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

Articles Posted in Constitutional Law
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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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Buddenberg, formerly the County Health District fiscal coordinator, learned that the District had obtained a state grant for tire removal, and, without competitive bids, District workers took on the work. Buddenberg also reported an apparently sex-based pay disparity between District employees. In reporting these issues to the Board of Health, she also voiced other concerns about unethical conduct by a supervisor, such as accepting gifts from contractors to whom the District issued permits, failing to enforce attendance and break policies, failing to honor the reference-check policy for new hires, and disregarding the health and safety recommendations. Buddenberg wrote multiple emails to Board members and to the Board’s attorney, describing Weisdack’s subsequent retaliation. The Board failed to intervene. After receiving notice of Buddenberg’s EEOC filing, her supervisor issued a “Notice of Proposed Disciplinary Action.” Attorney Budzik offered to settle the disciplinary charges if Buddenberg would accept a demotion and a salary reduction of nearly $1,000 per month, and drop all her claims. Demoted, Buddenberg found the work environment intolerable and resigned. She sued, alleging Title VII, Fair Labor Standards Act, and First Amendment retaliation, 42 U.S.C. 2000, 29 U.S.C. 215(a)(3)), 42 U.S.C. 1983. On interlocutory appeal, the Sixth Circuit affirmed the denial of a motion to dismiss based on qualified immunity. Accepting Buddenberg’s factual allegations, she has plausibly alleged violations of her clearly established First Amendment rights. Buddenberg’s speech was not within her ordinary job responsibilities and was constitutionally protected. View "Buddenberg v. Weisdack" on Justia Law

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As a felon in possession of a firearm, Wright had three prior convictions for “serious drug offenses,” and qualified as an armed career criminal. A Maryland district judge accepted his plea and gave him the 15-year minimum sentence. Wright did not dispute his Armed Career Criminal Act status, nor did he appeal. Wright unsuccessfully challenged his sentence after the Supreme Court decided, in Johnson, that ACCA's “residual clause” was unconstitutionally vague. Wright’s argument had nothing to do with Johnson or the residual clause, which did not concern drug offenses. After the Supreme Court’s 2016 Mathis decision, Wright was subject to “second or successive” habeas motions limitation, 28 U.S.C. 2255(h). Wright's second habeas corpus petition, filed in the district court where he is imprisoned, was dismissed. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. In the Sixth Circuit, a federal prisoner who has already filed a section 2255 motion and cannot file another one, cannot use section 2241 to seek relief just because a new Supreme Court case hints his conviction or sentence may be defective. The prisoner must also show that binding adverse precedent (or some greater obstacle) left him with “no reasonable opportunity” to make his argument either when he was convicted and appealed or when he sought postconviction relief. Wright had several opportunities to raise his “Mathis claim,” free of any procedural impediments or hostile precedents. He cannot now use the saving clause to get "another bite at the apple." View "Wright v. Spaulding" on Justia Law

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Gresham is serving a 75-year sentence in a Marquette, Michigan state prison. He filed a 42 U.S.C. 1983 action against prison employees, alleging that they improperly forced him to take antipsychotic medication. The Sixth Circuit affirmed that Gresham must pay a $400 filing fee (28 U.S.C. 1914) before proceeding. The right to proceed “in forma pauperis” and avoid filing fees may be removed for prisoner plaintiffs who abuse the privilege. Prisoners become ineligible to file free lawsuits if the courts have dismissed three or more of their lawsuits as “frivolous, malicious, or [for] fail[ure] to state a claim,” 28 U.S.C. 1915(g). Gresham has at least eight baseless lawsuits. The statute frees poor prisoners from the rule if they are “under imminent danger of serious physical injury.” Gresham alleged that the forced medication caused him “chest pains, akathisia [muscular restlessness], seizures, vomiting, stomach cramps, and dizz[iness].” Those side effects did not amount to an imminent “serious physical injury.” They are typically temporary and rarely life-threatening and are not the kinds of injuries that can lead to impending death or other severe bodily harms. Gresham has not remotely alleged how his complaints could lead to such harms while he is under medical supervision. View "Gresham v. Meden" on Justia Law

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In 2011, a Cincinnati officer ran the license plate number of an SUV and found that it had been reported stolen. The SUV stopped after the officer activated his emergency lights. When the officer stepped out of his cruiser, the SUV sped away. At over 75 miles-per-hour, the SUV raced through a downtown red light, swiping a vehicle, then slamming into a taxicab. The SUV hit a parking meter and caught fire; its driver ran, leaving his passenger, with leg fractures, inside the burning vehicle. Rescue workers freed the SUV passenger; he survived. The cab’s driver and passenger died immediately. Officers quickly apprehended the SUV’s driver, later identified as Gerth. Although Gerth suffered only minor injuries, police took him to a hospital, where a toxicology test revealed that he had alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine in his system. Gerth was charged with felony murder, aggravated vehicular homicide, aggravated vehicular assault, vehicular assault, leaving the scene of the accident, failure to comply with the order or signal of a police officer, and receiving stolen property. A half-dozen attorneys have represented Gerth throughout his trial, appeals, and collateral attacks. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the rejection of his federal habeas petition. Gerth procedurally defaulted a claim that his second appellate counsel failed to argue that the trial court improperly denied his request to proceed pro se. Gerth had no constitutional right to counsel in his reopened appeal and cannot excuse his procedural default. View "Gerth v. Warden, Allen Oakwood Correctional Institution" on Justia Law