Justia Civil Rights Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Legal Ethics
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Under rules adopted and enforced by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, Wisconsin lawyers must join and pay dues to the State Bar of Wisconsin. Active membership in the association is “a condition precedent to the right to practice law” in the state. This regulatory regime, often called an “integrated, mandatory[,] or unified bar,” authorizes the State Bar to use membership dues to aid the courts in the administration of justice, conduct a program of continuing legal education, and maintain “high ideals of integrity, learning, competence… public service[,] and high standards of conduct” in the bar of the state.Attorney File contends that requiring him to join and subsidize the State Bar violates his First Amendment free speech and associational rights. Recognizing that Supreme Court precedent forecloses this claim (Keller v. State Bar of Cal. (1990)), File argued that the Court’s more recent cases—particularly “Janus” (2018)--implicitly overruled Keller. The district court rejected this argument. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. Keller “may be difficult to square with the Supreme Court’s more recent First Amendment caselaw, but on multiple occasions and in no uncertain terms, the Court has instructed lower courts to resist invitations to find its decisions overruled by implication.” View "File v. Kastner" on Justia Law

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The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of a preliminary injunction seeking to prohibit the Harris County District Attorney (DA) from enforcing a Texas anti-barratry law. The court concluded that plaintiff has not shown that his First Amendment claim is likely to succeed on the merits where the anti-barratry law is likely narrowly tailored to a compelling government interest in preventing confusion that damages relationships between appointed counsel and indigent defendants. The court declined plaintiff's request to assign the case to a different district judge on remand, concluding that this case does not merit reassignment under either of the two relevant tests. View "Willey v. Harris County District Attorney" on Justia Law

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Burkhart, the CEO of ASC, a private company that operates Indiana nursing homes and long-term care facilities, orchestrated an extensive conspiracy exploiting the company’s operations and business relationships for personal gain. Most of the funds involved in the scheme came from Medicare and Medicaid. After other defendants pled guilty and Burkhart’s brother agreed to testify against him, Burkhart pled guilty to conspiracy to commit mail, wire, and healthcare fraud (18 U.S.C. 1349); conspiracy to violate the AntiKickback Statute (18 U.S.C. 371); and money laundering (18 U.S.C. 1956(a)(1)(B)(i)). With a Guidelines range of 121-151 months, Burkhart was sentenced to 114 months’ imprisonment.Burkhart later filed a habeas action, contending that his defense counsel, Barnes & Thornburg provided constitutionally deficient representation because the firm also represented Health and Hospital Corporation of Marion County, a victim of the fraudulent scheme. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the denial of relief. While the firm labored under an actual conflict of interest, that conflict did not adversely affect Burkhart’s representation. Nothing in the record shows that the firm improperly shaded its advice to induce Burkhart to plead guilty; the advice reflected a reasonable response to the “dire circumstances” facing Burkhart. The evidence of Burkhart’s guilt was overwhelming. View "Burkhart v. United States" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs alleged that the bail schedule set by the San Francisco Superior Court, an arm of the state, violated their equal protection and due process rights, 42 U.S.C. 1983 because it failed to take into account pre-arraignment detainees’ inability to pay pre-set mandatory bail amounts. Following years of litigation, the district court enjoined the Sheriff, who had Eleventh Amendment immunity from damages, from enforcing the bail schedule and any other state determination that made the existence or duration of pre-trial detention dependent on the detainee’s ability to pay. The court then awarded a reduced lodestar amount of attorney’s fees ($1,950,000.00) to the class and held California responsible for payment.The Ninth Circuit affirmed the award, rejecting arguments that the state was not liable for fees because it was dismissed from the case on the ground of Eleventh Amendment immunity and did not otherwise participate in the litigation. Despite Eleventh Amendment immunity, the Sheriff could be sued in her capacity as a state official for injunctive relief, and the state could be assessed a reasonable attorney’s fee under 42 U.S.C. 1988. The state had the necessary notice and an opportunity to respond to claims that the official-capacity suit against the Sheriff could properly be treated as a suit against California. View "Buffin v. City & County of San Francisco" on Justia Law

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Booker is on Florida’s death row for first-degree murder. In 2012, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the denial of federal habeas relief. In 2020, the Capital Habeas Unit of the Office of the Federal Public Defender (CHU) sought permission to represent Booker in state court to exhaust a “Brady” claim so that Booker could pursue the claim in a successive federal habeas petition. The Brady claim focused on the prosecution’s failure to disclose notes that allegedly could have been used to impeach an FBI hair expert. Booker said that he had learned through a FOIA request and a review by a qualified microscopist that there were inconsistencies between the expert’s trial testimony and his notes. The state objected to the appointment of CHU, noting that Booker had a state-law right to counsel through Florida’s Capital Collateral Regional Counsel North (CCRC-N); CCRC-N counsel was appointed to represent Booker in state court. Nonetheless, the district court appointed CHU under 18 U.S.C. 3599 to represent Booker in state courtThe Eleventh Circuit dismissed an appeal. Florida cannot establish standing based on a hypothetical conflict of interest that is not actual or imminent. State courts are empowered to reject appearances by CHU counsel, so the appointment cannot have inflicted an injury on Florida’s sovereignty. View "Booker v. Secretary, Florida Department of Corrections" on Justia Law

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Davis, a former Congressman, mayoral candidate, candidate for governor of Alabama, and federal prosecutor, is Black. In 2016, he became Executive Director of LSA, a non-profit law firm serving low-income Alabamians. Davis experienced problems with some of his subordinates and colleagues; some complained to LSA’s Executive Committee. On August 18, 2017, as Davis left work, he was informed that the Executive Committee had voted to suspend him with pay pending an investigation of those complaints. A “Suspension Letter” cited spending decisions outside the approved budget, failure to follow LSA's hiring policies and procedures, creating new initiatives without Board approval, and creating a hostile work environment for some LSA employees. LSA posted a security guard in front of its building and hired Mowery, an Alabama political consultant, to handle public relations related to Davis’s suspension. Mowery had handled one of Davis’s failed political campaigns until their relationship soured; Mowery had worked for the campaign of Davis’s opponent in another race.Days later, Davis notified the Board of his resignation. He filed suit, alleging race discrimination under 42 U.S.C. 1981 and under Title VII, and defamation. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment for the defendants. Being placed on paid leave was not an adverse employment action and Davis did not raise a fact issue on his constructive discharge claim. LSA’s disclosures to Mowery did not constitute “publication”—an essential element of defamation. View "Davis v. Legal Services Alabama, Inc." on Justia Law

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In 2015, Yost was charged with multiple counts of first-degree murder in connection with the fatal stabbing of his former girlfriend, Randall. After Yost was convicted, he notified the court that he had just learned that his appointed counsel, Rau, had represented Randall in a past case; he requested a new trial. Rau also filed a motion for a new trial but did not reference Yost’s allegations of a conflict of interest. The court denied the motion and sentenced Yost to 75 years’ imprisonment. After conducting a preliminary inquiry on remand, the trial court concluded that the allegations had merit and appointed new counsel, Lookofsky, to investigate. Yost’s amended motion for a new trial alleged that Rau had represented Randall, on two prior occasions in an unrelated case. Yost waived any conflict of interest based on Lookofsky’s prior hiring of Rau on an unrelated civil matter and any conflict-of-interest claims based on the judge’s prior representation of Yost’s family members.The court concluded that there was no per se conflict of interest, which would have required automatic reversal of the conviction, absent a waiver. The Illinois Supreme Court agreed. Illinois now recognizes three per se conflicts of interest: when defense counsel has a contemporaneous association with the victim, the prosecution, or an entity assisting the prosecution; when defense counsel contemporaneously represents a prosecution witness; and when defense counsel was a former prosecutor who was personally involved in the defendant's prosecution. Yost did not claim an actual conflict of interest. View "People v. Yost" on Justia Law

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Beach Blitz sued the City and individuals, asserting that the City’s enactment and enforcement of ordinances regulating the sale of liquor and requiring businesses selling liquor to obtain licenses violated its substantive and procedural due process rights and that the City’s closure of its store one day after it met with a City attorney constituted retaliation for Beach Blitz’s protected First Amendment conduct. The district court dismissed the due process claims on the merits, without prejudice, and without leave to amend, and the First Amendment retaliatory claim on the merits, without prejudice but with leave to amend. Beach Blitz did not amend its that claim by the stated deadline. The district court found the City to be the prevailing party on all five claims, determined that each of them was “frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation,” and awarded attorney fees for each.The Eleventh Circuit upheld the prevailing party determination because the City rebuffed Beach Blitz’s efforts to effect a material alteration in the legal relationship between the parties and affirmed frivolity determination concerning the procedural and substantive due process claims. The court vacated in part. There was sufficient support in precedent for Beach Blitz’s position that its retaliation claim was not so groundless on causation as to be frivolous. View "Beach Blitz Co. v. City of Miami Beach" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff John Hayes prosecuted his employment discrimination case to a favorable verdict and judgment. During trial, two instances of misconduct prompted Defendant SkyWest Airlines, Inc. to request a mistrial. But it was Defendant’s own misconduct. Thus, the district court tried to remedy the misconduct and preserve the integrity of the proceedings, but did not grant Defendant’s request. After the trial, exercising its equitable powers, the district court granted Plaintiff’s request for a front pay award. Following final judgment, Defendant moved for a new trial based, in part, on the district court’s handling of the misconduct incidents and on newly discovered evidence. The district court denied that motion. Defendant appealed, asking the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse and remand for a new trial or, at the very least, to vacate (or reduce) the front pay award. Finding the district court did not abuse its discretion or authority in this case, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the front pay award. View "Hayes v. Skywest Airlines" on Justia Law

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Vega, a Hispanic woman, sued the Park District based on its investigation and termination of her employment for allegedly falsifying her timesheets, citing national origin discrimination and retaliation under 42 U.S.C. 1983 and Title VII. A jury returned a verdict for Vega on the discrimination claims, but not the retaliation claims, and awarded $750,000. The judge reduced the award to Title VII’s statutory maximum of $300,000, ordered the District to reinstate Vega, pay backpay, provide her with the cash value of lost benefits, and pay prejudgment interest and a tax component. The Seventh Circuit affirmed except for the tax-component award,Vega submitted a fee petition totaling $1,073,901.25, with a 200-page document listing details. Vega’s counsel submitted evidence to support her current hourly rate of $425 for general tasks and $450 for in-court work. The district court granted Vega’s petition in the amount of $1,006,592, noting the District’s “scorched-earth litigation approach.” Vega filed a second fee petition totaling $254,635.69 for work following the first petition. The district court awarded $218,221.69 and granted Vega a tax-component award of $49,224.30. The Seventh Circuit affirmed, stating that the award was “rather high for the type of litigation and monetary and equitable relief that Vega achieved,” but that the district court’s analysis and reasoning demonstrate an appropriate exercise of its discretion. View "Vega v. Chicago Park District" on Justia Law