Supreme Court Update: CRST Van Expedited, Inc. (13-1375), Luna Torres v. Lynch (14-1096) and Betterman v. Montana (14-1457)

May 23, 2016 Supreme Court Update

Greetings, Court Fans!

Three more decisions this morning—Green v. Brennan (14-613), holding that the 45-day limitations period for a constructive-discharge action under Title VII begins to run after the employee gives notice of his resignation; Wittman v. Personhuballah (14-1504), holding that a number of congressmen from Virginia lacked standing to defend the State's congressional redistricting plan against a challenge brought by voters from the Third Congressional District, because none of the congressmen lived in or represented that district; and Foster v. Chapman (14-8349), finding that a Georgia death row inmate had succeeded in showing purposeful discrimination by prosecutors who struck black jurors from his criminal trial. We'll have summaries of those decisions forthwith.

But first, let's get caught up from last week, when the Court dropped nine opinions on us. We covered six of them last week, and will cover the remaining three in this Update—CRST Van Expedited, Inc. v. EEOC (13-1375), holding that a favorable ruling on the merits is not a necessary predicate for a defendant to be a prevailing party for purposes of an award of attorney's fees under Title VII; Luna Torres v. Lynch (14-1096), holding that a state offense counts as an "aggravated felony" for purposes of removal under the INA if it has every non-jurisdictional element of a listed federal crime; and Betterman v. Montana (14-1457), holding that the Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial does not apply once a defendant has been found guilty and is awaiting sentencing.

First up, in CRST Van Expedited, Inc. v. EEOC (13-1357), the Court held that a defendant can be a "prevailing party," and therefore qualify for attorney's fees under Title VII, even without obtaining a favorable judgment "on the merits." In 2007, the EEOC filed suit in federal court against CRST a trucking company, alleging that it had subjected up to 250 women to sexual harassment and a sexually hostile and offensive work environment in violation of Title VII. In a series of rulings, the district court held that the EEOC had failed to show a pattern or practice of illegal sex-based discrimination, that its claims on behalf of all but 67 of the women were barred on a variety of grounds, and that it could not seek relief for the remaining women because it failed to satisfy its statutory obligation to investigate the allegations of sexual harassment and attempt to conciliate any violations of Title VII with CRST before filing suit. In light of its rulings, the District Court awarded CRST attorney's fees under the provision of title VII that allows a court to award fees to the defendant in an employment-discrimination case if the defendant is the "prevailing party" and the plaintiff's claim is "frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless." The case then yo-yoed between the trial court and the Eighth Circuit, which ultimately held that the district court's dismissal of the claims on behalf of the 67 women for failure to investigate and conciliate was not "a ruling on the merits" that would render CRST the "prevailing party" entitled to attorney's fees.

Notably, by the time the case reached One First Street, both CRST andthe EEOC agreed that the Eighth Circuit erred in applying an on-the-merits requirement for the recovery of attorney's fees under Title VII. Unsurprisingly, the Supreme Court agreed, in a unanimous opinion authored by Justice Kennedy, holding that a defendant need not obtain a favorable judgment on the merits in order to qualify as a "prevailing party." As Justice Kennedy noted, "[c]ommon sense" dictates that a defendant has prevailed "whenever the plaintiff's challenge is rebuffed, irrespective of the precise reason for the court's decision" and there is no indication that Congress intended otherwise.

However, the Court declined to weigh in where the parties still disagreed. While the EEOC had urged the Court to hold that a judgment must have preclusive effect before attorney's fees can be awarded, the Court found that the agency had forfeited that argument by raising it for the first time after cert was granted. For the same reason, the Court declined to decide whether the district court's decisions in favor of CRST had preclusive effect. Finally, the Court declined to decide whether the EEOC's action below was "frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation," as required for CRST to obtain attorney's fees, noting that this is a "fact-sensitive issue," particularly in this procedurally complicated case. These questions, therefore, were remanded to the lower courts.

Justice Thomas joined Kennedy's opinion, but wrote separately to voice his view that a prevailing defendant should not have to show that the plaintiff's suit was "frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation" in order to recover attorney's fees as a prevailing party. As he noted, this requirement is not found in Title VII, itself, but rather in a nearly 40-year-old opinion of the Court, Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC (1978), that created a different standard for prevailing plaintiffs (who are almost always entitled to attorney's fees) and prevailing defendants (who only qualify upon a finding that the plaintiff's action was "frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation"). Justice Thomas has argued before that Christiansburg "mistakenly cast aside the statutory language in interpreting the phrase ‘prevailing party'" and he adhered to that belief here, while concurring in full.

Next, in Luna Torres v. Lynch (No. 15-1457), the Court clarified that a state crime can count as an aggravated felony for deportation purposes if it corresponds to a specified federal offense even though it does not contain the federal-offense's interstate-commerce element.

The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) imposes several adverse immigration consequences, including deportation (or "removal") for aliens convicted of an "aggravated felony." Aliens convicted of aggravated felonies are not only removable, but ineligible for cancellation of removal, a form of discretionary relief. The term "aggravated felony" is defined as any of a large number of offenses listed in 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(43), most of which are identified as offenses "described in" specified provisions of the federal criminal code. Section 1101(a)(43) also provides that offenses identified qualify as aggravated felonies irrespective of whether they are in violation of state or federal law. Luna Torres (Luna) was convicted of attempted arson under New York Law and sentenced to one day in prison and five years' probation. Seven years later, immigration officials discovered his conviction and he was ordered removed. Following review by the Board of Immigration Appeals, the Second Circuit affirmed, holding that attempted arson under New York law is an offense "described in" 8 U.S.C. § 844(i), the federal arson statute, notwithstanding that the state offense does not require that the crime have a connection to interstate or foreign commerce. This added to a circuit split over whether a state offense qualifies as an aggravated felony under § 1101(a)(43) when it has all the elements of a listed federal crime, except for the requirement of a connection to interstate commerce.

The Supreme Court affirmed in a split decision with an unusual configuration. Writing for the Chief and Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, and Alito, Justice Kagan drew a distinction between the substantive elements of a federal crime—those that relate to the harm or evil the law seeks to prevent—and the jurisdictional element, which merely ties the substantive offense to one of Congress's constitutional powers, most often its authority over interstate commerce. Because states have plenary power, there is no reason for them to tie their substantive offenses to an element of interstate commerce. But it is clear from the statutory context that Congress did not intend for the absence of a federal jurisdictional element to remove otherwise identical state offenses from the INA's definition of an aggravated felony. The proof is in the penultimate sentence of § 1101(a)(43), which makes clear that referenced offenses qualify as aggravated felonies regardless of whether they are "in violation of Federal[,] State[,]" or foreign law. It is implausible that Congress would have intended to remove from the aggravated-felony definition all manner of serious state offenses that lack a jurisdictional element while including less harmful federal offenses that include one. The majority's reading is consistent with the settled practice of distinguishing between substantive and jurisdictional elements in federal criminal statutes. As the Court has held before, Congress uses substantive and jurisdictional elements for different reasons and cannot expect them to receive identical treatment, particularly where the judicial task is to compare federal and state offenses.

Somehow, Justice Kagan's opinion managed to unite Justices Sotomayor, Thomas, and Breyer in disagreement. (Actually, this trio has dissented together before, in another immigration case that prompted us to credit "the notoriously byzantine Immigration and Nationality Act [with] mak[ing] bedfellows out of Justices Kagan, Kennedy, Ginsburg, Roberts, and Scalia on one bunk and Alito, Sotomayor, Thomas, and Breyer on the other." Not sure what prompted Justice Alito to switch beds....) To the dissenters, led by Justice Sotomayor, the case should be open and shut: "There is one more element of the federal offense than in the state offense—. . . the interstate or foreign commerce element. Luna thus was not convicted of an offense ‘described in' the federal statute. Case closed." As Justice Sotomayor argued "even the most general description cannot refer to features that the thing being described does not have." If a Craigslist ad describes an apartment as having five features and the apartment in fact only has "four of the five listed features—there is no rooftop access, say, or the walk-in closet is not so much walk-in as shimmy-in—then the Craigslist ad no longer ‘describes' the apartment. Rather, it misdescribes it." (Not to be outdone, Justice Kagan retorted that "a person would say that she had followed the instructions for setting up an iPhone that are ‘described in' the user's manual even if she in fact ignored the one . . . telling her to begin by ‘read[ing] important safety information' to ‘avoid injury.'") Justice Sotomayor also pooh-poohed the majority's concern that her reading would remove from the aggravated-felony definition serious state offenses that should surely qualify. There was no need for loose construction of the aggravated-felony definition because the structure of the INA "as a whole ensures that serious criminal conduct is adequately captured." There is, for example, a catch-all provision for "crimes of violence, as well as for firearms offenses, controlled-substance offenses, and of course "crime[s] involving moral turpitude." Finally, even though an alien convicted of a serious crime that does not qualify as an "aggravated felony" would be eligible for cancellation of removal, the Attorney General can of course exercise her discretion to deny that relief. Accordingly, the dissenters saw no reason to depart from the plain meaning of the term "described in," which in their view limited aggravated felonies to those containing all the elements of the offenses described in the respective provisions of the criminal code.

Finally, in Betterman v. Montana (No. 14-1457), a unanimous Supreme Court held that the Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial does not apply once a defendant has been found guilty at trial or has pleaded guilty to criminal charges.

Brandon Betterman failed to show up at a court hearing on a domestic-assault charge. Because they couldn't find Betterman, the state charged him with bail jumping. He pleaded guilty and was jailed pending sentencing. Due in part to institutional delays, he ended up waiting, watching the clock, for over fourteen months before he was finally sentenced to seven years' imprisonment. Betterman appealed, arguing that the 14-month gap between conviction and sentencing violated his speedy-trial right, but the Montana Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the Speedy Trial Clause does not apply to postconviction, presentencing delay. Resolving a split among the lower courts, the Supreme Court affirmed in a unanimous decision authored by Justice Ginsburg, author of an ostensibly unrelated dissent in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co (2007).

As Justice Ginsburg explained, criminal proceedings unfold in three discrete phases, each of which has its own check against delay. Statutes of limitations protect individuals from inordinate delay in the investigation phase before charges are brought. After an individual is charged, he is protected by the Sixth Amendment Speedy Trial Clause, but, just as that right only attaches upon arrest or formal accusation, it detaches upon conviction, when the third stage (conviction through sentencing) begins. The reason the Speedy Trial Clause applies only to the second stage is that it is tied to the presumption of innocence. "As a measure of protecting the presumptively innocent, the speedy trial right—like other similarly aimed measures—loses force upon conviction." Justice Ginsburg noted that defendants do have other safeguards against undue delay at the sentencing phase, most notably Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 32(b)(1) and analogous state statutes and rules that direct courts to "impose sentence without unnecessary delay." In addition, the Due Process Clause "serves as a backstop against exorbitant delay," though Justice Ginsburg hastened to note that Betterman had made no due-process claim in his appeal.

Justice Sotomayor picked up on the due-process thread in a short solo concurrence. She agreed that the Speedy Trial Clause does not apply to postconviction delays and that Betterman had failed to advance a due-process argument. However, she wrote separately to underscore that the due-process question "is an open one" and to suggest that the four-factor test for whether a delay in instituting judicial proceedings following a civil forfeiture violates the Due Process Clause could also be used in this context. That suggestion prompted a separate concurrence from Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Alito, who felt it was inappropriate to "prejudge the matter" and noted that the Court's opinion "leaves us free to decide the proper analytical framework to analyze such claims if and when the issue is properly before us."

In short, all the justices agreed that the Speedy Trial Clause does not protect a defendant from postconviction, presentencing delays, but that the Due Process Clause might. In other words, Betterman picked the wrong constitutional basis to challenge the fourteen-month delay. That's why he'll be back again!

And we'll be back again, too, with summaries of today's cases.