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Showing posts with label FTCA. Show all posts
Showing posts with label FTCA. Show all posts

Saturday, February 26, 2022

Judge Jackson Media Law, Torts Tour: From Big Meat 'COOL' to 'A Love of Food' and 'Everlasting Life'

[A revised version of this post is available to download as a paper on SSRN.]
The Hon. KBJ (Wikicago CC BY-SA 4.0)

Profiles of U.S. Circuit Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson have proliferated since her announcement as a leading contender for the U.S. Supreme Court seat vacated by Justice Breyer, and President Biden announced her nomination yesterday.

Judge Jackson has practiced in both criminal and civil environments, and in public and private sectors.  She focused in different practice roles on criminal law and appellate litigation, and she served on the federal bench at the trial and appellate levels.  So much of her work, and that which has garnered the most attention, for example in the excellent SCOTUSblog profile by Amy Howe, interests me as a citizen in general more than as an academic and media-law-and-torts aficionado.

Nevertheless, I compiled here cases of interest to me, which I found whilst poking around in her trial-court record on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (D.D.C.).  You might not see these discussed elsewhere, but they might be of interest to comparative-bent, media-law types like me, if that's even a thing.  In my ordinary-joe capacity, I am not in step with Judge Jackson's inclinations in some other areas of law.  But any Supreme Court Justice, just like any political candidate, is going to be a mixed bag, especially in a compulsorily two-party system.

In the cases below, a decidedly unscientific sample, I like some of what I see, especially skeptical diligence in access-to-information cases, sound reasoning in intellectual property law, careful application of preemption doctrine in medical-product liability, and a couple of thought-provoking First Amendment entanglements.  I see a mixed record on venue for transnational cases, something I've been worrying about lately, but the outcomes are defensible as consistent with lousy U.S. law.


Main topics:
● Civil procedure/statute of limitations:
WMATA v. Ark Union Sta., Inc. (2017)
Copyright/music royalties: Alliance of Artists & Recording Cos. v. Gen. Motors Co. (2018)
Defamation, false light/actual malice: Zimmerman v. Al Jazeera Am., LLC (2017)
First Amendment/child pornography: United States v. Hillie (2018)
First Amendment/commercial speech, compelled speech: Am. Meat Inst. v. U.S. Dept. Agric. (2013)
FOIA/national security, law enforcement: Elec. Privacy Info. Ctr. v. U.S. Dept. Justice (2017)
FOIA/Vaughn index, trade secrets, deliberative process: McKinley v. FDIC (2017)
FOIA/deliberative process/personal privacy: Conservation Force v. Jewell (2014)
FSIA/CCFA, forum non conveniens: Azima v. RAK Invest. Auth. (2018)
FSIA/torture: Azadeh v. Iran (2018)
Insurance/settlement: Blackstone v. Brink (2014)
Product liability/causation, preemption, learned intermediary: Kubicki v. Medtronic (2018)
Trademark/infringement: Yah Kai World Wide Enter. v. Napper (2016)
Wrongful death/sovereign immunity, contributory negligence: Whiteru v. WMATA (2017)
Wrongful death, product liability/forum non conveniens: In re Air Crash ... So. Indian Ocean (2018)

Quirky pro se claims:
Defamation/litigation privilege/statute of limitations: Ray v. Olender (2013)
Copyright/infringement: Buchanan v. Sony Music Ent. (2020)
Copyright/pleading: Butler v. Cal. St. Disbursement Unit (2013)
Copyright/subject-matter jurisdiction: Miller v. Library of Congress (2018)
FTCA/FOIA, civil rights: Cofield v. United States (2014)
Legal profession/sovereign immunity, absolute immunity: Smith v. Scalia (2014)

And the case with the best name:
A Love of Food I v. Maoz Vegetarian USA (2014)


WMATA (D.C. Metro) (Max Pixel CC0)
Civil procedure/statute of limitations.  WMATA v. Ark Union Sta., Inc., 269 F. Supp. 3d 196 (D.D.C. 2017).  The transit authority of the District of Columbia alleged that negligent maintenance by the Union Station America Restaurant, defendants' enterprise, resulted in a burst sewer pipe that severely damaged the Metro Red Line in 2011.  Judge Jackson opened the opinion cleverly, with what could almost be a dad joke: "This is a case about whose interests the [WMATA] serves when it spends money to repair damaged transit infrastructure in the Metrorail system—a proverbial third rail of this region's politics."  (My emphasis.  How could I not?)

D.C. has a generous five-year statute of limitations, but even that time had run.  Determining that the corporate-body WMATA remained a creature of government for relevant purposes, evidenced by its operational subsidies—cf. WMATA, infra, in negligence/sovereign immunity—Judge Jackson applied "the common law nullum tempus doctrine, which dates back to the thirteenth century," to exempt WMATA, as sovereign, from the statute of limitations.  The court explained: "Although the nullum tempus doctrine originated as a 'prerogative of the Crown[,]' the doctrine's 'survival in the United States has been generally accounted for and justified on grounds of policy rather than upon any inherited notions of the personal privilege of the king.' .... Specifically, 'the source of its continuing vitality ... is to be found in the great public policy of preserving the public rights, revenues, and property from injury and loss, by the negligence of public officers'" (citations omitted).

Pixabay
Copyright/music royalties.  Alliance of Artists & Recording Cos. v. Gen. Motors Co., 306 F. Supp. 3d 422 (D.D.C. 2018).  Judge Jackson dismissed a trade-group-plaintiff claim against automakers that their in-car CD hard drives created digital music recordings (DMRs) within the meaning of the federal statute, the Audio Home Recording Act of 1992 (AHRA), entitling copyright holders to royalties.  The AHRA was intended by Congress to protect the music industry against the alarming ease of creating high-fidelity copies of digital music by requiring manufacturers, importers, and distributors to employ copy-control technology.  Though having earlier allowed the claim to proceed against other technical challenges under the AHRA, the court decided, with the benefit of the first phase of discovery, that the defendant automakers' devices were not digital audio recording devices within the meaning of the statute.  In a methodical analysis, Judge Jackson explained that the content of the hard drives was excluded from the statutory definition of a DMR because of the coordinate presence of play software and other data.  The court rejected industry's theory that the appropriate frame of analysis was a particular partition of the drive, where music code might be located more readily.  The D.C. Circuit affirmed, 947 F.3d 849 (2020).

Zimmerman
(All Pro Reels CC BY-SA 2.0)
Defamation, false light/actual malice.  Zimmerman v. Al Jazeera Am., LLC, 246 F. Supp. 3d 257 (D.D.C. 2017).  Two professional baseball players, both called Ryan (a Zimmerman and a Howard), sued Al Jazeera America over a documentary, The Dark Side: Secrets of the Sports Dopers (2015), in which an interviewee linked the pair to performance-enhancing drugs.  The plaintiffs were clearly public figures, so actual malice was at issue.  In a thorough explication of the making of the film followed by a straightforward recitation of the media torts, Judge Jackson narrowed the plaintiffs' claims to allegations stated in the film, excluding liability for promotional content.  The court found it plausible, upon "contextual clues," that a reasonable viewer could attribute the interviewee's statements to the filmmakers: "The film weaves [the source's] statements into a broader narrative about doping in sports that the producers themselves have purportedly confirmed through their own investigation."  Judge Jackson then explicated the actual malice standard and its amped up, St. Amant, iteration of recklessness.  Critically, the plaintiffs alleged that the source had recanted his claims about the Ryans during a subsequent, yet pre-publication, interview, giving Al Jazeera serious cause to doubt the source's veracity, if not actual knowledge of falsity.

Naturally, this case might be of interest to Court watchers, given the present hubbub over the Sullivan actual malice standard.  I'm no fan, and I'll have more to say about that in the future.  Zimmerman hardly depicts a Judge Jackson ready to pitch in with Justices Thomas and Gorsuch to upend the status quo.  But she understands the standard and at least might be amenable to a semantically sincere construction of "reckless disregard."

First Amendment/child pornography.  United States v. Hillie, 289 F. Supp. 3d 188 (D.D.C. 2018).  Criminal cases are not usually my jam, but this one had a First Amendment angle.  Judge Jackson allowed conviction of a defendant for sexual exploitation of a minor and possession of images of a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct.  On the facts as explicated by the court, that sure seems like it was the defendant's intent: "carefully placing and positioning the camera in hidden locations in J.A.A.'s bedroom and bathroom" and "succeed[ing] in capturing several extended images of J.A.A.'s exposed genitals."  Missing, though, was the express "lasciviousness" required by federal statutes, a fatal flaw for the prosecution, the D.C. Circuit ruled.  14 F.4th 677 (2021).  The defendant relied on statutes, not the First Amendment, but the D.C. Circuit referenced First Amendment case law extensively to support its interpretation of what Congress required.  Despite the substantial latitude to which the government is entitled to prosecute child pornography, beyond the legal constraints of outlawing obscenity as to adults, the appellate court concluded that Judge Jackson erred in permitting the jury to infer the defendant's lascivious objective.  One might expect that social conservatives would side with Judge Jackson on this case. 

Labeled French beef
(by Yuka for Open Food Facts CC BY-SA 3.0)
First Amendment/commercial speech, compelled speech.  Am. Meat Inst. v. U.S. Dept. Agric., 968 F. Supp. 2d 38 (D.D.C. 2013).  This must have been a grilling initiation to the federal bench for Judge Jackson.  A meat industry trade association challenged "country of origin labeling" regulations (truly, "the COOL Rule") promulgated by the Department of Agriculture, on, as one might expect from Big Meat, any legal theory that might stick to the cast iron: namely, the statutory authority of the Agricultural Marketing Act, promulgation under the Administrative Procedure Act, and the First Amendment.  The first two make my eyes glaze over; it's the First Amendment that grabbed me.  Meat and the First Amendment are, of course, long-time frenemies, going back to the heyday of The Jungle, and on through the secret grocery workers of journalism ethics fame.  Then there was the whole pink slime era, and animal-welfare activists came trespassing through to take pictures.  Oh how we laughed until we cried.

Anyway, in this case, Judge Jackson capably explicated the niche case law of compelled commercial speech and charted the fine if squiggly line separating free speech and business regulation.  The risk of deception was more than merely speculative here, she opined, and consumers were demonstrably confused.  Industry mistakenly claimed a burden on its pocketbook, rather than its speech rights, Judge Jackson admonished.  The COOL Rule was reasonable and hardly burdensome for its expectation of truthful and uncontroversial disclosure.  Preliminary injunction was denied.

Big Meat was not easily deterred; the case went for a rodeo ride the following year.  The D.C. Circuit affirmed, 746 F.3d 1065 (Mar. 28, 2014), vacated upon granting rehearing en banc, No. 13-5281 (Apr. 4, 2014), and then reinstated affirmance (July 29, 2014).

U.S. Defense Department image (C)
FOIA/national security, law enforcement.  Elec. Privacy Info. Ctr. v. U.S. DOJ, 296 F. Supp. 3d 109 (2017).  Privacy advocate EPIC sued DOJ under the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to learn more about past wiretap spying under the post-9/11 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.  EPIC was especially keen to see how the government had justified surveillance requests it set before the famously amenable Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC).  Namely, EPIC sought: "(1) Westlaw printouts that were attached to a certain brief that the government submitted to the [FISC], and (2) portions of certain reports that DOJ issued to Congress, consisting of summaries of FISC legal opinions, descriptions of the scope of the FISC's jurisdiction, and discussions of process improvements."  DOJ produced a Vaughn index.  Ex parte and in camera, Judge Jackson reviewed the materials and adjudged them properly withheld under exemptions 1 (national security as to the congressional reports), and 3 and 7(E) (national security statutes and law enforcement techniques, as to everything else), with some nitpicks as to redactions and notations.  I'm sure EPIC did not care for the result, but the transparency problem seems to be a statutory one.  Judge Jackson did a pretty deep dive on the docs.

FOIA/Vaughn index, trade secrets, deliberative process.  McKinley v. FDIC, 268 F. Supp. 3d 234 (D.D.C. 2017), then No. 1:15-cv-1764 (D.D.C. Sept. 30, 2018).  Judicial Watch, per experienced FOIA-requester attorney Michael Bekesha, represented a plaintiff against the FDIC.  In the reported opinion in 2017, the court compelled the FDIC to produce a Vaughn index. The Judicial Watch plaintiff was investigating FDIC placement of Citibank into receivership in 2008 and 2009.  The FDIC sought to protect 12 documents as trade secrets and eight documents as deliberative process.  The court faulted the FDIC for failing to support either claim of exemption with any contextual explanation, including the nature of its decision-making authority on the latter claim.

I note that Judge Jackson's reasoning on the trade-secret analysis might have been undermined subsequently by the Supreme Court's industry-deferential ruling on exemption 4 in Food Marketing Inst. v. Argus Leader Media (U.S. 2019).  (I signed on to an amicus on the losing side in FMI.)  In an earlier FOIA case, Government Accountability Project v. FDA, 206 F. Supp. 3d 420 (D.D.C. 2016), Judge Jackson similarly relied on pre-FMI doctrine to reject, as unduly conclusory, FDA resistance, at the behest of a pharma trade association, to production of records on antimicrobial medications.

Vaughn index in hand on remand, plaintiff persisted in challenging the adequacy of the FDIC search and "whether withheld information 'has already been made public through an official and documented disclosure.'"  Judge Jackson rejected both claims in a short opinion in 2018.  She found the first merely speculative.  As to the second, the plaintiff "argued that the FDIC's withholdings were improper because the requested information was 'officially' acknowledged by Former FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair in the book Bull by the Horns—a book that Bair published after leaving office."  Judge Jackson held that "that contention, too, must be rejected. A book or other material that a former government official publishes in her personal capacity does not qualify as an 'official acknowledgment' of the information contained therein for the purpose of FOIA."

Bison trophy at Beaty Biodiversity Museum, Vancouver, B.C.
(by Nikkimaria CC BY-SA 3.0)
FOIA/deliberative process, personal privacy.  Conservation Force v. Jewell, 66 F. Supp. 3d 46 (D.D.C. 2014).   A nonprofit foundation that promotes big-game hunting sued U.S. Fish and Wildlife, in the Department of Interior, under the FOIA to obtain records related to denials of permits that would allow the import into the United States of hunting trophies of Canadian bison.  For the record, I'm fine with denying those permits, and I could be persuaded to block importation of the hunters, too.  Nevertheless, transparency....  

Judge Jackson authored a workmanlike exploration of various exemption theories asserted by Interior: accepting attorney-client privilege (exemption 5) and personal-information exemption (6); rejecting deliberative-process exemption, crime-fraud exception to attorney-client privilege, and work product privilege (all exemption 5).  She cited House reports to bolster her interpretations of what exemptions 5 and 6 require.  In a pattern that became familiar, or maybe just speaks to agency neglect, she faulted Interior for a conclusory ("woefully short") Vaughn index that failed to support exemption.  As to exemption 6, which has been aggressively enlarged by federal courts in furtherance of the privacy rage, Judge Jackson accepted Interior's redaction of employee personal information as more or less immaterial to the sought-after accountability.  The D.C. Circuit affirmed summarily in No. 15-5131 (Dec. 4, 2015).

FSIA/CFAA; forum non conveniens.  Azima v. RAK Invest. Auth., 305 F. Supp. 3d 149 (D.D.C. 2018).  Judge Jackson was reversed in this one, 926 F.3d 870 (D.C. Cir. 2019), but I prefer her analysis.  Under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) and for common law conversion and unfair competition, plaintiff, a Kansas City, Mo., businessman, sued a business partner, a public investment authority (RAKIA) of the United Arab Emirates (UAE, specifically the Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah), after their business relationship soured, alleging that RAKIA "commissioned the repeated surreptitious hacking of his personal and business laptops ... and then published disparaging material that was illicitly gleaned from Azima's computers...."  RAKIA sought dismissal under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) on grounds of sovereign immunity, under a contractual forum selection clause, and, relatedly, under the common law venue doctrine of forum non conveniens.

Judge Jackson rejected all three grounds.  The plaintiff plausibly portrayed RAKIA, an investor rather than governing entity, as a commercial actor and alleged tortfeasor, bringing into play the FSIA commercial and tort exceptions.  As alleged, the hacking would have inserted malware into the plaintiff's computer systems, even if the insertion occurred abroad, so the locus of alleged tortious injury was Kansas City, bolstering the FSIA analysis.  The forum selection clause did not pertain, Judge Jackson reasoned, because it was articulated in the parties' contract for a prior commercial venture; the contract hardly covered subsequent hacking.

As to venue, Judge Jackson faulted RAKIA for failing to meet its "heavy burden" to show that Azima would get a fair shake in RAKIA's preferred venue of London, where RAKIA might have hoped for a more favorable outcome on immunity.  I like that analysis—but cf. infra, re wrongful death/forum non conveniens.  My comparative law class just read Professor Vivian Curran's masterful recent work on foreign law in U.S. courts, in which she convincingly demonstrated U.S. federal judges' penchant to over-employ forum non conveniens and thus shirk their responsibility to adjudicate.  

Perhaps proving Prof. Curran's thesis, the D.C. Circuit disagreed, holding that the forum selection clause burdened the plaintiff with having to show why London would not work as an appropriate venue, else face dismissal for forum non conveniens.  I would be remiss not to mention also: Prof. Curran further faulted the courts for lazy reliance on partisan evidence (my words) when foreign law is concerned, and both Judge Jackson and the D.C. Circuit declared a lack of any responsibility to investigate themselves the adequacy of London as a forum.

FSIA/torture.  Azadeh v. Iran, 318 F. Supp. 3d 90 (D.D.C. 2018).  Plaintiff was an inmate of an Iranian jail and alleged torture and intentional torts at the hands of the republic.  A U.S. court ruling in such a matter is principally symbolic.  Iran will not respond; a plaintiff might hope to recover against a U.S. government claim on frozen assets.  Accordingly, in this case, a magistrate judge recommended entering default judgment in favor of the plaintiff.  I have here omitted cases in which Judge Jackson adopted in toto a magistrate's report; in this case, she did not.

Relying on a manual of the U.S. district courts, the plaintiff had effected service on the state of Iran erroneously, under the wrong order of process under the FSIA.  Judge Jackson wrote: "Judges are sometimes called upon to set aside heart-wrenching and terrible facts about a claimant's treatment at the hands of a defendant and enforce seemingly draconian, technical mandates of law. This is an especially difficult duty when the machinery of the judicial system itself appears to have played a role in the claimant's mistaken view of the applicable legal requirements. The somber circumstances of the instant case present one such scenario...."  The court put the default judgment on hold and gave the plaintiff a second crack at proper service.  Judge Jackson subsequently entered default judgment against Iran, in the sum of $36,411,244, in No. 1:16-cv-1467 (D.D.C. Sept. 5, 2018).  Reproduced therein, the magistrate's report detailed the plaintiff's ordeal.

Insurance/settlement.  Blackstone v. Brink, 63 F. Supp. 3d 68 (D.D.C. 2014) (D.C. law).  In an insurance dispute arising from the alleged wrongful death of a pedestrian, plaintiffs and their attorney apparently changed position on whether to settle with defendant-driver's insurer, State Farm, for the defendant's $100,000 policy limit.  After a telephone conversation, State Farm sent a check and a release form to the plaintiffs' attorney.  The check crossed in the mail with a letter from the attorney rejecting the offer.  Applying D.C. law, Judge Jackson determined that the parties had reached an enforceable agreement on the telephone, evidenced by the specificity of the attorney's instructions on how and where to send the check.  The court wrote of the parties' competing narratives: "On this record, it is far more plausible that [plaintiff counsel] accepted [State Farm's] offer on behalf of his clients [plaintiffs], intended that it be final and binding, and later had misgivings about his earlier decision to accept. Unfortunately for Plaintiffs, courts have long held that such buyer's remorse does not vitiate a demonstrated initial intent to be bound by the settlement agreement" (original emphasis).

A Medtronic product (Alan Levine CC BY 2.0)
Product liability/causation, preemption, learned intermediary.  Kubicki v. Medtronic, 293 F. Supp. 3d 129 (D.D.C. 2018) (D.C. law).  Parents of a diabetic consumer who suffered traumatic brain injury as a result of low blood-sugar levels sued the manufacturers of an insulin pump, alleging various theories of product liability.  Judge Jackson threw out some claims, against one manufacturer and upon one theory, as time barred, because plaintiffs had added them to the complaint too late for the District's three-year statute of limitations.  Judge Jackson navigated the tricky shoals of preemption doctrine to find some but not all liability theories expressly preempted, and the remainder not impliedly preempted, by FDA medical-device approval.  A sliver of remaining plaintiff theories survived summary judgment for presenting triable questions of fact on causation and on the learned intermediary doctrine relative to alleged failure to warn.

Trademark/infringement.  Yah Kai World Wide Enter. v. Napper, 195 F. Supp. 3d 287 (D.D.C. 2016).  The defendant ran the Everlasting Life Restaurant & Lounge as an enterprise of the African Hebrew Israelite community, "who claim to be descendants of biblical Israelites and who follow a strict vegan diet," until their relationship soured.  The plaintiff-community sued when the defendant persisted in doing business as "Everlasting Life," which a community leader had registered as a service mark (pictured).  Trial did not go well for the defense; Judge Jackson wrote that the defendant "displayed some signs of dissembling, such as the evasive nature of his answers with respect to the existence of a purportedly independent and unincorporated food business that he claimed to have created by himself in his home garage prior to the Community's formation of its restaurant businesses."  The court found likelihood of confusion and, accordingly, infringement.  If only defendant had partnered with Big Meat to serve litigious hungry hunters returning from Canada.

Wrongful death/sovereign immunity, contributory negligence.  Whiteru v. WMATA, 258 F. Supp. 3d 175 (2017).  This time the WMATA, the D.C. transit authority, was a negligent defendant rather than plaintiff—cf. WMATA, supra, in civil procedure/statute of limitations—and this time, the authority was ruled not sovereign for purposes of immunity.  In what was essentially a slip-and-fall, the plaintiff-decedent's estate and parents blamed the WMATA for not discovering the decedent—a lawyer, by the way—injured on a train platform, in time to provide life-saving medical treatment.  A creature of state compact and D.C. statute, the WMATA enjoys an immunity analogous to that of federal defendants under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA).  Borrowing the FTCA rule of immunity for discretionary governmental functions, which often presents a frame-of-reference problem in its granular application, Judge Jackson rejected the WMATA theory that officials' conduct was discretionary.  Rather, properly, I think, the court accepted the plaintiff's framing of the case as alleging unreasonable comportment with the WMATA standard operating procedures for platform inspection.

At that time in 2017, factual questions in the case precluded summary judgment.  However, in 2020, Judge Jackson awarded the WMATA summary judgment upon the plaintiff's contributory negligence.  480 F. Supp. 3d 185.  The District is not a comparative fault jurisdiction.  The plaintiff's heavy intoxication when he fell was undisputed, and, Judge Jackson opined, video evidence plainly showed that the plaintiff fell because he over-relied on a low wall for support.  Just this month, the D.C. Circuit reversed and remanded,  ___ F.4th ___ (Feb. 11, 2022), holding that under D.C. law for common-carrier liability, contributory negligence is not the complete defense that it usually is in negligence in the District.

Suggested search area for MH370 debris
(Andrew Heneen CC BY 4.0)
Wrongful death, product liability/forum non conveniens.  In re Air Crash Over the Southern Indian Ocean, 352 F. Supp. 3d 19 (D.D.C. 2018) (multi-district litigation).  This case marks a tragic disappointment.  Judge Jackson dismissed for improper venue, forum non conveniens, the claims of families of passengers of missing airliner MH370 against defendants including Malaysia Airlines and Boeing.  The claims arose under the Montreal Convention on international air carriage, common law wrongful death, and product liability.  The thrust of the problem is that what happened to MH370, including the final resting place of the fuselage and an understanding of what went wrong, remains a mystery, and even less was known in 2018.  My money is on pilot hijacking, by the way; read more in the definitive account to date by the incomparable William Langewiesche for The Atlantic. 

Judge Jackson opined:

All told, the Montreal Convention cases in this MDL involve only six U.S. citizens with a direct connection to the Flight MH370 tragedy, as either plaintiffs or decedents. Among the hundreds of passengers on that flight, only three were citizens of the United States, and while the United States undoubtedly has a strong public interest in the claims involving their deaths, its interest pales in comparison to Malaysia's interest in litigating these claims. Malaysia's public interest includes not only an interest in the untimely deaths of the Malaysian pilot and crew, but also an interest in determining precisely what happened to Flight MH370, given that a Malaysian airline owned, operated, and maintained the aircraft; the flight took off from an airport in Malaysia for a destination outside the United States; and it disappeared from radar when Malaysian air traffic controllers were handing off the flight. And Malaysian authorities made substantial investments of time and resources in the wake of this disaster: Malaysia conducted extensive civil and criminal investigations, and changes in Malaysian law led to the creation of a new national Malaysian airline. It is Malaysia's strong interest in the events that give rise to the claims at issue here that makes this a distinctly Malaysian tragedy, notwithstanding the presence of the few Americans onboard Flight MH370. 

I really want to lash out against this reasoning.  But probably it would be like when I was a little kid fed up with allergy-testing shots and kicked my doctor.  Despite my reservations about forum non conveniens, see Prof. Curran, supra, I admit that my frustration stems from doubt that the case could be fairly prosecuted in Malaysia, even if the plane is found, rather than a confidence that the United States is a logical venue.  It might not even matter, as the Montreal Convention probably would curb recovery even in U.S. courts.  Insofar as I have any legitimate gripe, it's in part that forum non conveniens is just a witless rule out of step with a globalized world, and in part that Judge Jackson should have done some independent investigation of the adequacy of Malaysia as a forum.

The aftermath of the MH370 disappearance revealed concerning deficits in transparency, and, thus, potentially in accountability, in the Malaysian investigative process.  And while I don't think Boeing is to blame, having watched Downfall: The Case Against Boeing (2022) on Netflix just last weekend—Langewiesche wrote about the 737 MAX for The New York Times—leaves me distrustful.  Indeed, however relying upon precedent, Judge Jackson declined MH370 plaintiffs' last-ditch demand that, at least, Boeing be compelled to promise to abide by U.S. discovery in connection with any subsequent litigation abroad.

The D.C. Circuit affirmed, 946 F.3d 607, and the Supreme Court denied cert., 141 S. Ct. 451, in 2020.

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Here are some quirky pro se claims, just to stimulate the noggin.

Defamation/litigation privilege/statute of limitations.  Ray v. Olender, No. 13-1834 (D.D.C. Nov. 21, 2013).  Judge Jackson dismissed an odd $5m pro se defamation claim against an attorney, apparently based on a 1965 suit for copyright infringement and counter-suit.  She held the claim barred by the one-year D.C. statute of limitations and, anyway, based on statements in pleadings, protected by the litigation privilege.

Copyright/infringement.  Buchanan v. Sony Music Ent., No. 18-cv-3028 (D.D.C. May 26, 2020).  In a wide-ranging complaint, pro se plaintiff accused defendant music producers of stealing from songs he submitted for consideration.  Dismissed, because three of four songs were not registered; plaintiff could not show that any producer actually received a copy of the fourth song demo tape; and plaintiff anyway failed to allege substantial similarity, beyond allegation of "steal[ing]," between defendants' hits and the plaintiff's "I Gos Ta Roll." 

Copyright/pleading.  Butler v. Cal. St. Disbursement Unit, No. 13-1684 (D.D.C. Oct. 23, 2013).  Pro se plaintiff accused the state of copyright infringement for using his name in all capital letters.  Dismissed for failure to plead adequately.  BUTLER.

Copyright/subject-matter jurisdiction.  Miller v. Library of Congress, No. 1:18-cv-02144 (D.D.C. Nov. 5, 2018).  Judge Jackson dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction a $100m pro se copyright infringement claim by an author of "a book of songs" who alleged that the Library of Congress stole the book and allowed it to be used by others.  Held, he should have filed in the Federal Claims Court.  I'd return the book, but the fines....

FTCA/FOIA, civil rights.  Cofield v. United States, 64 F. Supp. 3d 206 (D.D.C. 2014).  A Maryland prisoner, pro se plaintiff sought billions in damages against ICANN and the Obama Administration for improper FOIA denials and race discrimination.  On the latter count, the plaintiff essentially accused the government of establishing a business monopoly in ICANN that leaves African-American persons "intentionally omitted, to be left behind when it comes to technology ... by design[.]"  An intriguing idea, but not the best spokesperson.  The court dismissed for sovereign immunity, as the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) authorizes neither FOIA complaints, which do not entitle a plaintiff to tort damages, nor constitutional claims.

Defendant-Justice Scalia (Shawn CC BY-NC 2.0)
Legal profession/sovereign immunity, absolute immunity.  Smith v. Scalia, 44 F. Supp. 3d 28 (D.D.C. 2014).  Yup, that Scalia.  The pro se plaintiff was denied admission to the Colorado Bar after "refus[ing] to submit to a mental status examination," and then sued officials, including judges who denied his appeals.  Even the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which rated among plaintiff's theories, cannot overcome federal sovereign and judicial absolute immunities, Judge Jackson held.  She declined to order Rule 11 sanctions, but did hit the frequent-filing plaintiff with a pre-filing injunction, going forward.
Maoz Falafel, Paris
(Björn Söderqvist CC BY-SA 2.0)

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Finally, I don't really care what happened in this case; I just love its name: A Love of Food I v. Maoz Vegetarian USA (D.D.C. 2014).  Plaintiff Love of Food was "a franchise of Maoz's vegetarian quick service restaurant" in D.C.  When the business failed, Love of Food blamed Maoz.  Maoz had failed to register its offering prospectus properly with the state of Maryland, but, Judge Jackson held, that omission did not give Love of Food standing.  The court issued mixed results on the, uh, meatier claims of misrepresentation, finding a material dispute of fact over the veracity of startup estimates.

Just wait 'til Big Meat hears about this.

I gos ta roll.

Monday, September 7, 2020

Immunity shields tweeting legislators from libel suits, Elizabeth Warren from high school plaintiffs

High schoolers from Kentucky will not get their day in court against Elizabeth Warren.

The students' lawsuit, high profile in the political sphere, was resolved in the Sixth Circuit yesterday on mundane grounds that offer a reminder to torts students of a simple immunity rule.

Remember the fuss in January 2019 over that video of Catholic high school students on a field trip said to be taunting a Native American elder demonstrating at the Lincoln Memorial?

Remember when people used to stand really close together like that?

There were two dramatically different sides to the story about what was really happening there, and they were as far apart as young people joining in celebration of Native American heritage, on the one side, and "MAGA" has inspired privileged youth to racism, on the other side.  For a breakdown that gets closer to the truth, see, e.g., Vox, Jan. 24, 2019; Reason, Jan. 21, 2020.

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Representative Deb Haaland (D-NM) tweeted about the affair from the perspective that cast the students in the wrong.  Haaland wrote, "The students’ display of blatant hate, disrespect, and intolerance is a signal of how common decency has decayed under this administration. Heartbreaking."  And Warren: "Omaha elder and Vietnam War veteran Nathan Phillips endured hateful taunts with dignity and strength, then urged us all to do better."

The students sued the legislators for defamation, asserting that the darker interpretation of events was false.  On Thursday last week, the Sixth Circuit affirmed dismissal of the lawsuit—which is not to opine one way or the other on the students' claim of falsity.

As the court observed, the Speech and Debate Clause has no application on Twitter.  But a much simpler analysis pertained.  Whilst tweeting, Haaland and Warren were acting within the scope of their employment with the U.S. Government.  And the Federal Tort Claims Act (para. (h)) does not waive federal sovereign immunity for defamation committed by its employees—even the elected kind.

The case is Does 1 through 10 v. Haaland, No. 2:19-cv-00117 (6th Cir. Sept. 3, 2020).  Circuit Judge Eric Clay authored the opinion for a panel that also comprised Judges White and Readler.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Area man signposts 'sovereign immunity site'

Attorney Dan Greenberg, friend of the blog and a federal policy adviser in Washington, D.C., contributes this photo from his home neighborhood of Alexandria, Va.

The sign reads:


City of Alexandria
Sovereign Immunity Site
 Did you know ...
     The City of Alexandria claims "sovereign immunity" from liability for damage its trash collection truck did to this fence.

     That's right.  On May 22, 2019 a city truck hit and broke this fence.  It's on video!  But none of that matters.  They're immune from liability.
What is sovereign immunity?
     Simply put, the term sovereign immunity is derived from British common law doctrine based on the idea that the King could do no wrong.
     So be careful around City of Alexandria vehicles.  They can do no wrong.

The underlying dispute was reported by Fox 5 D.C. in October.  A trash truck caused $5,000 in damage to Denis Goris's 30-year-old iron fence.



Sovereign immunity turns up often in a society in which government is pervasive in our lives and surroundings, and that's bound to cause frustration.  The sign-bearer is right that the essence of immunity is inequitable, as between the plaintiff who suffers an injury and the defendant sovereign who caused it.  The Federal Tort Claims Act waives federal sovereign immunity in a narrow class of cases, and states can be less generous with their tort claims acts.  The broader aim that keeps immunity going in a democracy is the protection of public assets, which belong to all of us.

It looks like Alexandria does use city staff for trash collection.  Contractors throw a wrinkle into the mix (federal, state).  I am not a Virginia lawyer; what I know of the state's tort claims act, it treats counties and cities much more generously than state-level actors.  The localities enjoy near absolute sovereign immunity for governmental functions, and, almost 50 years ago, the Virginia Supreme Court held that municipal trash collection is a governmental function entitled to immunity.  Alexandria does have an administrative claim process, and there's some room to argue.

The city told Fox 5: "Under federal and state laws and court rulings, the City is generally not liable for damages caused in the course of providing core government services. While the City conducts extensive planning and training to avoid damaging property, some damage does occur given the vast scope of City operations. Exemption from these claims saves a significant amount of money every year for taxpayers as a whole."

In a story last year, NBC 4 Washington reported: "Alexandria Won't Pay $4,600 in Damages to SUV Caused by City Trash Truck."  The city is as consistent with its tort claims as it is with its driving record.

[SUPPLEMENT: "Why is this still a thing?," Planet Money asks about state sovereign immunity in the context of excellent coverage of the copyright case pending in the U.S. Supreme Court, Allen v. Cooper.]

Monday, November 11, 2019

For Veterans Day, let's push through Congress bipartisan Feres doctrine waiver for medmal claims

Veterans Day Painting.  (Details at end of story.)
The Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) authorizes tort actions against the U.S. federal government, waiving the government's sovereign immunity in its courts, subject to tight constraints.  The FTCA yields to the Feres doctrine, a rule of law named for the Supreme Court case that recognized it in the years following World War II.  The Feres doctrine disallows lawsuits by active-duty military for personal injury or death.  The Feres doctrine makes sense on the face of it, lest every injury in combat become a tort claim under the laws of the states. 

But the Feres doctrine's logic breaks down at the margins.  Increasingly in recent decades, healthcare has become big business and very expensive.  Military personnel have become dependent on the government for routine care.  And cases have been reported of medical malpractice at government hospitals: cases that unquestionably would yield medical malpractice claims in the comparable civilian context.  Insofar as the Feres doctrine is supported by a sort of "assumption of risk" by soldiers who go off to war, that theory feels ill fit to stateside medical mistakes in childbirth or prenatal care, or failure to diagnose terminal conditions

In spring 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court denied cert. in a challenge to this operation of the Feres doctrine (case at SCOTUSblog; details at and Stripes).  CBS Morning reported in August on the story of Sfc. Richard Stayskal, a Green Beret, now terminally ill, whose cancer was misdiagnosed, and on his emotional congressional testimony.


Bills (S.2451, H.R.2422) (not the first of their kind) that would authorize medmal tort claims for military personnel are stalled in House and Senate committees.  Fox46 Charlotte recently called out Sen. Lindsey Graham as an obstacle in the Senate for the bipartisan Sfc. Richard Stayskal Military Medical Accountability Act of 2019.  I hope Veterans Day might occasion placement of this fix on the short list of what Congress should be doing besides playing politics for the cameras this week.

(Image: Caroline Beattie, a senior at Manatee School for the Arts in Palmetto, Fla., painted a portrait of her Economics and Government teacher, for the school's Veterans Day program. Her teacher, Maj. Jennifer Pearson with the Air Force Reserve’s 920th Rescue Wing at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., photographed the painting Nov. 6, 2019.  U.S. Air Force photo by Maj. Jennifer Pearson.)

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Teachable torts: Court succinctly dismisses 'outing' case collateral to terrorism prosecution

Attendees dance during the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender mixer
hosted by Joint Task Force Guantanamo Equal Opportunity Leaders for JTF
Troopers and Naval Station Guantanamo Bay Residents to honor LGBT
Pride Month in 2018. Photo by JTF GTMO PAO Trooper.
A short decision upon compelling facts in a civil case collateral to the criminal prosecution of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, accused of being a September 11 architect, offers a worthwhile exercise in the study of tort law.

Semmerling, a lawyer on the defense team of Guantánamo-held Mohammed, accused the head of the defense team of outing Semmerling to Mohammed as gay.  The revelation of Semmerling's sexual orientation resulted in his removal from the team, because Mohammed would not work with a gay (or Jewish) lawyer.

Typical outing cases present some interesting problems in privacy law for several reasons.  First, they emphasize the distinction between the disclosure privacy tort and the defamation tort, because the revelation in an outing case is true.  First Amendment absolutism challenges the disclosure tort for its threat of liability upon a truthful statement, though there is little doubt that the disclosure tort would survive a direct Supreme Court challenge today.

Second, a plaintiff's homosexual (or other non-heterosexual) identity is rarely an absolute secret, disclosed to no one, but more often—and healthily—a personal datum that the plaintiff has disclosed with thought and care to different persons—parents, friends, public—at different times.  But "the secrecy paradigm" that dominates American privacy law disallows tort recovery unless intimate information remains intimately safeguarded.  (This is a critical point of difference between U.S. and European privacy law.)

Third, outing cases are complicated as a matter of social policy, for fear that a liability award might validate the view that homosexual orientation should be a source of shame, so either a truth properly kept secret (privacy tort), or a falsehood injuriously uttered (defamation tort).

This case is not typical—Semmerling's sexual orientation was only a secret to Mohammed—but its unusual facts, assuming the allegations as true for sake of argument on the motion to dismiss, left Semmerling with only less prospect of a tort remedy than usual.

Invoking the common law litigation privilege, the U.S. District Court, per Judge Robert W. Gettleman, rejected claims against the defense team leader herself. The absolute privilege ensures that an attorney has unfettered discretion in communicating with a client on matters pertaining to litigation.  The court also dismissed claims of negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED) against the United States as defense counsel's employer.

Tim Jon Semmerling is a Chicago criminal-
defense attorney. In addition to his private
practice, he has worked pro bono for the
Center for Justice in Capital Cases at DePaul
University.
The negligence and IIED claims against the United States did survive dismissal under the Federal Tort Claims Act.  The FTCA on its terms disallows libel and slander claims against the United States, and the court opined that even a defamation claim disguised as IIED (or general negligence) would not survive that disallowance.  For the very fact that Semmerling complained about a truthful disclosure, his claim cannot be equated with libel or slander, and so was not a disguised defamation claim.

On tort law merits, though, Semmerling failed to state a claim, the court ruled.  He tried to predicate negligence on the defendant's one-time assurance to him that she would allow him to work on the case without disclosing his sexual orientation to Mohammed.  That was not basis enough, the court opined, to establish a duty of the United States to Semmerling for the purpose of proving negligence. The court did not wade in more deeply, but I expect that the duty requirement was especially elevated given Semmerling's lack of physical injury.

As to IIED, Semmerling sufficiently pleaded neither intent nor outrageousness.  Semmerling found out about the dislcosure only by way of hearsay and only some time after being fired.  So, the court reasoned, evidence was lacking that the disclosure was calculated to cause him emotional distress.  Also the disclosure was at worst "offensive," the court opined, and not "utterly intolerable in a civilized community," as Illinois law requires.

I wonder whether the facts would have supported a tortious interference claim; alas, that cause is expressly disallowed by the FTCA.

The case is Semmerling v. Bormann, No. 18-CV-6640 (N.D. Ill. Sept. 11, 2019).  HT@ ABA Journal.

[NOTE, Sept. 25, 2019: A generous colleague brought to my attention that the complaint in the case also pleaded defamation.  The claim failed on the litigation privilege as against lead counsel and was precluded by the FTCA as against the United States.  I ought to have marked the point that Semmerling was unable to claim disclosure in part because he guarded no intimately held secret.  The defamation claim was grounded in the allegation that lead counsel falsely suggested to the client a particular sexual interest in him.  That's an intriguing hypothetical when one considers the consequent analyses on the merits, including "capable of defamatory meaning."]

Monday, July 8, 2019

U.S. Supreme Court widens tort liability exposure of New Deal-era, state-owned enterprises

On April 29, the U.S. Supreme Court held against the Government by reversing and remanding unanimously in Thacker v. Tennessee Valley Authority, No. 17-1201 (Oyez), a negligence claim arising under the Federal Tort Claims Act of 1946 (FTCA).

Per Justice Kagan, the Court held that the test for sovereign immunity in tort claims against New Deal-era "sued and be sued" entities such as the TVA is twofold.  First, the court must determine whether the conduct of the defendant was commercial or governmental.  Sovereign immunity can attach only to governmental conduct.  Second, if governmental, the court must determine whether suit is clearly inconsistent with constitutional or statutory scheme, or suit clearly would threaten interference with the governmental function (the test of FHA v Burr (U.S. 1940)).  Only in those narrow cases—much narrower than the statutory discretionary function exception to FTCA's waiver of sovereign immunity—does sovereign immunity attach.

The Court's decision hews to the plain text of the TVA Act of 1933 and represents a win for plaintiffs.  The case also throws into doubt other lines of federal case law in which the courts have borrowed and extended immunity concepts by analogy to the FTCA to shield government actors from liability in other statutory contexts.

You can hear my verbal review of the case at the Federalist Society's SCOTUScast.  Hear my pre-decision, post-argument analysis on SCOTUScast and view pre-argument analysis with engaging visuals from the Federalist Society on SCOTUSbrief.  The case is on SCOTUSblog with record links and informative analysis by Gregory Sisk.  Find the opinion and oral argument at Oyez.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Advocates in SCOTUS case on tort and sovereign immunity stick to their guns, frustrate Court's search for middle ground

For the Federalist Society SCOTUScast podcast series, I recorded a commentary on the U.S. Supreme Court oral argument in Thacker v. Tennessee Valley Authority, which occurred in January.  You can read more about Thacker, and see an excellent video the Federalist Society produced, via my January 18 blog entry.

The Tennessee River dips into northern Alabama, where the accident in
Thacker occurred. (Map by Shannon1, CC BY-SA 4.0).
Here is background on the case from the Federalist Society:

On January 14, 2019, the Supreme Court heard argument in Thacker v. Tennessee Valley Authority, a case involving a dispute over the “discretionary-function exception” to waivers of federal sovereign immunity.

In 2013, Anthony Szozda and Gary and Venida Thacker were participating in a fishing tournament on the Tennessee River. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) had a crew near the river, trying to raise a downed power line that had partially fallen into the river instead of crossing over it. The crew attempted to lift the conductor out of the water concurrent with Szozda and the Thackers passing through the river at a high rate of speed. The conductor struck both Thacker and Szozda, causing serious injury to Thacker and killing Szozda. The Thackers sued TVA for negligence. The district court dismissed the Thackers’ complaint for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. 

On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed that judgment.  Although the act creating the TVA waives sovereign immunity from tort suits, the Court held that the waiver does not apply where the TVA was engaged in governmental functions that were discretionary in nature. 

Applying a test derived from the Federal Tort Claims Act, the Court determined that the TVA’s challenged conduct fell within this “discretionary-function exception” here, and immunity therefore applied.

The Supreme Court granted the Thackers’ subsequent petition for certiorari to address whether the Eleventh Circuit erred in using a discretionary-function test derived from the Federal Tort Claims Act rather than the test set forth in Federal Housing Authority v. Burr, when testing the immunity of governmental “sue and be sued” entities (like the Tennessee Valley Authority) from the plaintiffs’ claims.

Counsel for Thacker and counsel for TVA stuck to their guns in the oral argument.  Thacker's position was to interpret the "may sue and be sued" language that governs the TVA and other New Deal authorities to be broadly permissive of tort suits, stopping only to preclude "grave interference" with the executive branch prerogative.  The TVA meanwhile insisted that it is entitled to a broad discretionary function immunity, like that which Congress built into the later enacted Federal Tort Claims Act.

Questions from the Court tried to pull both counselors toward the possible middle ground of a sovereign immunity for governmental functions and not for commercial functions.  But neither counsel was willing to bite.  That led to a lively oral argument.  Thacker's case seems the stronger, but it is unclear how the Court will get to either result.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Court dismisses prolonged suit against Government over 2009 Ft. Hood mass shooting

From the Defense Department: "Jeffrey and Sheryll Pearson look at the
portrait of their son, Army Pfc. Michael Pearson, before the Purple Heart
and Defense of Freedom award ceremony on Fort Hood, Texas, April 10,
2015. The event honored the 13 people killed and more than 30 injured in
a gunman’s 2009 shooting rampage on the base. U.S. Army photo by Daniel
Cernero."

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, per the Hon. Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, dismissed service-member and family claims against the federal Government arising from the 2009 shooting at Ft. Hood, near Killeen, Texas, in which U.S. Army Major Nidal Hasan killed 13 and injured more than 30 other persons.  CourtListener has the ruling in Manning v. Esper, No. 12-CV-1802 (D.D.C. Jan. 22, 2019).

To the dismay and torment of those involved, this case has dragged on for nearly a decade.  Hasan admitted to the shootings in a 2013 court-martial and was sentenced to death.  He is presently awaiting execution, pending judicial review, at Fort Leavenworth.  The civil claims accuse the Government of negligence in the supervision of Hasan, who was permitted to work as a medical corps psychiatrist despite superior's concerns about his own mental fitness.  While Hasan's case was under way and then on appeal, the Army repeatedly asked the trial court to stay civil proceedings, provoking "anger, frustration and suspicion" on the part of the plaintiffs, in their words.

The dismissal was predicated principally on grounds of the Feres doctrine. Arising from the 1950 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Feres v. United States (Justia), the Feres doctrine bars tort claims arising from active-duty service when the claims otherwise might be authorized by the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA).  The Feres doctrine has made news in recent years in allowing the government to resist medical malpractice claims against healthcare providers of Veterans Affairs.  

Plaintiffs in the Ft. Hood case knew that Feres would be a problem, but hoped to work around it, as some victims were not on active duty at the time of the shooting, and some defendants were federal law enforcement officials rather than active-duty military.  The ambiguous status of some persons involved in the shooting, as well Hasan's motivations, was at issue in the intervening years in an ugly collateral dispute over victims' entitlements to military honors, which the Government for a time resisted.  In this same vein of ambiguity, the court did allow some plaintiffs' claims to proceed in administrative processes, dismissing them without prejudice for failure to exhaust remedies as the FTCA requires.

Information and privacy law aficionados might recollect the name of Judge Kollar-Kotelly.  For seven years after 9/11, she was the presiding judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

Friday, January 18, 2019

SCOTUS ponders governmental immunity in boating accident suit against TVA


The Federalist Society produced a beautifully illustrated video, as part the SCOTUSbrief series, to accompany the January 14 oral argument (transcript) in the U.S. Supreme Court in Thacker v. Tennessee Valley Authority, a personal injury suit.  The case compels the Court to analyze what, if any, governmental immunity is afforded to a range of New Deal entities, such as the TVA, which Congress broadly authorized "to sue and be sued," decades before the Federal Tort Claims Act came into being.  The Federalist Society generously invited me to provide narration for this video.  At SCOTUSblog, Professor Gregory Sisk, of St. Thomas Law, has an expert analysis of Monday's oral argument.  When available, audio of the oral argument will be posted at Oyez and at C-Span.