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

Articles Posted in Civil Rights
by
In 2002, Hudson became a firefighter. He was outspoken about his Christian faith. According to Hudson, other firefighters watched pornography in communal spaces and engaged in extra-marital affairs at the fire station. For five years, he criticized their behavior; they responded with disrespectful comments about his religious practices and sexual orientation. In 2015, Hudson’s supervisors learned that he had claimed extra hours on his timesheet and suspended him without pay. A local union officer attended Hudson’s suspension meeting. The statewide union filed an unsuccessful grievance. During an ensuing meeting, the city added a claim that Hudson had engaged in “double-dipping.” On his union representatives’ advice, Hudson invoked his right not to incriminate himself and was fired him on the spot. The union continued to attempt a resolution. The local firefighters and the statewide union had a falling out. Hudson’s “Step 2” meeting was canceled. Hudson emailed the local union, asking for arbitration. The local officials nonetheless scheduled another “Step 2” meeting. No one notified Hudson about the meeting until the day before. Hudson could not attend; he insisted on arbitration. At the meeting, the local union did not pursue Hudson’s grievance. The district court rejected all his claims. The Sixth Circuit reversed as to a First Amendment retaliation claim. Hudson complained about poor administration, protected speech, and the department fired him, an adverse employment action. The court affirmed the rejection of his due process and Title VII claims. View "Peter Hudson v. City of Highland Park" on Justia Law

by
The Ohio Department of Public Safety fired Trooper Johnson after he sexually harassed women while on duty. When the Department learned of the first incident, it let him sign a “Last Chance Agreement,” which said the Department would not fire him if he followed the rules for two years. When the Department learned of another incident, it fired Morris Johnson for violating the Last Chance Agreement. The district court and Sixth Circuit found that the Department did not racially discriminate against Johnson in doing so. Johnson did not show that he was “similarly situated” in all of the relevant respects to an employee of a different race who was treated better. While Johnson and a white trooper both acted inappropriately, their situations were different. The white trooper’s first incident was unverified while the Department verified all of Johnson’s incidents. Johnson propositioned a woman to go out with him; the white trooper did not. Johnson pulled a woman over without probable cause to ask her out; the white trooper did not. Johnson went to a woman’s home; the white trooper did not. The two troopers had different direct supervisors and were subject to different standards because Johnson signed a Last Chance Agreement. View "Johnson v. Ohio Department of Public Safety" on Justia Law

by
Benton, a former schoolteacher, was convicted by a jury for having sex with a 12-year-old student. The judge sentenced her to 25-38 years’ imprisonment. With new appellate counsel, Benton raised constitutional and evidentiary arguments. Her conviction was affirmed. Months later, the Supreme Court handed down its “Lafler” decision, holding that defendants could establish a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel by proving that their lawyer’s incompetence caused them to reject a favorable plea offer. Benton sought postconviction relief, alleging that her attorney told her she had 20 minutes to decide whether to accept a plea offer: a year in jail for a guilty plea to a lesser charge. Her lawyer allegedly told Benton she would lose custody of her infant children. She rejected the deal. Benton claims she would have accepted the plea had the attorney conveyed that the termination of her parental rights would not be automatic. Benton’s appellate counsel offered to stipulate to his own ineffectiveness in not raising the argument. Michigan courts and the federal district court rejected her petitions. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. Benton has no good excuse for not timely raising her claim. Although Lafler was decided in 2012, Benton did not lack the tools to construct her claim in her 2011 appeal. View "Benton v. Brewer" on Justia Law

by
Richardson was convicted of first-degree murder for killing his wife by causing her to fall from a cliff in Pictured Rocks National Park in 2006. The district court denied a federal habeas petition that claimed prosecutorial misconduct and ineffective assistance of trial and appellate counsel for failing to argue that a witness’s testimony was obtained as a result of an illegal, warrantless search. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. Richardson failed to demonstrate that the Michigan Court of Appeals’ rejection of his claims was objectively unreasonable based on Supreme Court precedent. The prosecutor’s reference to the September 11 terrorist attacks in the context of explaining circumstantial evidence and his references to two notorious murders were unnecessarily provocative but did not so infect the trial as to violate Richardson’s due process rights. Although the prosecutor did elicit testimony that Richardson had called his attorney, the purpose of the questioning was to elicit testimony concerning Richardson’s consciousness of guilt. The court also rejected claims based on the prosecutor’s presentation of “overwhelming evidence” of Richardson’s bad character, denigration of defense counsel and witnesses, and allegedly improper objections. Even if Richardson could demonstrate that his counsel was deficient for failing to make an argument that may have been futile at the time of his trial, he cannot demonstrate that he was prejudiced by counsel’s performance. View "Richardson v. Palmer" on Justia Law

by
Ohio H.B. 214, signed into law in 2017, prohibits any person from purposefully performing or inducing or attempting to perform or induce an abortion if the person has knowledge that the pregnant woman is seeking the abortion, in whole or in part, because of a test result indicating Down Syndrome in an unborn child; a prenatal diagnosis of Down Syndrome in an unborn child; or “any other reason to believe” that an unborn child has Down Syndrome, Ohio Rev. Code 2919.10(B). Violations constitute fourth-degree felonies. The law requires the state medical board to revoke the license of a physician who violates it and makes that physician liable for damages. The performing physician must attest in writing that he is not aware that fetal Down Syndrome is a reason for the woman’s decision to terminate. The district court ruled in favor of opponents, finding that under Supreme Court precedent, a woman is expressly and unambiguously entitled to a pre-viability right to choose whether to terminate or continue her pregnancy. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the entry of a preliminary injunction. The state’s interest in preventing discrimination does not become compelling until viability. Plaintiffs’ patients would be irreparably harmed as a matter of law by the loss of their constitutional right to seek an abortion before viability. View "Preterm-Cleveland v. Himes" on Justia Law

by
In 2007, 18-year-old Bennett lived with her boyfriend, Benson, who physically and emotionally abused Bennett. For a time, Stephanie McClure stayed at their apartment. When she moved out, McClure took Benson’s video game console and other items. Benson began telling Bennett and their friends about his plans to shoot and kill McClure. With Bennett and another friend in the car, Benson shot McClure. Bennett was charged with first-degree murder on a theory of aiding and abetting because she had directed Benson to McClure’s trailer park, pointed her out, and then driven the getaway car. She and Benson were tried jointly, before separate juries. Both attorneys adopted a feeble theory of defense: that the police and prosecutor singlemindedly focused on Benson and failed to investigate other potential suspects. Bennett’s attorney did not highlight Bennett’s behavior that suggested she lacked the requisite mens rea: that she alerted the police about the missing items, that Bennett unnecessarily involved another in the supposed plot, and that she displayed extreme emotional distress after hearing the gunshots. Bennett’s counsel did not proffer a single defense witness. Bennett was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the denial of Bennett’s petition for habeas relief. Bennett did not initially raise her claim of ineffective assistance on direct appeal. Bennett did not meet the high standard required to establish constitutionally ineffective assistance by establishing that she was prejudiced by deficient representation View "Bennett v. Brewer" on Justia Law

by
White was convicted of aggravated burglary, aggravated robbery, aggravated murder, attempted murder, felonious assault, and having weapons while under disability. He was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. As White was preparing for trial, his attorney, Armengau, was indicted by the same prosecutor’s office for serious felony offenses related to sexual misconduct, rape, and kidnapping involving his clients, relatives of his clients, and employees. White alleges that his attorney, the prosecution, and the court all failed to inform him about Armengau’s indictment or issues it might have raised regarding his representation. With newfound knowledge after his conviction, and with different counsel, White appealed, arguing constitutionally ineffective assistance of counsel. The Ohio court denied White’s appeal, declining to consider his ineffective-assistance claim for lack of sufficient evidence to allow the court to fully adjudicate the merits. The court issued its ruling almost four months after the deadline for White to file a post-conviction motion in state court. The Ohio Supreme Court declined to accept jurisdiction. White filed a pro se federal habeas petition. The Sixth Circuit vacated a denial of relief. Due to procedural hurdles in state court and because White did not have the aid of an attorney in his post-conviction proceedings, he had no meaningful opportunity to raise his ineffective-assistance claim. Based on Supreme Court precedent, White has cause to overcome his default. View "White v. Warden, Ross Correctional Institution" on Justia Law

by
In 2010, Byrd, who had no criminal record, suggested that he and his girlfriend (Atkinson) rob Joiner at a bank ATM. Byrd provided the gun, but at the last minute tried to cancel the plan. Atkinson, armed, approached Joiner and demanded his money. Joiner resisted and, in a struggle with Atkinson, the gun went off. Joiner suffered a fatal wound. Atkinson returned to the car and Byrd drove away. Byrd turned himself in. The two were charged with first-degree premeditated murder, first-degree felony murder, assault with intent to rob while armed, and possession of a firearm while committing a felony. Byrd was charged on a theory of aiding and abetting and, under Michigan law, was subject to the same penalties as the principal. Atkinson pled guilty to second-degree murder and received a sentence of 30-50 years in exchange for providing testimony in Byrd’s trial. Byrd’s attorney never initiated plea negotiations. Byrd, sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, sought habeas corpus relief, arguing that his counsel’s ineffectiveness deprived him of the opportunity to secure a plea deal. He argued that, based on an egregious misunderstanding of the law, his attorney conveyed to the prosecutor an unwillingness to consider a plea and conveyed to Byrd an assurance of acquittal. The Sixth Circuit granted relief, finding that Byrd’s counsel was deficient and that it is reasonably probable that, absent this incompetency, Byrd would have negotiated a better outcome. View "Byrd v. Skipper" on Justia Law

by
Speech challenged University of Michigan policies prohibiting,“[h]arassing or bullying another person—physically, verbally, or through other means.” The office that investigates alleged violations defined terms on its website, using state law, University policies, and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Speech challenged only the Dictionary definitions: Harassing: to annoy persistently; to create an unpleasant or hostile situation for, especially by uninvited and unwelcome verbal and physical conduct. Bullying: to frighten, hurt, or threaten ...; to act like a bully ...; to cause (someone) to do something by making threats or insults or by using force; to treat abusively; to affect by means of force or coercion. After this lawsuit was filed, the University removed those definitions, leaving only the unchallenged state law definitions. Speech also challenged the Bias Response Team, which responds to student-reported “bias incidents,” defined as “conduct that discriminates, stereotypes, excludes, harasses or harms anyone in our community based on their identity (such as race, color, ethnicity, national origin, sex, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, disability, age, or religion).” Causing a bias incident is not, itself, punishable. The Team does not determine whether reported conduct is a bias incident but offers support to the individual who made the report; it may request a voluntary meeting with the subject of the report. The Team cannot compel a meeting and has no direct punitive authority but can make reports to other bodies. The district court denied a preliminary injunction. The Sixth Circuit vacated. Speech has standing to bring its facial challenge because its members face an objective chill: the referral power and the invitation to meet. the University has not established that its voluntary change makes it “absolutely clear that the allegedly wrongful behavior could not reasonably be expected to recur.” View "Speech First, Inc. v. Schlissel" on Justia Law

by
Rudolph’s son texted Rudolph's ex-husband, Kyle: “[S]he has the .22 out”. Kyle went Rudolph’s home, the two spoke and Rudolph allowed Kyle to take Rudolph’s gun. After Kyle left, Rudolph went to sleep. Around 3:00 A.M., Officer Hodges stopped Kyle for speeding. Kyle admitted he was carrying a gun, explaining that he took it from his ex-wife. Kyle showed Hodges the text from his son and a text from Rudolph saying “goodbye.” The officers let Kyle go but felt obligated to do a wellness check. Two officers went to Rudolph’s home and banged on her doors. Asleep, she did not answer. Officer Hodges told Kyle to call Rudolph. Rudolph answered. Hodges stated that his officers were at the door. Rudolph opened the door. The officers entered without her permission. Rudolph stated that she was not suicidal and generally cooperated. The officers gave her the option of going voluntarily to the hospital or being taken into custody involuntary for a mental-health check. Rudolph says that they grabbed her, slammed her into the wall, and handcuffed her “really tight.” The officers “manhandled” her outside, without shoes, dragging her so that she hurt her ankle. She later needed surgeries to treat that injury. She complained repeatedly about the handcuffs. The hospital had to wait for Rudolph’s blood-alcohol level to go down to perform psychiatric evaluation, then determined that “[Rudolph] is at extremely low risk of self-harm.” The Sixth Circuit affirmed the denial of qualified immunity summary judgment on three claims but reversed the denial on Rudolph’s state-law false arrest and imprisonment claims. Although the officers had a reason to show up at Rudolph’s door, a jury could reasonably find that they lacked probable cause to execute this mental-health seizure. The officers violated Rudolph’s clearly established right to be free from excessive force. View "Rudolph v. Babinec" on Justia Law