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

Articles Posted in Constitutional Law
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Marsalis is a nursing-school dropout but on dating websites, he was “Dr. Jeff,” a high-flying physician at the University of Pennsylvania and also a NASA astronaut. When an unsuspecting woman fell for Marsalis’s ruse, he drugged her drink, then offered to let her recover at his apartment. As the woman blacked out, he sexually assaulted her. In total, 10 women accused Marsalis of rape, each telling a version of that same story. A jury acquitted him of rape, convicting him only of two sexual assaults. The judge found that he was a sexually violent predator and sentenced him to the maximum: up to 21 years in prison. On state habeas review, Marsalis argued that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to present an alibi defense and investigate a victim’s medical condition. The court dismissed his petition, and the Superior Court affirmed.Marsalis filed this federal habeas petition, arguing that trial counsel should have objected to a doctor’s expert testimony. The district court rejected the ineffective-counsel claim because Marsalis had not raised it during state habeas. The Third Circuit affirmed. Marsalis’s federal habeas challenge was untimely and a jury would have convicted him even if his lawyer had been adequate. View "Marsalis v. Pennsylvania Department of Corrections" on Justia Law

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Inmate Rivera was temporarily transferred in order to represent himself in a trial challenging his conditions of confinement. He was assigned to the Restricted Housing Unit (RHU) from which inmates may access a “mini law library.” Rivera’s trial was scheduled to begin on a Monday. On Friday, his request for continuing access to the library throughout his trial was approved. The library, however, did not contain any physical books, only two computers. Both were inoperable. Rivera had no way to access the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the Rules of Evidence, and the court rules. Rivera’s request to borrow paper copies from the main law library was summarily denied. The judge refused to admit his evidence on hearsay grounds. The jury entered a defense verdict. According to Rivera, access to the Rules would likely have changed the outcome of his trial.The Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of Rivera’s 42 U.S.C. 1983 suit on qualified immunity grounds. At the time of the alleged violation, Supreme Court and Third Circuit precedents had not clearly established a prisoner’s right to access the material after he filed a complaint. “Going forward, however, there should be no doubt that such a right exists. The ability of a prisoner to access basic legal materials in a law library … does not stop once a prisoner has taken the first step towards the courthouse’s door.” View "Rivera v. Monko" on Justia Law

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Georgetown Law invited Yung to interview an alumnus. Yung thought his interviewer was rude. Georgetown rejected Yung's application. Yung launched a cyber-campaign, creating fake obituaries for the interviewer’s wife and son, social-media profiles and blogs in the interviewer's name, containing KKK content and bragging about child rape. A Google search of the interviewer’s name revealed thousands of similar posts. In reports to the Better Business Bureau, Yung accused the interviewer of sexually assaulting a female associate and berating prospective employees. Impersonating the interviewer’s wife, he published an online ad seeking a sex slave. The interviewer’s family got hundreds of phone calls from men seeking sex. Strange men went to the interviewer’s home. The interviewer hired cyber-investigators, who, working with the FBI, traced the harassment to Yung.Yung, charged with cyberstalking, 18 U.S.C. 2261A(2)(B) & 2261(b) unsuccessfully challenged the law as overbroad under the First Amendment. Yung was sentenced to prison, probation, and to pay restitution for the interviewer’s investigative costs ($70,000) and Georgetown’s security measures ($130,000). The Third Circuit affirmed the conviction. A narrow reading of the statute’s intent element is possible so it is not overbroad--limiting intent to harass to “criminal harassment, which is unprotected because it constitutes true threats or speech that is integral to proscribable criminal conduct.” The court vacated in part. Yung could not waive his claim that the restitution order exceeds the statute and Georgetown suffered no damage to any property right. View "United States v. Yung" on Justia Law

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The Materiality Provision of the Civil Rights Act, 52 U.S.C. 10101(a)(2)(B), prohibits any “person acting under color of law [from] deny[ing] the right of any individual to vote in any election because of an error or omission … if such error or omission is not material in determining whether such voter is qualified … to vote in such election.” In Pennsylvania, an error or omission is material to a voter’s qualifications to vote if it is pertinent to either the voter’s age, citizenship, residency, or felony status or the timeliness of the ballot. The Lehigh County Board of Elections (LCBE) held an election on November 2, 2021, to fill local vacancies. LCBE set aside 257 out of approximately 22,000 mail-in or absentee ballots that lacked a handwritten date next to the voter declaration signature and ballots with the date in the wrong location on the outer envelope. LCBE convened a public hearing and voted to count the undated and misdated ballots.The Third Circuit held that private plaintiffs have a private right of action to enforce section 10101 under 42 U.S.C. 1983 and that the dating provisions contained in 25 Pa. Cons. Stat. 3146.6(a) and 3150.16 are immaterial to a voter’s qualifications and eligibility under section 10101(a)(2)(B). The court directed that the undated ballots be counted. View "Migliori v. Lehigh County Board of Elections" on Justia Law

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Adams was not tried until 2017, nearly two years after his arraignment on firearms charges. Rejecting his motions to dismiss on Speedy Trial Act grounds, the district court described “numerous continuances [and] unnecessary motions,” caused by Adams’s “obstreperous behavior.” At one point, because of Adams’s demands, the judge canceled a scheduled trial date and did not set a particular date for that future hearing or for trial, without citing 18 U.S.C. 3161(h)(7)(A), which allows district courts to pause the speedy trial clock by entering a continuance, or state that this continuance would serve the “ends of justice.” Adams also argued that motions in limine filed by the government did not qualify for the Act’s exclusion of “delay resulting from any pretrial motion” under 3161(h)(1)(D), and that his motion for discovery did not toll the clock from its filing through its official disposition.The Third Circuit affirmed his convictions, concluding those periods of delay were excluded, The district court did not plainly err in failing to instruct the jury on the “knowledge-of-status” element under “Rehaif.” The record makes clear that Adams devised his straw-purchaser scheme precisely because he knew he was a felon who could not lawfully possess firearms. View "United States v. Adams" on Justia Law

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Groff, whose religious beliefs prohibit working on Sunday, began working for the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) in 2012. In 2013, USPS contracted with Amazon to deliver packages, including on Sundays. The Quarryville Postmaster initially exempted Groff from Sunday work. After a union agreement went into effect, Groff was required to work Sundays during the peak season. Groff transferred to Holtwood, a smaller station. Holtwood then began Amazon Sunday deliveries. The Holtwood Postmaster offered to adjust Groff’s schedule to permit him to attend religious services on Sunday morning and report to work afterward and later sought others to cover Groff’s Sunday shifts. Because Groff did not work when scheduled on Sundays, he faced progressive discipline. Groff requested a transfer to a position that did not require Sunday work. No such position was available. The Holtwood Postmaster continued attempting to find coverage and was, himself, forced to make Sunday deliveries. Groff’s refusal to report on Sundays created a “tense atmosphere” and resentment; another employee filed a grievance. Groff received additional discipline and submitted EEO complaints, then resigned,Groff sued, alleging religious discrimination under Title VII, disparate treatment, and failure to accommodate. The Third Circuit affirmed summary judgment for USPS. Because the shift swaps USPS offered to Groff did not eliminate the conflict between his religious practice and his work obligations, USPS did not provide Groff with a reasonable accommodation but the accommodation Groff sought would cause an undue hardship on USPS. View "Groff v. DeJoy" on Justia Law

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Wholesale pharmaceutical distributors sued two private entities, OptumRx and National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, under 42 U.S.C. 1983 for alleged violations of constitutional and federal law. They claim that their due process rights were violated when OptumRx announced that its network pharmacies would purchase only from distributors accredited under the Association’s “Verified Accredited Wholesale Distributor” program. The plaintiffs’ applications for VAWD accreditation were canceled with little explanation and no opportunity to challenge the result. Because the criteria for VAWD accreditation were more stringent than the federal Drug Supply Chain Security Act’s requirements, they alleged violations of the Act and the Supremacy Clause.The Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the claims. Most constitutional amendments protect only against wrongs caused by the states or the federal government; section 1983, the main cause of action for seeking damages for constitutional violations, contains a “state actor” requirement, allowing suit only against those who can be fairly said to be acting for the state itself. There is no "state actor" in this case. View "Matrix Distributors Inc v. National Association of Boards of Pharmacy" on Justia Law

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In 1979-1980, Lesko went on a multi-day “Kill for Thrill” spree with his friend, Travaglia, ending the lives of four individuals in Western Pennsylvania. For the killing of a 21-year-old police officer, Lesko was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. Lesko proceeded through many levels of the Pennsylvania state courts and two rounds of federal habeas proceedings. The Third Circuit affirmed the denial of his latest petition under 28 U.S.C. 2254 petition, which challenged both his 1981 guilt-phase trial and his 1995 resentencing. The court rejected claims that the prosecution violated Lesko’s Brady rights by suppressing an agreement between a prosecution witness who was found in possession of Lesko’s gun (Montgomery) and the prosecution; a January 1980 police report; and information from the juvenile file of another prosecution witness, Rutherford. Lesko’s counsel did not perform ineffectively by violating his right to testify; Lesko was not prejudiced by any ineffectiveness in failing to properly investigate and present mitigating evidence at resentencing. View "Lesko v. Secretary Pennsylvania Department of Corrections" on Justia Law

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Ford, a Haitian national, became involved in Haitian national politics by joining PPD in 2012; he believed the ruling political party, PHTK, was corrupt and involved in human rights abuses. Ford received anonymous threatening telephone calls; in 2014, armed men encircled Ford’s home, shot into it, and burned it down. Ford reported the attack to Haitian authorities and fled Haiti. The United States began removal proceedings.Ford hired an attorney, who submitted a Form I-589 application for asylum, withholding of removal, and relief under the Convention Against Torture. Ford and the attorney subsequently had little contact. Ford stated the attorney “never prepared me for my final hearing.” The attorney provided scant documentary evidence to support Ford’s application and did not submit any documents about the PPD. The IJ denied relief, finding that Ford was credible but had “submitted no objective evidence” to help meet his burden in proving that he was harassed or persecuted on account of his political opinion or that Ford’s fear of persecution upon his return to Haiti was reasonable. Ford retained new counsel. The BIA affirmed and denied a motion to reopen Ford’s case based on ineffective assistance.The Third Circuit vacated. Ford presents a meritorious ineffective-assistance claim; his lawyer failed to present important and easily available evidence going to the heart of Ford’s claims. View "Saint Ford v. Attorney General United States" on Justia Law

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Gaines served as the “muscle” in a drug house. Thompson came to the house to buy drugs. Williams, a visitor, told Thompson that the house was “closed,” denied him entry, and told him to leave. Thompson kept knocking and asking to come in. Eventually, Gaines walked outside and an argument ensued. Williams joined them. Gaines ultimately stabbed Thompson multiple times. Williams pulled Gaines off of Thompson. Stab wounds resulted in hemorrhaging that caused Thompson’s death. Gaines was convicted in Pennsylvania state court of first-degree murder in Pennsylvania,Gaines sought habeas relief, 28 U.S.C. 2254. The district court granted his petition, holding that Gaines’s trial counsel was ineffective for not objecting to the omission of a jury instruction that no adverse inference could be drawn from Gaines’s election not to testify in his own defense. The Third Circuit reversed. Gaines’s trial counsel made a reasonable tactical choice when he did not object. Counsel testified he was aware that the court failed to give the requested no-adverse-inference instruction, but that he decided not to object because he “was concerned that throwing [the instruction] in at the end" may have drawn undue attention to the fact that Gaines did not testify. He testified that he was satisfied with the charge as it stood because it placed the burden of proof squarely on the Commonwealth and exhaustively detailed the law of self-defense. View "zGaines v. Superintendent Benner Township" on Justia Law