60-Second Circuit Summaries

A collection of significant and strange cases decided by the federal courts of appeals this week. Each summary delivered in a minute or less: eight cases, eight minutes. On the docket this week was retirement plans at SCOTUS, COVID-19, predatory lending, and visas for geniuses. We also honor Justice Stephen Breyer, who announced his retirement after nearly 28 years on the U.S. Supreme Court.


This week Justice Stephen G. Breyer announced his retirement from the U.S. Supreme Court. His has been a long, dedicated, and impassioned term of service on the federal bench. He served for fourteen years on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit before President Bill Clinton nominated him to the Supreme Court in 1994. Justice Breyer is known throughout the legal world for his thoughtful opinions, his pragmatic judicial philosophy, his befuddling questions at oral argument, and his seemingly inexhaustible supply of jokes and riddles. But don’t take it from us; take it from each of the Justices. Justice Breyer will stay on the bench for the rest of the term—until late June or early July, that is—before taking senior status.

1. Supreme Court revives lawsuit against Northwestern University over employee retirement plans.

Three things are certain in life: death, taxes, and ERISA lawsuits. ERISA, short for the 1974 Employee Retirement Income Security Act, puts a fiduciary duty on private employers that manage retirement plans for their employees. In this case employees of Northwestern University say their institution breached that duty. They have three complaints. First, Northwestern charges a service fee to manage investment plans, and the employees say the university charged them higher fees than larger investors for identical investment choices. Second, employees claim they were overwhelmed by the hundreds of investment options Northwestern offers and therefore made poor investments. Third, all this retirement planning makes paperwork, so Northwestern charges plan participants a recordkeeping fee. The employees allege Northwestern didn’t manage records properly, hence higher recordkeeping fees, hence inflated costs for plan participants.

Seventh Circuit panel: Suit dismissed. The employees forget that, despite all this, they have the final say over how much to invest, what to invest in, and when to invest. And when the employer leaves investment choices ultimately with its employees, that is enough for ERISA.

Justice Sotomayor (for a unanimous Supreme Court): No, it’s not enough. ERISA doesn’t set out a categorical, where-does-choice-lie standard, but rather a context-specific one. Employers must continue to monitor investment strategies and throw bad ones in the bin. Here, the employees suggest Northwestern failed to do that. Remanded for further proceedings. (Note: Justice Barrett recused herself.)

2. Third Circuit won’t lend a hand to car title loan provider.

After a shady car loan provider tried to bypass a ban on lenders charging exorbitant interest, a Third Circuit panel held that Pennsylvania’s usury laws do not usurp the Commerce Clause. (A word for the wise: A car title loan might be your demise.)

3. D.C. Circuit dismisses First Amendment suit against Rep. Adam Schiff.

During COVID-19’s zenith the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, a rightwing group, voiced its opposition to government vaccine mandates. Meanwhile, Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA) wrote letters to Google, Facebook, and Twitter about vaccines. He asked them to provide “information on the steps [they] take to provide medically accurate information on vaccinations to [their] users.” AAPS claims that the three companies, in response to Rep. Schiff’s letters, portrayed AAPS’ position on vaccines as less credible than that of other medical groups and the CDC. This, the association says, caused fewer people to visit AAPS’ website. The association was also irked when Amazon, which received a similar letter from Rep. Schiff, canceled its business partnership with the association. So AAPS sued—not Amazon, not any of the platforms, but Rep. Schiff. Its argument went thus: Rep. Schiff wrote letters, which elicited a response from the platforms, which hurt our credibility, which decreased visitors to our website, which harmed us; so Rep. Schiff violated our First Amendment rights. D.C. Circuit panel: We disagree. None of AAPS’ supposed injuries—if one even exists—is plausibly attributable to Rep. Schiff, so AAPS lacks standing. Besides, Rep. Schiff has governmental immunity.

4. Eighth Circuit puts on hold Iowa’s mask prohibition in schools.

In the wake of COVID-19 many states and localities required students and staff to wear masks on school grounds. Iowa did the opposite. In May 2021 the state legislature passed, and the governor signed, a law forbidding any school district in the state to impose a mask mandate (with a few exceptions). Parents of disabled and immunocompromised children sued. They argue Iowa’s mask ban violates federal disability laws. They asked for a preliminary injunction. Eighth Circuit panel: Injunction granted, but only as applied to plaintiffs’ school districts. Judge Erickson, dissenting: We shouldn’t have granted the injunction (yet) because plaintiffs haven’t exhausted all administrative options.

5. Ninth Circuit says police have qualified immunity in excessive force suit.

In 2018 Earl McNeil, a black man, died in police custody in National City, California. His death was ruled a homicide. Protestors staged a “die-in” at a city council meeting a month later. Six protestors whose hands were painted bloodred moved to the front of the room, laid down in front of the councilmembers, raised their hands, and repeatedly exclaimed “I am Earl McNeil” and “you have blood on your hands.” Others remained in the audience and echoed the chants. The protestors did not heed several warnings that police would have to arrest the six at the podium if they did not return to their seats. When police took out the handcuffs, the six went limp, according to plan. Acting as dead weight, the six did not support themselves in any standing or sitting position and forced police to carry or pull them out of the room. Tasha Williamson, one of the six, suffered a sprained wrist and (allegedly) a torn rotator cuff as police dragged her out of the room. She sued the officers for excessive force. Ninth Circuit panel: Qualified immunity. The officers did not violate Ms. Williamson’s Fourth Amendment rights; they used minimal force on a person who was uncooperative, and the city had an interest in restoring order to the city council meeting.

6. Fifth Circuit denies “Einstein” visa for Canadian chemical engineer.

Fun fact: One pathway to U.S. citizenship is reserved for immigrants with “extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics.” No kidding. Such “Einstein” visas are rare; last decade the U.S. granted about 5,000 of them a year on average. Past beneficiaries include the eponymous Albert Einstein, John Lennon, and a handful of Nobel laureates. Bhaveshkumar Amin, a Canadian chemical engineer who works in the oil industry, sought to join the ranks. His application was denied. Immigration officials reasoned that although Mr. Amin plays an “important role” for his employers, he has not made so significant a contribution to the field of chemical engineering as to warrant an Einstein visa. Fifth Circuit panel: We see no problems here. Mr. Amin is “not extraordinary but merely very good.”

7. First Circuit hashes out federal limits on medical marijuana.

This case, which started in 2009, involves joint areas of law: statutory interpretation and medical marijuana. Back then Maine allowed the cultivation of marijuana for medical purposes, albeit under a highly regulated system. Three marijuana producers opened up shop. But federal authorities grew suspicious that the producers weren’t growing their plants for just medical patients. After extensive surveillance authorities charged the three weed-growers with violating the Controlled Substances Act. Weed-growers: That canni’ be! An appropriations rider prevents the government from prosecuting us. First Circuit panel: We disagree. The Ninth Circuit has addressed this issue persuasively. It said the rider’s purpose is to prevent the federal government from annulling a state’s medical marijuana program. Prosecuting the three defendants here doesn’t set Maine’s medical marijuana laws alight, so the rider doesn’t apply.

8. Second Circuit affirms El Chapo’s federal convictions, sentence.

In which Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera, a.k.a. “El Chapo”, was convicted of a host of crimes he committed when he was head of the Sinaloa drug cartel and sentenced to life terms and a $12 billion fine, a Second Circuit panel affirmed, rejecting the capo’s ten (10) claims on appeal.

And in en banc news: The full Eleventh Circuit will review a panel’s invalidation of several amendments to Alabama’s procedure by which a minor who seeks an abortion can bypass the requirement that the minor’s parent(s) be notified.

Image credits: Northwestern University

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