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: four cases, four minutes. On the docket this week was copyright law at SCOTUS, abortion, the Postal Service, and mysterious fires.

1. SCOTUS decides issue of faulty copyright registration.

To obtain a copyright for your work, you must file an application with the register of copyrights and provide information about your work. That information, of course, should be accurate. But if you make a mistake, your application won’t be doomed—unless you provide inaccurate information “with knowledge that it was inaccurate.” This is copyright registration law’s “safe harbor” provision; it excuses good-faith mistakes and condemns bad-faith misrepresentations.

The safe harbor provision, courts have long held, applies to factual mistakes. The question here is whether it covers mistakes of law. The Supreme Court, voting 6:3, held that it does. Justice Breyer, writing for the majority, relied on the text of the safe harbor provision, the text of nearby provisions, related cases decided before the safe harbor provision’s enactment, and legislative history. Justice Breyer was joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Sotomayor, Kagan, Kavanaugh, and Barrett.

Justice Thomas dissented, joined by Justices Alito and (in part) Gorsuch. He principally argued that the Court should’ve dismissed this case because one of the parties pulled a bait-and-switch. The party asked the Court to decide one question—whether a bad-faith misrepresentation requires “indicia of fraud”—and then briefed a totally different question—the one decided here.

2. Fourth Circuit upholds preliminary injunction against South Carolina “heartbeat” abortion law.

In February 2021 South Carolina passed a law banning abortions if an ultrasound has detected a fetal heartbeat. Cue this lawsuit. A district court granted a preliminary injunction, putting the law on hold while litigation continues. Fourth Circuit panel: Affirmed; “this case does not present a close call.”

3. D.C. Circuit greenlights suit against U.S. Postal Service manager compensation.

The U.S. Postal Service must do several things when it sets pay scales and benefits plans for its officers and employees. As relevant, first, differences in compensation for clerk/carrier workers and their supervisors/managers must be “adequate and reasonable”. Second, the USPS must consult private sector pay scales and make its compensation “comparable”. And third, it must allow managers and supervisors to “participate directly in the planning and development” of new compensation plans.

The USPS rolled out its 2016-2019 compensation plan for certain supervisors. A group representing those supervisors sued, claiming USPS didn’t do any of those three things. USPS: Courts can’t hear any of these claims. District court: Agreed, claims dismissed. D.C. Circuit panel: We disagree. Moreover, each of the group’s three claims is plausible. Reversed and remanded.

4. Mysterious cabin fire at the Ninth Circuit.

A vacation cabin in rural Idaho goes aflame. The owners aren’t home, and the folks who live nearby don’t see the cabin catch fire. It burns to the ground. The owners have a theory: The cabin has an open-flame pilot light as well as a large wooden deck. A few days before the fire an employee of the homeowners’ association stained the deck with Penofin oil, which is highly flammable. But the owners think the employee used too much oil, and it didn’t dry by the time a different employee relit the pilot light a few hours later. Open flame + oil vapors = ignition. The owners retain an expert fire investigator, whose report corroborates the theory that evaporated Penofin oil caused the conflagration. So, the owners sue the homeowners’ association. They try to admit the expert’s report into evidence. District court: Well, Mr. Expert, you’re certainly qualified, and the methodology of your 145-page report looks sound, but your conclusions are too “speculative”; evidence excluded from trial. Ninth Circuit panel: We disagree. The district court assumed a factfinding role, and that’s the jury’s job. Reversed and remanded.

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