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

Articles Posted in Constitutional Law
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Planned Parenthood was the site of numerous clashes between opponents and advocates of abortion rights, including bomb threats, vandalism, and blockades. The police deployed an overtime detail to maintain order. After Pittsburgh was declared a financially distressed municipality in 2003, the detail was discontinued. Police were called as needed. The clinic reported an “obvious escalation.” The City Council held hearings on proposed legislation. Many witnesses expounded on the competing interests and expressed a desire to protect both free speech and access to healthcare, including abortions. A member of the police overtime detail attested that the criminal laws were not adequate. The Ordinance states that “[n]o person or persons shall knowingly congregate, patrol, picket or demonstrate” in a 15-foot “buffer zone” outside the entrance of any hospital or healthcare facility. Plaintiffs engage in leafletting and “peaceful . . . one-on-one conversations” conducted “at a normal conversational level and distance” intended to dissuade listeners from obtaining an abortion. The city asserted that the Ordinance applies to this “sidewalk counseling,” The Third Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the city, concluding that the Ordinance does not cover sidewalk counseling and thus does not impose a significant burden on speech. The Ordinance prohibits “congregat[ing],” “patrol[ling],” “picket[ing],” and “demonstrat[ing],” saying nothing about leafletting or one-on-one conversations. Nor does it mention a particular topic or purpose. With respect to the listed activities, the Ordinance is “narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest.” View "Bruni v. City of Pittsburgh" on Justia Law

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Orie, a former state senator, used her government-funded legislative staff to do fundraising and campaigning for her reelection. When the Commonwealth investigated, she tried to hide and destroy documents. Orie's sisters, including a Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice, were also charged. At trial, Orie introduced exhibits with directives to her chief of staff, not to do political work on legislative time. The prosecution determined that these exhibits had forged signatures. The court found that the forged documents were “a fraud on the Court,” and declared a mistrial. The Secret Service subsequently found that many of the exhibits were forged. During Orie’s second trial, the prosecution's expert testified that Orie’s office lease barred her staff from using that office for anything besides legislative work. Orie unsuccessfully sought to call an expert to testify that the senate rules let staff do political work from legislative offices on comp time. Orie was convicted of theft of services, conspiracy, evidence tampering, forgery, and of using her political position for personal gain, in violation of the Pennsylvania Ethics Act. The Third Circuit affirmed the denial of her federal habeas petition, first finding that it lacked jurisdiction to consider her Ethics Act challenge because she is not in custody for those convictions. The court rejected a double jeopardy argument. The state court reasonably found that a mistrial was manifestly necessary because the forged documents could have tainted the jury’s verdict. Orie did not show that her senate-rules expert’s testimony would have been material, so she had no constitutional right to call that witness. View "Orie v. Secretary Pennsylvania Department of Corrections" on Justia Law

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Javitz accepted an “at-will” position as Luzerne County's Director of Human Resources. Javitz participated in meetings with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which resulted in ASFSCME filing an unfair labor practices suit. Javitz claimed that a document filed in that lawsuit was a transcript of the meetings. She suspected that a county employee had recorded the meeting without Javitz’s consent—a crime under Pennsylvania law. Javitz's supervisor agreed that the meeting may have been recorded; they met with the District Attorney, who indicated that she would refer the matter to the Office of the Attorney General due to a conflict of interest. Javitz claims that the County Manager intervened and instructed the District Attorney to drop the matter. Javitz followed up about the investigation. Javitz alleges that county employees retaliated against her. Within weeks Javitz was fired. The County maintains that Javitz was fired because of her conduct toward unions, her failure to follow directions, and her handling of employment applications. The district court rejected her claims under 42 U.S.C. 1983. The Third Circuit affirmed that Javitz did not have a property interest in her employment; her termination did not violate her due process rights. The court reversed as to a First Amendment claim: Who Javitz spoke to, what she spoke about, and why she spoke fall outside the scope of her primary job duties. Javitz was a citizen speaking to a matter of public concern. View "Javitz v. County of Luzerne" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs, part-time Worthington police officers, were paid hourly wages. The Borough terminated their employment without affording any process. Plaintiffs sued under 42 U.S.C., claiming that the state’s Borough Code or Tenure Act conferred a constitutionally-protected property interest in their continued employment and that the lack of any process violated their due process rights. The Third Circuit certified questions of state law to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. That court responded that the “civil service protections embodied in the Borough Code and the Tenure Act are ... intended to govern all borough police forces” and the Borough Code's “normal working hours” criterion should be employed to determine how many members a borough police force has for purposes of deciding whether the Tenure Act’s two-officer maximum or the Borough Code’s three-officer minimum is implicated. The Borough Code's exclusion for “extra police” does not apply to part-time officers who are not extra police. In this case, the plaintiffs were part-time officers, but not necessarily “extra police” so the exclusion was irrelevant. An hourly wage compensation that satisfies the Borough Code criteria of being officers “paid a salary or compensation." Part-time work “is not dispositive.” The Third Circuit concluded that the plaintiffs may have a property interest sufficient to support their procedural due process claims and remanded. View "Evan Townsend v. Borough of Worthington" on Justia Law

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The Authority's Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre holds up to 10,000 people and hosts athletic and other commercial entertainment events. The Arena is set back and fenced apart from the public road. Patrons drive on an access road, park in an Arena parking lot, and then walk on a concrete concourse to the “East Gate” and “West Gate” entrances. “All persons are welcome to express their views” at the Arena; protesters must stand within “designated area[s]” on the concourse and “[h]andouts can only be distributed from within” those areas. The designated areas are two “rectangular enclosure[s] constructed from bike racks,” next to the Gates. The policy bans protesters from using profanity or artificial voice amplification. LCA, an animal rights group wanting to protest circus events, sued under 42 U.S.C. 1983. The trial court found that the Authority was “a public governmental entity acting under color of state law” and entered a preliminary injunction that allowed up to 20 protesters to distribute literature and talk to patrons within a circumscribed section of the concourse; protesters could not block ingress or egress. LCA protested under those terms at 2016-2017 circus performances. At a subsequent trial, LCA introduced evidence that protesters in the "designated areas" attracted little attention and videos showing nonconfrontational interactions with no abnormal congestion. The Arena expressed concerns about unruly protestors and argued that the location condition minimizes congestion and security risks. The court found all three restrictions violated the First Amendment. The Third Circuit reversed in part. The concourse’s function is to facilitate pedestrian movement; a policy sensibly designed to minimize interference with that flow is not unreasonable. The Arena did not establish that the bans on profanity and voice amplification are reasonable. View "Pomicter v. Luzerne County Convention Center" on Justia Law

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Over the past eight years, the Hudson County family court has required Malhan to pay $300,000 in child and spousal support to his putative ex-wife, Myronova. Malhan claims that New Jersey officials violated his federal rights when they failed to reduce his support obligations after he was awarded custody of their two children and Myronova obtained a job that pays more than his own. The district court dismissed Malhan’s second amended complaint, holding that it lacked jurisdiction under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine and that to the extent it had jurisdiction, it declined to exercise it under Younger v. Harris. The Third Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part. Malhan does not complain of injuries caused by a state court judgment; none of the interlocutory orders in Malhan’s state case are “judgments.” Rooker-Feldman does not apply when state proceedings have neither ended nor led to orders reviewable by the U.S. Supreme Court. With respect to “Younger abstention,” the court noted that Malhan’s wife, not the state, began the family court case. The case has not sought to sanction Malhan for wrongdoing, enforce a parallel criminal statute, or impose a quasi-criminal investigation. Malhan is not trying to “annul the results” of a past garnishment. View "Malhan v. Secretary United States Department of State" on Justia Law

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Jury selection in Howell’s 2004 prosecution consisted of two venire panels. The first included 35 individuals, two of whom were black; both were excused for hardship. The second panel included 25 potential jurors, all of whom were white. Howell, a black man, was convicted for the 2002 felony murder of a white man by an all-white jury. Before jury selection, Howell filed a Motion to Ensure Representative Venire, arguing that he was entitled to a jury pool that represented a fair cross-section of the community, particularly with respect to race. The court held a hearing on Howell’s allegations that black individuals were systemically under-represented in Allegheny County’s jury pools and considered expert testimony that black individuals made up 4.87% of Allegheny County’s jury pool but made up 10.7% of the population of Allegheny County eligible for jury service. The court denied Howell’s motion. The Pennsylvania Superior Court held that Howell had not been denied a trial by a fair cross-section of the community. In Howell’s federal habeas proceeding, the court assumed, without deciding, “that the Superior Court erred in requiring [Howell] to show discriminatory intent,” but concluded that Howell failed to establish a Sixth Amendment violation because other courts found no constitutional violation in cases with higher percentages of disparity. The Third Circuit affirmed. Any underrepresentation in Howell’s jury pool was not caused by a systematically discriminatory process. View "Howell v. Superintendent Rockview SCI" on Justia Law

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Bank of Hope sued Ryu for embezzling money from its customers. As the case went on, Ryu began sending letters to the Bank’s shareholders, alleging that the Bank’s claims were baseless and were ruining his reputation. He hoped that the letters would pressure the Bank to settle. The Bank asked the magistrate judge to ban Ryu from contacting its shareholders. The district court affirmed the magistrate’s order imposing that ban. The Third Circuit vacated. The district court marshaled no evidence that this restriction on speech was needed to protect this trial’s fairness and integrity and it considered no less-restrictive alternatives. Courts have inherent power to keep their proceedings fair and orderly. They can use that power to order the parties before them not to talk with each other, the press, and the public. The First Amendment, however, requires an explanation of why restricting speech advances a substantial government interest, consider less-restrictive alternatives, and requires that the court ensure that any restriction does not sweep too broadly. View "Bank of Hope v. Chon" on Justia Law

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Freethought proposed an ad to run on Lackawanna County public buses: “Atheists” with the group’s name and website. County of Lackawanna Transit System (COLTS) rejected the ad under its 2011 policy, prohibiting ads for tobacco, alcohol, firearms, political candidates; ads that in COLTS’s “sole discretion” were “derogatory” to racial, religious, and other specified groups; and ads that are “objectionable, controversial[,] or would generally be offensive to COLTS’[s] ridership. In promulgating the policy, COLTS considered vandalism directed at atheist posts in other locations. In 2013, COLTS added a prohibition on ads: that promote the existence or non-existence of a supreme deity, deities, being or beings; that address, promote, criticize or attack a religion or religions, religious beliefs or lack of religious beliefs; that directly quote or cite scriptures, religious text or texts involving religious beliefs or lack of religious beliefs; or [that] are otherwise religious in nature. The Third Circuit concluded that the policy discriminates based on viewpoint and violates the First Amendment. Government actors cannot restrict speech because they “disapprov[e] of the ideas expressed.” That a message is “decidedly religious in nature” does not relegate it to second-class status Even if COLTS’s ban on religious speech were viewpoint neutral, it is not reasonable. COLTS never received a complaint about an ad, even one sponsored by a racist and anti-Semitic blog. No one complained about the religious and political ads COLTS ran before it enacted its policies. View "Northeastern Pennsylvania Freethought Society v. County of Lackawanna Transit System" on Justia Law

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While investigating reports that Aviles was conducting a drug-trafficking operation, the Lebanon County Drug Task Force obtained a warrant to search Aviles’s residence. In the probable cause affidavit, officers relied upon information gathered through multiple controlled buys conducted by confidential informant “RCI-1,” describing the dates of the buys, the affiants and their Task Force experience, and a general explanation of controlled buys, including the use of recorded Task Force currency. In the resulting searches, officers recovered large quantities of controlled substances, drug paraphernalia, and firearms. Aviles and 12 co-defendants were arrested and charged. Aviles unsuccessfully moved to suppress the evidence, claiming the officers included false information in their affidavit and omitted other information. He argued that, while the general description of controlled buys represented that currency is exchanged for drugs, some of Aviles’s buys may have involved RCI-1’s exchanging prescription drugs instead of currency. He claimed that RCI-1 had conducted additional drug-related transactions with Aviles outside of the controlled buys. The court conducted an evidentiary hearing, allowing both parties to question the officers but refusing the defense’s request to question RCI-1 based on concerns regarding her identity. Convicted, Aviles was sentenced to life imprisonment under the Controlled Substances Act, 21 U.S.C. 841(b); the court found that Aviles’s prior state court convictions qualified as “felony drug offenses.” The Third Circuit affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress but, holding that at least two of his prior convictions do not qualify as felony drug offenses, vacated the sentencing order. View "United States v. Aviles" on Justia Law