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

Articles Posted in Civil Rights
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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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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 estate and heirs of Dale O'Neal, a pre-trial detainee who was murdered by his cellmate in Clay County's jail, filed a lawsuit against several officers and the county under Section 1983. They alleged that the defendants failed to protect O'Neal, thereby violating his Fourteenth Amendment rights. The case centered around the actions of the intake officer, Annie Avant, who assigned O'Neal's murderer, Cameron Henderson, to the same cell as O'Neal. The parties disputed what information was conveyed to Avant about Henderson's violent behavior and whether the booking system would have revealed that Henderson was previously determined to be a threat.The district court agreed with the magistrate judge's decision to exclude a late-designated expert and the accompanying report, which the plaintiffs relied on to establish the County's liability. The court then granted summary judgment to all defendants, concluding that the plaintiffs could not create a fact question as to whether the individual defendants acted with deliberate indifference. The court also found that Avant had qualified immunity.On appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, the plaintiffs argued that it was an abuse of discretion to exclude the expert and error to grant summary judgment to Avant. The appellate court affirmed the lower court's decision. It found no abuse of discretion in excluding the late-designated expert, considering factors such as the explanation for the failure to identify the witness, the importance of the testimony, potential prejudice in allowing the testimony, and the availability of a continuance to cure such prejudice. The court also affirmed the grant of summary judgment to Avant on the basis of qualified immunity, noting that the plaintiffs failed to point to any case supporting the proposition that the alleged constitutional violation was of clearly established law. View "Culberson v. Clay County" on Justia Law

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The case involves Michael Garrett, a prisoner in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice system for over thirty years, who contends that the prison's schedule allows him only three and a half hours of sleep per night, with a maximum of two and a half hours of continuous sleep. According to Garrett, this sleep deprivation constitutes a violation of the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. He sued the Department after his complaints were ignored by prison officials.The United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas dismissed Garrett's claim, reasoning that he failed to demonstrate a direct causal relationship between his health issues and his sleep deprivation. The court also held that the prison officials' actions did not constitute deliberate indifference, as the schedule was based on legitimate penological purposes.Upon appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit found that the district court had applied incorrect legal standards. The appellate court held that to establish a violation of the Eighth Amendment, a prisoner need only show a substantial risk of serious harm, not actual harm. Furthermore, the court clarified that the prison’s penological purpose has no bearing on whether an inmate has shown “deliberate indifference” for purposes of an Eighth Amendment claim. The case was vacated and remanded to the district court to apply the correct legal standards. View "Garrett v. Lumpkin" on Justia Law

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This federal appeal case involves the claim of Eric Cruz, a former pretrial detainee at the Lubbock County Detention Center (LCDC), against Officer Domingo Cervantez. Cruz alleged that Cervantez violated his constitutional rights by showing deliberate indifference to his safety while he was enduring attacks from his cellmate. The jury agreed that Cervantez was deliberately indifferent but also decided that he was entitled to qualified immunity because he did not act unlawfully, considering the clearly established law and the information he had at the time. Cruz, now representing himself, argued that the district court erred in excluding evidence of disciplinary action taken against Cervantez following the incidents.The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, however, affirmed the district court's decision. Even if the lower court erred in excluding the disciplinary notice, Cruz failed to demonstrate that this error affected his substantial rights. The appellate court found that the disciplinary notice was largely duplicative of trial testimony and would have added very little to the evidence. Furthermore, it affirmed the jury's finding that a reasonable officer could have believed that Cruz was not in unreasonable danger, and thus Cervantez's actions were lawful in light of clearly established law and the information he possessed. View "Cruz v. Cervantez" on Justia Law

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In this case before the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, the plaintiff, Lebene Konan, alleged that the United States Postal Service (USPS) employees intentionally withheld her mail for two years. Konan, who is African American, owned two properties in Texas that she rented out to tenants. She claimed that USPS employees, Jason Rojas and Raymond Drake, deliberately failed to deliver mail to these residences because they didn't like the idea of a black person owning those properties.Konan filed a lawsuit under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) and also alleged violations of her equal protection rights. The district court dismissed her claims due to lack of subject matter jurisdiction and failure to state a claim. Konan appealed the decision.The Appeals Court affirmed in part and reversed in part. It ruled that the district court erred in dismissing Konan's FTCA claim, finding that the postal-matter exception to the FTCA's immunity waiver did not apply to intentional acts such as those alleged. The court ruled that Konan's claims did not constitute a "loss," "miscarriage," or "negligent transmission" of mail, which are covered by the exception, as they involved intentional non-delivery of mail.However, the court agreed with the district court's dismissal of Konan's equal protection claims. The court held that Konan did not provide sufficient facts to support her assertion that the USPS employees continued to deliver mail to similarly situated white property owners while denying her mail delivery. It also held that her claims were barred by the intracorporate-conspiracy doctrine, which precludes conspiracy claims against multiple defendants employed by the same governmental entity. Therefore, the court affirmed the dismissal of Konan's equal protection claims. View "Konan v. USPS" on Justia Law

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The case was heard in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit between former Blue Cube employee Elizabeth Cerda and her former employer, Blue Cube Operations, L.L.C. Cerda had been terminated for receiving pay for hours she did not work and threatening to expose her co-workers to COVID-19. She sued Blue Cube under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (Title VII). The district court granted summary judgment to Blue Cube, which Cerda appealed.The Appeals Court reviewed the case de novo and affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment to Blue Cube. The Court found that Cerda failed to provide sufficient evidence for her FMLA claims. She did not adequately notify Blue Cube of her need or intent to take leave beyond her lunch breaks. The Court also dismissed Cerda's FMLA retaliation and Title VII sex discrimination claims due to lack of evidence of pretext. The Court found that Blue Cube had legitimate, non-retaliatory, and non-discriminatory reasons for terminating Cerda's employment.Furthermore, Cerda's Title VII sexual harassment claim was dismissed as she did not provide evidence that the harassment was based on her sex, was severe or pervasive enough to alter the conditions of her employment, or that Blue Cube had knowledge of the conduct. Lastly, the Court found no abuse of discretion in the district court's denial of Cerda's request to reconvene a deposition on a second day. Thus, the judgment of the district court was affirmed. View "Cerda v. Blue Cube Operations" on Justia Law

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Maximo Espinal, a security guard, was arrested by Houston police officers for aggravated assault. Although a grand jury initially indicted Espinal, the charges were subsequently dropped. Espinal then sued the officers involved and the City of Houston, claiming he had been subjected to false arrest, malicious prosecution, and assault. The district court dismissed all of Espinal's claims based on the officers' qualified immunity and immunity under Texas law.Espinal's arrest occurred after he had a heated interaction with a plainclothes police officer, M.T. Long, who was trespassing on the property Espinal was guarding. After Espinal instructed Officer Long to leave, the officer returned with multiple police vehicles and arrested Espinal. Espinal alleged that the officers made no effort to view or collect video surveillance evidence that he said would prove his innocence.The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the lower court's decision. The court ruled that the officers had probable cause for Espinal's arrest. Furthermore, the court found that even if the officers had lacked probable cause, the grand jury's subsequent indictment of Espinal shielded them from liability under the independent intermediary doctrine. The court also rejected Espinal's claim that he had been maliciously prosecuted, finding that Espinal failed to allege that the officers had misled the grand jury. Finally, the court ruled that Espinal's assault claim was barred by the Texas Tort Claims Act. View "Espinal v. City of Houston" on Justia Law

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In a case before the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, Ivan Cantu, who was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death in 2001, sought to authorize the district court to consider a successive petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2244. He claimed a violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and suppression of evidence by the state in violation of Brady v. Maryland. The Fifth Circuit denied his motion for authorization, holding that Cantu had failed to meet the requirements of 28 U.S.C. § 2244(b)(2)(B).The court found that Cantu failed to exercise due diligence to discover the evidence he was now relying on and that he failed to provide clear and convincing evidence that no reasonable factfinder would have found him guilty. The court also noted that Cantu's last-minute filing was an attempt at manipulation and did not serve the public interest or the interest of the victims in the timely enforcement of the sentence. Consequently, the court denied Cantu's motion for a stay of execution. View "In Re: Ivan Cantu" on Justia Law