U.S. First Circuit

U.S. First Circuit - The FindLaw 1st Circuit Court of Appeals News and Information Blog


It's not all sunshine, smiles, and drinks with little umbrellas in them in Puerto Rico today. Yesterday, a federal district judge upheld the territory's ban on same-sex marriage, placing Puerto Rico in threadbare company with Louisiana as the only two jurisdictions whose federal courts upheld a state or territorial same-sex marriage ban.

Unlike the Louisiana court, however, Judge Juan M. Perez-Gimenez dismissed on "procedural" grounds.

If there's one thing I think of when I think of the First Circuit, it's the judges' unique writing styles. We've spent a lot of ink praising the unique stylings of Senior Judge Bruce Selya, but he's not the only person whose opinions stand out -- his successor, Judge Ojetta Rogeriee Thompson, really deserves a shout-out as well.

Take today's opinion for instance. She starts with this:

Foster Starks, Jr. was not having a good day. First, he learned that his son had been arrested, then he was tasked with the unenviable job of retrieving a rental car from the son's irate girlfriend. Lastly, as he was nearing home that night, he saw a State Trooper's blue lights reflected in the rental's rearview mirror. So one could say that the cherry on the cake of Starks's day was the Trooper's discovery of the bag on the seat beside him -- containing, as it did, a gun and two boxes of ammunition.

It's great storytelling, and the ending ought to brighten Starks' otherwise bad streak of luck.

Ever since City of Renton v. Playtime Theaters, the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed cities to zone out of existence businesses it didn't like, as long as the city was nominally zoning based on "secondary effects" and not targeting a particular kind of expression. In Renton, it was -- and this gives you an idea how old the case is -- an "adult" theater.

From the First Circuit, Showtime Entertainment v. Town of Mendon takes us back to that old "secondary effects" doctrine and just how far it can go.

In 1996, TWA Flight 800 left New York's JFK International Airport for France. Within minutes of takeoff, witnesses reported seeing a streak of light head towards the plane, followed by a massive explosion. All 230 passengers were killed. The official cause, according to the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the National Transportation Safety Board was a mechanical defect in the center wing fuel tank.

Thomas Stalcup thinks the official story is a government-wide cover-up, likely of some sort of missile testing, reports Cape News. He produced a documentary, "TWA Flight 800," which initially aired on Epix and is now highly rated on Netflix. But even with the documentary in hand, he wants more information, specifically documents from the CIA that he requested via the Freedom of Information Act.

Back in August, the First Circuit decided Penn v. Escorsio, an arguably obvious case where qualified immunity was denied to prison guards who knew about an inmate's suicide risks, ignored his very vocal threats to do exactly that, then found him strung up in his cell. The inmate, Matthew Lalli, suffered severe brain damage and will require $9 million in care, according to his mother, who brought suit on his behalf.

Now, despite plans to appeal the First Circuit's ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, the case itself will return to the district court and be scheduled for trial, as the First Circuit denied a request to hold the case pending further appeal, reports the Bangor Daily News.

For the longest time, the Massachusetts Department of Corrections dispensed HIV-positive prisoners' medication through the "Keep on Person" (KOP) program, where prisoners were given a bimonthly or monthly supply of the drugs to keep in their cell. In 2009, as a cost-saving measure, the DOC switched to dispensing HIV meds at a dispensary window.

Why? Because HIV drugs are expensive, making up more than 40 percent of the DOC's pharmacy budget. The KOP program would result in wasted medication, as prisoners would be transferred, skip taking meds, lose meds, die, or be released. The switch not only reduced costs, but also seemed to have a positive effect on the HIV-positive prisoner population as a whole; 95 percent of these prisoners now having an undetectable viral load, compared to 83 percent before the switch.

Despite that bit of positive news, five inmates sought an injunction to return the meds to the KOP program, arguing cruel and unusual punishment and deliberate indifference. As may have already guessed, their claims failed.

The McLaughlin Group won. No, not the TV show with political pundits -- this McLaughlin Group, comprised of active-duty members of the United States armed forces and National Guard, veterans, and their same-sex spouses, challenged the Defense of Marriage Act. They were one of many groups challenging the law, and when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the heterosexist definition of marriage present in the Defense of Marriage Act in United States v. Windsor, they won.

There was never an argument against their case. The Obama administration took a no-defense, full-enforcement approach to the law, despite the president's own feelings that the law was unconstitutional.

A defense and enforcement without merit? To the McLaughlin Group, this sounded like the circumstances covered by the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA), which allows attorneys fees when the government takes an unjustifiable position on a civil rights case.

Ever wonder why you can't buy a car directly from the manufacturer? Tesla has. In trying to sell directly to consumers, the California-based manufacturer of sexy (and expensive) electric cars has run up against legal obstacles in the form of state laws prohibiting direct-to-consumer sales of cars.

Such laws were originally meant to protect dealerships from manufacturers, but over the years, they've become more of a way to limit entry into the business of automobile sales. Tesla finally won a small victory in Massachusetts earlier this week when the commonwealth's Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) ruled that unaffiliated auto dealers don't have standing to challenge the law.

Last month, we wondered whether lawyers should get involved in the debt collection business. It's fraught with regulations, and this case from the First Circuit demonstrates what can happen to a law firm that doesn't follow those regulations.

Robbie Pollard had a debt of about $612. The Law Office of Mandy L. Spaulding sent Pollard a letter saying that it was collecting on the debt and that, you know what, she was just going to sue her to get this all over with. Efficient? Yes. Legal? No. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) doesn't allow for this. Spaulding claimed that the law didn't contradict the collection notice, which contained some teeny-tiny print advising Pollard of her rights under the FDCPA.

This case is neither particularly exciting, nor complicated.

Maria J. Collazo-Rosado worked for the University of Puerto Rico, heading up its student tutoring department. She suffers from Chron's Disease, which causes inflammation of the intestines. You're not a doctor, and neither am I, but that basically means she runs to the toilet a lot and has to have frequent visits with a doctor.

UPR had a pretty strict attendance policy about using time cards, one which she repeatedly failed to follow (ostensibly because of her condition, though she even failed to text or email when she was going to be late, as required by UPR). She might have had a fighting chance at a claim except ... she failed at her actual job, nuking any possible claims of retaliation and pretextual termination.