Justia Government & Administrative Law Opinion Summaries

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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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The case revolves around a dispute between the City of Gulf Shores and Coyote Beach Sports, LLC. The city passed a municipal ordinance regulating the motor-scooter-rental business, which required renters to possess a specific type of license. Coyote Beach Sports, a Louisiana-based company that rented motor scooters in Gulf Shores, claimed that this ordinance effectively halted its business as most customers did not possess the required license. Consequently, Coyote filed a complaint against the city, seeking a judgment declaring the ordinance invalid, monetary damages, and attorney fees and costs.The case was first heard in the Baldwin Circuit Court where, after a jury trial, the court declared the ordinance preempted by state law. The jury awarded Coyote $200,416.12 in compensatory damages. The city appealed the trial court's judgment. Later, Coyote filed a motion for attorney fees, and the trial court awarded Coyote $59,320 in attorney fees without holding a hearing. The city appealed this order as well.The Supreme Court of Alabama reviewed the case and the issue of whether the municipal ordinance was preempted by state law. The court concluded that the ordinance was not preempted under any of the three recognized circumstances under which municipal ordinances are preempted by state law. The court found a distinct difference between the state's requirement for a license to operate a motorcycle or motor-driven cycle and a municipality's regulation of the rental of such vehicles. The court also found no conflict between the ordinance and state law. Therefore, the Supreme Court of Alabama reversed the judgment of the circuit court and the order awarding Coyote attorney fees, remanding the matters for further proceedings. View "City of Gulf Shores v. Coyote Beach Sports, LLC" on Justia Law

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The case involves a dispute between the San Jacinto River Authority (SJRA) and the cities of Conroe and Magnolia, Texas. The SJRA and the cities had entered into contracts obligating the cities to buy surface water from the SJRA. When a disagreement over fees and rates arose, the cities stopped paying their full balances, leading the SJRA to sue the cities for recovery of those amounts. The cities claimed immunity from the suit as government entities.Previously, the trial court had granted the cities' plea to the jurisdiction, and the court of appeals affirmed this decision. The court of appeals held that the SJRA had not engaged in pre-suit mediation as required by the contracts, and therefore, the cities' immunity was not waived.The Supreme Court of Texas disagreed with the lower courts' decisions. The court held that contractual procedures for alternative dispute resolution, such as pre-suit mediation, do not limit the statutory waiver of immunity for contractual claims against local government entities. The court also found that the mediation requirement did not apply to the SJRA's claims. Furthermore, the court rejected the cities' argument that the agreements did not fall within the waiver because they failed to state their essential terms.Consequently, the Supreme Court of Texas reversed the lower courts' decisions and remanded the case back to the trial court for further proceedings to resolve the SJRA's claims on the merits. View "San Jacinto River Authority v. City of Conroe" on Justia Law

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The case involves a dispute between a developer, Campbellton Road, Ltd., and the City of San Antonio, specifically the San Antonio Water System (SAWS). The developer entered into a contract with SAWS in 2003, which included an option for the developer to participate in and fund the construction of off-site oversized infrastructure for a municipal water system. The developer planned to develop two residential subdivisions and needed sewer service for them. The contract stated that if the developer decided to participate in the off-site oversizing project, a contract would form, and the developer would earn credits that could be used to satisfy some or all of the collection component of assessed impact fees.The Court of Appeals for the Fourth District of Texas concluded that the Local Government Contract Claims Act did not apply, and therefore did not waive immunity, because there was no agreement for providing services to the system. The court held that the system had no contractual right to receive any services and would not have “any legal recourse” if the developer “unilaterally decided not to proceed.”The Supreme Court of Texas disagreed with the lower court's decision. The Supreme Court held that the Act waived the system’s immunity from suit because the developer adduced evidence that a contract formed when the developer decided to and did participate in the off-site oversizing project. The court found that the contract stated the essential terms of an agreement for the developer to participate in that project, and the agreement was for providing a service to the system that was neither indirect nor attenuated. The Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals’ judgment and remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings. View "Campbellton Road, Ltd. v. City of San Antonio" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court of the State of Delaware considered an appeal from a decision of the Superior Court regarding the adoption of a Medicare Advantage Plan for State retirees by the State Employee Benefits Committee (SEBC). The Superior Court had found that the SEBC's decision was subject to the requirements of Delaware’s Administrative Procedures Act (APA), granted a motion to stay the implementation of the Medicare Advantage Plan, and required the State to maintain its retirees’ Medicare Supplement Plan. The Superior Court also denied the plaintiffs' application for attorneys’ fees.The Supreme Court of the State of Delaware disagreed with the lower court's ruling. It found that the SEBC's decision to adopt a Medicare Advantage Plan was not a "regulation" as defined by the APA. The court reasoned that the decision did not meet the APA's definition of a regulation because it was not a "rule or standard," nor was it a guide for the decision of future cases. Therefore, the Superior Court did not have jurisdiction to stay the implementation of the plan. The Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Superior Court.On cross-appeal, the plaintiffs argued that the Superior Court erred by refusing to grant their application for attorneys’ fees. However, the Supreme Court found this argument moot because fee shifting is available only against a losing party in favor of a prevailing party. Since the Supreme Court reversed the decision below, fee shifting was foreclosed. View "DeMatteis v. RISE Delaware, Inc." on Justia Law

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The case involves Walid Abdulahad, an Iraqi national who sought review of the Board of Immigration Appeals' (BIA) denial of his motion to reopen his removal proceedings based on changed country conditions in Iraq. Abdulahad, who had been living in the U.S. since 1997, was ordered removed in absentia in 2006 following a criminal conviction in Aruba. He remained in the U.S. under supervision and filed multiple motions to reopen his case, arguing that he faced a risk of torture if returned to Iraq due to his status as a Chaldean Christian and his ties to the U.S.The BIA denied Abdulahad's latest motion to reopen, finding that his evidence was cumulative of evidence submitted with prior motions, and that he had not established a particularized risk of torture or that each step in his causal-chain claim was more likely than not to occur. Abdulahad petitioned the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit for review of the BIA's decision.The Sixth Circuit granted the petition, vacated the BIA's decision, and remanded the case back to the BIA. The court found that the BIA had applied the incorrect legal standards when determining whether Abdulahad's evidence was new, cumulative, or material, and had failed to assess Abdulahad's claims in the aggregate. The court also found that the BIA had not sufficiently explained or considered the evidence related to Abdulahad's particularized likelihood of torture. View "Abdulahad v. Garland" on Justia Law

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The case revolves around Terry Cousins' efforts to obtain public records related to her sister, who died while in the custody of the Department of Corrections (DOC). Cousins alleged that the DOC's response to her public records request violated the Public Records Act (PRA). The main issue was whether Cousins' PRA action was barred by the one-year statute of limitations.Previously, the DOC had responded to Cousins' request by producing multiple installments of records and then sent Cousins a letter in January 2019 stating that her request was "now closed". Cousins asked about specific records she believed were missing, and the DOC reopened Cousins' original PRA request to conduct an additional search, leading to the production of hundreds of pages of previously undisclosed responsive records, followed by a second letter stating that the request was "now closed" in June 2021.The Supreme Court of the State of Washington held that the June 2021 closing letter was DOC’s final, definitive response to Cousins’ PRA request. The court ruled that Cousins' PRA action was not barred by the statute of limitations. The court reversed the decision of the lower court and remanded the case for further proceedings. View "Cousins v. Department of Corrections" on Justia Law

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The case revolves around the Benton County Water Conservancy Board (the Board) and the Washington State Department of Ecology (the Department). The Department primarily manages the state's water resources, while the Board has coextensive authority to process voluntary water right transfers between water right holders. The dispute arose when the Board challenged a department policy (Policy 1070) concerning certain water right transfers. The Board claimed that it suffered injury-in-fact from the Department's refusal to accept certain administrative division forms pursuant to the policy.The case was first heard in the superior court, which granted summary judgment to the Board and directed the Department to accept administrative division requests from the Board. The Department appealed, and the Court of Appeals reversed the decision, holding that the Board lacked standing to challenge the Department's action.The Supreme Court of the State of Washington affirmed the decision of the Court of Appeals. The court held that the Board lacked standing to challenge Department Policy 1070. The Board failed to demonstrate how it suffered injury-in-fact from the Department’s refusal to accept certain administrative division forms pursuant to the policy. The Board suffered no prejudice and its interests would not be redressed by invalidating the policy. The court concluded that the Board's interests were indirect and inchoate, and it failed to establish injury-in-fact under the Administrative Procedure Act. Therefore, the Board lacked standing to pursue this challenge to the Department’s use of Policy 1070. View "Benton County Water Conservancy Board v. Department of Ecology" 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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Michael Rivera, a Pennsylvania state prisoner, was in an open-air telephone cage when he overheard prison officials preparing to forcibly extract another inmate, Ryan Miller, from a nearby cell. Anticipating the use of pepper spray, Rivera informed the officials that exposure to the spray would trigger his asthma. Despite his pleas to be moved back to his cell, the officials refused, citing the lack of available personnel due to the ongoing preparations for Miller's extraction. After the pepper spray was deployed, Rivera suffered an asthma attack. He sued the prison officials for damages, alleging they had acted with deliberate indifference to the substantial risk of serious harm to him, in violation of the Eighth Amendment.The United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania granted summary judgment in favor of the prison officials. The court concluded that the law was not clearly established to the extent that the officials would have known that their actions violated the Eighth Amendment.On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the lower court's decision. The appellate court found that the prison officials were entitled to qualified immunity because their actions did not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known. The court noted that the officials were confronted with competing institutional concerns and that the cited case law did not clearly establish that the officials' decision to prioritize one prisoner's health and safety over another's violated the Eighth Amendment. View "Rivera v. Redfern" on Justia Law