Justia Government & Administrative Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
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TVA, wholly owned by the U.S. government, 16 U.S.C. 831, operates Tennessee's Kingston Fossil Fuel Plant. A containment dike that retained coal-ash sludge failed in 2008, causing 5.4 million cubic yards of coal-ash sludge to spill to adjacent property. TVA and the EPA responded under the National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan. TVA, as the lead agency, engaged Jacobs as its “prime contractor providing project planning, management, and oversight,” including evaluating potential hazards to human health and safety. Jacobs submitted a Safety and Health Plan. More than 60 of Jacobs’s former employees sued, claiming that they were exposed to coal ash and particulate “fly ash” during this cleanup. The suits were consolidated.The district court denied Jacobs’s motions seeking derivative discretionary-function immunity, reasoning that Jacobs would be entitled to immunity only if it adhered to its contract and there were genuine disputes of material fact as to whether Jacobs acted within the scope of its authority. A jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiffs but did not designate any particular theory, as listed in the jury instructions, for which Jacobs could be held liable, broadly finding that Jacobs “failed to adhere to the terms of its contract," or the Plan. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. Jacobs is immune from suit only if TVA is immune; TVA would not have been immune from suit on the grounds that the plaintiffs’ claims raise either “inconsistency” or “grave-interference” concerns. View "Greg Adkisson v. Jacobs Engineering Group, Inc" on Justia Law

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USN4U brought a qui tam action under the False Claims Act, alleging that Wolf Creek and its employees submitted falsely inflated project estimates to NASA for facilities maintenance, resulting in the negotiation of fraudulently induced, exorbitant contract prices. USN4U alleged that “[t]he Government paid Wolf Creek and its union employees for labor not actually performed,” described specific projects, and alleged that when Wolf Creek performed NASA projects, workgroup leads instructed “participating union employee[s]” to falsely report their labor hours to “justify the inflated [labor] estimate.” USN4U identified several Wolf Creek employees who were allegedly active members of the fraudulent schemeCiting NASA’s subsequent decision to pay the invoices and continue to contract with Wolf Creek, and the government’s decision not to intervene in USN4U’s claim, the district court dismissed the suit.The Sixth Circuit reversed. USN4U adequately alleged fraud. NASA asked Wolf Creek for estimates and always awarded the contracts for the quoted amount, which could indicate that NASA trusted and relied upon the purported accuracy of Wolf Creek’s estimates. NASA plausibly would not have agreed to pay Wolf Creek the quoted amount if NASA knew that it was being grossly overcharged. View "USN4U, LLC v. Wolf Creek Federal Services, Inc." on Justia Law

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In 2012, an anonymous complaint cited dangerous conditions at KenAmerican’s Muhlenberg County, Kentucky underground coal mine. Department of Labor Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) inspectors arrived for an unannounced inspection and instructed the dispatcher, Holz, not to tell anyone that they were there. When called to the surface, a miner asked Holz, “do we have any company outside?” Holz responded, “yeah, I think there is.” The miner declined to identify himself. Believing that Holz made an illegal attempt to notify the miner about MSHA’s impending inspection, Sparks issued a citation under the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act, 30 U.S.C. 813(a). At a hearing, Sparks testified that he believed that the miner and Holz were using coded language. The ALJ ruled in KenAmerican’s favor; the Commission again reversed, finding that the ALJ abused his discretion in crediting Holz’s testimony over Sparks’s testimony. The ALJ then assessed an $18,742 penalty.The Sixth Circuit denied a petition for review, first rejecting an argument that the prohibition on advance notice does not apply to mine operators. Section 103(a) prohibits communication that provides advance notice of an MSHA inspection. It does not bar all communication about MSHA, nor prevent discussion of MSHA inspections after they occur. KenAmerican failed to demonstrate that there is a less restrictive rule that would effectively serve the government’s compelling interests, and section 103(a) is narrowly tailored to allow for meaningful inspections. View "KenAmerican Resources, Inc. v. United States Secretary of Labor" on Justia Law

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In 2016, voters elected Kent to the Ohio House of Representatives; she became a member of the House Democratic Caucus. In 2018, she distributed a press release that accused the Columbus Chief of Police of wrongdoing; another press release accused the Department of failing to take child-abuse reports seriously. She attached a letter from the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus to the mayor. Kent submitted the documents to the Caucus for public distribution. Strahorn, then the Minority Leader, prohibited the communications team from posting the press release online and blocked any publication of the release because the attached letter included unauthorized signatures. Strahorn publicly stated that he would not “tolerate a member of the caucus using staff and tax-payer funded resources to fake, forge or fabricate any claim, request or document to further their own political interest or personal vendetta.” The Caucus voted to remove Kent, who lost access to policy aides, communications professionals, lawyers, and administrative staff. Kent was reelected. In 2019, Kent was blocked from attending a Democratic Caucus meeting. Kent did not run for reelection in 2020.Kent filed a 42 U.S.C. 1983 claim, alleging that she suffered retaliation for speech protected under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of her suit, citing legislative immunity. The Caucus is inextricably bound up in the legislative process. “Whatever the lawmakers’ motives, principles of immunity fence [courts] out of the legislative sphere.” View "Kent v. Ohio House of Representatives" on Justia Law

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The Secretary of Homeland Security’s 2021 Guidance notes that the Department lacks the resources to apprehend and remove all of the more than 11 million removable noncitizens in the country and prioritizes apprehension and removal of noncitizens who are threats to “our national security, public safety, and border security.” “Whether a noncitizen poses a current threat to public safety,” the Guidance says, “requires an assessment of the individual and the totality of the facts and circumstances.” The Guidance lists aggravating and mitigating factors that immigration officers should consider and does not “compel an action to be taken or not taken,” and “is not intended to, does not, and may not be relied upon to create any right or benefit.”In a suit by Arizona, Montana, and Ohio, the district court issued a “nationwide preliminary injunction,” blocking the Department from relying on the Guidance priorities and policies in making detention, arrest, and removal decisions. The Sixth Circuit granted a stay pending appeal. The court noted “many dubious justiciability questions” with respect to standing. The Guidance leaves considerable implementation discretion and does not create any legal rights for noncitizens, suggesting it is not reviewable. The preliminary injunction likely causes irreparable harm to the Department by interfering with its authority to exercise enforcement discretion and allocate resources toward this administration’s priorities. A stay pending appeal should not substantially injure the three states. View "Arizona v. Biden" on Justia Law

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Ohio's legislatively-established municipal and county courts possess jurisdiction within their territorial limits over certain civil and criminal matters with the same authority as other common pleas judges. Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court employees certified a union as the exclusive collective bargaining representative for 136 employees, not including judges. A 2016 collective bargaining agreement was to extend through December 2019 and stated that the court would respect its terms until the parties reached a new agreement, the union disclaimed the contract, or the employees decertified the union. In 2019, negotiations stalled. In December 2020, the Juvenile Court sought a declaration that the agreements were void or expired. The union counterclaimed for breach of contract. The Juvenile Court subsequently treated union members as nonunion employees, decided to stop deducting union dues from paychecks, imposed new work schedules, and eliminated grievance procedures.The union sued in federal court, citing the Contracts Clause and the Takings Clause. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the suit. Sovereign immunity bars the union’s claims against the Juvenile Court because it is an arm of the State of Ohio. Section 1983 does not provide a cause of action for the union’s Contracts Clause claims against the individual defendants; qualified immunity barred the money-damages claims against them under the Takings Clause. View "Laborers' International Union of North America v. Neff" on Justia Law

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IRS Notice 2007-83, entitled “Abusive Trust Arrangements Utilizing Cash Value Life Insurance Policies Purportedly to Provide Welfare Benefits” designates certain employee-benefit plans featuring cash-value life insurance policies as listed “tax avoidance" transactions. A cash-value life insurance policy combines life insurance coverage with a cash-value investment account. The IRS believes these transactions run the risk of allowing small business owners to receive cash and other property from the business “on a tax-favored basis.” The regulation requires reporting of transactions involving cash-value life insurance policies connected to employee-benefit plans.Taxpayers claimed that the IRS skipped the notice-and-comment process before promulgating this legislative rule as required by the Administrative Procedure Act, 5 U.S.C. 551, 553–59, 701–06. The Sixth Circuit reversed the district court and found the regulation invalid. The Notice was a “legislative rule,” with the “force and effect of law,” not a policy statement or interpretation. Congress did not expressly exempt the IRS from the APA’s requirements. View "Mann Construction, Inc. v. United States" on Justia Law

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After working underground in coal mines for three decades, Casey developed pneumoconiosis (black-lung disease). His widow, Mabel, sought benefits under the Black Lung Benefits Act, 30 U.S.C. 901–44. It took the Department of Labor 17 years to deny her claims. During this time, the claims bounced back and forth between an ALJ and the Benefits Review Board. In the last appeal, the Board also rejected one of Mabel’s main arguments, citing “law-of-the-case,” without reaching the merits. The Department of Labor then delayed things further by filing an incomplete and disorganized administrative record in the Sixth Circuit.The Sixth Circuit affirmed. While the government’s actions “perhaps could be described as poor customer service, they do not show any reversible legal error.” The Board could lawfully invoke the discretionary law-of-the-case doctrine to avoid reexamining an issue on which it had affirmed the ALJ years before. The credibility findings concerning the conflicting medical opinions concerning whether Casey was totally disabled or had only “moderate impairment” pass muster under the deferential “substantial evidence” test. View "Samons v. National Mines Corp." on Justia Law

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The 1949 Federal Property and Administrative Services Act is intended to facilitate the “economical and efficient” purchase of goods and services on behalf of the federal government, 40 U.S.C. 101. In November 2021, the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force, under the supposed auspices of the Act, issued a “Guidance” mandating that employees of federal contractors in “covered contract[s]” with the federal government become fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee and Ohio sheriffs’ offices sued, alleging that the Property Act does not authorize the mandate, that the mandate violates other federal statutes, and that its intrusion upon traditional state prerogatives raises federalism and Tenth Amendment concerns.The district court enjoined enforcement of the mandate throughout the three states and denied the federal government’s request to stay the injunction pending appeal. The Sixth Circuit denied relief. The government has established none of the showings required to obtain a stay. The government is unlikely to succeed on claims that the plaintiffs lack standing and the plaintiffs likely have a cause of action under the Administrative Procedure Act. The court noted the plaintiff’s concerns about disruptions to the supply chain if workers leave their jobs rather than receiving vaccinations and also stated: Given that expansive scope of the Guidance, the interpretive trouble is not figuring out who’s “covered”; the difficult issue is understanding who, based on the Guidance’s definition of “covered,” could possibly not be covered. View "Commonwealth of Kentucky v. Biden" on Justia Law

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For more than 20 years, Glennborough’s developers and homeowners have sought to change the subdivision’s “ZIP Code” by petitions to the Postal Service, two rounds of litigation, and one settlement. The Glennborough Homeowners Association contends that the Postal Service breached a consent judgment entered as part of the earlier settlement by allowing mail addressed to “Ypsilanti” (rather than “Superior Township” or “Ann Arbor,” two other communities in Washtenaw County) to be delivered to Glennborough. In the consent agreement, the Postal Service agreed to “recognize ‘Superior Township, Michigan 48198’ as an authorized last line” for Glennborough “in place of its current last line of address, ‘Ypsilanti, Michigan 48198.’ In its lawsuit, the Association sought an order requiring the Postal Service to alter Glennborough’s ZIP Code.The Sixth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the suit, first noting that the Association, not a party to the consent judgment, likely lacked standing. The Association’s alleged “injuries,” concerning property values, distance to a post office, utility connections, and eligibility to attend specific schools, are not related to any issue addressed in the consent order. View "Glennborough Homeowners Association v. United States Postal Service" on Justia Law