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

Articles Posted in Civil Rights
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Plaintiff filed a 42 U.S.C. 1983 action against defendant, an investigator for the Texas Medical Board (TMB), alleging that defendant searched his medical office and seized documents without a warrant.The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of defendant's motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity. The court held that defendant violated plaintiff's constitutional rights when she copied documents in plaintiff's office without any precompliance review of the administrative subpoena. However, at the time, it was not clearly established that defendant's search per Texas Occupations Code 153.007(a) and 168.052, and 22 Texas Administrative Code 179.4(a) and 195.3 was unconstitutional. Therefore, defendant's right to a precompliance review was not clearly established at the time of the search. In this case, the TMB had received a complaint that plaintiff was operating an unregistered pain management clinic (PMC); even though plaintiff's license had been revoked at the time of the search, the Board still had the power to take disciplinary action against him, to issue administrative penalties, and to seek injunctions; and thus defendant's search served an administrative purpose, even if the TMB ultimately declined to take further administrative action against plaintiff. View "Cotropia v. Chapman" on Justia Law

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The Fifth Circuit granted the petition for panel rehearing, withdrew its prior opinion, and substituted the following opinion.The court held that when a court order disposes of a habeas claim on procedural and, in the alternative, substantive grounds, a Rule 60(b) motion contesting this order inherently presents a successive habeas petition. The court affirmed the district court's conclusion that it lacked jurisdiction over petitioner's Rule 60(b) motion -- facially challenging a procedural ruling and implicitly challenging a merits determination -- because it was a successive habeas petition under 28 U.S.C. 2254. The court also affirmed the district court's denial of petitioner's inherent prejudice claim, because petitioner failed to overcome the arduous standard of review in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA). In this case, petitioner identifies no clearly established law that the CCA misapplied, nor any unreasonable factual determinations on which the court based its holding. View "Will v. Lumpkin" on Justia Law

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The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of a petition for habeas relief under 28 U.S.C. 2254. Petitioner argues, under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), that the prosecution unlawfully withheld impeachment evidence concerning an eyewitness's prior federal conviction for lying on a firearms application. The court concluded that the undisclosed evidence of the eyewitness's conviction for lying does not "directly contradict" or undermine his assertions at trial; fairminded jurists could disagree as to whether the eyewitness's testimony was sufficiently corroborated to sustain confidence in the verdict; and the eyewitness's undisclosed conviction was cumulative of other evidence disclosed to the defense—including the assault and battery conviction that was revealed to the jury during the eyewitness's cross-examination. Therefore, the court found that the state court's Brady determination did not involve an unreasonable application of clearly established Federal law. The court also rejected petitioner's argument that the state court's decision was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts under section 2254(d)(2). View "Reeder v. Vannoy" on Justia Law

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After plaintiffs filed suit challenging Texas's absentee-ballot system in August 2019, the district court granted plaintiffs' summary judgment motion in part, issuing an injunction adopting many of plaintiffs' proposed changes to Texas's election procedures. The injunction included three main provisions regarding the 2020 election: first, the district court required the Secretary to issue an advisory, within ten days, notifying local election officials of the injunction, and the notification must inform them that rejecting ballots because of mismatching signatures is unconstitutional unless the officials take actions that go beyond those required by state law; second, the Secretary must either issue an advisory to local election officials requiring them to follow the district court's newly devised signature verification and voter-notification procedures, or else promulgate an advisory requiring that officials cease rejecting ballots with mismatched signatures altogether; and third, the district court mandated that the Secretary take action against any election officials who fail to comply with the district court's newly minted procedures.The Fifth Circuit considered the Nken factors and granted the Secretary's motion to stay the district court's injunction pending appeal, because the Secretary is likely to succeed in showing that Texas's signature-verification procedures are constitutional. The court held that the Secretary is likely to show that plaintiffs have alleged no cognizable liberty or property interest that could serve to make out a procedural due process claim. Given the failure of plaintiffs and the district court to assert that voting—or, for that matter, voting by mail—constitutes a liberty interest, along with the absence of circuit precedent supporting that position, the court stated that the Secretary is likely to prevail in showing that plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment on their due process claim should have been denied. The court rejected the district court's reasoning regarding any state-created liberty interest. Even if voting is a protected liberty or property interest, the court held that the Secretary is likely to show that the district court used the wrong test for the due process claim. The court held that the Anderson/Burdick framework provides the appropriate test for plaintiffs' due process claims and Texas's signature-verification procedures are reasonable and nondiscriminatory, and they survive scrutiny under the Anderson/Burdick framework. In this case, Texas's important interest in reducing voter fraud—and specifically in stymying mail-in ballot fraud—justifies its use of signature verification.The court also held that the Secretary is likely to prevail in her defense that sovereign immunity bars the district court's injunction requiring that she issue particular advisories and take specific potential enforcement action against noncomplying officials. Finally, the remaining Nken factors counsel in favor of granting a stay pending appeal where the Secretary will be irreparably injured absent a stay, public interest favors granting a stay, and the balance of harms weighs in favor of the Secretary. View "Richardson v. Texas Secretary of State" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff filed suit challenging the Affordable Care Act (ACA), seeking retrospective and prospective relief for myriad alleged violations of the United States Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The Fifth Circuit declined to reach the merits of plaintiff's claims. The court held that, given the altered legal landscape and the potential effects of plaintiff's request for prospective relief, a mootness analysis must precede the merits. In this case, a year after plaintiff filed his lawsuit, Congress passed and President Trump signed the Tax Cut and Jobs Act, which reduced the shared responsibility payment (imposed on individuals who fail to purchase health insurance) to $0. In the same year, the Department of Health and Human Services created new exemptions to the contraceptive mandate, including an exemption for individuals like plaintiff. These exemptions were enjoined until the Supreme Court's recent decision in Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter and Paul Home v. Pennsylvania. Therefore, the court vacated the district court's dismissal of plaintiff's claims and remanded for the district court to conduct a mootness analysis in the first instance. The court also remanded to allow plaintiff to amend his complaint where the parties agreed that the district court incorrectly dismissed plaintiff's claim for retrospective relief. View "Dierlam v. Trump" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff filed suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983, alleging that defendants' failure to transfer him back to his normal housing without commitment proceedings violated his due process rights under Vitek v. Jones, 445 U.S. 480 (1980). In Jones, the Supreme Court held that "the stigmatizing consequences of a transfer to a mental hospital for involuntary psychiatric treatment, coupled with the subjection of the prisoner to mandatory behavior modification as a treatment for mental illness, constitute the kind of deprivations of liberty that requires procedural protections." Plaintiff alleges that delaying his discharge by weeks after he reiterated his withdrawal of consent violated those same rights.The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment for defendants based on qualified immunity. In this case, defendants did not violate plaintiff's clearly established rights by keeping him in a normal cell in the Montford Unit after moving him from the A1-3 Row Suicidal Prevention Program. The court explained that, although plaintiff withdrew his consent a full month before ultimately being transferred back to Robertson Unit (not to mention his initially withdrawing consent a month before that), the only notable condition of his confinement after being transferred out of the A1-3 Row was that he was kept under close observation. The court concluded that it is not clearly established that observation of that sort is a qualitatively different condition that triggers a liberty interest. Furthermore, even viewing the A1-3 Program in the light most favorable to plaintiff, the Program is not factually similar enough to any behavioral change program that the court has held triggers a liberty interest to constitute clearly established law. View "Taylor v. McDonald" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs appealed the dismissal of their claims challenging certain Texas voting procedures during the COVID-19 pandemic. Plaintiffs allege that Black and Latino communities have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 because these communities have experienced higher infection, hospitalization, and death rates; that Texas's policies and laws individually and cumulatively, operate to deny voters the right to vote in a safe, free, fair, and accessible election; and that long lines, the use of electronic voting devices rather than paper ballots, limited curbside voting, and the permissiveness of mask-wearing at polling locations present substantial health risks that create fear of voting and therefore infringe upon the right to vote. In their brief to the Fifth Circuit, plaintiffs narrowed their challenge to Executive Order GA-29 and four sections of the Texas Election Code. The district court granted the State's motion to dismiss, holding that the case presented non-justiciable political questions.The Fifth Circuit held that plaintiffs' racial discrimination and Voting Rights Act claims do not present political questions. The court also held that, with the exception of the Voting Rights Act claim, the Eleventh Amendment bars all the claims against Governor Abbott and Secretary Hughs. However, there is no sovereign immunity with respect to the Voting Rights Act claim. In this case, much of the relief sought by plaintiffs to remedy the alleged Voting Rights Act injuries and the injuries from alleged constitutional violations (were they not barred by sovereign immunity) is beyond the power of a court to grant. The court explained that, it is one thing for a court to strike down a law that violates the Voting Rights Act or the Constitution and to enjoin a state official from enforcing it. However, it is entirely another matter for a court to order an executive performing executive functions, or an executive performing essentially legislative functions, to promulgate directives mandated by the court. The court reversed in part and remanded the Voting Rights Act claim for further proceedings in the district court. View "Mi Familia Vota v. Abbott" on Justia Law

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Section 82.003 of the Texas Election Code allows mail-in voting for any voter at least 65 years old but requires younger voters to satisfy conditions, such as being absent from the county on election day or having a qualifying disability. In light of the election-year COVID-19 pandemic, the district court entered a preliminary injunction requiring Texas officials to allow any Texan eligible to vote to do so by absentee ballot.The Fifth Circuit held that the preliminary injunction was not properly granted on plaintiffs' Twenty-Sixth Amendment claim and vacated the injunction. After concluding that there are no jurisdictional impediments to plaintiffs' bringing their claims, the court held that the Twenty-Sixth Amendment confers an individual right to be free from the denial or abridgment of the right to vote on account of age, the violation of which allows for pursuing a claim in court. The court also held that an election law abridges a person's right to vote for the purposes of the Twenty-Sixth Amendment only if it makes voting more difficult for that person than it was before the law was enacted or enforced. In this case, plaintiffs' claim -- that the Twenty-Sixth Amendment prohibits allowing voters who are at least 65 years old to vote by mail without excuse -- fails because conferring a benefit on another class of voters does not deny or abridge plaintiffs' Twenty-Sixth Amendment right to vote. Therefore, Section 82.003 does not violate the Twenty-Sixth Amendment where the Texas Legislature's conferring a privilege to those at least age 65 to vote absentee did not deny or abridge younger voters' rights who were not extended the same privilege. The court remanded for further proceedings where equal protection issues may come to the fore. View "Texas Democratic Party v. Abbott" on Justia Law

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Senate Bill 8 -- a statute that requires a woman to undergo an additional and medically unnecessary procedure to cause fetal demise before she may obtain a dilation and evacuation (D&E) abortion, the safest and most common method of second trimester abortions -- imposes an undue burden on a woman's right to obtain an abortion before fetal viability in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process clause.The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's judgment holding that SB8 is facially unconstitutional and permanently enjoining its enforcement. Applying the undue burden test in Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt, 136 S. Ct. 2292, 2309 (2016), rather than June Medical Services, L.L.C. v. Russo, 140 S. Ct. 2103, 2114 (2020), the court held that SB8's burdens substantially outweigh its benefits and constitutes an undue burden on a woman's right to obtain a previability abortion. Under the statute, the court explained that all women seeking a second trimester abortion starting at 15 weeks LMP would be required to endure a medically unnecessary and invasive additional procedure that provides no health benefit; for most women, the length of the procedure would increase from one day to two, adding to the costs associated with travel, lodging, time away from work, and child care; and SB8 forces abortion providers to act contrary to their medical judgment and the best interest of their patient by conducting a medical procedure that delivers no benefit to the woman. Weighing SB8's significant burdens upon female patients against its nonexistent health benefits and any other limited benefits it may actually confer, the court concluded that it is clear that the law places a "substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking" a previability abortion. View "Whole Woman's Health v. Paxton" on Justia Law

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The Fifth Circuit granted TDCJ's motion to stay the district court's permanent injunction requiring TDCJ to follow specific procedures to protect Pack Unit inmates from COVID-19. Plaintiffs are two inmates incarcerated at the Wallace Pack Unit, a state-run lockup housing geriatric, medically compromised, and mobility-impaired inmates. Plaintiffs filed suit against the TDCJ over its response to the coronavirus, alleging violations of the Eighth Amendment, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Rehabilitation Act. As the suit was progressing, the virus was spreading, infecting over 500 inmates, 20 of whom have died.Considering the Nken factors for granting a stay, the court held that TDCJ is likely to succeed on appeal where plaintiffs failed to comply with the exacting procedural preconditions imposed by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), specifically the PLRA’s mandatory and jurisdictional exhaustion requirement. Even putting aside plaintiffs' failure to exhaust their administrative remedies, their constitutional claim failed on the merits. The court held that TDCJ's response, albeit imperfect did not amount to deliberate indifference under the Eighth Amendment. The court also held that TDCJ will be irreparably harmed absent a stay, and the balance of harms and public interest favor a stay. View "Valentine v. Collier" on Justia Law