Articles Posted in Constitutional Law

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The Surface and Transportation Board (STB) has regulatory authority over rail carriers, 49 U.S.C. 10501(b). A "discontinuance" allows a rail carrier to preserve a rail corridor for possible reactivation of service; "abandonment" removes the line from the system and terminates the railroad’s common carrier obligation. The 1983 Amendments to the National Trails System Act created an alternative process, “railbanking,” 16 U.S.C. 1241, which maintains STB jurisdiction over the dormant corridor, but allows a third party to assume responsibilities for the right-of-way, preserve the right-of-way for future rail use, and, in the interim, convert the corridor into a recreational trail. The railroad first initiates abandonment proceedings; a party interested in acquiring the corridor then requests an STB Notice of Interim Trail Use (NITU). If an agreement is reached, the STB suspends abandonment proceedings, preventing state law reversionary interests in the corridor from vesting. Property owners who believed they had a reversionary interest began claiming that railbanking constituted a taking: the threshold question is whether the claimant has a compensable property interest, which is often answered by analyzing the original deeds that conveyed the property to the railroad. In 2012, BNSF initiated proceedings to abandon a corridor. The Chicago Department of Transportation indicated interest in railbanking. The STB issued an NITU, giving BNSF until April 2014, to negotiate an agreement, after which the corridor would be abandoned. After numerous extensions, BNSF has neither reached an agreement nor abandoned the corridor. The Federal Circuit affirmed the Claims Court: the deeds between the predecessors-in-interest to the claimants and the original railroad conveyed the property to the railroad in fee simple rather than only an easement. There was no taking of any reversionary interest. View "Chicago Coating Co., LLC v. United States" on Justia Law

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Alimanestianu, a U.S. citizen, was killed in the 1989 bombing of Flight 772 by the Abu Nidal Organization. The State Department determined that the Libyan government sponsored the bombing. Libya was protected from suit in the U.S. under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA); in 1996, FSIA was amended to permit claims for personal injury or death caused by acts of foreign sovereigns designated as state sponsors of terrorism, 28 U.S.C. 1605(a)(7). Libya had been designated in 1979. In 2002, the Alimanestianus and others sued Libya and obtained summary judgment in 2008, awarding $6.9 billion in total; the Alimanestianus received $1.297 billion. While the defendants appealed, the United States entered into a Claims Settlement Agreement with Libya. Libya agreed to deposit $1.5 billion into a humanitarian fund, $681 million of which was for claims by U.S. nationals for wrongful death or physical injury in pending case as “a full and final settlement.” The Foreign Claims Settlement Commission subsequently awarded the Alimanestianus $10 million. The Federal Circuit rejected a claim that vacating their judgment constituted a compensable taking. The court considered the Penn Central factors: the Executive has an overwhelming interest in conducting foreign affairs; the plaintiffs have no evidence that they had an investment-backed expectation in their claims and nonfinal judgment; plaintiffs’ claim that the Commission’s award was less than their nonfinal judgment does not refute that they received more than they would have without government action. View "Alimanesianu v. United States" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs leased part of Love Field airport from the City of Dallas and constructed a six-gate airline terminal. Plaintiffs claim that the Wright Amendment Reform Act of 2006 (WARA), 120 Stat. 2011, effected a regulatory taking of their leases and a physical taking of the terminal because the statute codified a private agreement in which Dallas agreed to bar the use of plaintiffs’ gates for commercial air transit and to acquire and demolish plaintiffs’ terminal. The Claims Court found that WARA's enactment constituted a per se regulatory taking of plaintiffs’ leaseholds under Supreme Court precedent, Lucas, and a regulatory taking of the leaseholds under Penn Central, and a physical taking of the terminal. The Federal Circuit reversed. Noting the history of regulation of Love Field and limitations in place before WARA, the court stated there can be no regulatory taking because plaintiffs cannot demonstrate that their ability to use their property for commercial air passenger service pre-WARA had any value. Plaintiffs’ reasonable, investment-backed expectations are limited by the regulatory regime in place when they acquired the leases. Rejecting a claim of physical taking the court reasoned that a requirement that federal funds not be used for removal of plaintiffs’ gates explicitly distances the federal government from Dallas’ intended action. View "Love Terminal Partners, L.P. v. United States" on Justia Law

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Saint Bernard Parish Government and other owners of real property in St. Bernard Parish or in the Lower Ninth Ward of the City of New Orleans sued under the Tucker Act, 28 U.S.C. 1491(a)(1), alleging a taking. They claimed that the government was liable for flood damage to their properties caused by Hurricane Katrina and other hurricanes. Plaintiffs’ theory was that the government incurred liability because of government inaction, including the failure to properly maintain or to modify the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet (MRGO) channel, and government action (the construction and operation of the MRGO channel). The Claims Court found a taking occurred and awarded compensation. The Federal Circuit reversed. The government cannot be liable on a takings theory for inaction and the government action in constructing and operating MRGO was not shown to have been the cause of the flooding. The Claims Court failed to apply the correct legal standard, which required that the causation analysis account for government flood control projects that reduced the risk of flooding. View "St. Bernard Parish Government v. United States" on Justia Law

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Brunetti owns the clothing brand “fuct.” In 2011, individuals filed an intent-to-use application for the mark FUCT for items of apparel. The applicants assigned the application to Brunetti, who amended it to allege use of the mark. The examining attorney refused to register the mark under the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. 1052(a), finding it comprised immoral or scandalous matter because FUCT is the past tense of “fuck,” a vulgar word, and is therefore scandalous. The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board affirmed. The Federal Circuit reversed. While substantial evidence supports the Board’s findings and it did not err concluding the mark comprises immoral or scandalous matter, section 2(a)’s bar on registering immoral or scandalous marks is an unconstitutional restriction of free speech. The bar is a content-based restriction on speech; trademark registration is not a government subsidy program that could justify such a bar. Nor is trademark registration a “limited public forum,” in which the government can more freely restrict speech. The bar survives neither strict nor intermediate scrutiny. Even if the government had a substantial interest in protecting the public from scandalous or immoral marks, the regulation does not directly advance that interest because section 2(a) does not directly prevent applicants from using their marks. View "In re: Brunetti" on Justia Law

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Freeman's company, RNR located eight mining claims on public lands of the Rogue River Siskiyou National Forest. In 2011, RNR filed a plan of operations with the U.S. Forest Service for commercial mining of ore that “contains commercially recoverable amounts of nickel, chromium[,] and iron” from two deposits over the course of 30 years. RNR proposed the construction of nearly eight miles of new roads, excavation of a pit for water storage, construction of two crossings over a creek, and creation of a processing facility on a 20-acre site, to be located on lands managed by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Officials concluded that the BLM office had not received a complete plan of operation and requested a proposal for bulk sampling and construction of a pilot-prototype plant. Officials repeatedly asserted they would not process the pending plan without more specific information and a pilot-prototype. RNR did not respond to those requests, but sued, alleging a regulatory taking. The Federal Circuit affirmed the dismissal, of the suit finding the claim not ripe. The Forest Service has not reached a final decision and it is not clear compliance with its requests would be futile. View "Freeman v. United States" on Justia Law

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Lt. Harris has been an officer in the Navy since 2005. He was arrested by civilian authorities in 2013 for sexual offenses involving minors and was held in confinement until his 2015 conviction and sentencing. Between his arrest and conviction, the Navy withheld Harris’s pay pending the outcome of his criminal proceedings. Based on his conviction, the Navy determined that, under the Military Pay Act, 37 U.S.C. 204, and Department of Defense regulations, Harris’s absence was unexcused and he was not entitled to any pay for his absence during confinement. The Federal Circuit affirmed the Claims Court’s dismissal of his suit, in which he sought back pay, challenged the civilian court’s jurisdiction to convict him, and claimed due process violations. Harris failed to state a claim under the Military Pay Act because he was convicted of his crimes, and was not entitled to pay during his unexcused absence. Harris failed to state a due process claim because he was not statutorily eligible to receive pay during his detention; the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments were not implicated. The Claims Court lacked jurisdiction to review the jurisdiction of civilian authorities to prosecute and convict him as a military service member. View "Harris v. United States" on Justia Law

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Under 42 U.S.C. 1485, the USDA's Rural Housing Service (RHS) makes loans for construction of affordable rental housing. From 1972-1982, each of 10 limited partnerships (with a common general partner, Olsen) entered into a 50-year loan agreement that stated that each borrower could pay off the loan and convert its properties to conventional housing after 15 or 20 years. The 1987 Emergency Low Income Housing Preservation Act, 42 U.S.C. 1472(c)), provided that before accepting prepayment, the USDA must attempt to enter into an agreement with the borrower. In 2002, Olsen was negotiating to sell to a nonprofit organization. He notified the RHS of “intent . . . to convert [some] units into conventional housing” and sought approval to pay off the mortgages. RHS responded with a checklist. Olsen did not proceed; the potential acquirer decided against purchasing the properties. In 2011, Olsen submitted more definite prepayment requests. RHS responded with an incentive offer concerning four properties, which Olsen accepted, remaining in the program. For three other properties, RHS informed Olsen that prepayment was not an option. Olsen purportedly believed that pursuing prepayment on any properties was futile. He did not submit additional applications. In 2013, the partnerships sued, alleging that the government, through the 1987 enactment or the 2011 correspondence, violated their prepayment rights. The Federal Circuit reversed the Claims Court's dismissal. The 2002 correspondence did not trigger the RHS’s duty to accept prepayment; RHS did not take any steps inconsistent with prepayment. The government did not breach its contractual obligation in 2002. Because the alleged breaches occurred no earlier than 2011, the contract claims are not barred by the six-year limitations period. The Claims Court implicitly premised the dismissal of takings claims on the same erroneous rationale. View "Airport Road Associates, Ltd. v. United States" on Justia Law

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Shareholders lacked standing to challenge, as an illegal exaction, U.S. government’s acquisition of AIG stock as loan collateral. In 2008, during one of the worst financial crises of the last century, American International Group (AIG) was on the brink of bankruptcy and sought emergency financing. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York granted AIG an $85 billion loan, the largest such loan to date. The U.S. Government received a majority stake in AIG’s equity under the loan, which the Government eventually converted into common stock and sold. One of AIG’s largest shareholders, Starr, filed suit alleging that the Government’s acquisition of AIG equity and subsequent actions relating to a reverse stock split were unlawful. The Claims Court held that the Government’s acquisition of AIG equity constituted an illegal exaction in violation of the Federal Reserve Act, 12 U.S.C. 343, but declined to grant relief for either that or for Starr’s reverse-stock-split claims. The Federal Circuit vacated in part, holding that Starr and the shareholders it represented lack standing to pursue the equity acquisition claims directly, as those claims belong exclusively to AIG, rendering the merits of those claims moot. The court affirmed as to Starr’s reverse-stock-split claims. View "Starr International Co. v. United States" on Justia Law

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Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act (VACAA) provisions vesting significant authority in administrative judges violates Appointments Clause. In 2014, Congress investigated reports that senior executives in the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) had manipulated hospital performance metrics by maintaining secret wait lists of veterans who needed care. The resulting VACAA established new rules for the removal of DVA Senior Executive employees, 38 U.S.C. 713. Previously, senior DVA executives could only be removed under the Civil Service Reform Act, 5 U.S.C. 1101, and were entitled to appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), to a hearing, and to attorney representation. Section 713 created an accelerated timeline for MSPB appeals and required the MSPB to refer all appeals to an administrative judge (AJ) for decision within 21 days. Helman, the Director of the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care System, was removed from her position under section 713. An MSPB AJ affirmed. Helman sought review from the full Board. Citing section 713(e)(2), the Board refused to take any further action. The Federal Circuit remanded, holding that, by prohibiting Board review under section 713(e)(2), Congress vested significant authority in an AJ in violation of the Appointments Clause. Section 713(e)(2) and two related sections are severable, leaving the remainder of the statute intact. View "Helman v. Department of Veterans Affairs" on Justia Law