Supreme Court Update: Jesinoski v. Countrywide Home Loans (13-684) and Whitfield v. United States (13-9026)

January 14, 2015 Supreme Court Update

Greetings, Court fans!

The Court returned to action yesterday with two quick-and-unanimous decisions on statutory construction, Jesinoski v. Countrywide Home Loans (13-684), addressing the time and manner for exercising the Truth in Lending Act's right to rescind a home loan, and Whitfield v. United States (13-9026), on the scope of the federal bank-robbery statute's "forced accompaniment" provision.

Justice Scalia took the pen for the unanimous Court in Jesinoski v. Countrywide Home Loans (13-684). The Jesinoskis had taken out a mortgage from Countrywide, which was later transferred to Bank of America. Under the Truth in Lending Act (TILA), the Jesinoskis were entitled to rescind that loan for any reason within three days. After the three-day period expired, they were entitled to rescind only if the bank did not provide certain required disclosures. Under TILA, however, that right was not indefinite. Even if no disclosures were provided, the Jesinoskis could not rescind after three years. The Jesinoskis sent a letter rescinding their loan exactly three years after it closed, but the bank refused to accept the notice, claiming that it had in fact provided the required disclosures. The Jesinoskis filed suit one year later. The District Court ruled that the Jesinoskis attempted rescission came too late because, where there was a dispute over whether the disclosures were sent or were adequate, rescission did not take place until a suit was filed. The Eighth Circuit affirmed. In a brief very opinion, the Supreme Court reversed. TILA states that a borrower "shall have the right to rescind . . . by notifying the creditor . . . of his intention to do so." Under a plain reading of the statute, merely notifying the bank of the intent to rescind within three years was enough; there is no requirement that the debtor file a lawsuit within that time. Easy.

Also easy—despite indications to the contrary at oral argument—was the Court's decision in Whitfield v. United States (13-9026), in which it considered whether a statute providing enhanced penalties to anyone who "forces any person to accompany him" in the course of committing or fleeing from a bank robbery can be applied where the robber forces a person to move with him only over a short distance. After a botched bank robbery, Larry Whitfield fled from police and entered the home of 79-year-old Mary Parnell through an unlocked door. Upon encountering Parnell in the hallway, he forced her to "accompany him" into a computer room less than ten feet away, in order to hide from the police, who were searching for him in Parnell's neighborhood. Parnell, who was sobbing in terror, suffered a heart attack and died right there in the computer room. Whitfield was charged with violating 18 U.S.C. § 2113(e), which provides a mandatory ten-year sentence for a defendant who, "in committing any offense defined in this section [i.e. bank robbery or attempted bank robbery], or in avoiding or attempting to avoid apprehension for the commission of such offense . . . forces any person to accompany him without the consent of such person." Whitfield was convicted and the Fourth Circuit affirmed, holding that it made no difference that he had only forced Parnell to accompany him for a short distance within her own home. The Supreme Court affirmed, in another 9-0 decision by Justice Scalia.

The oral argument in Whitfield suggested that the Justices were concerned that the "forced accompaniment provision" could be misused by prosecutors to extract guilty pleas. This concern about prosecutorial overcharging has been a recurring theme over the past two terms, from last year's decision in Bond v. United States (2014) to the argument earlier this term in Yates v. United States (13-7451)—both cases where prosecutors charged defendants engaged in relatively petty criminal behavior with violation of statutes intended to cover much more egregious conduct. (The Court's decision last week to order reargument in Johnson v. United States (13-7120) on whether the Armed Career Criminal Act's residual clause is unconstitutionally vague, also fits within this theme.) But, despite numerous justices criticizing the forced-accompaniment provision during oral argument in Whitfield, it appears the plain language of the statute ultimately trumped any concerns about prosecutorial overreach. As Justice Scalia wrote for the unanimous court, the law applies to anyone who "forces any person to accompany him" and "[i]n 1934, just as today, to ‘accompany' someone meant to ‘go with' him." The natural understanding of the word has always included travelling only a short distance, as Justice Scalia illustrated with various and sundry citations to literature, old case law, and newspaper articles, including the "Salmon-Peters Marriage Announcement" from the December 7, 1930, edition of the New York Times (which noted that the bride was accompanied "to the altar"). The Court rejected Whitfield's argument that the severity of the provision's sentencing enhancement militated toward a more lenient view, noting that the danger of a forced accompaniment does not necessarily vary with the distance traversed. "The Congress that wrote this provision may well have had most prominently in mind John Dillinger's driving off with hostages, but it enacted a provision which goes well beyond that." In the end, the Court read the provision to encompass virtually all forced movement, provided that the hostage be forced to "go with" the robber and that the movement be "from one place to another, even if only from one spot within a room or outdoors to a different one." In this case, where a would-be bank robber forced an elderly woman to accompany him from one room to another in order to evade police, and caused her so much distress that she suffered a fatal heart attack, the Court was untroubled by the Government's use of the forced-accompaniment enhancement.

We've had no new cert grants since the break, but the Solicitor General has been invited to file briefs relating to three pending petitions:

Corr v. Metropolitan Washington Airports (13-1559), which asks (1) whether the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) exercises sufficient federal power to mandate separation-of-powers scrutiny for purposes of a suit seeking injunctive relief and invoking the Little Tucker Act to seek monetary relief; and (2) whether the Metropolitan Washington Airports Act of 1986 violates the separation of powers by depriving the president control over the MWAA;

Google v. Oracle America (14-410), which asks whether copyright protection extends to all elements of an original work of computer software, including a system or method of operation that an author could have written in more than one way; and

Google v. Vederi, LLC (14-448), which asks whether, when an applicant for a patent amends a claim to overcome the Patent and Trademark Office's earlier disallowance of the claim, a court should (i) presume that the amendment narrowed the claim and strictly construe the amended claim language against the applicant, or (ii) presume that the claim scope remained the same and require any narrowing to be clear and unmistakable.

We'll be back before you know it with summaries of the two decisions released today.

Kim & Tadhg