Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit
by
The plaintiffs own land abutting a railroad right-of-way that was long ago granted to, and for decades used by, the Railway in Dade County, Florida. When the Railway abandoned the right-of-way for rail use, full rights to the underlying land, unencumbered by the easement, would have reverted to whoever owned such rights, had there been no overriding governmental action. However, the Railway successfully petitioned the Surface Transportation Board to have the railroad corridor turned into a recreational trail under the National Trails System Act Amendments, 16 U.S.C. 1247(d). The landowners sued, alleging that the agency’s conversion of the right-of-way into a recreational trail constituted a taking of their rights in the corridor land abutting their properties and that the government must pay just compensation for that taking. To establish their ownership of the corridor land, the plaintiffs relied on Florida's “centerline presumption,” which provides that when a road or other corridor forms the boundary of a landowner’s parcel, that landowner owns the fee interest in the abutting corridor land up to the corridor’s centerline, absent clear evidence to the contrary. The trial court ruled in favor of the government. The Federal Circuit reversed. The centerline presumption applies to railroad rights-of-way and the plats at issue do not clearly express the intent required to avoid application of the centerline presumption. View "Castillo v. United States" on Justia Law

by
The Landowners filed a “rails-to-trails” class action against the United States, claiming that the government, through the National Trails System Act, effected a Fifth Amendment taking of Landowners’ reversionary rights to property underlying railroad easements owned by the BNSF Railway. On remand, the Claims Court rejected the government’s argument that a negotiated settlement had been abandoned; approved that settlement agreement as procedurally and substantively fair; entered a partial final judgment pursuant to Rule 54(b) “in the total amount of $159,636,521.65, consisting of $110,000,000 in principal and $49,636,521.65 in interest,” and deferred determination on the amount of attorney fees and costs to award class counsel under the Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Property Acquisition Policies Act of 1970 (URA). The Federal Circuit affirmed, upholding finding that the government failed to meet “its burden of demonstrating that the parties unequivocally intended to abandon the Settlement Agreement.” The court declined to address the government’s argument that the Claims Court erred by not limiting class counsel to the agreed amount of URA fees and costs, concluding that it lacked jurisdiction over the issue. View "Haggart v. United States" on Justia Law

by
Arthrex’s patent is directed to a knotless suture securing assembly. On inter partes review, heard by a three-judge panel consisting of three Patent Trial and Appeal Board Administrative Patent Judges (APJs), several claims were found to be unpatentable as anticipated. Arthrex appealed and argued that the appointment of the APJs by the Secretary of Commerce, as set forth in 35 U.S.C. 6(a), violates the Appointments Clause, U.S. Const., art. II, section 2, cl. 2. The Federal Circuit agreed and vacated the decision. The statute as currently constructed makes the APJs principal officers, requiring appointment by the President as opposed to the Secretary of Commerce. The court considered review within the agency over APJ panel decisions, the Director’s supervisory powers, and that APJs can only be removed from service for “misconduct [that] is likely to have an adverse impact on the agency’s performance of its functions,” 5 U.S.C. 7513. Under existing law, APJs issue decisions that are final on behalf of the Executive Branch and are not removable without cause. To remedy the violation, the court concluded that severing the portion of the Patent Act restricting removal of the APJs is sufficient to render the APJs inferior officers and remedy the constitutional appointment problem. View "Arthrex, Inc. v. Smith & Nephew, Inc." on Justia Law

by
In 1983-1984, the Farmers Home Administration issued apartment owners (Appellants) 50-year loans to provide low-income housing under 42 U.S.C. 1485. A promissory note provided that prepayments “may be made at any time at the option of the Borrower.” The mortgage stated that the loan must be used in compliance with the statute and that Appellants must use the property for low-income housing for 20 years before they could prepay and exit the program. The documents were contemporaneously executed and cited each other. The Emergency Low Income Housing Preservation Act of 1987 and Housing and Community Development Act of 1992 provided that borrowers could no longer prepay after the 20-year period but must notify FmHA’s successor, which was to make “reasonable efforts" to extend the low-income use,” 42 U.S.C. 1472(c)(4)(A). If the agreement is not extended, the borrower must attempt to sell the property at fair market value to a nonprofit organization or a public agency. Appellants rejected incentive offers and, in 2009-2010, unsuccessfully marketed their properties for the required period. Facing foreclosure and low occupancy due to high unemployment, Appellants submitted deeds in lieu of foreclosure, then filed suit. The Federal Circuit reinstated certain claims. In transferring deeds to the government, Appellants did not assign away their accrued claims for breach of the prepayment right. The Claims Court properly dismissed a contract-based Fifth Amendment “takings” claim. In entering contracts, the government acts in its commercial capacity and remedies arise from the contracts themselves, rather than from constitutional protections. Appellants can succeed under a theory premised on their property interests in the land and buildings before entering the contracts. View "Callaway Manor Apartments v. United States" on Justia Law

by
The Federal Reserve Act of 1913 established a system that includes the Federal Reserve Board of Governors and 12 regional Reserve Banks. The Board exercises broad regulatory supervision over the Reserve Banks, which serve as banks to the U.S. government and to commercial banks who are members of the Federal Reserve System. The Act set the statutory rate for dividend payments on Federal Reserve Bank stock at six percent per year, which remained in effect until 2016, when an amendment (12 U.S.C. 289(a)(1)) effectively reduced the dividend rate for certain stockholder banks to a lower variable rate. Plaintiffs argued that banks that subscribed to Reserve Bank stock before the amendment are entitled to dividends at the six percent rate and that, by paying dividends at the amended rate, the government breached a contractual duty or effected a Fifth Amendment taking. The Federal Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the suit. There is no “clear indication” of the government’s intent to contract in either the language of the Federal Reserve Act or the circumstances of its passage. Plaintiffs did not allege a legally cognizable property interest arising from its “statutory rights” and the requirement that member banks subscribe to reserve bank stock under the Act does not constitute a regulatory taking. View "American Bankers Association v. United States" on Justia Law

by
The Moodys leased Pine Ridge Indian Reservation parcels for agriculture. The government has a trust responsibility for Indian agricultural lands, 25 U.S.C. 3701(2). The Secretary of the Interior is authorized to participate in the management of such lands, with the participation of the beneficial owners and has delegated some responsibilities to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). BIA regulations generally allow Indian landowners to enter into agricultural leases with BIA approval. Each Moody lease defined “the Indian or Indians” as the “LESSOR.” The Claims Court concluded that the Oglala Sioux Tribe signed the leases. Other lease provisions distinguished between the lease parties and the Secretary of the Interior/United States. Issues arose in 2012. The BIA sent letters canceling the leases, noting that the Moodys could appeal the decision to the Regional Director. Within the 30-day appeal period, the Moodys returned with a cashier’s check in the proper amount, which the BIA accepted. The BIA informed the Moodys that they need not appeal, could continue farming, and did not require written confirmation. Subsequently, the Moodys received trespass notices and were instructed to vacate, which they did. The Moodys did not appeal within the BIA but sued the government. The Federal Circuit affirmed the Claims Court’s dismissal of the written contract claims for lack of jurisdiction because the government was not a party to the leases, for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted because the Moodys did not have implied-in-fact contracts with the government, and for failure to raise a cognizable takings claim because their claim was based on the government’s alleged violation of applicable regulations. View "Moody v. United States" on Justia Law

by
The Landowners inherited Welty Farm in Cape Girardeau County, Missouri, bordered by the Whitewater River. Givens purchased a farm bordering and downstream from the Welty Farm in 1998. Givens maintains a drainage ditch and levee system near the River and is enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), 16 U.S.C. 3831. Under the CRP, landowners can enter into contracts to remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and to manage it in accordance with an approved conservation plan in exchange for monetary compensation from the USDA. Conservation plans for land adjacent to streams or rivers commonly require the maintenance of a “filter strip,” an area of vegetation adjacent to water to remove nutrients, sediment, organic matter, pesticides, and other pollutants from surface runoff and subsurface flow. In 2014, the Landowners sued Givens, alleging that his levee and ditch system resulted in the drainage of wetlands on Welty Farm and “caused unnatural flooding,” which rendered Welty Farm “unfit for cultivation.” The suit was dismissed. The Landowners sued the United States, claiming that the government had taken their property without just compensation by “requiring and/or approving the construction and maintenance” of the Givens levee. The Federal Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the suit. The Landowners pled no facts suggesting that the flooding was a direct and intended result of the government’s actions nor have they pled facts sufficient to show that Givens was “coerced” into constructing and maintaining his levee. View "Welty v. United States" on Justia Law

by
Hornseth worked at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, which houses nuclear-powered vessels; every position requires a security clearance. Hornseth attended rehabilitation for alcoholism and provided the Navy with documents regarding his treatment. From Hornseth’s rehabilitation discharge letter, the Navy learned that Hornseth had used marijuana during his employment. The Commander notified Hornseth that his security clearance was suspended and that the Navy proposed to indefinitely suspend his employment. Hornseth filed a reply. Combs, the deciding official, engaged in communications with the Shipyard’s Human Resources staff, primarily concerning positions that would not require a security clearance. The HR department drafted a “Decision on Proposed Indefinite Suspension” and forwarded it to Combs. Combs signed the decision. The Merit Systems and Protection Board ALJ affirmed, rejecting due process arguments that the reply process was an empty formality because Combs did not have the ability to take or recommend alternative agency action and Combs and the HR staff engaged in an improper ex parte communication. The Federal Circuit affirmed. Homseth received the procedural protections of 5 U.S.C. 7513(b); he received notice, had an opportunity to respond and to be represented, and was provided with a written decision with reasons. Although Hornseth had not seen the communication to Combs before the discovery process, the information it contained was already known to Hornseth or cumulative. View "Hornseth v. Department of the Navy" on Justia Law

by
In 1998, Do a government employee since 1990, was hired by HUD’s Information Systems Audit Division. She became Division Director. In 2006, Asuncion, then working as a Justice Department auditor, applied for a GS-11 position in Do’s Division. On her resume and Questionnaire, Asuncion claimed she had a college degree in accounting. A pre-employment investigation revealed that Asuncion did not have that degree. Asuncion explained that she had completed the required coursework but needed to take one additional course to raise her GPA. Asuncion claimed good-faith mistake and promised to secure her degree. After conferring with her supervisor, Do approved Asuncion’s hiring. Asuncion was eventually promoted. In 2009, Do posted two GS-14 auditor positions. Human resources flagged Asuncion “as a qualified candidate.” Do selected Asuncion, knowing that Asuncion still did not have an accounting degree. Do later was advised that Asuncion could continue as an auditor but must obtain her degree. Asuncion resigned in 2016. HUD demoted Do to Nonsupervisory Senior Auditor and suspended her for 14 days. The Federal Circuit reversed. Do’s due process rights were violated; the Board relied on a new ground to sustain the discipline. Do's notice alleged a single charge of “negligence of duty” in hiring and promoting Asuncion. The Board’s decision concluded that Do negligently failed to investigate whether Asuncion met alternative requirements. That alternative theory appears nowhere in the notice or in the deciding official’s decision. View "Do v. Department of Housing and Urban Development" on Justia Law

by
Following a positive drug test, DHS removed Hansen from his position as an Information Technology Specialist for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. After failing the drug test, Hansen had submitted a letter to the agency, claiming that he had unknowingly consumed pot brownies prepared by a friend-of-a-friend’s neighbor, a stranger to him, at a barbeque. The Merit Systems Protection Board affirmed. Hansen appealed, arguing that the Board improperly assigned him the burden of proving that he inadvertently ingested marijuana, that it erred in finding his position was subject to random drug testing, and that even if it was subject to such testing, he lacked required notice of that fact. The Federal Circuit affirmed, holding that intent is not an element of the charged conduct and that the Board properly required Hansen to introduce rebuttal evidence to counter the government’s showing of nexus and choice of penalty. Substantial evidence supports the Board’s finding that Hansen’s position was designated for random drug testing. View "Hansen v. Department of Homeland Security" on Justia Law