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: seven cases, seven minutes. On the docket this week was United’s vaccine requirements, turpitude, identity theft, and cryptocurrency.

1. Fifth Circuit—over a forceful dissent—allows suit to block United Airlines’ COVID-19 vaccine requirement to proceed.

Last year United Airlines announced that most of its employees must get vaccinated against COVID-19 or lose their jobs. United says it grants accommodations for medical and religious reasons, but a group of United employees disputes that. They sued to block the vaccine requirement, claiming it violates Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Next, they asked that the requirement be put on hold while courts consider their claims. To succeed they must show that they will likely suffer an “irreparable harm” but for a preliminary injunction. So, the group claimed United is, as we speak, coercing them into getting the vaccine, and such coercion alone is an irreparable harm. Are they right? Fifth Circuit panel (in an unpublished opinion): You bet. The group can pursue an injunction. Judge Smith (dissenting): “If I ever wrote an opinion authorizing preliminary injunctive relief for plaintiffs without a cause of action, without a likelihood of success on the merits (for two reasons), and devoid of irreparable injury, despite the text, policy, and history of the relevant statute, despite the balance of equities and the public interest, and despite decades of contrary precedent from this circuit and the Supreme Court, all while inventing and distorting facts to suit my incoherent reasoning, ‘I would hide my head in a bag.’ Perhaps the majority agrees. Why else shrink behind an unsigned and unpublished opinion?” (quoting Justice Scalia).

2. Identity theft, turpitude at the Eleventh Circuit. 

A penny’s worth of free advice: Don’t commit a “crime involving moral turpitude”, or you’ll have a rough go of it in immigration court. What crimes are morally turpitudinous, you ask? Great question! No one really knows. Some have said the phrase refers to crimes that are “inherently base, vile, or depraved”—which is beating around the bush. Others have argued the phrase is so vague as to be unconstitutional, but the Supreme Court rejected that argument. (Still, the phrase is redundant. “Turpitude” already connotes immorality, so a “crime involving moral turpitude” describes a crime that is morally immoral.) The result? Courts take it case by case. If an immigrant commits a crime—say, breaking the federal identity theft law, like in this case—a court decides whether that crime is turpitudinous. Here, an Eleventh Circuit panel held that using another’s social security card is not always a “crime involving [] turpitude”. This cements a circuit split. The SecondSeventh, and Ninth Circuits have held the same, and the Fourth and Tenth Circuit have held similarly with state identity theft laws. But the Fifth and Eighth Circuits have held oppositely. Our appraisal? It is high time Congress scrap the phrase.

3. En banc Eleventh Circuit bails out government’s failure to raise a claim on appeal.

In this illegal-search case the government never argued that the “good faith” exception to the Exclusionary Rule applies. Ordinarily, that’d be a massive mistake; courts generally consider arguments not raised on appeal as waived or forfeited, and this particular argument in this case is criminal procedure 101. Never mind all that, declares the full Eleventh Circuit (voting 7:5); we’ll raise that argument for the government, decide the case on that ground, and rule in the government’s favor. Judge Pryor (concurring): Here’s why the majority is right and the dissent is wrong. Judges Newsom and Jordan (dissenting): The majority “has not only violated ordinary principles of notice, party presentation, and adversary procedure, but has also cast itself in the role of advocate and . . . thus transgressed the separation of powers.”

4. Unpaid taxes, foreclosure at the Eighth Circuit.

Geraldine Tyler bought a condo in Hennepin County, Minnesota in 1999. In 2010 she bought a new apartment and stopped paying property taxes on the condo. When she had racked up $15,000 in unpaid taxes, the county foreclosed on her condo and sold it for $40,000. Ms. Tyler: The county must pay me the surplus $25,000 or it is violating the Takings Clause, the Excessive Fines Clause, and substantive due process. Eighth Circuit panel: We disagree on each count. Ms. Tyler’s suit is dismissed.

5. Eleventh Circuit greenlights suit against former cryptocurrency firm.

BitConnect was a cryptocurrency joint that promised investors eye-popping returns and brought in millions of dollars in profit each week. BitConnect was also a giant Ponzi scheme. When the bubble burst, the value of one BitConnect Coin fell from $4,000 to 40 cents—an eye-popping result, indeed. Investors sued the schemers for securities fraud. BitConnect: We can’t be sued under §12 of the 1933 Securities Act. District court: BitConnect is right. Eleventh Circuit panel: No, they’re not. The investors’ suit may proceed.

6. Gold coin dealer loses $1.2 million, then loses in the Fifth Circuit.

Dillon Gage, a precious metals dealer in Dallas, sold $1.2 million in gold coins to an orthopedic surgeon in Alabama. Turns out the orthopedic surgeon was in fact a criminal who’d stolen the surgeon’s identity. When Dillon Gage discovered the heist, it tried to recoup the $1.2 million loss under its insurance policy. One problem: The policy doesn’t cover a loss sustained “consequent upon” fraudulent purchase. When the insurance provider, relying on this provision, denied coverage, Dillon Gage sued for breach of contract. Texas Supreme Court (on certification from the Fifth Circuit): “Consequent upon” is but-for causation, so the insurance provider was right to deny coverage. Fifth Circuit panel: Good enough for us. Suit dismissed.

7. Fifth Circuit corrects lower court’s conflation of standing under state and federal law.

Randall Abraugh, a criminal defendant with a history of mental health treatment, was found hanging from his bedsheets in his jail cell while awaiting trial. His mother filed a wrongful death suit in federal court. Take note: She brought state and federal claims in federal court. District court: Ms. Abraugh lacks prudential standing under state law, so all her claims are dismissed. Fifth Circuit panel: Hold on, now. We agree Ms. Abraugh lacks prudential standing, so her state law claims should be dismissed. But she has Article III standing, so her federal claims are still alive. Reversed and remanded.

Image credits: Daniel Slim, AFP/Getty

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