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Posts Tagged ‘#SCOTUS’

Can Governments be Liable for Mass Shootings under the Constitution?

Posted on: February 11th, 2019

By: Phil Savrin

The recent tragedies of mass shootings have spawned litigation over the civil liabilities of state governments for failing to protect members of the public from harm, particularly when there were advance warning signs that police departments overlooked or ignored. To evaluate whether States can be liable under the Constitution for such conduct we need to reach back 30 years to a decision by the Supreme Court called DeShaney. In that case, county officials had allowed an abused child to remain in a household despite knowledge of mistreatment, after which the boy was left permanently disfigured. In considering a civil rights claim brought on his behalf under the due process clause, the Supreme Court reasoned that the Constitution places limitations on the government’s ability to act and does not affirmatively require it to provide services that benefit the public. It is up to the individuals States to allocate resources to provide for public safety, in other words, as opposed to an obligation mandated by the Due Process Clause. That said, the Supreme Court reasoned that it is only when the State takes some action that puts a person in peril that the Constitution imposes “some corresponding duty to assume some responsibility for his safety and general well-being.”

Cases applying DeShaney’s reasoning are often heart-wrenching, as they tend to involve very egregious injuries that could have been avoided had law enforcement officers acted on knowledge they possessed. The most extreme example applying DeShaney can be found in the Supreme Court’s 2005 decision in Town of Castle Rock, where police officers refused the desperate pleas of a citizen to arrest her estranged husband who had violated a restraining order, resulting in the father’s murder of the couple’s three daughters. These harms could have been avoided had the State acted to intercede, yet it is only when the State by its conduct affirmatively puts the person in danger that the State has a constitutional obligation to protect that individual from harm.

Which brings us to the question of mass shootings such as the incidents at the Pulse nightclub in 2016 where a gunman killed 49 people or the high school in Florida in 2018 where a student opened fire killing 17 persons. In lawsuits that followed, allegations were made that government officials either ignored warnings or intentionally failed to act, thereby violating the constitutional rights of the victims. In both circumstances, however, the federal courts applied DeShaney to conclude that without danger created affirmatively by the State’s conduct, there is no constitutional right to protection where the harm begins and ends with the actions of a private citizen.

The absence of a constitutional claim in these circumstances does not, of course, mean that there can be no remedy of any sort. What these cases hold instead is that any such remedy exists by reference to state law as the federal Constitution is a bulwark against governmental interference in the public arena and is not a guarantor of safety for the citizenry.

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

Supreme Court to Revisit Liability Under Rule 10b-5 – Will Prospective Justice Kavanaugh Weigh In?

Posted on: July 25th, 2018

By: Ted Peters

Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act, and Rule 10b-5 promulgated under it, makes certain conduct in connection with the purchase or sale of any security unlawful.  Specifically, Rule 10b-5(a) prohibits the use of any “device, scheme, or artifice to defraud.”  10b-5(b) prohibits the use of any “untrue statement of a material fact” or the omission of any “material fact necessary in order to make the statements… not misleading.”  And 10b-5(c) prohibits “any act, practice, or course of business which operates or would operate as a fraud or deceit upon any person.”

In Janus Capital Group, Inc. v. First Derivative Traders, 131 S. Ct. 2296 (2011), the United States Supreme Court addressed whether a mutual fund investment adviser could be held liable under Rule 10b-5 for false statements included in its client mutual funds’ prospectuses.  The Court concluded that the adviser could not be held liable under the rule because it did not make the statements in the prospectuses.

In Lorenzo v. Securities and Exchange Commission, 872 F.3d 578 (2017), the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeal considered whether a registered representative of a broker-dealer, who allegedly emailed false and misleading statements prepared by his boss to investors, could be found liable under Rule 10b-5.  Initially, the case was tried before an Administrative Law Judge who concluded that Lorenzo’s boss had drafted the emails in question; Lorenzo did not read the text of the emails; and Lorenzo had “sent the emails without even thinking about the contents.”  The judge also found that the emails were sent “at the request” of Lorenzo’s boss.  Notwithstanding these findings, the judge nevertheless concluded that Lorenzo had willfully violated securities laws (i.e., that Lorenzo had acted with an intent to deceive, manipulate or defraud).  As a sanction, the judge not only fined Lorenzo, but also imposed a lifetime suspension effectively barring him from the securities industry.

Lorenzo appealed the ruling before the Securities Exchange Commission.  The Commission affirmed, concluding that Lorenzo himself was “responsible” for the contents of the emails his boss asked him to send even though it was undisputed that Lorenzo’s boss had prepared the contents of the emails and that Lorenzo had simply “cut and pasted” the contents into the emails at issue.  Notably, the SEC found that Lorenzo’s conduct triggered liability under each of the subparts of Rule 10b-5, including 10b-5(b) which, under Janus, necessarily required an affirmative finding that Lorenzo had actually “made” the statements in question.

Lorenzo next appealed to the D.C. Circuit Court.  On September 29, 2017, a divided court upheld the SEC’s determination.  The court agreed that there was substantial evidence that the statements in Lorenzo’s emails were false or misleading and that Lorenzo possessed the requisite intent to mislead, deceive or defraud. However, the court disagreed with the SEC’s determination that Lorenzo was the “maker” of the statements as required by Rule 10b-5(b).  “We conclude that Lorenzo did not ‘make’ the false statements at issue for purposes of Rule 10b-5(b) because Lorenzo’s boss, and not Lorenzo himself, retained ‘ultimate authority’ over the statements.” [Citing Janus.]  On this basis, the court set aside the sanctions and remanded the case to enable the SEC to reassess appropriate penalties.

Judge Brett Kavanaugh, the current presidential nominee to fill the vacancy left by Justice Kennedy, penned a strongly worded dissent.  Kavanaugh criticized the conclusion reached by his colleagues that the “scheme liability” provisions of Rule 10b-5(a) and (c) may be used to find liability even where the defendant is not the “maker” of the statements (and thus not liable under 10b-5(b)).

On June 18, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court granted the petition for writ of certiorari.  The question before the Supreme Court is simple: Can a defendant be held liable under the so-called scheme liability provisions of Rule 10b-5(a) and (c) in connection with using false or misleading statements, even if that defendant is not the “maker” of the statements?  That the Court accepted certiorari certainly suggests that the Court desires to further define the scope and limitations of Rule 10b-5.

Should Kavanaugh be confirmed as the next Supreme Court Justice, it remains to be seen whether he will recuse himself on the grounds that he heard the case below.  If he does, then the Court could well end up with a 4-4 split, which would effectively affirm the lower court’s ruling.  The Court’s four more liberal justices (Breyer, Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan) each dissented from Janus.  On the other hand, if Kavanaugh is confirmed and does not recuse himself, the majority of the Court will likely endorse a more restrictive interpretation of scheme liability under Rule 10b-5.

If you have questions or would like more information, please contact Ted Peters at [email protected].

Eleventh Circuit Again Rejects Claim That Title VII Prohibits Discrimination On The Basis Of Sexual Orientation

Posted on: July 23rd, 2018

By: Bill Buechner

In Bostock v. Clayton Co. Bd of Comm’rs, 723 F. App’x 964 (11th Cir. 2018), the Eleventh Circuit again held that Title VII does not prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.   In doing so, the panel relied on prior circuit precedent in Evans v. Ga. Reg’l Hosp., 850 F.3d 1248 (11th Cir.), cert. denied, 138 S.Ct.  557 (2017) and Blum v. Gulf Oil Corp., 597 F.2d 936 (5th Cir. 1979).    Jack Hancock and Bill Buechner are representing the County in the case.

Last week, the Eleventh Circuit issued an order denying a request from a member of the Court for rehearing en banc.  Bostock v. Clayton Co. Bd. of Commissioners, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 19835,  2018 WL 3455013 (11th Cir. July 18, 2018).   The order was notable because it was accompanied by a dissent by two circuit judges sharply criticizing their colleagues for not agreeing to rehear the case en banc.

The plaintiff in Bostock had already filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the United States Supreme Court, and the County will be filing a response to that petition in the next few weeks.   The employer in Zarda v. Altitude Express, Inc., 883 F.3d 100 (2d Cir. 2018) (en banc) also has filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the Supreme Court seeking review of the Second Circuit’s ruling that Title VII does prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

We will report on the outcome of these pending petitions for writ of certiorari with the Supreme Court.

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

New Potential SCOTUS Justice: Friend or Foe of Qualified Immunity?

Posted on: July 10th, 2018

By: Sara Brochstein

President Trump announced his decision to nominate Judge Brett Kavanaugh to fill the Supreme Court vacancy created by Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement.  Should he be confirmed, Judge Kavanaugh could have significant impact on the preservation of qualified immunity, which continues to come under fire of late.   Essentially, the defense of qualified immunity protects government officials from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known. Given the current climate with unending allegations of excessive use of force by police, the call for reconsideration of the expansive protection offered by qualified immunity has become widespread.  And whether officers remain entitled to qualified immunity under the current parameters of the doctrine has substantial effect on civil litigation outcomes and potential damage awards.

Such a hot button issue continues to present itself to the Supreme Court.  In fact, just one year ago, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote separately in the Court’s decision in Ziglar v. Abbasi, stating that in an appropriate case, the Court should reconsider its qualified immunity jurisprudence.   It will be interesting to see how the Court evolves in its decisions to uphold officers’ entitlement to qualified immunity, especially given continuing outspoken public perception on the issue.   However, if Judge Kavanaugh’s recent dissent in Wesby et al. v. District of Columbia et al. is any indication of his views of qualified immunity and the position he would take as a Justice, it appears qualified immunity could endure as a strong  defense given that the Supreme Court ultimately sided with the dissent.

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

To Shoot or Not to Shoot – The Ninth Circuit Says That Is The Question (for the jury)

Posted on: July 6th, 2018

By: Owen Rooney

On June 25, 2018 the U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari in Estate of Lopez v. Gelhaus, arising out of the shooting in Sonoma County, California of a 13 year old who was holding a toy AK-47 gun.

In the mid-afternoon of October 22, 2013 two deputies for Sonoma County were on patrol in a high crime area with known gang activity.  No active crime was reported. They observed the child walking at a normal speed on the sidewalk with the “gun” pointed down. The deputies disagreed whether the child was holding the gun in his left or right hand.   One deputy chirped the siren briefly and activated the lights.  The deputies also disagreed whether the child looked over his shoulder in response to the chirp of the siren. After stopping, one deputy yelled “drop the gun” from a distance of approximately 65 feet.  The child did not drop the gun and rotated his body clockwise. As the child turned, one deputy saw the gun come around and shot and killed the child without issuing any additional warnings.  The orange tip on the toy gun that is required by federal law had been removed.

The child’s estate filed suit against Sonoma County and the deputy who shot the child for excessive force.  The deputy asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit based on qualified immunity.

The District Court denied defendants’ Motion and the Ninth Circuit affirmed.  The case primarily turned on the number of times that the deputies had shouted for the child to put down his “weapon” and to what extent Andy had pointed the gun at the deputies.  The Court of Appeal noted that one of the deputy’s perspective would be different depending on whether the child had turned to his right or left, a factual dispute that could not be resolved on appeal.  Of note, the District Court only concluded that the gun barrel “was beginning to rise” from its position of having been pointed straight down; thus, the Court opined it was unknown if this posed an imminent threat to the deputies.

As the dissent pointed out, the precise angle that the gun was pointed is “not material” to the qualified immunity analysis because an officer need not delay firing if a person reasonably suspected of being armed makes a furtive movement, harrowing gesture, or serious verbal threat.  The dissent further noted that the District Court seemed to create a spectrum as to how far a suspect can raise their weapon before an officer can use lethal force.

The Ninth Circuit  has a long history of being reversed by the Supreme Court so there are some observers who are surprised that this decision was left intact.  The next procedural step is a trial and one can surmise that additional appeals will follow the end of any jury trial in this case.

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