Justia Government & Administrative Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
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Elden Don Brannan was living with his sister and her three children in Corpus Christi, Texas. In 2022, Brannan's sister called 911 to report that Brannan had assaulted her boyfriend and was threatening suicide. She informed the police that Brannan had a "pipe bomb" in his bedroom closet. The bomb squad removed the device and Brannan was arrested. He was later indicted by a grand jury for possessing an unregistered "destructive device" in violation of 26 U.S.C. § 5861(d). His sister testified that Brannan had built the device from disassembled fireworks. Brannan's defense was that the device was not an explosive but a "makeshift roman-candle or fountain firework" designed to emit a pyrotechnic display.Brannan was found guilty by a federal jury. He moved for acquittal, arguing that the evidence was insufficient to show he had designed the device as a weapon. These motions were denied. Brannan also requested the court to instruct the jury that to convict him under 26 U.S.C. § 5861(d), it had to find he had intentionally designed the device for use as a weapon. The court rejected this proposed instruction, reasoning that Brannan's intent to design the device as a weapon was not an element of the offense but an affirmative defense. The jury found Brannan guilty and he was sentenced to 24 months in prison followed by three years of supervised release.On appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, Brannan argued that the evidence was insufficient to convict him and that the jury instruction omitted an element of the offense. The court disagreed, affirming Brannan's conviction. The court held that under its binding precedent, the exception to § 5861(d) is an affirmative defense, not an element of the crime. Therefore, the government did not need to prove that the device was "designed for use as a weapon." The court also concluded that the district court did not err by following the circuit’s pattern instructions and declining to add "designed as a weapon" as an element of § 5861(d). View "United States v. Brannan" on Justia Law

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Eric Demond Lozano, a Texas state prisoner and Sunni Muslim, filed a lawsuit against three officials of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) alleging violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and the Establishment Clause. Lozano claimed that his ability to practice his religion was substantially burdened due to the conditions in the prison. His claims included the inability to shower privately before Jumah, a weekly prayer service, due to non-Muslim inmates being allowed to shower at the same time; insufficient space to pray in his cell due to hostile cellmates; and lack of access to religious programming and instruction, specifically Taleem and Quranic studies, due to the absence of Muslim volunteers.The United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas granted summary judgment in favor of the TDCJ officials. The court found that Lozano failed to demonstrate a genuine issue of material fact on whether the absence of a Muslim-designated unit or dorm violated the Establishment Clause. The court also concluded that Lozano provided no evidence to support his allegation that the faith-based dorms required inmates to study Christian materials.On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed the district court's order granting summary judgment on Lozano's RLUIPA claims regarding Jumah showers and adequate prayer space. The appellate court found that there was a genuine dispute of material fact on whether Lozano's ability to practice his religion was substantially burdened. The court also vacated the district court's grant of summary judgment on Lozano's RLUIPA claim regarding additional religious programming and his Establishment Clause claim, and remanded the case for further proceedings. View "Lozano v. Collier" on Justia Law

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The case revolves around the procedural interplay between two Mississippi statutes—the Mississippi Tort Claims Act (MTCA) and the Mississippi Whistleblower Protection Act (MWPA). Mark Johnson, the plaintiff, filed a retaliation complaint under the MWPA, alleging that he was fired from his position as general manager of the Clarksdale Public Utilities Authority (CPU) for reporting inefficiency and incompetence. Johnson later added claims for First Amendment retaliation and breach of contract.The district court held that the procedural requirements of the MTCA applied to Johnson’s MWPA claim, and because the court concluded he didn’t comply with them, it dismissed his claim. The district court also concluded that Johnson’s First Amendment retaliation and breach-of-contract claims were time-barred because the three-year statute of limitations for these claims ran after Johnson filed his first complaint but before he amended to add these claims—and neither claim relates back. Johnson appealed.The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit was unable to make a reliable Erie guess as to whether the MTCA’s procedural requirements apply to MWPA claims because it lacked clear guidance from Mississippi courts on how the two statutes interrelate. Therefore, the court certified this question to the Supreme Court of Mississippi: When a plaintiff brings a claim against the government and its employees for tortious conduct under the MWPA, is that claim subject to the procedural requirements of the MTCA? View "Johnson v. Miller" on Justia Law

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A group of Indian nationals, legally present in the United States on employment-based visas, filed a lawsuit against the Secretary of State and the Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). The plaintiffs were seeking permanent residency and challenged the defendants' approach to distributing immigrant visas. They argued that the defendants' policies of deferring adjudication of their applications until a visa number becomes available violated the statute governing adjustment of status for nonimmigrants. They sought injunctive and declaratory relief under the Administrative Procedure Act and the federal Declaratory Judgment Act.The plaintiffs had initially moved for a preliminary injunction in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, but their motion was denied. They appealed this decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.The Fifth Circuit, however, found that it lacked subject-matter jurisdiction to hear the case. The court cited the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), which strips federal courts of jurisdiction to address many challenges brought in the context of immigration proceedings. The court concluded that the INA's jurisdiction-stripping provisions precluded it from hearing the plaintiffs' challenge. The court vacated the district court's decision and remanded the case with instructions to dismiss it for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. View "Cheejati v. Blinken" on Justia Law

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The estate and heirs of Dale O'Neal, a pre-trial detainee who was murdered by his cellmate in Clay County's jail, filed a lawsuit against several officers and the county under Section 1983. They alleged that the defendants failed to protect O'Neal, thereby violating his Fourteenth Amendment rights. The case centered around the actions of the intake officer, Annie Avant, who assigned O'Neal's murderer, Cameron Henderson, to the same cell as O'Neal. The parties disputed what information was conveyed to Avant about Henderson's violent behavior and whether the booking system would have revealed that Henderson was previously determined to be a threat.The district court agreed with the magistrate judge's decision to exclude a late-designated expert and the accompanying report, which the plaintiffs relied on to establish the County's liability. The court then granted summary judgment to all defendants, concluding that the plaintiffs could not create a fact question as to whether the individual defendants acted with deliberate indifference. The court also found that Avant had qualified immunity.On appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, the plaintiffs argued that it was an abuse of discretion to exclude the expert and error to grant summary judgment to Avant. The appellate court affirmed the lower court's decision. It found no abuse of discretion in excluding the late-designated expert, considering factors such as the explanation for the failure to identify the witness, the importance of the testimony, potential prejudice in allowing the testimony, and the availability of a continuance to cure such prejudice. The court also affirmed the grant of summary judgment to Avant on the basis of qualified immunity, noting that the plaintiffs failed to point to any case supporting the proposition that the alleged constitutional violation was of clearly established law. View "Culberson v. Clay County" on Justia Law

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A group of business associations, including the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce, filed a lawsuit in the Northern District of Texas against the Consumer Protection Financial Bureau (CFPB). The plaintiffs challenged a new Final Rule issued by the CFPB regarding credit card late fees and sought a preliminary injunction against the rule. The plaintiffs requested expedited briefing and review due to the imminent effect of the rule and the substantial compliance it required.The district court, instead of ruling on the motion for a preliminary injunction, considered whether venue was appropriate in the Northern District of Texas and invited the CFPB to file a motion to transfer the case. The CFPB complied, and the district court granted its motion, transferring the case to the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. The plaintiffs then petitioned for a writ of mandamus, arguing that the district court abused its discretion by transferring the case while their appeal was pending and, alternatively, lacked jurisdiction to transfer the case.The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit agreed with the plaintiffs, stating that the district court acted without jurisdiction. The court explained that once a party properly appeals something a district court has done, in this case, the effective denial of a preliminary injunction, the district court has no jurisdiction to do anything that alters the case’s status. The court clarified that its decision was not about the correctness of the district court’s transfer order but rather about whether the court had jurisdiction to enter it. The court concluded that the district court did not have jurisdiction to transfer the case.The court granted the petition for mandamus, vacated the district court’s transfer order, and ordered the district court to reopen the case. The court also instructed the district court to notify the District of Columbia that its transfer was without jurisdiction and should be disregarded. View "In re: Chamber of Commerce" on Justia Law

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In this case, a government agency had approved a license to construct and operate a massive deepwater oil facility off the coast of Texas. Several environmental organizations alleged that the approval was unreasonable, arguing that the agency failed to adequately support its decision with a thorough environmental impact analysis. The groups claimed this was in violation of the Deepwater Port Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. They contended that the agency's approval was arbitrary or capricious. The environmental organizations asserted that operating the facility would produce emissions equivalent to more than 80 new coal-fired power plants and could increase the likelihood of mass oil spills along miles of the Texas coastline. They also voiced concerns about potential threats to the Gulf's marine environment.After their concerns were initially dismissed by the agency overseeing the project, the environmental organizations appealed the licensing decision. They claimed the agency had not conducted the appropriate level of review in its environmental impact statement and had not followed relevant statutory provisions during the approval process.The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that the agency had adequately considered the environmental consequences of the facility before approving its deepwater port license. The court found that the agency's decision was not arbitrary or capricious, and as such, it denied the petition for review brought by the environmental organizations. The court ruled that the agency had taken a "hard look" at the environmental consequences of the project, provided sufficient detail for the public to understand and consider the relevant environmental influences, and evaluated alternatives in a way that permitted a reasoned choice among different courses of action. View "Citizens for Clean Air & Clean Water in Brazoria County v. United States Department of Transportation" on Justia Law

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The case revolves around a dispute between the Career Colleges and Schools of Texas (CCST) and the United States Department of Education over new regulations that will facilitate certain student loan discharges. The contested rule overturns recent regulations issued by the previous administration and alters thirty years of regulatory practice. The CCST challenged the regulations, arguing that they create uncertainty and potentially significant liability for its members. The district court declined to issue a preliminary injunction against the rule, stating that the plaintiffs had not demonstrated irreparable harm.CCST argued that the new regulations are beyond the Department of Education's statutory authority, violate the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), and infringe on the due process rights of its members. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit disagreed with the lower court's findings, concluding that CCST is likely to succeed on the merits of its challenge and that its members will face immediate and irreparable harm if the new regulations are allowed to go into effect.The court reversed the district court's judgment and remanded the case with instructions to enjoin and postpone the effective date of the challenged provisions pending final judgment. The court ruled that the Department of Education's new regulations are likely unlawful and that their implementation would cause immediate and irreparable harm to CCST and its members. The court ordered the lower court to issue a preliminary injunction to delay the implementation of the new regulations until the case is finally resolved. View "Career Colleges and Schools of Texas v. United States Department of Education" on Justia Law

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In an effort to curb illegal immigration, the Texas legislature passed Senate Bill 4 (S.B. 4), which amended various statutes. The new laws prohibited noncitizens from illegally entering or reentering the state and established removal procedures. However, the United States, two non-profit organizations, and the county of El Paso challenged S.B. 4, arguing that it was preempted by federal law. The district court granted a preliminary injunction, and the state of Texas appealed.The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit denied Texas’s motion to stay the injunction, arguing that the state had not shown it was likely to succeed on the merits of its preemption claims. The court found that the federal government has broad and exclusive power over immigration, including the entry and removal of noncitizens. The court also noted that the Texas law interfered with the federal government's foreign policy objectives and could lead to unnecessary harassment of noncitizens who federal officials determine should not be removed.Furthermore, the court concluded that S.B. 4 conflicted with federal law because it blocked the federal government's discretion to decide whether to initiate criminal proceedings or civil immigration proceedings once a noncitizen is apprehended, and because it permitted state courts to impose criminal sanctions and order removal of noncitizens without the federal government's input.In light of these findings, the court ruled that the balance of equities weighed against granting a stay. The court emphasized that any time a state is prevented from enforcing statutes enacted by its representatives, it suffers a form of irreparable injury. However, the court also noted that enforcement of S.B. 4 could lead to international friction and potentially take the United States out of compliance with its treaty obligations. Therefore, the court denied Texas's motion for a stay pending appeal. View "United States v. Texas" on Justia Law

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The case involves a petition by Inhance Technologies, L.L.C. against orders issued by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Inhance, a company that has been fluorinating plastic containers since 1983, was charged by the EPA for violating a Significant New Use Rule regarding long-chain perfluoroalkyls (PFAS) due to the presence of PFAS in an insecticide stored in a container fluorinated by Inhance. PFAS are long-lasting chemicals found in various products and have been linked to several health issues. The EPA issued two orders under Section 5 of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), prohibiting Inhance from manufacturing or processing PFAS during its fluorination process. Inhance claimed that if the orders were enforced, they would shutdown their fluorination process and bankrupt the company.The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled in favor of Inhance, stating that the EPA exceeded its statutory authority by issuing the orders. The court held that Inhance's decades-old fluorination process could not be deemed a "significant new use" under Section 5 of TSCA. The court vacated the EPA's orders and noted that the EPA could regulate Inhance's fluorination process under Section 6 of TSCA, which requires a cost-benefit analysis for ongoing uses. The court's ruling was based on the interpretation of the term "new" in TSCA, the statutory framework, and the requirement for agencies to provide fair notice of their rules. View "Inhance Technologies v. EPA" on Justia Law