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    Public Law Legal Research Blog

    PUBLIC LAW UPDATE: Circuits Split on Showing Required in Reverse Discrimination

    Posted by Dora S. Vivaz on Thu, Jun 11, 2015 @ 16:06 PM

    Dora Vivaz, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

         The procedural requirements and burdens for showing race discrimination in employment are by now fairly well delineated and established. This is apparently not yet so for claims of reverse discrimination. In a recent case, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia, faced with such a claim, first noted that there is a split amongst the circuits as to whether the same requirements and burdens apply to reverse discrimination claims as apply to discrimination claims. Shomo v. Apple, Inc., Civ. Act. No.: 7:14cv00040, 2015 WL 777620, at *4 n.3 (W.D. Va. Feb. 24, 2015). The court referenced McNaught v. Virginia Community College System, 933 F. Supp. 2d 804, 817-20 (E.D. Va. 2013), which includes a detailed discussion of the subject and outlines the circuit split on the issue.

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    Topics: legal research, Dora S. Vivaz, The Lawletter Vol 40, No 4, equal protection, reverse discrimination

    CIVIL PROCEDURE: Simultaneous Involvement in Cobell Settlement Claim Bars Plaintiffs' Mineral Lease Complaint Against United States

    Posted by Charlene J. Hicks on Thu, Mar 19, 2015 @ 12:03 PM

    Charlene Hicks, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

         A class action settlement may have far-reaching, unintended effects for particular class members who choose not to opt out of the settlement. This point is highlighted in a recent decision by the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Two Shields v. United States, No. 13-90 L, 2015 WL 513315 (Fed. Cl. Feb. 6, 2015).

         In that case, two Native Americans filed claims against the United States, alleging that the Government had breached its fiduciary duty to prudently manage their mineral rights, which were held in trust by the United States. The plaintiffs were allottees of Indian lands on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation who, in 2007 and 2008, had granted oil leases to a private party known as Dakota-3. The plaintiffs alleged that the United States had rubber-stamped its approval of the leases at below-market rates. In November 2010, Dakota-3 re-leased the plaintiffs' allotments for a bonus price roughly 20 times the original lease rate. The plaintiffs alleged that the United States had breached its duties under the Indian Long-Term Leasing Act, 25 U.S.C. § 396, which requires the Government to approve only those mineral leases that are in the best interests of the Indian owners.

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    Topics: breach of fiduciary duty, civil procedure, class action

    PUBLIC LAW UPDATE: Tort Liability for Third-Party Criminal Conduct

    Posted by Gale Burns on Thu, Jun 12, 2014 @ 12:06 PM

    John Stone, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

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    Topics: legal research, public law, John M Stone, tort liability, Virginia Tech murders, wrongful death claim, Commonwealth v. Peterson, Va. Supreme Court, reversed judgment for plaintiffs, reasonably unforeseeable that students faced risk, difficulty prevailing on negligence claim even if

    TORTS: Economic Loss Doctrine as a Bar to Negligent Misrepresentation Claims

    Posted by Gale Burns on Mon, Dec 30, 2013 @ 15:12 PM

    The Lawletter Vol 38 No 10

    Fred Shackelford, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

         Does the economic loss doctrine preclude recovery for negligent misrepresentation? The supreme courts in Kansas and Nevada recently addressed this issue and reached opposite conclusions.

         In its original form, the economic loss doctrine prohibited a commercial buyer of defective goods from suing in negligence or strict liability when the only injury consisted of damage to the goods themselves. The doctrine reflected courts' concern that the rise of implied warranties and strict liability for dangerous products would allow tort law to consume contract law. Over the years, many courts extended the doctrine's application beyond the commercial product sphere as a means of preserving distinctions between contract and tort law.

         In the Kansas and Nevada Supreme Court cases, the issue was whether the doctrine applied in actions for negligent misrepresentation arising from construction contracts. In Rinehart v. Morton Buildings, Inc., 305 P.3d 622 (Kan. 2013), property owners who had contracted with a builder for a preengineered building sued the builder. They alleged claims for breach of contract and warranty, as well as a claim under the state's Consumer Protection Act. As part of their statutory claim, the owners alleged that the builder had negligently misrepresented that the building would be completed in a timely matter, accommodate the owners' need to relocate its operations, and meet or exceed all industry standards. After difficulties arose during construction over the structure's quality, the owners sued for damages to compensate for shop rent at an alternate facility, lost production, relocation costs, and interest expenses on a line of credit. The builder argued that the economic loss doctrine barred the negligent misrepresentation claim.

         The Rinehart court disagreed, concluding that the scope of a negligent misrepresentation claim is narrow enough that it is unnecessary to limit recovery by applying the economic loss doctrine. The court reasoned as follows:

         The elements of the negligence misrepresentation tort sets the bounds on the scope of liability by imposing the duty in the limited circumstances when a defendant supplies information to guide others in business transactions in the course of the defendant's business. The tort also limits the universe of those who may pursue such claims to those for whose benefit the defendant supplied the information and whom the defendant intends to influence or knows will be influenced in the transaction. Therefore, the doctrine's second purpose of restricting potential extensive liability to a commercial user "downstream" from the manufacturer does not apply here.

         . . . .

         We hold negligent misrepresentation claims are not subject to the economic loss doctrine because the duty at issue arises by operation of law and the doctrine's purposes are not furthered by its application under these circumstances. We leave for another day whether the doctrine should extend elsewhere.

    Id. at 632-33 (citation omitted).

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    Topics: legal research, Fred Shackelford, torts, construction contract, Halcrow, Inc. v. Eighth Judicial District Court, NV, Rinehart v. Morton Buildings, KS, economic loss doctrine, negligent misrepresentation

    PUBLIC LAW: Lanham Act's Prohibition of Trademarking Governmental Insignia Applies Even to the Governmental Entity Itself

    Posted by Gale Burns on Tue, Nov 19, 2013 @ 12:11 PM

    The Lawletter Vol 38 No 9

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    Topics: legal research, Lanham Act, distinguishable mark can be trademarked excepting, flag/insignia/coat of arms of US or a state, In re City of Houston, Fed. Cir., city argued that it was not an applicant, parallel case DC as local entity cannot obtain reg, The Lawletter Vol 38 No 9, public law

    PUBLIC LAW UPDATE: Silence Is Not Obstruction of Police

    Posted by Gale Burns on Thu, Apr 25, 2013 @ 10:04 AM

    April 25, 2013

    John Stone, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

    A tan Infinity hit an unoccupied car in a jewelry store parking lot. The Infinity was driven by a female and carried a male passenger. The driver inspected the car she had hit, spoke briefly with her male passenger, and then drove away without leaving any information. Someone witnessed the incident, took down the Infinity's license plate number, and reported these observations to the Colorado State Patrol.

    Two troopers investigated the report, first by running a search on the license plate number of the Infinity and determining that it belonged to a Mr. Kaufman. They also checked the jewelry store's receipt records and found that Kaufman had made a purchase in the store a few minutes before the accident. When the troopers reached Kaufman by telephone, he agreed to allow them to speak with him at his residence later that day.

    At the meeting, Kaufman asked the troopers to reveal what they had learned during their investigation. They declined to do so, except to tell Kaufman the name of the owner of the damaged car. Within the troopers' hearing, Kaufman then called the victim and offered to pay for the damage incurred by the victim. The troopers continued to question Kaufman, in particular asking him who had been driving his vehicle on the day of the accident. Citing "privilege," Kaufman declined to identify the driver of his vehicle.

    Frustrated by Kaufman's silence, and after consulting a supervisor, one of the troopers presented Kaufman with a choice:  reveal the driver's identity or be arrested for obstruction of a peace officer.  Kaufman still declined to reveal the driver's identity and was arrested and taken to jail. The charges against him were eventually dropped by the local district attorney's office.

    Kaufman filed suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of his Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights. The defendant troopers moved for summary judgment on the ground of qualified immunity. In opposition to the summary judgment motion, Kaufman argued that he had been subjected to a false arrest in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights, because Colorado's obstruction statute does not criminalize a refusal to answer police questions during a consensual encounter (as opposed to questions following a valid arrest). (Kaufman eventually dropped his argument that the defendants had infringed his Fifth Amendment rights by retaliating against him for having asserted his Fifth Amendment privilege.)

    The district court granted the defendants' motion for summary judgment, concluding that there had been no false arrest, because the troopers had had probable cause to believe that Kaufman's silence, accompanied by an assertion of privilege, constituted a violation of the obstruction statute.  Kaufman v. Higgs, Civ. Act. No. 10-cv-00632-LTB-MEH, 2011 WL 3268346 (D. Colo. July 29, 2011).  In an appeal by Kaufman, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the shield afforded by the qualified immunity defense was not available to the troopers, because their arrest of Kaufman for obstruction of a peace officer was objectively unreasonable under the facts of the case and established case law.  Kaufman v. Higgs, 697 F.3d 1297 (10th Cir. 2012).

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    BANKRUPTCY: Judicial Estoppel in Post-Bankruptcy Court State Court Actions

    Posted by Gale Burns on Tue, Apr 2, 2013 @ 17:04 PM

    The Lawletter Vol 38 No 1

    Anne Hemenway, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

    Many considerations come into play before an entity or individual files for bankruptcy relief.  Included among them is the careful consideration the potential debtor must give to other nonbankruptcy claims or lawsuits to which it is, or may be in the future, a party.  If it goes forward as a debtor, it must avoid the pitfall of having the doctrine of judicial estoppel preclude it from seeking future relief in a nonbankruptcy court.

    Judicial estoppel is an equitable doctrine applied at the discretion of the court.  New Hampshire v. Maine, 532 U.S. 742 (2001).  The primary purpose of the doctrine of judicial estoppel is to protect the integrity of the judicial process and to guard the judicial process against improper use.  Milton H. Greene Archives, Inc. v. Marilyn Monroe, LLC, 692 F.3d 983, 993 (9th Cir. 2012) (the doctrine is invoked because of "general considerations of the orderly administration of justice and regard for the dignity of judicial proceedings and to protect against a litigant playing fast and loose with the courts" (internal quotation marks omitted)).  The fundamental requirement for the application of judicial estoppel is that the party against whom estoppel is asserted must be assuming a position of fact inconsistent with a stance that that party has taken in prior litigation.  Bland v. Doubletree Hotel Downtown, Civ. No. 3:09CV272, 2010 WL 723805 (E.D. Va. Mar. 2, 2010).  Judicial estoppel is most often applied where in its schedules the debtor has failed to disclose assets or contingent assets to the bankruptcy court but then later pursues a known claim in state court.  In re Knight-Celotex, LLC, 695 F.3d 714 (7th Cir. 2012); Guay v. Burack, 677 F.3d 10 (1st Cir. 2012).

    The specific elements of judicial estoppel are (1) the party to be estopped must be advancing an assertion that is inconsistent with a position taken during previous litigation; (2) the position must be one of fact instead of law; (3) the prior position must have been accepted by the court in the first proceeding; and (4) the party to be estopped must have acted intentionally and not inadvertently.  Love v. Tyson Foods, Inc., 677 F.3d 258 (8th Cir. 2012). Importantly, judicial estoppel requires that the party adopting the inconsistent positions must have acted with some intent in doing so.

    In Bland, the court held that judicial estoppel applied where the debtor had failed to properly disclose a claim in her bankruptcy proceedings.  Even though the debtor had actually amended her petition to include the claim against the defendant hotel, she stated that the claim's value was only one dollar.  The court stated:

    While the Court would be receptive to the conclusion that Bland neglected to initially include the Doubletree claim in the bankruptcy proceeding as a result of inadvertence where she amended her petition upon supposedly learning for the first time of the necessity for doing so, the Court cannot ignore or discount the undisputed fact that she valued the claim at such a negligible amount while seeking a bounty in this litigation.  The Court simply cannot tolerate such purposeful action.

    2010 WL 723805, at *5.  The court held that the debtor's later Title VII claim against her employer was barred under the doctrine of judicial estoppel because of her failure to disclose the contingent or unliquidated claim in her bankruptcy case and because her actions were not inadvertent.

    Ultimately, how the court applies the doctrine of judicial estoppel is discretionary, and it is an equitable tool.  The doctrine can lead to harsh results and, therefore, must be applied with caution. 
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    Topics: legal research, The Lawletter Vol 38 No 1, bankruptcy, Anne Hemenway, judicial estoppel is discretionary tool of the cou, protection of judicial integrity and process, invoked against party asserting inconsistent stanc, not disclosing assets or contingent assets, acted intentionally

    CIVIL RIGHTS: Yackety-Yack, Don't Talk Back—Criticism of a Police Officer

    Posted by Gale Burns on Tue, Apr 2, 2013 @ 16:04 PM

    The Lawletter Vol 38 No 1

    Steve Friedman, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

    Truth be told, being pulled over by the police is not one of my favorite activities. When I am pulled over, however, I am respectful of the officer and his authority. Do I have a legal right to mouth off to the police?  Certainly.  See City of Houston v. Hill, 482 U.S. 451, 461-63 (1987) ("The First Amendment protects a significant amount of verbal criticism and challenge directed at police officers."; in fact, that "is one of the principal characteristics by which we distinguish a free nation from a police state").  Would talking back to the officer help my situation?  No—just ask Eddie Ford.  See Ford v. City of Yakima, 706 F.3d 1188 (9th Cir. 2013).

    As Ford was driving to work late one night, listening to music, he noticed a police car approaching rapidly from behind him. After he tried and failed to get out of the way of the police car, Ford abruptly stepped out of his vehicle at a traffic light and asked Officer Urlacher, the driver of the police car, why Ford was being followed so closely.  Officer Urlacher told Ford to get back in his car and go.  As the parties drove through the intersection, Officer Urlacher turned on his cruiser's lights and pulled Ford over.  During the traffic stop, Ford let it be known that he believed that the traffic stop had been racially motivated.  A verbal exchange ensued, with Officer Urlacher essentially informing Ford that if he would stop talking and cooperate, he might just be issued a ticket for violating the municipal noise ordinance but that if he kept running his mouth and "copping" an attitude, he would be going to jail.  Officer Urlacher was persuaded by a backup officer who had arrived on the scene to take Ford to jail.

    While en route to the booking facility, Ford invoked his right to free speech, to which Officer Urlacher responded by asserting his right to arrest Ford.  Significantly, however, Officer Urlacher elaborated on his motivation for the action, commenting to Ford, "You talked yourself—your mouth and your attitude talked you into jail."  See id. at 1191.  Although Ford was prosecuted for violating the municipal noise ordinance, he was ultimately acquitted of the charged offense. 

    Ford then commenced a civil lawsuit against Officer Urlacher and the City of Yakima, alleging First Amendment retaliation by their booking and jailing him following his verbal criticism of Officer Urlacher.

    The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendants and remanded the case so that Ford's claims could proceed to trial.  Initially, the appellate court observed that Ford's speech, criticizing the police for what he felt was a racially motivated traffic stop, fell "squarely within the protective umbrella of the First Amendment."  Id. at 1193.  Under Ninth Circuit law, even where probable cause existed for an arrest, the arrest is nevertheless categorically unconstitutional if retaliation was a but-for cause of the arrest and the officer's actions would chill a reasonable person's First Amendment activities.  Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Ford, a rational jury could find that both such elements were satisfied in this case.

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    Topics: legal research, The Lawletter Vol 38 No 1, free speech, First Amendment retaliation for verbal criticism o, officer not entitled to qualified immunity, Steve Friedman, civil rights

    COPYRIGHT: Statutory Damages—Limit on Punitive Damages Award

    Posted by Gale Burns on Thu, Feb 21, 2013 @ 12:02 PM

    The Lawletter Vol 37 No 12 

    Tim Snider, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

    It has been established that an excessive award of punitive damages may violate due process. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Campbell, 538 U.S. 408, 417 (2003). To aid the lower courts in determining whether an award of punitive damages may be so excessive as to violate due process, the Supreme Court has announced punitive damages "guideposts." The Court, however, has never held that the punitive damages guideposts are applicable in the context of statutory damages. Among the statutes that authorize the recovery of statutory damages is the Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. § 504(c). The recovery of statutory damages is authorized in cases of infringement, because proof of actual damages can be very difficult.

    An illustrative case is Capitol Records, Inc. v. Thomas-Rasset, 692 F.3d 899 (8th Cir. 2012). There, the defendant used a computer file-sharing program to download and share copyrighted musical performances without the consent of the copyright owners. Using a forensic service, the owners located and identified the defendant as the person who had initiated the unauthorized copying and file-sharing of the recordings. At trial, the plaintiffs were awarded substantial statutory damages in an amount that was well within the limits of damages authorized by the statute. A prevailing copyright-infringement plaintiff can elect to recover either actual damages or statutory damages. In Capitol Records, the plaintiff elected to recover statutory damages. The defendant argued that the district court should apply a standard of due process to the award of statutory damages analogous to awards of punitive damages.

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    Topics: legal research, Tim Snider, copyrights, The Lawletter Vol 37 No 12, statutory damages, punitive damages guideposts, State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Campbell, Copyright Act authorizes statutory damages with no, 8th Cir., Capitol Records v. Thomas -Rasset, U.S. Supreme court

    CIVIL RIGHTS: The EEOC's Presuit Conciliation Obligation—When Is It Satisfied?

    Posted by Gale Burns on Wed, Feb 20, 2013 @ 17:02 PM

    The Lawletter Vol 37 No 12

    Dora Vivaz, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

    Initially, under the civil rights laws the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") was not itself empowered to bring suit. In 1972, the law was amended to provide for suits brought directly by the EEOC, but only after an investigation; a determination of reasonable cause; and an attempt to resolve the matter by informal methods of conference, conciliation, and persuasion. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(5)(b). Since that time, the courts have been in agreement that a conciliation attempt is at least a condition precedent to suit by the EEOC. See, e.g., EEOC v. Radiator Specialty Co., 610 F.2d 178, 183 (4th Cir. 1979). However, as the court noted in a recent case, the circuits appear to be split as to the standard that should govern the court's inquiry into whether the conciliation obligation has been satisfied. EEOC v. St. Alexius Med. Ctr., No. 12 C 7646, 2012 WL 6590625, at *1-3 (N.D. Ill. Dec. 18, 2012).

    In an early decision, the Tenth Circuit noted that the statutory language is mandatory and concluded that it was inconceivable that anything less than good-faith efforts is required. EEOC v. Zia Co., 582 F.2d 527, 532-33 (10th Cir. 1978). By the same token, it found that the court need not examine the details of offers and counteroffers between the parties. Although the court quoted language from the Conference Report on the law, which indicated that it was contemplated that the EEOC would "continue to make every effort to conciliate" and that it would file suit only "if conciliation proves to be impossible," id. at 533 (quoting 118 Cong. Rec. H1861 (Mar. 8, 1972)), the standard the court seemed to impose was simply a showing of "some effort" to conciliate and of "notice of the breakdown" of the effort. Id. at 532-33. The Sixth Circuit put forth a similar standard, adding that the EEOC is under no duty to pursue further conciliation if an employer rejects its offer. EEOC v. Keco Indus., 748 F.2d 1097, 1101-02 (6th Cir. 1984).

    Both the Eleventh and Fifth Circuits have imposed a somewhat more specific and more stringent standard, requiring the EEOC to (1) outline for the employer the reasonable cause for its belief that the law has been violated; (2) offer the employer an opportunity for voluntary compliance; and (3) respond to the employer in a reasonable and flexible manner. EEOC v. Asplundh Tree Expert Co., 340 F.3d 1256, 1259 (11th Cir. 2003); EEOC v. Klingler Elec. Corp., 636 F.2d 104, 107 (5th Cir. 1981). These courts have found that the underlying question is the reasonableness and responsiveness of the EEOC, considering all the circumstances. The Fifth Circuit, in contrast to the Tenth and Sixth Circuits, specifically concluded that the court is required to make a thorough inquiry into the facts of the conciliation efforts in order to properly evaluate whether the EEOC has satisfied its duty.

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    Topics: Dora Vivaz, legal research, The Lawletter Vol 37 No 12, conciliation is condition precedent to suit by EEO, conciliation standard split in circuits, 11th and 5th Circuits more stringent standard, civil rights

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