Justia U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Constitutional Law

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Defendant-appellant Keilon Sanders (a/k/a "Bird") pled guilty to one count of conspiracy involving 1,000 kilograms or more of marijuana, for which he received 120 months imprisonment. Sanders argued on appeal of that conviction and sentence that his guilty plea was entered involuntarily and that the district court violated his right to self-representation. After review, the Fifth Circuit affirmed as to the voluntariness of the plea but vacated Sanders’s sentence and remanded for resentencing because the district court failed to honor his request for self-representation. View "United States v. Sanders" on Justia Law

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Cesar Bernel-Aveja was convicted of illegal reentry after deportation and appealed his sentence. He argued that his prior 1996 Ohio conviction for burglary did not qualify as "burglary of a dwelling," a specifically enumerated "crime of violence" under United States Sentencing Guideline 2L1.2,1 and therefore that the district court erred in applying a 12-level sentence enhancement. The Fifth Circuit found that Ohio offense for which Bernel-Aveja was convicted could have consisted of unlawful entry with the intent to commit a crime on the premises formed after that unlawful entry. This offense did not come within the "generic" definition of burglary as the Court articulated that definition in the applicable caselaw. Accordingly, the Court vacated the sentence and remanded for resentencing. View "United States v. Bernel-Aveja" on Justia Law

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Defendant-appellant Efrain Piedra-Morales was caught and pled guilty to illegal reentry. Previously, he had been deported three times from the United States. Piedra-Morales appealed the district court’s application of an eight-level aggravated felony enhancement under U.S.S.G. 2L1.2(b)(1)(C) for deportation after an earlier aggravated felony conviction. He contended that his prior convictions for illegal reentry under 8 U.S.C. 1326(b)(2) were not aggravated felonies because they were predicated on his prior cocaine possession convictions, which were no longer considered aggravated felonies, and as such, his prior illegal reentry convictions are also not aggravated felonies. The Fifth Circuit found no error and affirmed the sentence. View "United States v. Piedra-Morales" on Justia Law

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In 2015, defendant-appellant Guadalupe Castro and Cynthia Uribe were arrested for transporting six bricks of heroin weighing 5,992 grams in their vehicle, which Castro was driving. In post-arrest interviews, Castro and Uribe admitted to transporting narcotics for a drug trafficking organization (“DTO”). A federal grand jury charged Castro with one count of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute a controlled substance. Castro pled guilty. During pre-sentencing, Probation did not recommend a mitigating role adjustment under section 3B1.2 in Castro’s Presentence Investigation Report (“PSR”). Despite Castro’s objection, in the PSR’s Addendum, Probation maintained that Castro was not entitled to an adjustment. In a pre-sentencing order and at sentencing, the district court concluded that Castro’s objection was without merit. Castro appealed, asking the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to vacate the district court’s judgment and remand for resentencing because: (1) the district court committed clear error by adopting Probation’s interpretation of section 3B1.2, which Amendment 794 clarifies was the wrong standard because it focuses on the integral nature of Castro’s role in the drug conspiracy; and (2) the court’s error was not harmless. Finding no reversible error, the Fifth Circuit affirmed. View "United States v. Castro" on Justia Law

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Robert Montano, a pretrial detainee in the county jail, died of acute renal failure after approximately four-and-one-half days’ detention in a glass-walled observation cell in the jail’s infirmary. This 42 U.S.C. 1983 action was filed against the county on three theories of liability: unconstitutional condition of confinement relative to a county custom for holding incoherent pretrial detainees; episodic acts or omissions; and unconstitutional condition of confinement relative to a county custom of failing to meet basic human needs. In regards to the unconstitutional-condition-of-confinement claim, the court concluded that the district court properly denied the county JMOL against the jury’s finding the condition. In this case, trial testimony adequately established the protocol exercised in Mr. Montano’s experience was standard jail practice; the record demonstrates his experience was not a mere “isolated example”, but was, instead, a “pervasive pattern of serious deficiencies in providing for his basic human needs”. The court concluded that the district court properly denied the county's Rule 50(b) motion regarding the $1.5 million awarded for pain Mr. Montano suffered. Because section 1983 liability and damages are upheld, the court concluded that plaintiffs remain the prevailing parties and are entitled to those fees and costs. Because the constitutional deprivation is well established and the causal link was admitted at trial, satisfying Texas’ causation standard, the court concluded that the standard for wrongful-death damages is satisfied. Therefore, JMOL was improperly awarded to the county on wrongful-death damages. Accordingly, the court affirmed in part, vacated in part, and remanded. View "Montano v. Orange County, Texas" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff filed suit against LIT, alleging claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. 12101 et seq., based on LIT's failure to grant his requested disability accommodation. Plaintiff, who suffers from an anoxic brain injury, sought an accommodation in which he could take two exams per class. The district court dismissed the claims. The court concluded that the district court erred in concluding that LIT is entitled to sovereign immunity where Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity does not bar plaintiff's Rehabilitation Act claim for money damages. The court also concluded that plaintiff's claim for compensatory damages is not moot. Here, plaintiff alleges that he sustained a direct injury from LIT’s past intentional discrimination. Thus, whether or not the President’s letter remedies plaintiff's injury prospectively does not moot plaintiff's claim for retrospective relief for the period in which LIT denied his accommodation request. However, upon a full review of the summary judgment evidence, the court afforded deference to LIT’s decision because plaintiff has not demonstrated that LIT intentionally discriminated against him. In this case, each of the six alleged statements and actions recited by plaintiff is either not supported by the record or could not plausibly be construed by a reasonable fact finder as an example of intentional discrimination. Even if he had adduced a triable fact issue on discrimination, plaintiff cannot recover injunctive or declaratory relief from LIT because he lacks standing where his alleged prospective injury is entirely speculative, hypothetical, and lacks imminence. Accordingly, the court affirmed the judgment. View "Campbell v. Lamar Institute of Technology" on Justia Law

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The family of Jason Hyatt filed suit against Officer Brianna Thomas, alleging a 42 U.S.C. 1983 claim related to Hyatt's suicide while in police custody. The district court concluded that no genuine issue of material fact precluded Thomas from being entitled to qualified immunity. The court held that, while not ideal, Thomas's failure to exercise even greater care to avoid Hyatt’s suicide did not amount to deliberate indifference. In this case, Thomas took measures to prevent Hyatt's suicide: she withheld from him the most obvious potential ligature, placed him under video surveillance, and directed her relieving officer to keep a close watch over him. Accordingly, the court affirmed the judgment. View "Hyatt v. Thomas" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff filed suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983 against Officer Brewer in his individual capacity, alleging that Brewer used constitutionally excessive force in effecting plaintiff's arrest. The district court granted Officer Brewer’s motion for summary judgment. The court concluded that Brewer’s conduct in executing the initial takedown was not constitutionally unreasonable in the light of clearly established law; Brewer is entitled to qualified immunity as to the claims stemming from his attempts to handcuff plaintiff while plaintiff was on the ground; and the use of force was the sort of “split-second judgment” in a difficult situation that qualified immunity is designed to protect. Accordingly, the court concluded that the district court did not err in holding that Brewer is entitled to qualified immunity and affirmed the judgment. View "Griggs v. Brewer" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff filed suit against Luke & Associates alleging race-based discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 42 U.S.C. 1981. The district court granted summary judgment for Luke. The court concluded that plaintiff has failed to make a prima facie case of discrimination where she has not shown that any of the other employees shared her history of on-the-job violations. Even assuming that plaintiff had shown a prima facie case, Luke provided legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for its decision. Likewise, plaintiff's retaliation claim fails because plaintiff failed to provide evidence that "but for" her complaints to the Air Force, Luke would have given a pay raise. Finally, the court concluded that the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying the motion to compel. The court affirmed the judgment. View "Outley v. Luke & Associates, Inc." on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs, former employees of the County, filed suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983, after they were reassigned, and later terminated, from their positions allegedly because they failed to support the sheriff's reelection. Plaintiffs also filed grievances with the Nueces County Civil Service Commission, alleging only that they were subjected to adverse employment actions in violation of county rules prohibiting such actions on grounds of participating or failing to participate in political activity. The state court affirmed the Commission's decision against plaintiffs. The district court granted summary judgment to defendants on claim-preclusion grounds. Plaintiffs appealed, arguing that the district court applied the law of res judicata incorrectly, and that res judicata was inappropriate because plaintiffs had deliberately abstained from litigating their federal claims in state court. The court rejected plaintiffs' arguments and concluded that, because plaintiffs could and should have brought these claims in their state suit, their stated reasons for not doing so are inadequate to prevent res judicata. The court also rejected plaintiffs' claim of abstention. Accordingly, the court affirmed the judgment. View "Cox v. Nueces County, TX" on Justia Law