Justia U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

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Kengerski, a Captain at the Allegheny County Jail, made a written complaint to the jail Warden alleging that a colleague had called his biracial grand-niece a “monkey” and then sent him a series of text messages with racially offensive comments about his coworkers. Seven months later, Kengerski was fired. He contends the firing was retaliation for reporting his colleague’s behavior and sued t under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. 2000e-3(a). The district court granted the defendant summary judgment, holding that Kengerski, who is white, could not maintain a claim for Title VII retaliation.The Third Circuit vacated. Title VII protects all employees from retaliation when they reasonably believe that behavior at their work violates the statute and they make a good-faith complaint. Harassment against an employee because he associates with a person of another race, such as a family member, may violate Title VII by creating a hostile work environment. A reasonable person could believe that the Allegheny County Jail was a hostile work environment for Kengerski. Kengerski may not ultimately succeed on his retaliation claim or even survive summary judgment on remand. The county claims that it fired him for an unrelated reason that is unquestionably serious: mishandling a sexual harassment claim. View "Kengerski v. Harper" on Justia Law

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The Borough brought misdemeanor criminal charges against the owner for abandoning inoperable vehicles, appliances, and other trash on his property, in violation of ordinances and statutes. During a status conference, the judge stated that, after the expiration of 20 days, the Borough could enter and start the clean-up; 21 days after the hearing, the Borough began cleaning the property without the owners’ permission or a warrant. Believing some of the removed items to be valuable, the owners sent a cease-and-desist letter and eventually filed suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983 with state law claims for conversion and trespass.The district court that it lacked jurisdiction under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, which precludes federal district courts from exercising jurisdiction over appeals from state court judgments. Meanwhile, the owner was convicted of the public nuisance charge. The Third Circuit reversed. The Rooker-Feldman doctrine is narrow and defeats federal subject-matter jurisdiction only under limited circumstances. There is a precise four-pronged inquiry. When even one of the four prongs is not satisfied, it is not proper to dismiss on Rooker-Feldman grounds. This case does not satisfy all four prongs. Any injury the owners suffered was not “caused by” a state court judgment; even if the Borough lacked independent authority to seize the property, the state court “acquiesced in” or “ratified” the Borough’s seizure of the property rather than having “produced” it. The owners did not challenge the state court judgment but brought independent constitutional claims. View "Vuyanich v. Borough of Smithton" on Justia Law

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Over a six-month period in 2017, Perez sold firearms and controlled substances to various confidential informants and undercover officers. On March 9, 2017, he sold two firearms to an undercover officer. During the transaction, the officer observed drugs, drug packaging materials, and drug paraphernalia in the same room as the two guns. Perez was later charged in three separate indictments involving sales of guns or drugs. One indictment concerned the March 9th transaction. Perez ultimately pled guilty to all three indictments. The Sentencing Guidelines range was 121-151 months, including a four-level enhancement per U.S.S.G. 2K2.1(b)(6)(B), which applies when the defendant “used or possessed any firearm . . . in connection with another felony offense,” concerning the March 9th transaction. The court concluded that the enhancement applied because the guns “were in close proximity to drugs and . . . drug material” and sentenced Perez to 121 months’ imprisonment.The Third Circuit vacated. Mere physical proximity between guns and drugs is not enough to justify the significant increase in Perez’s Guidelines range. The Commentary to the Guidelines, on which the district court relied, creates a rebuttable presumption, rather than a bright-line rule, that the enhancement should apply when a defendant possesses guns and drugs together. View "United States v. Perez" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Dondero served as the Lower Milford Township Chief of Police from 2006-2016. Dondero’s relationship with the Township Supervisors was rocky. While on duty in 2015, Dondero, then the only active member of the police department, suffered temporary “serious and debilitating injuries” from entering a burning building. While incapacitated, Dondero received disability benefits under Pennsylvania’s Heart and Lung Act (HLA). He went more than two months without contacting his boss, Koplin. In 2016, Koplin requested updated medical documents to verify his continued qualification for HLA benefits. Weeks later, citing financial concerns, the Supervisors passed a resolution to disband the Township police department. From the date of Dondero’s injury through the elimination of the police department (more than nine months) the Pennsylvania State Police provided Township residents full-time police coverage at no extra cost to the Township taxpayers.Dondero filed suit, alleging First Amendment retaliation, violations of substantive and procedural due process, unlawful conspiracy under 42 U.S.C. 1983 and 1985, municipal liability based on discriminatory Township policies, and a violation of the Pennsylvania state constitution. The Third Circuit affirmed summary judgment for the Township on all counts. No pre-termination hearing was required when the Township eliminated its police department and Dondero’s other claims lack merit. View "Dondero v. Lower Milford Township" on Justia Law

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In 2002, Randolph was arraigned on two counts of first-degree murder, attempted murder, conspiracy to commit murder, and five counts of aggravated assault causing serious bodily injury. The government sought the death penalty. Welch was appointed to Randolph’s defense and a trial date was set. Randolph’s relationship with Welch deteriorated immediately. Randolph expressed his dissatisfaction in court. Welch assured the court that he was committed to Randolph’s defense. The court twice delayed the trial. Randolph continued to complain about Welch and to ask about proceeding pro se, ultimately deciding against it. Randolph later secured the funds necessary to replace Welch with his choice of counsel, Stretton. Stretton, on the Wednesday before the Monday on which trial was to begin, entered his appearance and sought a delay. Welch supported Randolph’s desire to switch lawyers.Citing previous delays and the proximity to trial, the trial court denied a continuance and declined to delay Monday morning’s jury selection by three hours so that Stretton could attend a previously scheduled, mandatory engagement. When Stretton did not appear for jury selection, the court rejected his entry of appearance. Randolph had to proceed to trial represented by Welch, was convicted, and was sentenced to death. On federal habeas review, the Third Circuit affirmed the district court's determination that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision unreasonably applied clearly established federal law, warranting de novo review of Randolph’s Sixth Amendment right to the counsel of his choice claim. View "Randolph v. Secretary Pennsylvania Departmartment of Corrections" on Justia Law

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S.B., a 12-year-old boy with Down Syndrome, requires special education. In 2014, S.B. and his parents moved from New York to Lakewood, New Jersey. S.B.’s parents requested an individualized education program (IEP) under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). 20 U.S.C. 140, from the Lakewood Township School District. Lakewood determined it could not provide S.B. an IDEA-mandated free appropriate public education (FAPE) at its own public schools. It crafted an IEP that placed S.B. at the private School for Children with Hidden Intelligence (SCHI) and reimbursed the costs. In November 2016, the family moved homes and transferred S.B. from Lakewood to the Howell School District. Howell’s staff reviewed the Lakewood IEP, met with the family, and indicated “that [S.B.’s] IEP can be implemented in [Howell’s special education] class at Memorial Elementary School where [S.B.] will receive a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment.” His parents continued to send S.B. to SCHI. In February 2017, Howell terminated S.B.’s enrollment.After a due process hearing, an ALJ ruled for Howell. The district court granted Howell summary judgment. The Third Circuit affirmed. While section 1415(j), the “stay-put” provision, provides generally that eligible students must remain in their current educational settings during certain procedures, section 1414(d)(2)(C)(i)(I), the intrastate transfer provision, says that schools need only provide eligible transfer students comparable services to those they were previously receiving. View "Y.B. v. Howell Township Board of Education" on Justia Law

Posted in: Education Law
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Valarezo-Tirado, an Ecuadorian citizen, entered the U.S. illegally in 2017. In 2020, DHS reinstated a 2015 removal order and conducted a reasonable fear interview. Valarezo-Tirado was twice informed of his right to postpone the interview to procure an attorney and was provided with a list of pro bono attorneys. He proceeded without an attorney. Valarezo-Tirado described his interactions with police concerning a conflict with a neighbor who was involved in drug trafficking and his fear for his family’s safety, The asylum officer found that Valarezo-Tirado was “credible,” but that he did not establish a reasonable fear of persecution or torture if removed to Ecuador, stating that the verbal threats of unspecified harm did not rise to the level of severe physical or mental pain. Valarezo-Tirado failed to provide specific and persuasive evidence to establish a reasonable possibility that a public official would acquiesce to his future harm. On appeal, he again declined to seek legal representation. The IJ found that the situation amounted to “a personal matter.”The Third Circuit remanded. The IJ did not adequately explain the reasons for her decision. On remand, if the IJ concludes Valarezo-Tirado must come forth with corroborating evidence, she must reopen the proceedings, inform Valarezo-Tirado of the evidence that requires corroboration, and must give Valarezo-Tirado an opportunity to furnish such information or provide an explanation for its absence. The court rejected Valarezo-Tirado’s argument that he was denied his right to counsel. View "Valarezo-Tirado v. Attorney General United States" on Justia Law

Posted in: Immigration Law
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In 2002, Farfield contracted with SEPTA for improvements on Philadelphia-area railroad tracks. The federal government partially funded the project. Work concluded in 2007. As required by federal regulation, Department of Labor (DOL) prevailing wage determinations were incorporated into the contract. Farfield was required to submit to SEPTA for transmission to the Federal Transit Administration a copy of Farfield’s certified payroll, setting out all the information required under the Davis-Bacon Act, 40 U.S.C. 3142(a), with a “Statement of Compliance” averring that the information in the payroll was correct and complete and that each worker was paid not less than the applicable wage rates and benefits for the classification of work performed, as specified in the applicable wage determination. Falsification of a payroll certification could subject Farfield to criminal penalties or civil liability under the False Claims Act (FCA).A union business manager suspected that Farfield had won government contracts with low bids by intending to pay less-skilled workers to perform certain work that would otherwise have been the bailiwick of higher-skilled, higher-paid workers. Ultimately, the union filed a qui tam FCA complaint. The United States declined to intervene. The court entered a $1,055,320.62 judgment against Farfield: $738,724.43 to the government and $316,596.19 to the union, plus $1,229,927.55 in attorney fees and $203,226.45 in costs. The Third Circuit affirmed. In view of the totality of the circumstances, Farfield’s Davis-Bacon violations were not minor or insubstantial. View "International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers v. Farfield Co" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs brought a putative class action against the School District, claiming that shortcomings in the District’s translation and interpretation services violated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. 1400.The Third Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the District, based on failure to exhaust administrative remedies. A “systemic exception” to IDEA’s administrative exhaustion requirement applies where plaintiffs “allege systemic legal deficiencies and, correspondingly, request system-wide relief" that cannot be addressed through the administrative process. The fact that a complaint is structured as a class action seeking injunctive relief, without more, does not excuse exhaustion; the systemic exception applies when plaintiffs challenge policies that threaten basic IDEA goals, not mere components of special education programs. Both named plaintiffs could bring the same IDEA claim from their complaint before a hearing officer who could then order that the District provide each parent with translated individualized education plans, more qualified or consistent interpretation services, or whatever process would ensure meaningful participation for that parent. Both the claim and the relief would be individualized, even if the relief could create spillover benefits for other parents. View "T.R. v. School District of Philadelphia" on Justia Law

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The Company operates an electrical system from a central “control room” where 16 system operators and 15 dispatchers manage electrical transmission and facilitate fieldwork. Outside the control room, the Company deploys about 300 field employees. System operators oversee and remotely control the transmission system and prioritize work needs and resources. Field supervisors select crews to undertake the work and prepare and communicate switching instructions for field employees.The Union petitioned for an election to determine whether system operators would join an existing bargaining unit. The Company argued that they were supervisors, not “employee[s]” and not “entitled to the Act’s protections [or] includable in a bargaining unit.” The Board’s Regional Director found that system operators were not supervisors and directed the Company to conduct a self-determination election. In a second election, the system operators voted to join the bargaining unit. The Board upheld the Regional Director’s decision concerning whether system operators have the authority, using independent judgment, to assign employees to places or responsibly to direct employees.The Board found that the Company’s subsequent refusal to bargain violated the Act. The Third Circuit affirmed. Substantial evidence established that system operators lack the authority to assign employees to a place under 29 U.S.C. 152; system operators cannot assign field employees to times. The Board permissibly concluded that system operators’ purported direction of field employees does not require independent judgment. View "Atlantic City Electric Co v. National Labor Relations Board" on Justia Law