31 May 2017

Recent Rulings In The U.S. Supreme Court

Four cases was decided on the merits yesterday in the U.S. Supreme Court, including the first merits opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court in which Justice Gorsuch, President Trump's first appointee to the bench who was previously a 10th Circuit Court of Appeals judge participated. Three more cases were decided on Monday, May 22, 2017.

1. Impressions Products, Inc. v. Lexmark Int'l, Inc.

Reversing the Federal Circuit once again to weaken the rights of patent holders, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the first sale doctrine terminates all patent rights in an item, both in the case of sales in the U.S. and sales outside the U.S., even if the contract of sale purports to reserve patent rights in that particular item produces using the patent.

The immediate consequence is that refilling patented printer cartridges does not violate patent law, even though parties to the contract of sale of each particular printer cartridge may be violating that contract for which money damages might be available (but not injunctive relief, import prohibitions, forfeiture of the items, etc.).

The ruling is 7-1 with Ginsberg joining the ruling in part and dissenting in part.

2. Esquivel-Quintana v. Sessions

In California sex with someone under the age of eighteen by someone at least three years older is statutory rape. The defendant, who has had a green card for nine years was convicted of a felony in California under the statute for having sex that could have been consensual with his girlfriend who was under the age of eighteen. The INS seeks to deport him on the grounds that this constitutes the deportable "aggravated felony" offense of sexual abuse of a minor. 

Under the government's position and existing case law, the offense must count as an aggravated felony only if it is an aggravated felony when the victim is one day short of her eighteenth birthday and the defendant is twenty-one years old (the least serious conduct that can result in a conviction under the statute). 

Despite the fact that the age of consent under California law is eighteen, the U.S. Supreme Court concludes that the offense is not deportable unless the statutory rape victim under this particular statute must be under sixteen years old at the time of the offense. The age of consent under a federal statutory rape law enacted close in time to the immigration law in question. Whether he would have been deportable if the statute had required the victim to be under the age of sixteen but did not have a "Romeo and Juliet" exception, was reserved for a later case. 

The reasoning in the case is rather dubious and relies on dictionary definitions from non-legal dictionaries among other analysis, but the decision is 8-0 that the offender should not be deportable anyway as the California law is an outlier and does not fit the generic federal definition of the crime. Basically, this was a pity case where the Court had mercy on a guy subjected to an unreasonable California law.

The decision makes statutory rape a non-deportable offense in the seventeen states where the age of consent is greater than 16 years, including Colorado.

Police, thinking a dangerous armed felon is about (who is never found) enter a shack with a closed door without the permission of the innocent residents, without knocking, and without a warrant. One points a BB Gun at them thinking they are home invaders and the police shoot the residents. The entry was a clearly established violation of the 4th Amendment for which nominal damages were awarded. At issue is whether the police were entitled to qualified immunity for shooting the residents.

Under the 9th Circuit's provocation rule, shooting an innocent person after entering their home in violation of the 4th Amendment is automatically a constitutional violation. 

The U.S. Supreme Court strikes down the 9th Circuit's provocation rule and remands the case for consideration under the constitutional standard for improper police shootings applied in other circuits, namely: "The operative question in such cases is 'whether the totality of the circumstances justifie[s] a particular sort of search or seizure.'", and "if respondents cannot recover on their excessive force claim, that will not foreclose recovery for injuries proximately caused by the warrantless entry." The decision is 8-0.

This is the first merits decision of Justice Gorsuch on the U.S. Supreme Court. It is resolved 8-1 with Justice Sotomayor concurring in part and dissenting in part. The case, reviewing the Montana Supreme Court's decision that the Montana courts had general personal jurisdiction over the railroad, basically restates the holding in Daimler AG v. Bauman, 571 U. S. ___,  which gutted the concept of general personal jurisdiction overturning precedents dating back to 1945. 

The incidents forming the basis of the lawsuit under the Federal Employee Liability Act for injuries suffered by two railroad employees, over which federal and state courts have concurrent jurisdiction, occurred outside of the State of Montana. "Neither incorporated nor headquartered there, BNSF maintains less than 5% of its work force and about 6% of its total track mileage in the State. Contending that it is not “at home” in Montana, as required for the exercise of general personal jurisdiction under Daimler AG v. Bauman,  . . . BNSF moved to dismiss both suits."

Prior to Daimler, conduct of business in a state where it maintains a regular office on a permanent basis was sufficient to give a court general personal jurisdiction over the defendant on all claims arising anywhere in the world, a standard this case would clearly meet. But, under the Daimler rule a headquarters or the moral equivalent of one, and not just regular conduct of business from a permanent office, is necessary to give rise to general personal jurisdiction. These facts clearly do not meet this standard. Sotomayor's dissent is a sequel to her dissent in Daimler which she argues was wrongly decided and should not be followed in this case either. None of the Justices agree that the distinctions the Montana Supreme Court made to treat this case as subject to a different rule than the one adopted in Daimler are legally significant (mostly that the case involves a railroad).

In a 5-3 ruling the U.S. Supreme Court upholds a North Carolina trial court opinion finding that the North Carolina legislature intentionally engaged in racial gerrymandering with a predominant purpose of disadvantaging black voters. Therefore, North Carolina was ordered to redraw its Congressional districts in a legal manner. A contrary ruling in state court had no legal effect. It is extremely rare for a court to make such a finding and then to have that ruling upheld on appeal due to the deference normally afforded to state legislatures.

A Texas court authorized a Plaintiff to serve process on a Canadian defendant by mail and after the defendant was served by mail, entered default judgment. The Defendant argued that service by mail was prohibited by the Convention on the Service Abroad of Judicial and Extrajudicial Documents in Civil and Commercial Matters (Hague Service Convention). The U.S. Supreme Court held that the treaty did not prohibit service by mail in these circumstances, where this method of service was authorized by generally applicable law in Texas and the Canadian government did not object using the treaty process to service by mail. The decision was 8-0.

This case is another major defeat for the Federal Circuit on venue in patent law cases.

In 1957, the U.S. Supreme Court found that the patent suit venue statute limited suits to venues in the state where the defendant is incorporated. In 1990, the Federal Circuit held that due to an amendment to the general venue statute that patent lawsuits could be brought in any district that has personal jurisdiction over the defendant. This gave rise to extreme forum shopping by patent trolls with the Eastern District of Texas arising as a very plaintiff friendly venue in which many patent infringement cases were brought, despite it having only minimal contacts with the patent holder. 

This 8-0 decision overrules the 1990 decision of the Federal Circuit and holds that the 1957 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that patent lawsuits may be brought only in the state where a defendant is incorporated remains good law. Congress had strongly considered a statutory amendment of the venue laws to address this issue but waited for the Supreme Court to resolve this case first.

More analysis including the curious fact that a rule regarding venue for corporations was resolved in a case where the parties were LLCs can be found at SCOTUS blog.

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