Justia U.S. Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Legal Ethics
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The Patent Act provides two methods for challenging an adverse decision by the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO): direct appeal to the Federal Circuit, 35 U.S.C. 141, or a new civil action against the PTO Director in the Eastern District of Virginia, section 145. Under section 145, the applicant must pay “[a]ll the expenses of the proceedings.” NantKwest filed a section 145 civil action after its patent application was denied. The Federal Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the PTO, which moved for reimbursement of expenses, including the pro-rata salaries of PTO attorneys and a paralegal who worked on the case. The Federal Circuit and the Supreme Court affirmed the denial of the motion, concluding that the statutory language referencing expenses was not sufficient to rebut the “American Rule” presumption that parties are responsible for their own attorney’s fees. Reading section 145 to permit an unsuccessful government agency to recover attorney’s fees from a prevailing party “would be a radical departure from longstanding fee-shifting principles adhered to in a wide range of contexts.” The phrase “expenses of the proceeding” would not have been commonly understood to include attorney’s fees at the time section 145 was enacted. The appearance of “expenses” and “attorney’s fees” together across various statutes indicates that Congress understands the terms as distinct and not inclusive of each other. View "Peter v. NantKwest, Inc." on Justia Law

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A jury awarded Oracle damages after finding that Rimini had infringed Oracle copyrights. The court awarded Oracle fees and costs, including $12.8 million for litigation expenses such as expert witnesses, e-discovery, and jury consulting. The Ninth Circuit affirmed, acknowledging that the award covered expenses not included within the six categories of costs identified in 28 U.S.C. 1821 and 1920, and citing the Copyright Act, which gives district courts discretion to award “full costs” to a party in copyright litigation, 17 U.S.C. 505. A unanimous Supreme Court reversed in part. The term “full costs” in the Copyright Act means costs specified in the general costs statute (sections 1821 and 1920), which defines what the term “costs” encompasses in subject-specific federal statutes such as section 505. Courts may not award litigation expenses that are not specified in sections 1821 and 1920 absent explicit authority. The Copyright Act does not explicitly authorize the award of litigation expenses beyond the six categories; the six categories do not authorize an award for expenses such as expert witness fees, e-discovery expenses, and jury consultant fees. Oracle has not shown that the phrase “full costs” had an established legal meaning that covered more than the full amount of the costs listed in the applicable costs schedule. View "Rimini Street, Inc. v. Oracle USA, Inc." on Justia Law

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A Ninth Circuit judge, the Honorable Stephen Reinhardt, died on March 29, 2018. The court listed Judge Reinhardt as the author of an en banc decision issued on April 9, 2018. Counting his vote made Judge Reinhardt’s opinion a majority opinion that constitutes a precedent that all future Ninth Circuit panels must follow. Without Judge Reinhardt’s vote, the opinion would have been approved by only five of the 10 members of the en banc panel who were still living when the decision was filed; those five concurred in the judgment for different reasons. The Ninth Circuit indicated that the majority opinion and all concurrences were final, and voting was completed before his death. The Supreme Court vacated, noting that a judge generally may change his position up to the moment when a decision is released. When the Ninth Circuit issued its opinion in this case, Judge Reinhardt was neither an active judge nor a senior judge; by statute, 28 U.S.C. 46, he was without power to participate in the en banc court’s decision at the time it was rendered. The Ninth Circuit “effectively allowed a deceased judge to exercise the judicial power of the United States after his death. But federal judges are appointed for life, not for eternity.” View "Yovino v. Rizo" on Justia Law

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For representation in administrative proceedings, the Social Security Act provides that if a fee agreement exists, fees are capped at the lesser of 25% of past-due benefits or a set dollar amount—currently $6,000, 42 U.S.C. 406(a)(2)(A); absent an agreement, the agency may set any “reasonable” fee, section 406(a)(1). In either case, the agency is required to withhold up to 25% of past-due benefits for direct payment of fees. For representation in court proceedings, section 406(b) caps fees at 25% of past-due benefits; the agency may withhold benefits to pay these fees. Culbertson represented Wood in Social Security disability benefit proceedings before the agency and in court. The agency ultimately awarded Wood past-due benefits, withheld 25%, and awarded Culbertson fees under section 406(a) for representation before the agency. Culbertson sought a separate award under 406(b) for the court proceedings, requesting 25% of past-due benefits. The Eleventh Circuit held that 406(b)’s 25% limit applies to the total fees awarded under both sections. The Supreme Court reversed. Section 406(b)(1)(A)’s 25% cap applies only to fees for court representation, not to the aggregate fees awarded under 406(a) and (b). The subsections address different stages of the representation and use different methods for calculating fees. Applying 406(b)’s 25% cap on court-stage fees to 406(a) agency-stage fees, or the aggregate fees, would make little sense and would subject 406(a)(1)’s reasonableness limitation to 406(b)’s 25% cap—a limitation not included in the statute. The fact that the agency presently withholds a single pool of past-due benefits for payment of fees does not support an aggregate reading. The amount of past-due benefits that the agency can withhold for payment does not delimit the amount of fees that can be approved for representation before the agency or the court. View "Culbertson v. Berryhill" on Justia Law

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McCoy, charged with murdering his estranged wife’s family, pleaded not guilty, insisting that he was out of state at the time of the killings and that corrupt police killed the victims. Although he adamantly objected to any admission of guilt, the court permitted his counsel, English, to tell the jury that McCoy “committed [the] three murders” and to argue that McCoy’s mental state prevented him from forming the specific intent necessary for first-degree murder. McCoy testified in his own defense, maintaining his innocence and pressing an alibi. At the penalty phase, English again conceded McCoy’s guilt, urging mercy because of McCoy’s mental issues. The jury returned three death verdicts. The Louisiana Supreme Court affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed. The Sixth Amendment guarantees a defendant the right to choose the objective of his defense and to insist that counsel refrain from admitting guilt, even when counsel’s experienced-based view is that confessing offers the best chance to avoid the death penalty. Some decisions are reserved for the client—including whether to plead guilty, waive a jury trial, testify in one’s own behalf, and forgo an appeal. Rejecting the Louisiana Supreme Court’s conclusion that English’s refusal to maintain McCoy’s innocence was necessitated by a Rule of Professional Conduct that prohibits counsel from suborning perjury, the Court noted that there was no avowed perjury. English harbored no doubt that McCoy believed what he was saying. Ineffective-assistance-of-counsel jurisprudence does not apply where the client’s autonomy, not counsel’s competence, is at issue. The violation of McCoy’s protected autonomy right was structural in kind. McCoy must be accorded a new trial without any need to show prejudice. View "McCoy v. Louisiana" on Justia Law

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Murphy was awarded a judgment in his federal civil rights suit against two prison guards, including an award of attorney’s fees; 42 U.S.C. 1997e(d)(2) provides that in such cases “a portion of the [prisoner’s] judgment (not to exceed 25 percent) shall be applied to satisfy the amount of attorney’s fees awarded against the defendant.” The district court ordered Murphy to pay 10% of his judgment toward the fee award, leaving defendants responsible for the remainder. The Seventh Circuit reversed, holding that section 1997e(d)(2) required the district court to exhaust 25% of the prisoner’s judgment before demanding payment from the defendants. The Supreme Court affirmed. The mandatory phrase “shall be applied” suggests that the district court has some nondiscretionary duty to perform. The infinitival phrase “to satisfy the amount of attorney’s fees awarded” specifies the purpose of the preceding verb’s nondiscretionary duty and “to satisfy” an obligation, especially a financial obligation, usually means to discharge the obligation in full. The district court does not have wide discretion to pick any “portion” that does not exceed the 25% cap. This conclusion is reinforced by section 1997e(d)’s surrounding provisions, which also limit the district court’s pre-existing discretion under section 1988(b). View "Murphy v. Smith" on Justia Law

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The Haegers sued Goodyear, alleging that the failure of a Goodyear G159 tire caused their motorhome to swerve and flip over. After years of contentious discovery, marked by Goodyear’s slow response to repeated requests for internal G159 test results, the parties settled. Months later, the Haegers’ lawyer learned that, in another lawsuit involving the G159, Goodyear had disclosed test results indicating that the tire got unusually hot at highway speeds. Goodyear conceded withholding the information. The district court exercised its inherent power to sanction bad-faith behavior to award the Haegers $2.7 million—their legal fees and costs since the moment, early in the litigation, of Goodyear’s first dishonest discovery response. The court held that in cases of egregious behavior, a court can award all attorney’s fees incurred in a case, without any need to find a causal link between the expenses and the sanctionable conduct. The court made a contingent award of $2 million, to take effect if the Ninth Circuit reversed the larger award, deducting fees related to other defendants and to proving medical damages. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the $2.7 million award. The Supreme Court reversed. When a federal court exercises its inherent authority to sanction bad-faith conduct by ordering a litigant to pay the other side’s legal fees, the award is limited to fees that the innocent party would not have incurred but for the bad faith. The sanction must be compensatory, not punitive. The Haegers did not show that this litigation would have settled as soon as Goodyear divulged the heat-test results and cannot demonstrate that Goodyear’s non-disclosure so permeated the suit as to make that misconduct a but-for cause of every subsequent legal expense. View "Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. v. Haeger" on Justia Law

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A Nevada jury convicted Rippo of first-degree murder and other offenses and sentenced him to death. During his trial, Rippo received information that the judge was the target of a federal bribery probe, and he surmised that the Clark County District Attorney’s Office, which was prosecuting him, was playing a role in that investigation. Rippo unsuccessfully moved for the judge’s disqualification. After that judge’s indictment on federal charges a different judge denied Rippo’s motion for a new trial. The Nevada Supreme Court affirmed, reasoning that Rippo had not introduced evidence that state authorities were involved in the federal investigation. State courts denied post-conviction relief, reasoning that Rippo was not entitled to discovery or an evidentiary hearing because his allegations “d[id] not support the assertion that the trial judge was actually biased.” The Supreme Court vacated the Nevada Supreme Court’s judgment, stating that due process may sometimes demand recusal even when a judge “ ‘ha[s] no actual bias.’ Recusal is required when, objectively speaking, “the probability of actual bias on the part of the judge or decision-maker is too high to be constitutionally tolerable.” View "Rippo v. Baker" on Justia Law

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Kirtsaeng bought low-cost foreign edition textbooks in Thailand and resold them to students in the U.S. In 2013 the Supreme Court held that Kirtsaeng could invoke the Copyright Act’s “first-sale doctrine,” 17 U.S.C. 109(a), as a defense to the publisher's copyright infringement claim. Kirtsaeng then sought more than $2 million in attorney’s fees from the publisher under the Act’s fee-shifting provision. The Second Circuit affirmed denial of Kirtsaeng’s application, reasoning that Wiley had taken reasonable positions during litigation. A unanimous Supreme Court vacated. When deciding whether to award attorney’s fees under 17 U.S.C. 505, a court should give substantial weight to the objective reasonableness of the losing party’s position, while still taking into account all other relevant circumstances. Precedent has identified several non-exclusive​ factors for courts to consider, e.g., frivolousness, motivation, objective unreasonableness, and the need in particular circumstances to advance considerations of compensation and deterrence. Putting substantial weight on the reasonableness of a losing party’s position is consistent with the objectives of the Copyright Act, but courts must take into account a range of considerations beyond the reasonableness of litigating positions. Because the district court “may not have understood the full scope of its discretion,” the Court remanded for consideration of other relevant factors. View "Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc." on Justia Law

Posted in: Copyright, Legal Ethics
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Williams was convicted of a 1984 murder and sentenced to death. Philadelphia District Attorney Castille approved a request to seek the death penalty. Williams’s conviction and sentence were upheld on direct appeal, state post-conviction review, and federal habeas review. In 2012, Williams filed a successive petition under Pennsylvania’s Post-Conviction Relief Act (PCRA), arguing that the prosecutor had obtained false testimony from his codefendant and suppressed exculpatory evidence. Finding that the prosecutor had committed Brady violations, the court stayed Williams’s execution. The Commonwealth asked the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, whose chief justice was former District Attorney Castille, to vacate the stay. Without explanation, Castille denied Williams’s motion for recusal and request for referral to the full court; Castille joined an opinion vacating PCRA relief and reinstating Williams’s death sentence. Two weeks later, Castille retired. The U.S. Supreme Court vacated, holding that Castille’s participation violated the Due Process Clause. There is an impermissible risk of actual bias when a judge earlier had significant, personal involvement as a prosecutor in a critical decision regarding the defendant’s case. No attorney is more integral to the accusatory process than a prosecutor who participates in a major adversary decision; the decision to pursue the death penalty is a critical choice. Neither the involvement of multiple actors nor the passage of time relieves the former prosecutor of the duty to withdraw. An unconstitutional failure to recuse constitutes structural error, “not amenable” to harmless-error review, regardless of whether the judge’s vote was dispositive. The Court noted that many jurisdictions, including Pennsylvania, have statutes and professional codes that already require recusal under these circumstances. View "Williams v. Pennsylvania" on Justia Law