Thursday, June 23, 2016
The Supreme Court today deadlocked 4-4 in the case challenging President Obama's deferred action plan for certain unauthorized immigrants, or DAPA. The Court's ruling in United States v. Texas affirms the Fifth Circuit's ruling in the case. (Our preview of the case is here.)
While the Court's non-decision today has no precedential value, as a practical matter it upholds a nationwide preliminary injunction against enforcement of DAPA issued by district Judge Hanen. The ruling thus effectively halts enforcement of DAPA and sends the case back to Judge Hanen for proceedings on the merits. Here's the Fifth Circuit's summary of its ruling (which, again, is upheld under today's 4-4 split):
Reviewing the district court's order for abuse of discretion, we affirm the preliminary injunction because the states have standing; they have established a substantial likelihood of success on the merits of their procedural and substantive APA claims; and they have satisfied the other elements required for an injunction.
Note that the Fifth Circuit ruling doesn't touch the Take Care Clause issue--an issue that the Supreme Court asked the parties to brief and argue, even though the government didn't seek review on this issue. Note, too, that the Fifth Circuit upholds a district judge's preliminary injunction that applies nationwide (and not, as would ordinarily be the case, in the judge's district only).
We don't know the justices' positions on particular issues in the case--standing, APA--because the per curiam order (as is customary for a 4-4 split) simply says that "[t]he judgment is affirmed by an equally divided Court." Still, this appears to be one of those cases where Justice Scalia's absence matters: he would have likely voted with the four (likely the conservatives, although we don't know for sure) to uphold the Fifth Circuit, creating a five Justice majority opinion that would have created precedential law.
The government may petition the Court (now) for rehearing (after a ninth justice is confirmed).
Monday, May 23, 2016
A unanimous Supreme Court ruled today in Wittman v. Personhubalah that three members of Congress from Virginia lacked standing to appeal a federal court's rejection of the state's districting plan. The ruling means that the district court's decision stays in place, and that districting plan designed by a court-appointed special master and approved by the court now sets the lines for Virginia's congressional districts.
In this up-and-down, politically charged case, the Court not only avoided a thorny underlying question of race-based districting (and all the politics that go with it), but it also avoided the hardest standing issues in favor of resolving the case unanimously on narrower standing grounds.
The case involves the state's 2012 redistricting plan, which packed black voters into a certain congressional district. Sponsors of the measure said that they did this in order to comply with the one-person-one-vote principle and to comply with nonretrogression under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. A district court struck the plan (twice) as a racial gerrymander, and the state declined to appeal. But Republican members of Congress, who intervened on the side of the state, tried to take the case to the Supreme Court. (In the meantime, a court-appointed special master drew a new district map, and the court approved it.)
The Supreme Court rejected the appeal for lack of standing. The Court said that one member of Congress, who challenged the district court's ruling because it would have made it harder for him to get elected in his current district, lacked standing because he was already running, and would continue to run (irrespective of the Court's ruling), in another district. In other words, that member failed to show that a Court ruling would redress his harm. The Court said that two other members of Congress, who challenged the district court's ruling for the same reason, "have not identified record evidence establishing their alleged harm."
The Court dodged the harder standing issue--whether a representative has been sufficiently harmed based on district lines that would make it less likely that he or she could get elected.
The Court also dodged the underlying issue, whether a race impermissibly dominated when a state's redistricting plan packed black voters into a district for the stated reasons to comply with one-person-one-vote and non-retrogression. The last time the Court took up a similar question, almost exactly a year ago, in Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama, the Court also avoided ruling squarely on the merits. Instead, the Court outlined some guiding principles and remanded the case for further proceedings.
Justice Breyer wrote the opinion for the unanimous Court.
Monday, May 16, 2016
The Court said no. It held that "Article III standing requires a concrete injury even in the context of a statutory violation" (emphasis added), but then sent the case back for determination whether there was a concrete injury in this case.
The ruling makes clear that if Robins, the plaintiff, can show a concrete harm, he will have standing. But it makes equally clear that Congress cannot simply create standing by authorizing a new individual cause of action. A plaintiff still has to show a particularized and concrete injury.
The case involves the congressionally-created individual cause of action under the Fair Credit Reporting Act. Under the FCRA, Congress granted adversely affected individuals a right to sue reporting agencies for failure to "follow reasonable procedures to assure maximum possible accuracy of the information concerning the individual about whom the report relates." Robins sued Spokeo under the provision, arguing that Spokeo posted incorrect information about him on its website. The Ninth Circuit held that Robins had standing.
The Supreme Court today vacated that decision and remanded. Justice Alito wrote for the Court and held that standing requires both a "particularized" injury and a "concrete" injury. The Ninth Circuit analyzed whether Robins's injury was particularized, but not whether it was concrete. Justice Alito wrote that a procedural harm--like the one here, because the FCRA establishes a procedure for reporting agencies to follow--could create a concrete injury, but the Ninth Circuit didn't analyze this in Robins's case. Therefore, the Court remanded to the Ninth Circuit to determine whether Robins sufficiently alleged a concrete harm.
At the same time, Justice Alito made clear that Congress could "elevat[e] to the status of legally cognizable injuries concrete, de facto injuries that were previously inadequate in law." But if so, a plaintiff still has to sufficiently allege both particularized and concrete injuries to meet the Article III standing requirement. This means that a plaintiff alleging a procedural injury alone wouldn't have standing, but a plaintiff alleging a procedural injury with a concrete and particularized harm would.
Congress' role in identifying and elevating intangible harms does not mean that a plaintiff automatically satisfies the injury-in-fact requirement whenever a statute grants a person a statutory right and purports to authorize that person to vindicate that right. Article III standing requires a concrete injury even in the context of a statutory violation.
Justice Thomas concurred and reached the same result by drawing on the difference between suits vindicating private rights and suits vindicating public rights. (Justice Thomas's "public rights" are probably broader than procedural claims like Robins's, and so this approach is probably more restrictive on standing.)
Justice Ginsburg dissented, joined by Justice Sotomayor. She argued that Robins sufficiently alleged a concrete harm, and that remand wasn't necessary.
Friday, April 15, 2016
The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on Monday in United States v. Texas, the challenge to DAPA, the deferred action program for certain unauthorized aliens.The case involves two core issues: Does a state have standing to challenge DAPA; and does DAPA violate the APA or the Take Care Clause?
Here's my oral argument preview in the ABA Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases, with permission:
On November 20, 2014, the Secretary of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, issued a memorandum (called “guidance” by the government) that announced “new policies for the use of deferred action” for certain aliens who are not removal priorities for the Department. The memo directed the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) “to establish a process . . . for exercising prosecutorial discretion through the use of deferred action, on a case-by-case basis,” for certain parents of U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents. The process is called Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, or “DAPA.” To qualify, an applicant must (1) be the parent of a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident as of November 20, 2014; (2) have continuously resided in the United States since January 1, 2010, or before; (3) have been physically present here on November 20, 2014, and when applying for DAPA; (4) have no lawful immigration status on that date; (5) not fall within the Secretary’s enforcement priorities (which the Secretary set out in a companion memo, and which include removing aliens who are serious criminals and terrorists); and (6) “present no other factors that, in the exercise of discretion, make the grant of deferred action inappropriate.” The Secretary’s memo also expanded the criteria for deferred action under the earlier 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, or “DACA.”
The Secretary’s memo explained that DAPA would reach “hard-working people who have become integrated members of American society,” have not committed serious crimes, and “are extremely unlikely to be deported” given the Department’s “limited enforcement resources.” Moreover, it would advance “this Nation’s security and economic interests and make common sense, because [it] encourage[s] these people to come out of the shadows, submit to background checks, pay fees, apply for work authorization . . . and be counted.” The memo emphasized that DAPA does not establish any right to deferred action, and that deferred action “does not confer any form of legal status” and “may be terminated at any time at the agency’s discretion.”
Under longstanding federal law, which recognizes deferred action, an alien with deferred action may apply for work authorization based on economic need. In addition, an alien with deferred action may qualify for certain federal earned-benefit programs that come with lawful work, such as Social Security retirement and disability, Medicare, and railroad-worker programs. But an alien with deferred action is not eligible to receive food stamps, Supplemental Security Income, temporary aid for need families, and many other federal public benefits. And an alien with deferred action is not eligible for any “[s]tate or local public benefit,” although states may voluntarily extend certain benefits to aliens with deferred action. For example, Texas voluntarily permitted an alien with deferred action to apply for and receive a driver’s license, which Texas subsidized.
On December 3, 2014, Texas and other states sued the Department, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief against implementation of DAPA. The plaintiffs alleged that DAPA violated the Take Care Clause of the Constitution and the Administrative Procedures Act. The district court entered a nationwide preliminary injunction against implementation of DAPA.
A divided panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed. The court ruled that at least one plaintiff, Texas, had standing, because state law would require it to subsidize a driver’s license for an alien with deferred action under DAPA. The court also ruled that the plaintiffs were substantially likely to succeed on their claim that the Department should have used notice-and-comment rulemaking (and not a mere memo by the Director) to implement DAPA. Finally, the court ruled that DAPA was “manifestly contrary” to the Immigration and Naturalization Act.
This appeal followed.
The case involves two principal issues. Let’s take them one at a time.
Under Article III of the Constitution, in order to bring this case in federal court, at least one state has to show (1) that it suffered an actual or imminent “injury in fact,” (2) that DAPA caused, or will cause, the injury, and (3) that the lawsuit will redress the injury. Moreover, in order to sue under the APA, the states’ interests have to fall within the “zone of interests” of the relevant statute, here the INA. The parties frame their arguments around these rules.
The government argues first that no state has Article III standing, because DAPA does not directly injure the states or require them to do anything. The government says that any injury that DAPA causes the states is only indirect and incidental, and that states cannot establish standing on the basis of an indirect or incidental injury from the operation of immigration law (which the Constitution assigns exclusively to the federal government). Moreover, the government asserts that the claimed injury here, Texas’s costs in subsidizing temporary visitor driver’s licenses for aliens, is entirely self-imposed. The government contends that recognizing these kinds of injuries would permit states to force cases over a wide swath of federal programs, essentially allowing states to challenge the federal government at nearly every turn.
The government argues next that the states cannot sue under the APA, because their interests are not within the zone of interests under the INA. The government says that the states’ asserted interests—“reserving jobs for those lawfully entitled to work” and “comment[ing] on administrative decisionmaking”—are different than their interests in Article III standing (discussed above), and that they therefore impermissibly mix-and-match their interests for standing and APA purposes. The government also claims that the states’ asserted interests for their APA challenge, if accepted, would effectively eliminate the zone-of-interest requirement under the INA and open the door to a federal suit by any state that is unhappy with federal immigration policy.
Finally, the government argues that the executive’s enforcement discretion, including the enforcement discretion reflected in DAPA, is traditionally immune from judicial review. The government says that the decision to permit aliens to work, as an attribute of enforcement discretion, is similarly unreviewable in court.
The states argue that they have Article III standing, because DAPA requires at least one of them, Texas, to incur costs in subsidizing driver’s licenses. The states say that this injury is legitimate and not manufactured (because the driver’s license subsidy was already on the books), and therefore satisfies the Article III injury requirement. The states contend that DAPA also requires them to incur costs related to healthcare, education, and law enforcement. And they assert that they have standing to protect their citizens from “labor-market distortions, such as those caused by granting work authorization to millions of unauthorized aliens.” The states contend that they are entitled to “special solicitude” in the standing analysis under Massachusetts v. EPA. 549 U.S. 497 (2007).
The states argue next that they can challenge DAPA under the APA, because their interests fall squarely within the zone of interests in the INA. They say that DAPA grants lawful presence and eligibility for work authorization and other benefits, the crux of their interests. They say moreover that the INA does not grant the Department discretion to do this. Thus, they claim that their interests fall squarely within the zone of interests protected by the INA.
Under basic separation-of-powers principles, Congress is charged with making the law, and the President is charged with executing it. This means that administrative action like DAPA cannot violate the INA. Under the APA, it also means that DAPA must go through notice-and-comment rulemaking, if DAPA is a new “rule” (although DAPA need not go through notice-and-comment rulemaking if it is merely a new policy). Finally, under the Take Care Clause, it means that DAPA must be a proper execution of federal law, again the INA. The parties touch on each of these principles.
The government argues that the INA provides the Secretary ample authority for DAPA. The government claims that under the INA Congress has directed the Secretary to focus limited resources on removing serious criminals and securing the border, and that DAPA, in deferring action for aliens who are not priorities for removal, is perfectly consistent with this. The government claims that DAPA serves the additional purposes of “extending a measure of repose to individuals who have long and strong ties to the community” and encouraging hard work, on the books, so as to minimize competitive harm to American workers.
The government argues next that DAPA has deep historical roots. It says that the Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service before it have adopted more than 20 similar policies in the last 50 years, deferring deportation for large numbers of aliens in defined categories. Since the early 1970s, each of these actions has also resulted in eligibility for work authorization—a practice that was codified in formal regulations in 1981. The government contends that Congress has repeatedly ratified the Department’s authority, with full knowledge of these policies.
Third, the government argues that the states are wrong to say that DAPA violates the INA. The government claims that the INA itself and past practice refute the states’ assertion that the Secretary can only authorize deferred action and work authorization for categories of aliens that Congress has specifically identified. Moreover, it claims that even the states agree that the Secretary could provide separate temporary reprieve for every one of the individuals covered by DAPA, so DAPA itself cannot be “too big.” And the government points out that longstanding regulations permit the Secretary to authorize lawful work for aliens covered by deferred action.
Fourth, the government argues that DAPA is simply a policy statement regarding how the Department will exercise discretionary authority—and not a binding rule that requires notice-and-comment procedures. Indeed, the government points out that no prior deferred action policy has been subject to notice-and-comment requirements. The government says that DAPA requires Department agents to exercise discretion in granting deferred action, and that DAPA is no less a “policy” than one that gives individual agents authority to be less forgiving for specific reasons in any individual case.
Finally, the government argues that the Take Care Clause provides the states with no basis for relief. The government claims that the Take Care arguments are simply dressed-up versions of their statutory arguments, and that in any event the Take Care Clause is nonjusticiable. But even if the Take Care Clause requires something different than the statutory analysis, and even if it is justiciable, the government says that the Secretary has complied with it by enforcing and executing the INA (for the reasons stated above).
The states argue that DAPA violates the INA. They say that Congress has to expressly authorize the executive to defer removal for whole categories of aliens, because this question is so central to the INA’s statutory scheme. But they claim that Congress has not done this. They also contend that DAPA flouts the 1996 amendments to immigration statutes that deny certain benefits to unlawfully present aliens whom the executive elects not to remove. And they say that DAPA would render meaningless Congress’s comprehensive framework, which “define[s] numerous categories of aliens that are entitled to or eligible for work authorization.”
The states argue next that DAPA is invalid, because it was promulgated without notice-and-comment procedures. The states claim that DAPA is a substantive binding rule, not a policy, and was therefore subject to notice-and-comment requirements. They say that the President compared DAPA to a military order and promised consequences for officials who defied it. They also say that it gives no discretion to Department officials in its enforcement. Moreover, the states contend that DAPA is a rule because it affects individual rights and obligations, using legislative-type criteria to determine whether an alien qualifies for substantial government benefits. The states assert that “[t]his change is immensely important to the Nation and requires at least public participation through notice-and-comment procedure.”
Finally, the states argue that DAPA violates the Take Care Clause. They claim that DAPA declares conduct that Congress has determined unlawful to be lawful. They say that this is precisely the kind of power grab that the Take Care Clause was designed to prevent.
At its core, this case is about the meaning and sweep of DAPA. By the Secretary’s reckoning, DAPA is merely a policy that guides the discretion of Department agents in enforcing the INA—the same way that any Department policy might guide an agent’s discretion, well within the discretion authorized by the INA. But by the states’ reckoning, DAPA is a new and binding rule that contradicts the INA: it represents the executive’s effort to change the law, not simply enforce it.
To sort this out, the Court will look at the precise language of the INA and DAPA itself, of course. But it will also look to other indicia of congressional intent to enforce the INA. These may include things like congressional awareness of and acquiescence to longstanding Department regulations that seem to assume that the Department may use deferred action, and which grant benefits as a result of it. These may also include congressional appropriations, which amounted to $6 billion in 2016. This was enough to deport only a small portion of the estimated 11 million undocumented aliens currently living in the United States, thus strongly suggesting that Congress intended the Department not to remove large populations of unlawfully present aliens. (The government points out that the Department has recently been setting records for removals in a year, but still only removing about 440,000 in 2013, for example.) Finally, the Court will look at the Department’s prior deferred action policies, which at different times since 1960 covered undocumented Cuban nationals after the Cuban Revolution, undocumented spouses and children of aliens with legalized status, individuals who sought lawful status as battered spouses or victims of human trafficking, foreign students affected by Hurricane Katrina, widows and widowers of U.S. citizens who had no other avenue of immigration relief, and certain aliens who came to the U.S. as children.
Here’s one thing the Court won’t look at: the Department’s actual enforcement of DAPA. That’s because the states filed suit before the Department implemented DAPA, and so there is no record of Department enforcement of DAPA. The states claim that Department agents will implement DAPA much as they implemented DACA, and that under DACA agents did not exercise discretion in individual cases (suggesting that DACA and DAPA are new rules, and not merely policies guiding individual agent’s discretion).
Aside from the merits, the first issue in the case, standing, could be dispositive. It is not at all obvious that the states have standing under Court precedent. In perhaps the closest case, Massachusetts v. EPA, the Court held that the state had standing to challenge the EPA’s failure to regulate greenhouse gases, based on the state’s loss of coastline due to rising sea levels (due to increased greenhouse gases). But Massachusetts is hardly on all fours with this case. Still, it will likely play an important role in oral argument.
But it’s easy to think that these doctrinal issues are really just cover for underlying policy and political disputes. On the policy side, the case raises the important and contested questions of whether and how to deal with some of the 11 million unauthorized aliens in the United States. In particular: Should we protect certain classes of unauthorized aliens from immediate deportation for economic reasons (because they provide a net benefit to our economy), humanitarian reasons (to keep families together, for example), or just plain fairness reasons? The case also raises the important and contested question of who decides—the federal government, or the states. The Court answered that question unequivocally in favor of the federal government just four years ago in Arizona v. United States, 567 U.S. ___ (2012), the SB 1070 case. This case gives the Court another crack at it.
On the political side, the case is (obviously) yet another battle in the continuing war between Republicans and President Obama over immigration and executive authority. All twenty-six states that brought the case are led by Republican governors. (Yet at least one state that has a far more sizeable portion of the unauthorized alien population in the U.S., California, led by a Democrat, is notably absent from the suit.) Moreover, President Obama said that he initiated DACA and DAPA in the first place as a reaction to congressional (Republican) failure to take up immigration reform. The case is thus at the center of the ongoing dispute between a Democratic President who in the face of congressional intransigence has governed by executive order, and the Republican opposition that claims that this represents “executive overreach.”
The Seventh Circuit ruled yesterday in Lewert v. P.F. Chang's China Bistro, Inc. that restaurant-goers had standing to pursue their case against the restaurant chain for actions they took to protect themselves after the chain revealed that it had been the victim of a computer-system hack.
The ruling is a win for consumers insofar as it lets them get beyond the pleadings in data-breach cases (so long as they plead that they took measures to protect themselves and will suffer an increased chance of fraudulent charges or stolen identity). (The plaintiffs here now have a chance to move the case forward.) But it says nothing on the merits.
The case arose after P.F. Chang's announced that its computer system had been breached and that some consumer credit- and debit-card data had been stolen. At first, the restaurant didn't know the extent of the breach, so switched to a manual card-processing system at all locations around the country. Later, it announced that data was stolen from just 33 restaurants, including one in Schaumburg, Illinois.
The plaintiffs, diners at P.F. Chang's Northbrook, Illinois, location, worried that their information may have been stolen. One of the plaintiffs noticed fraudulent charges on his card soon after P.F. Chang's announcement; he cancelled his card and purchased an identity-theft-protection service. The other plaintiff did not have fraudulent charges, but he took extra time to monitor his credit-card statement and credit report. Both plaintiffs claimed that they suffered an increased risk of fraudulent charges and stolen identity.
The plaintiffs brought a class action, and P.F. Chang's moved to dismiss for lack of standing. The Seventh Circuit sided with the plaintiffs.
The court said that the plaintiffs' actions to protect themselves were sufficient harms to establish standing: the plaintiffs suffered action harms by taking precautionary steps to protect themselves, and they suffered imminent harms of increased chances of fraudulent charges and stolen identities.
As to causation, the court said that any questions--whether the data breach caused the plaintiffs' injuries--went to the merits. As to redressability, the court said that monetary relief could redress the harms.
Wednesday, April 13, 2016
The Ninth Circuit ruled today in Chen v. Allstate Insurance that a defendant's unaccepted offer of full judgment on a plaintiff's individual claim does not moot the plaintiff's individual claim, or his class action.
The ruling means that plaintiff Florencio Pacleb's individual claim and his class-action complaint against Allstate can move forward at the district court. This is a significant win for Pacleb (and other Ninth Circuit class plaintiffs) and answers a question left open by the Supreme Court.
The case arose when Pacleb filed a class-action suit against Allstate for calls he received from the insurance company on his cell phone, in violation of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. Before Pacleb moved for class certification (and shortly after the Supreme Court handed down Campbell-Ewald), Allstate tried to pick him off (and thus undermine his class action) by depositing full monetary judgment in escrow and promising to stop making calls to his cell phone. Allstate then moved to dismiss the case as moot.
Allstate's move was a clever exploitation of an open question from Campbell-Ewald. In that case, the Supreme Court held that "an unaccepted settlement offer has no force" and does not moot a claim. But the Court left open the question "whether the result would be different if a defendant deposits the full amount of the plaintiff's individual claim in an account payable to the plaintiff, and the court then enters judgment for the plaintiff in that amount." Allstate's move took up that open question.
But the Ninth Circuit didn't bite. The Ninth Circuit ruled first that Pacleb's individual claim wasn't moot, because he hadn't received full judgment. (The money was still in escrow, not in Pacleb's bank account.) The court went on to rule that circuit law allowed Pacleb to seek class certification, even if Allstate could fully satisfy Pacleb's individual claims. But the court said that even if circuit law didn't answer the question, language in Campbell-Ewald suggests that "when a defendant consents to judgment according complete relief on a named plaintiff's individual claims before certification, but fails to offer complete relief on the plaintiff's class claims, a court should not enter judgment on the individual claims, over the plaintiff's objection, before the plaintiff has had a fair opportunity to move for class certification."
In other words, a plaintiff's interest in class certification isn't satisfied by an offer of full judgment to the individual plaintiffs. And such an offer therefore doesn't moot the plaintiff's class claims.
The ruling is a victory for Pacleb and class plaintiffs in the Ninth Circuit (and maybe beyond), as it forecloses the latest pick-off gambit left open by the Supreme Court in Campbell-Ewald.
Monday, April 11, 2016
The Fifth Circuit ruled on Friday in Google v. Hood that a federal district court's injunction against Mississippi Attorney General James M. Hood III jumped the gun, and struck it. The ruling means that AG Hood's subpoena to Google remains live, and that he is not enjoined from bringing civil and criminal action against the web giant.
The case arose when AG Hood and certain other state AGs started expressing concerns that search engines weren't doing enough to stop copyright infringement, prescription drug and counterfeit product sales, and other "illegal and harmful" activity on the internet. Hood wrote to Google, and after some back-and-forth, issued a wide-ranging administrative subpoena, stating that there were "reasonable grounds to believe that Google Inc. may have violated . . . the Mississippi Consumer Protection Act."
Google sued in federal court, alleging that Hood's investigation violated Google's immunity under the Communications Decency Act, the Fourth Amendment, and the First Amendment rights of Google and its users, and seeking an injunction. The district court preliminarily enjoined Hood from enforcing the administrative subpoena and "bringing a civil or criminal charge against Google under Mississippi law for making accessible third-party content to Internet users (as threatened)."
Without touching the merits (even for likelihood of success, under the preliminary injunction standard), the Fifth Circuit struck the injunction. The court said that Google could bring the case in federal court, and that the district court did not err in not abstaining under Younger. But the court went on to say that Google's federal lawsuit was not ripe. That's because the subpoena was non-self-executing, and Hood had no independent authority to enforce it. (Instead, he has to enforce it through injunctive relief and a contempt motion in state court.) As to Hood's threats of civil or criminal enforcement: the court said that these were too "fuzzily defined," and that the court could not "on the present record predict what conduct Hood might one day try to prosecute under Mississippi law." In short: Google's case wasn't ripe, and the district court jumped the gun in issuing the injunction.
The ruling means that Hood can go ahead and try to enforce his subpoena in state court. He can also initiate any civil and criminal actions that Mississippi might allow. But when he does, he'll face Google's immunity and constitutional defenses in state court, and a likely second try in federal court.
Tuesday, April 5, 2016
The D.C. Circuit ruled today in U.S. v. Fokker Services B.V. that a federal district court cannot deny an exclusion of time under the Speedy Trial Act for a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) because the court disagrees with the government's charging decisions. The ruling, a victory for both parties, reverses the district court's decision on separation-of-powers grounds and remands the case.
The case arose when the parties asked the court for an exclusion of time under the Speedy Trial Act in order to allow the defendant to meet the government's conditions under the DPA. (The DPA provided that the government would defer prosecution so long as Fokker met certain conditions over an 18-month period. But if Fokker failed to meet the conditions after 18 months, the Speedy Trial Act would have prevented the government to pursue prosecution. So the parties moved the court for an exclusion of time under the Act.) The court denied the motion, saying that it disagreed with the government's decision to charge only the corporation, and not its individual officers, with violations. Both parties appealed.
The D.C. Circuit reversed. The court said that "[t]he Constitution allocates primacy in criminal charging decisions to the Executive Branch," and that "the Judiciary generally lacks authority to second-guess those Executive determinations, much less to impose its own charging preference." So when the court denied an exclusion of time because of its disagreement with the government's charging decision, it exceeded its own authority and intruded into the prerogative of the Executive.
The court said that "we construe [the Speedy Trial Act] in a manner that preserves the Executive's long-settled primacy over charging decisions and that denies courts substantial power to impose their own charging preferences."
The case now goes back to the district court for an order excluding time under the Speedy Trial Act and implementation of the DPA.
Monday, March 28, 2016
The Court will hear oral arguments on Tuesday in Ross v. Blake, the case testing whether the Prison Litigation Reform Act includes a "special circumstances" exception to the exhaustion requirement that excuses an inmate's failure to exhaust when he had a reasonable, but mistaken, belief that no further administrative remedies were available.
The case raises important access-to-justice questions in the context of administrative exhaustion in PLRA litigation. Here's my preview, from the ABA Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases, with permission:
Shaidon Blake is a prisoner serving a life sentence in the custody of the state of Maryland. In 2007, Blake was housed at the Maryland Reception, Diagnostic and Classification Center.
On June 21 of that year, Lieutenant James Madigan and Sergeant Michael Ross, officers at the Center, attempting to relocate Blake to another cellblock, handcuffed Blake and removed him from his cell. As the two officers escorted Blake to his new cellblock, Madigan shoved Blake twice. He then wrapped a key ring around his fingers and struck Blake at least four times in the face.
Ross asked another officer to call for assistance. Ross and Madigan then lifted Blake and dropped him to the floor. Ross put his knee into Blake’s chest, and Madigan restrained Blake until other officers arrived.
The responding officers took Blake to the medical unit. Blake declined treatment, but was later diagnosed with nerve damage.
Blake reported the episode to senior corrections officers and provided a written account of the assaults. Captain Calvin Vincent conducted a preliminary investigation. Vincent concluded that Madigan used excessive force and recommended that Madigan be disciplined. (Madigan later resigned in order to avoid termination.)
Vincent referred the incident to the Internal Investigative Unit, or “IIU,” a division of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services charged with investigating criminal violations and serious misconduct of correctional officers. The IIU undertook a year-long investigation into Madigan’s behavior and issued a formal report concluding that Madigan used excessive force against Blake. The report did not assign any fault to Ross or Blake. The IIU did not otherwise provide any redress or compensation to Blake. (The IIU is a criminal investigative unit. It lacks authority to remedy a prisoner’s complaint, or to discipline a correctional officer.)
Blake sued Ross, Madigan, two supervisors, and two government entities in federal court for civil rights violations. The district court dismissed the claims against the two supervisors and the government entities, leaving only Ross and Madigan as defendants.
Ross then moved to dismiss the case against him, alleging that Blake failed to exhaust his administrative remedies as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act, or “PLRA,” 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a). In particular, Ross claimed that Blake failed to use the administrative remedy process, or “ARP,” that the state created to address inmate grievances, including complaints about the use of force, and to provide redress and compensation to inmates. (Ross now claims that Blake alternatively could have filed a complaint with the Inmate Grievance Office, or “IGO,” an independent entity outside the prison that has authority to hear grievances in the first instance and award monetary damages, if the ARP was unavailable. When the ARP is available, the Inmate Grievance Office hears appeals from the ARP.) Ross said that Blake admitted having received a copy of the inmate handbook, which contains information about the ARP, but that Blake did not read those portions of the handbook and did not initiate an ARP grievance.
The district court granted Ross’s motion to dismiss. (The court at first dismissed Blake’s case against Madigan, too. But the court later reinstated that case, and Blake won a $50,000 judgment against Madigan. Madigan is not a part of this appeal.) Blake appealed, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed. This appeal followed.
The PLRA says that “[n]o action shall be brought with respect to prison conditions . . . by a prisoner confined in any jail, prison, or other correctional facility until such administrative remedies as are available are exhausted.” 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a). This means that a prisoner like Blake has to pursue, and exhaust, any internal, administrative remedies that he has available before filing a civil rights suit in federal court. Congress adopted the measure in order to allow a prison to address complaints internally, to reduce litigation (at least to the extent that a prison can resolve complaints internally), and to improve litigation by allowing the parties to develop a useful administrative record before going to court.
The Supreme Court has said that exhaustion means “proper exhaustion.” In other words, a prisoner must use all the administrative steps that the prison makes available, and do so in compliance with the applicable deadlines and other critical procedural rules. Woodford v. Ngo, 548 U.S. 81 (2006).
Still, some read more flexibility into the requirement. For example, Justice Breyer suggested in his concurrence in Woodford that well-settled exceptions to exhaustion in administrative law should also apply to the PLRA. Justice Breyer pointed to a Second Circuit case holding that “special circumstances” can excuse exhaustion (as in administrative law). The Second Circuit in that case concluded that a prisoner’s failure to exhaust “was justified by his reasonable belief” that no further remedies were available. Giano v. Goord, 380 F.3d 670 (2004). The Fourth Circuit adopted this same approach in ruling for Blake.
The parties dispute whether the PLRA has a “reasonable belief” exception to exhaustion. But they also dispute whether Blake actually exhausted his remedies. Recall that Blake pursued his complaint through the IIU, and not the ARP or IGO. The parties disagree over whether the IIU process amounts to exhaustion, and whether the ARP and IGO processes were actually available.
Ross argues first that the plain language of the PLRA requires strict and mandatory exhaustion. Ross claims that the Supreme Court affirmed this reading through its “proper exhaustion” rule in Woodford. Ross says that the Fourth Circuit’s approach—adopting an exception to exhaustion based on a prisoner’s “reasonable belief”—conflicts with the PLRA’s strict approach to exhaustion, because it excuses a prisoner’s failure to use a particular remedy based only on the prisoner’s misunderstanding. Ross contends that the PLRA’s plain language is clear, and that the courts have no authority to create an extra-textual exception to its strict and mandatory exhaustion requirement.
Ross argues next that the Fourth Circuit’s approach conflicts with the history and purposes of the PLRA. Ross claims that Congress enacted PLRA’s exhaustion requirement in order to replace a prior, ineffective requirement that permitted courts to require exhaustion only if doing so would be in the “interests of justice” and that the remedies were “plain, speedy, and effective.” Ross says that the current PLRA was enacted in order to eliminate judicial discretion from the exhaustion inquiry. He contends that the Fourth Circuit’s approach takes us back to the old system, which Congress unambiguously superseded with the more recent mandatory exhaustion requirement. Moreover, Ross claims that the Fourth Circuit’s approach would undermine the purposes of the PLRA, because it would result in more lawsuits without affording the prisons an opportunity to resolve them in the first instance. According to Ross, the Fourth Circuit’s approach would also mire the courts in the nuances of a prison’s grievance system in order to determine the reasonableness of a prisoner’s belief as to available remedies within the prison.
Third, Ross argues that the Fourth Circuit wrongly interpreted traditional administrative law exceptions, and thus wrongly imported a “reasonable belief” exception into the PLRA’s exhaustion requirement. Ross claims that there are only three sets of traditional exceptions to administrative exhaustion—where exhaustion would cause irreparable harm, where exhaustion would be futile, and where an agency is biased. Ross says that none of these traditional categories includes a “reasonable belief” exception, and so the Fourth Circuit erred in importing that exception (even if traditional administrative law exceptions apply to PLRA exhaustion).
Finally, Ross argues that even if the Fourth Circuit were correct in applying a “reasonable belief” exception, Blake does not satisfy it. Ross points to the fact that Blake never read the state’s grievance procedures. Ross says that if Blake would have read them, he would have seen that the APR process was available and most relevant to his kind of complaint. (Ross claims that the IIU process that Blake used against Madigan is designed for a different purpose—investigation of wrongdoing, not redress and compensation—and therefore does not satisfy the PLRA’s exhaustion requirement.) Ross contends that Blake’s failure to read the processes cannot amount to a “reasonable belief,” even if there is a “reasonable belief” exception to PLRA exhaustion.
(The government weighs in as amicus curiae in favor of Ross and makes substantially similar arguments.)
Blake argues first that this case does not properly address the Question Presented, whether the PLRA exhaustion requirement bars a lawsuit by a prisoner who made an objectively reasonable mistake in pursuing his administrative remedies. This is because Blake says that he made no mistake. He claims that the ARP process was not available to him, because routine practice at the time was to dismiss an ARP complaint when (as here) an IIU investigation was pending. (Blake points to five separate cases, including one filed on the same day as his assault, in which ARP complaints were dismissed as procedurally improper because an IIU investigation was pending.) He contends that the IGO procedure was similarly unavailable to him. Because his case does not fall within the Question Presented, Blake says that the Court should either affirm the Fourth Circuit’s decision or dismiss the appeal (as improvidently granted).
In the alternative, Blake argues that he properly exhausted his administrative remedies, because the ARP process and the IGO procedure were unavailable to him. Blake says that for a remedy to be available under the PLRA, it must be “sufficiently clear so that an objectively reasonable prisoner would know which remedy to use and how to use it.” Blake asserts that the two processes here fail that test. He claims that even Ross (represented here by the state attorney general) fails to identify which of the two proffered processes were available to him, underscoring just how unclear the policies were. Moreover, Blake claims that Ross’s position that the exhaustion requirement applies whenever a prisoner makes an error—and that the clarity of the remedy is irrelevant to its availability—is untenable, and gives the prisons a perverse incentive to make their administrative processes unnecessarily complex.
This case tests the flexibility of the exhaustion requirement in the PLRA. It asks: Does the exhaustion requirement apply rigidly, so that a prisoner must exhaust all administrative remedies, even if he reasonably, but mistakenly, thought he satisfied it? Or does the requirement have some give, so that a prisoner can satisfy it under those circumstances? The answer to these questions will also tell us when a federal judicial remedy is available to prisoners for civil rights violations. This is an important access-to-justice issue, and the Court’s ruling (one way or the other) will impact when and how prisoners can pursue a meaningful damages claim in court.
Whatever the Court says, however, Congress will have the last word. That’s because the case raises only a statutory question—interpretation of the PLRA—and not a constitutional one. Congress can always go back and undo through legislation anything the Court does through litigation.
Friday, March 25, 2016
Judge Amy Berman Jackson ruled this week in Friends of Animals v. Ashe that Friends lacked standing to challenge a decision by the Fish and Wildlife Service to issue permits authorizing two American hunters to import the trophies they garnered in legal hunts of black rhinoceros in Namibia. The ruling means that the case is dismissed.
The ruling illustrates the barriers for plaintiffs in challenging this kind government action, even before they get to the merits. The core problem, according to the court, is that the Service didn't cause the rhino hunting--the government of Namibia did--and so the court was powerless to remedy the loss of rhinos.
Judge Jackson ruled that the plaintiff-organization demonstrated an injury, the first standing requirement, through one of its members--but barely. In particular, Judge Jackson wrote that a Friends of Animals member who lives in Namibia demonstrated an injury, because he claimed that he viewed, and would view, black rhinos in the Kunene region and Etosha National Park. But the rhinos in this case came from Mangetti National Park. Judge Jackson nevertheless said that the plaintiff alleged a sufficient injury--though "the thinnest reed of an injury"--based on the allegation that the import permits will affect rhinos in the future, throughout the country.
But Judge Jackson went on to rule that the injury lacked causation and redressibility. In particular, she said that the reduced viewing opportunities of rhinos was caused by the Namibian government's authorization of the hunt, not the Service's permits, and that an order halting the permits would do nothing to stop hunting (again, authorized by Namibia).
Finally, the court held that Friends' claim that the Service has a "policy and repeated practice of issuing permits to import sport-hunted trophies of endangered animals" in violation of the Endangered Species Act and the APA wasn't ripe for review.
Thursday, March 24, 2016
In a case that's just crazy enough to have come right out of a ConLaw exam, the Tenth Circuit ruled this week that a group of nonprofits and businesses lacked standing to challenge Colorado's background-check requirement and ban on the possession, sale, and transfer of large-capacity magazines under the Second Amendment and the ADA.
The ruling says nothing on the merits, of course. But it is a pretty good "how-to" on losing on standing (if you're looking for such a thing): the ruling recounts, in detail, the plaintiffs' numerous and surprising missteps and lost opportunities in pressing their standing arguments.
First, the court rejected the plaintiffs' economic injury claim. But this isn't (necessarily) because it's a bad claim; instead, it's because the plaintiffs don't make it. "While compelling arguments may exist as to why we should adopt [an accepted approach on economic burdens when compliance is coerced by the threat of enforcement], the plaintiffs fail to make those arguments in their opening brief, and we decline to make them on their behalf." So the Tenth Circuit denied the plaintiffs' newly generated economic injury theory and applied the district court's credible-threat-of-prosecution test.
Next, under that test, the court said that a number of plaintiffs simply waived their challenge to the district court's ruling as to the background-check requirement. As to those left over, these organizations could only show that they had standing to challenge the background check by showing that it was a burden to comply with the background check--which means, of course, that they couldn't satisfy the credible-threat-of-prosecution test. One organization that alleged that it previously violated the background-check requirement ran into another problem: the prosecutor declined to prosecute. And as to current or future violations: the head of the organization pleaded the Fifth and thus declined to give any details.
Third, a good number of plaintiffs failed to provide any evidence of standing to challenge the large-capacity-magazine ban at the district court. They didn't appeal, and the plaintiffs didn't appeal the district court's failure to address other plaintiffs below. That left just one group on appeal. But that group couldn't establish associational standing on behalf of its member, because her large-capacity magazine was grandfathered by the ban, and her claim that she might eventually want to buy another was too speculative an injury.
Finally, two individuals argued that the gun laws violated the ADA, but failed to allege anything other than that they were disabled. The court said that this may be enough to show standing under the ADA, but it's not enough to show that they had constitutional standing to challenge the gun laws at issue here.
There were other problems with the plaintiffs' case, equally baffling. Take a peek if you're trawling for a good standing fact pattern for your next exam, or if you're looking for a good example how not to argue standing.
Wednesday, March 23, 2016
Here's my oral argument analysis in Simmons v. Himmelreich, re-posted from SCOTUSblog, with permission:
If you read the briefs in Simmons v. Himmelreich, you know that it could be tricky to figure out when a court’s dismissal of a federal prisoner’s Federal Tort Claims Act case forecloses his parallel Bivens claim. The issue involves no fewer than four interlocking FTCA provisions that together create quite a puzzle.
But for all the potential technicalities and complications in the case, the oral arguments turned on a surprisingly straightforward question: Does the plain language of just one FTCA provision, the “exceptions” provision, explicitly allow a parallel claim?
The question harkens back to the lead argument that Walter Himmelreich made in his merits brief. He pointed to Section 2680 of the FTCA, titled “Exceptions,” which says that “[t]he provisions of this chapter and section 1346(b) of this title shall not apply to” over a dozen different types of claims that are altogether exempt from the FTCA. (This includes Himmelreich’s FTCA claim, dismissed under the discretionary-function exception in Section 2680.) This means that the government has not waived immunity for these claims, and that the FTCA offers no cause of action, liability, or relief for them.
But by a literal reading, it also means that there is no bar to a non-FTCA claim arising out of the same events that falls within a Section 2680 exception. That’s because “the provisions of this chapter” in Section 2680 include the FTCA judgment bar itself. In other words, the plain language of Section 2680 exempts from the excepted claims (like Himmelreich’s FTCA claim) the very FTCA provision that bars a person like Himmelreich from filing a parallel claim. If this is right – and the plain language seems to support it – then the “exceptions” provision explicitly allows Himmelreich’s parallel Bivens claim. This may be the cleanest path to victory for Himmelreich, and it seemed to have the support of Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.
While the argument seems straightforward, there are some problems, according to the federal government. For example, if this reading of Section 2680 is right, then other key sections of the FTCA similarly wouldn’t apply to Section 2680 claims. In particular, the FTCA’s definitions section wouldn’t apply, and the section precluding state tort suits against federal agencies that could otherwise be subject to suit under their sue-and-be-sued authority wouldn’t apply. According to the government, this would lead to absurdities (in the case of the FTCA’s definitions section) and “massively expand[ed]” direct liability for the government, contrary to the intent of the FTCA (in the case of the section precluding state tort suits against federal agencies with sue-and-be-sued authority). (The provision applying the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the appellate review provision wouldn’t apply to Section 2680 claims, either. But it’s not clear that these lead to significant problems under the FTCA.) Chief Justice John Roberts pushed back against Christian Vergonis, arguing on Himmelreich’s behalf, on these points, suggesting that he wasn’t persuaded by Himmelreich’s literal reading of Section 2680.
The Court also spent significant time trying to figure out if Himmelreich’s Section 2680 argument runs contrary to the result in United States v. Smith. The government argued that if Section 2680 means precisely what it says (as Himmelreich claims), then Smith came out wrong. But Smith doesn’t address the question in this case, and it doesn’t compel the result. The arguments didn’t produce any further clarity on Smith or suggest that Smith might sway anyone’s vote. In the end, Smith is probably neutral: the government’s Smith argument alone doesn’t seem likely to change any positions on the Court.
Other arguments were in play, but barely. For example, Sotomayor opened with a line of questions for the government about why something as arbitrary as timing should matter – that is, why a plaintiff’s Bivens claim should be dismissed if filed after his FTCA claim, but not if filed before it. Ginsburg emphasized that the FTCA claim and the Bivens claim were different – the former looking to the government, but the latter looking to the individual officer – and why that means that Himmelreich’s Bivens claim is not subject to claim preclusion. And Justice Samuel Alito, leaning in the opposite direction, against Himmelreich, asked several times, and in several different ways, why a plain reading of the term “judgment” in the FTCA’s judgment bar didn’t answer the case. He also asked whether the Court should even address Himmelreich’s Section 2680 argument, given that the Sixth Circuit didn’t rule on it.
Based on the arguments, we could be looking at a four-to-four split, with the Court’s more liberal Justices siding with Himmelreich and his Section 2680 argument, and the more conservative Justices siding with the government and its judgment-bar argument. (Justice Anthony Kennedy asked just two questions, but they seemed to lean against Himmelreich.) That would leave the Sixth Circuit’s ruling in favor of Himmelreich in place. But it would also leave Himmelreich’s Section 2680 argument – and the larger question whether a prisoner’s dismissed FTCA claim can foreclose his parallel Bivens claim – open and on the table.
Monday, March 21, 2016
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in Whittman v. Personhuballah, the case testing whether a state's move to pack black voters into a congressional district supposedly to comply with Section 5 of the Voting Right Act, but with the effect of diluting black voters' influence, violates equal protection.
Not surprisingly, the justices spent a good deal of time on standing, in particular, whether Representative Forbes, a congressman who had a lock on reelection in District 4, had standing to challenge the lower court's redistricting plan, because it made it tougher for him to get reelected in District 4. (Indeed, he's running in District 2, where he has a better chance of election, for this reason.) Justices Sotomayor and Kagan seemed to take strong positions that Forbes lacked standing; Justice Breyer staked out an only somewhat weaker position. The conservatives, along with Justice Kennedy, seemed to lean the other way.
On the merits, Justice Kagan put the finest point on the challengers' theory: If a legislature redistricts based malign racial intent, but the map also perfectly promotes acceptable political interests, is it subject to strict scrutiny? Michael Carvin, attorney for the challengers, said no. Justice Kagan went right to the point: "that sounds to me as though it's a harmless error rule for racial discrimination. And we've never had a harmless error rule for racial discrimination."
Chief Justice Roberts put a similar question to all the attorneys, but his hypo did not include any other evidence of racial motive: "If race and partisanship are co-extensive, then . . . which one predominates?" Opponents of the legislature's map had to concede that it'd be a tie; and under a tie, race could not predominate.
The difference between Justice Kagan's hypo and Chief Justice Roberts's hypo is the evidence of the 55-percent BVAP floor. But Chief Justice Roberts didn't seem inclined to look to that evidence to show that race predominated with the legislature. He asked: How do we determine the intent of the legislature? By 10 percent say-so? By 80 percent say-so? What if most of the legislators were only interested in protecting their own party, even though the sponsor of the legislature's redistricting plan used a 55-percent-BVAP (race-based) floor? If the direct evidence of a 55-percent-BVAP floor doesn't persuade that race predominated, then it's a tie, and then race didn't predominate--and the legislature's plan stands.
Chief Justice Roberts was also troubled that the lower court didn't require the plaintiffs to show that a map based on partisanship interests would be different.
With Justice Kennedy seeming to lean with the conservatives, the case could be headed for a 4-4 split, which would uphold the lower court's ruling that District 3 was an unconstitutional racial gerrymander.
Tuesday, March 15, 2016
Here's my argument preview in Simmons v. Himmelreich, originally posted at SCOTUSblog. The case is scheduled for oral argument next Tuesday.
Federal prisoners who seek redress for civil rights violations face an infamous thicket of rules, regulations, statutes, and case law. Prisoners have to navigate often-complicated prison rules and regulations to file an administrative claim in the first instance. They have to check to see that they have exhausted all administrative options before filing in federal court. And they have to choose and plead their federal claims carefully. (And that’s just the beginning.) This thicket sometimes seems especially designed only to thwart prisoners’ claims entirely, creating an access barrier that restricts and even prohibits a federal prisoner from obtaining a remedy for a civil rights violation.
On the other hand, this thicket serves some important governmental interests. It helps ensure that a prison itself gets a first crack at providing relief to a prisoner. It helps narrow the issues and streamline a case for the federal court. And it ensures that a federal employee and the government itself need only defend against a single lawsuit arising out of the same incident.
This case tests the push and pull between the rules in this thicket. And while the case deals in the technical and sometimes complicated interplay between different statutory provisions, it really comes down to this simple question: When a federal prisoner seeks redress for a civil rights violation, does federal law favor relatively more open access to the courts, or does it favor protection of federal employees and the government?
In October 2008, Walter Himmelreich was serving a 240-month sentence at the Federal Correctional Institution in Elkton, Ohio, for the production of child pornography. Himmelreich’s crime didn’t sit well with another inmate at Elkton, a prisoner who was housed in the Special Housing Unit because of his disciplinary violations. That prisoner told officials that he was “not able to live with pedophiles” and that if he were released into the general compound he “will smash a pedophile.” Just four days after this prisoner made these claims, prison officials nevertheless transferred him back into the general compound where, perhaps unsurprisingly, he assaulted Himmelreich. Himmelreich suffered serious injuries, including internal bruising, external injuries, permanent ringing in the ears, persistent headaches, and a pinched nerve.
Himmelreich filed and lost an administrative tort claim. He then filed two separate suits in federal court – one under the Federal Tort Claims Act, and the other under Bivens, which allows a plaintiff to sue a federal officer for a constitutional violation, in this case the Eighth Amendment. The court dismissed the FTCA case and then the Bivens case. Himmelreich appealed the Bivens ruling, and after the case went up to the Sixth Circuit twice (where Himmelreich won both times), this question is now before the Court: Does a court’s dismissal of a prisoner’s FTCA case under the FTCA’s “discretionary act” exception foreclose that prisoner’s separate Bivens claim?
The case sits at the intersection of four provisions of the FTCA. The first is the FTCA’s jurisdictional provision, Section 1346(b). This provision waives the United States’s sovereign immunity and grants district courts “exclusive jurisdiction” over claims against the United States for torts by government employees arising out the scope of their employment. In practice, this section operates like ordinary tort claims against a private employer who concedes respondeat superior liability, that is, liability on behalf of its employees for acts within the scope of their employment.
The second provision is the FTCA’s list of exceptions in Section 2680. This provision contains several categories of claims to which the FTCA does not apply. One of those categories encompasses what is commonly known as the “discretionary function” exception: any claim based on a federal employee’s “exercise or performance or the failure to exercise or perform a discretionary function or duty.”
The third is the FTCA’s judgment bar in Section 2676. The judgment bar provides that:
The judgment in any action under [the jurisdictional provision] shall constitute a complete bar to any action by the claimant, by reason of the same subject mater, against the employee of the government whose act or omission gave rise to the claim.
In practice, the judgment bar forecloses a plaintiff’s ability to pursue other kinds of claims against government employees arising from the same underlying incident. Congress enacted the judgment bar to protect federal employees and the government itself from multiple suits by the same plaintiff for the same injuries. At the time of its adoption, this provision served primarily to bar parallel state-law tort claims filed against federal employees in state court. But since 1971, when the Court recognized a federal constitutional-tort cause of action against federal employees in Bivens, the judgment bar has also foreclosed a parallel Bivens cause of action.
The final provision is the Westfall Act. That act, enacted in 1988, after the FTCA, makes the FTCA the “exclusive” remedy for a tort claim against a federal employee. It also precludes state-tort claims against federal employees and provides for the prompt substitution of the United States for the employee-defendants in those state-tort cases. Because the Westfall Act bars state-tort suits directly against federal employees, the judgment bar now functions primarily to foreclose parallel federal Bivens claims.
After Himmelreich filed his first case (the FTCA case), the federal government moved to dismiss pursuant to the FTCA’s discretionary-function exception. The court granted the motion, noting that Section 2680 is an exception to the FTCA’s general waiver of sovereign immunity, and that the court therefore “lacks subject matter jurisdiction over acts falling within the discretionary function exception.” The court issued a document titled “JUDGMENT ENTRY” in which the court “ORDERED, ADJUDGED and DECREED” that the case was dismissed.
The court then dismissed Himmelreich’s second case, the Bivens case, for failure to state a claim. The Sixth Circuit reversed and remanded. The district court again dismissed the case, this time based on two alternative theories: Himmelreich’s failure to exhaust administrative remedies and the FTCA’s judgment bar. The Sixth Circuit again reversed, ruling that Himmelreich’s failure to exhaust administrative remedies was excused (an issue that is not now before the Court), and that the judgment bar did not foreclose Himmelreich’s Bivens claim. As to the latter, the court of appeals said that the district court’s dismissal under Section 2680 amounted to a dismissal for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, and that it was therefore not a “judgment” subject to the judgment bar. This is the question now before the Court.
The government argues that the district court’s dismissal of Himmelreich’s FTCA case was a “judgment” under the FTCA judgment bar and thus forecloses his Bivens claim against the individual prison officials. The government says that this interpretation comports with the plain definition of the term, Congress’s use of the term in other portions of the FTCA, and the congressional purpose of the judgment bar. The government contends that Himmelreich is wrong to argue that the judgment bar applies only to the subset of judgments that is capable of having some preclusive effect under the principle of res judicata. According to the government, the term “judgment” is nowhere confined only to judgments having preclusive effect. But even if the term “judgment” is so confined, the government claims that the district court’s dismissal under Section 2680 is still a “judgment” under the judgment bar. That’s because Section 2680 imposes “substantive limitations” on FTCA liability, which makes the dismissal a ruling “on the merits” and therefore (under claim preclusion) precludes another case raising the same claim. It’s also because the district court actually determined that Section 2680 applies, and so (under issue preclusion) the ruling precludes Himmelreich from relitigating the issue. (This argument hinges on Himmelreich’s claim that the judgment bar extends the same res judicata preclusive effect that the government has under the FTCA to a government employee.) Finally, the government says that Himmelreich is wrong to argue that the judgment bar does not apply to an FTCA action dismissed under Section 2680 (because the judgment bar covers any FTCA action), and that he is wrong to claim that the introductory language to Section 2680 prevents Section 2680 dismissals from triggering the judgment bar (because the Court has ruled otherwise in a related context).
Himmelreich counters that the judgment bar does not foreclose his Bivens claim against the individual officials. As an initial matter, he says that the judgment bar does not even apply here, because the plain terms of Section 2680 say that the FTCA’s other provisions, including the judgment bar, “shall not apply” to the categories of exceptions in Section 2680. It’s also because the judgment bar is only triggered by a “judgment” in a suit “under section 1346(b).” But he says that Section 1346(b) does not apply to the “claims” enumerated in Section 2680, so that his FTCA action was not even “under” Section 1346(b) in the first place.
Himmelreich argues next that the court’s dismissal for lack of jurisdiction is not a “judgment” under the judgment bar, because the court’s dismissal carries no res judicata effect (and thus does not shield the government employee from suit). Finally, Himmelreich claims that the government’s approach would lead to absurdities, including lower courts blocking Bivens claims based on technical defects (that result in dismissal) in a plaintiff’s FTCA case, encouraging personal-capacity lawsuits (before FTCA claims, which the FTCA was designed, in part, to prevent), and depriving plaintiffs of a remedy for civil rights violations.
In the end – as technical and complicated as this thicket can be – the bottom line is pretty simple: the Court will either favor more access to justice for federal prisoners who seek redress for civil rights violations, or it will favor the government’s interest in protecting its employees from lawsuits.
Friday, March 11, 2016
The Eighth Circuit ruled today that the ACLU lacked standing to bring a case against the director of the Missouri Department of Corrections to stop him from enforcing the state's ban on revealing the identities of execution team members. The ruling is a set-back for the ACLU and its efforts to disclose information about the state's executions, and, in particular, who provides the drugs. (Publicizing the providers has been an effective strategy by anti-death-penalty advocates to get those providers to stop providing.)
The case arose when the ACLU realized that it may have posted information about Missouri's executions (obtained under the Missouri Sunshine Law) that included "the identity of a current or former member of an execution team" in violation of a state law that prohibits revealing this information. The organization only realized the potential violation after it saw how the Department defined the members of the team--to include "anyone selected by the department director who provides direct support for the administration of lethal chemical, including individuals who prescribe, compound, prepare, or otherwise supply the lethal chemicals for use in the lethal injection procedure." So the organization removed the material from its web-site and moved quickly to sue the director for declaratory and injunctive relief, arguing that the law violated free speech, free press, and due process.
The director moved to dismiss, claiming that he was immune under the Eleventh Amendment, that the ACLU lacked standing, and that the claims failed as a matter of law.
The Eighth Circuit today sided with the director on immunity and standing (and didn't say anything on the merits). The court ruled that the director was immune, because under the law he has no role in enforcing the prohibition, even if he has authority to define the members of the execution team. But the court said that defining the members wasn't an enforcement action within the meaning of Ex Parte Young.
The court also ruled that the ACLU lacked standing. That's (again) because the director has no authority to enforce the prohibition. (Instead, the law provides for a civil cause of action by any execution team member against anyone who reveals his or her identity.) The court said that this means that the director's action (defining the execution team) didn't cause the ACLU's injury, and an injunction against the director wouldn't redress it.
But the court did recognize that the ACLU suffered an injury--an objectively reasonable fear of legal action that chills its speech. Because this fear derives from the possibility of a team member's suit, the organization could probably could sue a team member who appears in its materials for the same relief. Or it could post the material, wait to be sued, and then raise the constitutional defenses.
Monday, February 22, 2016
Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle (D.D.C.) dismissed a complaint by the estates of two persons killed in a drone strike in Yemen. Judge Huvelle ruled that the complaint, which sought a declaration that the strike violated the Torture Victim Protection Act and customary international law, raised a non-justiciable political question.
The case, Bin Ali Jaber v. U.S., grew out of a drone strike that killed five individuals in Yemen. The estates of two of the victims sued, seeking a declaration that the U.S. violated the TVPA and international law. The government moved to dismiss the case as a non-justiciable political question.
Judge Huvelle granted the motion. She wrote that the court lacked judicially manageable standards for judging the legality of a drone strike, and that the decision to order the strike was a "policy determination of a kind clearly for nonjudicial discretion."
Judge Huvelle distinguished Comm. of U.S. Citizens Living in Nicaragua v. Reagan and Al-Aulaqi v. Panetta--cases in which the courts held that tort claims arising from foreign policy decisions were justiciable--because the plaintiffs in those cases raised constitutional claims. "Because the judiciary is the ultimate interpreter of the Constitution, constitutional claims can require a court to decide what would otherwise be a political question, but no such claims have been made here."
Judge Huvelle recognized that her ruling was in tension with Judge Weinstein's decision in In re Agent Orange Product Liability Litigation--with claims "not materially distinguishable from plaintiffs'." But she said, "[O]f course, this Court is bound by the decisions of the D.C. circuit, not the Eastern District of New York."
Tuesday, February 16, 2016
Check out Prof. Michael T. Morley's (Barry) just-posted and timely piece, De Facto Class Actions? Injunctive Relief in Election Law, Voting Rights, and Constitutional Cases.
Morley provides a framework for courts deciding whether to award plaintiff-oriented injunction (limited to the plaintiff in the case) or defendant oriented injunction (applying more broadly, to the defendant's actions anywhere) in these kinds of cases:
First the court should assess whether granting the requested relief solely to the individual plaintiffs would create unconstitutional disparities concerning fundamental rights in violation of Equal Protection principles, although this seldom, if ever, should be the case. Second, after confirming that limiting relief solely to the individual plaintiffs would be constitutional, the court should then determine whether such a Plaintiff-Oriented Injunction would be proper under the challenged statute or regulation itself by applying traditional severability principles. If the challenged provision can be applied coherently, and the entity that enacted the provision still would have intended for it to be enforced, even with the plaintiffs excluded from its scope, then a Plaintiff-Oriented injunction would be the proper remedy. Otherwise, a Defendant-Oriented Injunction is required.
Wednesday, February 3, 2016
The Sixth Circuit ruled today that a state-court judge and clerk were immune from a suit for monetary damages for jailing plaintiffs for failure to pay their fines and court costs for low-level misdemeanors.
The case, Ward v. City of Norwalk, arose when Norwalk Municipal Court Judge John Ridge issued bench warrants for the plaintiffs' arrests for failing to pay their fines and court costs. (Ohio law authorizes this and sets a $50 per day rate.) Judge Ridge directed Clerk Pamela Boss to issue the warrants; Boss complied; and the plaintiffs were arrested and served time.
The plaintiffs sued for monetary damages, injunctive relief, and declaratory relief on a couple theories under 1983. (They also sued under state law claims, not at issue on appeal.) The court dismissed all but one--the plaintiffs' request for declaratory relief, and that probably will go away on remand.
The court held that the Eleventh Amendment barred the plaintiffs' suit for monetary damages against Judge Ridge and Clerk Boss, because they're employees of the Municipal Court, a state agency. (The court rejected the plaintiffs' argument that municipal corporations within the Municipal Court's jurisdiction are responsible for monetary damages, and so the court is identical to a municipality and not an arm of the state.) The court held that Judge Ridge and Clerk Boss enjoyed judicial immunity against claims against them in their official capacity.
As to injunctive and declaratory relief: the court pointed to the plain language of 1983, which requires the plaintiffs to show that a judicial officer violated a declaratory decree, or that declaratory relief was unavailable, before getting an injunction. The court thus dismissed the plaintiffs' request for an injunction. But it recognized that the plaintiffs' claim for declaratory relief could go on under Ex Parte Young, so it remanded to the district court to determine whether abstention, Rooker-Feldman, or the mootness doctrine barred the case from proceeding.
Tuesday, February 2, 2016
A divided panel of the Sixth Circuit ruled today that a county lacks standing to challenge the construction by another municipality of a sewer line, because the new line didn't compete with the old one, as prohibited by federal law.
The case involves an obscure federal statute, 7 U.S.C. Sec. 1926(b), that says that any sewer provider that owes money to the U.S. Department of Agriculture is protected from competition with other sewer providers. Trumbull County, as it turns out, owes money to the Department for its sewer lines, and so is protected from competition under the statute. And when the Village of Lordstown constructed sewer lines that could serve GM's Lordstown plant and a neighboring trailer park, in competition with the County's sewer lines, the County sued.
But there was one problem: Lordstown's lines aren't (yet) operative.
The lower court ruled against the County on the merits, concluding that Lordstown's lines didn't compete, because they weren't operative.
The Sixth Circuit went in a different direction, and said that the County lacked standing--because it couldn't allege an injury (competition) under the statute.
Judge Rogers said the whole thing stinks. He dissented, writing that "[i]f a neighbor increases the risk to your property, e.g., by removing a floodwall, you have standing to challenge the removal, even if the flood is not impending and indeed may never occur." So too here: "The plaintiff by winning would obtain insurance against a costly albeit uncertain hit to its tax base, the very possibility of which would at some level immediately reduce confidence in the long-term financial health of the county."
Friday, January 29, 2016
The D.C. Circuit ruled today in In Re: Idaho Conservation League that environmental organizations had standing to challenge EPA's failure to issue financial assurance regulations under CERCLA, and that the court could therefore grant the parties' joint motion for an order establishing an agreed upon schedule for rulemaking.
The upshot is that the court now approved the parties' agreement that the EPA will commence rulemaking to issue financial assurance regulations for the hardrock mining industry, and that the agency will consider whether other industries should be involved with financial assurance rulemaking.
The standing part of the ruling hinges on financial incentives: The plaintiffs had standing not because new regs would certainly redress their injuries, but because they created a financial incentive to.
The case involves a CERLCA requirement that EPA issue "financial assurance" regulations--so that entities potentially responsible for the release of hazardous substances can put aside funding, or demonstrate that funding is available, for cleanup. But despite the statutory requirement, EPA never got around to issuing the regs.
Enter the plaintiff environmental organizations. They sued, seeking a court order to force EPA to commence rulemaking. After oral argument, the parties agreed on a schedule for rulemaking for the hardrock mining industry, and a timetable for EPA to determine whether to engage in financial assurance rulemaking for any of three other industries under consideration.
But the court had to satisfy itself that it had jurisdiction before it would sign off. In particular, the court said it had to determine if at least one of the plaintiffs had standing.
The court said at least one did. The court said that at least one of the plaintiff organizations had at least one member who suffered harm, because the member was affected by hazardous releases from hardrocking mining. The court went on to say that EPA's financial assurances regs would redress that harm, because the regs would create a financial incentive to decrease pollution. Here's the court:
With respect to mitigating ongoing hazardous releases, the lack of financial assurance requirements causes mine operators to release more hazardous substances than they might if such financial assurance requirements were in place. . . . . In view of [mine operators' common practice of dodging cleanup costs by declaring bankruptcy and sheltering assets], financial assurances would strengthen hardrock mining operators' incentives to minimize ongoing hazardous releases. By making it more difficult for mine operators to avoid paying for the cleanup of their hazardous releases, basic economic self-interest means the operator will take cost-effective steps to minimize hazardous releases in order to minimize their environmental liabilities.
According to the court, it "has long relied on such economic and other incentives to find standing," and "[t]his incentives-based theory of standing is further supported by congressional and agency assessments." This is so, said the court, even though hardrock mining is already subject to some financial assurance requirements. That's because the new regs will fill the gaps in protection.
The court said that the regs would also expedite cleanup efforts, thus reducing the time that plaintiffs are exposed to hazards.
The ruling gives the force of a federal court order to the parties' agreement that EPA will commence rulemaking on financial assurances for hardrock mining, and will consider adding other industries.