Justia U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

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McReynolds and 17 codefendants were charged under federal drug laws. McReynolds was charged only under 21 U.S.C. 841(a)(1) and 846. Only McReynolds went to trial. He admitted selling drugs but argued that he was not a member of the conspiracy. There was testimony that McReynolds was in contact with the conspiracy’s leader every few days to buy drugs. The conspiracy’s supplier and its leader mentioned each of the other codefendants in their plea agreements but did not mention McReynolds. None of the searches returned any evidence associated with McReynolds. A cooperating codefendant testified that McReynolds was a conspiracy member. Confidential informant A.A. testified to buying drugs from McReynolds. The jury returned a guilty verdict and found the amount of controlled substances attributable to McReynolds beyond a reasonable doubt to be “less than 100 grams” of heroin and “less than 500 grams” of cocaine. The PSR combined the amounts from the codefendants’ plea agreements with the sales to A.A. for the total quantity of over 750 grams of heroin, over 700 grams of cocaine, and over 250 grams of crack. After a firearm enhancement, McReynolds’ guidelines range was 151-181 months’ imprisonment. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the conviction but vacated the 151-month sentence. The indictment sufficiently alleged that McReynolds had “knowingly conspired and agreed” with the other coconspirators. A court cannot hold a defendant to the entire conspiracy-wide drug amounts without any particularized findings as to why it is doing so. View "United States v. McReynolds" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Hargett, born in 1965, has a high-school education and previously worked as a semi-truck driver, municipal worker, maintenance mechanic, and industrial cleaner. He last worked in March 2015. Hargett applied for disability insurance benefits; he had high blood pressure, type-two diabetes, curvature of the spine, and COPD. Hargett’s primary care physician, Lucardie, referred Hargett to a physical therapist for a functional capacity evaluation (FCE), which indicated that Hargett had a maximum lifting capacity of 35 pounds and maximum carrying capacity of 20 pounds--the “medium strength” category-- but that Hargett could continuously stand for no more than five minutes; could continuously walk for no more than 0.1 miles; could never balance while standing, crouching, or walking; and could never crouch, stoop, or crawl. Lucardie reviewed and signed the FCE. An ALJ denied Hargett’s claim, finding that Hargett retained the residual functional capacity to perform light work. The ALJ gave only “partial weight” to the FCE, discounting its indication that Hargett’s ability to stand or walk did not meet any standard for work activity. The Sixth Circuit vacated. The ALJ should have considered the FCE as a treating-source opinion, which, in 2015, had to be given controlling weight if “well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques” and “not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence.” The error was not harmless. View "Hargett v. Commissioner of Social Security" on Justia Law

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Koger, an inmate of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC), is a practicing Rastafarian. Between 2006 and 2018, Koger made several religious-practice accommodation requests, including requests to grow his dreadlocks, keep a religious diet, observe fasts, and commune with other Rastafarians. Alleging that ODRC’s responses were inadequate, Koger brought these claims under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and 42 U.S.C. 1983 against several ODRC officials. The district court granted the defendants summary judgment. The Sixth Circuit affirmed in part. Koger has not shown that the prison’s grooming policy, which provides for an individualized determination of whether an inmate’s hair is “searchable,” prevents him from growing his locks naturally and, therefore, cannot “demonstrate that [the] prison policy substantially burdens [his] religious practice.” It is not clear that ODRC denied Koger the ability to commune with fellow Rastafarians. The court reversed in part. The defendants did not present any government interest to justify the denial of Koger’s religious diet requests. Koger sufficiently alleged equal protection violations. View "Koger v. Mohr" on Justia Law

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Firefighters, including Sparks, responded to a fire at the Pritchard residence. Sparks lost consciousness and died days later. Sparks suffered from coronary disease, hypertension, and diabetes and had not been taking his prescribed medications. Pritchard had arranged for his wife, children, and dog to be out of the house that morning. Pritchard indicated to several people that he was responsible for the fire and gave investigators a false alibi. In persuading his wife, Brandi, to cooperate with his plan to burn the house to collect insurance proceeds, Pritchard recounted previous fires that he started to collect insurance money. Pritchard used threats of violence to coerce Brandi not to confess. Pritchard and Brandi were charged with malicious destruction of property by fire, 18 U.S.C. 844(i), which permits punishment for arson causing death, and mail fraud, 18 U.S.C. 1341. Brandi pleaded guilty. At Pritchard’s trial, a physician for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health testified that firefighting “triggered” Sparks’s fatal heart attack; he could not conclude that Sparks would not have had a heart attack independent of the fire. Pritchard’s counsel unsuccessfully objected to evidence about Pritchard’s previous arsons, emergency protective orders obtained by Brandi, and cell phone information obtained without a warrant. The Sixth Circuit affirmed Pritchard's conviction and 360-month sentence. The jury had sufficient evidence that Sparks' death was “a direct or proximate result of [Pritchard’s] conduct." View "United States v. Pritchard" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Kenney, an Aspen plant manager, resigned but returned seven years later as a production manager. Employee turnover sharply increased. Dozens of employees said they quit because of Kenney; two formal complaints were lodged against her. Beethem, the principal shareholder, fired Kenney three months after her return. Kenney filed suit, alleging retaliation for her complaints about Aspen's alleged discriminatory practices. Kenney asked the HR manager, Jewell, why Aspen was not seeking employees from Detroit and Flint. Jewell allegedly responded that Beethem “did not like that demographic.” Kenney says she made the same complaint to vice president Quinn, who confirmed that Beethem has a problem with black people. Jewell and Quinn deny that she complained about discrimination. Aspen’s job recruitment was done on the internet, not limited by geography. Kenney also claimed that as business slowed, certain Aspen employees worked reduced hours, simultaneously receiving unemployment benefits. When work picked up, some employees continued to collect unemployment. Kenney says Beethem “zeroed in on” three black employees, recommending them for prosecution. According to Kenney, white employees engaged in similar conduct without prosecution. The prosecuted employees continued collecting benefits when told to stop; employees who were not prosecuted stopped collecting benefits when warned. Kenney claims to have spoken with Quinn about these events. The Sixth Circuit affirmed summary judgment for Aspen. Kenney did not offer sufficient evidence to establish a prima facie case of retaliation under Title VII or Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. View "Kenney v. Aspen Technologies, Inc." on Justia Law

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Proponents of a criminal-justice reform initiative that they seek to place on the ballot for the 2020 Michigan general election sued state officials, who continued to strictly enforce the signature requirement for initiatives even after Governor Whitmer issued an order requiring most Michigan residents to remain in their homes as part of the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Finding that the combination of the stay-at-home order and the signature requirement violates the First Amendment by creating a severe restriction on their access to the ballot, the district court enjoined the strict enforcement of the signature requirement. The court rejected a proposed compromise that included a several-weeks extension of the filing deadline. The Sixth Circuit declined to issue an emergency stay pending appeal. With respect to the burden imposed on the Plaintiffs’ access to the ballot, the restrictions at issue are identical to those previously found to be severe. The Defendants failed to show a likelihood that the district court abused its discretion by rejecting the proposed remedy of extending the petition deadline by, at most, 35 days. The court took “no position on the merits.” View "SawariMedia, LLC v. Whitmer" on Justia Law

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Igboba was convicted on 18 counts under 18 U.S.C. 286, 18 U.S.C. 1343, 18 U.S.C. 287, and 18 U.S.C. 1028A(a)(1), (b), and (c)(5), based on his participation in a conspiracy to defraud the government by preparing and filing false federal income tax returns using others’ identities. He was sentenced to 162 months’ imprisonment, followed by three years of supervised release, and required to pay restitution, special assessment, and forfeiture sums. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, rejecting arguments that when the district court increased his base offense level based on the total amount of loss his offense caused, U.S.S.G. 2B1.1(b)(1), it failed to distinguish between the loss caused by his individual conduct and that caused by the entire conspiracy and that the district court erred in applying a two-level sophisticated-means enhancement, section 2B1.1(b)(10). the district court could rightly attribute $4.1 million in losses to “acts and omissions committed, aided, abetted, counseled, commanded, induced, procured, or willfully caused by” Igboba. The court noted his “sophisticated” use of technology and multiple aliases. View "United States v. Igboba" on Justia Law

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In 2002, Hugueley stabbed correctional counselor Steed 36 times, stopping only after his homemade weapon broke off. Hugueley testified that he had planned the attack because Steed “had a smart ass mouth.” The jury convicted Hugueley of first-degree murder. Hugueley waived the presentation of any mitigating evidence during the penalty phase. The jury considered several aggravating factors. In 1986, Hugueley was convicted of first-degree murder for killing his mother. In 1992, he was convicted of first-degree murder after killing another inmate. In 1998, Hugueley was convicted of attempted first-degree murder after stabbing another inmate, The jury sentenced Hugueley to death. Tennessee law requires an automatic appeal from a death sentence. The Tennessee Supreme Court affirmed his conviction and death sentence. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the denial of his 28 U.S.C. 2254 habeas petition. Hugueley originally raised ineffective assistance of counsel in his state post-conviction proceedings, but he waived the claim when he voluntarily withdrew his petition. The Sixth Circuit rejected Hugueley’s argument that he should have been declared incompetent to withdraw that petition, and that the state-court procedures that determined that he was competent were procedurally deficient or, alternatively, that his state post-conviction counsel was ineffective and caused his default. View "Hugueley v. Mays" on Justia Law

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Ware was convicted in 1997 of several federal drug offenses and sentenced to 360 months’ imprisonment. At the time, adherence to the federal sentencing guidelines was mandatory; the jury did not make any drug amount finding. The court did not specify the particular sentence for each count nor specify under which provisions of section 841(b)(1) Ware was sentenced. In 2003, the Sixth Circuit affirmed the denial of Ware’s 28 U.S.C. 2255 motion for relief under Apprendi. In 2019, Ware moved for a sentence reduction under section 404 of the First Step Act. The district court concluded that Ware was eligible for relief but denied Ware’s motion as a matter of discretion. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, rejecting Ware’s argument that the court abused its discretion by insufficiently considering the sentencing factors under 18 U.S.C. 3553(a), putting undue weight on the legislative purpose of the First Step Act, and inadequately considering that Ware’s statutory sentencing range would be lower under current law. The district court assessed at length three of the section 3553(a) factors that it deemed most relevant. The district court did not abuse its discretion in finding that, under Apprendi, Ware’s statutory maximum would have been lower because specified drug amounts were not found by the jury or charged in the indictment but that this factor did not weigh heavily in favor of granting relief, due to concerns regarding disparities with other similarly situated defendants. View "United States v. Ware" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Davenport, convicted of first-degree murder after a jury trial in Michigan state court. He was visibly shackled at the waist, wrist, and ankles during trial. Davenport’s right hand was uncuffed and there was a privacy curtain around the defense table. The court did not justify the shackling on the record. During an evidentiary hearing on direct appeal, several jurors recalled that they had thought Davenport might be dangerous when they saw him in shackles. The jurors testified that Davenport’s shackling was not discussed during deliberations and did not affect their verdict. After exhausting his state remedies, Davenport challenged his conviction in a habeas corpus petition under 28 U.S.C. 2254. The district court found that the shackling was harmless error and denied the petition. The Sixth Circuit reversed and granted a conditional writ. Because “shackling is ‘inherently prejudicial,’” and the evidence of premeditation and deliberation necessary to a first-degree murder conviction was not overwhelming, the state has not met its burden to show the restraints did not have a “substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury’s verdict.” View "Davenport v. MacLaren" on Justia Law