Friday, June 13, 2008

5-4 Supreme Court Rulings Fade

The New York Times’ Linda Greenhouse recently worte a piece here about the absence of 5-to-4 decisions this term. A year ago at this time, the Supreme Court decided thirteen cases by a vote of 5-to-4, but so far this year, of the 35 cases decided with full opinions, only one yielded a 5-4 split. Greenhouse discusses some of the cases decided this term and some potential reasons for the lack of 5-to-4 decisions. –Counseller/md

June 13, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Pleading Civil Rights Claims Post-Conley

The Federal Civil Practice Bulletin recently posted an abstract from Professor A. Benjamin Spencer’s article, “Pleading Civil Rights Claims in the Post-Conley Era.”  Spencer (Washington & Lee) attempts to examine and distill the impact of Twombly on pleading standards the lower federal courts apply when scrutinizing civil rights claims. Twombly abrogated Conley v. Gibson’s “no set of facts” formulation and supplanted it with a new plausibility pleading standard. An abstract and full text version of this article can be accessed via SSRN by clicking here. –Counseller/md

June 13, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Taylor v. Sturgell

In Taylor, the Supreme Court rejected the virtual-representation doctrine in the preclusion context and remanded for the lower court to determine whether plaintiff's suit was barred under established preclusion principles.

Taylor was the plaintiff in the second of two similar suits seeking injunctions under the Freedom of Information Act against the Federal Aviation Administration.  The first suit was brought by an individual named Herrick, who lost on the merits.  About one month after Herrick's judgment became final, Taylor requested the same information under the Act and requested an injunction when the FAA denied his request.  Taylor raised some arguments Herrick failed to make. 

Taylor and Herrick knew each other, and the lower courts held that their relationship rose to the level of "virtual representation."   They were friends and both antique airplane enthusiasts.  Taylor was the President of Antique Aircraft Association; Herrick was a member.  Taylor hired Herrick's lawyer.   While Taylor was not a party to the first suit, the lower court held that the final judgment on the merits against Herrick was claim preclusive of Taylor's suit because Herrick "virtually represented" Taylor.   

Before Taylor, the Supreme Court had never considered the virtual-representation doctrine by name, and the lower courts were split on its existence and definition.  Some lower courts had rejected it; some had accepted it, though in different multi-factor variations. Today, the Supreme Court rejected the doctrine by name--and in principle to the extent it precluded suits beyond the established grounds for nonparty preclusion. 

Typically, neither claim nor issue preclusion operates to preclude a person from litigating a claim or issue unless that person was a party to the proceeding that generated the preclusive judgment.  For issue preclusion, a party is not barred unless he has litigated and lost.  For claim preclusion, the bar against claim splitting only applies to a party to a judgment on the merits.  Due process and common-law preclusion principles generally give a person one day in court -- not two, and not zero.

In Taylor, writing for a unanimous Court, Justice Ginsburg does essentially three things.  She:  (1) lists the six established exceptions that can justify precluding a nonparty; (2) rejects virtual representation as a seventh category; and (3) remands the case to see if Taylor's suit fits one of the established categories (the 5th).

First, the Court notes the six established exceptions to precluding nonparties:

  1. A nonparty may agree to be bound to a judgment;
  2. A nonparty may be in privity with a party--in other words, there may be an existing substantive legal relationship between the two persons that justifies binding the nonparty to the party's judmgent;
  3. A nonparty may be adequately represented by a party acting in a representative capacity.  Adequate representation requires that the party and representative have aligned interests and EITHER (a) the representative capacity was understood; or (b) the deciding court took care to protect the interests of the nonparty.
  4. A nonparty may assume control over litigation to which he is not a formal party;
  5. If a party is bound by a judgment, the party may not use a representative or an agent to relitigate an adverse judgment.
  6. A special statutory scheme may foreclose successive litigation (this scheme, like any exception to nonparty preclusion, must satisfy the Due Process Clause).

Second, the Court examined its precedents and policy arguments, ultimately concluding that it need not and should not recognize virtual representation as a seventh exception.

Finally, the Court remanded so the lower courts could evaluate whether the fifth exception applied--that is, whether Taylor was acting as Herrick's "undisclosed agent" for relitigating.  The lower courts, understandably, were concerned about "tactical manuevering," which was one of the factors in the virtual-representation test.  But the Court instructed, on remand, that a "whiff of tactical maneuvering will not suffice; instead, principles of agency law are suggestive.  They indicate that preclusion is appropriate only if the putative agent's conduct of the suit is subject to the control of the party who is bound by the prior adjudication."   And because claim preclusion is an affirmative defense, the defendant must prove the existence of the agency relationship.

Justice Ginsburg's opinion strikes a sensible balance.  While wait-and-see games aren't efficient, there are disincentives to playing a Taylor game.  If the related suits are brought in the same jurisdiction, stare decisis operates like preclusion.  Offensive collateral estoppel (even if this weren't the government) is not available to game players.  The rules generally don't require compulsory joinder of plaintiffs, and the sustained efforts of the lower courts to use virtual representation to fill gaps had yielded tests that hardly promoted efficiency.  --RR

June 12, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Supreme Court disapproves "virtual representation."

Today, the Supreme Court decided Taylor v. Sturgell, which we earlier mentioned here .  Justice Ginsburg, writing for a unanimous Court, "disappove[d] the doctrine of preclusion by virtual reprsentation" and vacated the lower-court opinion.  More to come on this opinion.  --RR

June 12, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Interview with Bryan A. Garner

Sunday’s editions of The Dallas Morning News included an interview with Bryan A. Garner, author of The Art of Persuasion. Mr. Garner began interviewing eight of the nine Supreme Court justices on legal writing and advocacy two years ago and now uses those videotaped interviews at his legal seminars. He also collaborated with Justice Scalia on Making Your Case. To read the full interview with Mr. Garner regarding the art of advocacy, his book, and the insight he gained from Justice Scalia, click here. -–Counseller/nc

June 12, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (2)

Court Will Review Punitive Damage Case for Third Time

The Supreme Court will review a $79.5 million punitive damages award against Philip Morris USA in a suit brought by the widow of a smoker who died of cancer in 1997.  With interest, the award has grown to about $145 million.  Philip Morris contends the Oregon state court refused to apply the Supreme Court’s most recent ruling which was a clear victory for the tobacco company.  The new appeal, Philip Morris USA v. Williams (07-1216), poses significant constitutional issues regarding the Court’s authority to have its ruling applied and a state court’s authority to manage its own state procedural rules.  For more on this issue, click here.--Counseller/nc

June 12, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Jurors and Sudoku

This link needs little introduction:  The game's Up:  jurors playing Sudoku abort trial.

(Hat Tip to How Appealing)--RR

June 10, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, June 9, 2008

Judge or Jury

Last week, the Seventh Circuit decided Pavey v. Conley, a case worth reading for its analysis of whether judges or juries resolve disputed fact questions.  There,  a prisoner alleged excessive force in his s1983 claim.  Defendants answered, asserting that the prisoner failed to exhaust his administrative remedies.  The prisoner countered with an affidavit that stated he had been unable to exhaust those remedies because he was injured and because he was transferred to another prison.  Defendants and the prisoner disputed whether the judge or the jury resolved the factual issues relating to the defense of failure to exhaust administrative remedies.   The court held and explained (with citations omitted):

Not every factual issue that arises in the course of a litigation is triable to a jury as a matter of right, even if it is a suit at law (rather than in equity) within the meaning of the Seventh Amendment. The clearest example is subject-matter jurisdiction; often it turns on factual issues that may be genuinely debatable, but even if so the issues are resolved by the judge.  The same is true of factual issues relating to the defense of lack of personal jurisdiction or venue, though these defenses are not jurisdictional in the sense of requiring the judge to decide them even if the parties do not make an issue of them-and to motions to abstain in favor of another court, or an agency.  A decision to relinquish supplemental jurisdiction to the state courts, see 28 U.S.C. § 1367, is likewise made by the judge even if there are contestable factual questions bearing on the decision.

The generalization that emerges from these examples and others that might be given is that juries do not decide what forum a dispute is to be resolved in. Juries decide cases, not issues of judicial traffic control. Until the issue of exhaustion is resolved, the court cannot know whether it is to decide the case or the prison authorities are to. In this case, should the defendants' contention that the prisoner inexcusably failed to file a timely grievance be sustained, he would no longer have any administrative remedies. But in many cases the only consequence of a failure to exhaust is that the prisoner must go back to the bottom rung of the administrative ladder; and in such a case one could envision a series of jury trials before there was a trial on the merits: a jury trial to decide exhaustion, a verdict finding that the prisoner had failed to exhaust, an administrative proceeding, the resumption of the litigation, and another jury trial on failure to exhaust. That distinguishes the issue of exhaustion from deadline issues that juries decide. A statute of limitations defense if successfully interposed ends the litigation rather than shunting it to another forum. If the defense is rejected, the case proceeds in the court in which it is filed.

A peculiarity of this case is a possible overlap between the factual issues relating to exhaustion and those relating to the merits of the excessive-force claim. The broken arm is of course germane to both, and while the fact that it was broken is conceded, the severity of the break could well be an issue common to both the allegedly inexcusable failure to exhaust and the excessiveness of the force that caused the break. By analogy to the cases that require that claims at law be decided before equitable claims when both types of claim are presented, so that the judge's decision on the latter does not preclude or otherwise affect the jury's determination of the former, we think that any finding that the judge makes, relating to exhaustion, that might affect the merits may be reexamined by the jury if-and only after-the prisoner overcomes the exhaustion defense and the case proceeds to the merits. The alternative of trying the merits before exhaustion, as under the Beacon Theatres line of cases, is unsatisfactory in the present setting because it would thwart Congress's effort to bar trials of prisoner cases in which the prisoner has failed to exhaust his administrative remedies.  A jury might decide the merits of a case that should never have gotten to the merits stage because the judge should have found that the prisoner had failed to exhaust his administrative remedies.

The sequence to be followed in a case in which exhaustion is contested is therefore as follows: (1) The district judge conducts a hearing on exhaustion and permits whatever discovery relating to exhaustion (and only to exhaustion) he deems appropriate. (2) If the judge determines that the prisoner did not exhaust his administrative remedies, he will then determine whether (a) the plaintiff has unexhausted remedies, and so he must go back and exhaust; (b) or, although he has no unexhausted remedies, the failure to exhaust was innocent (as where prison officials prevent a prisoner from exhausting his remedies), in which event he will be allowed to go back and exhaust; or (c) the failure to exhaust was the prisoner's fault, in which event the case is over. (3) If and when the judge determines that the prisoner has properly exhausted his administrative remedies, the case will proceed to pretrial discovery, and if necessary a trial, on the merits; and if there is a jury trial, the jury will make all necessary findings of fact without being bound by (or even informed of) any of the findings made by the district judge in determining that the prisoner had exhausted his administrative remedies.

We emphasize that discovery with respect to the merits must not be begun until the issue of exhaustion is resolved. If merits discovery is allowed to begin before that resolution, the statutory goal of sparing federal courts the burden of prisoner litigation until and unless the prisoner has exhausted his administrative remedies will be thwarted.

--RR

June 9, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)