CLOSE X
RSS Feed LinkedIn Instagram Twitter Facebook
Search:
FMG Law Blog Line

Archive for the ‘Government Law’ Category

Section 1983 First Amendment Retaliation by Litigation: SOL without PC

Posted on: January 14th, 2020

By: Brent Bean

“When angry count to ten before you speak.  If very angry, count to one hundred.”  – Thomas Jefferson

In a case of first impression in the Eleventh Circuit, the Court held that in a Section 1983 First Amendment retaliation claim premised on the filing of a civil lawsuit, probable cause will generally defeat the claim as a matter of law.  See DeMartini v. Town of Gulf Stream, Case No. 17-14177 (11th Cir., Nov. 21, 2019).

A Section 1983 First Amendment retaliation claim requires the plaintiff to show (1) she engaged in protected speech, (2) the government’s retaliatory conduct adversely affected that speech and (3) a causal link exists between the conduct and the adverse effect.  As the Supreme Court observed, retaliatory animus is “easy to allege and hard to disprove.”  Nieves v. Bartlett, 587 U.S. ___, ___, 139 S.Ct. 1715, 1725, (2019).

There are two accepted methods of showing causation.  The first, typically used in the employment setting, is whether the retaliatory motivation was the but-for cause of the adverse action.  If not, or if the government would have taken the same action regardless of retaliatory animus, the defendant is not liable.  The second, typically used when the government uses the legal system to arrest or prosecute a plaintiff, is to ask whether there was probable cause for the arrest or prosecution.  If so, this will destroy the casual link.

In DeMartini, the plaintiff sued the Town of Gulf Stream, Florida (population 2000), for filing a civil RICO action against DeMartini and her business, CAFI.  The Town filed the lawsuit because CAFI had made thousands of public records requests designed to overwhelm the small town’s staff and lead to the recovery of attorney’s fees for non-compliance.

In the face of these requests, the Town received a sworn statement from an insider at CAFI attesting the requests were bogus and designed to lead to monetary recovery. The Town then engaged outside counsel to advise on merits of a lawsuit to stop the abuse.  The Town filed the RICO case, which was dismissed because the Town could show no predicate act.

DeMartini then sued the Town under Section 1983 for First Amendment retaliation, claiming the RICO lawsuit was unlawful retaliation designed to silence her right to seek redress, a First Amendment right.  She claimed public statements made at Town meetings confirmed the retaliatory animus for the lawsuit and the RICO lawsuit had no merit, as it was dismissed and affirmed on appeal.

The Eleventh Circuit considered whether a plaintiff asserting a claim for Section 1983 First Amendment retaliation based on the filing of a civil lawsuit is required to plead and prove an absence of probable cause for the civil lawsuit and whether the Town in fact lacked such probable cause.

The Court held that while the RICO lawsuit was ultimately dismissed, it was not without probable cause because the Town had sworn facts from an insider and had hired a lawyer who advised them on the law. So, the Court concluded the Town had a reasonable belief in the validity of the RICO claim.  The Court then held for retaliatory claims based on a civil lawsuit DeMartini had to show an absence of probable cause in the filing of the RICO lawsuit, which DeMartini could not do.

Governments seeking to take affirmative steps through civil litigation will be one-hundred times better served to first confirm their claims are supported by probable cause prior to filing a civil lawsuit.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Brent Bean at [email protected].

To Pursue or Not to Pursue

Posted on: January 10th, 2020

By: Sara Brochstein

The City of Atlanta Police Department has announced that its officers will no longer engage in vehicular pursuits while it takes time to review its pursuit policies. This decision comes in the face of recent deadly crashes where suspects in stolen vehicles struck and killed motorists while fleeing police pursuits.

Police pursuits have often been the subject of controversy as the risks and benefits are constantly being weighed.  On one hand, pursuits have the potential to put innocent pedestrians and motorists in harm’s way.  In situations where the crime or violation is minor, the risk is even more unjustified.  Conversely, to disengage in pursuits altogether signals to people that arrest can be avoided by evading the police in vehicles.  This certainly has the potential lead to an increase in crime as Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields acknowledged when announcing the City’s change in position.

Notably, the City’s new policy is intended to only serve as an interim policy while the department “work[s] to identify specific personnel and certain specialized pursuit training to enable the department to conduct pursuits in limited instances.”  However, as long as the no-pursuit policy remains in effect, the City of Atlanta may prove to be an instructive case study as to whether pursuits are worth the risk.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Sara Brochstein at [email protected].

Open Government, Retaliation and Redress: Case Study from Florida

Posted on: December 6th, 2019

By: Michael Kouskoutis

Florida is well known for its robust public records law, where, upon receipt of a public records request, custodians of public records are required to promptly acknowledge the request, then permit the requested records to be inspected within a reasonable time. Unfortunately for custodians, Florida law does not define “reasonable time,” and awards attorney’s fees for unjustified delays or failures to respond. The 11th Circuit recently examined an interesting case involving a local government’s effort to protect itself against a devious scheme created to take advantage of these open government laws.

In DeMartini v. Town of Gulf Stream, et al., a not-for-profit corporation worked with a law firm to issue nearly 2,000 deliberately vague public records requests to a small Florida town, and then, when the town didn’t promptly or adequately respond, filed or threatened to file lawsuits against the town, demanding attorney’s fees and costs. The town, hemorrhaging attorney’s fees in defending against this scheme, decided to file a RICO action against the corporation. The RICO action made its way up to the 11th Circuit, where the Court, while troubled by the corporation’s scheme, denied the town’s motion for summary judgment on the basis that threatening to file litigation against a government could not trigger liability under RICO.

Soon after, the corporation’s director filed a § 1983 claim against the town, alleging that the town unlawfully retaliated against her when it filed the RICO suit to stop the records requests. In particular, the director argued that filing public records requests is a form of constitutionally protected speech. The trial court granted the town’s motion for summary judgment on the § 1983 claim, which after appeal, also made it to the Eleventh Circuit.

The Eleventh Circuit recently affirmed the grant of summary judgment. The Court reiterated that requesting public records and seeking redress from government is an activity protected by the First Amendment, but that because the town had probable cause to initiate the civil RICO case, the director’s § 1983 claim failed. The Court recognized that the town “had a legitimate interest and motivation in protecting itself, its coffers, and its taxpaying citizens.”

Robust open government laws maybe vulnerable to abuse, but as DeMartini illustrates, courts recognize a government’s ability to protect itself.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Michael Kouskoutis at [email protected].

Current Legal Issues Facing Supportive Housing Facilities

Posted on: December 2nd, 2019

By: Joseph Colette

FMG Partner H. Joseph Colette discussed “Current Legal Issues Facing Supportive Housing Facilities” at the Georgia Supportive Housing Association’s 9th Annual Supportive Housing Conference, held at the State Bar of Georgia from November 18th to 19th.

Supportive housing provides at-risk populations, including individuals with physical, mental, or developmental disabilities, veterans, and reentry individuals, with stable housing with needed support services, such as case management, housing, and reasonable accommodations, peer supports, education, training, and other services. Mr. Colette originally assisted the Georgia Supportive Housing Association (“GSHA”) in obtaining its non-profit 501(c)(3) status. The GSHA is a membership network of non-profit housing developers, service providers, statewide agencies and organizations, corporations, associations and individuals with a shared goal: strengthening housing resources in the State of Georgia. The vision of the GSHA is to have a Georgia where individuals with disabilities can choose the housing and supports they need to thrive, obtaining and ensuring their stability, autonomy, and dignity.

Mr. Colette’s presentation included a historical overview of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Olmstead v. L.C. Mr. Colette also discussed the evolution of these civil rights laws and insight into the variations in federal and statewide implementation and enforcement activity on the 20th anniversary of the Olmstead decision.

The Fair Housing Act of 1968 (“FHA”), which applies to landlords, realtors, mortgage brokers, insurance agents, zoning codes, etc., prohibits the discrimination in the rental, sale, advertising, design, insuring, and financing of dwellings, and in other housing-related transactions, based on membership in protected classes. The protected classes originally included: race, color, financial status, religion, sex/gender, and national origin. The FHA was amended in 1988 (see the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 (“FHAA”)) to include disability as a protected seventh protected class.

Reasonable accommodations and modifications were also newly-established legal requirements of the FHA. A landlord could not unreasonably refuse to provide a reasonable accommodation of a rule, policy, or procedure to address the needs of a person with a disability, and could not unreasonably deny permission to a tenant to make a modification of the premises to address the needs of a person with a disability. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which imposes greater obligations than the FHA,  prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in any program or activity that receives federal funds. The language of both the later enacted FHAA and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (“ADA”) are rooted in the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Section 504 also requires recipients to make reasonable accommodations, including structural changes, to enable access to housing for people with disabilities.

The ADA provides federal civil rights protections to individuals with physical and mental disabilities and guarantees them equal opportunity in public accommodations, employment, transportation, state and local government services, and telecommunications. The integration of individuals with disabilities into the mainstream of society is fundamental to the purposes of the ADA. Title II of the ADA prohibits discrimination by public entities in services, programs, and activities on the basis of disability, and applies to all types of state agencies, counties, municipalities and cities, and executive, legislative, and judicial branches of state and local government.

The passage of the ADA resulted in a myriad of discrimination lawsuits, many of which went before the U.S. Supreme Court. For resolution of these cases, the Court was required to interpret the broad anti-discrimination provisions of the ADA in a variety of specific contexts while at the same time balancing such questions as states’ rights and the definition of disability. One such case was Olmstead v. L.C., 527 U.S. 581 (1999).

In Olmstead, the Supreme Court determined that individuals with disabilities had the right to receive supports in the community rather than in institutions when three conditions were met:

1) The treating medical professionals determined that a community setting was appropriate;

2) The person with a disability did not object to living in the community; and

3) The provision of services in the community was a reasonable accommodation.

All states were required to take steps necessary to serve individuals with disabilities in the community when the aforementioned conditions were met.

Virtually all of the cases after Olmstead involved attempts to place people from individual institutions into the community. The major legal controversies raised by these cases involved interpretation of what is referred to as the “fundamental alteration” defense. A public entity’s obligation under Olmstead to provide services in the most integrated setting is not unlimited.  Therefore, a public entity may be excused in instances where it can prove that the requested modification would result in a “fundamental alteration” of the public entity’s service system.  A fundamental alteration requires the public entity to prove “that, in the allocation of available resources, immediate relief for plaintiffs would be inequitable, given the responsibility the State [or local government] has taken for the care and treatment of a large and diverse population of persons with…disabilities.” See Olmstead, 527 U.S. at 604.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Joseph Colette at [email protected].

In the Driver’s Seat: Supreme Court Hears Oral Arguments in Kansas v. Glover

Posted on: November 11th, 2019

By: Rachael Slimmon

On November 4, the United States Supreme Court held oral arguments in the case of Kansas v. Glover.  The Court examined whether a police officer may conduct a traffic stop solely because the vehicle’s registered owner has a suspended license.  The case started in 2016, when a Kansas police officer ran the license plate on Charles Glover’s truck.  Mr. Glover had a suspended license, so the officer pulled over the truck.  At trial, the parties stipulated that the officer assumed the owner was the driver, and the officer did not testify.

The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution forbids “unreasonable searches and seizures.”  For traffic stops, longstanding precedent requires that police officers have “reasonable suspicion” of a crime before they can pull over a vehicle and conduct a traffic stop.

The Justices, particularly Justice Gorsuch, gave conflicting indications about their views during oral arguments.  Justice Gorsuch first appeared concerned that the officer did not testify about his training and experience.  Gorsuch indicated that this lack of officer testimony meant there were no facts behind the officer’s assumption that a vehicle owner is the vehicle driver, and no facts from which to draw reasonable suspicion.  Later, however, Justice Gorsuch opined that requiring an officer to testify and say “magic words” about his training and experience would be formalistic and unhelpful.  Many of the Justices also seemed to disagree whether it was common sense to assume that a vehicle’s owner is the driver, with Justice Breyer appearing most willing to accept that assumption.

Mr. Glover’s attorney proposed multiple options for officers to gain additional evidence before pulling a car over: visually checking to see if the driver is similar in age and gender to the vehicle owner, following the car to wait for another traffic violation, and using statistical studies.  Multiple Justices questioned the wisdom and practicality of these other measures.

If the Court finds the traffic stop unconstitutional, Kansas v. Glover could impose minor or significant changes to law enforcement practices.  Justice Alito summed up the main issue: “What you are proposing is either a trivial decision or a revolutionary decision. It’s a trivial decision if all who’s lacking here is a statement [of the officer’s training and experience] … It’s a revolutionary decision if in every case involving reasonable suspicion there has to be a statistical showing or an examination of all” the additional evidence that Mr. Glover’s attorney proposed.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Rachael Slimmon at [email protected].