aggravated felony, meaning it supports removal but does not bar an application for cancellation of removal.

Joining Greenaway were Restrepo and Bibas. Arguing counsel were Matthew Archambeault of Philadelphia for the petitioner and Lindsay Dunn for the government.

New opinion — a district court got it wrong, but not wrong enough to grant mandamus

In re: McGraw-Hill Global Educ. Holdings — civil / contract / procedure — denial of mandamus — Smith

The introduction of today’s opinion:

These consolidated mandamus petitions require us to decide whether two professional photographers bringing separate copyright infringement actions are bound by a forum selection clause in contracts they did not sign. We conclude that the photographers are not bound because they are not intended beneficiaries of the agreements, nor are they closely related parties. Our conclusion means that one District Court got it right, and the other got it wrong. But mandamus is an extraordinary remedy. Because the erring District Court’s mistakes were not clear or indisputable, we decline to issue the writ.

Joining Smith was Hardiman; Roth dissented in part, arguing that the court should have corrected the erroneous ruling and that it should lower its mandamus standard in consolidated-petition cases. Arguing counsel were Beth Weisser of Fox Rothschild for the alleged infringers and Maurice Harmon of Harmon & Seidman for the photographers.

Two new opinions, one puzzling

Workman v. Superintendent — habeas corpus — reversal — Fuentes

Well, something seems not quite right here, but here goes. Back in September, the Court issued a panel opinion, link here, which I summarized as follows:

The Third Circuit today ruled in favor of a habeas corpus petitioner, holding that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing almost entirely to mount a defense and that post-conviction counsel’s ineffectiveness excused default of that issue under Martinez v. Ryan. Notably, the court held that the petitioner did not need to prove prejudice from his counsel’s error because, under United States v. Cronic, prejudice was presumed due to counsel’s near-total failure to contest the prosecution’s case.

[Disclosure: I provided minor consulting assistance to counsel for the petitioner.]

Joining Fuentes were Ambro and Restrepo. Arguing counsel were Marshall Dayan of the WDPA defender for the petitioner and Catherine Kiefer of the Philadelphia DA’s office for the Commonwealth.

Then last month the panel granted the Commonwealth’s petition for panel rehearing, vacated its original opinion, and promised a new one. The Commonwealth’s rehearing petition had argued that applying Cronic here was error but (remarkably) that the court could more soundly reach the same result by finding that counsel was ineffective under the usual deficient-performance-and-prejudice Strickland test.

But then today, the panel reissued the opinion with, as best I can tell, no substantive changes.  The new opinion corrects a few missing line-spaces between paragraphs (while leaving a typo in a heading, “Asssistance,”) but still applies Cronic.

I’m not sure how to interpret this, to be honest, but stay tuned.

[UPDATE: my original post linked to the old opinion instead of the new one, sorry to add to the confusion.]

[UPDATE2: the panel granted rehearing again.]

[UPDATE3: here’s the new opinion.]

 

Alpizar-Fallas v. Favero–civil — reversal — Rendell

The Third Circuit today reversed a district court’s dismissal of a deception claim brought under New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act.

Joining Rendell were Jordan and Vanaskie. Arguing counsel were Charles Gormally of Brach Eichler for the appellant and Kymberly Kochis of NY for the appellee.

 

Two new opinions, including an impressive one by Judge Bibas

Jacobs v. Federal Housing Finance Agency — civil — affirmance — Bibas

Since joining the Third Circuit about a year ago, Judge Stephanos Bibas has authored a number of opinions. But, in my view at least, today’s opinion in Jacobs marks the beginning in earnest of what I expect to be his momentous career on the bench. It’s a true powerhouse opinion, dispatching a complicated appeal with an elegant clarity that I expect to become Bibas’s hallmark. And the fact that he did it on behalf of a panel that also includes Judges Hardiman and Krause–three superb judges, all under 54 and all in the conversation for elevation to the Supreme Court, on the same court and sitting together–underscores why the Third Circuit is going to be an influential, fascinating court for many years to come.

But enough CA3 sis-boom-bah. Today’s appeal arose from a challenge to one aspect of the federal government’s response to the 2008 financial catastrophe. Fannie and Freddie Mac, the government agencies created to back home mortgages, were headed towards collapse, so the Congress passed a bill to keep them afloat in exchange for conservatorship by the Treasury Department and payment of their dividends to the Treasury instead of their private shareholders. The shareholders sued, asserting that the government lacked the power to enact the statute and violated the statute. The court rejected both arguments and concluded that, if the challengers’ relief were granted, the entire deal would unravel.

Joining Bibas were Hardiman and Krause. Arguing counsel were Michael Pittenger of Potter Anderson for the challengers, Howard Cayne of Arnold & Porter for one of the agencies, and Gerard Sinzdak of DOJ for the Treasury Department.

 

City of Cambridge Retirement Sys. v. Altisource Asset Mgmt. — civil / securities / class action — affirmance — Fisher

The Third Circuit affirmed a district court’s ruling that the plaintiffs in a securities fraud class action failed to meet the requirements of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act.

Joining Fisher were Krause and Roth. Arguing counsel were Kevin Green of San Diego for the appellant and Walter Carlson of Sidley Austin for the appellees.

New opinion

US v. McClure-Potts — criminal — affirmance — Greenaway

The Third Circuit today affirmed a criminal conviction for Social Security fraud, rejecting the defendant’s arguments that (1) she should have received a Sentencing Guidelines reduction for frauds committed “other than for profit” despite having received government benefits, (2) certain factual findings by the judge at sentencing were clearly erroneous, and (3) the court erred in calculating the loss amount used to set her Guidelines range.

Joining Greenaway were Ambro and Chagares. Arguing counsel were Fritz Ulrich of the MDPA federal defenders for the defendant and Stephen Cerutti of the MDPA US Attorney’s office for the government.

New opinion — Third Circuit rejects preemption application in high-profile plane-crash suit

Sikkelee v. Precision Airmotive — civil — reversal — Shwartz

After the pilot of a small airplane died in a plane crash, his widow sued the manufacturer of the plane’s engine, asserting state-law strict liability and negligence claims. The district court ruled that the claims were barred under conflict preemption and, alternatively, that the defendants were entitled to summary judgment under state law. Today, a divided Third Circuit panel reversed on both grounds in an opinion that helpfully summarizes the baroque law of preemption. Broadly speaking, the engine manufacturer argued that the suit should be barred because the design of its engine was dictated by the FAA, and the panel majority rejected that argument based on its view that the manufacturer in fact was able to modify the design.

Notably, the court observed in a footnote that the district court had repeatedly referred to a settlement that was irrelevant to any of the legal issues, and the court expressed its “hope [that] the District Court’s analysis and tone were not influenced by it.”

Judge Roth dissented on the preemption holding, arguing that the majority “takes a piecemeal approach to the Supreme Court’s impossibility preemption precedents” and “misframes the applicable regulatory regime.”

Joining Shwartz was Rendell, with Roth dissenting in part. (Thus making this the sadly rare Third Circuit panel comprised entirely of women.) The eminent arguing counsel were Tejinder Singh of Goldstein & Russell for the widow and Kannon Shanmugam of Williams & Connolly for the manufacturer. Audio of the argument is here.

 

Third Circuit grants en banc rehearing in juvenile-sentencing case [updated]

The Third Circuit yesterday granted rehearing en banc in a criminal case, United States v. Corey Grant, 16-3820, and set oral argument for February 20. The order is here. This is the court’s second en banc grant this week, joining the TSA-liability case Pellegrino, noted here.

Here is my write-up of the now-vacated Grant panel decision, which held that a de facto life sentence of 65 years was unconstitutional under Miller v. Alabama. The opinion stated that it joined three circuits against one on the de facto-life issue. The panel was unanimous on that point, while Judge Cowen dissented on the panel’s denial of relief on an additional sentencing-package ground. Greenaway was the author joined by Cowen and Padova EDPA.

Today’s order doesn’t specify whether the grant was spurred by the Miller issue or the sentencing-package issue, and I haven’t gone hunting on Pacer to see what the parties filed, but my guess is it’s about the Miller issue.

Update: a helpful reader pointed out what I should have noticed myself: the order states that it’s granting the government’s rehearing petition. This shows what I’d originally only suspected, that the en banc issue is the Miller issue.

Third Circuit grants rehearing en banc in TSA screener liability case

The Third Circuit this morning granted rehearing en banc in Pellegrino v. TSA, setting argument for February 20. A link to the order is here.

My summary of the now-vacated panel decision, in which the panel majority held that the government is immune from suit for the intentional torts of TSA airport security screeners, is here. The panel split was Judges Krause and Scirica in the majority with Judge Ambro dissenting.

Third Circuit cancels upcoming en banc arguments

On Friday, the Third Circuit entered orders in the two cases that had been scheduled en banc oral argument on October 10, which I previously discussed here, announcing that the arguments would not happen on that date and that the court would decide at some later date whether to hold arguments in these cases on the next en banc date, February 20, 2019. The orders did not provide the reason(s) for this unusual change of course.

Two new opinions, including a sledgehammer affirmance of attorney fee denial, sanction, and disciplinary referral

Young v. Smith — civil / attorney fees and sanctions — affirmance — McKee

Hard though it is to believe, not every lawyer reads or heeds my advice not to act as counsel for an appeal in which their own conduct is at issue.* It happened again in this case, and it ended spectacularly badly for the lawyer, Cynthia Pollick: flat denial of her request for over $700,000 in attorney’s fees, plus a $25,000 sanction, plus a disciplinary-board referral.

Among the lawyer’s many expensive mistakes, per the opinion:

  • seeking $733,002.23 in fees after a $25,000 settlement;
  • submitting a bill that was 44 single-spaced pages of teeny tiny type;
  • conducting herself at the fee hearing in a manner that the district judge said “transported [him] to a universe devoid of legal principles and fundamental notions of relevance,” “strange and obstreperous conduct” that “fl[ou]ted any semblance of propriety and decorum”; and
  • arguing she was free to ignore two prior admonitions for her billing practices because those rulings had been affirmed in decisions that were non-precedential.

The court held that 42 USC § 1988(b) permits courts to deny outrageously excessive and conscience-shocking fee requests in their entirety, and held that this standard was met by counsel’s “grossly excessive and absurd, but also fraudulent” request.

The opinion closed by emphasizing the uniqueness of the case and that blanket fee denials should be “exceedingly rare.”

Joining McKee were Shwartz and Cowen. The case was decided without oral argument.

* To be clear, I’m not suggesting that new counsel is any sort of cure-all. It didn’t seem to help earlier this year in Clemens, for example. But new counsel are virtually always going to be in a stronger position to defend district-court counsel’s actions.

 

Russell v. Superior Court Marshal — civil rights — partial affirmance — Krause

Today’s opinion begins powerfully: ” In this tragic case, after Appellee Jamila Russell enlisted the help of the Virgin Islands Superior Court and its Court Marshals with her truant teenage son, L.T., Deputy Marshal Chris Richardson allegedly shot him at his home, unarmed and mostly undressed, rendering him a quadriplegic.” The Third Circuit held that quasi-judicial immunity does not extend to a suit challenging the manner in which a judicial officer executes a court order. The court also affirmed denial of qualified immunity but ordered dismissal of a gross-negligence claim based on sovereign immunity.

A practice note: the opinion notes disapprovingly that the appellants “take it upon themselves to offer additional clarity by pointing to extra detail found not in the complaint but rather in the Marshals’ own affidavits and an internal incident report,” detail the did not consider in this interlocutory appeal from denial of dismissal.

Joining Krause were Roth and Fisher. Arguing counsel were Gordon Rhea of South Carolina for the mother and her son and Paul Gimenez from the Office of General Counsel for the Superior Court of the Virgin Islands for the defendants.

 

Three new opinions

The Third Circuit issued three published opinions yesterday.

US. v. Rivera-Cruz — criminal — affirmance — Hardiman

The introduction ably explains:

Reynaldo Rivera-Cruz appeals an order of the United
States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania
denying his motion for a sentence reduction. The relevant
statute (18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2)) authorizes sentence
reductions for defendants initially “sentenced to a term of
imprisonment based on” a United States Sentencing
Guidelines (USSG) range that was later lowered by the
United States Sentencing Commission. In Koons v. United
States, 138 S. Ct. 1783 (2018), the Supreme Court held that
such relief is unavailable to a defendant whose Guidelines
range is “scrapped” in favor of a statutory mandatory
minimum sentence. Id. at 1787–88. We now hold that the
same is true where, as here, a statutory maximum displaces
the defendant’s Guidelines range.

In Koons, a statute set the available sentence completely outside the Guidelines range, by requiring a minimum that was above the top of the range. Here, the statute also took the available sentence completely out of the Guidelines range, but by setting a maximum that was below the bottom of the range. The court reasoned that the “distinction is immaterial” here.

Joining Hardiman were Krause and Bibas. The case was decided without oral argument.

 

Schultz v. Midland Credit Mgmt. — civil / FDCPA — reversal — Vanaskie

A debt collector sent out form collection letters stating that forgiveness of debt may be reported to the IRS. But some of the recipients of that letter owed less than $600, and the IRS doesn’t require reporting of debt discharges under $600. One such recipient filed a putative class action suit against the debt collector under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. The district court dismissed, but the Third Circuit reversed, cautioning that the convenience of using form letters does not excuse compliance with the FDCPA.

Joining Vanaskie were Hardiman and Shwartz. Arguing counsel were Andrew Milz of Flitter Milz for the recipients and David Schultz of Chicago for the debt collector.

 

Judge v. Shikellamy School Dist. — civil — affirmance — Hardiman

A school principal was arrested on charges of drunk driving and resigned as principal but later sued alleging constructive discharge. Concluding that her resignation was voluntary, the Third Circuit affirmed dismissal of her suit. The opinion explained that the court had not explained how to analyze constructive-discharge claims, and the court adopted the Eleventh Circuit’s five-point framework.

Joining Hardiman were Krause and Bibas. The case was decided without oral argument.

Two new opinions

US v. Thomas — criminal — partial affirmance — Greenaway

A media company intervened in a criminal case involving aid to a foreign terrorist group, seeking to unseal records from the case including a guilty-plea document and materials involving surveillance discovery. The district court denied the request on national security grounds. Today, the Third Circuit affirmed as to the plea document, recognizing a presumptive First Amendment right to access but holding that the presumption was overcome here, and remanded for the district court to reconsider redaction of the rest.

Joining Greenaway were Restrepo and Bibas. The case was decided without oral argument.

 

Reese v. Warden — criminal — Fuentes — affirmance

The Third Circuit today held that a federal prisoner may not challenge his pretrial detention through a habeas petition under 28 USC § 2241. The ruling was a bit unusual in that the court noted that the issue was novel in the circuit, decided it with a signed precedential opinion, and agreed with two sister-circuit cases from the 80’s, one of them per curiam — but it denied the pro se inmate’s request for counsel, summarily affirmed without full briefing, and ruled that no substantial question was presented.

Joining Fuentes were Chagares and Greenaway. The case was decided without argument.

Two new opinions

In re: Hertz Global Holdings — civil / securities — affirmance — Jordan

The Third Circuit today affirmed a district court’s ruling that plaintiffs had failed to plead a “strong inference of scienter” for their claim under the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act. The opinion lays out in devastating detail the allegations that Hertz overstated its profits, but ultimately concludes that likeliest inference from this evidence is that the Hertz-executive defendants were “just bad leaders,” not that they engaged in systemic fraud.

Joining Jordan were Ambro and Hardiman. Arguing counsel were Douglas Wilens of Florida for the plaintiffs, Adam Unikowsky of Jenner & Block for Hertz, and Gregory Markel of New York for one of the executives.

 

Walker v. Senior Deputy Coffey — civil rights — partial affirmance — Roth

The Third Circuit today held that a prosecutor and an agent were entitled to qualified immunity for using a facially invalid subpoena to get a woman’s work emails, because the woman didn’t have a clearly established right to privacy for the content of her work emails, at least where the employer had authority over the emails and consented to turn them over in response to the invalid subpoena. The opinion notes the Court’s “dismay[]” at the prosecutor’s and agent’s action here: their subpoena left the date, time, place of production, and party blank. (Assistant General Counsel at Penn State Katherine Allen, identified in the opinion, complied with it anyway.)

My two cents: I have no view on whether applying qualified immunity here is a correct application of controlling law, but I believe the outcome here illustrates the awfulness of qualified immunity. Law enforcement officials get to serve cartoon subpoenas with impunity if the law isn’t also clear enough yet that what they get with the cartoon subpoenas was constitutionally protected? If it’s clear they used wrongful means to get something, that would be all qualified immunity requires in my world.

The court remanded to allow the plaintiff to amend her Stored Communications Act claim.

Joining Roth were Jordan and Stearns D. Mass by designation. Arguing counsel were Geoffrey Johnson of Jenkintown for the woman and John Knorr III for the state.

Court withdraws “prematurely filed” opinion

Earlier today, the Third Circuit posted a precedential opinion in Palardy v. Township of Millburn, 17-2597. Now it’s gone from the court website. On the case docket, there is a clerk’s order entered today that reads, “The Court’s opinion and judgment dated September 19, 2018, having been prematurely filed is hereby VACATED., filed.” My thanks to a helpful reader for pointing it out to me.

New opinion — Third Circuit revives union member’s 1st Amendment free-association claim [update: never mind]

[Update:  The court removed the opinion from its website. On the docket a clerk’s order was entered, stating, “The Court’s opinion and judgment dated September 19, 2018, having been prematurely filed is hereby VACATED., filed.” Thanks to a helpful reader for alerting me.]

 

Palardy v. Township of Millburn — civil — partial reversal — Siler CA6 by designation

The Third Circuit today reversed a district court’s grant summary judgment against a police officer who alleged that he was not made police chief due to his union membership. The court joined a circuit minority on the question of whether recent Supreme Court cases limiting speech protections for public employees to matters of public concern also apply to association claims, holding that they do not. Union membership, the court held, is First-Amendment-protected conduct.

Joining Siler were Ambro and Scirica. Arguing counsel were Dennis Durkin of Roseland, NJ, for the former police officer and Littie Rau of Ruderman Horn for the township.

New opinion — Third Circuit upholds denial of disabled student’s IDEA suit

K.D. v. Downingtown Area School Dist. — disability — affirmance — Bibas

The Third Circuit today sided with a school district in appeal over whether the district court complied with the Individuals with Disabilities Act and two other statutes. The plaintiff, supported by a bevy of disability-rights amici, argued that the district (which also garnered substantial amicus support) had failed to develop adequate individual education plans for for an elementary-school student with ADHD, dyslexia, and other disabilities struggling to keep up in school.

Joining Bibas were Greenaway and Restrepo. Arguing counsel were Catherine Reisman of Reisman Carolla for the student and Karl Romberger, Jr. of Sweet Stevens for the district.

New opinion, or rather newly precedential

US v. Glass — criminal — affirmance — Vanaskie

The Third Circuit this afternoon granted the government’s motion to publish an opinion in a case it previously had decided by non-precedential opinion. Such motions seem to rarely filed except by the government in criminal cases, which I see as unfortunate and a disservice to the court.

Anyhow, the case involved a defendant’s challenge to being sentenced as a Sentencing Guidelines career offender. The court rejected his argument that Pennsylvania’s PWID statute criminalized offers and thus didn’t qualify as predicate controlled substance offenses.

Joining with Vanaskie were Krause and Restrepo. The case was decided without oral argument.

En banc Third Circuit will wade into the crime-of-violence quagmire in two oral arguments next month

The Third Circuit granted rehearing en banc in two related criminal cases that will be argued on October 10. The cases are US v. Santiago, 16-4194, and US v. Harris, 17-1861.

The appellant in Santiago summarized the issue thus:

Whether a defendant’s prior New Jersey conviction for assaulting a law enforcement officer is a “crime of violence” under the elements clause of the Sentencing Guidelines

And one appellant in Harris:

Does Appellant’s ACCA-enhanced sentence violate his right to due process of law because it relies on prior convictions for Pennsylvania robbery and aggravated assault that are not categorically violent felonies under the Armed Career Criminal Act?

So if Johnson, Descamps, Mathis, and the categorical approach are your cup of tea, you won’t want to miss en banc argument day next month.

Third Circuit affirms bankruptcy court’s belated switch that cost one side $275M

In re: Energy Future Holdings — bankruptcy — affirmance — Greenaway

A bankruptcy court order granted reconsideration about a year after approving a merger, and under the new ruling the would-be merging corporation no longer was entitled to a $275 million termination fee. The would-be merger appealed, of course, arguing that the reconsideration motion was untimely and wrong on the merits. Today, a divided Third Circuit panel affirmed.

Joining Greenaway was Fuentes; Rendell dissented, arguing that reconsideration was granted without a clear error to correct and that the bankruptcy court’s analysis of the merits was flawed. Arguing counsel were Howard Seife of Norton Rose for the would-be merger, and Douglas Hallward-Driemeir of Ropes & Gray and Michael McKane of Kirkland & Ellis for the various appellees.

Three new opinions

Rinaldi v. US — prisoner rights — partial reversal — Krause

In a significant prisoner case, a divided Third Circuit panel today ruled in favor of a prisoner whose suit alleged that USP Lewisburg administators retaliated against him for filing inmate grievances by moving him into a cell with another prisoner known for assaulting his cellmates. The prisoner did not to administratively exhaust that claim with prison officials before filing suit—understandably!—but the government chose to argue that it should be dismissed for failure to exhaust and the district court agreed. Today the Third Circuit (per unanimous panel) disagreed, announcing the standard for when a prisoner’s failure to exhaust is excused by administrator’s intimidation and remanding for the district court to apply this standard.

The panel split over a second exhaustion issue. As to another of the prisoner’s claims, he failed to follow the prison’s grievance procedures, but the prison considered the merits of this claim anyway. The panel majority held that, with the PLRA as with habeas, a claim is exhausted even if it was not properly presented if it was considered anyway and denied at the highest level of review. On this point, Judge Scirica dissented.

Finally, the unanimous panel affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the prisoner’s claim under the Federal Tort Claims Act, holding that the FTCA’s discretionary-function exception to liability included prisoners’ challenges to BOP housing and cellmate assignments.

Joining Krause was Fuentes and Scirica in part, with Scirica dissenting in part. Arguing counsel were Tarah Ackerman of Allegheny Technologies (formerly of Jones Day) for the inmate, appointed by the court pro bono, and Timothy Judge of the US Attorney’s office in Scranton for the government.

 

Jutrowski v. Township of Riverdale — civil rights — partial affirmance — Krause

Several state troopers and local police officers participated in arresting a man for drunk driving. During the arrest, one of the officers kicked the man in the face while he was on the ground, hard enough to break the man’s nose and eye socket. But the officers had the man’s face  pinned to the pavement when the bone-breaking kick was delivered, so the man didn’t see who did it. The officers — Riverdale police officers Travis Roemmele and Christopher Biro, NJ state troopers Jeffrey Heimbach and James Franchino–all denied that they were the one who kicked the man, and–critically–they all denied having seen who did. (Officer Biro’s dashcam video “allegedly did not record.”) The man sued for excessive force, and, today, the Third Circuit rejected his excessive force claim:

We are now called upon to outline the contours of this “personal involvement” requirement in § 1983 cases and to consider its application when a plaintiff who indisputably suffered a constitutional injury at the hands of one officer comes up against to the proverbial “blue wall of silence.” Despite the unfortunate situation created for plaintiffs like Jutrowski who are unable to identify their attackers through no fault of their own, we hold that a plaintiff alleging that one or more officers engaged in unconstitutional conduct must establish the “personal involvement” of each named defendant to survive summary judgment and take that defendant to trial.

Unfortunate situation indeed. Because the man couldn’t identify after discovery which of the officers present delivered the kick, the Third Circuit affirmed dismissal of his excessive force claim against them all. On the bright side:

Nonetheless, where a plaintiff adduces sufficient evidence of an after-the-fact conspiracy to cover up misconduct, even of an unidentified officer, he may be able to state a claim under § 1983 for the violation of a different constitutional right: the due process right of access to the courts. Such is the case here.

Joining Krause were Jordan and Greenberg. Arguing counsel were Robert Degroot of Newark for the kicked man, Anthony Seijas of Cleary Giacobbe for the Riverdale defendants, and Matthew Lynch of the NJ AG’s office for the state-trooper defendants.

 

Clemens v. New York Central Mutual Fire Insurance — civil — affirmance — Greenaway

The introduction, minus cites:

After a jury awarded him $100,000 in punitive damages under the Pennsylvania Bad Faith Statute, 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 8371, Appellant Bernie Clemens submitted a petition for over $900,000 in attorney’s fees from Appellee New York Central Mutual Fire Insurance Company (“NYCM”). The District Court denied this petition in its entirety, reasoning that it was not adequately supported and that the requested amount was grossly excessive given the nature of the case. Finding no abuse of discretion, we will affirm and, in doing so, take the opportunity to formally endorse a view already adopted by several other circuits—that is, where a fee-shifting statute provides a court discretion to award attorney’s fees, such discretion includes the ability to deny a fee request altogether when, under the circumstances, the amount requested is “outrageously excessive.”

The opinion hammered counsel’s failure to maintain contemporaneous time records for most of the litigation (the court expressed astonishment that counsel sought recovery of over $25,000 for 64.5 hours spent reconstructing their time records), submission of time entries like “Other” and “Communicate,” and submission of 562 hours of otherwise unexplained time for trial preparation for the one-week trial.

Joining Greenaway were Restrepo and Bibas. The case was decided without oral argument.

Three new opinions [updated]

Update: on October 30 the panel granted the Commonwealth’s petition for panel rehearing and vacated the original opinion, with a new opinion and judgment to come.

Workman v. Superintendent — habeas corpus — reversal — Fuentes

The Third Circuit today ruled in favor of a habeas corpus petitioner, holding that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing almost entirely to mount a defense and that post-conviction counsel’s ineffectiveness excused default of that issue under Martinez v. Ryan. Notably, the court held that the petitioner did not need to prove prejudice from his counsel’s error because, under United States v. Cronic, prejudice was presumed due to counsel’s near-total failure to contest the prosecution’s case.

[Disclosure: I provided minor consulting assistance to counsel for the petitioner.]

Joining Fuentes were Ambro and Restrepo. Arguing counsel were Marshall Dayan of the WDPA defender for the petitioner and Catherine Kiefer of the Philadelphia DA’s office for the Commonwealth.

 

US v. Renteria — criminal — affirmance — Fuentes

The Third Circuit today split with the Second Circuit in holding that venue for a conspiracy conviction does not require proof that it was reasonably foreseeable that conduct in furtherance of the conspiracy would occur in the venue district, affirming a defendant’s conviction and sentence.

[Disclosure: I assisted counsel for the defendant by being a judge for her oral argument moot.]

Joining Fuentes were Greenaway and Rendell. Arguing counsel were Susan Lin of Kairys Rudovsky for the defendant and Bernadette McKeon of the EDPA U.S. Attorney’s office for the government.

 

 

Trinity Industries v. Greenlease Holding Co. — civil — partial reversal — Jordan

One company built railcars at a particular site for over 75 years, then another company bought the site and built railcars there for another 14 years. A state investigation of the site revealed illegal waste dumping on the site, resulting in a criminal prosecution and almost $9 million in clean-up costs. The two companies disputed how the clean-up costs should be allocated between them under CERCLA and an analogous state law. The district court allocated 62% of the clean-up cost to the first company; today, the Third Circuit vacated and remanded, holding that the district court’s allocation methodology was speculative because it materially deviated from the second company’s expert’s allocation methodology.

Joining Jordan were Chagares and Hardiman. Arguing counsel were Steven Baicker-McKee of Babst Calland for the first company and Paul Steinman of Eckert Seamans for the second.

Two new opinions, including a significant FCRA consumer win

Long v. SEPTA — civil — partial reversal — Fisher

Philadelphia’s public-transit authority, SEPTA, violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act by failing to send job applicants who had prior criminal convictions copies of the background checks that it  relied on when it rejected their applications. The district court rejected the applicants’ FCRA claims on the ground that they had alleged only a bare procedural violation without any concrete injury such as an error in their background check.

Today, the Third Circuit reversed in part because “the FCRA does not condition the right to receive a consumer report on whether having the report would allow an individual to stave off an adverse employment action. Rather, the statute applies to all consumers.” As to standing, the court reiterated its recent caselaw “‘decidedly in favor of allowing individuals to sue to remedy violations of their statutory rights, even without additional injury.”

Joining Fisher were Chagares and Restrepo. Arguing counsel were Deepak Gupta of Gupta Wessler for the applicants and Elizabeth Malloy of Cozen O’Connor for SEPTA.

 

Lupu v. Loan City LLC — civil — partial reversal — Ambro

The Third Circuit today held that, under Pennsylvania law, a title insurer’s duty to defend an insured is assessed claim-by-claim by comparing the insurance contract to the complaint, rejecting application of the “in for one, in for all” rule.

Joining Ambro were McKee and Restrepo. Arguing counsel were Michael Coughlin of Kaplin Stewart for title insurer and Brett Messinger of Duane Morris for the insured.

Two new opinions, including a rare PLRA win with a rare dissent urging en banc rehearing

Brown v. Sage — prisoner rights — reversal — Fuentes

Today, a divided Third Circuit panel ruled in favor of a prisoner who argued that he should have been allowed to file suits in forma pauperis because he had not accrued three prior frivolous filings under the Prison Litigation Reform Act’s three-strikes view. Applying circuit precedent, the majority held that one of the prisoner’s asserted strikes did not qualify because the court had denied the IFP motion and dismissed the complaint as frivolous simultaneously. It also held that strikes that accrue after the filing of the complaint do not count under the three-strikes rule.

In a vigorous dissent, Judge Chagares argued that the majority ignored controlling statutory law and created a circuit split, and he urged the court to grant en banc rehearing:

My learned colleagues have applied the law of this Court, but that jurisprudence was superseded by statute over twenty years ago. Nevertheless, the majority has extended it,
thereby creating a circuit split, mandating adherence to an inflexible rule that many courts in this circuit have abandoned, and increasing litigation (and confusion) over what constitutes
a “strike” for purposes of 28 U.S.C. § 1915(g). I write separately because I believe that the Court should take this case en banc to align our jurisprudence with the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995, Pub. L. No. 104-134, 110 Stat. 1321-66 (1996) (the “PLRA”) and with the decisions of our sister Courts of Appeals. Adherence to our outdated and rigid twostep procedure — the prism through which courts in this circuit must now divine whether prior dismissals that occurred both in and out of this circuit constitute strikes — should be discarded in favor of the flexible and discretionary approach required by the PLRA.

Joining Fuentes was Smith; Chagares concurred in part and dissented in part. Arguing counsel for the prisoner was Judah Bellin, a recent Penn Law grad who handled the case through the school’s federal appellate externship program, pro bono, and for the government was Michael Butler.

 

US v. Gonzalez — criminal — affirmance — Chagares

After a man killed his son’s ex-wife, and then himself, in the lobby of a Delaware courthouse, prosecutors charged the son and his sister with stalking resulting in death and related counts. Both were convicted and sentenced to life in prison. (Their mother also was convicted, but she died while the appeal was pending.) They appealed their convictions and sentences on 13 different grounds, but today the Third Circuit affirmed. The opinion observed that the case was complicated and raised numerous issues of first impression, and effusively praised District Judge McHugh’s handling of the case.

Joining Chagares were Scirica and Rendell. Arguing counsel were Tieffa Harper of the Delaware federal defender for the son, Jeremy Ibrahim Sr. for the sister, and Jamie McCall for the government.

Two especially interesting new opinions

In re: Johnson & Johnson Talcum Powder Prods. — civil — affirmance — Smith

Today a divided Third Circuit panel ruled against a woman who brought a consumer class-action suit against a baby-powder maker. The plaintiff alleged that perineal use of the baby powder can lead to increased risk of ovarian cancer. Her legal theory was that she suffered an economic injury by purchasing a product that was unsafe, even if it was only unsafe to other consumers. The majority held that her allegations were legally insufficient: “buyer’s remorse, without more, is not a cognizable injury under Article III.”

Judge Fuentes dissented, acknowledging that the majority’s conclusion makes perfect sense in the abstract but arguing that it failed to recognize that a product’s overall safety often is a key to consumers’ decisions about whether to buy it. Many of us would be less likely to buy a product marketed as safe that gives lots of other people cancer, and companies presumably know that. So denying economic recovery here allows companies to profit from hiding the danger, by preventing recovery by the consumers who spent their money on a product they would never have bought had they known.

Joining Smith was Chagares, with Fuentes dissenting. Both opinions are outstanding. Arguing counsel were Timothy Blood of California for the consumer and Matthew Powers of O’Melveny & Myers for the baby-powder maker.

 

Tima v. AG — immigration — affirmance — Bibas

A Cameroonian man in the U.S. on an expiring student visa entered into a sham marriage with a U.S. citizen almost three decades ago. He was discovered and pled guilty to making a false statement about being married, but the government didn’t try to deport him at the time. So he moved on with his life, married a citizen over 20 years ago, and had three children, all U.S. citizens. In 2003, the government in its infinite wisdom started trying to deport him for marriage fraud and a crime involving moral turpitude, namely the marriage-fraud false-statement conviction. The man applied for a fraud waiver under 8 USC § 1227(a)(1)(H).

Today, the Third Circuit denied the man’s petition for review, holding that the fraud waiver did not apply to removal based on the moral-turpitude conviction. By its terms, the fraud waiver applies to “grounds of admissibility directly resulting from such fraud.” The gist seems to be that, while the conviction here seems to be “directly resulting,” it wasn’t a ground “of admissibility” because the crime occurred after his admission. Even though the court admitted that its interpretation rendered part of the statute surplussage, and admitted that the man’s argument on this point was “cogent,” it still found the statute’s meaning clear enough that the rule of lenity did not apply, based on evidence including the “technical meaning” of the word “paragraph” as opposed to sections, subsections, subparagraphs, clauses, and subclauses, in light of authorities like the House Legislative Counsel’s Manual of Drafting Style.

My respectful view: if I first found myself relying on some legislative counsel style guide to support my statutory interpretation, and next I were forced to admit that applying the rule against surplussage would defeat my interpretation, then, even though three other circuits have interpreted the statute the same way, I believe the rule of lenity would start sounding plausible. Plausible enough, at least, that explaining why it rejected it, to uphold the quarter-century-late deportation of a father of three, warranted more than the single sentence of reasoning the opinion gave it here.

Joining Bibas were Jordan and Scirica. Arguing counsel were Matthew Archambeault of Corpuz & Archambeault for the man and Karen Melnik for the government.

Five new opinions

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.

Three new civil-appeal opinions

US ex rel. Silver v. Omnicare — civil / qui tam — reversal — Chagares

The False Claims Act, which allows whistleblowers to sue for frauds against the government, has a provision that prevents FCA actions that rely substantially on allegations already known to the public. An FCA relator alleged a kickback scheme — that a pharmacy gave below-cost rates to one category of nursing home customers in exchange for favorable treatment of the pharmacy from the homes as to another category of customers. The district court granted summary judgment based on the public-disclosure bar, relying in part on public evidence that the unlawful practice occurred in the industry generally. Today, the Third Circuit reversed, holding that the suit was not barred by the public-disclosure bar because publicly-known facts did not point to specific fraudulent transactions by this specific pharmacy.

Joining Chagares were Vanaskie and Fuentes. Arguing counsel were Shauna Itri of Berger & Montague for the whistleblower and Michael Manthei of Holland & Knight for the pharmacy.

 

Delaware Riverkeeper Network v. Secretary, PA DEP — civil / environmental — affirmance — Hardiman

The Third Circuit today rejected an environmental group’s Clean Water Act challenge to a Pennsylvania natural-gas pipeline project. The court also distinguished a First Circuit ruling in holding that the state agency’s water-quality certification was final and appealable even though the administrative appeal of the certification is still pending.

Joining Hardiman were Jordan and Scirica. Arguing counsel were Aaron Stemplewicz of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network and Mark Freed of Curtin & Heefer for the environmentalists, Joseph Cigan III for the state, and John Stoviak of Saul Ewing for the pipeline builder.

 

Taksir v. Vanguard Group — civil / securities — affirmance — Chagares

An investor sued Vanguard, alleging that Vanguard advertised stock-trade commissions for certain customers of $2, but then actually charged $7. The district court rejected Vanguard’s argument that the class-action suit was barred by the Securities Litigation Uniform Standards Act, and, in an interlocutory appeal, today the Third Circuit affirmed.

Joining Chagares were Smith and Fuentes. Arguing counsel were Stuart Steinberg of Dechert for Vanguard and Christopher Nelson of the Weiser Law Firm for the investor.

New opinion — remarkably lopsided en banc Third Circuit sides with rental-assistance tenants [updated]

Hayes v. Harvey (en banc) — housing — reversal — Greenaway

[Update 2: a couple hours after the original opinion posted, the clerk issued an order that read, “At the direction of the Court, an amended opinion shall be filed to reflect that Judge Hardiman joined in the dissent filed by Judge Fisher.” I’ve updated the post accordingly; the original opinion is here.]

Holy cannoli. Today the en banc Third Circuit ruled 12 to 1 11 to 2 in favor of the tenant in a significant housing appeal, a dramatic switch from the panel’s 2-to-1 ruling against the tenant. The core legal issue was whether a federal statute that says Section 8 enhanced voucher tenants “may elect to remain” in their homes gives them the right to remain in their homes.

[Disclosure: I provided modest pro bono consulting to counsel for the appellants during the en banc litigation.]

The en banc author was Judge Greenaway, who had dissented with gusto from the panel ruling. Judge Hardiman flipped, joining the en banc majority after siding with the landlord at the panel stage. Judge Fisher, the panel author, was the lone dissenter. Judges Fisher and Hardiman, the original panel majority, were the only dissenters. Few observers would have predicted such a lopsided outcome here.

My post on the panel ruling is here. (It began, “In a significant public-housing opinion that I think has a realistic shot at en banc rehearing,” and you betcha I’m bragging.)

Appellate lawyers should note the valuable role that amici curiae played in the en banc litigation here. Hayes had one supporting amicus brief from advocacy groups at the panel stage, but at both the rehearing stage and the en banc merits stage the amicus support Hayes garnered was impressive, from legal aid offices to the City of Philadelphia and its housing authority. (Vooys, the en banc decided two weeks ago, also had major amicus participation.) En banc petitions and briefs are an under-utilized opportunity for amicus participation, and Hayes shows why that’s starting to change.

Arguing counsel were Rachel Garland of Community Legal Services for the tenant, Susanna Randazzo of Kolber & Randazzo for the landlord, and Gerard Sinzdak for HUD as amicus.

[I’ve updated the post to clarify that it involves recipients of Section 8 rental-assistance vouchers, not public-housing residents.]

New opinion — police officer’s questioning unreasonably extended traffic stop [updated]

US v. Clark — criminal — affirmance — Ambro

A police officer stopped a vehicle for traffic violations, questioned the driver, questioned the passenger, pat-down searched the passenger, and, 23 minutes after the stop began, discovered a gun and a marijuana joint on the passenger. Today, the Third Circuit affirmed the suppression of the fruits of the pat-down search, holding that the officer impermissibly extended the traffic stop beyond its mission by questioning the driver about his criminal history and the passenger about other criminal activity after the driver’s authority to drive the vehicle had been confirmed.

Joining Ambro were Jordan and Vanaskie. Arguing counsel were AUSA Norman Gross for the government and Lisa Van Hoeck of the federal defender for the defendant.

 

UPDATE: A second notable Fourth Amendment development today: in the afternoon, the court posted an order granting panel rehearing in US v. Goldstein, and directing the parties to file supplemental briefs addressing cell-site date and the Supreme Court’s subsequent ruling in Carpenter v. United States. Goldstein’s appeal had been decided last year, my post here; he and two co-defendants were convicted for conspiring to kidnap Orthodox Jewish husbands to aid their wives in obtaining divorces.

New opinion — Third Circuit reverses arbitration order

Cup v. Ampco Pittsburgh Corp. — civil — reversal — Hardiman

In a dispute between a union and an employer over retiree benefits, the district court granted the union’s request for arbitration, but today the Third Circuit reversed on the ground that the collective bargaining agreement did not cover retirees. The court also held that a district court order compelling arbitiration, dismissing the substantive claims without prejudice, and administratively closing the case is an appealable final order.

Joining Hardiman were Smith and Restrepo. Arguing counsel were Nathan Kilbert of the United Steelworkers for the union and Jeremy Blumenfeld of Morgan Lewis for the employer.

Four new opinions

The Third Circuit issued four precedential opinions yesterday, but I’m posting about them today because I was in a meeting all afternoon for a new CA3 appeal I’m doing.

Geness v. Cox — civil rights and disability — partial reversal — Krause

An intellectually disabled man with mental illness was charged for a crime that may not have occurred, found incompetent to stand trial, and then held without a trial for nearly a decade. Then, when the man finally got a hearing, the prosecutor voluntarily dismissed the charges due to—get this—”substantive evidentiary issues in this matter that likely could and would impair the Commonwealth’s ability to meet its burden of proof, even if the defendant were competent.”

So the man filed a lawsuit against the arresting officer, Jason Cox, who is now the  the town’s police chief, alleging violations of his civil rights and his rights under the Americans with Disability Act. In a searing opinion, the Third Circuit affirmed dismissal of the man’s civil-rights claims (“Absurd as it may seem that Geness was detained for nine years for a crime that may not have occurred and now cannot pursue relief under § 1983, multipoint failures in the criminal justice system have brought us to this juncture.”) but reinstated his due process and ADA claims to let him amend.

Joining Krause were Smith and Greenaway. Arguing counsel were Joel Sansone of Massimo Terzigni for the plaintiff and former CA3 staff attorney Carol VanderWoude of Marshall Dennehey for the officer.

 

Lifewatch Services v. Highmark — antitrust — reversal — Ambro

One of life’s great law-nerd pleasures is reading an Ambro opinion deciding a consequential business case. Want a quick master-class on how crisp topic sentences can turn daunting and dry into lucid and engaging? Read this opinion.

The introduction:

The seller of a medical device, believing it was shut out of the market for it, brought suit on federal antitrust grounds against associated health insurance companies. The claim was that they shielded themselves from patient demand for the seller’s device by agreeing to deny coverage as “not medically necessary” or “investigational,” even while the medical community, other insurers, and independent arbiters viewed it as befitting the standard of care. The District Court dismissed the claim. For the reasons that follow, we reverse its judgment and remand the case for further consideration.

Joining Ambro were Restrepo and Fuentes. Arguing counsel were Gary Elden of Shook Hardy for the device maker and Daniel Laytin of Kirkland & Ellis for the insurers.

 

Tanksley v. Daniels — civil / copyright — affirmance — Fisher

A Philadelphia man “wrote, produced, directed, filmed, starred in, and copyrighted” a television pilot about an African American hip hop mogul, and he pitched it to a top television producer. Several years later, that same producer launched Empire, the Fox television series about an African American hip hop mogul. The Philadelphia man sued, alleging copyright infringement and other claims. The Third Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal based on a comparison of the two shows’ characters, settings, and storylines.

Joining Fisher were Chagares and Vanaskie. Arguing counsel were Mary Bogan and Predrag Filipovic of IFight4Justice for the Philadelphia man and Richard Stone of Jenner Block and Mathieu Shapiro of Obermayer for the defendants.

 

Conard v. Pa. State Police — civil rights — partial reversal — Greenberg

The Third Circuit reversed the dismissal a fired police dispatcher’s First Amendment retaliation claim. The opinion “clarif[ied] the applicable First Amendment legal standard in two respects”:

First, we conclude that the framework for First Amendment claims brought by government employees against their employers does not apply to Conard’s retaliation claim, because the speech which Conard alleges triggered the retaliation against her—filing administrative complaints and a lawsuit against her former employer— occurred after she had left her State Police employment….

Second, in the context of this action, Conard was not required to plead that defendants engaged in retaliatory conduct “of a particularly virulent character,” a standard applicable to retaliation claims where the retaliatory conduct involves speech by a public employee defendant.

Joining Greenberg were Chagares and Fuentes. Arguing counsel were former Hardiman clerk Eric Hamilton of Williams & Connolly for the fired dispatcher and Howard Hopkirk of the Pa. Attorney General’s office for the defendants. The opinion closed by thanking Conard’s appellate counsel “for having represented her in a fine way on a pro bono basis.”

A new habeas opinion

Mitchell v. Superintendent — habeas — affirmance — Greenberg

Two defendants were jointly tried for murder. One of the defendants, Eley, won habeas relief in the Third Circuit in 2013 on a claim arising from the admission of certain evidence at the trial. Eley’s co-defendant Mitchell raised the same legal issue in exactly the same posture, but his case moved more slowly then Eley’s, and the district court denied Mitchell relief, based on a Supreme Court case decided years before the Third Circuit decided Eley.

Today, the Third Circuit affirmed. The court’s view appeared to be that, while Eley had gotten a windfall because his panel had missed controlling law fatal to his claim, Eley’s win didn’t help poor Mitchell. Eley was freed five years ago, but Mitchell is serving life.

Joining Greenberg were Chagares and Fuentes. The case was decided without oral argument.

Four new opinions: a big removal ruling plus three reversals [updated]

Encompass Insurance v. Stone Mansion Restaurant — civil — partial affirmance — Chagares

The federal removal statute provides that, in a diversity case, a case may not be removed if “any of the parties in interest properly … served” is a citizen of the forum state. Here, a forum-state defendant successfully got its case out of state court by initially agreeing to accept service (instead of formal service) but then delaying that service until after it had removed. The plaintiff screamed bloody murder (“nonsensical,” “inconceivable”), but the Third Circuit affirmed the denial of remand on textual grounds. The court acknowledged that its holding may demonstrate “a need for a change in the law,” and it recognized that it could lead to future defendants gaming the removal statute by monitoring dockets and removing between filing and service (a pernicious practice termed “snap removal”) but said that it was up to Congress to fix it.

This opinion strikes me as a big deal and a viable candidate for en banc or certiorari review.

Joining Chagares were Jordan and Fuentes. Arguing counsel were Joshua Guthridge of Robb Leonard for the appellant and Miles Kirshner of Margolis Edelstein for the appellee.

UPDATE: I’ve updated the post to correct an error of mine that appeals whiz Katherine Romano kindly pointed out to me. My original post mistakenly described the defendant as non-diverse rather than a forum defendant.

 

Kane v. Barger — civil rights — reversal — Fuentes

When a police officer interviewed a sexual-assault victim, alone, he allegedly pulled down her shorts and her shirt in order to view her injuries, questioned her “relentless[ly]” about whether her vagina was injured, used his personal cellphone to take pictures of her breasts and buttocks, and lied about photographing her, and admitted he lied because he didn’t want his girlfriend to be jealous. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the officer on qualified immunity grounds, but today the Third Circuit reversed, emphatically holding that the officer’s actions violated the woman’s right to bodily integrity and that that right was clearly established.

Joining Fuentes were Chagares and Greenberg. The case was decided without oral argument.

 

Levins v. Healthcare Revenue Recovery Gp — civil / FDCPA — partial reversal — Jordan

A provision of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act requires a debt collector from using any name other than its “true name.” Today, the Third Circuit held that the plaintiffs stated a valid true-name violation where the company left debt-collection messages identifying itself using a name that was neither its full business name, the name under which it usually transacted business, or a commonly used acronym. The court rejected the plaintiffs’ related arguments under FDCPA’s caller-identity and deceptive-means provisions.

Joining Jordan were Ambro and Vanaskie. Arguing counsel were Philip Stern of Stern Thomasson for the plaintiffs and Christian Scheuerman of Marks O’Neill for the debt collector.

 

US v. Mayo — criminal — reversal — Jordan

The Third Circuit today vacated a criminal defendant’s sentence, holding that a conviction under Pennsylvania’s aggravated-assault statute, 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 2702(a)(1), does not qualify as a violent felony under the residual clause of ACCA, the Armed Career Criminal Act.

Joining Jordan were Chagares and Fuentes. Arguing counsel were Fritz Ulrich of the MDPA defender for the defendant and Carlo Marchioli of the MDPA US Attorney’s office for the government.

 

Three new opinions, including the Virgin Islands en banc

Vooys v. Bentley (en banc) — jurisdiction — dismissal — McKee

In an almost-unanimous en banc ruling today, the Third Circuit held that Congress statutorily terminated its jurisdiction over any certiorari petition from a final decision of the Supreme Court of the Virgin Islands if the petition was filed on or after the statute’s effective date, overruling its prior ruling in Bason. The lone dissenter, interestingly, was Judge Bibas, the court’s newest member.

Arguing counsel were Rhea Lawrence of Lee Rohn & Associates for the respondents, UVA law students Laura Cooley and Tanner Russo for the petitioners, and Dwyer Arce of Nebraska for the VI bar association as amicus.

Update: the court issued an amended opinion on 8/22 to delete an orphan footnote, so I’ve updated the opinion link.

Update 2: Turns out I was right when, the day the court granted en banc rehearing, I wrote:

While nothing is certain, the posture of this order (sua sponte and prior to panel ruling) strongly suggests that overruling of Bason is likely. En banc grants in similar postures resulted in overrulings in Joyce, Rojas, Al-Sharif, and Quinn in recent years.

 

US v. Hird — criminal — partial affirmance — Nygaard

In a six-defendant consolidated criminal appeal arising out of the prosecution of Philadelphia traffic-court judges and others for ticket-fixing, the Third Circuit affirmed on almost all grounds, reversing only as to one defendant’s sentence with the government’s concurrence. It’s a heavily fact-intensive opinion, rejecting challenges to the sufficiency of the indictment’s fraud allegations and the sufficiency of perjury evidence, among others.

UPDATE: the court issued an amended opinion on January 18, 2019. The link above now goes to the new opinion; the original opinion is here. Unfortunately, the amended opinion did not indicate what changed or even indicate in the caption that this was an amendment.

Joining Nygaard were Greenaway and Fisher. Arguing counsel were Lisa Mathewson, Peter Goldberger, Michael Engle of Stradley Ronon, and Mark Cedrone of Cedrone & Mancano for the defendants and Robert Zauzmer for the government.

 

Murray v. City of Philadelphia — civil — dismissal — Chagares

The Third Circuit today dismissed a pro se appeal brought by a mother seeking to litigate on behalf of her son’s estate, holding that a non-attorney who is not a beneficiary of an estate may not litigate pro se on behalf of the estate.

Joining Chagares were Smith and Fuentes. The case was decided without oral argument, but the opinion thanked former Fisher clerk Ellen Mossman (now Ellen Ratigan) and Will Sachse of Dechert and recent Penn Law grad Chase McReynolds for providing “high-quality assistance” as amicus curiae counsel.

Two new opinions, including Judge Bibas’s first precedential opinion

In re: Arctic Glacier Int’l — bankruptcy — affirmance — Bibas

The Third Circuit today issued the first precedential opinion authored by its newest member, Judge Stephanos Bibas. The issue in the appeal was whether a party that bought shares in a bankrupt company after the bankruptcy reorganization was bound by terms of the reorganization plan applicable to shareholders. In an opinion that’s devoid of flash and a model of clarity, the court held that it was.

Joining Bibas were Smith and Hardiman. Arguing counsel were David Gordon of New York for the appellants and Mark Rasmussen of Jones Day for the appellees.

 

Newark Cab Assoc. v. City of Newark — civil — affirmance — Chagares

The Third Circuit today denied an appeal brought by Newark taxicab and limo operators seeking to revive their challenge to a deal between the city and ride-sharing giant Uber. The deal freed Uber from regulations that apply to taxi drivers, such as the need to buy a taxi medallion, get a commercial license, and charge rates set by the city. The court acknowledged that the city’s deal with Uber put the plaintiffs in “an undoubtedly difficult position,” but it upheld the district court’s dismissal of their constitutional and state-law claims.

Joining Chagares were Jordan and Hardiman. Arguing counsel were Richard Wedinger of Barry, McTiernan, & Wedinger for the cab operators and James Lewis of Pennington Law Group for the city.

New opinion — Third Circuit reverses denial of qualified immunity in car-chase-shooting appeal

Bland v. City of Newark — civil rights — reversal — Hardiman

The Third Circuit today held that police officers were entitled to qualified immunity from suit after shooting an unarmed man 16 to 18 times at the end of a dangerous high-speed car chase when they thought he was armed and unwilling to surrender.

Joining Hardiman were Smith and Bibas. Arguing counsel were Peter Ventrice of Brause Brause & Ventrice and Lucas Phillips Jr. of East Orange NJ for the plaintiffs and Michael Walters of the state AG’s office and Gary Lipshutz of the Newark Law Dept. for the defendants.

Two new opinions

Berardelli v. Allied Services Inst. of Rehab. Medicine — civil / disability — reversal — Krause

The Third Circuit today held that the Rehabilitation Act, like the Americans with Disabilities Act, generally requires covered actors to accommodate the service animals used by persons with disabilities. The case arose after a school refused to allow a girl with epilepsy to attend school with her service dog trained to detect seizures.

Joining Krause were Ambro and Rendell. Arguing counsel were Arleigh Helfer III of Schnader for the girl and James Conaboy of James Conaboy for the school.

 

In re: W.R. Grace — bankruptcy — partial reversal — Ambro

Today’s opinion opens, “Mass-tort liability of entities with asbestos operations typically results in their filing for bankruptcy protection,”  and few would disagree. Two decades ago the Supreme Court described the scale of asbestos litigation as elephantine, and it continues on today, with the Third Circuit still playing a central role.

Asbestos bankruptcy reorganizations often include an injunction that channels asbestos liability claims to a trust — not just claims against the debtor itself, but also claims against other entities such as the debtor’s insurers. The question in today’s opinion was whether the legal claims of a group of plaintiffs against an asbestos company’s insurers were subject to the chaneling injunction. The court agreed with the bankruptcy court that the claims fell within the terms of the injunction, but it remanded to reconsider whether chaneling their claims was allowed by the bankruptcy code.

Joining Ambro were McKee and Restrepo. Arguing counsel were Daniel Cohn of Boston for the appellants and Michael Giannotto of Goodwin Procter for the appellees.

New opinion — petitioner wins ACCA residual-clause appeal

US v. Peppers — criminal sentencing / § 2255 — reversal — Jordan

The Third Circuit today vacated a district court’s denial of relief in a successor post-conviction challenge to a criminal defendant’s sentencing under the residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act. The opinion’s introduction ably summarizes:

Ronnie Peppers was sentenced in 2003 to fifteen years of imprisonment for being a felon in possession of a firearm. That was the mandatory minimum under the Armed Career Criminal Act (“the ACCA” or “the Act”), and the District Court imposed it because of Peppers’s previous convictions. Peppers now challenges that sentence as unconstitutional in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015), which invalidated a clause of the ACCA – the “residual clause” – as unconstitutionally vague. He argued in District Court in a motion under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 that he was impermissibly sentenced under that invalid clause. But that § 2255 motion was not his first, and § 2255 itself, through subsection (h), places limits on any effort to file a second or successive collateral attack on a criminal judgment. The District Court denied Peppers’s second § 2255 motion after determining that his prior convictions remained predicate offenses for ACCA purposes because they are covered by portions of the Act that survived Johnson. Because we disagree with the District Court’s conclusions, we will vacate its decision and remand the case for further proceedings.

Five holdings lead to our remand. First, the jurisdictional gatekeeping inquiry for second or successive § 2255 motions based on Johnson requires only that a defendant prove he might have been sentenced under the now-unconstitutional residual clause of the ACCA, not that he was in fact sentenced under that clause. Second, a guilty plea pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c)(1)(C) does not preclude a defendant from collaterally attacking his sentence in a § 2255 motion, if his sentence would be unlawful once he proved that the ACCA no longer applies to him in light of Johnson. Third, a defendant seeking a sentence correction in a second or successive § 2255 motion based on Johnson, and who has used Johnson to satisfy the gatekeeping requirements of § 2255(h), may rely on postsentencing cases (i.e., the current state of the law) to support his Johnson claim. Fourth, Peppers’s robbery convictions, both under Pennsylvania’s robbery statute, are not categorically violent felonies under the ACCA, and, consequently, it was error to treat them as such. Fifth and finally, Peppers failed to meet his burden of proving his Johnson claim with respect to his Pennsylvania burglary conviction. We will therefore vacate the District Court’s order and remand for an analysis of whether the error that affected Peppers’s sentence, i.e., the error of treating the robbery convictions as predicate offenses under the ACCA, was harmless in light of his other prior convictions.

Joining Jordan were Chagares and Fuentes. Arguing counsel were MDPA AFD Fritz Ulrich for the petitioner and MDPA AUSA Carlo Marchioli for the government.

New opinion — Third Circuit vacates some of former congressman’s convictions

US v. Fattah — criminal — partial reversal — Smith

[UPDATE: the court issued an amended opinion replacing this one on January 16, 2019, link here.]

In a 142-page opinion, the Third Circuit today affirmed some, vacated some, and reinstated some of the criminal convictions of former Philadelphia Congressman Chaka Fattah Sr. and three co-defendants. The facts and procedural history of the opinion alone spanned over 40 pages, longer than most published opinions.

Joining Smith were Greenaway and Krause. Arguing counsel were Jonathan Ian Kravis for the government, Bruce Merenstein of Schnader for Fattah, and Ann Flannery of Philadelphia, Barry Gross of Drinker Biddle, and Glen Nager of Jones Day for the three co-defendants.

Four new opinions [updated]

The Third Circuit issued four precedential opinions today, all unanimous affirmances — three civil, one criminal:

Tepper v. Amos Financial — civil / FDCPA — affirmance — Ambro

The Third Circuit held today that debt collectors who purchase consumers’ debts from creditors (instead of being hired by the creditors to collect the debts) are subject to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Said the court, “Those entities whose principal business is to collect the defaulted debts they purchase seek to avoid the Act’s reach. We believe such an entity is what it is—a debt collector.”

Joining Ambro were Jordan and Vanaskie. Arguing counsel were Erik Helbing for the consumers and John Jacko III of Fellheimer & Eichen for the debt collector.

St. Pierre v. Retrieval Masters Creditors — civil / FDCPA — affirmance — Krause

In an issue of first circuit impression, the Third Circuit held that collecting unpaid highway-tolls bills falls outside the scope of the FDCPA, distinguishing prior circuit caselaw that collecting unpaid water and sewer bills falls within its scope. The opinion announced a three-part test for deciding what constitutes a “debt” subject to the FDCPA.

Joining Krause were Greenaway and Jones MDPA by designation. Arguing counsel were Michael Quirk of Berezofsky Law Group for the consumer and Joel Bertocchi of Chicago for the debt collector.

 

Reading Health Systems v. Bear Stearns — civil / arbitration — affirmance — Roth

Here is the first paragraph of today’s opinion:

In this case, we address an emerging trend in the brokerage industry. Ordinarily, broker-dealers, as members of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), are required by FINRA Rule 12200 to arbitrate all claims brought against them by a customer. Seeking to avoid this obligation to arbitrate, broker-dealers have begun inserting forum selection clauses in their customer agreements, without mentioning the customer’s right to arbitrate. This practice, which has been condoned by several of our sister circuits, deprives investors of the benefits associated with using FINRA’s arbitral forum to resolve brokerage-related disputes.

“[C]ondoned by several of our sister circuits,” perhaps, but not condoned by the Third. Affirming the district court’s order compelling J.P. Morgan to submit to FINRA arbitration, the court expressly split with the Second and Ninth Circuits while siding with the Fourth Circuit.

Joining Roth were Shwartz and Pappert EDPA even though the appeal arose from the EDPA. Arguing counsel were Jonathan Youngwood of Simpson Thacher for the appellant and Mark Strauss of New York for the appellee.

 

US v. Johnson — criminal — affirmance — Fisher

The Third Circuit rejected a series of challenges to a criminal defendant’s conviction and sentence arising from a series of bank robberies. Proceeding after a Supreme Court GVR, the court held that the district court’s failure to instruct the jury on an element of the crime was Alleyne error but that reversal was not warranted under plain error review. The court also held that a prior federal bank-robbery conviction under 18 USC § 2113(d) was a crime of violence under the § 924(c) federal gun-enhancement statute.

Interestingly, the court firmly rejected the government’s argument that the defendant forfeited some of his claims by failing to raise them prior to the Supreme Court’s remand.

Joining Fisher were Jordan and Scirica. Arguing counsel were Ron Krauss for the defendant and Bob Zauzmer for the government.

New opinion — Third Circuit rejects Johnson challenge to Guidelines career-offender designation

US v. Green — criminal — affirmance — Chagares

By statute, 28 USC § 2255, federal prisoners are allowed to file a petition challenging their conviction within one year of a Supreme Court decision recognizing a retroactively applicable “newly recognized” right. In 2015, the Supreme Court held in US v. Johnson that the so-called residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act was unconstitutionally vague, and it later held that this rule applied retroactively. The wording of the residual clause of the ACCA statute is similar to the wording of the residual clause of the career-offender provision of the Sentencing Guidelines. So the prisoner in this case filed a petition within a year of Johnson asserting that he was erroneously classified under the Guidelines as a career offender.

Splitting with the Seventh Circuit, the Third Circuit today held that the prisoner’s claim did not involve a right that was “newly recognized” under § 2255 because the court interpreted a subsequent Supreme Court ruling, Beckles v. US, to foreclose application of Johnson to Guidelines residual-clause career-offender challenges. The court also distinguished its ruling last year in In re: Hoffner. (And, on a typography note, the paragraph formatting in the opinion is inconsistent.)

Joining Chagares were Greenberg and Fuentes. Arguing counsel were Fritz Ulrich for the prisoner and John Pelletieri for the government.

[Disclosure: I’ve provided some consulting assistance to counsel for the prisoner.]

New opinion — Third Circuit decides jurisdiction for appeals from nationality determinations transferred out-of-circuit

Ricketts v. AG — immigration — dismissal — Jordan

On Monday, the Third Circuit held that, when a deportation proceeding is transferred out-of-circuit to determine whether the person the government is trying to deport actually is a U.S. citizen, an appeal from that determination must go to the circuit court where the case was transferred to, not the circuit court where the case originated. The Third Circuit acknowledged that this holding may conflict with a prior Ninth Circuit ruling.

Joining Jordan were Greenaway and Fisher. The appeal was decided without oral argument.

New opinions — a dramatic new chapter in the Doe transgender-bathrooms appeal, and a big class-action ruling

Doe v. Boyertown Area School Dist. (amended) —  civil — affirmance — McKee

Today the Third Circuit issued a revised, narrower panel opinion in Doe, the big transgender-bathrooms appeal in which the panel announced its ruling from the bench after oral argument. My post on the court’s original opinion is here.

Also today, the court issued an order denying without prejudice the appellants’ request for rehearing en banc, stating that they may re-file in light of the revised panel opinion.

And, most dramatically, Judge Jordan issued an opinion dissenting from the en banc denial, joined by Judges Chagares, Hardiman, and Bibas. The order and dissent are not posted on the court’s website, unfortunately, but they are on Pacer and also have been posted by one of the parties at this link.

Judge Jordan’s dissent explains that his purpose is not to take issue with the outcome of the panel opinion, conceding that the record can support the denial of the preliminary injunction. But he disagrees, strenuously, with the revised panel opinion’s discussion of whether requiring transgender students to use bathrooms according to their sex at birth would violate Title IX. He argues that this discussion is unnecessary, debatable, and dicta, concluding, “it is … axiomatic that we should confine ourselves to resolving the specific matters before us, not some bigger issue we might like to address.”

Remarkable. And still not the last word, I suspect.

 

Mielo v. Steak ‘n Shake — civil / class action — reversal — Smith

Here is the introduction from today’s opinion reversing class certification:

In this class action lawsuit, two disability rights advocates have sued Steak ’n Shake under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). Alleging they have
personally experienced difficulty ambulating in their wheelchairs through two sloped parking facilities, these Plaintiffs seek to sue on behalf of all physically disabled individuals who may have experienced similar difficulties at Steak ’n Shake restaurants throughout the country. The District Court certified Plaintiffs’ proposed class, and Steak ’n Shake now appeals that certification decision. We are tasked with answering two questions: First, whether Plaintiffs have standing under Article III of the United States Constitution, and second, whether they have satisfied the requirements set out in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(a).

As to the first question, we conclude that Plaintiffs have standing to bring their claims in federal court. Although a mere procedural violation of the ADA does not qualify as an injury in fact under Article III, Plaintiffs allege to have personally experienced concrete injuries as a result of ADA violations on at least two occasions. Further, Plaintiffs have sufficiently alleged that these injuries were caused by unlawful corporate policies that can be redressed with injunctive relief. We withhold judgment as to whether those corporate policies are indeed unlawful, as our standing inquiry extends only so far as to permit us to ensure that Plaintiffs have sufficiently pled as much.

As to the second question before us, we conclude that Plaintiffs have failed to satisfy Rule 23(a). The extraordinarily broad class certified by the District Court
runs afoul of at least two of Rule 23(a)’s requirements [numerosity and redressability]. In light of this conclusion, the District Court’s judgment will be reversed, and this matter will be remanded to the District Court to reconsider if a class should be certified.

Joining Smith are Hardiman and Restrepo. Arguing counsel were David Raizman of Ogletree Deakins for the appellants and Edwin Kilpela Jr. of Carlson Lynch for the appellee.

Three new opinions

US v. Green IV — criminal — affirmance — Fisher

The Third Circuit today rejected a criminal defendant’s challenge to a vehicle stop. The officer made the stop for speeding after pacing the vehicle from between a mile and two-tenths of a mile away. After the driver refused to consent to a vehicle search, the officer made the driver wait for 15 minutes for a dog to arrive to sniff the vehicle for drugs. The court rejected challenges to both the initial stop and the prolongation.

The court’s analysis of reasonable suspicion turns on statements by the driver that it deems fishy but which strike me as quite unremarkable. For example, the opinion thought a key fact was that, when asked by the officer how he was doing, the driver responded, “I can’t complain,” instead of immediately explaining to the officer that his daughter recently had broken her leg. On the other hand, the opinion’s prolongation section is an admirably lucid discussion of an area of the law that is anything but.

Joining Fisher were Greenaway and Nygaard. Arguing counsel were Kimberly Brunson of the WDPA FPD for the defendant and Michael Ivory for the government.

 

Adorers of the Blood of Christ v. FERC — civil / agency — affirmance — Greenaway

By statute, the D.C. Circuit has exclusive jurisdiction over certain decisions by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. After FERC approved a natural-gas pipeline through land owned by a religious organization, the religious organization sued to block the project under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. The district court dismissed for lack of jurisdiction, and today the Third Circuit affirmed, holding that RFRA does not function as an exception to the exclusive-jurisdiction grant.

Joining Greenaway were Smith and Krause. Arguing counsel were J. Dwight Yoder of Gibbel Kraybill for the religious group, Susanna Chu for FERC, and Elizabeth Witmer of Saul Ewing for the gas company.

 

PA DHS v. USA — civil — affirmance — Greenberg

The Third Circuit today rejected a state agency’s challenge to a district court ruling in favor of the federal government in a dispute over reimbursement of fees for Medicare and Medicaid provider training.

Joining Greenberg were Jordan and Krause. Arguing counsel were W. Scott Foster for the agency and Suzanne Yurk for the government.

New opinion — Third Circuit rules for the government in FTCA filing-deadline appeal

Sconiers v. USA — civil — affirmance — Greenaway

The Third Circuit today affirmed the dismissal of a suit under the Federal Tort Claims Act because the claimant failed to file suit within six months of the agency’s written denial, rejecting the claimant’s argument that the FTCA’s timeliness requirement was satisfied once she filed her claim with the agency within two years.

Joining Greenaway were Restrepo and Bibas. The case was decided without oral argument.

New opinion — Third Circuit clarifies the new-evidence standard for proving actual innocence

Reeves v. Coleman — habeas corpus — reversal — Shwartz

[Disclosure: I represented the petitioner-appellant in this appeal, along with my superb pro bono co-counsel David Fine.]

Under habeas corpus law, petitioners who present new evidence of their actual innocence can have federal review of their procedurally barred or untimely constitutional claims if their innocence showing is strong enough. But what evidence qualifies as “new” evidence of innocence? Is innocence evidence “new” any time it was not presented at trial? What if it was available at trial, but counsel failed to discover or present it due to ineffective assistance of counsel?

Today the Third Circuit held that innocence evidence is new if it is the very evidence upon which the petitioner relies to demonstrate his counsel’s ineffective assistance, and that Reeves’s evidence meets that test, vacating the district court’s denial of relief based on the availability of the evidence at trial. The new-evidence standard announced today is more permissive than the various standards most district courts in the circuit have been applying, and today’s ruling is helpful for innocent prisoners fighting to get federal review of their claims.

Judge McKee concurred separately “to emphasize the weight of the evidence that supports Reeves’s claim of actual innocence,” noting that his showing is so substantial that a group of former federal judges and prosecutors filed an amicus brief on his behalf.

Joining Shwartz were McKee and Cowen, with McKee also concurring. Arguing counsel were yours truly for the petitioner and Ryan Lysaght of the Dauphin County D.A.’s office for the Commonwealth. Audio of the argument is here.

 

Update: the Court issued an amended opinion on July 23 that made minor, non-substantive edits to the footnotes in the concurrence. The link in the heading now goes to the amended opinion, the original opinion is here.

 

New opinion — Third Circuit sides with city in challenge to its gas-bill lien system

Augustin v. City of Phila. — municipal — reversal — Hardiman

The Third Circuit today held that a district court erred in granting summary judgment in favor of a group of landlords who challenged on due process grounds Philadelphia’s system for imposing and enforcing liens to collect debts for commercial and residential gas service.

Joining Hardiman were Smith and Brann MDPA by designation. Arguing counsel were Craig Gottlieb of the city law department for the city and the formidable Irv Ackelsberg of Langer Grogan for the landlords.

New opinion — on the “hellish judicial duty” of deciding attorney-fees melees

US ex rel. Palmer v. C&D Technologies — qui tam / attorney fees — affirmance, mostly — Greenberg

The Third Circuit today decided a fascinating train-wreck of an appeal, an attorney-fees dispute in which the court said “both parties adopted unproductive tactics and strayed from professional etiquette, conduct that ultimately caused the District Court to proclaim that ‘[i]t is a hellish judicial duty to review and resolve disputed attorneys’ fee petitions, particularly in cases, like this one, where the adversaries fan the flames at virtually every opportunity.'”

How could you not read that opinion?

Today’s opinion is punchy and clear, as Greenberg opinions usually are. The court almost entirely upheld the district court’s ruling, which awarded the qui tam relator’s counsel almost $1.8 million in fees, rejecting relator’s counsels’ arguments that the award should have been higher. (It appears to me that counsel argued their own appeal, which as I recently opined in discussing another case is usually a mistake.)

Joining Greenberg were Jordan and Krause. The case was decided without oral argument.

New opinion — a major reversal in a capital habeas appeal

Abdul-Salaam v. Secretary — capital habeas — partial reversal — Chagares

The Third Circuit today held that a capital petitioner was entitled to habeas corpus relief due to ineffective assistance of this penalty-phase trial counsel in failing to investigate and present mitigation. It’s a significant capital habeas opinion because it involves a depressingly common scenario in capital cases, where counsel presents a sliver of the available mitigation evidence while failing to uncover the rest of what was available. Today’s opinion firmly rejected the arguments that counsel’s skepticism about whether he’d present certain evidence justified his failure to investigate it and that counsel’s presentation of morsels of evidence rendered all the evidence he missed cumulative.

Although the opinion didn’t emphasize the point, this case is another example of a district court denying a certificate of appealability on a claim that the Third Circuit thereafter granted relief on. In other words, the Third Circuit found that the claim was meritorious after the district court decided it was so weak that no reasonable jurist could even debate its merit! What a blunder.

Joining Chagares were Greenaway and Shwartz. The case was decided without oral argument.

New opinion — divided panel rules that TSA screeners are immune from suit

Pellegrino v. TSA — civil — affirmance — Krause

Deciding an issue of first impression, the Third Circuit today held that the federal government is immune from suit for intentional torts committed by TSA airport security screeners.

The Federal Tort Claims Act confers sovereign immunity to the government for intentional torts by federal employees, subject to an exception for “investigative or law enforcement officers.” The core issue in today’s appeal was whether TSA screeners fall within the exception. The panel majority held that they do not, interpreting the exception to apply only to officers with criminal law enforcement powers.

Judge Ambro dissented in an opinion that ran 58 pages. Here is the heart of it, from his conclusion (cites omitted):

The[ two judges in the majority] look to other statutes for clarification, consult various canons of construction, and also examine legislative history. Ultimately they conclude § 2680(h) covers only criminal law enforcement officers. In doing so, they depart from other Circuits’ interpretation of the proviso. They also disregard Supreme Court precedent that tells us how to interpret § 2680(h)’s language. Their decision insulates TSOs from all intentional tort claims, leaving plaintiffs without a civil remedy. Absent congressional action, they cannot recover if a TSO assaults them, unlawfully detains them, or unlawfully lodges a criminal complaint against them. All of this is because my colleagues look through a lens that legislates “criminal” into a provision it nowhere appears.

This is not what Congress intended, as it enacted § 2680(h) to serve as a broad remedy against tortious conduct. It also ignores Congress’s definition of “investigative or law enforcement officer,” which we must apply “even if it varies from that term’s ordinary meaning.”

In view of these principles, I disagree with my colleagues’ reasoning. Instead of relying on non-textual sources, we must apply § 2680(h)’s plain language; other statutes, the canons, and legislative history (i.e., authorities outside of the proviso) cannot defeat its words. Because the text tells the tale, I part with today’s holding.

In a footnote, the majority responds to Judge Ambro’s assertion that the statute’s text is unambiguous with, “Would it were so.”

Both opinions are exceptionally good, and it’s inspiring to see such high-caliber work devoted to an appeal that easily could have been (and originally was on track to be, it appears) disposed of as a routine pro se appeal without argument or counsel on both sides.

Joining Krause was Scirica, with Ambro dissenting. Arguing counsel were Mark Sherer for the government and former Smith clerk Paul Thompson of McDermott Will as court-appointed amicus curiae on behalf of the pro se trial plaintiffs. The court thanked Thompson for accepting the case pro bono and for the quality of his briefing and argument.

Two new opinions [updated]

Holland v. Rosen — civil — affirmance — Ambro

Until last year, New Jersey relied on monetary bail to ensure defendants’ appearance at their trials. The opinion in this case explains how this system produced perverse results: “In practice, the State’s reliance on monetary bail resulted in the release of defendants who could afford to pay for their release, even if they posed a substantial risk of flight or danger to others, and the pretrial detention of poorer defendants who presented minimal risk and were accused of less serious crimes.” So New Jersey replaced its cash-bail-based system with one that relied mainly on non-monetary measures ranging from monthly phone check-ins to electronic monitoring and home confinement, and the state’s pre-trial jail population dropped by over 20%.

That sounds like good news for everyone … except for those wealthier criminal defendants who before would have been able to just write a check but now faced restrictions on their pre-trial liberty. One of them challenged the new regime, represented by Kirkland & Ellis with Paul Clement handling the oral argument personally, seeking an injunction to prevent the state from imposing any restrictions on him without first offering him monetary bail, but today the Third Circuit rejected his challenge and affirmed. The Third Circuit identified the key legal issue as whether there is a federal constitutional right to monetary bail as an alternative to non-monetary conditions of pretrial release, and, “Our answer is no.”

Joining Ambro were Fuentes and Restrepo. Arguing counsel were Paul Clement of Kirkland & Ellis for the challengers, Stuart Feinblatt of the NJ AG’s office for the state, and Alexander Shalom of ACLU of NJ for amici supporting the state.

UPDATE: how on earth did the opinion omit the critical fact that the defendant (arrested for his role in a bar fight) was a Cowboys fan? S.P. Sullivan has the story at NJ.com.

 

Walsh v. Defenders Inc. — civil / class action — affirmance — Greenberg

The Third Circuit affirmed a district court’s order remanding a class action to state court under the local controversy exception to jurisdiction under the Class Action Fairness Act. CAFA allows class-action defendants to remove larger class actions to federal court, and the local-controversy exception allows class plaintiffs to get some cases back to state court. The outcome here turns on the specific facts of what the opinion describes as a “confusing case.”

Joining Greenberg were Chagares and Bibas. The case was decided without oral argument.

Two new opinions

Bakran v. Secretary Dept. Homeland Security — civil / immigration — affirmance, basically — Shwartz

The Third Circuit today rejected a citizen’s challenges to a statute that prevents persons convicted of certain sex offenses from sponsoring a family member to enter the country. The opinion’s introduction summarizes ably:

Ahmed Bakran appeals from the District Court’s order granting summary judgment in favor of the Secretary of the United States Department of Homeland Security, the Director of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (the “USCIS”), and the Attorney General (“Defendants”) on Bakran’s statutory and constitutional challenges to the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006, Pub. L. No. 109-248, § 402(a), 120 Stat. 587, 622-23 (2006) (the “AWA”), and related agency memoranda.

The AWA restricts the ability of a United States citizen convicted of a sex offense to sponsor an immediate relative’s immigration application. Bakran claims that certain protocols used to enforce the AWA violate the Administrative Procedures Act, 5 U.S.C. § 701 et seq. (the “APA”). The protocols he challenges, however, simply guide the Secretary’s determination, and as we explain herein, we lack jurisdiction to review them.

Bakran also asserts that the AWA violates his right to marriage and is impermissibly retroactive. The AWA does not infringe his marriage right but rather deprives him of an immigration benefit to which he has no constitutional right. Moreover, because the Act is aimed at providing prospective protection, it is not  impermissibly retroactive. Therefore, we will vacate the District Court’s order granting summary judgment to Defendants on Bakran’s APA claims, and remand with directions to dismiss the APA claims for lack of jurisdiction, and affirm the District Court’s order denying relief on his constitutional and retroactivity challenges to the AWA.

Joining Shwartz were Greenaway and Simandle DNJ by designation. Arguing counsel were Nicklaus Misiti of New York for the appellant and Sara Wilson for the government.

Clientron Corp. v. Devon IT — civil — reversal — Greenaway

In an odd and interesting case today, the Third Circuit vacated a district court’s order that pierced the corporate veil as a sanction for egregious discovery abuse, but the court left the door open to a significant sanction being reimposed on remand.

Joining Greenaway were Krause and Jones MDPA by designation. Arguing counsel were John van Loben Sels of California for the appellant and Gary Samms of Obermayer Rebmann for the appellees.

Three new opinions, including a major immigration appeal

S.E.R.L. v. AG — immigration — affirmance — Jordan

This appeal posed a fascinating tension: immigrant advocates urged the court not to apply Chevron deference. Broadly, conservatives today tend to oppose immigration and Chevron deference, while liberals tend to favor both. When the “liberal” side advances the “conservative” position, as here, the familiar ideological guideposts are harder to read.

The legal issue in today’s case was whether a Honduran woman and her children qualified for withholding of removal under the Immigration and Nationality Act as members of a “particular social group.” Their group, they argued, consisted generally of family members of domestic-abuse victims. The Board of Immigration Appeals had interpreted “particular social group” narrowly, in a way fatal to the family’s claim here, and the family argued that its strict test wasn’t entitled to Chevron deference.  Today, the Third Circuit rejected their position, holding that the BIA’s interpretation is entitled to Chevron deference and denying the petition for review.

Joining avowed Chevron foe Jordan were Krause and Greenberg. Arguing counsel were Russell Falconer of Texas for the family and Sheri Glaser for the government. A footnote in the opinion thanked several groups for filing amicus briefs “which have assisted our consideration of the legal issues before us and also shine a light on an issue of international concern.”

Minarsky v. Susquehanna Co. — civil / employment discrimination — reversal — Rendell

A county secretary alleged that she was subjected to years of sexual harassment by a superior, the since-fired head of the county’s veterans-affairs department, and she sued various defendants including the county based on a theory vicarious liability. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the county, but today the Third Circuit reversed, holding that whether the county had satisfied the Faragher-Elllerth affirmative defense to vicarious liabililty for workplace harassment should be decided by a jury.

Joining Rendell were Greenaway and Fuentes. Arguing counsel were David Koller of Koller Law for the secretary, Dana Zlotucha of Kreder Brooks Hailstone for the county, and Gerald Hanchulak for the superior.

Wayne Land & Mineral Gp. v. Delaware River Basin Comm’n — environmental — reversal — Jordan

The Third Circuit today reversed a district court’s dismissal of a suit brought by a company trying to keep the Delaware River Basin Commission from regulating its fracking work. The relevant law allows the commission to regulate a “project,” and the Third Circuit held that that term in ambiguous and remanded for fact-finding on the drafters’ intent.

Judge Scirica wrote a brief separate opinion. The signature line states simply that the opinion is “concurring,” and it ends with the statement that “I concur,” but the body of the opinion states that he agrees with part of the court’s opinion but has a concern that “precludes him from joining in full.” Specifically, he joined with the court’s ambiguity analysis but disagreed with the opinion’s inclusion of an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of other issues that the district court will decide on remand.

(Readers may recall that is the case in which a lawyer fainted during the original oral argument.)

Joining Jordan were Hardiman and Scirica at least in part, and Scirica concurred. Arguing counsel were David Overstreet of Overstreet & Nestor for the appellant, Kenneth Warren of Warren Environmental Counsel for the commission, and Jordan Yeager of Curtin & Heefner for an intervenor group.

Sweet vindication for the Third Circuit

A helpful reader kindly pointed out to me an interesting little Third Circuit victory hidden in last week’s Supreme Court ruling in Pereira v. Sessions that Chevron deference does not apply to an immigration-statute provision involving cancellation of removal.

Back in 2016, the Third Circuit faced the same question in Orozco-Velasquez. The petitioner argued that he was entitled to cancellation of removal, and that the BIA’s ruling compelling the opposite result was not entitled to Chevron deference. At least six circuits had held that the BIA’s ruling was entitled to Chevron deference, and none had held that it wasn’t.

But the Third Circuit split with them all.

Orozco-Velasquez held that the BIA’s ruling didn’t get Chevron deference, explicitly disagreeing with the other circuits, and ruled for the petitioner. The opinion was authored by Judge Roth and joined by Judges McKee and Ambro.

In last week’s Supreme Court ruling, the Third Circuit was vindicated. Justice Kennedy’s concurrence explains (emphasis mine):

The first Courts of Appeals to encounter the question concluded or assumed that the notice necessary to trigger the stop-time rule found in 8 U. S. C. §1229b(d)(1) was not “perfected” until the immigrant received all the information listed in §1229(a)(1). Guamanrrigra v. Holder, 670 F. 3d 404, 410 (CA2 2012) (per curiam); see also Dababneh v. Gonzales, 471 F. 3d 806, 809 (CA7 2006); Garcia-Ramirez v. Gonzales, 423 F. 3d 935, 937, n. 3 (CA9 2005) (per curiam).

That emerging consensus abruptly dissolved not long after the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) reached a contrary interpretation of §1229b(d)(1) in Matter of Camarillo, 25 I. & N. Dec. 644 (2011). After that administrative ruling, in addition to the decision under review here, at least six Courts of Appeals, citing Chevron, concluded that §1229b(d)(1) was ambiguous and then held that the BIA’s interpretation was reasonable. See Moscoso-Castellanos v. Lynch, 803 F. 3d 1079, 1083 (CA9 2015); O’Garro v. United States Atty. Gen., 605 Fed. Appx. 951, 953 (CA11 2015) (per curiam); Guaman-Yuqui v. Lynch, 786 F. 3d 235, 239–240 (CA2 2015) (per curiam); Gonzalez-Garcia v. Holder, 770 F. 3d 431, 434–435 (CA6 2014); Yi Di Wang v. Holder, 759 F. 3d 670, 674–675 (CA7 2014); Urbina v. Holder, 745 F. 3d 736, 740 (CA4 2014). But see Orozco-Velasquez v. Attorney General United States, 817 F. 3d 78, 81–82 (CA3 2016). The Court correctly concludes today that those holdings were wrong because the BIA’s interpretation finds little support in the statute’s text.

Don’t mess with the Third Circuit.

Another cert grant with Third Circuit implications

The Supreme Court today granted certiorari to hear an Eleventh Circuit case to decide whether to overrule the “separate sovereigns” exception to the double jeopardy clause. The case is Gamble v. United States, 17-646. The Court did not act on a cert petition from a Third Circuit case raising the same issue that it had re-listed 10 times (Scotus docket here), but it seems clear that any eventual ruling in Gamble will have an impact here, too.

Thanks to MDPA assistant federal defender Fritz Ulrich for pointing out the Third Circuit dimension to me.

Cert granted in Fosamax case

The Supreme Court today granted certiorari in Merck Sharp & Dohme v. Albrecht, the Third Circuit case decided as In re: Fosamax. The question presented, per Scotusblog:

Whether a state-law failure-to-warn claim is pre-empted when the Food and Drug Administration rejected the drug manufacturer’s proposal to warn about the risk after being provided with the relevant scientific data, or whether such a case must go to a jury for conjecture as to why the FDA rejected the proposed warning.

The cert grant was not unexpected after, at the Court’s invitation, the Solicitor General filed an amicus curiae brief urging the Court to grant review. Justice Alito is recused from the case.

My earlier coverage of the appeal is here and here.

New opinion — TCPA provides no relief from text-message avalanche [updated]

Dominguez v. Yahoo — civil / consumer — affirmance — Roth

Some poor guy named Dominguez bought a cell phone that was assigned a phone number that used to be someone else’s, and that someone else had subscribed to get a text message every time she received an email. All Dominguez’s efforts to stop these messages were for naught, so he got 27,800 text messages from Yahoo—about 50 texts a day, every day, for 17 months.

Improbably, Dominguez did not kill anyone, and instead he sued Yahoo under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, which makes it unlawful to use an autodialer to send non-emergency text messages. Today, the Third Circuit affirmed a ruling against poor Dominguez, holding that he failed to show that Yahoo’s text-notification service was an autodialer because it wasn’t calling numbers randomly or sequentially. No doubt he will find great solace in the court’s acknowledgement that “[t]here can be little doubt that Dominguez suffered great annoyance as a result of the unwanted text messages.”

Joining Roth were Shwartz and Pappert EDPA by designation. The case was decided without oral argument.

Update: a blog post by TCPA defense lawyer Eric Troutman exults:

Today’s ruling … is a huge– and undoubtedly satisfying– victory for Yahoo!, but it also represent [sic] a massive shift in case law in favor of a limited reading of ATDS [automatic telephone dialing system], just when courts seemed to be content to continue reading the ATDS definition broadly. What an amazing development.

New opinion: Third Circuit affirms “extraordinary” award of attorneys’ fees after voluntary dismissal

Carroll v. E One — civil — affirmance — Smith

Say you’re a lawyer who represented a litigant in district court, and you lost, and your client has decided to appeal, and a central issue in the appeal involves whether you did something wrong: should you handle the appeal yourself? Not in my view. No matter how sure you may be that you did not screw up, if the appeal will focus substantially on whether you screwed up, you’re the wrong one for the job.

In the last couple years there have been a few Third Circuit appeals where lawyers have not done as I suggest above, and it hasn’t gone well. Here’s a memorable one, an appeal from summary judgment against the client and over $28,000 in sanctions against the lawyer; the panel called the lawyer out by name throughout the opinion and flat affirmed.

Today, it happened again, and again it went badly for the side whose lawyer stayed on. The Third Circuit affirmed a district court’s award of over $127,000 in attorneys’ fees and costs after a voluntary dismissal with prejudice under Fed. R. Civ. P. 41(a)(2). The court recognized that attorneys’ fees and costs normally are not available after a voluntary dismissal with prejudice, but held that they may be awarded in extraordinary circumstances that were present here:

Exceptional circumstances include a litigant’s failure to perform a meaningful pre-suit investigation, as well as a repeated practice of bringing meritless claims and then dismissing them with prejudice after both the opposing party and the judicial system have incurred substantial costs. Because such exceptional circumstances are present in this case, the District Court’s award will be affirmed.

The opinion’s harshest language was directed at the fact that one client said that he learned that he was a plaintiff in the suit only after the firm emailed him, seemingly after the suit was filed: “Such an uninformed rush to the courthouse skirts the norms of proper legal practice in pursuit of the fruits of aggregation. It should not be condoned.”

What gives me pause me about today’s ruling is that, while the basis for the award was counsel‘s actions–including actions apparently taken without the clients’ knowledge, and actions in other cases on behalf of other clients–the ones on the hook for the six-figure award here, I’d think, are the clients.

Joining Smith were Hardiman and Roth. Arguing counsel were Joseph Cappelli of Bern & Partners (formerly Bern Cappelli) for the appellants and Jan Miller of St. Louis for the appellee.

New opinion — Third Circuit issues opinion in transgender-bathroom case

Doe v. Boyertown Area SD — civil — affirmance — McKee

Last month, a Third Circuit panel dramatically announced just minutes after the oral argument that it would affirm the district court’s ruling in favor a school district policy that allowed transgender students to use bathrooms corresponding with their gender identity. My post on the oral ruling is here, and a link to post-argument commentary prediction an en ban petition and criticizing the panel as “Activist Judges” is here.

This afternoon, the Third Circuit issued its opinion, stating, “Although we amplify the District Court’s reasoning because of the interest in this issue, we affirm substantially for the reasons set forth in the District Court’s opinion.”

Joining McKee were Shwartz and Nygaard. Arguing counsel were Randall Wenger of the Independence Law Center for the appellants, Michael Levin of the Levin Law Group for the school district, and Ria Tabacco Mar of the ACLU for an intervenor.

New opinion — a big Third Circuit immigration ruling

Osorio-Martinez v. AG — immigration — reversal — Krause

In 2016, the Third Circuit issued a blockbuster immigration ruling in Castro v. US DHS, holding that federal courts lack jurisdiction to hear a challenges to removal brought by a group of women and children caught, on US soil, shortly after entering the US, and that this statutory denial of jurisdiction did not violate the Suspension Clause. It was a crushing loss for immigrant advocates and one of the Third Circuit’s most controversial recent opinions.

Today, just two years later, a different Third Circuit panel heard a second appeal brought by four of the children and their mothers who were among those denied a forum in Castro. The opinion’s introduction explains:

Now, two years after their initial detention, Petitioners raise what, at first glance, appear to be the same claims. But upon inspection they differ in a critical respect: The children now have been accorded Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) status—a protective classification designed by Congress to safeguard abused, abandoned, or neglected alien children who are able to meet its rigorous eligibility requirements.

That one difference, the court held today, is dispositive:

[W]e are now confronted with a matter of first impression among the Courts of Appeals: Does the jurisdiction-stripping provision of the INA operate as an unconstitutional suspension of the writ of habeas corpus as applied to SIJ designees seeking judicial review of orders of expedited removal? We conclude that it does.

The court observed that the ” Government’s decision to continue seeking removal is particularly noteworthy because, as far as we are aware, until very recently DHS has never attempted to remove SIJ-classified children back to their countries of origin, much less on an expedited basis.”

How broadly available is SIJ status? Is today’s ruling just a narrow exception, or does it promise to swallow the Castro rule? I didn’t notice any discussion of these questions in today’s opinion, and I’m hoping that immigration experts will shed light here in the days ahead.

Joining Krause were Ambro and Scirica. Arguing counsel were Jessica Rickabaugh of the Tucker Law Group for the appellants and Joseph Darrow of the DOJ for the government. Other notable counsel on the briefs include Nancy Winkelman (formerly of Schnader, now at the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office) for amicus appellant and pending Sixth Circuit nominee Assistant Attorney General Chad Readler for the government.

New opinion

US v. Ramos — criminal — reversal (for government) — Roth

The Third Circuit today vacated a criminal sentence on the government’s appeal, holding that Pennsylvania’s crime of second-degree assault with a deadly weapon, 18 Pa. CS § 2702(a)(4), is categorically a crime of violence and that the defendant therefore qualified as a career offender under the advisory Sentencing Guidelines (even though he did not under the ACCA).

Joining Roth were Smith and Hardiman. Arguing counsel were Robert Zauzmer for the government and Arianna Freeman for the defendant.

New opinion — Third Circuit finds that misconduct by prosecution doesn’t warrant reversal but that erroneous imposition of a sentencing enhancement does

US v. Welshans — criminal — partial reversal — Restrepo

The Third Circuit today affirmed a defendant’s child-pornography conviction but reversed his sentence.

As to the conviction, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that it violated due process to allow in evidence and argument that the computer files included “deeply abhorrent” videos and images involving very young children. Although the court agreed that the prosecution committed misconduct that was plain, and agreed that the evidence should have been excluded under Rule 403, it denied relief given the prosecution’s overwhelming evidence.

As to the sentence, the panel majority held that the sentencing court erred in applying the Sentencing Guidelines enhancement for obstruction of justice because his acts (moving computer files into the recycling bin when he was told police were on their way) were contemporaneous to his arrest and did not materially hinder the investigation. The majority also held that the government waived the material-hinderance point by first raising it at oral argument.

Joining Restrepo were Ambro in full and Fuentes as to the conviction; Fuentes dissented on the sentencing reversal. Arguing counsel were Renee Pietropaolo for the defendant and Laura Schleich Irwin for the government.

New opinion — Third Circuit rejects EMTALA whistleblower appeal

Gillespie v. Regionalcare Hospital Partners — civil — affirmance — McKee

A pregnant women arrived at Pennsylvania’s Southwest Regional Medical Center complaining of pain and vaginal bleeding. After examining her, ER personnel discharged the woman and told her to go to a different hospital. The nurse at Southwest Regional in charge of evaluating patient care and addressing medical errors believed that discharging the woman violated a federal law against hospital-patient dumping known as EMTALA. Right after she told her supervisor that Southwest Regional had to report the EMTALA violation, she was fired. She sued, alleging that her firing violated EMTALA’s whistleblower protection, and the district court granted summary judgment to the hospital.

Today, the Third Circuit affirmed the ruling against the fired nurse. To be covered by EMTALA’s whistleblower provision, the nurse had to have “reported a violation.” Here, the court explained, the nurse didn’t “report” anything because she alleged her superiors already knew about and to the EMTALA violation but refused to report it anyway. So, no “report.” (I have no EMTALA expertise, but I would have guessed that the medical center’s failure to report was itself an EMTALA violation, separate from the original patient-dumping violation, and one that the nurse did report, but the opinion does not mention this theory so I’m not sure.) Anyhow, a tough case.

Joining McKee were Smith and Restrepo. Arguing counsel were Noah Geary for the nurse and Marla Presley of Jackson Lewis for the medical center.

New opinion — sexual abuse by guards can constitute cruel and unusual punishment

Ricks v. Shover — prisoner civil rights — reversal — Rendell

The Third Circuit today issued an important new prisoner-rights ruling, holding that a single act of sexual abuse without force or injury can violate the Eighth Amendment:

Whether sexual abuse can constitute “cruel and unusual punishment” under the Eighth Amendment is a matter of first impression in our Court. We write today to state in plainest terms that it does. Our society requires prisoners to give up their liberty, but that surrender does not encompass the basic right to be free from severe unwanted sexual contact.

The court reversed the district court’s dismissal of the prisoner’s Eighth Amendment sexual-abuse claim against a guard who allegedly rubbed his erect penis against the prisoner during a pat-down search. It stated, ” Absent more specific allegations as to the severity of Keil’s conduct or the surrounding context, including the need for the search, we cannot conclude that he plausibly violated Ricks’ right to be free from “cruel and unusual punishments,” but remanded to allow the prisoner to amend his complaint. The court also reversed the dismissal of an excessive-force claim against a supervisor who allegedly slammed the prisoner into a wall when he protested.

Joining Rendell were Chagares and Scirica. Arguing counsel were former Smith clerk and Boies Schiller associate James Kraehenbuehl for the prisoner and Claudia Tesoro of the PA Attorney General’s office for the guards. The court noted that Kraehenbuehl represented the prisoner pro bono and thanked him for “the high caliber of representation” he provided.

New opinion — Third Circuit rejects government’s belated challenge to suppression

US v. Kalb — criminal — affirmance (for defendant) — Scirica

By statute, the government is allowed to file an interlocutory appeal from an order suppressing evidence; “The appeal in all such cases shall be taken within 30 days after the decision, judgment or order has been rendered and shall be diligently prosecuted.” 18 USC § 3731. In this case, the district court ordered suppression and, more than 30 days later, the government filed a motion to reconsider, which the defendant argued was untimely but the district court denied on the merits. Today, the Third Circuit held that § 3731’s deadline is jurisdictional, and that a motion for reconsideration filed after the deadline does not support jurisdiction to review the suppression order; the court also affirmed the denial of the consideration motion because it relied on arguments the government could have made earlier. Thus, today’s opinion is a rare bird, an affirmance in a criminal appeal that comes out in favor of the defense.

Joining Scirica were Jordan and Hardiman. Arguing counsel were Robert Zauzmer of the EDPA US Attorney’s office for the government and Brett Sweitzer of the EDPA federal defender’s office for the defendant, both stellar. The argument audio is here.

New opinions — three affirmances

Bonilla v. Sessions — immigration — affirmance — Shwartz

The Third Circuit denied a El Salvadoran citizen’s petition for review of removal, rejecting the man’s argument that his right to due process was denied when reasonable-fear-screening proceedings before the immigration judge went forward without his counsel. Although the hearing notice said that counsel should appear with the client at the hearing, the lawyer (unidentified in the opinion except to clarify that appellate counsel was different) “assumed it would be held telephonically.” The court did not decide whether parties have a right to counsel at a reasonable-fear hearing, denying relief instead because the man had notice of his right to counsel and failed to show prejudice.

Although today’s opinion does not say so, Pacer shows that the panel issued a non-precedential opinion in the case on March 15. Two months later, after the mandate had issued, the government filed a motion to publish, which the panel granted. Motions to publish are an under-utilized tool, in my view. [UPDATE: after my original post the order granting the motion to publish was posted on the court’s website.]

Joining Shwartz were Jordan and Krause. The case was decided without argument.

 

US v. Foster — criminal — affirmance — Jordan

The Third Circuit today affirmed two criminal convictions, rejecting five different challenges to their convictions and sentences: a Fourth Amendment issue, a 404(b) admissibility claim, a sufficiency-of-the-evidence challenge to evidence of constructive possession of a firearm, and two firearm-use sentencing-enhancement claims.

Joining Jordan were Shwartz and Krause. Arguing counsel were Renee Pietropaolo of the WDPA federal defender for one defendant, Eleni Kousoulis of the DE federal defender for the other, and Elizabeth Van Pelt of the DE US Attorney’s office for the government.

 

US v. Shaw — criminal — affirmance — Restrepo

Finally, the Third Circuit upheld a former prison guard’s convictions for sexually assaulting an inmate and obstruction of justice. The court rejected challenges to the sexual-assault instructions (splitting with the Tenth Circuit), the sexual-assault sufficiency, two evidentiary challenges, and a speedy-trial claim.

Joining Restrepo were Smith and McKee. Arguing counsel were Robert Pickett of Pickett and Craig for the defendant and Desiree Grace of the NJ US Attorney’s office for the government.

Column: activist judges decided transgender-bathroom appeal, en banc rehearing request likely

Tony Perkins, the president of the conservative Family Research Council who gained attention earlier this year for saying that President Trump gets “a mulligan” for his alleged affair with Stormy Daniels, wrote a column published today at Patriot Post, the headline of which described the three-judge Third Circuit panel who decided the recent transgender-bathroom appeal as “Activist Judges.”

Describing co-counsel for the plaintiffs as “our friends,” and quoting one of them in his column, Perkins writes, “odds are the group will appeal to the full Third Circuit court.”

In another media interview published yesterday in the Mercury News, the same lawyer said, “The Supreme Court has already spoken,” and, “[t]his decision is out of step with longstanding legal protection for privacy.” That story similarly reports that the advocacy groups who brought the suit are considering an appeal.

In his column, Perkins writes that cases like this one show “why President Trump’s judicial confirmations matter”:

Back in November of last year, the Senate sent reinforcements to the Third Circuit in the form of Judge Stephanos Bibas, the first White House pick to fill a vacancy on that bench. Two more are waiting in the wings — Paul Matey and David Porter, both strict constructionists who are waiting for their turn on the fast track of Sen. Chuck Grassley’s (R-IA) committee. Once they make it through the process (which, given the lightning-quick pace of this Senate’s confirmations, could be any day) maybe they can help inject some common sense into Alexis’s case.

 

Written judgment issued in transgender-bathroom appeal

The Third Circuit panel today issued a judgment in Doe v. Boyertown Area School Dist., No. 17-3113. A link is here. As I posted here earlier, the panel heard oral argument this morning and ruled from the bench shortly after.

The judgment states that a formal opinion will be issued later but the judgment will issue now. It states that the court affirms the district court’s denial of a preliminary injunction for substantially the reasons given in the district court’s “exceptionally well reasoned” opinion.

I’m eager to hear the audio of the oral argument, which the court has not yet posted.

Apart from being an important case, the procedural mechanics of the panel’s action here are notable. The judgment was posted on the precedential opinions page of the court’s website, but I don’t think this is a precedential opinion — it is not labeled as precedential nor titled as an opinion of the court — and, given the rapid timeframe, I’d guess it was not circulated to the entire court before entry as draft precedential opinions normally are, and as the formal opinion it mentions likely will be. That’s why I’ve referred to the earlier oral ruling and this written judgment as an action by the panel, like a non-precedential opinion, rather than a decision by the Third Circuit. But I’m not certain I’ve got that right, and I suspect it will not matter in the end.

Court affirms in transgender-bathroom appeal … a half hour after oral argument [updated with judgment and audio]

A panel of the Third Circuit heard oral argument today, held a brief recess, and then reconvened and announced that it would affirm the ruling below. Quite extraordinary.

The case involved access by transgender school students to the bathroom of their choice — that is, whether a school district could allow transgender students to use the bathroom corresponding with their gender, not their sex at birth. The suit was brought by school parents who claimed that the policy violated other students’ bodily privacy rights. The district court ruled in favor of the school district. Today’s argument was before Judges McKee, Shwartz, and Nygaard.

I wasn’t aware of a specific case where a Third Circuit panel had ruled from the bench after argument, but on Twitter Katie Romano pointed to a 2008 immigration appeal where it had happened. [UPDATE: Andy Simpson also pointed me to a 2001 Virgin Islands appeal where Chief Judge Becker read an opinion from the bench after argument, In re: Application for Change or Reassignment of Judge Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 144, 455 (3d Cir. May 30, 2001).] Still, extremely rare.

Early coverage by Jeremy Roebuck for the Philadelphia Inquirer here and by Bobby Allyn for WHYY here. UPDATE: and Mark Joseph Stern has a report for Slate here.

From Roebuck’s story:

Circuit Judge Theodore McKee said he and his colleagues – Judges Patty Shwartz and Richard Lowell Nygaard – recognized how important the case was to students at Boyertown Area Senior High School and wanted to resolve the issue before the students at the heart of the case, many of them seniors, graduated later this month.

Reading an order from the bench, McKee said that the judges agreed with the lower court that found the privacy of four students who sued the district in the Berks County borough last year had not been violated by administrators’ decision to allow transgender students into the bathrooms and locker rooms of their choice.

“We agree that the plaintiffs have not demonstrated a likelihood of success,” McKee said, reading from the bench, “and that they have not demonstrated that they will be irreparably harmed.”

UPDATE #2: The written judgment, issued the same day as the argument, is here.

UPDATE #3: The audio of the oral argument is here, and the ruling audio is here.

Cert denied in eye-drops case

The Supreme Court this morning denied certiorari in Alcon Laboratories v. Cottrell, a Third Circuit case I’ve mentioned here:

  • Third Circuit opinion summary — link
  • blog post about the rehearing petition —  link

[Update: I’ve edited this post to remove a mistaken link to a post about a different case.]

Audio of yesterday’s en banc argument, plus four new argument videos

The en banc Third Circuit heard oral argument yesterday morning in Hayes v. Harvey, a significant public-housing-law appeal. My prior posts on Hayes are here and here. Audio of the argument is up already on the court’s website here.

I also just noticed that the Court has posted on its website video of four April arguments. Judges Chagares, Vanaskie, and Fisher heard all four. Two are federal criminal appeals and the redoubtable Bob Zauzmer argued them both for the government (arguing two cases the same day would be my demise). And my fellow Third Circuit Bar Association board member Lisa Rodriguez of Schnader argued Ortiz.

New opinions — one consumer wins a credit-card appeal, another one loses an insurance appeal

These two opinions were issued yesterday, May 16, but I had a big oral argument in the afternoon and was too beat to summarize them.

Krieger v. Bank of America — civil / consumer — reversal — Krause

The Third Circuit ruled in favor of a consumer plaintiff in a credit-card dispute with Bank of America. The opinion’s introduction neatly summarizes matters:

The same day Appellant William Krieger fell victim to a credit card scam and discovered a fraudulent $657 charge on his bill, he protested to his card issuer, Bank of America (BANA), and was told both that the charge would be removed and that, pending “additional information,” BANA considered the matter resolved. And indeed, Krieger’s next bill reflected a $657 credit. But over a month later Krieger opened his mail to some particularly unwelcome additional information: BANA was rebilling him for the charge. He disputed it again, this time in writing, but after BANA replied that nothing would be done, he paid his monthly statement and then filed this action, alleging BANA violated two consumer protection laws: the Fair Credit Billing Act, which requires a creditor to take certain steps to correct billing errors, and the unauthorized-use provision of the Truth in Lending Act, which limits a credit cardholder’s liability for the unauthorized use of a credit card to $50. The District Court granted BANA’s motion to dismiss the operative complaint after determining Krieger had failed to state a claim as to either count. Because we conclude the District Court’s decision was contrary to the text, regulatory framework, and policies of both statutes, we will reverse.

Joining Krause were Ambro and Conti WDPA by designation. The district judge was MDPA Judge Brann. Arguing counsel were Brett Freeman of the Sabatini Law Firm for the consumer and Michael Falk of Reed Smith for the bank.

American Orthopedic & Sports Med. v. Independent Blue Cross Blue Shield — ERISA — affirmance — Krause

The Third Circuit rejected an insured’s argument that ERISA bars insurance companies from enforcing anti-assignment clauses (clauses in health insurance plans that prevent the insured from assigning their claim to a third party including the healthcare provider). The court disagreed with two other circuits that viewed the issue as controlled by statutory language, but in the end agreed with all circuits to reach the issue that the clauses were enforceable. The court left open the possibility that a would-be assignee could instead proceed in a power-of-attorney capacity, but held that here that argument was waived.

Joining Krause were Ambro and Rendell. Arguing counsel were Samuel Saltman of Callagy Law for the appellant, and Susan Danielski of Dugan Brinkmann and Michael Holzapfel of Becker for the insurers. 

New opinion — en banc Third Circuit rejects FDCPA discovery rule

Rotkiske v. Klemm — civil / consumer — affirmance — Hardiman

In a rare unanimous en banc opinion, the Third Circuit today split with two other circuits and held that the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act’s statute of limitations begins to run when the violation occurs, not when it is discovered. The opinion is crisp and clear: “In our view, the Act says what it means and means what it says.”

The opinion was unanimous with the entire active court plus Judge Fisher. Arguing counsel were Matthew Weisberg of Weisberg Law and Adina Rosenbaum of Public Citizen for the appellant and Carl Zapffe of Kentucky for the appellees. Video of the argument is here.

New opinion — Third Circuit rejects limit on attorney-fee recovery in IDEA suit

Rena C. v. Colonial School Dist. — civil / disability — reversal — Fisher

(I’m posting this later than usual because I had a moot today for my upcoming Third Circuit argument.)

The Third Circuit today ruled in favor of a plaintiff who prevailed in a suit under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in a dispute over attorney’s fees. The opinion’s introduction explains the context:

Under the IDEA, when parents and school districts dispute a child’s educational placement, a parent may file an administrative due process complaint that can lead to an administrative hearing. At least ten days before the dispute reaches a hearing, the school district can extend a settlement offer to the parent, referred to herein as a “ten-day offer.” If the matter proceeds to a hearing and the parent is the prevailing party, this ten-day offer becomes significant. A parent who is the prevailing party may be awarded reasonable attorney’s fees under the IDEA, but the ten-day offer allows a school district to limit its exposure to such fees by limiting a parent’s eligibility for attorney’s fees to only those fees accrued before the time of the ten-day offer. If a parent rejects the ten-day offer, the parent may only receive attorney’s fees for work done after the time of the offer if (1) the hearing leads to more favorable relief than the offer included, or (2) the parent was substantially justified in rejecting the offer.

Joining Fisher were Nygaard and Greenaway; Greenaway also concurred to express his hope that IDEA litigants will negotiate in good faith instead of simply rejecting “terse or inexact offers.” Arguing counsel were David Berney for the trial plaintiff and Karl Romberger of Sweet Stevens for the school district.

Supreme Court grants certiorari to review Third Circuit maritime asbestos-liability ruling

The Supreme Court today granted certiorari in Air & Liquid Systems v. Devries, No. 17-1104. This case comes from the Third Circuit, where it was captioned In re: Asbestos Prods. Liability Litig (No. VI). The Third Circuit opinion is here, my summary is here. The gist is whether maritime law recognizes a “bare metal” defense against liability from asbestos injuries for a manufacturer who delivered a product before its asbestos was added.

New opinion — Third Circuit affirms dismissal of in rem maritime suit

Liberty Woods Int’l v. The Motor Vessel Ocean Quartz — maritime — affirmance — Roth

The Third Circuit today upheld the dismissal of a shipping customer’s suit against a cargo ship, in rem, for damage to its cargo. The introduction explains:

Liability for the damage is governed by the carrier’s bill of lading, which contains a forum selection clause requiring suit to be brought in South Korea. LWI instead sought to bring an in rem suit against the Vessel in the District of New Jersey, arguing that the foreign forum selection clause violates the Carriage of Goods by Sea Act (COGSA) because South Korea does not allow in rem suits.

The court affirmed on the ground that the forum-selection clause doesn’t violate COGSA because in rem suits are not substantive rights under COGSA.

Joining Roth were McKee and Ambro; Ambro also concurred separately to note that in rem suits provide a way to impose liability and that COGSA requires that shippers have a means to collect damages against the value of the ship. Arguing counsel were Craig English of New York for the customer and Richard Whelan of Palmer Biezup for the ship.

 

New opinion — Third Circuit allows religious employer to intervene in contraception-coverage suit

Commonwealth of Pa. v. President United States — civil — reversal — Hardiman

The Third Circuit today reversed a district court’s order denying intervention by a religious employer into a suit brought by Pennsylvania against the Trump administration challenging its executive orders exempting both religious non-profits and for-profit employers morally opposed to contraception from relevant parts of the Affordable Care Act.

Reversing under abuse-of-discretion standard, the Third Circuit held that the employer, a Pittsburgh retirement home operated by a Catholic non-profit corporation, had a sufficient interest in the case and that, although they sought the same relief as the President of the United States, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Treasury Department, and the Labor Department, their interests were not adequately protected by the existing parties.

In the key passage, the court reasoned:

First, the Little Sisters’ situation is similar to Trbovich, where a statute obligated the Secretary of Labor to uphold the “related[] but not identical” interests in enforcing the rights of union members against their union as well as the “public interest” in assuring free and democratic
union elections. 404 U.S. at 538–39. Zubik likewise tasked the government with serving two related interests that are not identical: accommodating the free exercise rights of religious
objectors while protecting the broader public interest in access to contraceptive methods and services. And like Benjamin, the Zubik compromise must balance the rights of “two groups with quite divergent desires and interests.” 701 F.3d at 958. Finally, as in Kleissler, the government must defend “numerous complex and conflicting interests.” 157 F.3d at 973. The religious exemption IFR applies not only to religious nonprofit corporations like the Little Sisters, but also to closely held and publicly traded for-profit corporations. And the moral exemption IFR protects parties for reasons unrelated to religion. The religious and moral interests of these entities are numerous and varied. Accordingly, there is no guarantee that the government will sufficiently attend to the Little Sisters’ specific interests as it attempts to uphold both IFRs in their entirety. See Kleissler, 157 F.3d at 967 (concluding that the proposed intervenors had carried their burden by showing “a reasonable doubt whether the government agency would adequately represent [their] concerns”).

Since the government’s interest will always be broader than a would-be-intervenor’s, this reasoning seems in tension with the circuit’s precedent presuming that the government is an adequate representative and that a district court’s denial of intervention is reviewed for abuse of discretion only. A petition for rehearing en banc seems inevitable.

Joining Hardiman were Bibas (in what I believe is his first vote in a precedential appeal) and Roth. Arguing counsel were Michael Fischer for Pennsylvania and Lori Windham of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty for the employer.

New opinion — Third Circuit rejects legislative-immunity defense [updated]

US v. James — criminal — affirmance — Smith

The Third Circuit today upheld a district court’s ruling a Virgin Islands legislator may be tried for fraud and embezzlement, rejecting the defendant’s argument that his alleged conduct (skimming and phony billing in connection with a legislative project, basically) was protected by legislative immunity.

Joining Smith were McKee and Scirica. Arguing counsel were Vijay Shanker of the DOJ Appellate Section for the government and Brandan Hurson of the USVI FD for the defendant.

[Note: my original post incorrectly stated that the court upheld the defendant’s convictions, but this was an interlocutory appeal and he has not been tried yet. My thanks to Howard Bashman for pointing out the error to me.]

New opinion — Third Circuit sets out new rule for traditional trusts’ jurisdictional citizenship

GBForefront v. Forefront Mgmt — civil — reversal — Jordan

What a stellar opinion introduction:

This case requires us to consider whether, in assessing
diversity-of-citizenship jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a),
the citizenship of a traditional trust is determined differently
than that of a business trust. In light of the Supreme Court’s
decision in Americold Realty Trust v. Conagra Foods, Inc., 136
S. Ct. 1012 (2016), we conclude that the citizenship of a
traditional trust is based only on the citizenship of its trustee.
In so holding, we acknowledge that Americold Realty
abrogates part of our opinion in Emerald Investors Trust v.
Gaunt Parsippany Partners, 492 F.3d 192 (3d Cir. 2007),
which stated that it was unnecessary to distinguish between
types of trusts when determining diversity jurisdiction. Id. at
198 n.10, 205.

Based on the distinction we recognize today between
traditional trusts and business trusts, we will vacate the District
Court order dismissing this case for lack of jurisdiction.
Because the record on appeal is insufficient for us to proceed
further, we will remand the case with instructions to determine
whether the trusts at issue are of the traditional or business
variety and whether there is diversity jurisdiction. We also
instruct the District Court to give leave to further amend the
complaint within a reasonable time to cure defective
jurisdictional allegations.

Nothing left for me to say.

Joining Jordan were Roth and Mariani MDPA by designation. Arguing counsel were Christopher Nucifora of Kaufman Dolowich for the appellant and Gary Fellner of New York for the appellees.

New opinions — a de facto life sentence for a juvenile offender violates the Eight Amendment, and sexting between consenting teenagers is enough to support deportation

United States v. Grant — criminal / sentencing — reversal in part — Greenaway

In 2012, the Supreme Court held in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory sentences of life without parole for juvenile offenders violate the Eighth Amendment, Today, in a major juvenile-sentencing decision, the Third Circuit extended Miller to hold that a 65-year sentence for homicide crimes committed at age 16 was unconstitutional. From the introduction:

This case presents several difficult challenges for this Court. It calls upon us to decide a novel issue of constitutional law: whether the Eighth Amendment prohibits a term-of-years sentence for the duration of a juvenile homicide offender’s life expectancy (i.e., “de facto LWOP”) when the defendant’s “crimes reflect transient immaturity [and not] . . . irreparable corruption.” Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718, 734 (2016). Next, if we find that it does, then we must decide what framework will properly effectuate the Supreme Court’s determination that the Eighth Amendment affords nonincorrigible juvenile offenders a right to a meaningful opportunity for release. Furthermore, we must take great pains throughout our discussion to account for the substantive distinction that the Supreme Court has made between incorrigible and non-incorrigible juvenile offenders in order to ensure that the latter is not subjected to “a punishment that the law cannot impose upon [them].” Id. (quoting Schriro v. Summerlin, 542 U.S. 348, 352 (2004)).

Our decision today therefore represents an incremental step in the constitutional discourse over the unique protections that the Eighth Amendment affords to juvenile homicide offenders.

The court held, ” A term-of-years sentence without parole that meets or exceeds the life expectancy of a juvenile offender who is still capable of reform,” which the court held includes all non-homicide offenders, “is inherently disproportionate and therefore violates the Eighth Amendment under both Miller and Graham.” The court joined the Seventh, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits, and split with the Eighth, on the applicablity of Miller and Graham to de facto life sentences.

Joining Greenaway were Cowen in part and Padova EDPA by designation. Judge Cowen dissented in part, joining the Eighth Amendment holding in full but disagreeing with the majority’s denial of sentencing relief as to additional counts based on the sentencing-package doctrine.

Arguing counsel were Lawrence Lustberg of Gibbons for the appellant and Bruce Keller for the government.

 

Moreno v. AG — immigration — affirmance — Vanaskie

Today, the Third Circuit held that a Pennsylvania conviction for possessing child pornography, 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 6312(d), is a crime involving moral turpitude supporting removal. The petitioner was a 49-year-old man who lived legally in the U.S. since age 12, pled guilty to a single count, and was sentenced to probation.

Applying the categorical approach (the opinion in a footnote echoed concerns raised about the categorical approach in other recent Third Circuit opinions), the court held that the least culpable conduct under the statute — consensual ‘sexting’ between an 18 year-old and a 17 year-old — is morally turpitudinous. But the opinion seemed to base that conclusion on little more than the fact that such conduct is criminal, which strikes me as questionable. Lots of conduct is subject to prosecution without being “inherently base, vile, or depraved.” Does anyone really believe that sexting between two consenting teenagers is depraved?

Joining Vanaskie were Shwartz and Fuentes. Arguing counsel were Wayne Sachs of Philadelphia for the petitioner and Jaclyn Shea for the government.

 

 

New opinion — Third Circuit rules against Citgo in Delaware River oil-spill appeal

In re: Petition of Frescati Shipping — civil / admiralty — reversal in part — Smith

An oil tanker struck an abandoned anchor resting on the bottom of the Delaware River and spilled over a quarter-million gallons of crude oil, a spill that cost $143 million to clean up. Predictably, years of complicated litigation (including a 41-day trial and a 31-day post-remand hearing)  ensued over who must pay the clean-up bill: the shipper, the oil company (Citgo, represented here by Carter Phillips), or the government.

Today, the Third Circuit issued a 61-page opinion that, broadly speaking, came out in favor of the shipper and the government and against Citgo. The opinion decided numerous issues, notably that Citgo was not equitably entitled to a 50% reduction of its clean-up cost to the government and that Citgo waived a defense by first raising it 10 years into the case. The opinion is a gem, engaging and clear.

Joining Smith were Hardiman and Brann MDPA by designation. Arguing counsel were Timothy Bergère and John Levy of Montgomery McCracken for the shipper, Anne Murphy of the DOJ appellate section for the government, and Carter Phillips of Sidley Austin for the oil company.

Supreme Court reverses Third Circuit appealability ruling

Today the Supreme Court reversed the Third Circuit’s non-precedential 2016 ruling in Hall v. Hall. The vote was 9-0, and the opinion was written by Chief Justice Roberts. The Supreme Court opinion is here, the Third Circuit opinion is here, and the Scotusblog case page with the briefs and more is here. The Court held that, ” when one of several consolidated cases is finally decided, a disappointed litigant is free to seek review of that decision in the court of appeals.”

The case is of interest to this blog not merely because it arose from the Third Circuit, but also because the winning side was represented by Andrew Simpson, who is the President-elect of the Third Circuit Bar Association. Andy is a terrific lawyer in St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. (Regular readers of this blog also will remember he shared his first-hand account of the hurricane devastation last fall.) My hearty congratulations to Andy on a magnificent win.

 

New opinion: Uber wins Third Circuit antitrust appeal

Phila. Taxi Assoc. v. Uber Technologies – antitrust – affirmance – Rendell

The Third Circuit today emphatically upheld the dismissal of an antitrust suit brought by Philadelphia taxi operators against Uber. It was a sweeping victory for Uber: the taxi operators lost on all three elements of proving anti-competitive conduct, and for good measure they lost on antitrust standing, too. Uber may have harmed its competitors,  the court concluded, but it did not harm competition.

Joining Rendell were Ambro and Krause. Arguing counsel were John Innelli of Philadelphia for the taxi operators and Steven Reed of Morgan Lewis for Uber.

New opinions — habeas and tax appeals, both featuring waiver [updated]

Bennett v. Superintendent — habeas corpus — reversal — Restrepo

The Third Circuit today ruled in favor of a habeas corpus petitioner, holding that erroneous jury instructions deprived him of due process. [Disclosure: I provided consulting assistance on the appeal to petitioner’s counsel.]

The court concluded that the faulty instructions could lead the Pennsylvania jury to believe that a defendant who had no specific intent to kill could still be found guilty of murder based on an accomplice’s intent. The language from the instructions is quoted at p.34 of today’s opinion. The court’s review was de novo because the Pennsylvania courts failed to address the claim during state post-conviction proceedings. The court also held that the Commonwealth waived the harmless-error defense by failing to assert it unequivocally in this appeal.

Joining Restrepo were Ambro and Nygaard. Arguing for the petitioner were Drexel law Appellate Litigation Clinic students Ke Gang and Mischa Wheat, supervised by Richard Frankel. The court thanked the clinic  its “skillful pro bono advocacy.” Arguing for the Commonwealth was former Vanaskie clerk Christopher Lynett of the Philadelphia DA’s Office.

 

Spireas v. Commissioner IRS — tax — affirmance — Hardiman

In a high-stakes tax appeal, the Third Circuit today held that the taxpayer waived his argument on appeal by failing to assert it before the tax court. The taxpayer is a pharmaceutical scientist who earned $40 million in royalties in just two years, and the dispute was over whether this income was capital gains taxed at 15% or regular income taxed at 35%. The court did not discuss the merits of the waived claim.

Joining Hardiman was Shwartz. Judge Roth dissented, arguing that the taxpayer had not waived its argument. Arguing counsel were Brian Killian of Morgan Lewis for the taxpayer and Clint Carpenter of the DOJ Tax Division for the government.

UPDATE: on June 1, 2018, the panel issued an amended opinion along with an admirably clear order noting what had changed (two footnotes discussing waiver). The link above now goes to the new opinion; the old opinion is here.

 

Two new opinions

The Third Circuit issued two published opinions yesterday.

Haberle v. Troxell — civil rights / disability — partial affirmance — Jordan

A severely depressed man with a gun was in an apartment threatening to kill himself. Fearing for the man’s life, his longtime partner called the Nazareth, PA, police to help. But instead of waiting for trained crisis negotiators to arrive, a local police officer called his fellow officers “a bunch of fucking pussies” and decided to go in himself because “[t]his is how we do things in Nazareth.” When the officer knocked on the door and identified himself as a police officer, the man inside killed himself.

The man’s estate sued the officer and the borough, alleging various constitutional violations and violation of the Americans with Disability Act. The Third Circuit yesterday upheld the dismissal of the constitutional claims, holding that the officer’s conduct does not shock the conscience, but remanded to allow the plaintiff to amend her ADA claim, holding that the ADA applies to police officers making an arrest.

Joining Jordan were Greenaway and Rendell; Greenaway concurred separately to argue that ADA relief should be available under a different provision in the statute as well. Arguing counsel were Joseph Walsh of Lauer & Fulmer for the estate and John Morgenstern of Deasey Mahoney for the defendants.

[UPDATE: after the remand, the district court dismissed again, the plaintiff appealed again, and the Third Circuit reversed again.]

 

Lewin v. AG — immigration — affirmance — Jordan

The Third Circuit held that a conviction under New Jersey’s receiving-stolen-property statute is an aggravated felony supporting removal. The court rejected the petitioner’s argument that the statute failed to require proof of mens rea beyond a reasonable doubt where it required that the petitioner believe that the property is probably stolen.

Joining Jordan were Roth and Mariani MDPA by designation. The case was decided without oral argument.

New opinion — defendant defeats class-action commonality by promising not to raise a class-wide defense

Gonzalez v. Owens Corning — civil / class action — affirmance — Hardiman

The Third Circuit today affirmed a district court’s order denying class certification in a high-stakes consumer-class-action appeal. The underlying suit alleged that Owens Corning sold roof shingles with warranties of 25 years or more when, in reality, their expected useful life was considerably shorter.

The court affirmed because the proposed class ” cannot satisfy Rule 23(a)’s commonality requirement because the only common question it poses can be answered only by way of an advisory opinion, which is forbidden by Article III.” There was a key legal issue that was common to the class–whether a particular defense applied to their claims–but Owens Corning promised not to raise the defense, so the Court ruled that deciding the issue would amount to an advisory opinion.

The court also rejected the plaintiffs argument that the shingles were a defective product where not all of them had the defect causing premature failure.

Joining Hardiman were Chagares and Jordan. Arguing counsel were Professor Robert Klonoff of Oregon for the plaintiffs and Carter Phillips of Sidley Austin for Owens Corning.

Two new opinions: one PLRA, one TCPA

Paladino v. Newsome — prisoner civil rights — reversal in part — Fuentes

The Third Circuit today ruled in favor of a prisoner alleging he was the victim of excessive force, holding that the district court erred in granting summary judgment for failure to exhaust the claim because there was a genuine issue of material fact on exhaustion. The district court ruled without notice to the parties, and the Third Circuit held that ” some type of notice and an opportunity to respond are needed before a district court elects to decide factual disputes regarding exhaustion.”

Joining Fuentes were Chagares and Vanaskie. Arguing counsel were Schnader Harrison associate Rachel Horton for the prisoner and Christopher Josephson for the state defendants.

 

City Select Auto Sales v. David Randall Assocs. — consumer — affirmance — Hardiman

A roofing company hired another company to send out tens of thousands of unsolicited advertisements by fax. One recipient sued the roofing company and its co-owner under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. He obtained a judgment against the roofing company for over $22 million, which sounds about right to me. The suit against the co-owner personally went to trial, the plaintiff lost, and he appealed. Today, the Third Circuit affirmed, rejecting challenges to the jury instructions and a response to a jury question.

Joining Hardiman were Vanaskie and Shwartz; Shwartz also concurred separately to disagree with dicta in the main opinion questioning whether a corporate officer can be personally liable under the TCPA. Arguing counsel were Daniel Cohen of Chicago for the trial plaintiff and Emmett Fitzpatrick III of Flamm Walton for the reviled fax-ad senders.

Third Circuit upholds refusal to re-open case to challenge million-dollar award after lawyer misses a deadline

The Third Circuit issued a non-precedential opinion yesterday that will scare the living bejeezus out of lawyers.

Here’s what happened, as described in the opinion (emphasis mine):

Quebec filed an involuntary bankruptcy petition against John Doe, which the Bankruptcy Court dismissed. Doe then filed a motion asking the Bankruptcy Court to declare Quebec’s petition to be in bad faith and for damages. Quebec failed to appear at the hearing on the motion allegedly due to the then-hospitalization of Quebec’s representative, and on March 24, 2015, the Bankruptcy Court granted the motion and awarded approximately $1 million in punitive damages. Quebec then retained its current counsel. Twenty-one days after the appeal deadline passed, Quebec sought an extension of time for filing the appeal, asserting that it did not receive a copy of the Bankruptcy Court’s March 24, 2015 order. The Bankruptcy Court denied the extension request. Quebec appealed that ruling to the District Court, and that same day, it received notice that it needed to file a designation of portions of the Bankruptcy Court record for the appeal by September 8, 2015. Quebec failed to do so, and the District Court dismissed the appeal on September 30, 2015 without an opinion. Quebec asserts that it failed to timely file the designation due to its counsel’s erroneous calendaring of the deadline as October 22, 2015.

The opinion doesn’t name Quebec’s current counsel, the lawyer who assertedly missed the district-court deadline, although he is identifiable on Pacer.

Quebec sought post-judgment relief from the dismissal, which the district court (after proceedings not relevant here) denied on the ground that the party had not shown excusable neglect. Still represented by the same lawyer, Quebec appealed.

The Third Circuit affirmed the denial of relief from the million-dollar judgment, stating:

“The District Court aptly found that counsel’s oversight could have been prevented through effective office procedures and reasonable diligence on the part of counsel in checking the bankruptcy docket.”

And:

Moreover, the District Court correctly observed that it was “difficult to excuse” counsel’s incorrect recording of the September 8 deadline as October 22, “nearly two months after he filed the notice of appeal (and received the email notification)” and far beyond the fourteen-day deadline, in light of “the appellate practice [Quebec’s counsel] professes to maintain.”

Ouch! And:

Although Quebec’s present counsel was retained after the Bankruptcy Court issued its decision on Quebec’s bad faith filing of the bankruptcy petition, reasonably diligent counsel entering at that late stage of the litigation would have reviewed the record, observed the history of dilatoriness and prior finding of bad faith, and ensured that future filings complied with all applicable rules and orders.

For the poor lawyer involved, this is no doubt horrifying.

For the rest of us, this case offers at least three points to consider:

  • Obviously, it is another ice-in-the-veins reminder that rules and deadlines matter, and sometimes they matter a lot.
  • Both the district court and the Third Circuit held the lawyer’s professed practice as an appellate lawyer against him in analyzing whether his error was excusable. (The lawyer’s firm’s website states, “WE ARE THE APPEALS FIRM IN PENNSYLVANIA,” for example.) Judges may use language like that against lawyers if something goes wrong.
  • Was it a blunder for this lawyer to handle an appeal in which his own actions below were at issue, rather than withdrawing for another lawyer to do the appeal? The same has been true of at least three other recent Third Circuit cases that turned out real badly for the lawyers involved. Lawyers who find themselves in this situation must think hard about whether new counsel for the appeal is in their clients’ best interests–and their own.

En banc Third Circuit rejects sentencing enhancement for mechanic

The en banc Third Circuit today decided a criminal-sentencing issue, and a three-judge panel decided the remaining sentencing issues in the case.

A quick recap of the procedural history may help. In June of last year, a Third Circuit panel reversed in part in a criminal sentencing appeal; Judge Greenaway dissented in part, arguing that the court should have reversed on an additional ground. The court then granted rehearing en banc with argument limited to the issue on which Judge Greenaway had dissented. A link to the oral argument is here, and I briefly discussed one side’s argument here.

Today, the court issued two opinions: an en banc opinion by Judge Greenaway and a panel opinion on the other issues by Judge Shwartz.

US v. Douglas (en banc opinion) — criminal sentencing — reversal — Greenaway

The en banc Third Circuit today held that an airline mechanic with access to restricted airport areas did not hold a position involving professional or managerial discretion under the § 3B1.3 of the US Sentencing Guidelines. The court refined the approach it took to analyzing when to apply that enhancement.

There were 7 judges in the majority, 4 dissenting. (The case was argued in October, so Judge Bibas did not participate.) Joining Greenaway were Smith, McKee, Ambro, Jordan, Krause, and Restrepo. The four dissenters split into two opinions: one by Shwartz joined by Chagares and Vanaskie, the other by Hardiman alone.

Arguing counsel were Arnold Bernard of Pittsburgh for the defendant and MIchael Ivory for the government.

US v. Douglas (panel opinion) — criminal sentencing — reversal in part — Shwartz

The panel issued an opinion that, according to a footnote, “essentially restates the original Panel opinion except for the issue addressed by the Court en banc.” My summary of the prior opinion is here.

 

New opinion — Third Circuit affirms criminal sentence

US v. Huynh  — criminal — affirmance — Hardiman

I’m slow posting today’s case because I had a Third Circuit oral argument today, pinch-hitting for a wonderful lawyer who realized he would be out of town the day of argument.

The Third Circuit today held that the government did not breach its plea agreement with a criminal defendant and the district court did not err in imposing sentencing-guidelines enhancements for being an organizer/leader and for relocating to avoid detection.

Joining Hardiman were Vanaskie and Shwartz. The case was decided without oral argument.

Supreme Court agrees to review Third Circuit takings case

The Supreme Court today granted certiorari to review a Third Circuit takings case, Knick v. Township of Scott. The Third Circuit opinion is here, and my summary of it said this (emphasis added):

A Pennsylvania township enacted an ordinance that authorizes officials to enter any property “for the purpose of determining the existence of and location of any cemetery” and compels private cemeteries to open themselves to the public during daylight hours.

The Third Circuit described the ordinance as “extraordinary and constitutionally suspect,” noting “it is difficult to imagine a broader authorization to conduct searches of privately owned property” and urging the township to abandon it. But the court affirmed dismissal of a suit challenging the ordinance, holding that the plaintiff lacked standing to raise a facial Fourth Amendment challenge because her rights were not violated and that her Fifth Amendment takings claim is not ripe because she had not first sought compensation under the state’s inverse-condemnation procedure.

The question upon which cert was granted today, from Scotusblog, is: “Whether the Supreme Court should reconsider the portion of Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank that requires property owners to exhaust state court remedies to ripen federal takings claims.”

New opinion — Third Circuit decides a complicated medical-device-preemption appeal

Shuker v. Smith & Nephew — civil — reversal in part — Krause

By federal statute, the makers of certain medical devices who comply with stricter federal safety requirements get preemption from any state safety requirements. But some medical devices are made up of multiple components–if some components comply with the stricter federal standards, while others don’t, is a suit challenging the design of the entire device pre-empted?

Today, the Third Circuit described that question as an issue of first impression in the circuit courts. It answered it by holding that pre-emption is assessed component-by-component, not device-by-device, which in turn means that if the alleged defect in the device does not involve a freestanding defect in the non-preempted component — if it challenges only a defect in the preempted component, or (I think) the interaction between preempted and non-preempted components –then the claim is preempted.

Joining Krause were Jordan and Greenaway. Arguing counsel were Robert Astrachan of Zajac & Arias for the plaintiffs below and Sara Gourley of Sidley Austin and Joseph Lang of Florida for the device makers.

 

New opinion — Third Circuit upholds removal based on unlawful-contact-with-a-minor conviction

Mondragon-Gonzalez v. AG — immigration — affirmance — Vanaskie

The Third Circuit today granted the government’s motion to publish a previously non-precedential opinion denying an immigration petition for review. The court upheld the BIA’s ruling that the petitioner’s Pennsylvania conviction for unlawful contact with a minor qualified as a “crime of child abuse” supporting removal, deferring to the BIA’s statutory interpretation and by doing so arguably splitting with the Tenth Circuit.

Joining Vanaskie were Shwartz and Fuentes. The case was decided without oral argument.

New opinion: Third Circuit rejects effort to compel arbitration by non-existent forum

MacDonald v. Cashcall — civil / arbitration — affirmance — Shwartz

The introduction of today’s Third Circuit opinion rejecting lenders’ effort to compel arbitration of a borrower’s challenge to a 116% interest loan:

John MacDonald, on behalf of himself and a putative
class, sued CashCall, Inc., WS Funding, LLC, Delbert Services
Corp., and J. Paul Reddam (collectively “Defendants”) over a
loan agreement that he contends is usurious and
unconscionable. The agreement includes (1) a provision
requiring that all disputes be resolved through arbitration
conducted by a representative of the Cheyenne River Sioux
Tribe (“CRST”) and (2) a clause that delegates questions about
the arbitration provision’s enforceability to the arbitrator.
Defendants moved to compel arbitration, which the District
Court denied. Because the parties’ agreement directs
arbitration to an illusory forum, and the forum selection clause
is not severable, the entire agreement to arbitrate, including the
delegation clause, is unenforceable, and we will therefore
affirm.

Joining Shwartz were Hardiman and Vanaskie. (The opinion included a footnote that Judge Vanaskie would have affirmed on additional grounds.) Arguing counsel were Joseph Barloon of Skadden Arps for the lenders and Matthew Wessler of Gupta Wessler (a former Nygaard clerk) for the borrower.

 

New opinion — Third Circuit finds computer search violated Fourth Amendment but affirms on good-faith grounds

U.S. v. Werdene — criminal — affirmance — Greenaway

The Third Circuit today held that the government violated the Rule 41 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure and the Federal Magistrates Act, and thus the Fourth Amendment, when it used “a form of government-created malware” (!) to search thousands of computers nationwide using a single warrant issued in Virginia. But the court affirmed, holding that the violation was shielded by the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule.

Judge Nygaard concurred to discuss an important procedural point: whether an appellate court may affirm on a ground that the appellee conceded below. He writes, ” This is an interesting question and one that in my nearly three decades on this court I have not encountered.” He ends: ” I point out my thoughts on this matter nonetheless solely to remind practitioners of that old adage, ‘you cannot have it both ways.’ In my opinion, conceding a fact or a legal point in the District Court prevents us from affirming on that basis.”

Joining Greenaway were Nygaard and Fisher. Arguing counsel were Brett Sweitzer of the EDPA federal defender for the defendant and Michelle Morgan for the government.

 

New opinion — Third Circuit vacates insider-trading sentence

US v. Metro — criminal — reversal — Jordan

The Third Circuit today vacated a criminal sentence for insider trading due to insufficient factual findings in support of the district court’s decision to attribute others’ insider-trading gains to the defendant for sentencing purposes. The gist: ” When the scope of a defendant’s involvement in a conspiracy is contested, a district court cannot rely solely on a defendant’s guilty plea to the conspiracy charge, without additional fact-finding, to support attributing co-conspirators’ gains to a defendant.”

Joining Jordan were Hardiman and Scirica. Arguing counsel were Lawrence Lustberg of Gibbons for the defendant and Glenn Moramarco for the government.

New opinion — an interesting debt-collection-suit win

Tatis v. Allied Interestate — consumer / FDCPA — reversal — Hardiman

The Third Circuit today held that sending a settlement letter for a time-barred debt can be actionable under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act even if the letter does not threaten legal action.

It’s a fascinating case for a few reasons:

  • the counsel match-up was David vs. Goliath–a junior consumer lawyer against a past president of the American Academy of Appellate Lawyers–and the junior lawyer won;
  • the panel was composed of the Third Circuit’s three most conservative active judges, but it ruled in favor of the consumer; and
  • the opinion was authored by Judge Hardiman, reportedly a Supreme court short-lister, and it pointedly disagreed with a dissenting opinion by another Supreme Court short-lister, Sixth Circuit Judge Kethledge.

Joining Hardiman were Chagares and Jordan. Arguing counsel were Ari Marcus of Yitzchak & Zelman for the consumer and James Martin of Reed Smith for the debt collector.

New opinion — appellate counsel’s ineffectiveness can’t excuse default

Greene v. Superintendent — habeas — affirmance — Vanaskie

The Third Circuit today held that a recent Supreme Court opinion foreclosed a habeas corpus petitioner’s argument that Martinez v. Ryan should be expanded to allow review of defaulted or untimely claims based on ineffective assistance of direct appeal (vs. trial) counsel.

Joining Vanaskie were Rendell and Fisher. Arguing counsel were Michael Wiseman for the petitioner and Catherine Kiefer for the state.

Two new opinions, both authored by district judges

In re: Processed Egg Prods. Antitrust Litig. — antitrust — reversal — Stark D. Del. by designation

The Third Circuit today reversed a district court’s grant of summary judgement in favor of the defendant in an antitrust price-fixing case. The court rejected the district court’s conclusion that the end purchasers of the product (eggs) lacked standing to challenge to supplier’s alleged supply collusion.

The allegations could make a cynic of you:

Egg producers participating in the certification program were required to increase their hens’ cage sizes and refrain from replacing hens that died with another laying hen (a practice known as “backfilling”). It is alleged that the animal welfare rationale offered for these practices is merely a pretext for the true goal of reducing egg supply to drive up egg prices.

The court defined the issue as one of first impression in the circuit:

whether a direct purchaser of a product that includes a pricefixed input has antitrust standing to pursue a claim against the party that sold the product to the purchaser, where the seller is a participant in the price-fixing conspiracy, but where the product also includes some amount of price-fixed input supplied by a third-party non-conspirator.

Joining Stark were Smith and Fuentes. Arguing counsel were Michael Brody of Jenner & Block for the purchasers and Carrie Mahan of Weil Gotshal for the suppliers.

 

Garza v. Citigroup — civil — affirmance — Conti WDPA

The lucid introduction:

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 41(d), a district court may order a plaintiff who voluntarily dismisses an action and files a second action against the same defendant based upon a claim asserted in the first action to pay the “costs” incurred by the defendant in the first action. The issue presented (one of first impression in this Court) is whether a district court may award attorneys’ fees as “costs” under Rule 41(d). We conclude that attorneys’ fees may only be awarded as “costs” under Rule 41(d) when the substantive statute under which the lawsuit was filed defines costs to include attorneys’ fees. Because no such statute is involved here, and no other basis upon which attorneys’ fees may be awarded was properly raised with the United States District Court for the District of Delaware, we will affirm the decision of the District Court denying the request for attorneys’ fees.

In so ruling, the court joined a middle-ground position taken by the Fourth and Seventh Circuits, splitting with the Eighth Circuit on one side and the Sixth Circuit on the other.

The court also held that the appellant had waived an argument by failing to raise it below and first raising it in its reply brief. (Notable, given that the appellant was represented by a large firm.)

Joining Conti were Ambro and Krause. Arguing counsel were Bruce Birenboim of Paul Weiss for the appellant and Susan Burke of Maryland for the appellee.

New opinion — insurer’s rejection of proof of loss triggered statute of limitations

Migliaro v. Fidelity National — civil / insurance — affirmance — Rendell

Introductions this clear make my job easy:

The issue in this case is whether the rejection of a policyholder’s proof of loss constituted a “written denial of all or part of the claim,” thereby triggering the one-year statute of limitations that is set forth in every Standard Flood Insurance Policy (“SFIP”). After receiving a payment from Fidelity National Indemnity Insurance Company, based on an adjuster’s assessment of the damage to his property caused by Hurricane Sandy, Anthony Migliaro submitted a sworn proof of loss seeking additional compensation. Fidelity sent Migliaro a letter rejecting his proof of loss, and he filed suit. The District Court found that the letter rejecting Migliaro’s proof of loss was a “written denial of all or part of the claim.” Since Migliaro filed his complaint almost two years after he received the letter, the District Court dismissed the suit as time-barred. We affirm the District Court’s order. Although the rejection of a proof of loss is not per se a denial of the claim in whole or in part, it does constitute a denial of the claim if, as here, the policyholder treats it as such by filing suit against the carrier.

Joining Rendell were Ambro and Krause. Arguing counsel were Steven Feinstein of Zenstein Ballard for the insured and Francis Manning of Stradley Ronon for the insurer.

New opinion — employee fired for objecting to West Chester University’s alleged budgeting shenanigans has no First Amendment claim

Bradley v. West Chester Univ. — civil — affirmance — Brann MDPA by designation

West Chester University’s budgeting director allegedly was asked to change her report to make it show a deficit instead of a surplus so as not to put the university’s state appropriation at risk. She told an administrative committee that making that change would be unethical and possibly illegal. Two years later, she allegedly had another, similar disagreement. Soon after she was told she was not a cultural fit and her contract would not be renewed.  She sued her supervisor, the university, and the 14-university state higher-education system, alleging First Amendment retaliation and other claims. The district court ruled that her claims against the supervisor were barred by qualified immunity and her claims against the university were barred by Eleventh Amendment immunity.

Today, the Third Circuit affirmed. Without reaching qualified immunity, it held that the budget director’s speech was not constitutionally protected in the first place because it was made pursuant to her official duties. This seems like a reasonable application of controlling law, but still it is startling that an employee who ran right to the media would be on far safer ground than one who raised the same concern internally. The court also held that West Chester University and the university system were arms of the state entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity.

Joining Brann were Smith and Hardiman. Arguing counsel were Daniel Kearney of Adams Kearney for the budget director and John Knorr III of the state AG’s office for the university and the university system.

Two new opinions — false claims and immigration

US ex rel. Greenfield v. Medco Health Solutions — civil / false claims — affirmance — Ambro

The Third Circuit today affirmed a district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the alleged false claimant in a qui tam case. The case arose when, first, a health-care provider made donations to charities then, second, two of those charities alleged recommended the provider to patients. The panel rejected the provider’s argument that the relator had to prove that the charities’ recommendation actually caused members to use the provider, but also rejected the relator’s argument that it was enough just to show that the recommendations were made and the provider submitted claims around the same time. The panel held that the relator lost because he failed point to any specific patient who was referred by the charities and for whom the provider later sought government reimbursement.

Joining Ambro were Krause and Conti WDPA by designation. Arguing counsel were Regina Poserina of Begelman Orlow for the relator, Craig Singer of Williams & Connolly for the provider, and Katherine Allen for the government as amicus. (Making this the rare Third Circuit case where a majority of the panel and a majority of the arguing counsel were women.)

 

Williams v. AG — immigration — affirmance — Smith

The Third Circuit today held that a conviction under Georgia’s forgery statute, which covers using a false name when signing a document, is an aggravated felony supporting removal. The petitioner was a lawful permanent resident who immigrated to the US when he was 13 months old; his parents, grandparents, siblings, and children all are US citizens. The court split with the Ninth Circuit.

Joining Smith were Hardiman and Brann MDPA by designation. Arguing counsel were Christopher Mauro of Dechert for the petitioner and Christina Greer for the government.

New opinion — bank robbery by intimidation is a crime of violence

United States v. Wilson — criminal sentencing — affirmance — Jordan

“If it were somehow in doubt before, we take the opportunity now to hold that bank robbery by intimidation is categorically a ‘crime of violence’ under the United States Sentencing Guidelines.” This, the opening sentence of today’s opinion, might be the most Judge-Jordan-ish opening sentence I’ve ever read, and I mean that as praise.

The opinion also held that the federal bank-robbery statute requires knowing conduct and that applying a sentencing enhancement was not plain error because it did not the affect the  sentence.

Joining Jordan were Hardiman and Scirica. Arguing counsel were Christy Martin of the EDPA federal defender for the defendant and Robert Zauzmer for the government.

Third Circuit schedules en banc arguments for February & May

The old news: just before the end of the year, the Third Circuit granted en banc rehearing in two cases, Hayes v. Harvey, an important public-housing appeal, and Vooys v. Bentley, a big deal for Virgin Islands litigants.

The new news: the court has now scheduled the Vooys oral argument for February 21 and the Hayes argument for May 16. In Vooys, the court also ordered supplemental briefing and granted amicus curiae the Virgin Islands Bar Association’s motion for leave to participate in the oral argument.

New opinion — divided panel upholds Eleventh Amendment dismissal

Karns v. Shanahan — civil — affirmance — Chagares

The Third Circuit today affirmed a district court ruling dismissing on Eleventh Amendment grounds a civil rights suit against NJ Transit. Although in a 1989 en banc ruling, Fitchik, the court held that NJ Transit is not an arm of the state entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity, the court today observed that its analysis of such issues had since “fundamental[ly] shift[ed]” and its prior ruling was no longer binding.

Judge Roth dissented, beginning:

Were we writing on a blank slate, it would be within the prerogative of the Majority to decide this case as it does. But the slate is not blank. The precise question that we examine here, whether NJ Transit is an “arm of the state” entitled to Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity,” we have already fully considered and resolved en banc in Fitchik v. N.J. Transit Rail Operations, Inc.1 Little has changed since we decided this question. Thus, stare decisis, principles of estoppel, and our own Internal Operating Procedures all require that we decline the invitation to overrule Fitchik. For this reason, I respectfully dissent from Part III of the majority opinion.

Joining Chagares was Restrepo. Arguing counsel were John Bloor of Drinker Biddle for the appellants and Jennifer McGruther of the NJ AG’s office for the appellees.

New opinion — Rooker-Feldman doesn’t bar bankruptcy trustee’s fraudulent transfer claims

In re: Philadelphia Entertainment & Development Partners — bankruptcy / civil — reversal — Greenberg

For all of you who’ve been dying for a Third Circuit Rooker-Feldman opinion–you know who you are–today’s your day. The Rooker-Feldman doctrine, today’s opinion explains, “deprives federal district and bankruptcy courts of jurisdiction over suits that are essentially appeals from state-court judgments.” (Cleaned up). Today’s opinion is about how Rooker-Feldman applies when a bankruptcy trustee alleges that a state-court ruling amounted to a voidable fraudulent transfer. The district court had ruled Rooker-Feldman barred review of the fraudulent-transfer claims, but today the Third Circuit reversed because review of the claims did not require review of the state-court judgment. The court rejected as unpersuasive a Seventh Circuit opinion relied on by the bankruptcy court.

By the way, the court posted this opinion on its website in the morning, instead of posting it around 12:34 p.m. as it always has. Fluke? Mistake? New practice? I’m curious.

Joining Greenberg were Chagares and Restrepo. The case was (surprisingly) decided without oral argument.

Two new opinions

Please excuse my cursory summaries today, I’m in the home stretch working on a big Third Circuit brief.

DiFiore v. CSL Behring — civil — affirmance — Fisher

The Third Circuit today affirmed a district court’s grant of summary judgement today in False Claims Act whistleblower case, holding that ” an employee’s protected activity must be the ‘but-for’ cause of adverse actions to support a claim of retaliation under the FCA.”

Joining Fisher were Vanaskie and Rendell. Arguing counsel were James Bell IV of Bell & Bell for the appellant and David Fryman of Ballard Spahr for the appellee.

 

Crystallex Int’l v. Petroleos de Venezuela — bankruptcy — reversal — Rendell

A divided Third Circuit panel today applied Delaware law to hold that a transfer by a non-debtor cannot be a fraudulent transfer under the Delaware Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act.

Joining Rendell was Vanaskie; Fuentes dissented with a useful diagram. Arguing counsel were Nathan Eimer of Illiniois for the appellant and Robert Weigel of Gibson Dunn for the appellee.

New opinion — Third Circuit reverses summary judgment in FDCPA suit

Panico v. Portfolio Recovery Assocs. — civil — reversal — Restrepo

Applying Delaware statute-of-limitations law, the Third Circuit today reversed a grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendants in a putative class-action suit under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. The main dispute on appeal involved whether the defendant sought to collect on debts after the statute of limitations on those debts had already run.

Joining Restrepo were Vanaskie and Krause. Arguing counsel were Philip Stern of Stern Thomasson for the plaintiff and David Anthony of Troutman Sanders for the debt collector.

Another en banc grant today — this one is a big Virgin Islands case

I posted earlier today about the Third Circuit’s order granting rehearing en banc in Hayes v. Harvey. A thoughtful reader has alerted me that the court granted en banc rehearing today in a second case, too.

The case is Vooys v. Bentley, No. 16-3912. The order granting rehearing was issued sua sponte, and it indicates that a majority “determined that the case is controlled by a prior decision of the court which should be reconsidered.”

The “prior decision” appears to be United Industrial ex rel. Bason v. Gov’t Virgin Islands, a 2014 published opinion I discussed and linked to here. Bason held that, although Congress stripped the Third Circuit of its certiorari jurisdiction over Virgin Islands cases in 2012, the court retained cert jurisdiction over cases that were filed in VI courts before 2012.

Both the respondents and an amicus argued that Bason was wrongly decided and conflicted with prior Supreme Court caselaw. (The amicus, the VI Bar Ass’n, argued that Bason misapplied Sinochem to decide an issue without first confirming subject-matter jurisdiction, broadly the same argument I unsuccessfully made last year for rehearing in Hoffman v. Nordic Naturals.)

While nothing is certain, the posture of this order (sua sponte and prior to panel ruling) strongly suggests that overruling of Bason is likely. En banc grants in similar postures resulted in overrulings in Joyce, Rojas, Al-Sharif, and Quinn in recent years.

Third Circuit grants en banc rehearing in Hayes housing appeal

Today the Third Circuit granted en banc rehearing in Hayes v. Harvey, an important public-housing appeal. [Update: the order granting is now on the circuit website.] A divided panel had ruled in October that public housing residents had no right to remain in their homes despite statutory language that they “may elect to remain.” Judge Fisher authored the panel-majority opinion and was joined by Judge Hardiman; Judge Greenaway dissented. [Full disclosure: I provided some minor rehearing-stage consulting assistance to counsel for the appellants.]

My summary of the (now-vacated) panel opinion is here. I’m feeling clever because I began my post by saying I thought there was a realistic shot at en banc rehearing.

A couple nerdy points:

  • I’m unsure whether the court will schedule en banc argument for February or May. It may depend on whether the court believes supplemental briefing is needed. In Lewis, the court granted en banc rehearing on 11/25 and heard argument on 2/19, but this would be a month tighter, so we’ll see.
  • The order granting rehearing lists 13 judges (all 12 active judges including Judge Bibas, plus Fisher because he was on the panel), suggesting no recusals. No dissents were noted.
  • The rehearing petition was supported by two strong amicus briefs, including one for the city of Philadelphia. I’ve long believed that rehearing petitions are an under-utilized opportunity for effective participation by amici.

New opinion — Eleventh Amendment bars GSK’s challenge to state’s Flonase suit

In re: Flonase Antitrust Litig. — civil — affirmance — Greenaway

The Third Circuit today upheld a district court’s rejection of a pharmaceutical company’s effort to enforce a settlement and enjoin Louisiana from suing it in state court. The state argued that GSK’s effort violated the Eleventh Amendment.

The opinion answered two main questions:

First, does a motion for approval of a class action settlement qualify as a suit against a state for Eleventh Amendment purposes if the requested settlement agreement enjoins a state from suing in a state court? Second, if the Eleventh Amendment does cover this motion for settlement approval, may GSK avoid the Eleventh Amendment’s prohibition by showing that Louisiana waived its sovereign immunity? We find that the Eleventh Amendment covers this motion and that GSK may not avoid its bar.

Greenaway was joined by Chagares and Vanaskie. Arguing counsel were Lisa Blatt of Arnold & Porter for GSK (with supporting amici from several high-powered pro-business usual suspects) and John Alden Meade of Louisiana for the state.

New opinion — second time is the charm for ticket buyer suing the NFL

Finkelman v. NFL — civil — reversal — Fuentes

The introduction of today’s opinion:

Plaintiff Josh Finkelman had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to buy tickets to Super Bowl XLVIII held in his home state of New Jersey in February 2014. However, the National Football League (“NFL”) withheld almost all of these tickets—99%—from the general public for league insiders, offering the remaining 1% to lucky winners of a lottery that all could enter. To get his tickets, Finkelman turned to the secondary market, purchasing two tickets with a face value of $800 each for $2000 each. One month before the Super Bowl, he filed suit, alleging that the NFL’s ticket distribution violated New Jersey law. Specifically, Finkelman claims that the NFL’s withholding of more than 5% of the available tickets for the Super Bowl violated the New Jersey Ticket Law. He has now had two opportunities before our Court to show that he has Article III standing to pursue this claim. In our first decision on this subject, we found that he did not. He has since added claims about how the NFL’s secondary ticket market functioned and how the NFL’s actions raised ticket prices on the secondary market. The District Court found that these additional allegations remained insufficient to allege Finkelman’s standing. We disagree. Based on the plausible economic facts pleaded in Finkelman’s amended complaint, we conclude that Finkelman has standing and we therefore have subject matter jurisdiction over this case. We defer action on the merits of this appeal pending decision by the Supreme Court of New Jersey on the pending petition for certification of questions of state law.

My post on the prior appeal is here.

Joining Fuentes were Smith and Stark D.Del. by designation. Arguing counsel were Bruce Nagel of Nagel Rice for the ticketbuyer and Jonathan Pressment of Haynes & Boone for the league.

New opinion — firing employee for refusing to be vaccinated wasn’t religious discrimination

Fallon v. Mercy Catholic Med. Ctr. — civil — affirmance — Roth

An employee of a Catholic hospital refused to get a flu shot on grounds that he claimed were religious. When the hospital fired him, he sued, alleging religious discrimination. The district court dismissed his suit, and today the Third Circuit affirmed. The opinion includes a fascinating discussion of how “belief in God or diving beings was not necessary” for a belief to be considered religious: “nontheistic beliefs could also be religious within the meaning of the statute as long as they occupy in the life of that individual a place parallel to that filled by God in traditionally religious persons.” (Cleaned up). The opinion rejected the employee’s argument that his anti-vaccination views were religious.

Joining Roth were Smith and Jordan. Arguing counsel were Alan Schorr of Cherry Hill NJ for the employee and former Greenberg clerk Andrea Kirshenbaum of Post & Schell for the hospital.

Two new opinions

US v. Graves — criminal — affirmance — Roth

The Third Circuit today affirmed a criminal conviction and sentence, rejecting the defendant’s arguments that his motion to suppress should have been granted and that he should not have been sentenced as a career offender. The court deepened a circuit split over a subsidiary legal question, the level of force required to sustain a generic federal robbery conviction. It also held that the most important factor in determining the elements of a generic offense was the approach of the majority of states, not the Model Penal Code.

Joining Roth were Hardiman and Fisher. Arguing counsel were Ronald Krauss of the MDPA federal defenders for the defendant and Stephen Cerutti II for the government.

 

Constitution Party of Pa. v. Cortes — elections  — reversal — Roth

Last year, the Third Circuit affirmed a ruling striking down certain laws that made it difficult for third parties to get on the ballot. On remand, the district court set new signature-gathering standards for third-party candidates, but it made no factual findings and gave no explanation for the standards it chose. Today, the Third Circuit held that this lack of fact finding requires reversal.

Joining Roth were Smith and Jordan. Arguing counsel were Oliver Hall of the Center for Competitive Democracy for the parties and Claudia Tesoro of the Pa. A.G.’s office for the appellee.

New opinion — an IDEA administrative-exhaustion appeal

Wellman v. Butler Area School Dist. — civil / disability — reversal — Shwartz

The Third Circuit today held that a plaintiff’s suit under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and section 1983 was subject to the administrative-exhaustion requirement of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Since the plaintiff earlier had released all claims that could have been brought at an administrative hearing, the Third Circuit held that this suit must be dismissed with prejudice, vacating the district court’s dismissal-without-prejudice order.

Joining Shwartz were Smith and Jordan. Arguing counsel were Edward Olds of Olds Russ for the student and Thomas Breth of Dillon McCandless for the district.

New opinion — Third Circuit reverses qualified-immunity error despite appellant’s forfeiture

Barna v. Board of School Directors — civil rights — partial reversal — Chagares

After a man was “threatening and disruptive” at several school board meetings, the school board banned him from attending any of its future meetings. The man sued the board and various individuals, alleging the denial of his First Amendment rights. The district court, adopting a magistrate judge’s recommendation, granted summary judgment to all defendants based on qualified immunity. Today, the Third Circuit reversed in part, upholding summary judgment for the individuals but reversing and remanding as to the school board, which under a 1980 Supreme Court ruling does not enjoy qualified immunity. The court did not decide whether the ban was in fact unconstitutional.

There was an interesting procedural wrinkle here: the appellant apparently inadvertently failed to argue that school boards are not entitled to qualified immunity. The Third Circuit held that the the issue was forfeited, not waived, and that “truly exceptional circumstances” existed to excuse the forfeiture given the district court’s clear legal error and the absence of surprise.

Joining Chagares were Greenaway and Restrepo. Arguing counsel were Jonathan Phillips of Orwigsburg, PA for the appellant and Thomas Specht of Marshall Dennehey for the school board. Also listed as counsel for the appellant was Gary Marchalk, who died tragically earlier this year.

 

Supreme Court solicits SG’s views on Fosamax case

The Supreme Court yesterday invited the Solicitor General to file a brief in Merck Sharp & Dohme v. Albrecht, No. 17-290. Merck’s petition for certiorari is pending. Justice Alito is recused.

When it was in the Third Circuit, this case was captioned In re: Fosamax. The Third Circuit opinion is here, my post on the opinion is here. Regular readers will recognize this as the case at the center of my ‘Blogging partner rampages …’ post.

New opinions — an en banc maritime appeal and a messy escheat appeal

Joyce v. Maersk Line — maritime — affirmance — Jordan

The en banc Third Circuit today unanimously overruled a circuit-outlier 1990 maritime case and held that “a union contract freely entered by a seafarer — a contract that includes rates of maintenance, cure, and unearned wages — will not be reviewed piecemeal by courts unless there is evidence of unfairness in the collective bargaining process.”

The court granted en banc rehearing sua sponte, after panel briefing but before panel oral argument. Shortly before the scheduled oral argument, the panel appointed Tulane Law professor Martin Davies as amicus curiae to discuss the case it later overruled. Today’s opinion thanked Davies for his “insightful” brief.

As noted the opinion was unanimous. Arguing counsel were Dennis O’Bryan of Michigan for the seaman and John Walsh of New York for the employer.

 

Marathon Petroleum v. Secretary of Finance — civil — partial affirmance — Jordan

This case arises from unspent money on gas-station gift cards; Delaware wanted to audit the gas-station companies to seize the unspent money as abandoned property. The gas-station companies sued, asserting that the state escheat law is preempted by federal common law. Today, the Third Circuit held that (1) private parties had standing to assert preemption by federal escheatment law, but (2) the companies’ claim was mostly unripe although dismissal should have been without prejudice. The court rejected on the merits the part of the claim that was ripe.

Joining Jordan were Chagares and Krause. Arguing counsel were Diane Green-Kelly of Reed Smith for the gas-station companies and Steven Rosenthal of Loeb & Loeb for the state.

Two new opinions, including a big qualified-immunity reversal

Kedra v. Schroeter — civil rights — reversal — Krause

A Pennsylvania state trooper died during a routine firearms training when the instructor allegedly failed to check whether a gun was empty before pointing it at the trooper’s chest and pulling the trigger. The slain trooper’s wife sued the instructor under 42 USC § 1983, alleging a due process state-created-danger claim. The district court ruled that the instructor was entitled to qualified immunity because he did not know that the gun was loaded. Today, the Third Circuit reversed, holding that the obviousness of a risk is relevant to prove that the state actor was aware of that risk and that here the wife sufficiently alleged the instructor’s awareness.

Judge Fisher concurred, although in my view it would have been more accurate to say he concurred in part and concurred in the judgment. He argued, among other points, that the majority’s reliance on the obviousness of the risk and the officer’s training was mistaken. He wrote:

I am concerned by the impact that the breadth of the majority’s decision could have on the law of qualified immunity. I am equally troubled by the recent trajectory of this Court’s jurisprudence.

Fisher closed by noting, “Perhaps the full Court will revisit the qualified immunity framework to reexamine whether it is consistent with the history of the Due Process Clause.” (Judge Fisher assumed senior status on February 1, and senior judges do not vote on whether to grant en banc rehearing.)

Joining Krause was Melloy CA8 by designation; Fisher concurred. Arguing counsel were Michael Quirk of Williams Cuker for the wife and Claudia Tesoro of the state AG’s office for the instructor.

 

US v. Ferguson — criminal — affirmance — Hardiman

The Third Circuit held that the district court did not commit plain error when it mentioned a defendant’s bare arrests at sentencing, distinguishing Mateo-Medina.

Joining Hardiman were Jordan and Scirica. The case was decided without oral argument.

New opinion — Third Circuit grants resentencing in Guidelines-interpretation appeal

US v. Ley — criminal sentencing — reversal — Fisher

The Third Circuit today ruled in a criminal defendant’s favor in his appeal challenging the district court’s interpretation of a sentencing-guidelines provision. The introduction of the opinion succinctly explains the issue:

This case concerns the criminal history provisions of the Sentencing Guidelines. A defendant’s criminal history is calculated by assigning points for prior sentences. The Guidelines instruct that prior sentences “always are counted separately if the sentences were imposed for offenses that were separated by an intervening arrest.” United States Sentencing Commission, Guidelines Manual § 4A1.2(a)(2) (USSG). The question presented here is whether a traffic stop, followed by the issuance of a summons, constitutes an intervening arrest in the context of the criminal history Guidelines.

The court held that issuance of a summons does not count as an “arrest” for this purpose, joining three other circuits and splitting with the Seventh. The court also rejected the government’s argument that defendant waived the issue by failing to object to a supplemental PSR addendum.

Joining Fisher were Hardiman and Roth. Arguing counsel were Samantha Stern of the WDPA federal defenders for the defendant and Laura Irwin for the government.

 

Two lessons from the amended opinion in Mathias

Yesterday the court issued an amended opinion in Mathias v. Superintendent and an order explaining what changed. The changes themselves, which the court described as “minor,” are of interest mainly to habeas nerds like me (the court removed language that applied double deference to habeas review of IAC prejudice). But two practice points are worth noting.

First, the court explained in footnote 4 of the amended opinion that the language it was removing from its original opinion involved a disputed legal point “not specifically briefed by the parties in this case.” This happens, and alert counsel can use this case when it does.

Second, the court explained that the changes were made to address points raised by Mathias in his rehearing petition. Counsel for Mathias, Maria Pulzetti of the Federal Community Defender in Philadelphia (and a former colleague of mine), is a first-rate appellate lawyer, and it made a difference here. Many lawyers arguing for rehearing would just assert that the panel got it wrong, cite the relevant Supreme Court case, and call it a day. Many more would look no further once they found prior Third Circuit rulings that arguably conflicted. But Pulzetti evidently kept digging, because she figured out that the circuits were split on this issue. The court referred to this circuit split and cited the case Mathias cited in the amended opinion. Although rehearing was denied, Pulzetti’s diligence improved the opinion and benefited the Court.

A Third Circuit panel *really* didn’t like the district court opinion it was reviewing

A Third Circuit panel yesterday issued a non-precedential opinion in Betz v. Satteson, and, although they affirmed, they expressed their displeasure with the opinion below with gusto.

Right out of the gate, in the opinion’s second sentence, the panel said it was “troubled by the inappropriately caustic and derogatory tone of the District Court’s opinion.” Then a footnote added:

The District Court here issued a 125-page opinion peppered with gratuitous and disparaging remarks about Appellants and their child. Those entrusted with the solemn duties of judicial office are expected to handle proceedings in a manner that reflects the appearance as well as the reality of even-handed justice and respect for the litigants as well as for the law.

And the panel wasn’t done yet. Later on, the opinion said that images in the record “cannot be fairly characterized as the District Court described them” and hammered “the District Court’s incorrect and intemperate characterization of the video.”

Holy smokes.

The district court opinion is not like any district court opinion I’ve seen before. It speculates that the 13 year-old plaintiff’s injuries were “perhaps a timely form of divine retribution.” Its conclusion says that the case had wasted the court’s time (this on page 124 of its opinion), and advised the child to apologize and accept the consequences of his actions, “which advice he apparently has not received from his parents.”

(On a more mundane note, the district opinion also identifies the authors of most of the Third Circuit opinions it cites, which is a big no-no for briefs and something I’ve never seen in a district court opinion.)

The Third Circuit opinion was authored by Judge Krause and joined by Judges Ambro and Rendell. The district court judge was Judge Matthew Brann of the Middle District of Pennsylvania, who recently sat with the Third Circuit by designation and just authored a non-precedential opinion.

Quite remarkable.

New opinion — Third Circuit issues a major qui tam opinion recognizing government-knowledge and materiality defenses

US ex rel Spay v. CVS Caremark — qui tam — affirmance — McKee

The Third Circuit today affirmed on alternative grounds the dismissal of a suit under the False Claims Act. The district court had dismissed based on the government-knowledge defense; the Third Circuit recognized the defense but held it didn’t apply here. The court affirmed anyway, recognizing a materiality requirement for pre-2009 FCA suits and holding that it was not met here.

Senator Charles Grassley filed an amicus brief supporting the appellant and “arguing against the continued viability of the government knowledge inference.”

Joining McKee were Smith and Restrepo. Arguing counsel were Marc Raspanti of Pietragallow Gordon for the appellant and Enu Mainigi of Williams & Connolly for the appellees.

A look at the “insightful and compelling case” for en banc rehearing in the Cottrell eye-drops case

Stephen McConnell, a partner at Reed Smith in Philadelphia, has this thoughtful post, titled “A Second Look at Eye-Drop Litigation,” on the Drug & Device Law blog. The post is a close look at the petition for en banc rehearing recently filed in Cottrell v. Alcon Labs.

Here’s the heart of it:

The main points in favor of revisiting the Third Circuit’s decision are that it is contrary to Finkelman v. National Football League, 810 F.3d 187 (3d Cir. 2016), it “radically expands Article III standing,” and that it directly conflicts with Eike v. Allergan, Inc., 850 F.3d 315 (7th Cir. 2017).  Moreover, the plaintiff’s inherently speculative theory of injury in fact was rejected by federal courts in Massachusetts and Missouri.  (When a court comes out with a more pro-plaintiffy position than courts in Massachusetts and Missouri, that’s really saying something.)  That theory was also rejected by the district court in Cottrell.  And then the Third Circuit reversed that rejection.

An interesting post about a big case.

Regular readers may recall that a couple weeks ago I posted here (“Blogging partner rampages … “) criticizing blog posts by the same lawyer. In his post today, McConnell has this to say about it:

First, we have been so unkind about the Third Circuit’s error in the Fosamax case that we managed to attract the attention of the excellent CA3 blog.   In that blog, the author wondered whether our dissection of Fosamax was perhaps a bit more violent than necessary.  The author also wondered whether we were coming close to accusing the court of bad faith.  Yes to the former, but definitely No to the latter.  As we told the CA3 blog, we took issue with what we saw as bad reasoning, but never-ever thought there was any bad faith.  (The CA3 blog was generous enough to print our disclaimer.  Thanks for that.)  By and large, we are mighty proud of our home circuit.  We know several of the judges, and every one of them is honorable, hard-working, and much smarter than we are.  Sometimes we are not going to agree with the court’s decisions.  Luckily for us we work in a profession and live in a country where debate and criticism are allowed.

Gracefully said.

New opinion — Plaintiffs should have been allowed to amend complaint despite delay caused by attorney’s error

This opinion was issued yesterday. I normally post cases the same day, but I had a big deadline in my Texas capital habeas case.

 

Mullin v. Administrator — civil rights — partial reversal — Fuentes

The compelling introduction to yesterday’s opinion:

A little over two years into the civil-rights suit brought by Joan Mullin (“Mullin”) over the tragic prison suicide of her son, Robert Mullin (“Robert”), Mullin’s attorney received a discovery document with the potential to reshape the case. A previously undisclosed investigative report about the night Robert died contained statements by fellow New Jersey inmates about a prison guard who allegedly refused Robert’s requests for psychiatric assistance—and urged Robert to kill himself instead. But while Mullin’s attorney received this report mid-case, it was not reviewed in a timely fashion. Instead, due to a clerical error, the disc containing the relevant disclosures was misfiled, and not fully accessed until about ten months later. By that time, Mullin’s operative complaint—premised on a less direct knew-or-should-have-known theory of Robert’s vulnerability to suicide—had already been dismissed in large part. The District Court denied Mullin’s request for leave to amend her complaint, due in part to the delay caused by counsel’s error and, after additional motion practice, granted summary judgment in favor of the one remaining defendant, bringing the litigation to a close.

Mullin’s appeal encompasses both the dismissal of her operative complaint and the order denying further leave to amend. The latter is the focus of this opinion. For the reasons set forth below, we conclude that the decision denying leave to amend amounted to an impermissible exercise of discretion. Some of the factors relied upon to deny leave are not supported by the record or are at odds with our case law. And while we do not intend to minimize counsel’s mistake, it does not, standing alone, support denying leave to amend. Accordingly, we will vacate the order denying leave to amend and will remand for further proceedings.

I think most lawyers who’ve handled complex cases would (nervously) agree with the opinion’s later observation that the lawyers’ error  was “the kind that could affect any law firm no matter how well run.”

It’s an interesting case, an engaging opinion, and a significant ruling on amending civil complaints (and habeas petitions) under Rule 15.

Joining Fuentes were Chagares and Vanaskie. Arguing counsel were Shelley Stangler for the appellant and Gregory Bueno of the NJ AG’s office for the appellees.

New opinion — Third Circuit affirms bankruptcy dismissal on statutory-mootness grounds (updated!)

In re: Pursuit Capital Mgmt. — bankruptcy — affirmance — Jordan

The Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a challenge to a bankruptcy trustee’s sales of assets, holding that the appeal was statutorily moot under 11 USC § 363(m) because the challengers failed to seek a stay of the assets’ sale.

Snoots will be aghast that the opinion contains, “we conclude that the sale was affected in good faith,” although Garner’s Modern American Usage concedes that misusing affect for effect “is an old error that looks as if it will be increasingly difficult to stamp out.”

UPDATE: Snoots will be delighted that Judge Jordan issued this order the next day:

IT IS NOW ORDERED that the above captioned opinion be amended as follows:
Page 29, Section C, the first line, “affected” shall be changed to “effected”.

Joining Jordan were Krause and Stearns D.Mass by designation. Arguing counsel were Craig Martin of DLA Piper for the appellants and Wendy Reilly of Debevoise & Plimpton for the appellee.

New opinion — choice-of-law clause governs interpretation of forum-selection clause

Collins v. Mary Kay — civil / employment — affirmance — Restrepo

Law nerds, rejoice! ” This case … poses a layered choice-of-law question: what law governs the interpretation of a forum selection clause in a written agreement when that agreement also contains a choice-of-law clause?” The district court thought the answer was federal common law, and the plaintiffs thought the answer was the state law where they filed the suit, here, New Jersey. Neither was right.

The Third Circuit’s final answer to that question here was that Texas state law applied and that, applying Texas law, the suit belonged in Texas. This resulted in the court affirming dismissal on forum non conveniens grounds.

The reasoning that led to that final answer? Well, it’s damn complicated, or anyway its complicated enough to defy all my efforts at pithy summary here. So I’ll just throw up my hands and say: if you’ve got this issue (a) my condolences, and (b) read the fine opinion.

Joining Restrepo were Chagares and Roth. Arguing counsel were Ravi Sattiraju of the Sattiraju Law Firm for the appellant and Christine Amalfe of Gibbons for the appellee.

UPDATE: Bruce Greenberg has come to the rescue with a characteristically lucid summary in this post on his New Jersey Appellate Law blog.

 

New opinions — three new opinions, including a housing blockbuster and a big consumer class-action win, both with dissents

Hayes v. Harvey — housing — affirmance — Fisher

In a significant public-housing opinion that I think has a realistic shot at en banc rehearing, a split Third Circuit panel today held that public housing residents have no right to remain in their homes despite statutory language that they “may elect to remain.”

Judge Greenaway’s dissent is blistering. It begins:

The Hayes family has lived at 538B Pine Street for 35 years, and a federal statute provides that they “may elect to remain” in their home. 42 U.S.C. § 1437f(t)(B). They elected to remain in their home. They were model tenants, according to their landlord. And yet, they now will find themselves evicted. The majority has struck their Congressionally provided right from the statute, leaving nothing in its place.

According to the majority, a family “may elect to remain” in their home, but their landlord need not heed that election: he can still evict them without cause. It concludes that tenants’ rights are empty words unless a statute is also expressly phrased in terms of a property owner’s obligation. This renders tenants’ statutory entitlement to choose to remain the most evanescent of rights: good only until the moment it is required. This is not what Congress intended and it is not what Congress enacted.

Indeed, the majority’s interpretation is at odds not only with the statutory text, but with the interpretations of the other two branches of government as well. HUD—the expert agency tasked with administering this statute—has found a right to remain. Every court to interpret this statute, until this litigation, has found a right to remain. There is complete consensus on what this statute means: landlords may not evict enhanced voucher-holders without cause. The majority all but ignores these cases and administrative interpretations, even as it instead battles the strawman of perpetual tenancies that can never be ended—an interpretation that no one advances: not the Hayes family, not HUD, and not other courts. As a result, this Court is left standing alone. I must dissent.

Joining Fisher was Hardiman; Greenaway dissented. Arguing counsel were Rachel Garland of Community Legal Services for the tenants and Susanna Randazzo of Kolber & Randazzo for the landlords.

 

Cottrell v. Alcon Labs — class action — reversal — Restrepo

A divided Third Circuit panel today revived a consumer class-action suit alleging that prescription eyedrop sellers knowingly designed their dispensers in a way that forced consumers to waste it. Basically, if the drops out of the dropper are too big, the excess just runs down your cheek, and here the drops were allegedly two to three times too big. The district court dismissed on injury-in-fact standing grounds, but today’s panel majority reversed, separately analyzing each component of the injury-in-fact standard. The court split with the Seventh Circuit, so this case clearly isn’t over.

Joining Restrepo was Chagares; Roth dissented, arguing that the majority erodes standing by allowing the plaintiffs to proceed with a speculative injury. Arguing counsel were Leah Nicholls of Public Justice for the consumers and Robyn Bladow of Kirkland and Ellis for the sellers.

 

In re: Bressman — bankruptcy — affirmance — Roth

The Third Circuit today upheld a district court ruling vacating a prior default judgment due to counsel’s fraud on the court. The court once again came down hard on the lawyer (Max Folkenflik of New York), naming him in the opening sentence of the opinion and throughout.

Joining Roth were Ambro and Jordan. Arguing counsel were Folkenflik for the appellants and Michael Sirota of Cole Shotz for the appellee.

 

 

 

En banc argument day!

Today is the Third Circuit’s fall en banc oral argument sitting. The arguments start momentarily.

Two cases up:

  • US v. Douglas, (panel opinion here) a criminal-sentencing appeal on a interpreting the Sentencing Guidelines “position of trust,” enhancement, and
  • Joyce v. Maersk Line, a labor-law case on whether unearned wages can be modified by a collective bargaining agreement.

UPDATE: audio of the Douglas argument is here, Joyce is here.

New opinion — Third Circuit rules for former governor in malicious-prosecution appeal

Zimmerman v. Corbett — civil — reversal — McKee

A staffer for a PA state legislator was prosecuted for obstructing an investigation into whether Democratic staffers were doing campaign work on state time. After the charges against him were dismissed, he brought a malicious prosecution suit against various defendants, including Tom Corbett (the Republican state AG at the time of the prosecution, and later the governor). The district court denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss, but today the Third Circuit reversed, holding that there was probable cause to prosecute.

Joining McKee were Cowen and Fuentes. Arguing counsel were Joshua Autry of Lavery Faherty for the appellants and Devon Jacob of Mechanicsburg for the appellee.

New opinion — FLSA requires employers to pay workers during short breaks

Secretary, U.S. Dept. of Labor v. American Future Systems — labor — affirmance — McKee

The Third Circuit today held that the Fair Labor Standards Act requires employers to compensate employees for all rest breaks of 20 minutes or less, even if the employer calls the breaks flexible time and allows employees to do as they please. The court also affirmed the district court’s liquidated-damages award based on the employer’s bad faith.

Joining McKee were Rendell and Fuentes. Arguing counsel were former Adams clerk Alfred Putnam Jr. of Drinker Biddle for the employer and Rachel Goldberg for the government.

Civil practice pointer: don’t do this

The Third Circuit issued an unusual non-precedential opinion today. The court affirmed a district court order that dismissed a suit brought by two police officers for failing to comply with Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure by failing to cite the parts of the record establishing factual disputes.

Said the opinion:

We recognize that our Order affirming this dismissal based solely on Plaintiff’s attorney’s failure to comply with a rudimentary procedural rule extinguishes any meritorious claims Plaintiffs may have had. Plaintiffs’ loss therefore results solely from their attorney’s ineffective representation rather than any defect that may (or may not) have existed in Plaintiffs’ claims.

Nevertheless, our review is limited to the propriety of the District Court’s order dismissing the complaint and granting judgment to Defendants as a matter of law. Since we conclude that the dismissal was appropriate, Plaintiffs’ only possible recovery must come from their attorney’s malpractice insurer, not from any of the Defendants. In order to ensure that Plaintiffs are aware of this potential recourse, we will instruct Plaintiffs’ attorney to share this opinion with his clients and to ask them to send a letter to the Clerk of this Court confirming that they have read this opinion, and that they fully understand their potential recourse.

Probably not the appellate outcome that counsel was hoping for. (His oral argument didn’t go so hot, either. I think the court did the right thing in giving counsel the chance to explain himself, though.)

This is just the latest example of the Third Circuit coming down hard on attorney errors; I discussed other recent instances here.

New opinion — Third Circuit affirms forum non conveniens dismissal

Trotter v. 7R Holdings — maritime — affirmance — Greenaway

The Third Circuit today affirmed a district court’s dismissal of a maritime suit on forum non conveniens grounds. The court sua sponte considered and rejected the argument that a statutory venue provision impacted the forum analysis, “because they are antecedent legal issues that we must resolve before deciding the case as a whole.”

Joining Greenaway were Shwartz and Fuentes. Arguing counsel were Thomas Friedberg of San Diego and Michael Dono of Miami.

New opinion — IDEA plaintiffs who got a hearing can get attorneys’ fees

H.E. v. Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School — disability — reversal — Krause

Parents of children with disabilities filed an administrative complaint against a charter school for allegedly failing to meet its obligations under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The administrative hearing officer dismissed their complaint, so the parents sued in federal court, asking the court to vacate the hearing officer’s dismissal and remand for a hearing. The district court did as the plaintiffs asked, but it refused to award them attorneys’ fees as the prevailing party. Today, the Third Circuit reversed, holding that the fee denial was an appealable final order and that the plaintiffs’ purely procedural victory sufficed to entitle them attorneys’ fees under the IDEA.

Joining Krause were Ambro and Scirica. The case was decided without oral argument.

New opinion — Third Circuit reverses movie theater’s ADA win [updated]

McGann v. Cinemark USA — disability — reversal — Restrepo

A blind and deaf man asked a movie theater to provide him with a tactile interpreter so that he could experience a movie there. If you think that sounds silly or contrived, here’s some context:

McGann has experienced movies in theaters for many
years. He enjoys attending movies in person for a number of
reasons; among others, it affords him the opportunity to
participate in discussions about the movies with his friends and
family. Before his wife passed away in 2001, she would
provide him with tactile interpretation during movies in the
theater. Since then, McGann has attended movies at a local
Carmike Cinema. Carmike provided him with tactile
interpretation services for movie presentations at his request.

In November 2014, McGann became interested in
experiencing the movie Gone Girl (Twentieth Century Fox
Film Corp. 2014), after hearing about it from his family and
reading about it online using Braille. After he contacted his
customary Carmike Cinema to inquire about attending a
presentation of the movie, he learned it was no longer playing
there. So he sought another theater in which to experience it.

When the theater refused to provide him with a tactile interpreter, he sued it under the Americans with Disabilities Act. After a bench trial, the district court ruled in the theater’s favor based on its view that movie-theater tactile interpreters were not covered by the ADA. Today, the Third Circuit reversed. Significantly, the court did not reach the theater’s defense that having to provide tactile interpreters would cause it an undue burden, instead remanding that issue for the district court to consider first.

Time to fire up the “Federal judges are activists! Plaintiffs are snowflakes!” internet hate machine? I hope not.

UPDATE: Right on cue, National Review posts, “A Contender for the Silliest Decision of the Year Award.” The author, who says he views the ADA as unconstitutional, laments that “activist judges will keep pushing it further and further.”

Joining Restrepo were Smith and McKee. Arguing counsel were Carol Horowitz of the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania for the patron, M. Brett Burns of Hunton & Williams for the theater, and Bonnie Robin-Vargeer for the DOJ as amicus.

New opinion — Third Circuit allows asbestos liability in “bare-metal” maritime suits

In re: Asbestos Prods. Liability Litig. — maritime — partial reversal — Vanaskie

The Third Circuit today held that, under maritime law, a manufacturer of a “bare-metal” product (one sold prior to installation of an asbestos part) may be held liable for asbestos-related injuries under the familiar tort reasonable-foreseeability test.

The court also held that the appellant waived a different theory of liability by raising it in their opening brief only in a footnote asserting that they did not waive it.

Joining Vanaskie were Shwartz and Restrepo. Arguing counsel were Richard Myers of Paul Reich for the appellants and Emily Kennedy of Jones Day for the appellees.

New opinion — Third Circuit upholds rejection of price-fixing suit

Valspar Corp. v. DuPont — antitrust — affirmance — Hardiman

A split Third Circuit panel today affirmed a grant of summary judgment in an antitrust price-fixing case. The majority opinion’s introduction:

This appeal involves an alleged conspiracy to fix prices in the titanium dioxide industry in violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Act. Appellant Valspar, a purchaser of titanium dioxide, claimed Appellee DuPont conspired with other titanium dioxide suppliers to fix prices. Valspar argued that the price-fixing agreement was made manifest primarily by thirtyone parallel price increase announcements issued by the suppliers. DuPont countered that the parallel pricing was not the product of an agreement, but rather the natural consequence of the marketplace. Specifically, DuPont posited that because the market for titanium dioxide is an oligopoly, the price movement was caused by “conscious parallelism”—an economic theory that explains oligopolists will naturally follow a competitor’s price increase in the hopes that each firm’s profits will increase. The District Court agreed with DuPont and granted its motion for summary judgment. We will affirm.

The dissenting judge, interestingly, was a district judge sitting by designation. And he dissented with vigor! He accuses the majority of adopting a “new approach that appears to shut the door on a district court’s ability to accept reasonable inferences in any case involving oligopolists” and that “misses by a mile an essential truth of actual courtroom litigation: that circumstantial evidence is competent, valid, and vital evidence in almost every conspiracy trial, civil or criminal.” Thirty-two pages long.

Joining Hardiman was Krause; dissenting was Stengel EDPA by designation. Arguing counsel were James Lockhart of Minnesota for the appellants, Shari Lahlou of Crowell & Moring for the appellee.

“Columbia nuns vow to appeal after their religious-freedom lawsuit to stop gas pipeline is dismissed”

The title of this post is the headline of this story by Ad Crable today at Lancaster Online. The story, which says the nuns have “attracted worldwide media attention,” begins:

A federal judge in Reading has dismissed a freedom-of-religion lawsuit brought by a Roman Catholic order of nuns near Columbia to try to stop a gas pipeline.

The judge said the court lacked jurisdiction.

The Adorers of the Blood of Christ immediately announced they would appeal the case to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia.

The Adorers had brought the lawsuit against the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line Company in a last-ditch effort to stop the Atlantic Sunrise gas pipeline from running through farmland they own in West Hempfield Township.

They sued under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The nuns maintained that their deeply held belief is that the Earth is God’s creation and that land is a “gift of beauty and sustenance” that should not be used in an “excessive and harmful way.”

Sounds like a Hail Mary appeal to me.

New opinion — Third Circuit holds that bankruptcy trustees enjoy qualified immunity

In re J & S Properties — bankruptcy — affirmance — Hardiman

After a bankruptcy trustee seized a rental property owned by the debtor, the tenant sued to regain possession of the property. The district court held that the trustee had qualified immunity from the suit, and today the Third Circuit affirmed:

The question presented is whether qualified immunity applies to discretionary actions taken by a trustee to preserve the bankruptcy estate’s assets, and whether that immunity protects Trustee Swope’s conduct in this case. We will affirm because Swope exercised reasonable care under the circumstances and did not violate clearly established law.

A sharp reader points out to me that the opinion says it reviews factual findings for clear error. In Semcrude — also a bankruptcy case involving an appeal from a grant of summary judgment — the court applied plenary review and cited a prior case rejecting any application of the clear-error standard to a bankruptcy court’s summary-judgment ruling. Other circuits recently have done the same. On a first read, I’m not sure the opinion actually applied clear-error review to any factual finding, but still this strikes me as a point likely to sow confusion that the court may want to clarify.

Joining Hardiman was Roth; Fisher concurred in the judgment, arguing that the qualified immunity defense was not preserved because it was not raised in bankruptcy court but that affirmance is still warranted based on quasi-judicial immunity. Arguing counsel were Mary Sheats of Frank Gale for the appellant and Andrew Sperl of Duane Morris for the appellee.

Supreme Court agrees to review Third Circuit appealability case

This morning the Supreme Court also granted certiorari to review a Third Circuit case, Hall v. Hall. Scotusblog describes the issue as “Whether the clarity Gelboim v. Bank of America gave to multidistrict cases should be extended to single district consolidated cases, so that the entry of a final judgment in only one case triggers the appeal-clock for that case.” The Scotusblog case page with links to the cert papers is here, the Supreme Court docket is here.

The Third Circuit opinion is here. It was authored by Judge Jordan and joined by Judges Chagares and Hardiman. The opinion was non-precedential and the question upon which the Supreme Court just granted certiorari was dispensed with in a two-sentence footnote.

Counsel for the successful petitioner is Andrew Simpson of St. Croix, USVI. Simpson is the president-elect of the Third Circuit Bar Association, and just this week he was featured on this blog describing the hurricane devastation there. So I imagine persuading the Supreme Court to hear his case is singularly well-timed good news.

Congratulations Andy!

(Thanks to David Fine for flagging this for me.)

New opinion — Third Circuit makes it easier for some innocent prisoners to get back into court

Satterfield v. District Attorney — habeas corpus — reversal — Vanaskie

The Third Circuit issued an important habeas corpus opinion today that makes it a bit less difficult for prisoners who assert their innocence to get back in court and have their claims heard on the merits.

In 2013, the Supreme Court held that, when habeas petitioners make a strong enough showing of actual innocence, courts will reach the merits of their petitions that otherwise would be dismissed because they were filed too late. The question in today’s case was, what about petitioners who lost before 2013? If they lost on statute-of-limitations grounds then, and they have enough evidence of their innocence, do they get to reopen their case? Or, in habeas-speak, can McQuiggan support a Rule 60(b) motion?

Today, the court ruled in favor of the petitioner, holding that the district court erred when it ruled that 60(b) wasn’t available for petitioners invoking McQuiggan to get relief from a prior ruling that their petition was time-barred. The opinion emphasized that ” The principles underlying the Supreme Court’s decision in McQuiggin are fundamental to our system of government” and important to the 60(b) analysis. Conversely, the opinion observed that finality and comity ” must yield to the fundamental right not to be wrongfully convicted” and thus get ” less weight … when a petitioner asserts a threshold claim of actual innocence.”

Joining Vanaskie were Ambro and Restrepo. Arguing counsel were Aren Adjoian of the EDPA federal defender for the petitioner and Simran Dhillon of the Philadelphia DA for the Commonwealth.

New opinions, including a hot-button voting case with some harsh words for the appellant

American Civil Rights Union v. Philadelphia City Commissioners — civil / voting — affirmance — McKee

Back in May I posted here about a Third Circuit oral argument that got off to a bad start when the lawyer raised his voice in an unsuccessful attempt to talk over one of the judges. (You’d expect a former law school dean and Scotus clerk to know better.)

Interrupting a judge, it turns out, was not the path to victory. Today, the Third Circuit affirmed a district court’s rejection of a conservative group’s challenge to Philadelphia’s alleged failure to remove persons convicted of a felony from its voter rolls.

And it turns out interrupting a judge was the least of counsel’s advocacy missteps. The opinion tartly observed that one of the appellant’s arguments “not only mangles the statute beyond recognition, it also misrepresents the non-precedential case it relies on.” Later: “This is exactly the kind of statutory contortion that led the District Court to … threaten[] to impose sanctions for blatant misrepresentation of the statute.” Pow.

Joining McKee were Vanaskie and Rendell. Arguing counsel were John Eastman of the Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence for the appellant and Kelly Diffily for the city.

 

Alimbaev v. AG — immigration — reversal — Krause

Here’s a fascinating introduction:

This disconcerting case, before our Court for the second time, has a lengthy procedural history marked by conflict between the Board of Immigrations Appeals (BIA) and the Immigration Judge (IJ) and fueled by troubling allegations that Petitioner, an Uzbek national, relished watching violent terroristic videos, while apparently harboring anti-American sympathies. The issue on appeal, however, is whether the BIA correctly applied the clear error standard of review, as required, when reviewing the IJ’s factfinding in this case—an inquiry that highlights the role of faithful adherence to applicable standards of review in preserving the rule of law, safeguarding the impartiality of our adjudicatory processes, and ensuring that fairness and objectivity are not usurped by emotion, regardless of the nature of the allegations. Because we conclude that the BIA misapplied the clear error standard when reversing the IJ’s finding that Petitioner’s testimony was credible, we will grant the petition for review of the BIA’s removal order, vacate the denial of Petitioner’s applications for adjustment of status, withholding of removal, and protection under the Convention Against Torture (CAT), and remand once more to the BIA.

The opinion features a significant discussion of clear-error review by the Board of Immigration Appeals and how it applies to immigration judges’ credibility findings. The opinion emphasized the Third Circuit’s obligation to “carefully” scrutinize the BIA’s application of clear-error review in accepting or rejecting IJ factfinding.

Joining Krause were Jordan and Stearns D.Mass by designation. Arguing counsel were Lawrence Rudnick of Rudnick Immigration Group for the petitioner and Daniel Smulow for the government.

 

Christopher Columbus LLC v. Bocchino — admiralty — reversal — Stengel EDPA

Precedential opinions by judges sitting by designation in the Third Circuit are pretty unusual. It’s also fairly uncommon for district judges to sit by designation over CA3 appeals from their own district — reviewing a colleague’s work, that is. But both occurred here.

Also unusual? An appeal that “arise[s] out of a drunken brawl which erupted among passengers who were enjoying a cruise.” The issue on appeal was whether the dispute fell under maritime jurisdiction, and the court held that it did and vacated the district court’s dismissal.

Joining Stengel EDPA by designation were Hardiman and Krause. Arguing counsel were Daniel Wooster of Palmer Biezup for the appellant and Stanley Gruber of Freedman & Lorry for the appellee.

Two notable unpublished opinions

I don’t normally blog about the Third Circuit’s non-precedential opinions, but the court issued two noteworthy ones today.

First, in Smith v. Lindemann the court enforced an arbitration clause in a lawyer’s representation agreement to compel arbitration of a legal malpractice suit. Even if state law barred lawyers from including arbitration clauses in their retainer agreements, such a law would be preempted by federal law. Ugh.

Second, in Pirela v. Commonwealth a divided panel affirmed in a pre-AEDPA habeas corpus case involving jury waiver and ineffective assistance of counsel. Judge Restrepo dissented (I’m not certain, but I think this might be his first panel dissent since joining the court), arguing that the court should have instead remanded for an evidentiary hearing on the waiver claim.

UPDATE — Writes Peter Goldberger:

Judge Restrepo’s separate opinion “concurring in the judgment” concerning cell site location information, in US v Stimler, 864 F.3d 253, is functionally a dissent. Conc in jmt because of binding circuit precedent; issue is pending on the merits before the Supreme Court, so the separate opinion also functions as a SCOTUS amicus brief.

New opinion — student-athletes showing concussion signs have a right to be protected

Mann v. Palmerton Area School Dist. — civil rights — affirmance — Vanaskie

Sheldon Mann, a 17-year-old student who played high school football, suffered a hard hit during a team practice. One of his teammates said it was one of the bigger hits he’d ever seen, another said Sheldon seemed dizzy and was stumbling around the field. But the coach at the time (he’s still the coach) “claim[ed] he did not see the hit,” asked Sheldon if he was all right and then told him to continue practicing. Not long after, Sheldon sustained a second big hit. This time he was removed, but it was too late: he suffered a traumatic brain injury.

Sheldon’s parents sued, alleging that the coach violated Sheldon’s constitutional right to bodily integrity by telling him to stay in after the first hit and that the school district failed to train the coach and protect the player. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants, and today the Third Circuit affirmed.

The Third Circuit held that a student-athlete at a state school who is showing signs of a concussion has a constitutional right to be protected from further violent hits. This is a major ruling that I expect to have national significance. But the court went to hold that this right was not clearly established at the time of Sheldon’s injury in 2011. The court also denied the Monell failure-to-train claim because there was no evidence of a pattern of recurring head injuries in that school’s football program, nor that the coaching staff acted deliberately.

Joining Vanaskie were McKee and Rendell. Arguing counsel were Howard Bashman for the parents and Thomas Specht of Marshall Dennehey for the coach and the district.

UPDATE: coverage by Matt Miller on Pennlive here.

 

New opinion — Third Circuit narrows overtime-pay protection

Souryavong v. Lackawanna County — civil — affirmance — Vanaskie

The introduction:

This employee-overtime appeal raises questions as to the nature of the evidence that is sufficient to create a jury question on the purported “willfulness” of an employer’s nonpayment of overtime. The question matters because a finding of willfulness expands the limitations period for claims under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), in effect permitting a plaintiff to receive a larger award. Here only the willfulness question was contested—Appellee Lackawanna County conceded the basic overtime violations—and at trial Appellants Michael Souryavong and Nelson Rolon presented some evidence on the question but not enough to avoid a directed verdict in the County’s favor. We find no error in the District Court’s decision because the evidence presented did not suggest the County was subjectively aware of the FLSA problem at the time of the violations, at least with respect to Souryavong and Rolon. Additionally, Souryavong and Rolon challenge the District Court’s calculation of attorney’s fees, but we find that decision appropriate as well. We will affirm.

On the willfulness issue, the opinion also affirmed for two alternative reasons. First, it said that “an FLSA violation [a willful one, I believe the opinion means] must have a degree of egregiousness” lacking in this case. Second, it said that a “willful violation” requires evidence that the employer knew it was violating the FLSA specifically — awareness of “wage and hour issues” caused by its widespread non-payment of overtime for work over 40 hours and acknowledgement that the employees could file a grievance for back overtime wasn’t enough.

Both alternative rationales, but especially the second, strike me as significant new retreats from the statute’s language.

Joining Vanaskie were Ambro and Restrepo. Arguing counsel were Cynthia Pollick of the Employment Law Firm for the employees and Harry Coleman for the county.

Pittsburgh newspaper urges Third Circuit to rehear McMunn radiation case

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review has this staff editorial urging the Third Circuit to hear its ruling last month in McMunn v. Babcock & Wilcox Power. It says:

We hope the Third Circuit Court of Appeals will reconsider its decision to dismiss claims that a former nuclear plant in Apollo contributed to cancers among residents there. Of particular concern is that the ruling, as it stands, would virtually eliminate any chance for similar future claims against any other such plant because the victims of cancer didn’t “prove” their illnesses could be traced to emissions from the plant. “Proof” should be a matter for a trial and a jury, not a pre-trial review.

On Sunday the same paper ran this compelling story on the case by Mary Ann Thomas, headlined, “Apollo area residents involved in failed NUMEC nuke suit hope federal judges reconsider.” The story quotes Duquesne law professor Steven Baicker-McKee rightly observing that rehearing petitions are “always a heavy lift.”

I believe the odds of rehearing being granted here are quite remote (even more than usual), but the editorial and story do underscore Judge McKee’s concurring observation “stress[ing] that the law in this area is simply inadequate.”

New opinion — Third Circuit upholds rejection of radiation victim’s suit

Estate of Ware v. Hospital of the Univ. of Penn. — civil — affirmance — Ambro

Judge Ambro is a national treasure, and here is the conclusion to his opinion today:

The facts of Boyer’s action are tragic: her husband, a 47-year-old researcher whose life’s work was studying the effects of radiation on biological organisms, died from a rare form of brain cancer. But as often happens in the law, this case provides us little opportunity to contemplate Ware’s suffering from his illness or his family’s suffering from his loss. Instead, our review is confined to bloodless questions of statutory interpretation and appropriate management of litigation. On these issues we find no fault with the District Court’s holdings. The Price-Anderson Act governed Boyer’s negligence claims, and the Court did not abuse its discretion in denying her request to withdraw those claims and to remand her others. We thus affirm its judgment.

Joining Ambro were Restrepo and Cowen. Arguing counsel were Aaron Freiwald of Layser & Freiwald (nice website!) for the plaintiff and Donald Jose of Jose & Associates and Theresa Sachs of Marshall Dennehey for the university.

A new ERISA opinion

Dowling v. Pension Plan for Salaried Employees of Union Pacific — ERISA — affirmance — Vanaskie

“Retirement plans,” today’s opinion begins, “can be complex documents … with numerous peculiarities,” and who would disagree? The litigation arising from disputes over those plans can be complex and peculiar too. Today, a divided Third Circuit panel affirmed a district court ruling in favor of the employer, emphasizing the deference courts owe to plan administrators.

Joining Vanaskie was Hardiman; Ambro cogently dissented, describing the majority’s reasoning as “imaginative,” “innovative,” and “dubious.” Arguing counsel were Kelly Watkins of Norris McLaughlin for the employee and David Fryman of Ballard Spahr for the employer.

New opinion — criminal sentences can’t include job restrictions that last longer than supervised-release maximum

US v. Poulson — criminal — partial reversal — Rendell

The Third Circuit today reversed under plain error a criminal sentence that barred the defendant from working in real estate for longer than he was subject to supervised release:

he District Court was *** only authorized to impose a maximum term of three years’ supervised release on Poulson. Because the District Court imposed, as a term of supervised release, an occupational restriction lasting five years, this part of Poulson’s sentence amounted to plain error.

The court rejected the defendant’s challenge to the sentencing court’s Guidelines finding on the number of the defendant’s fraud victims who suffered a substantial financial hardship.

Joining Rendell were McKee and Vanaskie. The case was decided without oral argument.

New opinion — Third Circuit rejects broad reading of employee’s waiver

Zuber v. Boscov’s — civil / contract — reversal — Greenaway

The Third Circuit today held that, under Pennsylvania contract law, an employee’s waiver of workers’ compensation claims did not also waive his claims under the Family Medical Leave Act and state law, reversing a district court ruling to the contrary.

Joining Greenaway were Shwartz and Greenberg. Arguing counsel were Manili Arora of Swartz Swidler for the employee, Alexander Ross Jr. of Rakoski & Ross for the employer, and Lawrence Chaban of the PA Association for Justice as amicus.

New opinion — another reversal of a habeas grant

Wilkerson v. Superintendent — habeas — reversal — Krause

Just last week I wrote,

Third Circuit reversals in habeas corpus cases are mighty rare. It happened yesterday, but it was a reversal of a district court order that had granted relief. Discouraging times for habeas petitioners.

Today it happened again. The Third Circuit reversed a district court order granting habeas relief on a double-jeopardy claim. The court also affirmed denial of an Apprendi claim, holding that the claim was time-barred. The opinion did hold that the double-jeopardy claim was exhausted even the petitioner raised only the analogous state-law claim in state court.

Joining Krause were Hardiman and Stengel EDPA by designation (an unusual situation where a district judge reviews the decision of a district colleague). Arguing counsel were Maria Pulzetti of the federal defender for the petitioner and Max Kaufman of the Philadelphia DA’s office for the state.

New opinion — Third Circuit authorizes successor habeas petition raising ACCA challenge

In re: Hoffner, Jr. — habeas — Restrepo

The Third Circuit today authorized a prisoner to file a successor petition under 28 USC § 2255 (the equivalent of habeas corpus for federal prisoners) raising a claim that the Armed Career Criminal Act is unconstitutionally vague (i.e. a Johnson claim). The court emphasized that it takes a flexible, case-by-case approach to deciding when successor petitions are authorized, rejecting the more rigid approach taken by the Eighth Circuit.

I’ll go way out on a limb and predict that the government seeks rehearing.

Joining Restrepo were McKee and Ambro. Arguing counsel were Lisa Freeland for the petitioner and Robert Zauzmer for the government.

4 new opinions, including two immigration reversals

Uddin v. AG — immigration — reversal — Rendell

The Third Circuit today granted an immigration petition to review, holding that the BIA erred when it found a Bangladesh citizen ineligible for withholding of removal. The BIA had deemed him ineligible because he was a member of a major political party, some of whose members had committed terrorist acts.

The Third Circuit held that membership in a party whose members had committed terrorism wasn’t enough — the BIA had to find that the terrorist acts were authorized by party leaders. Analogizing to American politics, the court observed, “If a single member of the Democratic or Republican Party committed a terrorist act, we would not impute terrorist status to the entire group, absent some showing that party leadership authorized the act.”

The court joined the reasoning of a 2008 Seventh Circuit opinion authored by just-retired Judge Posner. Not surprisingly, today’s opinion quotes Posner at length and identifies him by name.

Joining Rendell were Greenaway and Shwartz; Greenaway also concurred separately. Arguing counsel were Visuvanathan Rudrakumaran of NY for the petitioner and Daniel Smulow for the government.

UPDATE: The Court issued an amended opinion on September 25. The opinion link has been updated; the change is identified in this order.

 

Mateo v. AG — immigration — reversal — Vanaskie

The Third Circuit held that a non-citizen’s Pennsylvania conviction for robbery of a motor vehicle did not support his removal. The removal order was premised on the vehicle-robbery conviction being a crime of violence, but the Third Circuit held that the crime-of-violence standard was unconstitutionally vague. The court joined three other circuits on this point, splitting with the Fifth Circuit. The court further held that the vagueness standard is no lower in immigration cases than it is in criminal cases.

Joining Vanaskie were McKee and Jordan. Arguing counsel were Tracey Hubbard of Scranton for the petitioner and Matthew Connelly for the government.

 

US v. Hodge — criminal — reversal in part — Chagares

After a Virgin Islands man used a gun to rob an armored vehicle, the government charged him with a separate Virgin Islands gun count for each of three crimes he committed during the offense. Today, the Third Circuit vacated two of those non-federal convictions on double jeopardy grounds (but it rejected the analogous argument as to two federal gun counts). The court granted relief even though the defendant received a single sentence for all three counts, similar to the federal practice of imposing concurrent sentences. The court rejected the defendant’s many other challenges.

Joining Chagares were Jordan and Hardiman. Arguing counsel were Richard Della Fera of Florida for the defendant and David White for the government.

 

Moody v. Atlantic City Bd. of Education — employment discrimination — reversal — Shwartz

An employee sued her employer, alleging that a fellow employee had sexually harassed her and the employer retaliated against her when she complained.

On the harassment claim, the employer’s liability turned on whether the alleged harasser was her supervisor even though he didn’t hire and couldn’t fire her. The plaintiff was a substitute janitor who worked at different sites; the alleged harasser had the power to decide if she got work at one of those sites, and in a recent several-month period 70% of her work had been at that site. The district court granted summary judgment to the employer based its conclusion that the alleged harasser was not her supervisor.

Today, a divided Third Circuit panel reversed, holding that the plaintiff’s allegations were sufficient to survive summary judgment on whether the alleged harasser was her supevisor. Judge Rendell dissented on this point, arguing that in light of a recent Supreme Court case the majority was “simply incorrect.”

On the retaliation claim, the panel was unanimous that reversal was required, holding that her allegation that her hours were reduced right after she complained was sufficient.

Joining Shwartz was Greenaway; Rendell dissented in part. Arguing counsel were Samuel Dion of Dion & Goldberger for the plaintiff and Rachel Conte of Riley and Rile for the employer.

New opinion — Third Circuit rejects company’s effort to force arbitration of rewards-card dispute

White v. Sunoco — civil / arbitration — affirmance — Chagares

Sunoco, like many corporations, offers incentives to consumers who sign up for a rewards-program credit card. Sunoco doesn’t issue the credit card; a bank (here, Citibank) issues the card. Citibank sets terms and conditions, including that, in a dispute between the cardholder and the bank, the bank can force binding arbitration.

Here, a cardholder alleged that rewards-program benefits were fraudulent, and he sued Sunoco, not Citibank. Sunoco moved to compel arbitration based on the terms set by Citibank. The district court denied arbitration.

Today, in what strikes me as a major consumer-arbitration-law ruling, a divided Third Circuit panel affirmed, applying state law to conclude that Sunoco could not force arbitration under the credit-card terms issued by Citibank. The court rejected Sunoco’s arguments based on equitable estoppel and based on the arbitration clause’s inclusion of claims “made … against anyone connected with us.”

Joining Chagares was Restrepo. Roth dissented in an opinion that uses the phrase “basic contract law” twice and the adverb “clearly” five times. Arguing counsel were Seamus Duffy of Drinker Biddle for Sunoco and David Stanoch of Golomb & Honik for the consumer.

A non-precedential grant of capital habeas relief based on Brady violation

A Third Circuit panel today affirmed a grant of habeas corpus relief in Bridges v. Secretary, No. 13-9000 and 13-9001. Bridges was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to death for a 1996 killing in Reading, PA. The opinion is non-precedential.

Relief was based on the prosecution’s suppression of exculpatory police reports impeaching a key prosecution witness. The state had argued that the suppressed reports weren’t material because they were inadmissible and didn’t prove what the petitioner argued. The panel also ruled that the Brady claim was not adjudicated on the merits when the state court mistakenly stated that the claim had previously been denied.

The opinion author was Shwartz, joined by McKee and Fuentes. The petitioner was represented by the MDPA FPD.

New opinion — Third Circuit remands for labor arbitration

Employer Trustees of Western PA Teamsters v. Union Trustees of Western PA Teamsters — labor — reversal — Vanaskie

When labor negotiations deadlocked over employee benefits, one side sought appointment of an arbitrator to break the stalemate. The district court denied the request, but today the Third Circuit reversed, holding that the disputes fell within the parties’ agreement to arbitrate.

Joining Vanaskie were Ambro and Scirica. Arguing counsel were Robert Prorok of Cohen & Grigsby for  the appellants and  Joseph Pass of Jubelirer Pass for the appellees.

4 more new opinions

This post covers the precedential opinions issued yesterday, August 30.

Borrell v. Bloomsburg Univ. — civil rights — reversal — Hardiman

A nurse-anesthetist student was dismissed from her program for refusing to take a drug test required by the private hospital where she was doing a clinical program. The person who decided to dismiss her from the university program was the director of the program, a joint employee of the hospital and the university. The student sued under 1983, and the district court granted her summary judgment, concluding that the hospital and the program director were state actors. After a damages trial, the jury awarded her $415,000 in damages and $1.1 million in punitives which the judge reduced to $250,000 and $750,000.

The Third Circuit reversed, holding that the hospital and the program director weren’t state actors with respect to the decision to dismiss her from the program. The court also held that a university professor who had a role in the dismissal was entitled to qualified immunity.

Joining Hardiman were Fisher in full and Roth in part; Roth concurred in the judgment in part. Arguing counsel were Barry Dyller of the Dyller Law Firm for the student, Jaime Tuite of Buchanan Ingersoll for the hospital and program director, and John Knorr III of the state AG’s office for the professor.

 

US v. Penn — criminal — affirmance — Smith

The Third Circuit held that a district court did not abuse its discretion when, after opening statements, it removed and replaced a juror with a scheduled surgery.

Joining Smith were Fuentes and Starks D.Del. by designation. The case was decided without oral argument.

 

Williams v. Pa. Human Relation’s Comm. — employment discrimination — affirmance — Fuentes

The introduction, minus citations:

Cheryl Williams, an African-American woman,
claims that she was subjected to constant harassment at the
Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (the
“Commission”) by her supervisors, Joseph Retort and Adam
Stalczynski. As a result of this treatment, she alleges she faced a hostile work environment and was ultimately constructively
discharged from her position as a Human Relations
Representative. She then filed this action against the
Commission under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
(“Title VII”), seeking damages for the loss of her job and the
harm sustained to her physical and emotional health. She also
included claims against her former supervisors, Retort and
Stalczynski, claiming that they violated her federal rights under
Title VII and the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”)
and they are therefore liable for damages under 42 U.S.C.
§ 1983. On defendants’ motion, the District Court granted
summary judgment in favor of all defendants.

In this case, we address for the first time whether
violations of Title VII and the ADA may be brought through
§ 1983. In light of the comprehensive administrative scheme
established by Title VII and the ADA, we conclude that these
claims, standing alone, may not be asserted under § 1983. And
because we also agree with the District Court that Plaintiff
Cheryl Williams presents no triable issues of fact on her
Title VII claims against the Commission, we will affirm.

Joining Fuentes were Smith and Nygaard. The case was decided without oral argument.

 

Delaware Riverkeeper Network v. Secretary, Dept. of Environmental Protection — environmental — affirmance — Smith

The Third Circuit rejected another effort by an environmental group to stop an interstate gas pipeline. This time the court also held that the state agency’s decision was final.

Joining Smith were Nygaard and Fuentes. Arguing counsel were Aaron Stemplewicz for the Riverkeepers, Joseph Cigan III for the state, and John Stoviak of Saul Ewing for the intervenor pipeline company

Five new opinions from the end-of-summer opinion surge

This post covers the precedential opinions issued August 29.

Parker v.Montgomery Co.  Corr. Facility — prisoner civil rights — denial — Smith

I detest the Prisoner Litigation Reform Act. This opinion magnifies the shabby unfairness of the PLRA, so I detest its result and I hope (with no optimism) that the Supreme Court or Congress fixes it.

While I believe all that, I also believe this: this opinion is superb, a near-perfect model of clarity and restraint. It is a crisp counter-punch to the cynics and the “politicians in robes” federal-judge-bashers. I deplore its holding as a policy matter, but, given controlling law, its ruling is probably correct and without a doubt reasonable.

Under the PLRA’s three-strikes rule, an indigent prisoner who has filed three actions or appeals that were deemed “frivolous, malicious, or fail[] to state a claim upon which relief may be granted” no longer qualifies to proceed in forma pauperis. That means that, unlike all other poor litigants, they must pre-pay the full filing fees. The current fee for one Third Circuit appeal is $505, or over 2600 hours of income for a PA inmate earning 19 cents an hour.

The issue in this case is whether an inmate may appeal IFP from a district court imposing a third strike. The court held that, given the language of the statute and a unanimous 2015 Supreme Court case interpreting it, he may not appeal IFP from his third strike, disagreeing with the Solicitor General and splitting with the Ninth Circuit.

Joining Smith were Fuentes and Stark D. Del. by designation. Arguing counsel were Ryan Becker of Fox Rothschild for the prisoner and Philip Newcomer for the county. The panel extended its gratitude to Becker and his co-counsel Peter Buckley for “donating their time and talent in accepting this pro bono appointment.”

 

Davenport v. Borough of Homestead — civil rights — partial reversal — Fisher

Late one night, a driver ran a red light and then did not pull over for police. Police followed him, as he drove into Pittsburgh, never exceeding 45 miles per hour and jeopardizing no one. The police sergeant called off the low-speed pursuit, but instead several off-duty police officers deployed a spike strip in an area filled with pedestrians. After the red-light-runner swerved out of his lane to avoid the spike strip, several officers opened fire. A pedestrian was struck in the back and the driver’s mother, a passenger in the car, was shot in the head. The mother sued the officers for using excessive force, the officers asserted qualified immunity, and the district court denied the officer’s motion.

The Third Circuit reversed, holding that no reasonable juror could find for the mother because of the heavy pedestrian presence and the driver’s swerving and, alternatively, because the unconstitutionality of the officer’s actions wasn’t clearly established. Ugh.

Joining Fisher were Hardiman and Roth. Arguing counsel were Shane Haselbarth of Marshall Dennehey for the officers and J. Kerrington Lewis Sr. of Lewis Lewis for the mother.

 

NLRB v. New Vista Nursing & Rehab. — labor — reversal — Smith

The Third Circuit rejected an employer’s challenges to the NLRB’s power to act based on various grounds including recess appointments of its board members. On the merits, the court vacated the NLRB’s order for applying the wrong test to decide whether the nurse employees were supervisors and thus unable to unionize.

Joining Smith was Fisher in full and Greenaway in part; Greenaway dissented on the merits issue. The case was decided without oral argument despite impressive counsel and an amicus.

 

Norfolk Southern Railway v. Pittsburgh & W. Va. R.R. — contract — affirmance — Vanaskie

The Third Circuit affirmed a district court’s grant of summary judgment in a dispute over interpretation of a railroad lease.

Joining Vanaskie were Ambro and Scirica. The case was decided without oral argument.

 

Bamaca-Cifuentes v. AG — immigration — affirmance — McKee

The Third Circuit rejected an immigration petition for review, holding that 8 CFR 1003.2(c)’s timebar applies to motions to reopen removal under the Convention Against Torture.

Joining McKee were Cowen and Fuentes. The case was decided without oral argument.

New opinions — wiping out a habeas grant and allowing discovery on the fairness of stash-house stings [updated]

The Third Circuit issued two precedential opinions yesterday, both reflecting the court’s fundamental centrism.

 

Mathias v. Superintendent — habeas corpus — reversal — Krause

Third Circuit reversals in habeas corpus cases are mighty rare. It happened yesterday, but it was a reversal of a district court order that had granted relief. Discouraging times for habeas petitioners.

The Third Circuit held that the district court erred in granting relief based on counsel’s failure to object to a faulty jury instruction involving accomplice liability. The court held that the state court’s ruling that the petitioner did not suffer prejudice was not an unreasonable application of clearly established law because two pertinent Supreme Court rulings were in tension. The court also rejected a related due process claim.

The court also held that the time-limit for cross-appealing is not jurisdictional and is waiveable under a standard set out in the opinion. It further held (as local rule 22.1(d) already provided) that petitioners need a certificate of appealability to cross-appeal, splitting with the Seventh Circuit.

Joining Krause were Fisher and Melloy CA8 by designation. Arguing counsel were Maria Pulzetti of the EDPA federal defender for the petitioner and Jennifer Andress of the Philadelphia DA’s office for the state.

UPDATE: On November 20, the court issued an amended opinion. The link at the top of this post now goes to the new opinion. The old opinion is here, and the court’s order helpfully identifying the changes is here. The heart of the change is new footnote 4.

 

US v. Washington — criminal — partial affirmance — Fuentes

This appeal arose out of a stash house reverse sting. A what? The majority opinion explains:

Developed by the ATF in the 1980s to combat a rise in professional robbery crews targeting stash houses, reverse sting operations have grown increasingly controversial over the years, even as they have grown safer and more refined. For one, they empower law enforcement to craft offenses out of whole cloth, often corresponding to statutory offense thresholds. Here, the entirely fictitious 10 kilograms of cocaine triggered a very real 20-year mandatory minimum for Washington [the defendant], contributing to a total sentence of 264 months in prison—far more than even the ringleader of the conspiracy received. For another, and as Washington claimed on multiple occasions before the District Court—and now again on appeal—people of color are allegedly swept up in the stings in disproportionate numbers.

The panel majority rejected the defendant’s argument that applying the mandatory-minimum sentence violated due process. Judge McKee dissented on this point, arguing that applying the minimums based on fictional drug amounts conjured by law enformcement was unfair, irrational, and not intended by Congress.

The panel unanimously remanded to allow the defendant to pursue discovery in support of a selective-enforcement claim, joining the Seventh Circuit to apply a lower standard than that applicable to selective prosecution claims.

Joining Fuentes was Cowen; McKee dissented in part. Arguing counsel were Mark Greenberg for the defendant and Eric Henson for the government.

4 new opinions

I’m out of the office for the next few days, so my posts will be later and briefer than usual.

McMunn v. Babcock & Wilcox Power — civil — affirmance — Smith

The Third Circuit today upheld summary judgment in favor of the defense in a major civil suit that alleged that radiation emissions caused the plaintiffs’ cancers.

Smith was joined by Restrepo. McKee concurred (apparently without joining Smith’s opinion, and also joined by Restrepo, which seems likely to cause future confusion to the extent the two opinions disagree). Arguing counsel were Louis Bograd of Motley Rice for the plaintiffs and John Phillips of Paul Hastings and Nancy Milburn of Arnold & Porter for the defendants.

 

Mendoza-Ordonez v. AG — immigration — reversal — Nygaard

The Third Circuit granted a Honduras citizen’s petition for review, holding that the man was entitled to withholding of removal based on evidence that he faced violence for his political views and reports indicating that his home country was unable to protect him.

Joining Nygaard were Ambro and Restrepo. Arguing counsel were Joseph Brophy of Brophy & Lenahan for the petitioner and Sabatino Leo for the government.

 

Williams v. Globus Medical — civil — affirmance — Scirica

The Third Circuit upheld dismissal of a shareholder suit against a company for belatedly disclosing a business decision that caused a sales decline.

Joining Scirica were Chagares and Fisher. Arguing counsel were Jacob Goldberg of the Rosen Law Firm for the shareholders and Barry Kaplan of WA for the company.

 

Delaware Riverkeeper Network v. US Army Corp of Engineers — environmental — affirmance — Smith

The Third Circuit denied a petition to review an agency ruling approving a gas pipeline.

Joining Smith were Nygaard and Fuentes. Arguing counsel were Aaron Stemplewicz for the Riverkeepers, Varu Chilakamurri for the government, and John Stoviak of Saul Ewing for the intervenor pipeline company.

Three new opinions, including an interesting actual-innocence case

Bruce v. Warden — habeas corpus — affirmance — Fisher

The Third Circuit today upheld a federal prisoner’s ability to challenge his conviction under 28 USC 2241 instead of 28 USC 2255, but on the merits held that the prisoner failed to prove his actual innocence, and thus affirmed.

On the 2241 issue, the court noted “an entrenched split among the courts of appeals regarding the extent to which a change in statutory interpretation permits a federal prisoner to resort to § 2241 for an additional round of collateral review.” (Emphasis added). The opinion notes that 10 circuits (including the Third) allow it, while the Tenth and Eleventh don’t. In a parenthetical, the opinion provocatively notes that Judge Gorsuch was the author of the 10th Circuit opinion, and it ends by noting that split causes difficulties that “will remain, at least until Congress or the Supreme Court speaks on the matter.” All that sounds a weensy bit like a nudge to grant certiorari and perhaps reverse the Third Circuit rule, but the opinion goes on to emphatically reaffirm the rightness of the circuit’s approach, and perhaps that tension explains why it took 10 months after oral argument to issue the opinion.

On the actual innocence issue, the court began by noting that this was the first time it had considered the merits of an actual innocence claim under 2241. It left open the question of what standard applies to such claims by rejecting Bruce’s claim under the more lenient standard, the Schlup/House/McQuiggan gateway standard. Applying that standard to the facts, the court rejected Bruce’s claim.

Joining Fisher were Vanaskie and Krause. Arguing counsel were Rajeev Muttreja of Jones Day for Bruce and Kevin Ritz for the government.

 

Vanderklok v. US — civil rights — reversal in part — Jordan

This appeal arose from an airport-security-screening dispute. A would-be traveler alleged that a TSA screener violated his First and Fourth Amendment rights by falsely accusing him of making bomb threats after the traveler threatened to file a complaint against the screener. The Third Circuit today held that no Bivens action for First Amendment retaliation exists against airport security screeners who retaliate against travelers for exercising their free-speech rights. As to the Fourth Amendment malicious prosecution claim, the court held that no interlocutory appeal was available because the defendant sought summary judgment on the merits rather than on qualified immunity.

Joining Jordan were Smith and Roth. Arguing counsel were John Connell of Archer for the TSA screener, Thomas Malone of the Malone Firm for the traveler, and Daniel Aguilar for the government as amicus.

 

M.R. v. Ridley School Dist. — civil — reversal — Krause

The introduction:

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a parent of a child with a disability can bring administrative and judicial proceedings to challenge a school district’s alleged violations of the Act, and, if the parent emerges as “a prevailing party,” the parent is then eligible for an award of attorneys’ fees. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B). This case presents the question whether a fee award is available to parents who, after unsuccessfully challenging a school district’s proposed educational placement for their child, later obtain a court order requiring the school district to reimburse them for the costs of the child’s “stay put” placement—the “then-current educational placement” in which the Act permitted the child to remain while administrative and judicial proceedings were pending. Id. § 1415(j). We answer this question in the affirmative and conclude, consistent with the Act’s text and with the opinions of this Court and the other Courts of Appeals, that a court-ordered award of retrospective and compensatory relief, even if awarded under the Act’s “stay put” provision, 20 U.S.C. § 1415(j), confers “prevailing party” status. We therefore will reverse the District Court’s denial of attorneys’ fees and remand for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Joining Krause were Vanaskie and Restrepo. Arguing counsel were Alan Yatvin of Popper & Yatvin for the appellants and John Francis Reilly of Media for the district.

New opinions — significant new antitrust, declaratory-judgment opinions

In re: Lipitor Antitrust Litig. — antitrust — reversal — Smith

In a sprawling opinion whose 17-page caption is longer than many published opinions, the Third Circuit today reversed a district court’s dismissal of antitrust suits against companies holding the patents on popular drugs for treating cholesterol and depression. The court rejected the district court’s rulings that the plaintiffs’ allegations were not plausible.

Joining Smith were Ambro and Fisher. The nine (!) arguing counsel were:

 

Kelly v. Maxum Specialty Ins. Gp. — civil — reversal — Chagares

After a plaintiff sued a defendant, the plaintiff filed a federal suit seeking a declaratory judgment on the defendant’s insurer’s coverage. The Third Circuit said this situation is “familiar” and that district courts in this circuit are divided on the “important” question of whether to let the federal suits proceed. Today, the court reversed a district court’s dismissal, holding that a federal declaratory-judgment coverage suit was not substantially similar to the underlying civil suit and that its remand was an abuse of discretion.

Joining Chagares were Hardiman and Scirica. Arguing counsel were Sina Bahadoran of Florida for the insurer, John Reed Evans of Donnelly & Associates (formerly of Selective Law Group) for an insurance broker, and Gregory Kowalski of Pansini & Mezrow for the plaintiff.

 

New opinion — Third Circuit rejects strip club’s effort to force arbitration

Moon v. Breathless — civil / employment / arbitration — reversal — Greenaway

The Third Circuit today reversed a district court’s ruling granting summary judgment in favor of arbitration. The case arose when a woman who performed at the Breathless Men’s Club sued the club under the Fair Labor Standards Act and two state laws alleging employee wage-and-hour violations. The club argued, and the district court agreed, that her suit was barred by an arbitration clause in its contract with the woman, which by its terms applied to disputes “under this Agreement.” Applying New Jersey law, the Third Circuit held that courts should decide the arbitrability issue and that the clause did not cover this suit mainly because it arose under statutes, not under the contract.

Joining Greenaway were Fisher and Hardiman. Arguing counsel were Jeremy Abay of Sacks Weston for the woman and Marc Gross, formerly of Greenbaum Rowe but now at Fox Rothschild, for the club.

New opinion — ascertainability, again [updated]

City Select Auto Sales v. BMW Bank — class action — reversal — Scirica

If you were to make a list of the most significant things the Third Circuit has done in recent years — or the most controversial — you’d probably include its creation of the “ascertainability” requirement for class certification. The ascertainability requirement obligates plaintiffs seek to proceed with certain class actions to show that the class is objectively defined and that there’s a “reliable and administratively feasible” way to figure out who’s in the class. Since creating the requirement in 2012, the court has issued several major opinions refining it, while Judge Rendell has called for abandoning it.

Today the Third Circuit revisited the ascertainability issue again, vacating a district court’s ruling that relied on it to deny class certification. The court explained:

In this case, we will vacate and remand for two reasons. First, our ascertainability precedents do not categorically preclude affidavits from potential class members, in combination with the Creditsmarts database, from satisfying the ascertainability standard. Second, because the Creditsmarts database was not produced during discovery, plaintiff was denied the opportunity to demonstrate whether a reliable, administratively feasible method of ascertaining the class exists based, in whole or in part, on that database.

Joining Scirica were Krause and Fuentes. Fuentes also concurred to join Rendell’s earlier call to reject the ascertainability requirement, noting that three circuits have rejected it and arguing that it creates an unnecessary burden for low-value consumer class actions.

Arguing counsel were Philip Bock of Chicago for the putative-class plaintiff, Julia Strickland of Los Angeles for 2 defendants, and William Hayes III of Denver for a third defendant.

UPDATE: Alison Frankel of Reuters has this outstanding analysis of today’s case and what it means for the larger battle over ascertainability.

Three new opinions

US v. Martin — criminal sentencing — affirmance — Hardiman

Can both of these things be true at once?

  • A criminal sentence is “based on a sentencing range that has been subsequently lowered by the Sentencing Commission,” but
  • the Guidelines chance does NOT have “the effect of lowering the defendant’s applicable guideline range.

That is, can a sentence be “based on” a guidelines range without that range being the “applicable” guidelines range?

Today the Third Circuit answered that question ‘yes,’ and on that basis it held that the defendant was not entitled to retroactive application of a Guidelines amendment. The defendant’s guilty plea and the sentence he received were based on the drug quantity involved (impacted by the Guidelines amendment), but the sentencing court had found that his advisory guidelines range should be based on his career offender status (not impacted by the Guidelines amendment).

Joining Hardiman were Roth and Fisher. The case was decided without oral argument.

 

McNelis v. PP&L — employment — affirmance — Hardiman

The Third Circuit ruled that employment-related regulations promulgated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission trumped the Americans with Disability Act.

Joining Hardiman, again, were Roth and Fisher, and again the case was decided without argument.

 

In re: Howmedica Osteonics — civil / mandamus — reversal — Krause

Successful mandamus petitions are rare. Successful mandamus petitions turning on previously not-very-settled questions of law are rarer still. But the Third Circuit granted such a petition today.

The district court ruling at issue involved forum-selection agreements. The Supreme Court has said such agreements usually must be enforced, but the question in this case was what to do when some of the defendants had signed non-compete clauses with forum-selection clauses, but some hadn’t. The district court decided not to enforce the forum-selection clauses against any of the defendants. Today, the Third Circuit held that this was a clear error, and ruled that the claims against the forum-selection-clause defendants will proceed in one forum while the claims against the no-clause defendants will proceed in another.

Joining Krause were Scirica and Fuentes. Arguing counsel for the mandamus petitioners was Robert Carty Jr. of Texas. Arguing for various defendants were Jed Marcus of Bressler Amery, Anthony Haller of Blank Rome, and Jeffery Brown of California.

 

New opinion — Third Circuit invalidates joint-and-several forfeiture order

US v. Gjeli — criminal — partial reversal — Jordan

The Third Circuit today vacated criminal forfeiture orders that imposed joint and several forfeiture liability on two co-defendants. Today’s ruling was based on the Supreme Court’s decision earlier this year in Honeycutt v. United States, which the opinion said effectively overturned prior circuit precedent. While Honeycutt interpreted only one federal forfeiture statute, the court held that its reasoning applies equally to two others. The court affirmed on two other sentencing grounds.

Joining Jordan were Krause and Stearns D.Mass by designation. The case was decided without oral argument.

New opinion — Third Circuit partially revives challenge to corporate escheat

Plains All American Pipeline v. Cook — civil — partial reversal — Fisher

After Delaware initiated proceedings to review whether a company’s property was subject to seizure under the state’s escheat law, the company filed suit, alleging various constitutional violations. The district court dismissed the suit, mainly on ripeness grounds because the suit was filed before Delaware assessed liability or sought to make its review findings enforceable. Today, the Third Circuit reversed in part, holding that the company’s as-applied procedural due process claim was ripe, but otherwise affirming. The court declined to affirm the dismissal of the due process claim on alternative grounds, citing circuit precedent that absent exceptional circumstances the court will decline to consider an issue not passed on below and finding no exceptional circumstances.

Joining Fisher were Chagares and Scirica. Arguing counsel were Jeremy Marwell of Vinson and Elkins for the company, Steven Rosenthal of Washington DC for one group of appellees, and Ryan McManus of Boston for another appellee.

 

New opinions — catching up on last week’s ten opinions, including another ACA blockbuster and several notable reversals

Last week I was on vacation. During slow periods it’s not all that rare for the Third Circuit to go a week without issuing a single published opinion. But July/August is never a slow period — that’s when clerkships typically end, so everyone is scrambling to clear the decks. Last week the court issued 10 precedential opinions, 5 on Friday alone.

And there were some big ones, including a hot-button Affordable Care Act case and reversals in criminal, habeas, immigration, and prisoner civil rights cases. But enough wind-up …

 

US v. Wrensford [July 31] — criminal — reversal in part — Shwartz

The Third Circuit held that a defendant was arrested for Fourth Amendment purposes when he was involuntarily taken to a police station and held in a cell. Seems obvious, but the district court ruled to the contrary. The court vacated his criminal conviction and remanded. The court affirmed a co-defendant’s convictions on various grounds.

Joining Shwartz were Greenaway and Fuentes. Arguing counsel were FPD Omodare Jupiter for the prevailing appellant, Martial Webster for the other appellant, and Rhonda Williams-Henry and David White for the government.

 

Haskell v. Superintendent [August 1] — habeas corpus — reversal — Ambro

In this significant habeas corpus opinion, the Third Circuit held that a petitioner who has established a reasonable likelihood that the prosecution’s knowing use of false evidence could have affected the outcome need not also show that the error was not harmless. (Or, for my fellow habeas nerds, once you clear Napue you don’t have to clear Brecht too.) On the merits, the court reversed the district court’s denial of relief. Appallingly, the district court had not even granted a certificate of appealability.

Joining Ambro were Vanaskie and Restrepo. Arguing counsel were AFPD Elisa Long for the appellant and Mark Richmond of the Erie DA’s office for the Commonwealth.

 

EEOC v. City of Long Branch [August 2] — civil procedure — reversal — Chagares

The Third Circuit summarized its decision vacating a district court ruling in an EEOC enforcement suit thus:

The EEOC raises two issues on appeal: (1) whether Long Branch is precluded from contesting the motion to enforce because it failed to exhaust its administrative remedies ***, and (2) whether the EEOC may disclose information from the noncharging parties’ employment and personnel records to Lt. Johnson ***. Despite the compelling nature of these issues, we will not reach them because of a procedural error committed by the District Court: the District Court erroneously treated the motion to enforce that the Magistrate Judge had reviewed as a nondispositive motion instead of a dispositive motion. This is a meaningful distinction under the Federal Magistrates Act, 28 U.S.C. § 631, et seq., as the categorization of motion dictates, inter alia, the level of authority with which a magistrate judge may act on a motion and the availability and standard of review afforded by the District Court and our Court.

Joining Chagares were Ambro and Fuentes. The case was decided without oral argument.

 

Ildefonso-Candelario v. AG [August 3] — immigration — reversal — Stearns

The Third Circuit held that a conviction under Pennsylvania’s obstruction-of-justice statute, 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. 5101, is not categorically a crime involving moral turpitude because it sweeps in non-fraudulent conduct. The court firmly rejected the government’s request to remand without decision to let the BIA reconsider its ruling.

Joining Stearns (D. Mass., sitting by designation) were Jordan and Krause. Arguing counsel were Daniel Conklin of the Shagin Law Group for the petitioner and Rebecca Phillips for the government.

 

Blackledge v. Blackledge [August 3] — family — affirmance — Krause

The Third Circuit rejected a father’s appeal from denial of his petition alleging that the mother violated an international treaty by retaining custody of their son.

Joining Krause were Ambro and Nygaard. Arguing counsel for the father was former Fisher clerk M. Patrick Yingling of Reed Smith; Barbara Ernsberger of Behrend & Ernsberger argued for the mother. The opinion thanked the father’s counsel for accepting the court’s appointment in the case and for their “excellent briefing and argument.”

 

Millhouse v. Heath [August 4] — prisoner civil rights — reversal — Cowen

The mean-spirited Prison Litigation Reform Act contains a provision — the PLRA’s three strikes rule — that poor prisoners cannot qualify for the same reduced filing fees as any other poor litigants if they previously filed three or more prisoner suits that were deemed frivolous, because it’s so fair to punish people who are poor and lawyer-less for not accurately assessing the strength of their potential legal claims.

Last week, a partially divided Third Circuit panel held that a prisoner was entitled to file in forma pauperis despite having more than 3 prior suits dismissed as frivolous because (1) the number of PLRA strikes must be assessed as of the time the notice of appeal is filed and (2) dismissals without prejudice for failure to state a claim do not count as strikes. Judge Ambro disagreed on both points but would have reached the same result through equitable tolling.

Joining Cowen was Restrepo, with Ambro dissenting in part. Arguing counsel were Stephen Fogdall of Schnader Harrison for the prisoner and Timothy Judge for the government. The opinion thanked Fogdall and his Schnader co-counsel Emily Hanlon for their “excellent work” as pro bono counsel appointed by the court.

 

US v. Ferriero [August 4] — criminal — affirmance — Scirica

The Third Circuit affirmed the conviction and sentence of a New Jersey county politico convicted of violating the Travel Act, RICO, and the wire fraud statute by lobbying on behalf of commercial clients without disclosing his own financial interest. In a lengthy opinion, the court rejected various challenges to the convictions, including the defendant’s quite plausible-sounding argument that failing to disclose his interest cannot constitute making a false or fraudulent misrepresentation under the wire fraud statute. The court also rejected the defendant’s arguments relying on McDonnell v. United States.

Joining Scirica were Hardiman and Rosenthal SD Tex by designation. Arguing counsel were Peter Goldberger for the defendant and Bruce Keller for the government.

 

US v. Chapman [August 4] — criminal — affirmance — Greenaway

The Third Circuit held that a conviction for mailing a threat to injure constitutes a crime of violence under the Sentencing Guidelines. Judge Jordan concurred “to express dismay at the ever-expanding application of the categorical approach.”

Joining Greenaway were Jordan and Rendell. Arguing counsel were Ronald Krauss of the MDPA federal defender for the defendant and unfairly blocked Third Circuit nominee Rebecca Ross Haywood for the government.

 

In re: AE Liquidation [August 4] — civil — affirmance — Krause

The opinion’s introduction says it best:

This case arises from the bankruptcy and subsequent
closing of a jet aircraft manufacturer, and requires us to assess
that manufacturer’s obligation under the Worker Adjustment
and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act, 29 U.S.C. §§
2101-2109, to give fair warning to its employees before
effecting a mass layoff. On appeal, we are asked to determine
whether a business must notify its employees of a pending
layoff once the layoff becomes probable—that is, more likely
than not—or if the mere foreseeable possibility that a layoff
may occur is enough to trigger the WARN Act’s notice
requirements. Because we conclude that a probability of
layoffs is necessary, and the manufacturer has demonstrated
that its closing was not probable until the day that it occurred,
it cannot be held liable for its failure to give its employees
requisite notice. Accordingly, we will affirm ***

Joining Krause were Fisher and Greenberg. Arguing counsel were Jack Raisner of New York for the appellants and Barry Klayman of Cozen O’Connor for the appellees.

 

Real Alternatives v. Secretary DHHS [August 4] — civil — affirmance — Rendell

A sharply split Third Circuit panel held last week that a secular anti-abortion group with no religious affiliation was not entitled to the same exemption as houses of worship from the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that employer-provided health insurance include contraceptive services. The court also held that employees’ religious beliefs are not substantially burdened by the ACA’s contraception mandate. The majority answered both questions “[a]fter careful review, but without any hesitation.” A petition for certiorari seems a certainty and I sure wouldn’t bet against a grant.

Joining Rendell was Greenaway. Jordan dissented as to the rejection of the employees’ claims. Both authors are at the top of their game. Arguing counsel were Matthew Bowman of Alliance Defending Freedom for the employer and employees and Joshua Salzman for the government.

New opinion — when courts impose supervised release on defendants who are getting deported anyway, they need to explain why

US v. Azcona-Polanco — criminal sentencing — affirmance — Restrepo

Immigrants who have been convicted of a deportable offense are presumptively exempt from discretionary supervised release — deportation is essentially automatic, so imposing supervised release mainly serves to enhance any subsequent punishment for illegal reentry. But courts are allowed to impose supervised release on defendants who will be deported in individual cases, on the theory that the extra punishment will be an extra deterrent against re-entry.

That’s all backdrop for the sentencing procedure question the court answered yesterday: when judges impose supervised release on defendants who will be deported, despite the presumption, do they need to explain why? In a clear and thorough opinion, the Third Circuit said yes: they must acknowledge the presumption and state their reasons for nevertheless imposing it. In the case before it, the sentencing judge did neither, but the Court held that this failure was not plain error given the defendant’s prior criminal history including a prior illegal re-entry.

Joining Restrepo were Ambro and Vanaskie. The case was decided without oral argument.

New opinion — “Because his allegations against the beauty-products corporation are more than skin-deep, we reverse.”

Trzaska v. L’Oreal USA — employment — reversal — Ambro

The Third Circuit today ruled in favor of an in-house attorney who alleged that he was fired by L’Oreal for refusing to meet a corporate quota for patent applications (?) by filing applications for unpatentable products. The witty quote that forms the title of this post is from the opinion.

Ambro was joined by Fuentes; Chagares dissented. Arguing counsel were Harold Goodman of Raynes McCarty for the attorney and Christopher Carton of K&L Gates and Eric Savage of New York for L’Oreal.

New opinion — another masterful Ambro bankruptcy opinion

In re: Semcrude — bankruptcy — affirmance — Ambro

Is there a judge alive who does a better job of explaining complex business disputes than Judge Ambro? I’m not aware of any. The latest example comes today in the Third Circuit’s opinion affirming summary judgment in favor of one group of companies over another in a giant Chapter 11 bankruptcy case. Here’s the introduction:

Appellants, who are oil producers, sold their product to SemGroup L.P. and affiliates (including SemCrude L.P.), midstream oil and gas service providers and the Debtors in the underlying Chapter 11 cases. SemGroup sold oil to and traded oil futures with Appellees, downstream oil purchasers. The producers took no actions to protect themselves in case of SemGroup’s insolvency. The downstream purchasers did; in the case of default, they could set off the amount they owed SemGroup for oil by the amount SemGroup would owe them for the value of the outstanding futures trades. Accordingly, when SemGroup filed for bankruptcy, the downstream purchasers were paid in full while the oil producers were paid only in part.

Because the oil producers did not take precautionary measures to ensure payment in case of SemGroup’s insolvency, all they have to rely on are local laws they contend give them automatically perfected security interests or trust rights in the oil that ended up in the hands of the downstream purchasers. But the parties who took precautions against insolvency do not act as insurers to those who took none. Accordingly, we affirm the grant of summary judgment in the downstream purchasers’ favor.

Joining Ambro were Jordan and Fisher. Arguing counsel were Lewis LeClair of Texas for the producers, Thomas Moloney of Cleary Gottleib for J. Aron, David Zalman of New York for BP Oil Supply, and Hartley Martyn of Ohio for IC Co.

 

Also, I noticed today that earlier this week the Third Circuit issued its amended opinion in US v. Stimler, after entering an order noting the existence of factual errors in the original opinion. The new opinion is here, and I’ve updated my original post accordingly. Today, the court entered an order amending the amended opinion to correct a misspelling of Justice Blackmun’s name, but today’s order lists the wrong counsel at the bottom.

Now I wonder if the court will enter an order amending its order amending the amended opinion.

Two new opinions

Seneca Resources v. Township of Highland — civil — affirmance — Smith

A Pennsylvania township enacted an ordinance barring a gas company from using a well to store waste from fracking. When the gas company sued the township, four groups moved to intervene to help defend the statute. After their motion was denied on the theory that the township adequately represented the intervenors interests, the township repealed the ordinance and entered a consent decree. The would-be intervenors appealed, challenging the denial of intervention and the consent decree. The Third Circuit held that the denial of intervention was moot because there was no ordinance to defend and that, as non-parties, they could not appeal the consent decree.

Joining Smith were Jordan and Roth. Arguing counsel were Lindsey Schromen-Wawrin of Washington for the would-be intervenors, Stanley Yorsz of Buchanan Ingersoll for the gas company, and Arthur Martinucci of Quinn Buseck for the township.

 

Parks v. Tyson Foods — civil — affirmance — Jordan

The introduction:

This case concerns a trademark that once enjoyed widespread recognition but has since grown considerably weaker. Since the 1950s, Parks Sausage Company has manufactured or licensed sausage under the brand name “PARKS.”1 At one point, PARKS was placed on the Principal Register of trademarks at the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”), but, sometime in the early 2000s, Parks failed to renew the registration. In 2014, Tyson Foods, Inc. and Hillshire Brands Company (collectively, “Tyson”),2 the owners of the frankfurter brand BALL PARK, launched a premium frankfurter product called PARK’S FINEST. Parks sued, arguing that Tyson was engaged in false advertising and was infringing Parks’s trademark. The District Court determined that Parks’s claim for false advertising was really a repetition of its trademark claim, and that the PARKS mark was too weak to merit protection against Tyson’s use of the PARK’S FINEST name. We agree with the District Court and will affirm in all respects.

The highlight of the opinion surely is this footnote:

Though it may distress the cognoscenti, we use the terms “frankfurters,” “franks,” and “hot dogs,” as synonyms. Not so with the term “sausage,” which we use to denote something akin to but arguably different from hot dogs.

Joining Jordan were Smith and Roth. Arguing counsel were Jeffrey Lewis of Eckert Seamans for the appellant and John Dabney of D.C. for the appellees.

New opinion: Third Circuit clarifies that a single act of harassment can establish a hostile work environment

Castleberry v. STI Group — civil / employment discrimination — reversal — Ambro

The Third Circuit today reversed a district court’s dismissal of an employment-discrimination suit. The court resolved its inconsistent caselaw on the harassment necessary to establish a hostile work environment, stating, “The correct standard is ‘severe or pervasive.” Applying this standard, the court held that a single act of harassment — a supervisor’s use of what the opinion called “the ‘n-word'” — constituted severe conduct sufficient to state a hostile-work-environment claim.

Joining Ambro were Vanaskie and Restrepo. Arguing counsel were Richard Swartz of Swartz Swidler for the employees and Donna Walsh of Myers Brier for the employers.

New opinion — Third Circuit upholds FCC caps on bidding assistance to telecom outsiders

Council Tree Investors v. FCC — civil / agency — affirmance — Hardiman

The Federal Communications Commission has a statutory duty to avoid “excessive concentration of [telecommunications] licenses” and to “disseminat[e] licenses among a wide variety of applicants, including small businesses, rural telephone companies, and businesses owned by members of minority groups and women,” collectively referred to as designated entities. Seemingly they’re not doing so hot, given what today’s opinion calls “our telecommunications quadropoly” of AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile.

So it isn’t surprising that, when the FCC decided to scale back its efforts to help the outsiders get licenses, one of them sued. The main way the FCC helps designated entities is by giving them bidding credits to help them win license auctions. But in 2015 the FCC modified its bidding-credit regime, and one thing it did was impose a new cap on bidding credits. The challenger argued that the FCC ignored its statutory mandate and acted on an insufficient record.

Rejecting these challenges, the Third Circuit today upheld the FCC’s bidding-credit limit.

Joining Hardiman were Smith and Krause. Arguing counsel were Kevin Russell of Goldstein & Russell for the petitioner and Clifford Pash Jr. for the FCC.

Three new opinions, including another consumer win

Susinno v. Work Out World — civil / consumer — reversal — Hardiman

A company allegedly called a person’s cell phone and left a recorded sales pitch on her voicemail. She sued, alleging that the message violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act’s prohibition on prerecorded calls to cell phones. The district court dismissed on the grounds that Congress wasn’t protecting people against single calls and that one message caused no concrete injury. Today, the Third Circuit disagreed on both points and reversed.

Joining Hardiman were Krause and Stengel EDPA by designation. Arguing cousel were Timothy Sostrin of Chicago for the plaintiff, Joshua Bauchner of Ansell Grimm for the company, and Andrew Pincus of Mayer Brown for the Chamber of Commerce as amicus.

 

In re World Imports — bankruptcy — reversal — Hardiman

The Bankruptcy Code gives priority to creditors who sold goods “received by the debtor within 20 days before the bankruptcy petition was filed. Today, the Third Circuit held that “received” requires physical possession.

Joining Hardiman again were Krause and Stengel EDPA. Arguing counsel were Kirk Burkley of Bernstein-Burkley for the appellants and David Braverman of Braverman Kaskey for the appellees.

 

Hamilton v. Bromley — civil — affirmance — Fisher

A father sued in federal court alleging a conspiracy to deprive him of contact with his son. After filing suit, he gained custody of his son pending the outcome of state-court litigation. Today the Third Circuit affirmed dismissal of the father’s suit, holding that the father’s custody mooted his federal case, but also that the district court erred in dismissing under Younger abstention without deciding mootness.

Joining Fisher were Hardiman and Roth (although Hardiman did not join the part of the opinion where the court said because it lacked jurisdiction it could not decide the Younger issue and that the district court applied the wrong Younger test.) Arguing counsel were Jon Heintz of Jones Day for the father, James Johnson of State College for the mother, Amy Marshall of Babst Calland for a youth home, and Michael Daley of the state AOC for a state judge. The opinion thanked Jones Day for handling the appeal pro bono and for the quality of counsel’s representation.

New opinions — Third Circuit recognizes right to film police in public [updated]

Fields v. City of Philadelphia — civil rights — reversal — Ambro

In a landmark free-speech ruling, the Third Circuit today held that individuals have a First Amendment right to film police activity in public. A panel majority further held that the officers who did the filming here were entitled to qualified immunity from suit because the right had not been sufficiently clearly established; Judge Nygaard dissented on this ground. The court remanded for the district court to decide whether the city was subject to municipal liability.

Joining Ambro was Restrepo; Nygaard joined in part and dissented in part. Arguing counsel were Molly Tack-Hooper of ACLU-PA for the plaintiffs and Craig Gottlieb of the Philadelphia city Law Department for the defendants. A host of top-flight appellate lawyers were on the briefs on the ACLU’s side, including Jonathan Feinberg of Kairys Rudovsky, Alicia Hickok of Drinker Biddle, and Ilya Shapiro of Cato Institute.

Early commentary by Eugene Volokh at Volokh Conspiracy here and by Mark Joseph Stern at Slate here.

 

US v. Stimler* — criminal — affirmance — Roth

The Third Circuit affirmed the convictions of three Orthodox Jewish rabbis who were convicted of conspiracy to commit kidnapping for their role in “a scheme through which they … sought to assist Orthodox Jewish women to obtain divorces from recalcitrant husbands.”  The court rejected 8 different challenges to the convictions; Judge Restrepo wrote separately to disagree with the panel majority’s conclusion that investigators’ warrantless use of cell site location information did not violate the Fourth Amendment, but would have affirmed anyway under the good-faith exception.

Joining Roth was Chagares; Restrepo concurred in the judgment in part. Arguing counsel were Nathan Lewin of Washington DC for one defendant, Aidan O’Connor of Pashman Stein for the second, and Peter Goldberger for the third. Arguing for the government were Norman Gross and Glenn Moramarco of the NJ US Attorney’s office.

Early news coverage here and here.

UPDATE: on July 17 the court issued an order stating that the government “has advised of factual errors contained within the opinion” and that in light of the letter the Court will issue an amended opinion. It states that the amendment does not alter the judgment.

*The link at the top of this entry now goes to the amended opinion issued July 17. The original, withdrawn opinion is here.

UPDATE 2: On August 30 the court granted panel rehearing for one of the co-defendants on the Fourth Amendment issue that Judge Restrepo had written separately on.

UPDATE3: on January 21, 2019, the court issued a new opinion on rehearing that now held that use of the cell-site location data violated the Fourth Amendment but still affirmed under the good faith exception.

Three new opinions [updated]

US v. Jackson — criminal — reversal — Cowen

The government appealed from the criminal sentences imposed on a husband and wife for abusing their foster children. A divided Third Circuit reversed for resentencing on a host of grounds.

The 82-page majority opinion noted:

This case implicates a number of rather unusual sentencing issues. This is not surprising because Defendants were not convicted and sentenced for committing enumerated federal crimes of the sort that federal courts consider on a regular basis. Instead, they were convicted and sentenced in federal court for state law offenses “assimilated” into federal law pursuant to a federal statute, the ACA.

The panel majority held that the district court erred in concluding that the federal sentencing guideline for assault was not sufficiently analogous to use to calculate the defendants’ guideline range. The district court also erred in refusing to make sentencing-related findings of fact beyond the findings found by the jury at trial. And it erred some more by “focusing on state sentencing principles to the exclusion of basic federal sentencing principles.” Judge McKee dissented, mainly to disagree with the majority on the analogous-guideline point.

Finally, Judge Cowen’s majority opinion concluded that “we do conclude” that the sentences were substantively unreasonable. But a footnote in the majority opinion stated that Judge Fuentes “would vacate” on the preceding procedural grounds “without reaching” substantive unreasonableness. (A footnote in Judge McKee’s dissent states that he refrains from reaching the issue.) So is there a precedential holding on substantive unreasonableness? It’s possible to argue either way, and I expect future litigants will do exactly that. I think the substantive reasonableness section probably is precedential, but the opinion’s failure to be clear on that point is strange.

Joining Cowen was Fuentes; McKee dissented with some harsh language for the government. Arguing counsel were John Romano of the NJ US Attorney’s office for the government, Herbert Waldman of Javerbaum Wurgaft for the wife, and Louise Arkel of the NJ federal defender for the husband.

 

Knick v. Township — civil — affirmance — Smith

A Pennsylvania township enacted an ordinance that authorizes officials to enter any property “for the purpose of determining the existence of and location of any cemetery” and compels private cemeteries to open themselves to the public during daylight hours.

The Third Circuit described the ordinance as “extraordinary and constitutionally suspect,” noting “it is difficult to imagine a broader authorization to conduct searches of privately owned property” and urging the township to abandon it. But the court affirmed dismissal of a suit challenging the ordinance, holding that the plaintiff lacked standing to raise a facial Fourth Amendment challenge because her rights were not violated and that her Fifth Amendment takings claim is not ripe because she had not first sought compensation under the state’s inverse-condemnation procedure. (Embarrassingly, the court noted that the standing issue had not been raised by the township, and that it did raise a “curious” argument that the plaintiff failed to satisfy Monell because she failed to show a cognizable injury.) The opinion helpfully clarifies the different burdens for facial and as-applied challenges and distinguishes facial takings from facial challenges.

Smith was joined by McKee and Rendell. Arguing counsel were J. David Breemer of the Pacific Legal Foundation for the plaintiff and Thomas Specht of Marshall Dennehey for the township defendants.

 

Taha v. County — class action — affirmance — Greenberg

The Third Circuit affirmed an order granting class action certification in a suit against defendants who created a web page that made available information about over 60,000 people who had been held at a county jail, including persons whose records were expunged. The defendants had argued that the court erred in deciding certification after ruling on a motion for partial summary judgment, but the court held that this challenge was waived because it was not raised below. The defendants also argued that the court erred in certifying a punitive damages class on several grounds, including standing and predominance, but the court disagreed.

Joining Greenberg were Greenaway and Shwartz. Arguing counsel were Burt Rublin of Ballard Spahr for the county defendants and Robert LaRocca of Kohn Swift for the plaintiffs.

New opinion — maybe 69 phone calls over a $25 debt wasn’t such a hot idea

Daubert v. NRA Group — civil / consumer — reversal in part — Fisher

“This case,” today’s Third Circuit’s opinion begins, “— involving tens of thousands of dollars in statutory damages, half a jury trial, and cross-appeals — stems from a debt collector’s pursuit of $25 in unpaid medical bills.” After debt collector called a medical patient’s cellphone 69 times over 10 months (!), he sued them, alleging that they violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. He also alleged that the collection letters they sent him violated the Fair Dept Collection Practices Act. The district court granted summary judgment in the plaintiff’s favor on the TCPA claim, but granted judgment as a matter of law in the defendant’s favor on the FDCPA claim. Today, the Third Circuit affirmed on the TCPA but reversed on the FDCPA, handing the debt collector a total defeat.

Joining Fisher were Hardiman and Roth. Arguing counsel were Richard Perr of Fineman Krekstein and Carlo Sabatini of the Sabatini Law Firm. (The caption doesn’t say who represented whom, but their respective practice areas suggest that Perr represented the debt collector and Sabatini represented the plaintiff.)

Two new opinions

US v. Johnson — criminal — affirmance — Fuentes

The Third Circuit rejected a defendant’s argument that a district court lost jurisdiction to revoke his supervised release when a different district court revoked an unrelated concurrent term of supervised release. In rejected the argument that concurrent terms of supervised release merge, The court joined the Second and Fifth Circuits. The court also rejected the defendant’s argument that the district court lacked jurisdiction to revoke him because he was living in the other district and his release was being supervised by the other district.

Joining Fuentes were Greenaway and Shwartz. Arguing counsel were Omodare Jupiter of the VI FPD for the defendant and David White for the government.

 

Blanyar v. Genova Prods. — civil — affirmance — Vanaskie

The introduction says it best:

Appellants, former employees of Appellee Genova
Products Inc. (“Genova”), challenge the District Court’s
decision to dismiss their putative class action for medical
monitoring as barred by the applicable two year statute of
limitations. While acknowledging that their exposure to the
alleged toxic substances upon which they base their medical
monitoring claims ended more than two years before
commencing this litigation, Appellants contend that the
limitations period should have been tolled by the discovery
rule and should not have begun to run until they discovered
the toxicity of the substances present in the Genova
workplace, a discovery they claim was first made less than
two years before this action was initiated. The District Court
concluded that the discovery rule did not save Appellants’
action because information concerning the dangers of the
chemicals to which Appellants were exposed had been widely
available for decades before they filed their complaint. For
the reasons that follow, we will affirm the dismissal of
Appellants’ lawsuit.

Joining Vanaskie were Fisher and Krause. Arguing counsel were Sol Weiss of Anapol Weiss for the class plaintiffs and Justin Bagdady of Michigan for the class defendants.

Three new opinions

De Ritis v. McGarrigle — civil rights — reversal — Krause

The Third Circuit today emphatically rejected a former public defender’s claim that his First Amendment rights were violated when he told others that he had been transferred because he took too many cases to trial. The court reversed the district court’s denial of summary judgment based on qualified immunity. Among the court’s holdings was that an attorney’s idle chatter with other lawyers in court during breaks between proceedings is not protected by the First Amendment.

Krause was joined by Vanaskie and Nygaard. Arguing counsel were De Ritis pro se and Mark Raith of Holsten & Associates for the public defender.

 

Halley v. Honeywell Int’l — class action — affirmance in part — Scirica

The Third Circuit upheld approval of a $10 million class action settlement of a large chemical pollution suit. The court rejected several challenges to the settlement, including various arguments that the court lacked a sufficient factual record for approval. The court also upheld the $2.5 million attorneys’ fees award, but remanded for reconsideration of the award of costs because the lower court failed to adequately explain its reasoning.

Joining Scirica were Ambro and Vanaskie. Arguing counsel were Thomas Paciorkowski of Jersey City for the objector and Anthony Roisman of Vermont for the appellees.

 

Duquesne Light Holdings v. C.I.R. — tax — affirmance — Ambro

A divided Third Circuit panel today affirmed a tax-court ruling applying the Ilfeld doctrine that, absent clear Congressional intent, the tax code should not be interpreted to give taxpayers the equivalent of a double deduction. The tax-liability dispute here is, to my inexpert eye, arcane.

Joining Ambro was Krause; Hardiman dissented. Arguing counse were appellate powerhouse James Martin of Reed Smith for the taxpayer and Arthur Catterall for the government.