Sunday, May 24, 2015

Causation Anonymity in Group Police Misconduct: No Conviction, No Justice, No Peace

Here in Cleveland, tensions are running high as the City reacts to a judge's decision, following a bench trial, that Police Officer Michael Brelo is not guilty of voluntary manslaughter or the lesser-included offense of felonious assault in connection with the deaths of Timothy Russell and Melissa Williams. Russell and Williams were shot a total of 137 times by various police officers, including Brelo. Brelo himself fired 49 rounds and at one point climbed atop the victims' car to shoot them (15 shots) through the front windshield.

The judge carefully parsed the evidence on the manslaughter charges and concluded that both victims suffered multiple fatal wounds--some from Brelo, some from other officers--and that he therefore could not conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Brelo's wounds were the but-for cause of the victims' deaths. Thus the not-guilty finding.

From a purely legal standpoint, the decision makes sense. Lawyers, with their technical training in the various elements of crimes and torts, understand that the State fails to meet its burden of proof if even one of the essential elements of a crime is in doubt.  

But the public doesn't think that way. The ordinary citizen understands the bigger picture. Two unarmed people were shot 137 times. They were African-American, the shooter white. Whatever the victims' conduct, and whatever deadly force may even have been warranted at some point to protect others, what is the possible justification for 137 shots?

More troublingly, if Brelo wasn't the "but-for" cause of their deaths, who was? We'll never know. The forensic evidence does not lend itself to anything but speculation in terms of the sequence of the bullet wounds and the likelihood that any one of them was the one that precipitated each victim's death.

And therein lies the rub. This decision paves the way for causation anonymity to immunize homicide, any time a group of police officers (or gang members or any other shooters) act together to end another human being's life. We can never know which bullet caused death. We therefore can never know which shooter caused death (at least from a legal standpoint). And we can never, therefore, punish the murderer.

Ironically, it would not have mattered in this case even if we could have pinpointed Brelo as the but-for cause. The judge also acquitted him of felonious assault, concluding that his actions were reasonable under the circumstances. Presumably, his ostensibly reasonable conduct would have served to exonerate him of voluntary manslaughter, even if the evidence established him as the instigator of the death-causing bullet. That finding, and not the missing evidence of causation, is probably the most-controversial aspect of this decision.

But causation anonymity could well matter in future cases. The law's devotion to technical minutiae is sometimes the enemy of justice. Wrongdoers now have a roadmap for how to act in concert in order to absolve each of them individually of legal responsibility for the most heinous of crimes.

Ultimately, then, I fear that justice will be, over time, the greatest victim of Brelo's conduct and its aftermath. And without justice, as the protesters (in Ferguson, in New York, in Baltimore, and now in Cleveland) remind us, there can be no peace.

Posted by Andrew S. Pollis on May 24, 2015 at 11:45 AM in Criminal Law, Culture, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (3)

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Preclusion, ascertainability, and civil rights classes

On this post about class certification in the Alabama marriage litigation, commenter "Hash" began an exchange about the scope of that class, whether it was properly defined, whether it was "ascertainable," and whether it allows for some gamesmanship by class members to avoid preclusion.

The class of plaintiffs is defined, in relevant part, as "all persons in Alabama who wish to obtain a marriage license in order to marry a person of the same sex," with class members identifiable by their application for a license. Hash raises the following situation (I'm paraphrasing):

The plaintiffs lose and Judge Granade decides that Alabama's SSM ban does not violate the Fourteenth Amendment. A same-sex couple goes to federal court seeking an injunction against enforcement of the ban; the government argues preclusion, that the couple were part of a class in an action that already decided that the ban was constitutional. In response, the couple will argue that they were not part of the (unsuccessful) class because, at the time of the district court's ruling, they did not wish to be married. They only decided to get married afterwards, so the decision in the class action cannot be binding on them.

The problem, Hash argues, is that this couple will have no qualms about relying on the injunction to obtain the license, creating a one-way opt-out, claiming the benefits of the injunction if they win but avoiding the drawbacks if they lose.

My fuller thoughts after the jump.

Continue reading "Preclusion, ascertainability, and civil rights classes"

Posted by Howard Wasserman on May 23, 2015 at 04:18 PM in Civil Procedure, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (4)

Friday, May 22, 2015

Fourth Circuit Highlights Circuit Split on Legal Standard for Retaliation Claims in Employment Cases

In Foster v. Univ. of Md.-E. Shore, No. 14-1073 (4th Cir. May 21, 2015), the Fourth Circuit identified a circuit split on the applicability of the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting paradigm for cases alleging Title VII retaliatory action in employment. The split arises as a result of the Supreme Court's 2013 decision in Univ. of Tex. Sw. Med. Ctr. v. Nassar, 133 S. Ct. 2517 (2013).

Nassar held that a plaintiff suing for retaliation must establish that retaliation was not just a motivating factor for an adverse employment decision; instead, the plaintiff must demonstrate that retaliation was the "but-for cause" of the adverse action. Id. at 2534.

The circuit split arises because some courts, construing Nassar, require direct evidence of "but-for" causation in evaluating retaliation claims.  See Foster, slip op. at 15 n.10. But the Fourth Circuit in Foster concluded the opposite: that the McDonnell Douglas test can itself establish the requisite but-for causation under Nassar.

This seems like an issue ripe for Supreme Court review. We'll see whether the defendant in Foster takes a shot.

Posted by Andrew S. Pollis on May 22, 2015 at 12:32 PM in Employment and Labor Law | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Class certifcation in Alabama SSM litigation

Judge Callie Granade of the Southern District of Alabama took a giant step towards establishing marriage equality throughout Alabama. Judge Granade finally granted the motion for class certification in Strawser. She certified a plaintiff class of

all persons in Alabama who wish to obtain a marriage license in order to marry a person of the same sex and to have the marriage recognized under Alabama law, and who are unable to do so because of the enforcement of Alabama's laws prohibiting the issuance of marriage licenses to same sex couples and barring recognition of their marriages.

And she certified a defendant class of

all Alabama county probate judges who are enforcing or in the future may enforce Alabama's laws barring the issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples and refusing to recognize their marriages.

In a separate order, she extended the preliminary injunction, previously entered against Probate Judge Don Davis, to Probate Judge Tim Russell and the rest of that defendant class, prohibiting them from enforcing the state's same-sex marriage ban and requiring them to issue licenses to any member of the protective class who follows the proper steps towards obtaining a marriage license. But Judge Granade then stayed the injunction pending SCOTUS resolution of Obergefell, which is "imminent."

Thoughts on the order and where this leaves us after the jump.

Continue reading "Class certifcation in Alabama SSM litigation"

Posted by Howard Wasserman on May 21, 2015 at 10:32 PM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (12)

Part 2: Rule 23 and the Class Action – To Amend or Not to Amend?

As I posted last week, the Advisory Committee on the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure is taking up Rule 23—the class action rule.  I summarized three of the class action subcommittee’s conceptual sketches last week.  Today, I will cover the remaining four.  (As a reminder, the full subcommittee report can be found at pp. 243-297 of the Civil Rules Committee’s April 2015 Agenda Book.  In addition, Professor Rick Marcus has an article summarizing the subcommittee’s work in the current issue of Judicature.)   

If the subcommittee decides to put amendments forward, it wants to do so quickly.  The plan is to bring potential amendments to the Civil Rules Committee’s fall 2015 meeting.  This would mean that--assuming the amendments go through the process without a hitch—these proposals could become law as early as December 2018.   Once again, I bring these proposals to your attention because if academics want a voice in this debate, the time to enter the fray is now. 

Continue reading "Part 2: Rule 23 and the Class Action – To Amend or Not to Amend?"

Posted by Brooke Coleman on May 21, 2015 at 05:12 PM in Civil Procedure | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A Few Surprises in San Francisco v. Sheehan

This week, the Court decided San Francisco v. Sheehan, which involved a confrontation between police and a mentally ill woman whom they repeatedly shot. The assumed facts are a bit harrowing—the plaintiff had chased two officers out of her room by threatening to kill them with a kitchen knife—but the case ended up deciding somewhat less than expected. Instead of answering a major issue under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Court dismissed that question presented. And instead of opining on the Fourth Amendment, the Court found that the officers were protected by qualified immunity. Below are a few comments on the case’s unexpected aspects.

Continue reading "A Few Surprises in San Francisco v. Sheehan"

Posted by Richard M. Re on May 20, 2015 at 12:49 PM | Permalink | Comments (9)

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Spring Self-Reported Entry Level Hiring Report 2015

Following is a data summary of the Spring Self-Reported Entry Level Hiring Report for 2015. To remain consistent with past years, while the spreadsheet contains all hiring information received, the data analysis includes only tenure-track hires at U.S. law schools.

Here is the full spreadsheet:

We have reports of 70 people being hired, at 52 different law schools.

(As of May 18, 2015, one person is not listed on the spreadsheet but is included in the data. This person will certainly receive a job this year, and at a school that is not otherwise hiring. The only question is which school. Thus I am able to incorporate this person's information into the analysis below.)

In general, this year’s report looks incredibly similar to last year’s.

Continue reading "Spring Self-Reported Entry Level Hiring Report 2015"

Posted by Sarah Lawsky on May 19, 2015 at 09:00 AM in Entry Level Hiring Report | Permalink | Comments (41)

Monday, May 18, 2015

SCOTUS Will Decide Whether Class-Action Defendants May "Pick Off" Putative Class Representatives

The Supreme Court today agreed to decide a question that has long plagued lawyers on both sides of the class-action bar:  whether a defendant may render a claim moot, for purposes of Article III, by tendering complete relief to a putative class representative.  

There are three questions presented in Campbell-Ewald Co. v. Gomez (No. 14-857).  The first is a threshold question: whether tendering complete relief moots a claim even outside the class-action context.  But the Court, in articulating the second question, anticipated the possibility that the answer might be "different when the plaintiff has asserted a class claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23, but receives an offer of complete relief before any class is certified." (The third issue in the case relates to immunity for government contractors, which the Court could theoretically decide and not reach the other two.). 

If the Court holds that an offer can moot a claim, it may also have to decide whether the timing of the offer makes a difference.  Does it matter whether the plaintiff has already filed suit?  Presumably not, because most class-action plaintiffs (at least in actions seeking monetary damages) do not reveal themselves before filing.  Does it matter whether the plaintiff has moved for class certification at the time of the offer (as some courts have suggested)?  Does it matter how far the class-certification proceedings have gone?  All this remains to be seen.  All we know at this point (based on the phrasing of the question) is that the Court will not likely permit an offer after certification to render the claim moot (which makes sense, because at that point the unnamed class members have been joined in the lawsuit, albeit in absentia).

The outcome of this case is as likely to be guided by policy as by constitutional doctrine, especially if the Court finds that an early settlement offer does not moot the action.  Courts that have rejected mootness in this context have expressed concern over the practice of "picking off" putative class representatives one by one, leaving the plaintiff bar with no economic incentive to vindicate the interests of the class as a whole.  

How do you see this case coming out?

Posted by Andrew S. Pollis on May 18, 2015 at 10:54 PM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts | Permalink | Comments (2)

CFP: 2015 Texas Legal Scholars Workshop

Would you like early-stage feedback on a research idea? Or late-stage feedback on an article ready for submission? Or something in between? Your colleagues at Houston and SMU invite you to join us for the first annual Texas Legal Scholars Workshop, to be held on August 28-29, 2015, at the University of Houston Law Center. The idea is to provide an intimate setting for early-career scholars (those with less than 10 years in a full-time faculty position) to receive feedback on an idea, work-in-progress, or a polished draft. We welcome legal scholars from all disciplines.

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Posted by Howard Wasserman on May 18, 2015 at 08:07 PM in Howard Wasserman | Permalink | Comments (0)

Justice Scalia was not pleased

Justice Scalia was not pleased with Monday's decision or with the petitioners in San Francisco v. Sheehan. The Court dismissed certiorari as improvidently granted on one question, involving application of a provision of the Americans with Disabilities Act to police affecting arrests, because petitioners ended up not briefing or pursuing that issue. The court then resolved the other question, holding that officers were entitled to qualified immunity for an incident in which officers entered the room of a mentally ill woman and shot her when she charged at them with a knife.

While agreeing with the decision to DIG the first issue, Scalia, joined by Justice Kagan, argued that the Court also should have dismissed the second question as improvidently granted, because the Court never would have granted cert on a fact-bound qualified immunity issue standing alone. Scalia argued that while non-independently certworthy issues often are decided alongside connected certworthy issues, where the certworthy issues is dismissed, the Court should not decide the otherwise unworthy subsidiary issue. And he placed the blame squarely on the city and county; he threw around terms such as "induce," "bait-and-switch tactics," and "reward[ing]" petitioners by giving them "all they seek" to describe what San Francisco did and what the Court was allowing it to do. Scalia worried that future litigants will be encouraged to "seek review premised on arguments they never plan to press, secure in the knowledge that once they find a toehold on this Court's docket, we will consider whatever workaday arguments they choose to present."

Otherwise, Justice Alito's opinion for six justices (Justice Breyer recused) was a straightforward restatement and application of the emerging modern law of qualified immunity, in all its unfortunate development. The Court again questioned, without deciding, whether binding circuit precedent or a "robust consensus of cases of persuasive authority" could clearly establish a right. And it showed how precedent-bound the analysis has become, with clearly established being all about how factually analogous or distinguishable prior cases are. At one point, the Court spoke of reasonable officers "carefully read[ing]" precedents and what officers could know from that precedent--giving voice to the fiction that police officers actually read case law and are put on notice and guided by the factual specifics of prior cases compared with the situation they currently face.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on May 18, 2015 at 05:51 PM in Civil Procedure, Criminal Law, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (5)

Judy Clarke, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and the Discretion of Strategy

As the Alabama spring progresses towards summer, I naturally have continued to think about the State’s power, particularly in its exercise of discretion – what to investigate, which suspect to arrest, which cases to charge, which cases to prosecute and how.  As I was drafting a blog post last week, NPR informed me that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s jury had sentenced him to death. There has been a lot written and said about the prosecutor’s discretion in this case. Massachusetts after all has no state death penalty, so Tsarnaev was charged in federal court, where a death penalty was possible.  Prosecutorial discretion, in this case and more broadly, is both a fraught and a well-trod topic.  And deservedly so, but in this post I want to explore a different path – the discretion of the defense.

 Judy Clarke was Tsarnaev’s defense attorney and she chose what some characterized as a risky defense – she conceded his guilt in the hopes of saving his life.  Put another way, she named him a murderer in the hopes that the jury would be able to see something of him as a person beyond the horror he caused. In doing this Clarke did something that lawyers do everyday in all variety of cases – she made a decision of how best to defend her client.  Thinking of what I know of Judy Clarke, I have no doubt that she weighed her decision – the evidence against her client, the shock and tragedy of the event itself, the emotional weight of the trial – and discussed the defense with him.  At the end of the day, however, it was her decision to make as defense counsel and she exercised her discretion to create the best trial strategy she could. That it ultimately failed, that her client got the death penalty anyway, doesn’t change the reality that she did one of the hardest things lawyers do – she made strategic choices and she presented the case according to those choices.  I don’t know any trial lawyers who don’t second guess these choices, particularly after a loss, and likely Judy Clarke has her own doubts. 

Continue reading "Judy Clarke, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and the Discretion of Strategy"

Posted by Jenny Carroll on May 18, 2015 at 08:19 AM in Criminal Law, Culture, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, May 17, 2015

We've come a long way, but in which direction?

It appears that a political science professor at Duke University is under the gun, and perhaps has been placed on leave, over an online response to a New York Times editorial about racism and Baltimore. It is not entirely clear what has happened-the professor has told some media outlets that he was placed on leave; Duke declined to comment on his status, while condemning the remarks as "noxious, offensive, and hav[ing] no place in civil discourse" and calling on the Duke "community to speak out when they feel that those ideals [of inclusiveness] are challenged or undermined, as they were in this case."

Because Duke is a private institution, the First Amendment is not in play here. Nevertheless, I hope that principles of free expression, academic freedom, and tenure prevail and keep Duke from sanctioning Hough. In fact, I hope Duke would borrow a page from my alma mater.

For years, Arthur Butz has been an electrical engineering professor at Northwestern, despite having authored a 1976 book denying the Holocaust. In 2006, Butz supported Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial, prompting sixty engineering professors to call for Butz's censure. The response, from then-President Henry Bienen, is reprinted in full after the jump. Importantly, it includes lines such as "he is entitled to express his personal views" and "we cannot take action based on the content of what Butz says regarding the Holocaust - however odious it may be - without undermining the vital principle of intellectual freedom that all academic institutions serve to protect."

It will be interesting to see whether Duke understands intellectual and academic freedom in similar terms.

Update: This Washington Post story, echoing what several people said in comments, states that Hough himself has disavowed reports (such as the Slate piece) that he was placed on leave following the comments, telling an area newspaper that he already had been on academic leave this year and that he is due to stop teaching in 2016. So, I guess, good for Duke.

Continue reading "We've come a long way, but in which direction?"

Posted by Howard Wasserman on May 17, 2015 at 01:40 PM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink | Comments (12)

Talking about Standing in Zivotofsky and Robins

Last week, Will Baude published a New York Times column arguing that the Supreme Court should postpone its decision in Zivotofsky v. Kerry, a pending separation-of-powers case, until it hears Spokeo v. Robins, a standing case slated to be heard next term. These two cases seem to be about quite different things, but Will points out that the lower courts in Zivotofsky found standing based on substantially the same broad theory to be reviewed in Robins. 

Will's column has prompted a lot of fun standing conversations, and one of them recently occurred on twitter among Chris Walker, Steve Sachs, and myself. Will has kindly collected these tweets and translated them into (somewhat) more readable prose. Now, with the consent of all involved, I've posted the exchange below. Additional comments welcome!

Continue reading "Talking about Standing in Zivotofsky and Robins"

Posted by Richard M. Re on May 17, 2015 at 08:34 AM | Permalink | Comments (24)

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Celebrating Kent Greenawalt

I'm at Columbia Law School today, at a festschrifty celebration of Kent Greenawalt on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of his entry into teaching. Kent's contributions to legal scholarship over that time have been (and still are: he has one book coming out soon and another in draft) voluminous and influential. They have also covered such a wide range of subjects that it has proved impossible to do them justice in one day: the panels today, on law and religion, free speech, and legal interpretation, do not cover his important work in criminal law and in many subjects within jurisprudence. My friends Marc DeGirolami, Andy Koppelman, and I talked about Kent's enormous contributions to law and religion--and both Marc and I speculated about whether Kent's spirit and approach might be less common and less welcome under current conditions, in which there is a lot of heated disagreement and polarization around some very basic premises of the law in this area.


Let me say a couple of words about Kent as a teacher. I learned two important things from Kent, one directly and the other indirectly and by experience. When I came to Columbia as a graduate student in 1996, I was interested in law teaching, although I thought that ifthat happened, it would be in Canada. So I paid attention to the different models of teaching I was seeing. What Kent excelled at, in the seminar context in which I observed him, was listening to student commments. It sounds easy enough, but like many simple things it is still a skill, one that is harder to do well than it looks and that needs to be developed.


Teachers are human. They are trying to run the class; to make sure that certain key points are conveyed during each class; to keep the whole course on schedule. Sometimes, as a student speaks, they are listening with some portion of their attention, but also thinking about whether that comment takes the class off-track, how to get to the next point in the lesson plan, whether and when to politely steer or cut short the more long-winded or off-topic student; and so on. Being human, and in many cases not un-fond of their own ideas, words, and voices, some professors may be thinking impatiently about what they will say next and barely hear the student at all. Kent was sincerely interested in what students had to say. He would, where the comment was not clear, work with the student to dig out exactly what he or she was trying to say. He responded to each one with care, always parsing and refining and pushing back, always respectfully. He treated each student as a full fellow participant in an important ongoing conversation. He provided a wonderful model.


In trying to emulate Kent, I have found that it's harder than it looks. It's not hard to care about what students have to say: I learn from them all the time. But it's hard to have enough background knowledge, and immediate access to that knowledge, to offer a worthy response to varied comments; hard to keep one's attention undivided by the usual administrative matters; and very hard--as my students can attest--to do all this without blowing up the syllabus.


Kent also taught me a great deal about the duty and pleasure of repaying personal and professional debts to others. With two other teachers that year, Kent changed the trajectory of my life. Insofar as there was not much I could do for him, my repayment consisted of trying (imperfectly, to be sure) to help others--current and former students, law students elsewhere, junior colleagues, including some profs I had never met but whose work I admired--as Kent helped me. It is in doing so, or trying to do so, that one realizes that this is a core professional duty--and discovers that it is also one of the great pleasures of one's teaching life, enriching and sustaining in a way that scholarship itself is not, however much I may enjoy writing. That said, it is a great pleasure to be here today to repay a portion of my debt to him more directly. The whole of it is beyond reckoning.

(Comments are welcome, but Greenawaltiana only.)


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Posted by Paul Horwitz on May 14, 2015 at 02:30 PM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink | Comments (4)

Recent SCOTUS Decision in Bullard: Right Decision, Wrong Result

Last week, in Bullard v. Blue Hills Bank, the Supreme Court unanimously held that an order rejecting a bankruptcy debtor's proposed Chapter 13 plan is not final for purposes of appellate review.  The holding highlights a fundamental problem in appellate jurisdiction:  the lower court is often the gatekeeper of the right to appeal important interlocutory orders and--too often--jealously holds onto the key.

The debtor in Bullard sought to confirm a Chapter 13 plan that would have required him to pay in full the secured portion of his residential mortgage loan while discharging most of the unsecured portion (the latter a function of the fact that the value of the real property was less than the total loan amount).  The bankruptcy court rejected that plan because of the hybrid treatment of the debt--an issue as to which there was conflict in the case law.  The Bankruptcy Appellate Panel accepted a discretionary interlocutory appeal under 28 U.S.C. § 158(a)(3) and affirmed.  But the BAP then refused to certify the appeal for further review in the First Circuit under 28 U.S.C. § 158(d)(2) (analogous to 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b) in non-bankruptcy cases).  When the debtor appealed to the First Circuit, that court dismissed the appeal, concluding that the denial of a confirmation plan was not final, and the absence of BAP certification deprived the appellate court of discretionary jurisdiction over an interlocutory order.

Continue reading "Recent SCOTUS Decision in Bullard: Right Decision, Wrong Result"

Posted by Andrew S. Pollis on May 14, 2015 at 11:49 AM in Civil Procedure, Judicial Process | Permalink | Comments (5)