Rules of Interrogation: Title IX and the Opportunity to Cross-Examine Complainants

BACKGROUND

Title IX, passed as part of the Educational Amendments of 1972, states that “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Three Supreme Court decisions during the 1990s interpreted Title IX to require schools to respond adequately and appropriately to incidents of sexual harassment and violence perpetrated against students.

In 2011, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (“OCR”) issued what is referred to as a “Dear Colleague” letter, which provided guidance to schools and reminded them of their obligation to address incidents of sexual assault as civil rights matters under Title IX. In this letter, the OCR under the Obama administration made recommendations regarding procedures schools should follow when addressing a Title IX complaint. One procedural recommendation by the OCR was to discourage allowing parties to personally question and cross-examine each other during a hearing on alleged sexual violence. The OCR reasoned that this method may be “traumatic or intimidating” and would potentially foster a hostile environment. Additionally, schools are not required to allow cross-examination of witnesses.

Most recently, the Department of Education under Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration has announced its intention to issue sweeping changes to the rules governing campus sexual assault. One of the major rules proposed through the early 2019 notice-and-comment procedure was a requirement that schools allow cross-examination of those alleging sexual harassment or assault.

THE ISSUE

In sexual misconduct cases, are schools required to provide a respondent with the opportunity for live cross-examination of the complainant and his or her representatives?

THE SPLIT

In 2018, the Sixth Circuit heard the case Doe v. Baum (2018). John Doe, the plaintiff and initial respondent in a sexual misconduct investigation at the University of Michigan, filed suit after the case made its way through the university’s appeals process. When the investigation was resolved in the complainant’s favor, Mr. Doe voluntarily withdrew from the university but later claimed that the university’s disciplinary procedures were in violation of both the Due Process Clause and Title IX. His argument was that, because the university’s decision turned on a finding of credibility, the school should have been required to provide him with the opportunity to cross-examine the complainant and witnesses. The Sixth Circuit reversed the district court’s decision and held that the University of Michigan did violate the student’s right to due process by failing to afford him the right to cross-examine the complainant and witnesses.

Relying on the decision in Baum, a respondent in a sexual assault investigation at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst filed suit after the university held a hearing and eventually expelled him. The respondent, Mr. Haidak, argued that his rights under Title IX and the Due Process Clause were violated because the university did not provide him with the opportunity to interrogate the complainant. In a split from the ruling in the Sixth Circuit, the First Circuit held in Haidak v. University of Massachusetts-Amherst (2018) that it is not a categorical requirement that schools must provide respondents with the opportunity to cross-examine the complainant, either directly or through a representative. The court explained that a school’s decision to examine the witnesses and parties by using a neutral factfinder would not be so fundamentally flawed in its procedure as to deprive the respondent of their right to due process. The Court reasoned that requiring the right to the kind of cross-examination demanded by Mr. Haidak would cause the disciplinary proceedings to essentially mirror a common law trial, which the First Circuit deemed unnecessary.

LOOKING FORWARD

Title IX administrators anticipate publication of the finalized regulations any day now. The proposed regulations relied heavily on the Baum decision and procedural requirements as outlined by the Sixth Circuit, conflicting with the First Circuit in Haidak. It remains to be seen what procedures will be required by the final Title IX regulations, but it is unlikely we will see any shift away from the rationale and procedures as outlined in Baum.

Educational institutions in the First Circuit will be forced to take into account both the Haidak decision and the new regulations when updating their Title IX policies. Additionally, many universities utilize the method of fact-finding supported by Haidak, which allows for a neutral party to interview the complainant and respondent. The split between the First and Sixth Circuits coupled with the introduction of the new Title IX regulations by the Department of Education will force different institutions to follow different sets of rules depending on the jurisdiction in which they are located. Various Title IX cases are awaiting trial or adjudication across the country, and experts are eager to find out which of the procedural frameworks appear to be the standard. With these rulings, it is becoming increasingly more likely that the Supreme Court will be forced to consider the Title IX procedures.

For further reading, see: First Circuit Splits from Sixth Circuit and Education Department on Title IX (2019), OCR Is About to Rock Our Worlds (2020) by Brett A. Sokolow, and 5 College Title IX Lawsuits to Watch (2019) by Jeremy Bauer-Wolf.

Accuracy v. Finality: The Implications of Habeas Rights Based on AEDPA Interpretations

BACKGROUND

With the release of the film Just Mercy, the debate over balancing the prevention of wrongful convictions against the assurance of finality in serious criminal matters has once again come into the spotlight. This dispute is not only receiving national attention in pop culture, but is also making headlines in the judicial field with the emergence of a new circuit split.

A habeas petition is a method invoked by prisoners seeking an early release by challenging the legitimacy of their detention. In 1996, the ability to file habeas petitions was limited with the passage of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”). Under AEDPA, a prisoner has just one opportunity to file a motion to vacate the earlier sentence. A second opportunity is permitted only when the Supreme Court adopts a new and favorable rule of constitutional law. Prisoners are also restricted to just one habeas petition, unless they can demonstrate that AEDPA’s remedy is “inadequate or ineffective.”

THE ISSUE

Can the AEDPA remedy be considered inadequate or ineffective, thereby circumventing the single habeas restriction, when a new rule of statutory construction is adopted by a circuit court?

THE SPLIT

In Hueso v. Barnhart (2020), the Sixth Circuit split from the Fourth Circuit, interpreting AEDPA to increase restrictions on habeas rights. Hueso was convicted of drug trafficking in Alaska. He was initially sentenced to 10 years in prison; however, the term was doubled under a federal sentencing law. The year after his conviction, the Supreme Court rejected the interpretation permitting doubling. At the time, Hueso’s counsel had already filed a Motion to Vacate challenging evidence, which was rejected. Counsel then filed a habeas petition based on the Supreme Court ruling. The court denied the petition based on Sixth Circuit precedent that barred habeas cases from entertaining challenges based on sentencing. However, in 2016, the Sixth Circuit overturned its previous holding, thereby permitting sentencing-based habeas petitions.

As a result, Hueso’s counsel filed another habeas petition, but this time it was rejected under AEDPA. Hueso appealed to the Sixth Circuit, arguing that he should be permitted to file a second habeas under AEDPA because the AEDPA remedy was inadequate and ineffective. The Sixth Circuit denied the appeal on two bases. First, the Sixth Circuit reasoned that the Supreme Court ruling rejecting double sentencing could not be introduced in a subsequent challenge as the decision was made while Hueso’s first Motion to Vacate was pending. The court reasoned that the decision was available at the time of the challenge and, therefore, the failure to mention it barred a second attempt. Second, the Sixth Circuit held that the second habeas petition was correctly denied because the basis of the petition centered on a circuit court decision to permit sentencing-based habeas petitions. The Sixth Circuit rationalized that this decision was not constitutional law, as required under AEDPA, and thus could not be a basis for seeking to file subsequent petitions.

The Sixth Circuit’s reasoning diverged from the Fourth Circuit’s prior interpretation in United States v. Wheeler (2018). Wheeler was charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine and possession of a firearm. Wheeler entered into a plea deal, agreeing to an enhanced sentence with a mandatory minimum of 120 months. The next year, Wheeler’s counsel filed a Motion to Vacate, citing both inefficient counsel and the fact that the conviction did not qualify for an enhanced sentence. The Motion was denied based on Fourth Circuit precedent allowing a maximum aggravated sentence to be imposed. Wheeler’s counsel sought to appeal by filing a certificate of appealability. While the appeal was pending, the previous precedent relied upon was overturned by the Fourth Circuit with a finding that a district court could only consider the maximum sentence that the particular defendant could receive in enhanced sentence matters. However, Wheeler’s appeal was still denied based on the reasoning that the new decision could not be applied retroactively.

Wheeler’s counsel subsequently filed a habeas petition, arguing that the AEDPA remedy was inadequate and ineffective. In this case, the Fourth Circuit upheld the inadequacy on appeal. The court reasoned:

“[W]e conclude that [AEDPA] is inadequate and ineffective to test the legality of a sentence when: (1) at the time of sentencing, settled law of this circuit or the Supreme Court established the legality of the sentence; subsequent to the prisoner’s direct appeal and first … motion, the aforementioned settled substantive law changed and was deemed to apply retroactively on collateral review; (3) the prisoner is unable to meet the gatekeeping requirements … for second or successive motions; and (4) due to this retroactive change, the sentence now presents an error sufficiently grave to be deemed a fundamental defect.”

LOOKING FORWARD

Following the Wheeler decision, the Solicitor General, on behalf of the United States, filed a writ of certiorari with the United States Supreme Court. The petition was denied in March 2019, before the split emerged. The developing split has the potential for unfortunate consequences for prisoners based solely on the region they are imprisoned in. The split will inevitably result in disparate results concerning a prisoner’s rights to seek relief and retrial in the case of wrongful convictions. In the Sixth Circuit, Judge Karen Nelson Moore acknowledged the disparity in her dissent, pointing out that Hueso would “almost certainly prevail” had he attacked his sentence the first time, and noting that, as a result of the majority interpretation, Hueso would be spending another decade incarcerated.

To Be Eligible or Ineligible: The Implications of Service Animals When Donating Plasma

Background

The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) prohibits discrimination based on disability. All places of public accommodations are subject to the ADA, and 42 U.S.C. § 12181(7)(F) lists the service-based entities that are considered public accommodations for purposes of the Act, including a catch-all of “other service establishments.” The list includes: “a laundromat, dry-cleaner, bank, barber shop, beauty shop, travel service, shoe repair service, funeral parlor, gas station, office of an accountant or lawyer, pharmacy, insurance office, professional office of a health care provider, hospital, or other service establishment.”

Plasma centers collect donated plasma from humans to be used in medical therapy and research. People who give plasma are paid in return for their donation. Many plasma centers have policies barring ineligible donors, basing eligibility on things like medical history, prescribed medication, and the recency of a new tattoo or piercing, or other “risky” activities. In recent years, one specific plasma center – CSL Plasma, Inc. – has become subject to controversy for its safety policy, which bars all who use service animals for anxiety from eligibility.

The Issue

Are plasma centers considered “service establishments” and therefore subject to the ADA’s prohibition on discrimination for public accommodations?

The Split

The Fifth Circuit has split from the Third and Tenth Circuits on the issue of whether plasma centers are considered service establishments. All three circuits considered the dictionary definitions of the words “service” and “establishment,” referencing Webster’s Third International Dictionary. According to the dictionary, “service” means “conduct or performance that assists or benefits someone or something” and “establishment” means a “place of business.” The issue of whether a plasma center is a place of business is not contested.

 In Silguero v. CSL Plasma, Inc (2018), the Fifth Circuit held that plasma centers are not service establishments, and therefore not subject to the ADA’s prohibition on discrimination. The court first looked at the dictionary definition and reasoned that donors receive no detectable benefit from the act of donation. As Webster’s definition considers a service to be a benefit received, the Fifth Circuit held that the plasma collection cannot be considered a “service.”

In addition, the Fifth Circuit implemented ejusdem generis, a canon of statutory interpretation that interprets a general term in a statute by looking to the preceding examples. The court found that the examples prior to “service establishment,” which included hospitals, barbershops, lawyers, and gas stations among the many, all offered a public a service in exchange for monetary compensation, whereas plasma centers pay the public for donations. As plasma centers do not receive money from the public, and instead give money to the public, the Fifth Circuit further confirmed its holding that plasma centers are not service establishments that must follow the ADA.

The Tenth Circuit disagreed with this interpretation in Levorsen v. Octapharma Plasma, Inc. (2016) and found plasma centers to be service establishments. Instead, the Tenth Circuit reasoned that the “service” requirement was fulfilled as the donors who provided plasma for medical use were indeed “benefited” by the monetary compensation they received in exchange, whether the benefit was altruistic or pecuniary gain.

The Third Circuit agreed with the Tenth and expanded its reasoning in Matheis v. CSL Plasma, Inc (2019). The Third Circuit focused its analysis on the benefit aspect, affirming that the receipt of money is a clear benefit to the donor. Moreover, the Third Circuit diverged even further from the Fifth Circuit, countering the assertion that a public service must involve the receipt of compensation from customers, stating that this emphasis on the direction of compensation is “unhelpful.”

To support this argument, the Third Circuit referenced the fact that § 12181(7)(F) includes “bank” as a service entity. The Third Circuit argued this inclusion made it clear that the Fifth Circuit’s narrow reading was flawed, as customers of banks receive compensation for using the bank’s services. In regard to plasma centers, the Third Circuit held that these facilities “[offer] a service to the public, the extracting of plasma for money, with the plasma then used by the center in its business of supplying a vital product to healthcare providers. That both the center and members of the public derive economic value from the center’s provision and public’s use of a commercial service does not divorce the center from the other listed examples in § 12181(7)(F).”

Accordingly, the Third Circuit ruled that plasma centers were subject to the ADA. The Third Circuit went on to hold that CSL’s service animal policy was not a valid safety rule as its reasoning was speculative and generalized “widely about individuals who use service animals, all of whom CSL apparently views as people with ‘severe anxiety,’” rather than based on medical or scientific evidence.

Looking Forward

The circuit split on the matter of “service establishments” is troubling. Until this split is reconciled, it is possible that other establishments could argue exemption from discrimination on the basis of disability due to the narrow reading of “service” in the Fifth Circuit’s reasoning. It is important to ensure that establishments are not making safety assessments based on generalizations or stereotypes surrounding disability, and that service is not denied to owners of canine caregivers or other service animals.

Pollution’s Travel Plans: The Clean Water Act and Pollution’s Indirect Journey to Navigable Waters

Background

The objective of the Clean Water Act (“CWA”) is to “restore and maintain” the waters of the United States by regulating the pollution of navigable waters. 33 U.S.C. § 1251(a). While the CWA emphasizes maintaining the integrity of the waters as a national goal, it also tasks the States with the primary responsibility of regulating pollution and water resources. 33 U.S.C. § 1251(b).

The CWA bars “the discharge of any pollutant by any person” who does not have an appropriate permit. 33 U.S.C. § 1311(a). The “discharge of a pollutant” is the “addition of any pollutant to navigable waters from any point source.” 33 U.S.C. § 1362(12). The CWA defines “point source” as “any discernible, confined and discrete conveyance, including but not limited to any… well… from which pollutants are or may be discharged.” 33 U.S.C. § 1362(14). Therefore, when a party without a permit discharges a pollutant from a point source to navigable waters, the party violates the CWA. Headwaters, Inc. v. Talent Irrigation Dist., 243 F.3d 526, 532 (9th Cir. 2001). Although the plain language of the CWA may appear straightforward, the law has left much open to judicial interpretation.

The Issue

Is the discharge of pollutants without a permit from a point source into groundwater, which then leads to the discharge of these pollutants into navigable waters, prohibited under the CWA? Or does the CWA ban only the discharge of pollutants from point sources directly into navigable waters?

The Split

The Fourth and Ninth Circuits have interpreted the CWA to ban the indirect discharge of pollutants from point sources via groundwater into navigable waters. Hawai’i Wildlife Fund v. Cty. Of Maui (9th Cir. 2018); Upstate Forever v. Kinder Morgan Energy Partners (4th Cir. 2018). However, the Sixth Circuit has interpreted the CWA as prohibiting only the direct discharge of pollutants into navigable waters and has disallowed pollutants that pass through groundwater from being included in the CWA. Kentucky Waterways Alliance v. Kentucky Utilities Co. (6th Cir. 2018); Tennessee Clean Water Network v. TVA (6th Cir. 2018).

In Hawai’i, a tracer dye study confirmed that the County of Maui’s effluent waste collection wells discharged pollutants into groundwater, which then traveled into the Pacific Ocean. The County of Maui contended that the pollution was not discharged by the wells, but by the groundwater, a nonpoint source and that the CWA requires permits only for point sources that convey “pollutants directly into navigable water.” Holding for the plaintiff, the Court reasoned that because there was ample evidence that the pollution in the Pacific Ocean originated from the county’s wells, which qualify as point sources, it was immaterial that the pollutants travelled through groundwater before entering the Pacific Ocean. The Court stated the because the path of the pollutants from the wells to the navigable waters was “traceable,” the pollutants were discharged from the wells, not the groundwater. Further, the Court emphasized that precedent recognizing CWA liability when a “direct connection” exists between polluting point sources and polluted navigable waters does not preclude CWA liability arising from indirect discharges. The court reasoned that although the pollution passed through groundwater, the discharge was “the functional equivalent of a discharge into navigable water” directly from the wells because the pollutants were traceable back to their original point source.

Presented with the same issue, the Fourth Circuit reasoned in Upstate Forever that if the plaintiff can show “a direct hydrological connection between ground water and navigable waters,” the pollution of navigable waters via groundwater can violate the CWA. The omission of the terms “direct” or “directly” from the CWA, according to the Court, supports that “a discharge through ground water” incurs liability under the CWA when a clear connection between the originating point source and the polluted navigable waters exists. The Court upheld this interpretation of the CWA in Sierra Club, holding that the discharge of pollutants into navigable waters through groundwater without a permit violated the CWA.

However, the Sixth Circuit has interpreted the CWA to have a complete opposite meaning. In Kentucky Waterways Alliance, the court rejected the “hydrological connection theory” outright, disagreeing with the decisions of its sister circuits. The court emphasized that the term “into” in the CWA “indicates directness,” reasoning that the term “leaves no room for intermediary mediums to carry the pollutants.” The court asserted that including pollution which passes through groundwater into navigable waters within the CWA is an overextension of liability. In Tennessee Clean Water, the Sixth Circuit restated its narrow reading of the CWA, holding that “a plaintiff may never—as a matter of law—prove that a defendant has unlawfully added pollutants to navigable waterways via groundwater.” Unlike the Ninth Circuit, the Sixth Circuit concurred with the argument that pollutants passing through groundwater into navigable waters are coming “from a nonpoint source” rather the originating point source.

Looking Forward

The County of Maui and Kinder Morgan petitioners have filed for writ of certiorari for the Supreme Court to review the respective circuits’ decisions. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to County of Maui and began hearing oral arguments for the case on November 6, 2019. This issue will have widespread implications on the scope of environmental protection afforded by the CWA. For instance, dissenting in Tennessee Clean Water, Judge Clay acknowledged that, under the majority’s opinion, a polluter may escape liability under the CWA by taking advantage of the groundwater loophole by intentionally diverting pollutants into groundwater. The Supreme Court’s decision regarding the case will have powerful influence over holding polluters accountable for their waste.

For further reading, see: the EPA’s recent “Interpretative Statement” excluding the pollutants released from a point source through groundwater from coverage and liability under the CWA regardless of hydrological connection; filed brief amici curiae of Former EPA Officials and of Former EPA Administrators in favor of Hawai’i Wildlife Fund; Concerned Residents for Envi. v. Southview Farm (2nd Cir. 1994); Sierra Club v. Abston Construction Co., Inc. (5th Cir. 1980).

Every Step Matters: “But For” Causation in the McDonnell Douglass Framework

BACKGROUND

The McDonnell Douglas Corp v. Green burden-shifting framework requires a three-step process to adjudicate a motion for summary judgment in a retaliation case. Garcia v. Professional Contract Services, Inc.(5th Cir. 2019). First, the former employee must establish a prima facie case for retaliation ­— that the employee engaged in a protected activity; the employer knew about the protected activity; and the employee experienced retaliation because of the protected activity. Second, the burden of proof shifts to the employer to express a legitimate reason for the adverse action against the former employee. Third, the former employee must proffer additional evidence to permit a trier of fact to infer that the employer’s motive is a pretext for retaliation.

THE ISSUE

Does the McDonnell Douglas framework require the “but for” causation to be shown at the initial prima facie stage of retaliation, or only after an employer has provided a reason for the adverse employment action at the final pretext stage?

THE SPLIT

Circuits are split as to whether the “but-for” causation extends to the initial prima facie stage. The Fifth Circuit held in Garcia, that an employee’s prima facie case of retaliation only needs to demonstrate a “but for” causation at the final pretext stage of the McDonnell Douglas framework. The final pretext stage must consider the timing between an employee’s protected activity and an adverse action against her. Sufficiently close timing between the two events can establish “that the adverse action would not have occurred ‘but for’ the employer’s retaliatory motive.” Four months was close enough here. Temporal proximity and other circumstantial evidence of retaliation would satisfy the “but for” causation. Likewise, the Third and Fourth Circuits cited similar holdings. Young v. City of Philadelphia Police Dep’t, (3d Cir. 2016); Foster v. Univ. of Md. – E. Shore, (4th Cir. 2015). If the “but for” causation had to be proved at the initial prima facie stage, the McDonnell Douglas burdening-shifting framework would be superfluous. The employee’s “ultimate burden of persuasion [would be satisfied] without proceeding through the pretext analysis.”

In contrast, the Sixth and Eleventh Circuits require the employee to overcome a heightened “but for” causation standard. In Montell v. Diversified Clinical Services, Inc. (2014), the Sixth Circuit held that the close-timing standard is insufficient when some time elapses; the employee must offer “other evidence of retaliatory conduct to establish causality.” Additionally, the Eleventh Circuit held in Sims v. MVM, Inc. (2013), with regard to Age Discrimination in Employment Act “ADEA” cases, the burden of persuasion remains at all times with the employee to demonstrate “but for” causation at the initial prima facie stage and the final pretext stage.

LOOKING FORWARD

The heightened “but for” causation requirement should only apply in the final pretext stage. Once the employer provides a benign reason for termination, allowing the employee to offer additional evidence will permit a judge to infer whether the termination was actually driven by retaliation.

For further reading, see: Examining Retaliation As a Use of Force: Why State Courts Should Return to the Pre-Nassar, Pro-Plaintiff Framework (2018) by Amber L. Kipfmiller and 5th Circuit Resurrects Whistleblower’s Retaliation Suit Against Government Contractor (2019) by Yvonne L. DeMarino, Esq.

Road to Recovery: Recouping Profits From Trademark Infringement

BACKGROUND

Since 1947, the Lanham Act (also known as the Trademark Act of 1946) has governed trademark infringement litigation in the United States. When a defendant is found to have infringed on a plaintiff’s trademark under § 1125 of the Act, § 1117(a) allows the plaintiff to recover the defendant’s profits from the violation. It was never entirely clear whether the infringement must be willful in order for the plaintiff to recover. However, in 1999, Congress added to the confusion. That year, Congress amended § 1117 of the Act, allowing profits, damages to the plaintiff, and costs to be recovered for a violation under section 43(a) or (d), or a willful violation under section 43(c).

THE ISSUE

The statutory construction of §1117(a) appears to attach the word “willful” only to dilution-related violations under §1125(c). However, the statute requires recovery to be “subject to the principles of equity,” which suggests judicial discretion on the matter. If the courts decide that willful conduct is required for plaintiffs to recover, will that result in unjust enrichment of unwittingly infringing defendants? Or do the principles of equity point the courts away from punishing unintentional violators?

The question dividing the courts is as follows: Does §1117(a) allow a plaintiff to recover a defendant’s profits from an unintentional violation of a trademark?

THE SPLIT

There are two sides to this split: The first view generally requires the defendant’s conduct to be willful in order for a plaintiff to recover profits. This includes the First, Second, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth, and D.C. Circuits. The treatment of willfulness does have some variation within this side. For example, the First Circuit only requires evidence of willful infringement in cases where the parties were not direct competitors. In Fishman Transducers, Inc. v. Paul (2012), the First Circuit described the direct competition rule as an exception to the willfulness requirement.

The second view does not require willfulness for a plaintiff to recover. Instead, willfulness is often treated as one factor in a multi-factor test for recovery, and in other circuits, one situation in which recovery is warranted. This general side is represented by the Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Eleventh Circuits. The Eleventh Circuit illustrated its multiple-situations approach in Optimum Techs., Inc. v. Home Depot U.S.A., Inc. (2007). In this opinion, the court listed as potential circumstances leading to recovery: “(1) the defendant’s conduct was willful and deliberate, (2) the defendant was unjustly enriched, or (3) it is necessary to deter future conduct.” Based on the logic of the Optimum opinion, the absence of willful conduct may yield a requirement of causation between the infringement and the enrichment of the defendant through sales. There is a strong consideration of unjust enrichment in these circuits.

It should be noted that in no Circuit can a plaintiff automatically recover profits from an infringing defendant. Even when willfulness is not a requirement, recovery is still “subject to the principles of equity” through varying tests.

LOOKING FORWARD

The Supreme Court will directly address this issue in the upcoming term. On June 28, the Court granted the petition for certiorari to hear Romag Fasteners, Inc. v. Fossil, Inc. In this case, Fossil was found to have unwilfully infringed on Romag’s trademark. The Second Circuit applied its longstanding willfulness requirement and affirmed a judgment barring recovery of profits from Fossil. In its respondent brief, Fossil argued that “no meaningful conflict exists,” asserting that in the Circuits hearing the majority of trademark cases (the Second and Ninth), the willfulness requirement prevails. Fossil also claims that even in circuits treating willfulness as a factor, it is rare for a plaintiff to recover in its absence.

As the case awaits adjudication, the Intellectual Property Owners Association has filed an amicus brief in favor of the interpretation requiring willfulness for recovery. In its brief, the Association argued that prior to the addition of the word “willful” in 1999, courts largely held willfulness as a requirement based on the “principles of equity” language of the statute. The American Intellectual Property Law Association disagreed with that statement in its amicus brief, calling a willfulness requirement “antithetical to the principles of equity.” The majority of amicus briefs already filed appear to align more closely with the latter view.

If the petitioners prevail, there is no guarantee that they will recover. However, a verdict for either party would most likely change the standard for recovery in half of the circuits. The decades-long difference in approaches will hopefully be resolved and provide a more uniform law nationwide.

High (Flying) Crimes: Where is Venue Proper for Crimes Committed on an Airplane in Flight?

Background

Determining proper venue for a trial is essential to guarantee the constitutional right to a fair trial. The determination also helps to avoid imposing undue hardship on that defendant in the course of the already strenuous and expensive litigation process by forcing her to defend in “an environment alien” to her. United States v. Johnson (1944).

With regard to criminal proceedings, all crimes must be prosecuted in the district in which the crimes were allegedly committed. In furtherance of this, the Supreme Court has provided a two-part inquiry to determine in which district the alleged crime was committed and, therefore, in which district venue is proper. “(A) court must initially identify the conduct constituting the offense (the nature of the crime) and then discern the location of the commission of the criminal acts.” United States v. Rodriguez-Moreno (1999).

The Issue

The standard seems simple enough, but what happens when the crime takes place in the sky? Where is venue proper when a crime occurs on an airplane during flight? In applying the Rodriguez-Moreno inquiry to an inflight crime, the first part (nature of the crime) will often be fairly straightforward. However, the second part (location of the commission of the crime) poses more difficulty and presents the legal question at issue.

When an inflight crime is committed, is venue proper in the district over which the airplane was flying when the crime occurred or in the district where the airplane lands after the inflight crime occurred? The answer to this question has serious implications for procedural logistics of prosecuting criminal offenses committed on airplanes as well as concerns of unfairness and undue hardship to criminal defendants accused of committing such crimes.

The Split

Traditionally, courts have deemed venue proper in the district in which the airplane lands, as held by the Eleventh Circuit in United States v. Breitweiser (2004) and the Tenth Circuit in United States v. Cope (2012). In their respective decisions, the Eleventh and Tenth Circuits found venue proper pursuant to 18 U.S.C.S. §3237, specifically §3237(a), in which Congress provided the method for ascertaining venue for crimes involving the use of transportation:  “Any offense involving the use of… transportation in interstate or foreign commerce… is a continuing offense and, except as otherwise expressly provided by enactment of Congress, may be inquired of and prosecuted in any district from, through, or into which such commerce… moves.”

The Eleventh Circuit has explained §3237(a) as “a catchall provision designed to prevent a crime which has been committed in transit from escaping punishment for lack of venue… where venue might be difficult to prove.” United States v. McCulley (1982). In Breitweiser, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed Breitweiser’s convictions for abusive sexual conduct with a minor and simple assault and rejected his challenge to the district court’s finding of venue. The Court reasoned venue was proper in the Northern District of Georgia (where the plane landed) pursuant to the “catchall” provision of §3237(a) because the continuing offenses involved the use of transportation in interstate commerce and, “[I]t would be difficult if not impossible for the government to prove… exactly which federal district was beneath the plane when Breitweiser committed the crimes.” The Court held, “[T]o establish venue, the government need only show that the crime took place on a form of transportation in interstate commerce.”

In Cope, the Tenth Circuit affirmed Cope’s conviction for operating a commercial airplane while under the influence of alcohol and rejected his challenge to venue in the District of Colorado. The Court found venue proper pursuant to §3237(a), citing Breitweiser for the proposition that one “need only show that the crime took place on a form of transportation in interstate commerce.” Since Cope committed the offense while operating the plane in interstate commerce, venue was proper in any district Cope had traveled “from, through, or into,” which included the District of Colorado where the plane landed.

The Ninth Circuit split from the Eleventh and Tenth Circuits on this issue in United States v. Lozoya (2019), in which the defendant was convicted of inflight simple assault in the Central District of California where the plane landed. In reviewing Lozoya’s conviction and her challenge to venue, the Court found the provisions of §3237(a) to be not applicable to establish venue in that district. Specifically, the Court found the statutory language “[continuing] offenses involving… transportation in interstate or foreign commerce” inapplicable after applying the Rodriguez-Moreno inquiry to the offense.

The Ninth Circuit determined that (1) as to the nature of the assault, Lozoya committed a single, instantaneous offense which, though it “occurred on a plane… did not implicate interstate or foreign commerce,” and (2) partly because of its instantaneous nature, the crime was likely committed only in the district over which the plane was flying at the time of the offense. Accordingly, the Court held venue would be proper only in the district over which the plane was flying when the crime occurred and reversed Lozoya’s conviction on the grounds of improper venue. The Court acknowledged (and Judge Owens’ dissent emphasized) “a creeping absurdity” in mandating the exact district over which an inflight offense occurred to be pinpointed for the purpose of ascertaining venue. Further, both the majority and dissent raised concerns about the feasibility and potential absurdity of this requirement and the unfair hardship it could impose on defendants. However, the Court did not find these concerns sufficient to overcome the Constitution and binding precedent. The Court also suggested, and the dissent expressed hope, that if Congress deemed this an absurd result, it would enact a new statute to ascertain venue for crimes committed at 30,000 feet.

Looking Forward

Judge Owens concluded by urging the Supreme Court to rule on this split or Congress to act to restore the rule finding venue where the plane lands. It remains to be seen whether the Supreme Court or Congress will take up this issue. In the meantime, frequent fliers, pay close attention if the captain tells you what you’re flying over. You never know when you’ll need venue.

Riding Free From Controversy: Freedom of Speech Guarantee and Public Transit Systems

BACKGROUND

Before an advertisement is displayed on a public bus, it has likely undergone an extensive vetting process, where the transit authority has deemed it acceptable to occupy this space. Each locale often has varying policies regarding which advertisements it will choose to air. Both religious and non-religious groups alike have attempted to circumvent transit authority policies in order to run advertisements with their respective viewpoints.

The First Amendment prohibits government actors from taking action that would violate a citizen’s right to free speech. In the context of monitoring public transport advertising, these violations are often seen as censorship issues — meaning a government actor is attempting to censor certain speech by not allowing a potential ad to run. First Amendment censorship claims are broken down into two categories: content-based discrimination and viewpoint discrimination. Viewpoint discrimination will target a specific view taken by a speaker, rather than disavowing an entire subject. On the other hand, content-based discrimination policies tend to be more blanketed, banning entire subject areas. There are reasonable limits that can be imposed on one’s right to freedom of speech. Thus, courts will often uphold subject-matter regulations, despite limiting one’s free speech rights, because “even protected speech is not equally permissible in all places and at all times.” Archdiocese of Washington v. Washington Metro. Area Transit Authority (2018).

THE ISSUE

With respect to public transportation, is a ban on religious advertisements considered a permissible subject-matter regulation or an impermissible viewpoint regulation under the freedom of speech guarantee of the First Amendment?

THE SPLIT

The Third Circuit and the D.C. Circuit are split on the issue. The disagreement not only lies in how the circuits answered the question, but also in their reasoning. Ultimately, in Archdiocese of Washington v. Washington Metro. Area Transit Authority (2018), the D.C. Circuit held that public transit authorities could reasonably regulate speech on their properties because buses fall under a non-public forum. Whereas in Northeastern Pennsylvania Freethought Society v. City of Lackawanna Transit System (2019), the Third Circuit found that public transit authorities could not prohibit advertisements that discriminate on the basis of viewpoint.

In Archdiocese (2018), the D.C. Circuit addressed the First Amendment question using the forum analysis, assessing whether the restrictions are warranted based on the category of forum that the buses fall under. The court distinguished between public forums and non-public forums. Public forums are places that “have been devoted to assembly and debate, such as sidewalks or parks.” Here, the government’s ability to limit speech is minimal. In contrast, non-public forums are public properties where speech can be regulated if the regulation is reasonable and is not grounded in viewpoint discrimination. The D.C. Circuit reasons that “advertising space on public transit was properly treated as a non-public forum because a ‘bus is plainly not a park or sidewalk or other meeting place for discussion’ but rather ‘only a way to get to work or back home.’” Furthermore, it discussed that the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority’s exclusions were subject-matter discrimination, prohibiting religion as subject matter rather than religious viewpoint.

In Northeastern Pennsylvania (2019), the Third Circuit does not even consider the forum analysis because this would be “putting the cart before the horse.” Instead, the Court requires an assessment of the type of discrimination to take place first, seeing no rationale for addressing the forum if the discrimination is one regarding viewpoint. In the Court’s view, advertisement policies fall within viewpoint discrimination, and are thus impermissible under the First Amendment. Under this holding, the transit authority cannot exclude speech that it considers controversial because this would be an exclusion based on one particular view. Ultimately, the Third Circuit urges that other courts construe viewpoint discrimination broadly in the pursuit of “providing greater protection to private religious speech on public property” and not relegating religious speech to a “second-class status.”

LOOKING FORWARD

First Amendment claims, especially with regard to religious freedom, are rarely clear-cut issues for courts to tackle. However, if this circuit split is left unresolved, the gray area regarding permissible speech only expands. This uncertainty could very well expand past an advertisement on your morning commute, and could have longstanding impacts on how government actors limit speech in various public areas. To ensure that free speech rights are not infringed upon, the Supreme Court will need to address religious speech, determining the permissibility of certain expressions.

Excessive Entanglement: The Legislative Prayer Doctrine and School Board Meetings

BACKGROUND

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This clause was motivated by the Framers’ experience with state-sponsored religious persecution and is thought to serve two purposes: (1) allowing individuals to express themselves according to the dictates of their own conscience; and (2) preventing the government from acting “to make belief — whether theistic or nontheistic, religious or nonreligious — relevant to an individual’s membership” within the political community. Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Chino (9th Cir. 2018).

In light of this purpose, courts express “heightened concerns with protecting freedom of conscience from subtle coercive pressure in the elementary and secondary public schools.” American Humanist Association v. McCarty (5th Cir. 2017). School children are in the process of developing their own beliefs and learning to think for themselves — they are far more susceptible to pressure to conform to social norms and expectations. “The Constitution decrees that religion must be a private matter for the individual, the family, and the institutions of private choice,” and therefore religious opining by those with authority over impressionable adolescents in a mandatory secular school has been deemed unacceptable in the eyes of the Supreme Court. Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971).

The relationship between Church and State is not one of total separation, but the Supreme Court has carved out certain exceptions to this Constitutional prohibition. Town of Greece v. Galloway (2014). Here, a resident challenged the practice of the town board’s practice of opening its monthly meetings with a prayer from an invited clergy member. Writing for a five-justice majority, Justice Kennedy writes: “Legislative prayer lends gravity to public business, reminds lawmakers to transcend petty differences in pursuit of higher purpose and expresses a common aspiration to a just and peaceful society.” The Court affirmed that the Establishment Clause was never meant to prohibit the longstanding tradition of legislative prayer. Despite the fact that some audience members were offended by the prayer, the Court found that the primary audience consisted of the board members who governed the town, and therefore, opening the board meeting with a prayer was permissible. The Court did not limit its ruling, however, leading to many questions as to how far this “legislative prayer” doctrine could extend.

THE ISSUE

Is the opening of a public school board meeting with a prayer or invocation permissible as an extension of the “legislative prayer” doctrine, or is it an unconstitutional entanglement of Church and State?

THE SPLIT

The Fifth and Ninth Circuits, in particular, have diverged on the issue of whether school boards should be permitted to invoke religious doctrine in meetings. The difference in opinion stems from an overall uncertainty as to whether school board meetings are viewed more as school-sanctioned events or legislative sessions.

In American Humanist Association v. McCarty (5th Cir. 2017), the AHA challenged the actions of the Birdville Independent School District in having a student speaker deliver an invocation prior to each of its monthly school board meetings. The invocation was given after another student led the Pledge of Allegiance and was normally some sort of prayer. The Fifth Circuit upheld the student-led invocation, arguing that the school board is “more like a legislature than a classroom,” distinguishing it from the public-school setting. The Court based its decision on the “legislative prayer” doctrine from Town of Greece, claiming that the Framers saw this form of prayer as merely a “benign acknowledgment of religion’s role in society.” The Court acknowledged that there may be children in the audience, but maintained that their presence did not transform the legislative nature of the school board meeting.

One year later, the Ninth Circuit split with its sister circuit in Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Chino Valley Unified School District (9th Cir. 2018).In this case, the school board permitted a prayer, usually led by a clergy member, to begin its opening sessions. The clergy members were invited from a list of eligible local religious leaders and were permitted to give the invocation on a first-come, first-serve basis. It also became common practice for board members to use these opening invocations as an opportunity to link student, teacher, and district accomplishments to Christianity by citing Bible verses and stressing the need for God in schools and society. The school board had a student representative who attended the meetings, and commonly invited students to highlight their various accomplishments. The Ninth Circuit ruled this opening invocation to be a violation of the Establishment Clause. The Court differentiated the permissible town board meeting in Town of Greece from this case in that the town board meeting was typically attended by mature adults who could express dissent, and had the option to remain or leave at will. “Instead, these prayers typically take place before groups of school children whose attendance is not truly voluntary and whose relationship to school district officials, including the Board, is not one of full parity.” The Court further argued that public schools lack the historical foundation that legislatures have in allowing opening prayer. The court reasoned that the school board should not be permitted to invoke such religious doctrine in their meetings.

LOOKING FORWARD

Until this split is reconciled, school districts will continue to face uncertainty as to how to proceed with such a practice. As of now, it is not clear if the school board meeting is more like a school-sanctioned event or a legislative session, an important distinction in deciding the issue. Due to these important constitutional ramifications, the Supreme Court should intervene and clarify its ruling in Town of Greece. The conflict here is important because it calls into question the protections afforded by the First Amendment, a bedrock of our democratic society. Additionally, this concerns the imperative right of children in a public school to be free from religious indoctrination, allowing them to develop their beliefs and faculties unimpeded by religious pressure from public authority figures.

Right to Refrain: Do Abortion Providers Have a First Amendment Right to Free Speech Under Mandatory Narrated Ultrasound Laws?

Background

The First Amendment prohibits Congress or any other legislative body from enacting laws that abridge freedom of speech. The Supreme Court has distinguished between legislation that regulates the content of speech and legislation that regulates conduct associated with the speech. Content-based speech restrictions are generally presumed to be invalid and must face strict scrutiny before the courts. This requires the government to prove that the law is necessary to achieve a compelling state interest — a very high bar that often results in most content-based speech restrictions failing.

The First Amendment not only guarantees the right to speech, it also guarantees the right to refrain from speech. In Riley v. Nat’l Fed’n of the Blind (1988), the Supreme Court held that regulations that compel speech are inherently content-based restrictions, as they compel the speaker to speak when they would have otherwise remained silent. As such, regulations that compel speech must also generally face some form of strict or heightened scrutiny before the court.

In conjunction with the recent rise in abortion regulation, multiple states have passed legislation mandating that narrated ultrasounds be performed by physicians prior to abortion procedures. While specifics vary slightly between states, the laws have the same general premise: physicians are required to perform an ultrasound, display the sonogram, and describe the fetus to the patient. Under these laws, the physician must display and describe the ultrasound, even if the patient actively protests. Most states provide an exception only for emergency situations, although exceptions also vary by state. If a physician refuses to perform the ultrasound, he or she may be subject to multiple forms of punishment, including fines, referral to the state medical licensing board, and an inability to perform future abortions.

The Issue

Reproductive rights and other activist groups have recently joined forces to approach these regulations from a non-traditional vantage point. The groups are straying from the traditional approach of invalidating abortion legislation under Roe v. Wade (1973), where the Supreme Court found a Constitutional right to an abortion under the Fourteenth Amendment. Instead, the groups have turned their focus to the impact of these regulations on the physicians they are intended to regulate. These activist groups have argued that the mandatory narration laws are unconstitutional not because they prohibit access to abortion, but because they compel physicians to engage in speech from which they otherwise would refrain. This has ultimately led to a single question: what are abortion providers’ First Amendment rights under mandatory narrated ultrasound laws?

The Split

In Stuart v. Camnitz (2014), the Fourth Circuit held that North Carolina’s narrated ultrasound law violated physicians’ First Amendment right to refrain from speaking “beyond the extent permitted for reasonable regulation of the medical profession.” The Court noted that while “professionals may be subject to regulations by the state that restrict their First Amendment freedoms when acting in the course of their professions, professionals do not leave their speech rights at the office door.” The Court held that this regulation of speech and professional conduct warranted heightened intermediate scrutiny, under which the law failed. The Fourth Circuit stated that “while it is true that the words the state puts into the doctor’s mouth are factual, that does not divorce the speech from its moral or ideological implications,” emphasizing the fact that context matters. Because the speech that the state was attempting to compel in this case was so heavily content-specific and did not allow any room for physicians to exercise professional judgment, the Court held that the law unconstitutionally attempted to make physicians the “mouthpiece of the state” to promote their own “clear and conceded” pro-life position.

The Sixth Circuit recently reached the exact opposite conclusion in EMW Women’s Surgical Center P.S.C. v. Beshear (2019). The Court found that Kentucky’s mandatory narrated ultrasound law did not violate physicians’ First Amendment rights, noting that the law simply “requires the disclosure of truthful, non-misleading, and relevant information about an abortion.” Directly addressing the Fourth Circuit’s 2014 decision, the Court stated that “Stuart’s basis for applying heightened scrutiny is called into question by Supreme Court precedent.” The Court argued that the appropriate level of scrutiny was much lower than that called for by the Fourth Circuit and that, under this new lower level of scrutiny, the law survived. Further opposing the argument that the narrated ultrasound laws inappropriately interfere with the doctor-patient relationship, the Court found that the laws did not interfere “any more than other informed-consent laws,” despite the fact that they were regulating the controversial subject of abortion. Countering the Fourth Circuit’s opinion that the compelling of physicians to deliver the state’s message was unconstitutional, the Sixth Circuit held that “as a First Amendment matter, there is nothing suspect with a State’s requiring a doctor, before performing an abortion, to make truthful, non-misleading factual disclosures, relevant to informed consent, even if those disclosures relate to unborn life and have the effect of persuading the patient not to have an abortion.”

Looking Forward

 The future of this issue remains uncertain. The Court recently made headlines for accepting an admitting privileges case out of the Fifth Circuit, the first abortion-related case since the addition of conservative Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh. However, the Court has generally been hesitant to accept abortion-related cases and has already denied a previous appeal for this issue. In 2014, the Court denied North Carolina officials’ petition to appeal the Fourth Circuit’s decision. As of September 26, 2019, the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a petition for a writ of certiorari for the Supreme Court to hear its appeal from the Sixth Circuit’s decision. A response is due from the Secretary of the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services, Adam Meier, by the end of October before the Court will begin to consider the petition.

For further reading, see: Sex, Lies, and Ultrasound (2018) by Case Western University School of Law Associate Dean and Professor B. Jessie Hill and Professional Rights Speech (2016) by William & Mary Law School Professor Timothy Zick.