Recent Federal Opinions of Interest

Fifth Circuit

United States v. Vargas-Ocampo – 11-41363: The Court sitting en banc abandons the equipoise rule, which provided that where circumstantial evidence can just as easily support a theory of guilt as a theory of innocence, an appellate court must reverse. This abandonment is driven by a new interpretation of the Supreme Court’s instruction in Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307 (1979), which requires courts to affirm a conviction if, reviewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict, “any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.” Remaining avenues for challenging a jury’s conviction remain “whether the jury’s inferences were rational, as opposed to being speculative or insupportable, and whether the evidence is sufficient to establish every element of the crime.”

Cooley v. Housing Authority of the City of Slidell, 13-30797: Summary judgment for a plaintiff in review of a local housing agency’s denial of Section 8 housing support. The Court affirms, concluding that the agency was arbitrary and capricious when it refused to renew the plaintiff’s rental assistance after she did not receive notice of the renewal hearing until after the hearing took place, and immediately contacted the agency when she did receive notice.

United States v. Romero – 12-50915: The Court vacates a child pornography sentence, because the district court used a sentencing enhancement based on its conclusion that the defendant had used a child in sexually explicit conduct in the creation of the pornographic images. Because there was no question that the images in question were innocent until digitally manipulated, the use of the sentencing enhancement was error.

Hague v. University of Texas Health Sciences Center – 13-50102: The Court finds that the plaintiff’s EEOC charge of discrimination did not allege sex discrimination, and therefore that claim is unexhausted and summary judgment was proper. Her sexual harassment claim also fails because her alleged harasser was not her supervisor, and therefore, when properly analyzed as a hostile working environment claim, it fails because the only two alleged events of harassment were insufficiently pervasive to affect a term, condition, or privilege of employment.

Planned Parenthood v. Abbott – 13-51008: Abortion providers have third-party standing to challenge restrictions on doctors’ and patients’ rights to perform and receive abortions, respectively. The Casey undue burden standard applies, regardless of whether the regulation is directed to maternal health or fetal life. Examining Texas’ admitting-privilege requirement for physicians at abortion providers under rational basis review, the Court concluded that the state’s evidence of a connection between admitting privileges and quality of care easily met the standard for rational basis review. The evidence presented to the district court does not permit a conclusion that the regulation imposes an undue burden, even if every clinic that the plaintiffs alleged would close actually closes. The regulation provides 100 days for abortion providers to obtain admitting privileges; but it can take as much as 170 days for a hospital to offer privileges to new applicants, and so the Court severed the regulation from being enforced against clinics whose doctors had timely sought admitting privileges but had not received them. Regarding a regulation that essentially banned the use of medical abortions in certain cases (as distinct from surgical abortions), the Court concluded that there was a medical debate regarding whether medical abortions were appropriate in those cases, and thus there could be no undue burden where a particular procedure could be contraindicated for all patients.

Sixth Circuit

D’Ambrosio v. Marino – 13-3118: A 42 U.S.C. 1983 action under Monell, alleging individual and municipal liability. The plaintiff received habeas relief under Brady v. Maryland, where the prosecutor failed to disclose exculpatory information. The civil action followed. The Court found the suit timely, ruling that 1983 causes of action accrue when an underlying conviction is set aside, if ever, if success in the tort action would bring the conviction into question. However, the complaint failed to state a plausible claim for relief because there was no allegation of an unconstitutional county policy, the detective investigating the case was under no obligation to disclose directly to the defense. Thus, no constitutional violation occurred, and dismissal was proper.

Huffman v. Hilltop Companies – 13-3938: Arbitration agreements not listed in a contract’s post-termination survival clause nevertheless survive the termination of the agreement where the non-compete agreementintegration clause, and severability clauses were similarly not listed, but could not reasonably be considered to have expired upon termination of the agreement.

United States v. Wright, et al. – 12-4445/4447/4448/4493: Four accused terrorists challenge their sentences on various grounds, including the use of a terrorism enhancement, a leadership enhancement, procedural and substantive reasonableness. The Court affirms unanimously as to three of the four, ruling that the terrorism enhancement was appropriate because the evidence demonstrated that they were aware that their actions would implicate government interests and involve combat with law enforcement. Judge Cole would vacate and remand as to one defendant because the evidence did not demonstrate his participation in that conversation. The remainder of the panel affirms as to this defendant, disagreeing with Judge Cole’s import of the evidence.

Demyanovich v. Cadon Plating and Coatings – 13-1015: The Court reverses a grant of summary judgment in this Family Medical Leave Act and Americans with Disabilites Act case. There was a dispute of material fact as to whether the defendant was a covered employer under FMLA, because the plaintiff presented evidence that a reasonable jury could use to conclude that the defendant was integrated with a larger company. The jury could have concluded that the plaintiff could have returned to work, because his doctor had not certified that he was permanently unable to return, and inferring such a conclusion from the doctor’s advice that the plaintiff not return was not permissible in summary judgment. The employer’s proffered non-discriminatory motive could be pretextual, based on evidence the plaintiff presented that it had no basis in fact. The plaintiff presented direct evidence of FMLA retaliation, precluding summary judgment. Finally, the plaintiff presented evidence that at the time of his termination, he could perform the essential functions of the job, precluding summary judgment on his ADA claims.

Eighth Circuit

Magee v. Trustees of the Hamline University – 13-1976: Magee was a law professor at Hamline who was critical of the St. Paul police. The police union, aggrieved by Magee’s criticisms, elected to terminate several non-protective contractual relationships with the university. Magee claimed that this violated her freedom of speech.The Court affirms the dismissal, concluding: the police officer who spearheaded the boycott of Hamline was not a state actor, since none of his actions were enabled by his police officer status; the university actors did not conspire with a state actor, since there was no allegation of conspiracy at all (theoretically, if there had been allegations sufficient to give rise to conspiracy, there still would be no constitutional violation since the officer was not a state actor). The union was not a state actor, either.

Jackson v. Nixon – 12-2531: The Court reverses the dismissal of a prisoner’s First Amendment claim because if, as he alleged, his eligibility for parole was predicated on his completion of a religious substance-abuse counseling program he found offensive, then he had been coerced to exercise religion. Judge Smith dissents, arguing that a voluntary counseling program cannot be coerced, particularly where no additional punishment is assigned for refusal to participate.


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