Justia Civil Rights Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Constitutional Law
by
In March 2020, Idaho enacted the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act, a law that categorically bans transgender women and girls from participating in women's student athletics. The Act also provides a sex dispute verification process, which allows any individual to dispute the sex of any student athlete participating in female athletics in the State of Idaho and require her to undergo intrusive medical procedures to verify her sex. Lindsay Hecox, a transgender woman who wished to try out for the Boise State University women’s track and cross-country teams, and Jane Doe, a cisgender woman who played on high school varsity teams and feared that her sex would be disputed under the Act due to her masculine presentation, filed a lawsuit against the Act.The United States District Court for the District of Idaho granted a preliminary injunction against the Act, holding that it likely violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The court found that the Act subjects only students who wish to participate in female athletic competitions to an intrusive sex verification process and categorically bans transgender girls and women at all levels from competing on female teams. The court also found that the State of Idaho failed to provide any evidence demonstrating that the Act is substantially related to its asserted interests in sex equality and opportunity for women athletes.The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision, holding that the Act likely violates the Equal Protection Clause. The court found that the Act discriminates on the basis of transgender status and sex, and that it is not substantially related to its stated goals of equal participation and opportunities for women athletes. The court remanded the case to the district court to reconsider the appropriate scope of injunctive relief. View "Hecox v. Little" on Justia Law

by
Seattle Pacific University (SPU), a religious institution, filed a lawsuit against the Washington Attorney General, alleging First Amendment violations arising from the Attorney General's investigation into the university's employment policies and history under the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD). SPU prohibits employees from engaging in same-sex intercourse and marriage. After receiving complaints, the Attorney General requested documents related to SPU's employment policies, employee complaints, and job descriptions. SPU sought to enjoin the investigation and any future enforcement of WLAD.The district court dismissed the suit, citing lack of redressability and Younger abstention. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part. The court held that SPU failed to allege a cognizable injury for its retrospective claims, as the Attorney General's request for documents carried no penalties for non-compliance. However, the court found that SPU had standing for its prospective pre-enforcement injury claims, as SPU intended to continue employment practices arguably proscribed by WLAD, the Attorney General had not disavowed its intent to investigate and enforce WLAD against SPU, and SPU's injury was redressable. The court also held that Younger abstention was not warranted as there were no ongoing enforcement actions or any court judgment. The case was remanded to the district court to consider prudential ripeness. View "SEATTLE PACIFIC UNIVERSITY V. FERGUSON" on Justia Law

by
A group of patrons of the Llano County library system in Texas sued the county, its officials, and the library's director and board, alleging that their First Amendment rights were violated when seventeen books were removed from the library due to their content. The plaintiffs claimed that the books, which covered topics such as sexuality, homosexuality, gender identity, and the history of racism, were removed because the defendants disagreed with their messages. The district court granted a preliminary injunction, requiring the defendants to return the books and preventing them from removing any other books during the lawsuit.The defendants appealed the decision, arguing that the removal of the books was part of the library's standard process of reviewing and updating its collection, known as the "Continuous Review, Evaluation and Weeding" (CREW) process. They also claimed that the plaintiffs could still access the books through an "in-house checkout system."The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision, but modified the language of the injunction to ensure its proper scope. The court found that the plaintiffs were likely to succeed on the merits of their First Amendment claim, as the evidence suggested that the defendants' substantial motivation in removing the books was to limit access to certain viewpoints. The court also found that the plaintiffs would likely suffer irreparable harm if the injunction was not granted, as they would be unable to anonymously peruse the books in the library without asking a librarian for access. The court concluded that the balance of the equities and the public interest also favored granting the injunction. View "Little v. Llano County" on Justia Law

by
The case involves the American Alliance for Equal Rights (the Alliance), a membership organization dedicated to ending racial classifications and preferences in America, and Fearless Fund Management, LLC (Fearless), a venture capital fund that invests in businesses led by women of color. Fearless organized the "Fearless Strivers Grant Contest," a funding competition open only to businesses owned by black women. The Alliance, representing several members who wished to participate in the contest but were not black women, sued Fearless, alleging that the contest violated 42 U.S.C. § 1981, which prohibits private parties from discriminating on the basis of race when making or enforcing contracts.The district court denied the Alliance's request for a preliminary injunction to prevent Fearless from closing the application process. The court concluded that the Alliance had standing to sue and that § 1981 applied to Fearless's contest. However, it also concluded that the First Amendment "may bar" the Alliance's § 1981 claim on the ground that the contest constitutes expressive conduct, and that the Alliance hadn't demonstrated that it would suffer irreparable injury.The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that the Alliance has standing and that preliminary injunctive relief is appropriate because Fearless's contest is substantially likely to violate § 1981, is substantially unlikely to enjoy First Amendment protection, and inflicts irreparable injury. The court affirmed the district court's determination that the Alliance has standing to sue but reversed its decision and remanded with instructions to enter a preliminary injunction. View "American Alliance for Equal Rights v. Fearless Fund Management, LLC, et al" on Justia Law

by
The case involves the National Rifle Association (NRA) and Maria Vullo, the former superintendent of the New York Department of Financial Services (DFS). The NRA alleged that Vullo violated their First Amendment rights by pressuring regulated entities to disassociate from the NRA and other gun-promotion advocacy groups. The NRA claimed that Vullo threatened enforcement actions against those entities that refused to disassociate, thereby stifling the NRA's pro-gun advocacy.The District Court initially denied Vullo's motion to dismiss the NRA's First Amendment damages claims, holding that the NRA plausibly alleged that Vullo's actions could be interpreted as a veiled threat to regulated industries to disassociate with the NRA or risk DFS enforcement action. However, the Second Circuit reversed this decision, concluding that Vullo's alleged actions constituted permissible government speech and legitimate law enforcement, not unconstitutional coercion. The Second Circuit also held that even if the complaint stated a First Amendment violation, the law was not clearly established, and so Vullo was entitled to qualified immunity.The Supreme Court of the United States, however, vacated the judgment of the Second Circuit. The Supreme Court held that the NRA plausibly alleged that Vullo violated the First Amendment by coercing DFS-regulated entities to terminate their business relationships with the NRA in order to punish or suppress the NRA's advocacy. The case was remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. View "National Rifle Association of America v. Vullo" on Justia Law

by
Sanjay Tripathy, a former inmate in the New York correctional system, filed a lawsuit against state prison officials. He claimed that they forced him to enroll in a sex-offender program that required him to accept responsibility for his crimes, which he argued violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and the First Amendment. He also claimed that he was assigned to a more intensive tier of the program in violation of his due process rights, and that he was retaliated against after he challenged the program by filing grievances and this lawsuit.The United States District Court for the Western District of New York dismissed Tripathy's claims. The court ruled that his claim for damages under RLUIPA was barred by precedent that the statute does not permit individual-capacity damages. The court also found that his demands for injunctive and declaratory relief became moot when his state convictions were vacated and he was released from prison. Regarding his constitutional claims, the court concluded that Tripathy’s free exercise claim under the First Amendment was barred by qualified immunity, that he lacked standing to seek damages for his due process claim under the Fourteenth Amendment, and that he failed to state a claim for retaliation in violation of the First Amendment.On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the district court's decision. The appellate court agreed that Tripathy's claim for damages under RLUIPA was barred by precedent, that his demands for injunctive and declaratory relief were moot due to his release from prison, and that his constitutional claims were properly dismissed by the district court. View "Tripathy v. McKoy" on Justia Law

by
The case involves Angel Cartagena, an inmate in the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) prison system, who challenged the conditions of his 18-month confinement at the River North Correctional Center. Cartagena alleged that his confinement was too restrictive and caused him emotional distress and severe mental anguish, in violation of his First, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights, as well as statutory prohibitions against discrimination. VDOC officials had determined that Cartagena was seriously mentally ill and unable to function in the general prison population, so they assigned him to the VDOC’s Secure Diversionary Treatment Program (SDT Program) at the River North facility. Cartagena refused to comply with the treatment regimen prescribed for him and complained about the consequential restrictions of the Program.The district court granted the prison officials’ motion to dismiss Cartagena’s complaint, concluding that Cartagena had failed to state plausible claims for relief. The court found that Cartagena had not sufficiently alleged a deliberate indifference by prison officials to his condition, the deprivation of a constitutionally protected liberty interest, or discrimination because of his disability.The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision. The court found that Cartagena failed to demonstrate the required mens rea for an Eighth Amendment violation, as the prison officials had offered him treatment, which he refused. The court also found that Cartagena failed to adequately allege a cognizable liberty interest in his placement in the SDT Program, and therefore, the Due Process Clause requires no process related to his placement in the Program. Finally, the court concluded that Cartagena failed to plausibly allege that he was “otherwise qualified” for the benefits that he seeks and therefore to state a claim for discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act. View "Cartagena v. Lovell" on Justia Law

by
Cory Sessler, a religious preacher, and his group were preaching loudly at a commercial festival in Davenport, Iowa. The festival was held in a fenced-off area of the city's downtown streets and sidewalks, which were typically considered a "traditional public forum". However, during the festival, pedestrian access was controlled and vendors had rented spaces to sell goods. Sessler and his group, who were not paying vendors, were asked by police officers to relocate outside the fences due to complaints from nearby vendors. Sessler later sued the officers and the city, alleging a violation of his First Amendment rights.The district court denied Sessler's request for a preliminary injunction, a decision which was affirmed by the appellate court. After discovery, the district court granted summary judgment to the defendants, concluding that the officers did not violate Sessler's rights and that they were protected by qualified immunity. The court also granted summary judgment to the city on the official-policy claims.The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit agreed that qualified immunity applied to the claims against the officers. The court found that it was unclear whether the fenced-off city streets and sidewalks remained a "traditional public forum" or served as a less-protected "limited public forum" during the festival. The court also found that no reasonable trier of fact could conclude that the officers' actions were anything but content neutral or that such actions were unreasonable. The court affirmed the judgment of the district court. View "Sessler v. City of Davenport, Iowa" on Justia Law

by
The case involves a challenge to the constitutionality of private prisons in Arizona. The plaintiffs, the Arizona State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and two former prisoners, argued that private prisons, driven by profit, compromise safety and security and reduce programming and services. They also claimed that private prisons have a financial incentive to keep prisoners incarcerated longer by manipulating disciplinary proceedings.The United States District Court for the District of Arizona dismissed the case, leading to an appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The district court held that the plaintiffs failed to plausibly allege that private prisons violate prisoners' procedural due process rights, the Thirteenth Amendment, the Eighth Amendment, and the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses.The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision. The court found that the NAACP had standing to bring the suit. However, it held that the plaintiffs failed to plausibly allege that private prisons violate prisoners' procedural due process rights. The court also found that the Thirteenth Amendment does not prohibit incarceration in a private prison, and that the plaintiffs failed to plausibly allege that confinement in a private prison violates the Eighth Amendment. Finally, the court held that the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses do not prohibit incarceration in a private prison. View "NIELSEN V. THORNELL" on Justia Law

by
The case involves the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany and other entities, who provide medical insurance plans to their employees. They challenged a regulation by the Department of Financial Services, which requires New York employer health insurance policies that provide hospital, surgical, or medical expense coverage to include coverage for medically necessary abortion services. The plaintiffs argued that the exemption for "religious employers" was too narrow, violating the First Amendment rights of certain types of religiously affiliated employers who do not meet the terms of the exemption.The case began in 2016, raising a federal Free Exercise Claim that was similar to a previous case, Catholic Charities of Diocese of Albany v Serio. The lower courts dismissed the plaintiffs' complaints based on the principle of stare decisis, and the Appellate Division affirmed on the same ground. The plaintiffs appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States, which remanded the case to the Appellate Division to reconsider in light of a recent decision, Fulton v Philadelphia.On remand, the Appellate Division held that Serio was still good law and affirmed its previous decision that neither the medically necessary abortion regulation nor the "religious employer" exemption as defined violated the Free Exercise Clause. The Court of Appeals agreed, stating that under Fulton, both the regulation itself and the criteria delineating a "religious employer" for the purposes of the exemption are generally applicable and do not violate the Free Exercise Clause. The court concluded that the "religious employer" exemption survives the general applicability tests delineated in Fulton, and therefore, the Appellate Division order should be affirmed. View "Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany v Vullo" on Justia Law