Justia Government & Administrative Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
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The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment for the Department of the Interior and Intervenor WWP in an action challenging the BLM's denial of plaintiffs' request to transfer a "preference" to receive a permit to graze on certain federal land allotments.The panel applied step one of the Chevron framework and concluded that the IBLA correctly applied the clear and unambiguous language of the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 (TGA) and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA), which established that a grazing preference could not be exercised after the corresponding grazing permit was not renewed for bad behavior. Because the IBLA correctly interpreted and applied the statutory authorities, and therefore did not act contrary to law, it follows that the decision is not arbitrary and capricious in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act. Therefore, the district court properly granted summary judgment. View "Corrigan v. Haaland" on Justia Law

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Guam’s Department of Revenue concluded that Guerrero owes approximately $3.7 million in unpaid taxes because he did not pay his full tax liability for the tax years 1999, 2000, 2001, and 2002 after belatedly filing his returns for these years. The parties dispute when the Department assessed Guerrero’s taxes because the official records are missing, likely due to water, mold, and termite damage at the storage facility. Guam filed tax liens on real property that Guerrero owns with his former spouse in joint tenancy, then filed suit to collect Guerrero’s tax deficiencies through foreclosure. Guerrero argued that the Department cannot prove that it timely assessed his taxes, timely levied the tax liens, nor timely commenced its action, 26 U.S.C. 6501(a), 6502(a)(1). Guam invoked the presumption of regularity based on the Department’s standard procedure and internal documents to establish that Guam acted within the statute of limitations.The district court partially ruled in favor of Guam, on the issues of the presumption of regularity and the timeliness of the Department’s actions. The Ninth Circuit affirmed. The presumption of regularity applied and Guerrero failed to rebut it. Guam established the timeliness of its assessment of Guerrero’s unpaid taxes, its filing of the tax lien, and its commencement of this action through the internal documents and testimony from the Department’s employees. View "Government of Guam v. Guerrero" on Justia Law

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Zyszkiewicz, a prisoner and a medical cannabis patient, wrote a one-page letter to the DEA, seeking the rescheduling of marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), 21 U.S.C. 801, which places federally-regulated substances into one of five schedules depending on “potential for abuse,” “medical use,” “safety,” and the likelihood of “dependence.” The DEA responded that the letter was not in the proper format for a petition but that it welcomed the opportunity to respond to his concerns. The DEA’s letter gave reasons for having denied an earlier rescheduling petition filed by Governors Chafee of Rhode Island and Gregoire of Washington State. Zyszkiewicz treated the DEA’s answer as a denial of his petition and unsuccessfully sought judicial review.Dr. Sisley, her associated institutions, and veterans (Petitioners) sought judicial review of the DEA’s response but did not seek to intervene in Zyszkiewicz’s petition before the DEA, nor have they filed a DEA petition of their own. The arguments Petitioners sought to raise were not made in Zyszkiewicz’s petition.The Ninth Circuit held that the Petitioners satisfy Article III standing requirements, but that they failed to exhaust their administrative remedies under the CSA and dismissed their petition for review. Petitioners alleged direct and particularized harms due to the misclassification of cannabis. Dr. Sisley and her associated institutions contend that the misclassification impedes their research efforts, and the veterans contend that it forecloses their access to medical treatment with cannabis through the VA. View "Sisley v. United States Drug Enforcement Agency" on Justia Law

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After two administrative hearings, Brown was awarded disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits by an ALJ, who concluded that, as of April 25, 2018, Brown was “disabled” within the meaning of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. 416(i), 423(d), 1382c(a)(3)(A), but rejected Brown’s claim that he was disabled prior to that date. The district court upheld the ALJ’s decision.The Ninth Circuit remanded with instructions to set aside the ALJ’s determination and to conduct a new disability hearing before a different, and properly appointed ALJ. The ALJ who conducted Brown’s hearings was not appointed in conformity with the Appointments Clause of the Constitution. Because this proceeding did not arise from a direct appeal from a decision of one or more invalidly appointed officers, nor was it a direct petition for review that might similarly have brought the entirety of the administrative decision before the court, the Commissioner may not challenge the portions of that decision that are favorable to Brown. The court held that it had no authority under 42 U.S.C. 405(g). to set aside, or to disturb, the grant of benefits for the time period on or after April 25, 2018, View "Brown v. Kijakazi" on Justia Law

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A loaded gun issued by the Bureau of Land Management to a ranger was stolen from the ranger’s parked personal car while the ranger was traveling with his family. Four days later, Steinle was shot and killed while walking on Pier 41 in San Francisco when Lopez found the pistol and fired it. It is not known who stole the pistol, how many people possessed it after it was stolen, or how the pistol came to be near the bench where Lopez found it. Steinle’s family filed suit under the Federal Tort Claims Act, alleging that the ranger’s negligence in failing to store or secure his firearm properly and in leaving it loaded, in an unattended vehicle in an urban location where the firearm could be stolen readily. The district court entered summary judgment on the ground that the ranger’s conduct was not the proximate cause of Steinle’s death.The Ninth Circuit affirmed. Applying California law, the court concluded that the connection between the ranger’s storage of the pistol in his vehicle and Steinle’s death was so remote that, as a matter of law, the ranger’s acts were not the proximate or legal cause of the fatal incident. View "Steinle v. United States" on Justia Law

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BNSF Railway sought a declaration that the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act of 1995 (ICCTA) preempts Clark County, Washington’s permitting process. Clark County asserted that BNSF needed to obtain a permit for a project to upgrade an existing track and construct a second track in the Columbia River Gorge.The Ninth Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of BNSF. Under the ICCTA, the Surface Transportation Board has exclusive jurisdiction over rail carriers and track construction. If an apparent conflict exists between the ICCTA and a federal statute, then the courts must strive to harmonize the two laws, giving effect to both if possible. The court rejected an argument that the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act is such a federal statute. The Gorge Act does not establish national environmental standards but provides a framework for a commission of state-appointed officials to adopt a management plan and implement it through county land use ordinances. The Columbia River Gorge Commission retains final say over the approval and enforcement of the management plan and local county ordinances; enforcement actions may be brought in state court. The Gorge Act is not comparable to federal environmental laws and nothing in the Gorge Act indicates that the local ordinances otherwise have the force and effect of federal law. View "BNSF Railway Co. v. Friends of the Columbia River Gorge" on Justia Law

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Maricopa Domestic Water Improvement District supplies water to about 300 households, including the public housing tenants of a Pinal County complex. Property owners like Pinal County are responsible for paying any past tenant’s delinquent water accounts. Pinal County acknowledged that responsibility but consistently refused to pay, contending it was immune to that policy based on its status as a public municipality. In response, the District imposed a new policy that increased to $180 the refundable security deposit required of new public housing customers before the District would provide water services. New non-public housing customers were subject to a $55 deposit.The Ninth Circuit rejected a challenge to the policy under the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA), 42 U.S.C. 3604 and 3617, which bars discriminatory housing policies and practices, including those that cause a disparate impact according to certain protected characteristics or traits—race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin. Although the District’s public housing customers are disproportionately African American, Native American, and single mothers, the District established by undisputed evidence that the policy served in a significant way its legitimate business interests; the plaintiffs failed to establish a triable issue of fact that there existed an equally effective, but less discriminatory, alternative. There was insufficient evidence that discriminatory animus was a motivating factor behind the District’s decision to implement its policy. View "Southwest Fair Housing Council, Inc. v. Maricopa Domestic Water Improvement District" on Justia Law

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Aguirre made repeated attempts to obtain from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) records relating to the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, specifically relating to a 2018 incident at the Station, invoking the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 5 U.S.C. 552(a)(3)(A). Aguirre did not address the agency’s requirement that he pay in advance and failed to clarify certain requests. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of all of Aguirre’s FOIA claims. Aguirre failed to constructively or actually exhaust his administrative remedies as to the four FOIA requests at issue and he failed to establish the futility of seeing the NRC’s administrative process through to its end. A requestor must exhaust his administrative remedies under FOIA so long as an agency properly responds before a lawsuit is filed, even if the agency initially missed a response deadline. View "Aguirre v. United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission" on Justia Law

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The Sacketts purchased a soggy residential lot near Idaho’s Priest Lake in 2004, planning to build a home. Shortly after the Sacketts began placing sand and gravel fill on the lot, they received an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrative compliance order, indicating that the property contained wetlands subject to protection under the Clean Water Act (CWA), 33 U.S.C. 1251(a), and that the Sacketts had to remove the fill and restore the property to its natural state.The Sacketts sued EPA in 2008, challenging the agency’s jurisdiction over their property. During this appeal, EPA withdrew its compliance order. The Ninth Circuit affirmed summary judgment in EPA’s favor. EPA’s withdrawal of the order did not moot the case. EPA’s stated intention not to enforce the order or issue a similar order in the future did not bind the agency. EPA could potentially change positions under new leadership. The court upheld the district court’s refusal to strike from the record a 2008 Memo by an EPA wetlands ecologist, containing observations and photographs from his visit to the property. The court applied the “significant nexus” analysis for determining when wetlands are regulated under the CWA. The record plainly supported EPA’s conclusion that the wetlands on the property were adjacent to a jurisdictional tributary and that, together with a similarly situated wetlands complex, they had a significant nexus to Priest Lake, a traditional navigable water, such that the property was regulable under the CWA. View "Sackett v. United States Environmental Protection Agency" on Justia Law

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Decker employed Pehringer at its Montana open-pit surface mine, 1977-1999. There were periods when Pehringer did not work, including a roughly three-year-long strike. For most of his mining career, Pehringer was regularly exposed to coal dust while working primarily as a heavy equipment operator. After being laid off in 1999, Pehringer was awarded Social Security total disability benefits. He never worked again. In 2014 a month before his sixty-fifth birthday, Pehringer sought black lung benefits, citing his severe COPD, 30 U.S.C. 923(b). A physician determined that “Pehringer is 100% impaired from his COPD” and that coal “dust exposure and smoking are significant contributors to his COPD impairment.”The Benefits Review Board affirmed a Department of Labor (DOL) ALJ’s award of benefits. The Ninth Circuit affirmed, first rejecting a constitutional challenge to 5 U.S.C. 7521(a), which permits removal of an ALJ only for good cause determined by the Merits Systems Protection Board. DOL ALJ decisions are subject to vacatur by people without tenure protection; properly appointed, they can adjudicate cases without infringing the President’s executive power. The ALJ did not err in adjudicating Pehringer’s claim nor in rejecting untimely evidentiary submissions. Decker did not rebut the presumption of entitlement to benefits after a claimant established legal pneumoconiosis and causation, having worked for at least 15 years in substantially similar conditions to underground coal mines. View "Decker Coal Co. v. Pehringer" on Justia Law