Last week at the Sixth Circuit: Suspended licenses, (Dis)honor Codes, and Re-redistricting

Showing no signs of a Kentucky Derby hangover (or any follow-on litigation, at least not yet), last week the court wrapped up arguments during the second half of its May sitting. Your quick recap:

A rational basis for suspended licenses – In a blow to con-law professors and indigent drivers, a divided panel held in Fowler v. Benson that Michigan may suspend drivers licenses for unpaid fines. The trial court had granted a class of low-income Michiganders an injunction barring the state from suspending licenses without providing an “ability to pay” hearing and alternative payment plans.

Judge Alice Batchelder’s opinion, joined by Judge Amul Thapar, rejected the notion that state law recognizes a property interest in an indigency hearing. The majority held that Michigan’s policy, by incentivizing payment, survives “rational-basis review” (a notoriously low hurdle) under the Due Process Clause.

Judge Bernice Donald, in full-throated dissent (“I dissent!”), distinguished the “protected property interest in the continued possession of a driver’s license” from the procedures offered to protect that interest. Her opinion also questioned the “likel[ihood] that Michigan will recover [its] costs”—asking how those too poor to pay could drive to work on a suspended license and earn the money they owed.

Largely unmentioned, but hovering over these dueling Due Process opinions, is the Supreme Court’s decision decades ago—in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez (1973)—that wealth is not a suspect classification triggering strict scrutiny under the Equal Protection Clause.

Cat’s paw liability under Title IX – On Thursday, a Sixth Circuit panel heard oral argument in Bose v. Bea, a Title IX appeal arising from a Rhodes College student’s expulsion for an honor code violation

The student alleges she declined the sexual advances of a professor, who then retaliated by framing her for cheating on a quiz. The Rhodes College Honor Council expelled the student, and she sued for sex discrimination under Title IX.

On summary judgment, the district court held that respondeat superior and constructive notice could not link a professor’s discriminatory motive to the college’s adverse action. Judges Eugene Siler, Joan Larsen, and John Nalbandian will now decide whether and how the “cat’s paw theory” (and Tennessee’s judicial-privilege rule) apply to private disciplinary proceedings. This marks a return to Title IX for the court, which last year held in a closely watched decision that a right to cross-examination applies in university disciplinary hearings.

Who decides the district lines? The next partisan gerrymandering fight is on its way from the Southern District of Ohio to the Supreme Court. On May 3rd, a three-judge panel unanimously held that Ohio’s congressional district map is an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander. The court held that the map—which splits 23 counties and 73 cities—“sacrifices traditional redistricting principles in order to maximize pro-Republican partisan advantage.”

The panel, which included Circuit Judge Karen Nelson Moore and District Judges Black and Watson, ordered the Ohio General Assembly to draw a new map by June 14th. But Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost has filed a direct appeal (not a cert petition; Supreme Court review is mandatory) with the U.S. Supreme Court. Ohio’s request to stay the redistricting deadline is awaiting a response.

Earlier this term, the Supreme Court heard argument in related gerrymandering cases from North Carolina and Maryland. The Supreme Court should render a decision in these cases before July. Though just last year it managed to back away—twice—from Justice Frankfurter’s “political thicket,” by avoiding a substantive decision in two argued cases challenging Wisconsin and Maryland maps.

Before Justice Kavanaugh’s arrival, his former boss had written “[t]hat a workable standard for measuring a gerrymander’s burden on representational rights has not yet emerged does not mean that none will emerge in the future.” Rather oracular, and totally vexing for those drawing map lines and practicing political law. Ohio and the plaintiffs soon should (might?) learn whether partisan-gerrymandering claims are justiciable. And if so—which is a very big “if”—how partisan is too partisan under the Constitution.

Trends in the Sixth Circuit – Time to a Decision

“How long will my appeal take?”  A question clients always ask and lawyers often resist (and which always depend heavily on the individual facts of the case).  But the data also shows that the average has continued to decline in the Sixth Circuit.  In 2011, the average Sixth Circuit appeal took 15.5 months from the notice of appeal to the final decision.  Under the leadership of Sixth Circuit Clerk Deborah Hunt and Chief Judges Batchelder and Cole, the Circuit made a concerted effort to reduce the time it takes to decide an appeal.  The circuit now decides the average case in just 7.4 months—less than half the time it took in 2011.  Here’s a chart showing the changes over time:

For many years, the circuit was tied with the Ninth Circuit as the slowest circuit to move cases along and render its decisions.  Every circuit has made changes to improve the speed of their decisions over the past ten years—the circuits have, on average, sped up decisions about three months.  But while the current laggard is the First Circuit, at 13.4 months, the Sixth Circuit at 7.4 months has dramatically improved its position and is now the third-fastest circuit.

This increase in speed is undoubtedly a positive development.  Individuals who seek relief or repose, businesses that depend on certainty, prisoners waiting to hear their fate or freedom—everyone benefits when the wheels of justice grind a little faster.  That’s especially so when (as our experience suggests is the case in the Sixth Circuit) courts manage to increase speed without sacrificing accuracy and while increasing transparency.  Statistics we discussed recently on this blog suggest that the circuit’s faster pace has not diminished the number of written decisions or rate of reversal.

Sixth Circuit Issues Interesting Decision on Use of Representative Evidence in FLSA Collective Actions

Earlier this week, the Sixth Circuit released an interesting opinion addressing the use of representative evidence in “collective actions” brought under the Fair Labor Standards Act. As discussed below, the Court held that uniform testimony from dozens of individual employees can establish liability without the need for statistical evidence. At the same time, the decision yields some important questions regarding the use of statistical sampling in future cases.

In Pierce v. Wyndham Vacation Resorts, Inc., a group of over 150 sales employees at four Wyndham resorts in Tennessee alleged the company failed to compensate them for overtime. Plaintiffs fell into three different groups: “front-line” salespeople who sold ownership interests in Wyndham timeshares to new customers; “in-house” salespeople who sold upgraded interests to existing owners; and “discovery” salespeople who sold “trial packages” to prospective owners. All three groups received commissions and a minimum-wage draw (deducted from any commissions paid). Plaintiffs, however, alleged the company systematically required salespeople to underreport their hours and altered timesheets to avoid paying any overtime.

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Supreme Court Rejects Sixth and Eleventh Circuit’s “Discretionary Function” Immunity for TVA

In Thacker v. Tennessee Valley Authority, the Supreme Court held that sovereign immunity does not necessarily shield TVA’s “discretionary functions” from liability.  Justice Kagan’s unanimous opinion reversed the Eleventh Circuit, which had sided with longstanding Sixth Circuit precedent treating many TVA functions as immune from suit.

Congress created the Tennessee Valley Authority, a government-owned corporation, to promote economic development during the Great Depression. TVA exercises both “traditionally governmental functions” (like making arrests and condemning property) and “commercial ones” (like producing and selling electricity).  The TVA Act explicitly allows it to “sue and be sued in its corporate name.”  But the Sixth and Eleventh Circuits—borrowing from the Federal Tort Claims Act—have long held that TVA is “exempt from liability” for discretionary actions when it exercises “wholly governmental functions.”

That is a problem, according to the Supreme Court, because the FTCA expressly excludes TVA from its scope. The TVA Act, meanwhile, contains no discretionary-function exception of its own. And separation-of-powers principles, Justice Kagan explained, don’t prevent Congress from allowing TVA to “sued or be sued.”

The Government …. asks us to let the FTCA in through the back door, when Congress has locked the front one.

So: when TVA raises a downed power line, across a river, protected by TVA police boats, during a fishing tournament, is it liable for negligence like a private power company? Or immune like a government agency? That is a vexing fact pattern for a law-school exam. Here, tragically, the question is not hypothetical: a collision on the water killed one fisherman and injured another.

We won’t learn the answer until a remand back to the Eleventh Circuit. Going forward, lower courts including the Sixth Circuit will determine whether TVA’s activities were “commercial”—and therefore not immune—or “governmental”—and therefore immune only if exposure to suit would clearly cause “grave interference” with a governmental function. “That,” the Court emphasized, “is a high bar.”

Pre-Thacker, the Sixth Circuit’s TVA jurisprudence tracked the FTCA.  But now the Sixth and Eleventh Circuits (which include the vast majority of TVA territory) will apply a newly-narrowed immunity to the TVA—and potentially many other government corporations that may “sued and be sued.” At least sometimes.

Trail-Blazing Sixth Circuit Judge Damon Keith Dies at 96

Sixth Circuit Judge Damon J. Keith died this weekend at the age of 96.  He served on the Sixth Circuit for over 40 years.  A civil rights icon, he issued notable opinions addressing racial desegregation in public education, warrantless Nixon-era wiretaps, and blanket secrecy for deportation hearings of terrorism suspects after 9/11.  In remembrance, the Sixth Circuit has posted this biographical video, including Judge Keith’s own words about his experiences with segregation and the mentorship he received from US Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.  The Eastern District of Michigan has posted this reflection on his life, including in particular his impact in Michigan.  News outlets and civil rights groups around the country are noting his passing — including the New York Times, the Detroit Free Press, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

A lifelong Detroit resident, Judge Keith was nominated to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967.  President Jimmy Carter later appointed him to the Sixth Circuit in 1977.  Although he took senior status in 1995, he continued to sit for cases (and in fact, he was on the panel in decisions issued just last week).

Among his well-known rulings:  In Davis v. School District of Pontiac, the Sixth Circuit affirmed Judge Keith’s findings that the school board perpetuated racial segregation within the city by lining up schools and school-boundaries with segregated housing patterns. To remedy these Fourteenth Amendment violations, Judge Keith ordered that the schools be integrated, including by city-wide busing. In United States v. Sinclair, the Supreme Court unanimously affirmed Judge Keith’s ruling that the Nixon administration’s warrantless wiretapping violated the Fourth Amendment. In Detroit Free Press v. Ashcroft, writing for a unanimous Sixth Circuit panel, Judge Keith held that the government’s categorical assertion of national security as grounds for conducting all deportation hearings of terrorism suspects in secret did not pass muster under the First Amendment.

Details on the public visitation and simulcast services can be found here.

Sixth Circuit Amends “Chalking” Decision to Clarify Scope

Earlier this week, the Sixth Circuit issued a decision addressing a constitutional challenge to the practice of “chalking” the tires of parked cars for parking enforcement purposes. As we noted, that decision garnered a lot of attention from the national media.

Yesterday, the Court issued an amended opinion clarifying the scope of its ruling. The amended opinion contains the following new paragraph in its conclusion:

Taking the allegations in Taylor’s complaint as true, we hold that chalking is a search under the Fourth Amendment, specifically under the Supreme Court’s decision in Jones. This does not mean, however, that chalking violates the Fourth Amendment. Rather, we hold, based on the pleading stage of this litigation, that two exceptions to the warrant requirement—the “community caretaking” exception and the motor-vehicle exception—do not apply here. Our holding extends no further than this. When the record in this case moves beyond the pleadings stage, the City is, of course, free to argue anew that one or both of those exceptions do apply, or that some other exception to the warrant requirement might apply.

While the Sixth Circuit has thus held that chalking constitutes a “search” under Jones, the amended opinion stops short of declaring that such “searches” will always be unreasonable (or never fall under an exception to the warrant requirement).

The amended opinion thus tees up a debate over the “reasonableness” of the search on remand. Long story short: Ms. Taylor has survived the motion-to-dismiss-stage, but she has not yet evaded the parking authorities.

Sixth Circuit Erases Chalking of Parked Cars

It’s not often that a dispute over parking tickets ends up in federal court. But that’s exactly what happened this week in Taylor v. City of Saginaw – a case that has already drawn the attention of the national media.

Taylor involved a challenge to “a common parking enforcement practice known as ‘chalking,’ whereby City parking enforcement officers use chalk to mark the tires of parked vehicles to track how long they have been parked.” This practice can be surprisingly effective (as certain blog authors unfortunately can attest). But it is apparently very effective in Saginaw – according to Judge Donald’s decision, one particular parking enforcement officer managed to chalk (and then ticket) Ms. Taylor fifteen separate times between 2014 and 2017.

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Trends in the Sixth Circuit – A Substantial Increase In Written Decisions

Recently we discussed academic criticism claiming that circuit courts may respond to increased caseload pressure by spending less time per case or lengthening the appeals process.  We found evidence suggesting that this is not occurring at the Sixth Circuit.  One interesting side note that our analysis showed is that the percentage of written decisions has increased significantly over the past decade.  We have calculated that the percentage of total appeals that end in a written decision has increased to 31% in 2018 from 25% in 2004.

Note that appeals ending without a written decision do not indicate an unwritten judicial decision because the judiciary’s statistics include cases that end with settlements and other voluntary dismissals.  We know that the Sixth Circuit’s excellent mediation program resolves around 400 appeals each year—which are resolutions agreed to by all parties that do not result in a written decision.  Given those numbers, the 20% increase in written opinions since the mid-2000s, and our own experience, we suspect that many more litigants are now receiving a reasoned, written decision when their appeal is decided.

This is a very welcome development.  Some appellate courts give one-line (or even one-word) decisions in appeals that may be critically important to the parties.  Litigants (and their lawyers!) may tend to chafe at the impression—whether or not it reflects the reality of the court’s internal decision-making process—that their appeal and arguments were rejected without actual consideration.  And written opinions have obvious benefits for the development and transparency of caselaw in our common-law system.

“The Learned Sixth” – Sixth Circuit Judges Busy Speaking and Writing

When welcoming his (many) new colleagues, Judge Sutton has sometimes mentioned his court’s long-lost nickname: “The Learned Sixth.” Many of its earliest judges—Taft, Day, Lurton, Howell Jackson—served as diplomats or law school deans, cooled their heels at the Sixth Circuit, and proceeded to the Supreme Court.

Is the Sixth Circuit recovering its name and reputation? Several current judges have appeared on shortlists of potential Supreme Court nominees. And as for the court’s scholarly output, the judges are keeping busy in the meantime with a steady stream of important writings and speeches.

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Reversal Rates and Caseload Pressure in the Sixth Circuit

As appellate attorneys, one of the most frequent questions we are asked is the chances of reversal.  The likelihood of obtaining a reversal on appeal is always a very individual question—it requires a close look at the facts of the case and the legal questions raised by the appeal, and a host of other factors.  One of those factors we look at is the overall reversal rate, which varies between 12% and 16% for civil cases in the Sixth Circuit.  As we’ve previously discussed, some would argue the number of pending cases is another factor.  The idea is that as the number of cases each judge faces goes up, either the reversal rate will go down because judges spend less time per case and will default to just affirming the trial court or judges will simply take more time to decide each appeal.

For this post, we decided to look at the relationship between reversal rates, various metrics of caseload pressure, and the overall time to a decision.  We ran data from the Sixth Circuit to see if there was a correlation between any of those variables for the years 2004 through 2017.  Here are the results (along with the coefficient of correlation for those of you mathematically inclined):

Potential Relationship Is there a correlation? Correlation Coefficient
reversal rates and caseload pressure weak or no correlation 0.14 to 0.29
reversal rates and the time to decision a moderate negative correlation -0.43
caseload pressure and the time to decision a moderate negative correlation -0.35 to -0.83

These are the conclusions we can draw from this quick analysis:

  • The Sixth Circuit does not respond to caseload pressure by taking the easy road of affirming more often.
  • As caseload pressure increases, the Sixth Circuit responds by issuing decisions more quickly–presumably to keep up with the work.
  • As the Sixth Circuit decides cases faster, it may also result in the court reversing cases more often.

Though these conclusions are necessarily tentative, they represent good news for litigants.  They imply that the increase caseload pressure that the Sixth Circuit has felt over the years has probably not affect the judges’ decisions on the merits, but it has prompted the court to find ways to decide cases more expeditiously.