Justia U.S. Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Civil Procedure
by
Petitioners solicited foreign nationals to invest in a cancer-treatment center. A Securities and Exchange Commission investigation revealed they misappropriated the funds. The SEC may seek “equitable relief” in civil proceedings, 15 U.S.C. 78u(d)(5). The SEC brought a civil action for disgorgement equal to the amount raised from investors. Petitioners argued that the remedy failed to account for their legitimate business expenses. The Ninth Circuit affirmed an order holding Petitioners jointly and severally liable for the full amount.The Supreme Court vacated A disgorgement award that does not exceed a wrongdoer’s net profits and is awarded for victims is equitable relief authorized under section 78u(d)(5). Equity practice has long authorized courts to strip wrongdoers of their ill-gotten gains; to avoid transforming that remedy into a punitive sanction, courts restrict it to an individual wrongdoer’s net profits to be awarded for victims. These long-standing equitable principles were incorporated into section 78u(d)(5).If on remand the court orders the deposit of the profits with the Treasury, the court should evaluate whether that order would be for the benefit of investors, consistent with equitable principles. Imposing disgorgement liability on a wrongdoer for benefits that accrue to his affiliates through joint-and-several liability runs against the rule in favor of holding defendants individually liable but the common law permitted liability for partners engaged in concerted wrongdoing. On remand, the court may determine whether Petitioners can, consistent with equitable principles, be found liable for profits as partners in wrongdoing or whether individual liability is required. The court must deduct legitimate expenses before awarding disgorgement. View "Liu v. Securities and Exchange Commission" on Justia Law

by
The Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (PLRA) established the three-strikes rule, which generally prevents a prisoner from bringing suit in forma pauperis (IFP) if he has had three or more prior suits dismissed on the grounds that they were frivolous, malicious, or failed to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. 28 U.S.C. 1915(g). Colorado inmate Lomax sued prison officials to challenge his expulsion from the facility’s sex-offender treatment program and moved for IFP status. He had already brought three unsuccessful legal actions during his time in prison. The district court and Tenth Circuit rejected Lomax’s argument that two of the dismissals should not count as strikes because they were without prejudice.The Supreme Court affirmed. Section 1915(g)’s three-strikes provision refers to any dismissal for failure to state a claim, whether with prejudice or without. A Section 1915(g) strike-call hinges exclusively on the basis for the dismissal, regardless of the decision’s prejudicial effect. Courts can and sometimes do dismiss frivolous actions without prejudice. View "Lomax v. Ortiz-Marquez" on Justia Law

by
ThyssenKrupp entered into contracts with F. L. for the construction of mills at ThyssenKrupp’s Alabama steel manufacturing plant. Each contract contained an arbitration clause. F. L. entered into a subcontract with GE for the provision of motors. After the motors allegedly failed, Outokumpu (ThyssenKrupp's successor) sued GE, which moved to compel arbitration, relying on the arbitration clauses in the F. L.-ThyssenKrupp contracts. The Eleventh Circuit concluded that the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards allows enforcement of an arbitration agreement only by the parties that actually signed the agreement.A unanimous Supreme Court reversed. The Convention does not conflict with domestic equitable estoppel doctrines that permit the enforcement of arbitration agreements by nonsignatories. The Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) grants federal courts jurisdiction over actions governed by the Convention and provides that “Chapter 1 applies to actions and proceedings brought under this chapter to the extent that [Chapter 1] is not in conflict with this chapter or the Convention,” 9 U.S.C. 208. Chapter 1 does not “alter background principles of state contract law regarding the scope of agreements (including the question of who is bound by them).” The state-law equitable estoppel doctrines permitted under Chapter 1 do not “conflict with . . . the Convention,” which is silent on whether nonsignatories may enforce arbitration agreements under domestic doctrines such as equitable estoppel. Nothing in the Convention could be read to conflict with the application of domestic equitable estoppel doctrines. The court, on remand, may address whether GE can enforce the arbitration clauses under equitable estoppel principles and which body of law governs that determination. View "GE Energy Power Conversion France SAS v. Outokumpu Stainless USA, LLC" on Justia Law

by
Plaintiffs are retired participants a defined-benefit retirement plan, which guarantees them a fixed payment each month regardless of the plan’s value or its fiduciaries’ investment decisions. Both have been paid all of their monthly pension benefits so far and are legally entitled to those payments for the rest of their lives. They filed a putative class-action suit under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. 1001, alleging violations of ERISA’s duties of loyalty and prudence by poorly investing the plan’s assets. They sought the repayment of approximately $750 million to the plan in losses suffered due to mismanagement; injunctive relief, including replacement of the plan’s fiduciaries; and attorney’s fees. The Eighth Circuit and the Supreme Court affirmed the dismissal of the case. Because the plaintiffs have no concrete stake in the lawsuit, they lack Article III standing. Win or lose, they will still receive the exact same monthly benefits they are entitled to receive. Participants in a defined-benefit plan are not similarly situated to the beneficiaries of a private trust or to participants in a defined-contribution plan; they possess no equitable or property interest in the plan. The plaintiffs cannot assert representative standing based on injuries to the plan where they themselves have not “suffered an injury in fact,” or been legally or contractually appointed to represent the plan. The fact that ERISA affords all participants—including defined-benefit plan participants—a cause of action to sue does not satisfy the injury-in-fact requirement. Article III standing requires a concrete injury even in the context of a statutory violation. The Court rejected an argument that meaningful regulation of plan fiduciaries is possible only if they may sue to target perceived fiduciary misconduct; defined-benefit plans are regulated and monitored in multiple ways. View "Thole v. U. S. Bank N. A." on Justia Law

by
In 1998, al Qaeda operatives detonated truck bombs outside the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Victims sued the Republic of Sudan under the state-sponsored terrorism exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA, 28 U.S.C. 1605(a)(7)), which included a bar on punitive damages for suits under any of the sovereign immunity exceptions. In 2008, Congress amended the FSIA in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). NDAA section 1083(c)(2) creates a cause of action for acts of terror that provides for punitive damages; it gave effect to existing lawsuits that had been “adversely affected” by prior law “as if” they had been originally filed under the new section 1605A(c). Section 1083(c)(3) provided a time-limited opportunity for plaintiffs to file new actions “arising out of the same act or incident” as an earlier action and claim those benefits. The plaintiffs amended their complaint to include section 1605A(c) claims. The district court awarded the plaintiffs approximately $10.2 billion, including roughly $4.3 billion in punitive damages. The D.C. Circuit held that the plaintiffs were not entitled to punitive damages because Congress had included no statement in NDAA section 1083 clearly authorizing punitive damages for pre-enactment conduct.The Supreme Court vacated and remanded. Even assuming that Sudan may claim the benefit of the presumption of prospective effect, Congress was as clear as it could have been when it expressly authorized punitive damages under section 1605A(c) and explicitly made that new cause of action available to remedy certain past acts of terrorism. The court of appeals must also reconsider its decision concerning the availability of punitive damages for state law claims. View "Opati v. Republic of Sudan" on Justia Law

by
Lucky Brand and Marcel market clothing. Marcel registered the trademark “Get Lucky.” Lucky Brand registered the trademark “Lucky Brand” and other marks with the word “Lucky.” In a 2003 settlement agreement, Lucky Brand agreed to stop using the phrase “Get Lucky.” Marcel released its claims regarding Lucky Brand’s use of its other trademarks.In 2005, Lucky Brand sued Marcel for violating its trademarks. Marcel filed counterclaims turning on Lucky Brand’s continued use of “Get Lucky,” but did not claim that Lucky Brand’s use of its other marks alone infringed that mark. The court enjoined Lucky Brand from copying or imitating Marcel’s “Get Lucky” mark.In 2011, Marcel sued Lucky Brand, arguing only that Lucky Brand’s post-2010 use of Lucky Brand’s other marks infringed Marcel’s “Get Lucky” mark. Marcel did not allege that Lucky Brand continued to use "Get Lucky." Lucky Brand argued, for the first time since early in the 2005 Action, that Marcel had released those claims in the settlement agreement. The Second Circuit vacated the dismissal of the action, concluding that “defense preclusion” prohibited Lucky Brand from raising that unlitigated defense.A unanimous Supreme Court reversed. Any preclusion of defenses must, at a minimum, satisfy the strictures of issue preclusion or claim preclusion. Here, issue preclusion does not apply, so the causes of action must share a “common nucleus of operative fact[s]” for claim preclusion to apply. The 2005 claims depended on Lucky Brand’s alleged use of “Get Lucky.” In the 2011 suit, Marcel alleged that the infringement was Lucky Brand’s use of its other marks containing the word “Lucky,” not any use of “Get Lucky” itself. The conduct in the 2011 suit occurred after the conclusion of the 2005 suit. View "Lucky Brand Dungarees, Inc. v. Marcel Fashions Group, Inc." on Justia Law

by
Sineneng-Smith operated a California immigration consulting firm, assisting clients to file applications for a labor certification program that once provided a path for aliens to adjust to lawful permanent resident status. Sineneng-Smith knew that her clients could not meet the long-passed statutory application-filing deadline but nonetheless charged each client over $6,000, netting more than $3.3 million. Sineneng-Smith was indicted under 8 U.S.C. 1324(a)(1)(A)(iv) and (B)(i), which make it a felony to “encourag[e] or induc[e] an alien to come to, enter, or reside in the United States, knowing or in reckless disregard of the fact that such coming to, entry, or residence is or will be in violation of law,” An enhanced penalty applies if the crime is “for the purpose of commercial advantage or private financial gain,” Appealing her convictions to the Ninth Circuit, Sineneng-Smith asserted a First Amendment right to file administrative applications on her clients’ behalf. The court invited amici to brief issues framed by the panel, then held that section 1324(a)(1)(A)(iv) is unconstitutionally overbroad under the First Amendment.A unanimous Supreme Court vacated. “The Ninth Circuit panel’s drastic departure from the principle of party presentation constituted an abuse of discretion.” No extraordinary circumstances justified the court's takeover of the appeal. Sineneng-Smith, represented by competent counsel, had raised a vagueness argument and First Amendment arguments concerning her own conduct, not that of others. Electing not to address the party-presented controversy, the panel projected that section 1324(a)(1)(A)(iv) might cover protected speech, including abstract advocacy and legal advice. A court is not "hidebound" by counsel’s precise arguments, but the Ninth Circuit’s "radical transformation of this case" went too far. View "United States v. Sineneng-Smith" on Justia Law

by
The petitioners challenged a New York City rule regarding the transport of firearms, citing the Second Amendment, and seeking declaratory relief against enforcement of the rule insofar as it prevented their transport of firearms to a second home or shooting range outside of the city. The Second Circuit rejected their claim. After the Supreme Court granted certiorari, the State of New York amended its firearm licensing statute and the City amended the rule so that the petitioners may now transport firearms to a second home or shooting range outside of the city.The Supreme Court vacated. The petitioners’ claim for declaratory relief with respect to the old rule is moot but they claimed that the new rule may still infringe their rights; they may not be allowed to stop for coffee, gas, food, or restroom breaks on the way to their second homes or shooting ranges outside of the city. The Court declined to address the argument, citing its practice of vacating and remanding where the mootness is attributable to a change in the legal framework governing the case, and where the plaintiff may have some residual claim under the new framework that was understandably not asserted previously. On remand, the Second Circuit and the district court may consider the new arguments and whether the petitioners still add a claim for damages with respect to the old rule. View "New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, Inc. v. City of New York" on Justia Law

by
Inter partes review (IPR) permits a patent challenger to ask the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to reconsider the validity of earlier granted patent claims. If a request comes more than a year after a patent infringement lawsuit against the requesting party, IPR “may not be instituted,” 35 U.S.C. 315(b). The agency’s determination of whether to institute IPR is “final and nonappealable” under section 314(d).Thryv sought IPR of Click-to-Call’s patent. The Patent Trial and Appeal Board rejected Click-to-Call’s argument that the suit was untimely, instituted review, and canceled 13 of the patent’s claims as obvious or lacking novelty. Treating the Board’s application of section 315(b) as judicially reviewable, the Federal Circuit concluded that the petition was untimely and vacated the Board’s decision.The Supreme Court vacated. Section 314(d) precludes judicial review of the agency’s application of section 315(b)’s time prescription. A challenge based on section 315(b) constitutes an appeal of the agency’s decision “to institute” an IPR. Allowing section 315(b) appeals would unwind agency proceedings determining patentability and leave bad patents enforceable. Section 314(d)’s text does not limit the review bar to section 314(a)’s question of whether the petitioner has a reasonable likelihood of prevailing. Click-to-Call’s contention is, essentially, that the agency should have refused to institute IPR. View "Thryv, Inc. v. Click-To-Call Technologies, LP" on Justia Law

by
In 1996, Intersal, a marine salvage company, discovered the shipwreck of the Queen Anne’s Revenge off the North Carolina coast. North Carolina, the shipwreck’s legal owner, contracted with Intersal to conduct recovery. Intersal hired videographer Allen to document the efforts. Allen recorded the recovery for years. He registered copyrights in all of his works. When North Carolina published some of Allen’s videos and photos online, Allen sued for copyright infringement, arguing that the Copyright Remedy Clarification Act of 1990 (CRCA, 17 U.S.C. 511(a)) removed the states’ sovereign immunity in copyright infringement cases.The Supreme Court affirmed the Fourth Circuit, ruling in favor of North Carolina. Congress lacked the authority to abrogate the states’ immunity from copyright infringement suits in the CRCA. A federal court may not hear a suit brought by any person against a nonconsenting state unless Congress has enacted “unequivocal statutory language” abrogating the states’ immunity from suit and some constitutional provision allows Congress to have thus encroached on the states’ sovereignty. Under existing precedent, neither the Intellectual Property Clause, Art. I, section 8, cl. 8, nor Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment, which authorizes Congress to “enforce” the commands of the Due Process Clause, provides that authority. View "Allen v. Cooper" on Justia Law