Justia Civil Rights Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Legal Ethics
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Hewittel was convicted of armed robbery and related offenses based solely on the testimony of the victim. Three witnesses—one of them having little relationship with anyone in the case—were prepared to testify in support of Hewittel’s alibi that he was at home, almost a half-hour from the crime scene when the crime occurred. Hewittel’s attorney failed to call any of those witnesses at trial, not because of any strategic judgment but because Hewittel’s counsel thought the crime occurred between noon and 12:30 p.m. when Hewittel was at home alone. The victim twice testified (in counsel’s presence) that the crime occurred at 1:00 or 1:30 p.m.—by which time all three witnesses were present at Hewittel’s home. Counsel also believed that evidence of Hewittel’s prior convictions would have unavoidably come in at trial. In reality, that evidence almost certainly would have been excluded, if Hewittel’s counsel asked. Throughout the trial, Hewittel’s counsel repeatedly reminded the jury that his client had been convicted of armed robbery five times before.The trial judge twice ordered a new trial. The Michigan Court of Appeals reversed, based in part on the same mistake regarding the time of the offense. The federal district court granted a Hewittel writ of habeas corpus. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, calling the trial “an extreme malfunction in the criminal justice system.” View "Hewitt-El v. Burgess" on Justia Law

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In 2019, Tennessee imposed new requirements for conducting voter-registration activities. The law required individuals to register with the state; complete state-administered “training”; file a “sworn statement” agreeing to obey Tennessee’s voter-registration laws; and return “completed” voter-registration forms within 10 days. Plaintiffs argued that the law significantly burdened their rights of speech and association, in violation of the First Amendment, and was unconstitutionally vague. The court stated that the defendants had offered “little, if any, evidence” in support of the Act’s requirements, “despite having had an opportunity” and held that the plaintiffs were likely to prevail on the merits, further noting “the vagueness about the scope and nature" of the Act. The court “ordered” the defendants “not to take any steps to implement” or otherwise enforce the challenged provisions. The defendants did not appeal. Seven months later, the state repealed the provisions.The district court approved a stipulation to dismiss the case without prejudice. Plaintiffs were awarded attorneys’ fees under 42 U.S.C. 1988, as the “prevailing party.” The Sixth Circuit affirmed. A preliminary injunction that, as a practical matter, concludes the litigation in the plaintiffs’ favor and that is not challenged on appeal, is, in this case, enduring enough to support prevailing-party status under section 1988. View "Tennessee State Conference of the NAACP v. Hargett" on Justia Law

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Langley was arrested in connection with a Newark drug trafficking operation. Langley agreed to plead guilty to conspiring to distribute and possess with the intent to distribute 28 grams or more of crack-cocaine, 21 U.S.C. 846, which carries a mandatory five-year minimum sentence, agreeing that he would not argue for a sentence below five years’ imprisonment and that he would enter into an appellate waiver, applicable to any challenges to a sentence of five years or below. During his plea hearing, the district court engaged in a thorough colloquy and ensured that Langley had discussed his plea agreement with his counsel and that he understood the appellate waiver. The court considered his arguments concerning the pandemic, the effect of the crack/powder cocaine disparity on the Guidelines calculation, and the age of his criminal convictions. The court determined that the applicable guideline range was 110-137 months and sentenced Langley to 60 months’ imprisonment.In lieu of filing an appellate brief, Langley’s counsel moved to withdraw, asserting in his Anders brief that he identified “no issue of even arguable merit.” Langley submitted a pro se brief, arguing for a further sentencing reduction. The Third Circuit dismissed. Langley’s court-appointed counsel filed an Anders brief that, on its face, met the standard for a “conscientious investigation" of possible grounds for appeal. Counsel is not required to anticipate or address all possible arguments. There are no non-frivolous issues for Langley to raise on appeal. View "United States v. Langley" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff a female employee of Wakulla County (“the County”), worked for the County’s building department. Plaintiff filed a lawsuit in federal district court for, among other claims, the County’s violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In the present case, Plaintiff filed a five-count complaint against the defense attorneys for the County. The defense attorneys and their law firms filed several motions to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). The district court dismissed the complaint, explaining that Plaintiff’s alleged facts did not demonstrate that the defense attorneys for the County had engaged in a conspiracy that met the elements of 42 U.S.C. Section 1985(2).   Plaintiff’s complaint suggested that the defense attorneys filed the complaint for the “sole benefit of their client rather than for their own personal benefit.” Alternatively, Plaintiff points to the fact that the County defense attorneys had been aware of Plaintiff’s recordings for many months and only reported her recordings to law enforcement when they learned that Plaintiff “insist[ed] on her right to testify in federal court about the recordings and present them as evidence” in the sexual harassment case.   The Eleventh Circuit affirmed. The court explained that per Farese, it is Plaintiff’s burden to allege facts that establish that the County defense attorneys were acting outside the scope of their representation when they told law enforcement about Plaintiff’s recordings. Here, Plaintiff but in no way suggests that the defense attorneys were acting outside the scope of their representation, thus her Section 1985(2) claims were properly dismissed. View "Tracey M. Chance v. Ariel Cook, et al" on Justia Law

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Lane was detained on state criminal charges at the LaPorte County, Indiana jail. Lane sued Person, a doctor at the jail, for deliberate indifference to Lane’s medical condition, 42 U.S.C. 1983. While in jail, Lane sought medical care for an acoustic neuroma (non-cancerous tumor). Person did not order surgical removal of the tumor, which Lane believes was required. He later had the surgery. Nelson, a doctor who also treated Lane, testified that Person appropriately addressed Lane’s condition by ordering multiple MRIs and a consultation with a specialist. Person prevailed at summary judgment and was awarded $4,000 in costs; $2,750 was a one-day witness fee for Nelson,The Seventh Circuit affirmed but modified. The court noted that more than 30 days passed between the denial of Lane's motion to reconsider the summary-judgment decision and his notice of appeal, so the appeal was limited to a review of the decision on costs. There is a presumption under Rule 54(d) that a prevailing party recovers costs that are enumerated in 28 U.S.C. 1920. Although section 1920 includes witness fees, another statute, 28 U.S.C. 1821, more specifically addresses the allowable amount to $40 per day, and no other authority allows more. Person may recover total costs of $1,307.59. View "Lane v. Person" on Justia Law

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An assistant district attorney (the “DA”) in Fulton County, Georgia obtained a material witness warrant requiring Plaintiff to appear as a witness at trial. Plaintiff voluntarily appeared at trial, making execution of the warrant unnecessary. After the trial ended, the DA failed to inform the trial judge that the warrant needed to be recalled. A few months later, a police officer arrested Plaintiff and placed him in jail because of the outstanding warrant. A judge eventually ordered Plaintiff’s release.   Plaintiff brought a 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 action alleging, among other things, that the DA’s failure to initiate the warrant’s cancelation violated his Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The DA moved to dismiss the suit arguing that as a prosecutor she was entitled to absolute prosecutorial immunity. The district court agreed and dismissed Plaintiff’s claims against her.   The Eleventh Circuit reversed and held that absolute prosecutorial immunity does not extend to DA’s failure to take action to cancel the warrant. The district court thus erred in dismissing Plaintiff’s complaint.   The court wrote that determining whether prosecutorial immunity applies requires the court to take a fact-specific functional approach. Here, the court found that applying Third Circuit precedent from Odd v. Malone, 538 F.3d 202 (3d Cir. 2008), results in the conclusion that the DA is not entitled to absolute prosecutorial immunity. Thus the DA has failed to show that absolute immunity protects her post-trial conduct here. View "Kidanemariam Kassa v. Antionette Stephenson" on Justia Law

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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