The Supreme Court’s decisions often create wide-ranging precedent that affects many people, and it is easy to forget that the cases involve individuals who personally have a lot at stake in the case’s outcome, regardless of the case’s broader impact. This month’s cases bring the personal aspect of Supreme Court cases back into focus. Many of April’s cases at the High Court feature an individual who is at the Court not seeking to make great changes to the law, but simply seeking a personal remedy for a wrong he or she has suffered.
In Dietz v. Bouldin, the parties are disputing a possible procedural error involving a jury’s verdict and discharge in what began as a seemingly run-of-the-mill traffic accident case. Presumably neither party expected their dispute would come this far, but here they are at the Supreme Court. Although from the outside the case may seem to be one of the less significant cases the High Court will hear this term, to Dietz and Bouldin this is a high stakes case. In Encino Motorcars, LLC v. Navarro, another case involving cars (though fortunately no accidents), an automobile dealership employee asks the Court to order his employer to pay him overtime wages for the time that he has worked over forty hours per week. This case will likely have a broader effect than Dietz, but the most immediate effect will be on Navarro, for whom numerous hours of back pay may be at stake.
Two cases—Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., and Universal Health Services v. United States ex rel. Escobar—feature individuals people facing off against large corporations. The petitioner in Kirtsaeng won a copyright case at the Supreme Court two years ago, after John Wiley & Sons, Inc. attempted to sue him for $600,000 for reselling textbooks. Now Kirtsaeng returns to the Court seeking attorney’s fees to pay the large legal bill that resulted from John Wiley & Sons, Inc.’s lawsuit. In Escobar, a nurse at a counseling center owner by Universal Health Services prescribed medication to the Escobar’s daughter, and the medication caused the Escobar’s daughter to have seizures, which ultimately resulted in her death. Now the United States, on behalf of the Escobars, is bringing a False Claims Act suit against Universal Health Services. Although the case will likely have a far-reaching effect on medical companies, justice for the Escobars rests in the Court’s decision as well.
This month also features several criminal cases with high personal stakes for the defendants. In Birchfield v. North Dakota come three men who were charged with refusing to submit to an alcohol-content test. The Court’s decision about the validity of those laws will affect anyone faced with the choice of taking an alcohol-content test in the future, but the most immediate effect will be felt by the three Birchfield petitioners who will see their convictions either affirmed or reversed based on the Court’s decision. The respondent in United States v. Bryant hopes to have his conviction overturned as well, arguing that prior convictions that allowed him to be charged as a habitual offender should not be considered as predicates for the federal habitual offender charge, because the convictions were from Indian tribal courts where Bryant did not have counsel. McDonnell v. United States features a high-profile defendant, but one with high personal interests at stake nonetheless. Former Virginia governor Robert McDonnell and his wife are fighting corruption convictions, arguing that gifts they received before and during McDonnell’s time in office were actually campaign donations, and that the former governor did not accept bribes for favors. McDonnell’s two-year prison sentence—and his wife’s year-and-a-day prison sentence—hang in the balance of the Court’s decision here. Finally, Mathis v. United States, the petitioner challenges the characterization of previous convictions as violent felonies, on which his conviction under the Armed Career Criminal Act were based. Mathis will clearly have great personal impact on the petitioner, but it also may also have very personal impacts on people not involved in the case—immigrants whose deportation status hinges on how their past crimes may be categorized.
A case directly addressing immigration, United States v. Texas, is between the federal government and a state but will have a heavy personal impact on many undocumented immigrants and their families. The Court will either affirm or invalidate President Obama’s deferred action policy, which defers deportation actions against undocumented parents of American citizens or lawfully present immigrants who have been in the United States since 2010. If the policy is allowed to continue, many undocumented immigrants will be able to stay in America; if it is ruled unconstitutional, they may face deportation.
Finally, Cuozzo Speed Technologies, LLC v. Lee bucks the trend of cases likely to have major effects on individuals, as this case is between a corporation and the Patent and Trademark Office, but this case is unique in that it is a rare case on appeal from the Federal Circuit. Here, the Supreme Court will address procedural issues that arose in front of the Patent Trial and Appeals Board and the Federal Circuit.
What follows is On the Docket’s preview of the Supreme Court’s April docket. We’ve broken down the cases for you, explained the key facts and legal principles involved, and outlined the significance of the outcome. Read on to familiarize yourself with the coming arguments, and as always, don’t forget to check back for analysis and commentary from prominent legal scholars when opinions are announced!
United States v. Texas
No. 15-674; 5th Cir.
There are somewhere between eleven and twelve million undocumented immigrants in the United States, according to official estimates. Under current budget appropriations, however, the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) possesses the resources to process and deport only about four hundred thousand of these individuals in any given year. With Congressional inaction standing in the way of the immigration reform promised on the campaign trail, the Obama administration decided to take matters into its own hands by issuing a series of policies designating classes of deportations toward which these limited resources should not be applied. Many believe that the latest of these guidelines overstepped the bounds of presidential authority, though, including twenty-six states that sued to halt its implementation. The Supreme Court is now called upon to identify the limits of executive power with the fate of four million immigrants hanging in the balance.
The case centers on a policy announced by President Obama in November of 2014 called the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (“DAPA”) program. The policy would grant “deferred action” status to the undocumented parents of American citizens and lawfully present immigrants who have lived in the United States since 2010. Those who qualify would be exempt from deportation and made eligible for a renewable three-year work permit, as well as some government benefit programs. The expansion of a similar program that would grant deferred action status to undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children is also at issue.
Led by Texas, a group of Republican-led states filed a lawsuit to block the new policies a month after they were announced. Prior to trial, the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas granted a preliminary injunction enjoining the government from putting the policy into effect while the case is litigated, and a divided panel of the Fifth Circuit affirmed the ruling on appeal. The Supreme Court agreed to review the injunction in January 2016.
The allocation of limited resources and the corresponding decision of what enforcement to prioritize has traditionally been a matter of agency discretion that is unreviewable by courts of law. This precept is echoed in the language of federal law, which tasks DHS with “[e]stablishing national immigration enforcement policies and priorities.” The states maintain, however, that a sweeping declaration that grants lawful status to a group of immigrants whose presence violates federal law goes beyond the authority delegated by the statute. And, upon prompting from the Supreme Court, the states made the additional argument on appeal that the action violates the rarely utilized Take Care Clause of the Constitution, which requires that the president to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”
Should it be inclined to avoid these difficult substantive questions, the case presents the Court with ample opportunity to resolve the matter without reaching them. Foremost among these is the question of standing. As a general principle, the Constitution limits the power of courts to only those cases brought by a party who has experienced a concrete, particularized injury at the hands of the defendant that may be remedied by a favorable ruling. The federal government argues that none of the challengers are able to meet this requirement because the states cannot demonstrate that the DAPA policy will result in a direct, negative effect on them. During the initial trial, the district court agreed with respect to all of the states except Texas. Because the fee Texas charges to applicants for driver’s licenses covers only a small portion of the total processing and issuing costs, the court found that the DAPA policy would directly result in the expenditure of state funds when newly authorized individuals invariably apply to be licensed drivers, satisfying the requirement for injury. The government contests this characterization, though, arguing that the subsidies are purely voluntary on the part of Texas.
The Supreme Court also has the option to declare that the program was adopted in a manner that was procedurally defective. The Administrative Procedures Act (“APA”) requires agencies to follow certain “notice and comment” procedures when it issues a rule. However, the statute makes exceptions for “general statements of policy.” The distinction between a policy statement and a substantive rule has never been fully adjudicated before the Supreme Court, notwithstanding the APA’s seven-decade history. A ruling that the policy violated notice and comment procedures would result in the rule being remanded to DHS for further proceedings, delaying the ultimate decision on its merits. This could be an attractive option, given the Court’s current eight-member status and the pending presidential election that could render the issue moot before it again works its way up through the judicial system.
Similarly, the Court could simply rule that the states did not meet the standard for the preliminary injunction the district court granted. A preliminary injunction generally requires a plaintiff to show both that irreparable harm will occur if an injunction is not granted and that the party has a substantial likelihood of ultimately winning the case. A reversal of the injunction would allow the DAPA policy to go into effect while the case is litigated on its merits, again leaving the ultimate resolution of the core issues for another day.
United States v. Bryant
No. 15-420; 9th Cir.
The tension between the independent sovereignty of Native American tribes and their position within the federal United States has formed a persistent theme throughout the current Supreme Court term. The decisions on the topic handed down thus far have focused on high level relations between the tribes and federal and state governments, and they have yielded clear, unanimous opinions. In January, for example, an undivided Court denied the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin’s attempt to circumvent the statute of limitations on its claim for unpaid benefits against the United States. Similarly, the Court in March had little trouble agreeing to turn back an effort by Nebraska to claim ownership over land that was historically part of an Omaha reservation. More controversial are the cases that center on the interaction of the U.S. court system with independent tribal courts that are not bound by the Constitution. Like the still pending decision in Dollar General Corporation v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, United States v. Bryant will consider what impact the rights afforded to defendants in Indian tribal courts have on the tribal courts’ position within the larger framework of the United States judiciary.
Michael Bryant, Jr. has an extensive criminal record. The Native American man has more than 100 convictions in the tribal court of the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Reservation, located in southeastern Montana. At least five of these convictions stem from guilty pleas to misdemeanor domestic abuse charges that Bryant entered without the aid of a lawyer between 1997 and 2007. The tribal court sentenced him to various terms of imprisonment for these charges, but at no point did any of the punishment exceed one year in duration. This pattern of violence continued in 2011 when Bryant assaulted and injured two different women who were living with him on separate occasions. This time, federal officers accompanied tribal law enforcement to question him about the incident, and under interrogation Bryant admitted to having assaulted both women repeatedly in the past.
In light of his history of similar crimes, a federal grand jury indicted Bryant on two counts of domestic assault by a habitual offender. The law that created the crime was intended to target repeat domestic abusers on tribal lands in order to address what Congress saw as an “an epidemic of domestic violence against Indian women.” To be convicted, the statute requires that the accused have final convictions in state, tribal, or federal courts on at least two prior “predicate” offenses that would be classified as domestic felonies had the cases been brought under federal law.
At trial, Bryant moved to dismiss the charges, arguing that his prior convictions would have violated the Sixth Amendment had his trial taken place in state or federal court because he was sentenced to prison without the assistance of a lawyer. Therefore, he reasoned, the convictions should not qualify as predicates for the federal habitual offender charge he was now facing. The district court denied his motion, but the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that “tribal court convictions may be used in subsequent prosecutions only if the tribal court guarantees a right to counsel that is, at minimum, coextensive with the Sixth Amendment right.”
The Supreme Court has interpreted the Sixth Amendment to require that a defendant who cannot afford an attorney and who has not waived his right to counsel cannot be sentenced to imprisonment unless he was provided a lawyer at trial. The Court has long held, however, that Indian tribal courts are bound by the constitutions of their respective tribal nations rather than that of the United States. Congress imposed some guarantees similar to those contained in the Bill of Rights on tribal courts when it passed the Indian Civil Rights Act (“ICRA”) in 1968, but many of the provisions are not quite identical to their constitutional counterparts. Notably, the right to counsel does not attach for all prison sentences, but only those greater than one year in duration. Because Bryant’s previous convictions had never resulted in sentences longer than a year, his trials were valid under the ICRA, but would not have been valid under the Constitution.
The Government now argues that, irrespective of whether the previous convictions would have been constitutional in state or federal court, they did not violate the Constitution because they were in tribal court. They are therefore no different than uncounseled misdemeanor convictions that only resulted in a fine or uncounseled convictions in which the defendant waived his right to a lawyer, both of which the Court has previously held may be used for enhancement purposes in later prosecutions. Bryant counters that, because the previous convictions were uncounseled, the proceedings lack the reliability typically established through adversarial proceedings between opposing attorneys. Taking their accuracy as granted in the present case, he claims, would undermine the principle that guilt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
Universal Health Services v. United States ex rel. Escobar
No. 15-7; 1st Cir.
Yarushka Rivera, daughter of Julio Escobar and Carmen Correa, was a teenager with behavioral issues. Trying to get her the help she so desperately needed, her parents sent her to Arbour Counseling Services, a mental health services provider owned by Universal Health Services, and one of the state’s Medicaid providers. Yarushka was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and prescribed medication. However, Yarushka soon began to have adverse reactions to the medicine, many times in the form of seizures. She and her parents reached out to Arbour, but received no response. A few months later, Yarushka suffered from a seizure that ultimately killed her.
Escobar and Correa later found out that the individual who had prescribed Yarushka’s medication was not a doctor, but a nurse who was not even supervised by any board-certified psychiatrist. Upon this discovery, they brought a qui tam action against Universal Health Services, alleging that because Arbour’s staff was unlicensed and unsupervised in violation of several state regulations, Arbour’s request for Medicaid reimbursement for these services implicated the False Claims Act (“FCA”). Under the FCA, the government or a non-governmental-affiliated party (known as a realtor) can bring a claim against companies who defraud the United States government.
The question before the Court is twofold. First, the First Circuit’s decision accepted the view of “implied certification.” This theory states that when a company seeks reimbursement or payment from the federal government, it has impliedly certified that it has complied with all applicable requirements: statutory, regulatory, and contractual. Therefore, the party (in this case, Universal Health) has violated the FCA if it has not complied with those requirements, which are conditions for payment. While the majority of circuits adopt this approach, the Seventh Circuit has rejected it. The Court must decide whether the implied certification theory is appropriate.
The second question before the court narrows the scope of the question: if the theory of implied certification is accepted, can it be considered a violation of the FCA if the statutory conditions not followed were not explicit “conditions of payment”? That is the argument put forth by Universal Health: they claim that even if they did violate the statutory requirements to have properly licensed physicians overseeing medication dispensing, that statutory requirement is not a precondition for payment by Medicaid for services rendered. Therefore, they argue, there was no false claim.
Both the United States Government and government contractors are watching this case closely. If the Court finds against the theory of implied certification, then there might be far fewer possible FCA claims. However, affirming the majority of circuits who accept this theory does mean that those same government contractors are liable for thousands of federal statutes and regulations that might have no direct connection with their ability to be paid by the federal government.
Birchfield v. North Dakota
No. 14-1468; North Dakota
If you’re driving and get pulled over by a police officer who suspects you are driving drunk, can you refuse a blood alcohol test? Thirteen states say you cannot—these states in fact make it a crime to refuse to take such a test. The three petitioners in this case argue that these laws are unconstitutional, a violation of their Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure.
Of over a dozen defendants who petitioned the Supreme Court for certiorari in cases stemming from such laws, the Court picked these three, which each have distinct legal situations. First, Danny Birchfield was convicted for declining to take a blood alcohol test. After driving his car into a ditch in North Dakota Birchfield failed a breathalyzer test but refused to consent to a blood chemical test, and was charged with a misdemeanor for his refusal to consent. In North Dakota, the crime of refusing a chemical test is equivalent to a DUI charge.
Second, William Bernard, Jr. was convicted for failing to submit to a breathalyzer test. Bernard admitted to police that he had been drinking when police showed up to a scene where three men were trying to pull a boat out of the water and onto a truck. Bernard said that he had not been driving, even though he had keys in his hands, and he was charged under Minnesota law for failing to consent to any type of alcohol content test. Finally, Steve Beylund was taken to the hospital for blood tests against his wishes. The tests confirmed he was over the legal limit and he was charged with driving under the influence.
The three petitioners say that the state supreme courts, which have all upheld the various laws criminalizing refusal to submit to a chemical alcohol test, are not following the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Missouri v. McNeely. In McNeely, the Court set forth the proposition that the risk of alcohol dissipating into the blood is not always an emergency that bypasses the need for a warrant in a DUI test. The Court held that police should obtain a warrant before forcing suspected drunk drivers to a blood test. North Dakota, Minnesota, and the other eleven states all contend that their laws requiring submission to an alcohol content test are reasonable measures to discourage drunk driving. In these very deliberately selected cases, it remains to be seen which argument the Court will accept.
Encino Motorcars, LLC v. Navarro
No. 15-415; 9th Cir.
The Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) requires employers to pay overtime to hourly employees who work more than forty hours a week, but it includes numerous exceptions for different classes of employees. One of these exceptions exempts from the overtime requirement “any salesman, partsman, or mechanic primarily engaged in selling or servicing automobiles.” Congress enacted this exemption in 1966, and in 1970, the Department of Labor issued an interpretive rule stating that service advisors—auto dealership employees who discuss car problems with customers, diagnose services a customer’s car may need, sell these services to the customer, and suggest additional services to the customer—were not included within the salesman, partsman, or mechanic exemption.
Several years after the Department of Labor issued this interpretation, several district courts and the Fifth Circuit held that service advisors did fall within the salesman, partsman, or mechanic exemption, disagreeing with the Department of Labor’s interpretation. Following these decisions, the Department of Labor issued an opinion letter stating that it would begin treating service advisors as exempt, but the Department did not officially change its rule. In 2008, the Department of Labor issued a notice of proposed rulemaking stating that it was considering changing the salesman, partsman, or mechanic exemption to officially include service advisors. After several years of receiving and considering comments, the Department decided in 2011 not to change the rule, leaving service advisors within the overtime pay requirement.
In 2012, Navarro, a service advisor at a Los Angeles area Mercedez-Benz dealership, sued his employer, Encino Motorcars, for failing to pay him overtime. The district court dismissed Navarro’s claim, finding that service advisors were exempt from the overtime pay requirement because they were “functionally equivalent to salesmen and mechanics.” The Ninth Circuit reversed, engaging in a Chevron analysis and holding that the language of the salesman, partsman, or mechanic exemption was ambiguous and that the Department of Labor’s interpretation of the exemption was reasonable.
At the Supreme Court, Encino Motorcars argues that service advisors are salesmen who primarily engage in selling or servicing automobiles. Therefore, Encino contends, the salesman, partsman, or mechanic exemption unambiguously exempts service advisors from the overtime pay requirement. Navarro counters that the exemption does not cover service advisors because the exemption only includes employees who primarily sell automobiles or service automobiles, and service advisors do neither—they simply sell services.
The Court’s job here is fairly straightforward: it must decide what the salesman, partsman, or mechanic exemption encompasses. It may decide that the statute clearly lists all the positions that the exemption includes. However, the Court may also hold that the statute itself is ambiguous and merits a Chevron analysis. If that is the case, the Court will then determine if the Department of Labor’s interpretation is reasonable and deserving of deference or is unreasonable. Whichever way the Court decides will have major ramifications for the automobile dealership industry. If the Court holds that service advisors are exempt from overtime requirements, dealerships can work service advisors as many hours a week as they are able and will not have to pay overtime. The bigger impact, though, will be if the Court holds that service advisors are not exempt from the overtime pay requirement. Not only would this cost dealerships more money in wages in the future, but it could also make them liable for heavy damages in back pay to any service advisors who have previously worked overtime and were not compensated.
Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
No. 15-375; 2d Cir.
Occasionally, a case comes to the Supreme Court that means little to most people, but much to a few. Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. is one of those cases. The question in this case is what the proper standard is for awarding attorneys’ fees under § 505 of the Copyright Act. This question appears to be the last one to be answered in a lengthy saga of litigation that has included not one, but two trips to the Supreme Court.
In the last 1990s while studying mathematics at Cornell University, Supap Kirtsaeng discovered that international copies of textbooks, which were identical to the U.S. copies, were being sold in foreign countries for much lower prices than the U.S. copies being sold in the United States. To make extra money, Kirtsaeng began having his family in Thailand buy these international copies and ship them to him in the United States, where he would resell them for a profit. After several years of doing this, the publisher of the textbooks, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., sued Kirtsaeng for copyright infringement. Kirtsaeng lost in the district court, appealed, lost in the Second Circuit, appealed again, and was finally successful at the Supreme Court in the first Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
That was not the end of the story, however. After prevailing at the Supreme Court the first time, Kirtsaeng filed a motion for attorney’s fees under § 505 of the Copyright Act. The district court denied the motion primarily because John Wiley & Sons’s legal theory was objectively reasonable and no other factors outweighed the weight of the reasonableness of John Wiley & Sons’s claim. Kirtsaeng appealed to the Second Circuit, and again, the Second Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision. Once more, Kirtsaeng petitioned the Supreme Court for certiorari, leading to this case.
This time, the Court will be deciding what factors a district court should consider when deciding whether to award attorney’s fees to a party litigating a copyright infringement claim. Kirtsaeng argues that courts should consider all relevant factors, especially considering the purposes of the Copyright Act—to advance the creation and dissemination of creative works. John Wiley & Sons argues that courts should focus on the objective reasonableness of a party’s claim, considering other relevant factors, but giving the objective reasonableness substantially more weight than other factors. In John Wiley & Sons’s view, if a party from whom attorney’s fees are sought has advanced an objectively reasonable claim at trial, a court should only award attorney’s fees to the other party if the need to award attorney’s fees outweighs the objective reasonableness of the first party’s claim.
In deciding this issue, the Court is likely to base its decision on which standard would best further the purposes of the Copyright Act and which standard would incentivize only reasonable copyright infringement claims. The result of this decision will not impact many people outside of the intellectual property bar, but it could have substantial ramifications for copyright lawyers and firms. Litigating copyright claims can be a very expensive endeavor, and the way in which attorney’s fees are awarded can mean the gain or loss of millions of dollars for the attorneys and firms representing the parties. Undoubtedly, these attorneys and firms will be closely watching this case because, although it will have little effect on most, it could mean millions to the intellectual property bar.
Cuozzo Speed Technologies, LLC v. Lee
No. 15-446; Fed. Cir.
In a rare grant of certiorari from the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, the Supreme Court will answer two questions that could have resounding effects on patent law and litigation. The first question concerns the scope the Patent and Trademark Office (“PTO”) gives to patent claims in determining their validity; the second legal issue on appeal has to do with whether courts are judicially able to review the PTO’s decision to initiate proceedings to determine the validity of a patent.
When litigating patent infringement, two questions are often addressed: is the patent valid to begin with, and if so, did the defendant impermissibly infringe on the patent? In response to the increased amount of patent litigation as well as the criticism that the PTO was issuing too many invalid patents, Congress enacted the America Invents Act (“AIA”) in 2011, which, in part, confers on the PTO the ability to institute inter partes review (“IPR”) proceedings to determine if a patent is valid. Prior to the existence of IPR proceedings, a plaintiff would sue a defendant for patent infringement, and the defendant would offer a counterclaim that the patent was invalid from the start or that the defendants use fell outside the scope of what the patent protects. This method of sorting through patent claims and counter claims was difficult and often required proving before a jury both issues: patent validity—a rather technical matter—and patent infringement.
With IPR proceedings, the defendant asks the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (“PTAB” or “Board”) to conduct the proceedings, at which point it is the plaintiff’s responsibility to offer proof that the patent was validly issued—a fact that the defendant can then refute using his or her own evidence. The first issue in this case arises here: when the PTAB considers the patent’s validity, does it do so construing claims in an issued patent according to their broadest reasonable interpretation, or more narrowly, using their plain and ordinary meaning?
The majority of the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit said it was acceptable for the PTAB to use the broadest reasonable interpretation, because that is what the patent office uses when reviewing a patent’s application initially. Congress, the majority continues, knew of this practice and didn’t change anything about this standard of review in the AIA, thereby impliedly consenting to the practice. Judge Newman vehemently dissented from this conclusion, pointing out that one of the reasons the PTO uses this standard is to turn patent applicants down the first time and force them to get more precise; the PTO always uses the broadest possible interpretation when trying to make sure something is valid at its inception. However, one of the reasons the PTO is able to do that is because the applicant is able to return with another, more narrow attempt. Here, Judge Newman contends, the PTAB should apply the same standard that a district court would apply in reviewing patent validity: the plain and ordinary meaning of the patent claim.
The second issue on appeal is the ability of a court to review the decision of the PTAB to institute IPR proceedings, even if the PTAB exceeds its statutory authority in doing so. The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit said that even those instances are judicially unreviewable because of a section of the AIA which provides that the there is no appeal of the decision by the PTAB whether or not it determines to initiate IPR proceedings.
In this case, Cuozzo Speed Technologies owns a patent “Speed Limit Indicator and Method for Displaying Speed and the Relevant Speed Limit.” This patent is used in technology that permits a GPS to determine compliance with local speed limits. The defendant in this case, Garmin International, petitioned the PTAB for IPR proceedings. At these proceedings, the Board found that the patent was invalid as being too obvious, a conclusion it reached using the broadest reasonable interpretation of claim terms. The Federal Circuit upheld this conclusion, as discussed above. On appeal, to the Supreme Court, Cuozzo argues that the same standard for reviewing patent validity in district courts should apply here: the Board should have interpreted the claim using the plain and ordinary meaning of the patent claim language. Secondly, Cuozzo argues that whether or not the Board properly instituted IPR proceedings should be reviewable. In this set of facts, Cuozzo points to the fact that the Board instituted IPR proceedings on grounds not identified in the petition but rather recombined art found therein.
The Court’s decision will have patent litigators and patent holders alike watching to see just how likely it is that patents could be invalidated, and the reviewability of those decisions could be severely limited by latitude granted to the PTAB.
Mathis v. United States
No. 15-6092; 8th Cir.
A case concerning an American citizen in the state of Iowa might have nearly as many implications for immigrants as the earlier-argued case of United States v. Texas. In Mathis v. United States, the Court will grapple with the categorical approach to criminal convictions—an approach used by many courts to determine what convictions apply to trigger more stringent sentencing guidelines are appropriate under the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”). This approach to categorizing criminal convictions is also applied by courts determining what convictions lead to deportation of immigrants.
Richard Mathis’s house was searched following sexual abuse allegations. During the search, police officers found a loaded gun that Mathis later claimed to be his. He was subsequently charged with being a felon in violation of the ACCA. In determining his eligibility to be charged under the ACCA, the federal court applied the categorical approach to conclude that Mathis’s five prior state burglary convictions constituted violent felonies. Under the ACCA, this many violent felonies were enough to trigger a conviction.
In employing the categorical method, the court found that the elements of the offense were substantially similar to generic burglary convictions and posed the same harm to others. Under federal law, burglary convictions are violent felonies. The government contends that the Iowa statute uses the term “occupied structure,” which is separately defined to include vehicles as well as buildings, and therefore the crimes are substantially similar. However, Mathis contends that the generic federal burglary crime only includes buildings. Under the categorical approach, the conviction should not be a burglary unless the statute was “divisible.” If the statute was divisible, then the Court could examine records to determine whether or not Mathis’s convictions involved the part of the statute that discusses buildings versus vehicles, and categorize his crime appropriately.
Mathis says that Iowa’s statute is not divisible because a statute can only be divisible if the alternate wording is included in the substantive criminal text, not separately in the statute. Because Iowa defines “occupied structure” elsewhere in the law, he proffers, this statute cannot be divisible and thus his convictions cannot be held to be akin to federal burglary, a narrower crime. The Court will review Mathis’s case in wake of their 2013 decision Descamps v. United States, where the Court rejected a broad definition of divisibility and instead described a divisible statute as one that lists multiple, alternative elements and therefore creates different crimes. The Court here will have to further define “divisibility” and in so doing will create ripple effects not only for armed career criminals, but immigrants whose deportation status hinges on how their past crimes are categorized.
Dietz v. Bouldin
No. 15-458; 9th Cir.
It is not often that a seemingly routine traffic accident case works its way to the Supreme Court, but that is exactly the case in Dietz v. Bouldin. In 2009, respondent Hillary Bouldin and petitioner Rocky Dietz got into a car accident. Two years later, Dietz sued Bouldin for negligence. Before trial, Bouldin admitted fault and both parties agreed that Dietz had suffered injuries in the accident causing him $10,136.75 in medical expenses. The only issue that the parties disputed at trial was the amount of damages that Bouldin owed Dietz for future medical expenses, pain and suffering, and lost quality of life. After a short trial, the judge sent the jury off to deliberate, instructing them that the parties were bound by their admissions. During deliberations, the jury sent the judge a note asking if the $10,136.75 agreed-upon damages had already been paid to Dietz. After discussing the note with both parties’ counsel, the judge replied to the jury that the court could not provide the information and that it was not relevant to the jury’s verdict. The jury returned a verdict for Dietz but awarded him $0 in damages. Dietz’s counsel made no objection to the verdict, and the judge discharged the jury.
After the jury left the courtroom, the court recessed, but a few minutes later the judge recalled the jury, realizing that the $0 verdict was not legally possible, because the parties had agreed upon damages of at least $10,136.75. The court suggested sending the jury back for further deliberations in hopes of avoiding the time and expense of a second trial. Dietz’s counsel objected, arguing that the jury was not capable of returning a fair and impartial verdict after some of the jurors had spoken to people outside of the courtroom and one juror had left the courthouse. Despite Dietz’s counsel’s objections, the judge decided to send the jury back for deliberations. Before sending the jury back, the judge asked the jurors collectively if they had spoken to anyone other than their fellow jurors about the case; the jury had not. The judge then asked the juror who had left the building if he had spoken to anyone about the case, and the juror replied that he had not. Satisfied with these answers, the judge ordered the jury to deliberate again and return a verdict of at least $10,136.75. Later, Dietz moved for a mistrial, which the court denied. The next day, the jury returned a verdict awarding Dietz $15,000.
Dietz appealed this verdict, arguing that the recalled jury violated his right to a fair and impartial jury trial. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s decision, stating that a court may recall a jury to correct an error in a verdict shortly after dismissing the jury as long as the court determines that the jurors were not exposed to any outside influences that would compromise their ability to return a fair and impartial verdict. Still unhappy, Dietz petitioned the Supreme Court for certiorari.
The issue in this case is whether a judge may recall jurors for further deliberations after the judge has discharged the jurors and the jurors have left the courtroom. Dietz argues that the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure do not allow a district court to recall jurors for service in a case after discharging them; he states that doing so conflicts with several civil and criminal procedural rules. Further, Dietz claims that a court should not be able to recall jurors after discharging them, because upon discharge jurors return to being ordinary citizens and are no longer under the court’s authority. Finally, Dietz contends that the ability to recall jurors is not necessary for a court to exercise its judicial powers.
Bouldin responds to Dietz’s arguments in a number of ways. First, he asserts that Dietz’s claims are not properly before the Supreme Court because several of his claims were not raised in the district court, the court of appeals, or the petition for certiorari, and as such should be dismissed as improvidently granted. In the alternative, Bouldin argues that the Court should hold that a district court possesses the power to rescind a discharge and call jurors back into service to fix an erroneous verdict in order to avoid a costly new trial. Bouldin also maintains that Dietz’s rule—that a court may not recall discharged jurors—undermines fairness, finality, and efficiency.
The Court’s decision in this case will obviously have a big impact on Dietz and Bouldin, but it could also affect trial courts and anyone who serves as a juror. If the Court decides that trial courts may recall discharged jurors to fix an error in the verdict, jurors who return an erroneous verdict may have to return for further deliberations even after they have been discharged. If the Court decides that a trial court may not recall discharged jurors, courts and parties will have to spend additional time and money on second trials when a jury returns an erroneous verdict, and other jurors will have to be called to serve as a jury in the second trial.
McDonnell v. United States
No. 15-474; 4th Cir.
The impact of money in politics has become one of the major themes of the 2016 campaign season. Several presidential candidates have decried what they see as the outsized influence of wealthy businesses in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, which struck down restrictions on independent political spending by corporations and other collectivized entities as contrary to the First Amendment. Yet many see money and the access it buys as part and parcel to a well-functioning democracy. The Supreme Court will again step into the debate this month in the high profile corruption case against former Virginia governor Robert McDonnell. This time, the Court must distinguish the permissible act of a government official favoring his supporters from the federal crime of quid pro quo bribery.
Prior to his inauguration as governor in January 2010, Robert McDonnell and his wife were awash in credit card debt and were losing an additional $40,000 annually from two heavily mortgaged Virginia Beach vacation properties. The couple found a solution to their financial difficulties later that year when local businessman Johnnie Williams arranged to accompany them during a trip on a private jet that Williams had loaned to McDonnell’s campaign. Williams explained that his company, Star Scientific, was developing a dietary supplement for joint health called Anatabloc. Williams hoped to have the FDA certify Anatabloc as a pharmaceutical, which would significantly increase its profit potential. Star could not afford the extensive scientific testing required for FDA approval, however, and Williams hoped that McDonnell might be able to convince researchers at Virginia’s state medical schools to conduct the studies on their own using grant funding.
Over the following two years, McDonnell and his wife repeatedly solicited personal gifts and financial aid from Williams in exchange for political favors related to the sale and independent testing of Anatabloc by the state universities. In addition to financing luxurious vacations and lavish shopping trips, Williams provided the McDonnells with what they characterized as a series of loans to ameliorate their ongoing debt troubles. (McDonnell did not begin repaying the loans, however, until he discovered he was under investigation.) In return, McDonnell arranged meetings for Williams with government officials, contacted various other government figures regarding the testing and the inclusion of Anatabloc in state worker’s health plans, and hosted a series of exclusive events for the purpose of lobbying for the supplement, including an elaborate product launch party at the Governor’s Mansion.
Following an FBI investigation, the federal government indicted McDonnell and his wife in January 2014, charging McDonnell with accepting bribery and defrauding the public of his honest services as a government official. Williams testified against the couple at trial pursuant to a broad immunity deal, but declined to state any specific acts he expected McDonnell to take in exchange for his gifts and loans. The government instead relied on five specific instances in which McDonnell had arranged meetings, made phone calls, or hosted parties for Williams, arguing that each of these constituted the “official action” required to establish the crime. McDonnell in turn argued that no Virginia law limits an official’s right to receive personal gifts or loans, and neither he nor Williams received any state money as a result of their dealings. Further, he contended that official action should be limited to “conduct [that] was intended to . . . influence a specific official decision the government actually makes” and that “mere ingratiation and access are not corruption.” The judge declined to adopt McDonnell’s preferred jury instruction and instead used the sweeping definition of official action contained in the law governing bribery of federal officials, which includes “any decision or action on any question [or] matter, . . . in such official’s official capacity.”
McDonnell was convicted, and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appels affirmed. Prior to being imprisoned, however, the Supreme Court granted him a stay, allowing him to remain free pending its resolution of the case.
McDonnell now argues that the government’s theory of the law is unconstitutionally broad and would allow any elected official who grants “routine courtesies” to campaign donors to be arbitrarily charged with bribery, including for simple activities like posing for photographs. “If every benefit can be quid and juries can infer pro from circumstance,” he contends, “then expanding quo to encompass everything officials customarily do” grants the government “boundless authority to prosecute.” The government responds that Williams’s payments to McDonnell were not campaign donations but rather personal loans and luxurious gifts. In the rare case that similar charges are bought on the basis of campaign contributions, they continue, a jury could easily be instructed that such donations may only form the basis for corruption when given in exchange for a specific, identifiable official acts.
This post was authored by The George Washington Law Review Online Editorial Team.