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.
Wednesday, January 20, 2016
The Supreme Court ruled today that a plaintiff's case does not become moot when the plaintiff rejects an offer of settlement for complete relief. The ruling means that a case can go on, even after a plaintiff rejects an offer of complete relief.
The ruling is a huge victory for plaintiffs, especially plaintiffs who might lead a class-action. It's also a sharp rebuke of the defense-side tactic to moot out a case or class action by offering full relief to the lead plaintiff--a tactic known as pick-off. By ruling for the plaintiff, and by rejecting the pick-off tactic, today's ruling is also a victory for access to justice, and stands in contrast to the spate of other Court rulings limiting access and favoring corporate defendants.
The case arose when Jose Gomez received an unwanted Navy recruitment text on his cell phone from Navy contractor Campbell-Ewald. Gomez sued Campbell-Ewald under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. Before Gomez could move for class certification, however, the defendant offered complete relief; Gomez rejected the offer; and the defendant moved to dismiss the case as moot.
The Court ruled that the case was not moot. Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justices Kennedy, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, wrote that under basic contract principles, Campbell-Ewald's offer, once rejected by Gomez, had no continuing effect. With no settlement offer on the table, the parties retained the adversity necessary for an Article III case or controversy--so the rejected offer didn't render the case moot.
Justice Thomas concurred separately to argue that the result should "rest instead on the common-law history of tenders," not contract principles.
Chief Justice Roberts, joined by Justices Scalia and Alito, dissented. The Chief wrote that the rejected settlement offer meant that there was no longer any real dispute in the case:
If there is no actual case or controversy, the lawsuit is moot, and the power of the federal courts to declare the law has come to an end. Here, the District Court found that Campbell agreed to fully satisfy Gomez's claims. That makes the case moot, and Gomez is not entitled to a ruling on the merits of a moot case.
Wednesday, January 6, 2016
Despite the United States Supreme Court's holding last Term in Obergefell v. Hodges holding that the Fourteenth Amendment requires states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, the controversial Chief Judge of the Alabama Supreme Court Roy Moore issued an " Adminstrative Order" forbidding probate judges from issuing same-sex marriage licenses "contrary to the Alabama Sanctity of Marriage Amendment or the Alabama Marriage Protection Act" since those laws "remain in full force and effect."
Today's administrative opinion is part of Moore's ongoing reaction to constitutional issues surrounding same-sex marriage. After an Alabama federal judge issued an opinion finding the denial of same-sex marriage unconstitutional, Judge Moore argued that the Alabama was not bound by the federal courts on the same-sex marriage issue. Recall that the United States Supreme Court declined to stay the federal judge's judgment. Despite these direct orders, seemingly Moore's current argument in today's Administrative Order is that Obergfell does not apply to Alabama but only the states involved in the Sixth Circuit opinion to which the Court granted certiorari.
Judge Moore's "interesting" construction of constitutional law is not limited to the precedential value of United States Supreme Court opinions. Several months ago - - - in a lesbian second-parent adoption case, E.L. - - - the Alabama Supreme held that Alabama need not accord full faith and credit to a Georgia decision because of a dissenting opinion. The United States Supreme Court stayed the decision in E.L. pending a decision on the petition for certiorari.
January 6, 2016 in Courts and Judging, Due Process (Substantive), Equal Protection, Family, Federalism, Fourteenth Amendment, Full Faith and Credit Clause, Fundamental Rights, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, Opinion Analysis, Sexual Orientation, Sexuality | Permalink | Comments (0)
Friday, December 18, 2015
Judge Royce Lamberth (D.D.C.) ruled yesterday that the district court lacked jurisdiction over a Guantanamo detainee's habeas claim seeking his periodic review, as ordered by President Obama.
The ruling in Salahi v. Obama leaves Guantanamo detainees without a way to enforce the Periodic Review Board process set by executive order by President Obama.
Recall that President created an interagency process in 2011 to periodically review whether continued detention of certain Guantanamo detainees was "necessary to protect against significant threat to the security of the United States." Under EO 13567, every detainee was to get a full hearing every three years from a PRB, plus interim review under certain circumstances.
Salahi has been detained at Guantanamo since 2002, without charges, and has yet to have a PRB hearing (or even have one scheduled). He filed a habeas claim in the D.C. District seeking, among other things, a scheduled PRB hearing.
The court rejected his claim. The court said that "probabilistic" claims--that is, claims that only might lead to release--don't fall within habeas, and that in any event the EO didn't create any substantive rights that a Guantanamo detainee might actually enforce in court.
The upshot is that while the President may order periodic review, that doesn't mean that detainees can actually get it.
Monday, November 9, 2015
A sharply divided panel of the Fifth Circuit ruled today that states had a substantial likelihood of success on the merits in their case against the President's deferred action program for parents of Americans and lawful permanent residents, or DAPA. The ruling affirms a nationwide injunction issued by the lower court and means that the government is barred from enforcing DAPA across the country--unless and until the government files for and wins a stay and appeals.
The ruling is a win for plaintiff-states that don't like DAPA and a loss, though perhaps not unexpected (at the conservative Fifth Circuit), for the government.
The dispute between the majority and the dissent on the merits comes down to whether DAPA is really an exercise of discretionary non-enforcement (majority says no; dissent says yes) and whether DAPA violates federal law (majority says yes; dissent says no). The majority and dissent also dispute the states' ability to bring the suit in the first place, or their standing.
This ruling is surely not the last say on the question; this case is undoubtedly going to the Supreme Court.
The court issued four key holdings. First, the court said that the states had standing, and that the case is justiciable. Next, the court said that DAPA likely violated notice-and-comment rules of the APA. Third, the court said that DAPA likely violated federal law (the Immigration and Naturalization Act) and therefore violated substantive APA requirements. Finally, the court said that the district court was within its discretion to issue a nationwide injunction.
The court did not address the plaintiffs' Take Care Clause challenge.
As to standing, the court said as an initial matter that the states were due "special solicitude" for standing under Massachusetts v. EPA. The court went on to say that the states had standing because DAPA would require them to issue drivers licenses to DAPA beneficiaries, because DAPA would "impos[e] substantial pressure on them to change their laws" for drivers licenses, and because the states "now rely on the federal government to protect their interests" in immigration matters.
On the procedural APA claim, the court ruled that the states "established a substantial likelihood that DAPA would not genuinely leave the agency and its employees free to exercise discretion," despite conflicting evidence on the point, apparently ignored by the lower court. The court also ruled that DAPA is a substantive rule (and not procedural), because "receipt of DAPA benefits implies a 'stamp of approval' from the government and 'encodes a substantive value judgment,' such that the program cannot be considered procedural." As a result, according to the court, DAPA was subject to APA notice-and-comment rulemaking, and, because the government didn't use notice and comment, the states had a substantial likelihood of success on their procedural APA claim.
On the substantive APA claim, the court said that DAPA is "manifestly contrary to the [Immigration and Naturalization Act]," in particular, the INA's "specific and intricate provisions" that "directly addressed the precise question at issue." The court rejected the government's claim that DAPA is consistent with historical practice.
Importantly, the court did not "address whether single, ad hoc grants of deferred action made on a genuinely case-by-case basis are consistent with the INA . . . ." It only concluded "that the INA does not grant the Secretary discretion to grant deferred action and lawful presence on a class-wide basis to 4.3 million otherwise removable aliens."
Finally, the court said that the district court could issue a nationwide injunction, because, in short, immigration is a nationwide issue that calls for uniform regulation.
Judge King wrote a lengthy and sharp dissent, challenging the majority at each turn.
Monday, November 2, 2015
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in Spokeo v. Robins, the case testing whether Congress can confer standing on a plaintiff by statute, even when the plaintiff lacks a sufficient and independent harm for Article III standing purposes.
The case is important for what it will say about access to the courts, and, in particular, class actions. The justices at oral arguments seemed sharply divided along conventional ideological lines, with progressives favoring access and conservatives, including Justice Kennedy, going the other way. If so, the case will take its place among the line of cases coming out of the Roberts Court that limit access to the judiciary and favor (corporate and government) defendants.
(Check out the outstanding Vanderbilt roundtable on the case, with six different takes, available here.)
The case arose when Spokeo, the owner of a web-site that provides searchable reports containing personal information about individuals, reported false information about Thomas Robins. For example, Spokeo reported that Robins had a graduate degree (he doesn't), that he was employed in a professional or technical field, with "very strong" "economic health" and wealth in the "Top 10% (he's unemployed), and that he's in his 50s, married, with children (he's not in his 50s, not married, and no children).
Robins filed suit, claiming that Spokeo's representations violated the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act. He sought damages under the Act for a willful violation. Robins claimed that Spokeo's false report made it harder for him to find a job.
Justices Kagan and Scalia marked out the competing positions early in Spokeo's argument, and at times bypassed Spokeo's attorney (Andrew Pincus) entirely and simply argued with each other. At one point, Justice Scalia even intervened to answer a question for Pincus, and then told Pincus that it was the right answer. In short, Justice Kagan argued that Congress identified a concrete harm in the Act and provided a remedy for it; Justice Scalia argued that any harm was merely "procedural," because any harm was only Spokeo's violation of the Act's procedures (with no additional concrete harm). Here's a little of the exchange:
Justice Kagan: But did that procedural requirement--this is--this is exactly what Lujan says, "It's a procedural requirement the disregard of which could impair a concrete interest of the plaintiff."
And we distinguished that from procedural requirements in vacuo.
. . .
Justice Scalia: Excuse me. That--that would lead to the conclusion that anybody can sue . . . not just somebody who--whose information was wrong.
Pincus seemed to make an important concession in response to a question by Justice Kennedy, whether "Congress could have drafted a statute that would allow [Robins] to bring suit?" Pincus said yes, and proceeded to describe it--basically a statute that required a plaintiff to show a concrete harm that would be sufficient for Article III. If Justice Kennedy is in play, Pincus's softer position may assuage any concerns over an extreme position that Congress can never confer standing. The softer position also saves other statutes that have similar Congress-confered-standing provisions. (Justice Kennedy picked up this theme with Robins's attorney (William Consovoy) and noted that Consovoy's position of a Congress-created-harm (alone) seemed circular--but Consovoy didn't seem to give a satisfying answer.) At one point Pincus made another important concession: some plaintiffs might have standing under the FCRA, so long as they show an independent and sufficient harm.
On the other side, Chief Justice Roberts pressed Consovoy early on the limits of his argument--a point we're likely to see in the opinion:
Chief Justice Roberts: What about a law that says you get a--a--$10,000 statutory damages if a company publishes inaccurate information about you? . . . The company publishes your phone number, but it's wrong. That is inaccurate information about you, but you have no injury whatever. Can that person bring an action for that statutory damage?
Consovoy didn't have a response, or, rather, his response only opened new cans of worms. (Justice Breyer intervened and offered an interpretation of the statutory language that gives a cause of action to "any consumer who has obtained--who suffers from false information.") Chief Justice Roberts and Consovoy had a similar exchange later in the argument, too. Consovoy maintained that the FCRA was different than the Chief's hypotheticals, because the FCRA authorizes damages only for someone who was injured. He didn't seem to persuade the Chief on this point, though, despite Justice Breyer's help.
Justice Alito pointed to the record and argued that it didn't support a concrete harm. Indeed, he pointed out that nobody in the record (other than Robins himself) searched for him on Spokeo--a "quintessential speculative harm"--probably another point we'll see in the final opinion.
Chief Justice Roberts asked a different question--and a far more loaded one (politically, and constitutionally)--to the government, amicus for Robins:
Chief Justice Roberts: [L]et's kind of say your--your--Congress thinks that the president is not doing enough to stop illegal immigration, so it passes a law that says, anyone in a border State--so it's particularized--who is unemployed may bring an action against an illegal immigrant who has a job. And they get damages, maybe they get an injunction.
. . .
And I would have thought that the--the president would be concerned about Congress being able to create its own enforcement mechanism. I thought that you would be concerned that that would interfere with the executive prerogative.
The government tried to distinguish the hypo, but, again, counsel probably didn't persuade the conservatives.
November 2, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Courts and Judging, Executive Authority, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, News, Opinion Analysis, Separation of Powers, Standing | Permalink | Comments (0)
Friday, October 30, 2015
The D.C. Circuit ruled today that an association of CPAs and their firms had "competitor standing" to challenge an IRS program that allows previously uncredentialed tax return preparers who meet certain prerequisites to have their names listed in the IRS's online "Directory of Federal Tax Return Preparers."
The ruling is a victory for the association and allows the case to go forward on the merits.
The ruling is also a victory for anyone who wants to get into federal court to challenge an action that may give their competitors an edge, even if the link between the action and the edge is based only on "basic economic logic."
The IRS program allows previously uncredentialed tax return preparers--so-called "unenrolled preparers"--to get listed if they take a class and meet other requirements. The program is a boon to preparers who take advantage of it, because they'll get listed with the IRS and, as a result, get more tax preparation business. It'll also likely deal a blow to CPAs and other already-credentialed preparers, because they'll now have to compete toe-to-toe with lower-cost unenrolled preparers.
The association challenged the program for violating notice-and-comment rulemaking requirements. The district court dismissed the case for lack of standing. The association appealed and argued, among other things, competitor standing.
The D.C. Circuit agreed with the association. It wrote that association members "will face intensified competition as a result of the challenged government action. Specifically, participating unenrolled preparers will gain a credential and a listing in the government directory." The court accepted the association's claim that this "will 'dilute the value of a CPA's credential in the market for tax-return-preparer services' and permit unenrolled preparers to more effectively compete with and take business away from presumably higher-priced CPAs."
You might wonder why the link between the IRS program and the CPAs' harm isn't too speculative (under, say, Clapper v. Amnesty International). After all, the IRS program is voluntary, not compulsory, so it's not obvious that any unenrolled preparer will even participate; moreover, it's not obvious that IRS listing will benefit a participant; and moreover it's not obvious that listing will benefit a participant to the detriment of CPAs. The court had an answer to all this: "basic economic logic." The court explained:
To begin with, the link between the government-backed credentials offered to unenrolled preparers and the reputational benefit they will enjoy is hardly speculative. Indeed, the reputational benefit is the very point of the IRS Program. . . . Moreover . . . the IRS Program at issue here is both voluntary and clearly intended to offer competitive benefits to those unenrolled preparers who participate in the Program. "Basic economic logic" suggests that unenrolld preparers will choose to participate only if they believe the resulting reputational benefit will produce a substantial enough competitive advantage to outweigh their compliance costs.
The court declined to consider the IRS argument that the association's complaint wasn't within the "zone of interests protected or regulated by the statutory provision" it invokes, because the IRS didn't raise it at the district court.