Justia Government & Administrative Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit
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CREW filed a citizen complaint with the Federal Election Commission against New Models, a now-defunct non-profit entity, alleging violations of the Federal Election Campaign Act’s (FECA) registration and reporting requirements for “political committees,” 52 U.S.C. 30109(a)(1). After an initial investigation, the Commission deadlocked 2–2 on whether to proceed; an affirmative vote of four commissioners is required to initiate enforcement proceedings. With only two votes in favor of an enforcement action against New Models, the Commission dismissed CREW’s complaint. Two Commissioners explained that New Models did not qualify as a “political committee” under FECA but stated they were also declining to proceed with enforcement in an "exercise of ... prosecutorial discretion,” given the age of the activity and the fact that the organization appears no longer active.The district court granted the Commission summary judgment, reasoning that a nonenforcement decision is not subject to judicial review if the Commissioners who voted against enforcement “place[] their judgment squarely on the ground of prosecutorial discretion.” The Commission’s “legal analyses are reviewable only if they are the sole reason for the dismissal of an administrative complaint.” The D.C. Circuit affirmed. While FECA allows a private party to challenge a nonenforcement decision by the Commission if it is “contrary to law,” this decision was based in part on prosecutorial discretion and is not reviewable. View "Citizens for Responsibility v. Federal Election Committee" on Justia Law

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Appellant, who was convicted in 2011 of federal narcotics charges based partly on GPS surveillance conducted by DEA, submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to DEA for a CD "containing the DEA computer file of all tracking information collected via GPS devices attached to [his] vehicles with all images and proprietary software associated with that information from January 23, 2009 thr[ough] July 30, 2009, the very same file used by DEA to prepare exhibits for trial." DEA produced 351 spreadsheet pages listing latitude and longitude coordinate data generated by the tracking device. Appellant found the data unusable without access to the internet or topographical maps.The DC Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment to DEA, concluding that because DEA does not possess the GPS mapping software or any related map images and never created or retained the map images introduced at appellant's trial, FOIA does not obligate DEA now to create such map images in the first instance. The court also affirmed the district court's denial of appellant's motion for leave to file a supplemental complaint where appellant failed to establish that the district court abused its discretion. View "Aguiar v. Drug Enforcement Administration" on Justia Law

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VoteVets claims that the Federal Advisory Committee Act applies to an entity allegedly established by President Trump and the Department of Veterans Affairs to advise the Department. VoteVets calls the entity the "Mar-a-Lago Council." VoteVets alleged that although the Council operated for nearly two years and provided advice on various topics, the Department failed to comply with the Act's requirements.After determining that VoteVets has standing to sue, the DC Circuit reversed the district court's dismissal of VoteVets' complaint, concluding that VoteVets plausibly alleges that the Council was a governmentally established or utilized advisory group within the meaning of the Act. In this case, the complaint states a claim under the Act based on the alleged advisory committee having been "established" by the President, possibly together with the agency. The court need not reach VoteVets' alternative theory that the group was "utilized" by the government. Accordingly, the court remanded for further proceedings. View "VoteVets Action Fund v. United States Department of Veterans Affairs" on Justia Law

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The Federal Mine Safety and Health Amendments Act, 30 U.S.C. 801, requires the Secretary of the Department of Labor, through the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), to negotiate mine-specific ventilation plans with companies that operate the mines. In 2006-2018, Knight Hawk Coal operated its Prairie Eagle Mine pursuant to an MSHA-approved ventilation plan that permitted perimeter mining with 40-foot perimeter cuts. In 2018, MSHA conducted a ventilation survey at Prairie Eagle and concluded that the approved plan did not adequately ventilate the perimeter cuts. MSHA relied primarily on the results of chemical smoke tests, which involved survey team members observing smoke movement from a 44-foot distance. Months later, MSHA revoked the Prairie Eagle ventilation plan. After receiving a technical citation from MSHA for operating without an approved plan, Knight Hawk sought review by the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission.The Commission’s ALJ found the revocation arbitrary and capricious, in part because the chemical smoke test results were unreliable and inconsistent and the Secretary ignored disagreements among MSHA ventilation survey team members regarding the results. The ALJ reinstated the previously-approved ventilation plan. The Commission affirmed, concluding that the Secretary failed to explain adequately why the existing ventilation plan was deficient. The D.C. Circuit denied the Secretary’s petition for review, finding that substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s finding. View "Secretary of Labor v. Knight Hawk Coal, LLC" on Justia Law

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In 2012, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists discovered that endangered mussels were dying on the banks of Indiana's Tippecanoe River. The Service focused on the upstream Oakdale Dam, which significantly restricts the flow of water downstream in order to generate hydroelectricity and to create a lake. The Service worked with Oakdale's operator to develop new procedures that would require the dam to release more water during droughts. After a lengthy process of interagency cooperation and public dialogue, the new procedures were approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which has licensing authority over hydroelectric dams on federally regulated waters.Local governmental entities sought review of the Commission’s decision and the Service’s Biological Opinion upon which the Commission relied. The D.C. Circuit affirmed in part. The court rejected some challenges to the validity of the Biological Opinion, which were not raised on rehearing before the Commission. There was otherwise no error in the agencies’ expert scientific analyses. The agencies failed to adequately explain why the new dam procedures do not violate a regulation prohibiting the Service from requiring more than “minor” changes to the Commission’s proposal for dam operations. Because vacating the agencies’ decisions would subject the dam operator to contradictory legal obligations imposed by separate agencies, the court remanded to the Commission without vacatur for further proceedings. View "Shafer & Freeman Lakes Environmental Conservation Corp. v. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission" on Justia Law

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After the Commissioner issued tax adjustments to the partnership of BCP, members of BCP, themselves limited partnerships, challenged the adjustments, arguing they were untimely and that the Commissioner mistakenly determined that the investment partnership was a sham. The tax court found the adjustments timely and upheld the Commissioner's adjustments.The DC Circuit concluded that the tax court applied correct legal precedent and committed no clear error in its findings upholding the Commissioner's tax adjustments. The court explained that the tax court outlined various events that occurred before the taxpayers' individual extensions or the partnership extension were signed, all of which would have put the taxpayers on notice that they should not rely on E&Y's advice any longer. The court also concluded that there was no error in the tax court's determination that BCP was a "sham" partnership. The court explained that the tax court correctly applied Luna v. Commissioner, 42 T.C. 1067 (1964), to determine whether the parties intended to, and did in fact, join together for the present conduct of an undertaking or enterprise. In this case, the tax court correctly concluded that BCP failed the Luna analysis. Finally, the court concluded that the tax court did not abuse its discretion in denying a non-participating party's intervention. Accordingly, the court affirmed the tax court's judgment. View "BCP Trading and Investments, LLC v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue" on Justia Law

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Ranchers in the Upper Klamath Basin region filed suit to prevent the exercise of water rights that interfere with the irrigation of their lands. The district court dismissed the complaint based on lack of standing under Article III of the Constitution.The DC Circuit affirmed the dismissal and concluded that the Protocol Agreement executed by the United States and the Tribes does not delegate federal authority to the Tribes but recognizes the Tribes' preexisting authority to control their water rights under a Treaty in 1864 with the United States. The court explained that there is no concurrence requirement imposed by federal law on the Tribes' reserved instream water rights, whether by the 1864 Klamath Treaty or the federal government’s trust relationship; the McCarran Amendment subjects the Tribes' reserved water rights to state procedural rules in its quantification proceedings, but the substance and scope of the Tribes’ rights remain governed by federal law; Oregon law does not require federal government concurrence to enforce the Tribes' water rights; and thus invalidating the Protocol, and requiring the federal government to independently assess whether it would concur in the Tribes' calls, would not remedy the Ranchers' injuries. Because the Ranchers fail to show their alleged injuries are fairly traceable to federal government action or inaction, or would be redressed by striking the Protocol, they lack Article III standing. View "Hawkins v. Haaland" on Justia Law

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The Kapurs invested $300,000 in KAXT-CD, a Bay Area TV station, for 42% ownership in the Seller. In 2013, over the Kapurs' objections, the Seller proceeded with a $10.1 million sale of assets to First Buyer, which applied for the station’s FCC license. The Kapurs opposed that application, arguing that arbitration concerning the sale was ongoing. The arbitrator found that the sale did not require unanimity. The Kapurs unsuccessfully appealed in California state court and pressed on at the FCC, attacking the First Buyer’s qualifications under the “public interest” standard. The FCC concluded that the Kapurs’ allegations did not warrant a hearing and approved the application. In 2017, First Buyer sold the station to TV-49, Inc. for $2 million. The Kapurs opposed TV-49’s FCC license assignment application, arguing that First Buyer lacked the qualifications to buy the “license in the first place.” They did not challenge TV-49’s qualifications. The FCC approved the application. The D.C. Circuit dismissed an appeal for lack of standing. Even if the Kapurs prevailed on their claim of entitlement to a character hearing, they have not shown any likelihood that the FCC would find that First Buyer was of bad character or, even if it did, that it would order the unwinding of both sales and return of the station to the Seller. Nothing would stop the Seller from selling to someone else. View "Kapur v. Federal Communications Commission" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff, a law professor, filed suit under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), seeking information regarding nine categories of information about each FOIA request received by the IRS in Fiscal Year 2015. The IRS granted most of plaintiff's request but denied it with respect to two categories of information. The district court granted each party's summary judgment motion in part, rejecting the IRS's blanket withholding of the two categories of information, but allowing for the possibility of limited redactions on a case-by-case basis. At issue in this appeal is under what circumstances a prevailing plaintiff in a FOIA case entitled to an award of attorney's fees.The DC Circuit concluded that, in evaluating a fee petition, the district court assesses whether the plaintiff "substantially prevailed" within the meaning of the statute, 5 U.S.C. 552(a)(4)(E)(i). In this case, the district court found plaintiff had done so, a conclusion the IRS does not contest. However, the court reasoned that this is not enough. Because the statute provides that an eligible party "may" receive fees, the district court must also decide whether the plaintiff is "entitled" to a fee award. Applying a four-factor test to determine whether a plaintiff is "entitled" to fees, the court concluded that the second and third factors, commercial benefit and plaintiff's interest, support a fee award. The court remanded for the district court to evaluate the reasonableness of the IRS's burden argument in the first instance and then to rebalance the four-factors in light of the court's conclusion that factors two and three weigh in plaintiff's favor. Accordingly, the court vacated the district court's denial of plaintiff's fee motion and remanded for further proceedings. View "Kwoka v. IRS" on Justia Law

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The DC Circuit denied the State of New Jersey's petition for review of an EPA rule promulgated in response to New York v. EPA, 413 F.3d 3 (D.C. Cir. 2005). In New York, environmental organizations and industrial entities challenged the revision of the Clean Air Act's new source review (NSR) program for preconstruction permitting of stationary sources of air pollution.As a threshold matter, the court concluded that challenges to the State's Article III standing lack merit. In this case, petitioner has identified two injuries, either of which suffices to establish standing to challenge the rule. On the merits, the court concluded that the record confirms that EPA engaged in reasoned decisionmaking. The court explained that EPA's obligation was to analyze the trade-off between compliance improvement and the burdens of data collection and reporting and articulate a reasoned judgment as to why any proposed additional burden would not be justifiable in terms of the likely enhancement of compliance. By adequately considering NSR enforcement concerns raised during this rulemaking and offering a reasoned explanation for its 50 percent trigger, the court concluded that EPA satisfied this obligation. On this record, petitioner otherwise fails to show that EPA's action was arbitrary or capricious. View "New Jersey v. Environmental Protection Agency" on Justia Law