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

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Sandra Beatriz Bustamante-Leiva and her three children, natives and citizens of Honduras, entered the United States illegally near Hildalgo, Texas. They were charged with removability under 8 U.S.C. § 1182(a)(6)(A)(i) for not possessing valid documentation at the time of entry. Bustamante-Leiva applied for asylum, withholding of removal, protection under the Convention Against Torture, and humanitarian asylum, with her children as riders to her application. The claims were based on alleged persecution due to religion, political opinion, and membership in a particular social group. Bustamante-Leiva and her children had fled Honduras due to threats from gang members, who had used an empty lot adjacent to their home for violent activities.The immigration judge denied all requested relief and ordered that the petitioners be removed to Honduras. On appeal, the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) upheld the immigration judge’s findings that the petitioners did not show harm rising to the level of persecution, did not show a nexus between the harm and a protected ground, and did not establish a cognizable particular social group. The BIA also rejected due process arguments made by the petitioners and denied their request for a three-member panel as moot.The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reviewed the case. The court held that the BIA did not err in its determinations. The court found that the petitioners failed to show membership in a cognizable particular social group and failed to establish past persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution based on religion. The court also rejected the petitioners' claims that the BIA violated their due process rights by allowing a single BIA member to render its decision, and that the BIA violated its regulatory obligation to be impartial. The court denied the petition for review. View "Bustamante-Leiva v. Garland" on Justia Law

Posted in: Immigration Law
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GFS Industries, a Texas limited liability corporation, entered into an agreement with Avion Funding to receive $190,000 in exchange for $299,800 of GFS’s future receivables. GFS stated it had not filed, nor did it anticipate filing, any Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition. However, two weeks after signing the agreement, GFS petitioned for voluntary Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the Western District of Texas and elected to proceed under Subchapter V, a 2019 addition to the Bankruptcy Code designed to streamline the Chapter 11 reorganization process for certain small business debtors. Avion filed an adversary complaint in GFS’s bankruptcy, claiming GFS obtained Avion’s financing by misrepresenting whether it anticipated filing for bankruptcy. Avion sought a declaration that GFS’s debt to Avion was therefore nondischargeable.The bankruptcy court agreed with GFS, ruling that in the Subchapter V context, only individuals, not corporations, can be subject to § 523(a) dischargeability actions. The court followed the reasoning of four bankruptcy courts and declined to follow the Fourth Circuit’s recent decision in Cantwell-Cleary Co. v. Cleary Packaging, LLC (In re Cleary Packaging, LLC), which held that the Subchapter V discharge exceptions apply to both individual and corporate debtors. The bankruptcy court ruled GFS’s debt to Avion was dischargeable and dismissed Avion’s complaint. Avion timely appealed to the district court.The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit disagreed with the bankruptcy court's interpretation of the interplay between § 523(a) and § 1192(2). The court found that § 1192 governs discharging debts of a “debtor,” which the Code defines as encompassing both individual and corporate debtors. The court also noted that other Code provisions explicitly limit discharges to “individual” debtors, whereas § 1192 provides dischargeability simply for “the debtor.” The court concluded that 11 U.S.C. § 1192(2) subjects both corporate and individual Subchapter V debtors to the categories of debt discharge exceptions listed in § 523(a). Therefore, the court reversed the judgment of the bankruptcy court and remanded for further proceedings. View "Avion Funding v. GFS Industries" on Justia Law

Posted in: Bankruptcy, Contracts
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The case revolves around a dispute over the eligibility of a dredging barge, the DB AVALON, to operate in U.S. waters. Federal law stipulates that only vessels "built in the United States" can dredge in U.S. waters, a determination made by the U.S. Coast Guard. Curtin Maritime Corporation sought the Coast Guard's ruling that the AVALON, which incorporated foreign-made spuds and a crane, could operate in U.S. waters. The Coast Guard ruled that the AVALON would be considered U.S.-built. Diamond Services Corporation, a competitor of Curtin, challenged this ruling as arbitrary and capricious.The case was initially heard in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas. The district court deferred to the Coast Guard's interpretation of its own regulations and granted the Coast Guard summary judgment. Diamond Services Corporation appealed this decision.The case was then reviewed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. The court affirmed the lower court's decision, agreeing that the Coast Guard's interpretation of its own regulations was reasonable. The court found that the regulations were genuinely ambiguous as to whether the crane was part of the AVALON’s superstructure. The court also found that the Coast Guard's interpretation fell within the regulatory zone of ambiguity and was reasonable. The court concluded that the Coast Guard's ruling was made by the agency, implicated the agency’s substantive expertise, and reflected fair and considered judgment. Therefore, the court affirmed the district court's decision to grant summary judgment for the Federal Defendants. View "Diamond Services v. Maritime" on Justia Law

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The case involves Marcus Anderson and Reed Clark, current and former employees of Harris County, who allege that Constable Christopher Diaz violated their First Amendment rights. They claim that Diaz instituted reforms to ensure his re-election, which included requiring employees to work on his campaign and retaliating against those who impeded campaign functions. The plaintiffs assert that Diaz had final authority over employment decisions and that his actions resulted in various adverse employment actions, ranging from transfer to termination.The plaintiffs initiated a suit against Diaz and Harris County under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming Diaz violated their First Amendment rights. Harris County filed a motion to dismiss, which the district court granted, finding that Diaz was not a policymaker for Harris County. The district court dismissed all claims against the county with prejudice. Two years later, the district court issued a final judgment regarding the claims against Harris County, allowing the plaintiffs to appeal.The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision. The court agreed with the lower court's finding that Diaz, as a constable of a single precinct, was not a final policymaker for Harris County. The court also rejected the plaintiffs' alternative argument that Harris County was liable for Diaz's employment decisions under a delegation or rubber-stamp theory. The court concluded that the plaintiffs failed to show that the alleged First Amendment violations were the result of an official county policy, and therefore, their claims against Harris County were dismissed. View "Anderson v. Harris County" on Justia Law

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Danny Richard Rivers, an inmate in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, filed a second habeas corpus petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 while his first petition was still pending on appeal. The second petition challenged the same convictions as the first but added new claims. Rivers argued that these new claims arose after he was able to review his attorney-client file, which he had long requested and only received after a successful state bar grievance adjudication against his counsel. The district court deemed the second petition "successive" under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), which requires an applicant to first get authorization from the appropriate court of appeals for such a petition. The district court held that it lacked jurisdiction to entertain the petition without such authorization and transferred the matter to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.Rivers appealed the district court's transfer order, arguing that his second petition should have been construed as a motion to amend his first petition since it was still pending on appeal. He also contended that his claims should not have been considered successive because his counsel withheld his client file that would have allegedly exposed his ineffective assistance, and this information was not available to him when he filed his first petition.The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit disagreed with Rivers' arguments. The court found that Rivers' second petition attacked the same conviction as his first petition and added several new claims that stemmed from the proceedings already at issue in his first petition. The court held that the fact that Rivers' later-obtained client file allegedly contained information that was not available to him when he filed his first petition did not excuse him from meeting the standards for seeking authorization under § 2244. The court also held that the timing of Rivers' second petition did not permit him to circumvent the requirements for filing successive petitions under § 2244. The court affirmed the district court's order transferring the matter to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals for lack of jurisdiction. View "Rivers v. Lumpkin" on Justia Law

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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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Two members of the Lipan-Apache Native American Church, Gary Perez and Matilde Torres, sued the City of San Antonio over its development plan for Brackenridge Park. They claimed that the plan, which involved tree removal and bird deterrence measures, would prevent them from performing religious ceremonies in the park, violating their rights under the First Amendment, the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and the Texas Constitution. They sought an injunction requiring the city to grant them access to the park for worship, minimize tree removal, and allow cormorants to nest.The district court granted them access to the park for religious ceremonies but declined to enjoin the city's planned tree removal and bird deterrence measures. Both parties appealed this decision.The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision. The court found that the city's development plan did not substantially burden the appellants' religious exercise. The court also found that the city's plan served two compelling interests: public health and safety, and compliance with federal law. The court concluded that the city's tree removal and bird deterrence plans were the least restrictive means to advance these interests. Therefore, the appellants failed to show a likelihood of success on the merits of their claims. The court also denied the appellants' emergency motion for an injunction pending appeal. View "Perez v. City of San Antonio" 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