Third Circuit Roundup

Even as the Appellate Division wound down the number of its published opinions in the second half of August, the Third Circuit seemed to rev up its publication of opinions. From August 14 through August 29, the court published thirteen opinions. Here are summaries of some of them (for full coverage of all of the court’s activities, check out Matthew Stiegler’s CA3blog):

Golden v. New Jersey Institute of Technology, 934 F.3d 302 (3d Cir. 2019). This opinion by Chief Judge Smith involved an attorneys’ fee issue under New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act, N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1 to -13. Reversing the District Court, the Third Circuit applied New Jersey’s “catalyst doctrine,” as announced in Mason v. City of Hoboken, 196 N.J. 51 (2008), and held that fees should have been awarded.

Turco v. City of Englewood, 935 F.3d 155 (3d Cir. 2019). Judge McKee wrote the court’s opinion in this case. The subject was whether Englewood’s ordinance that created a buffer zone around clinics where abortions are performed violated the rights of plaintiff, an abortion protester, to freedom of speech, association, and assembly. The District Court granted summary judgment to plaintiff, but the Third Circuit reversed. Viewing the evidence most favorably to the City, and asking whether there is any genuine issue of material fact, the panel found such issues, which rendered summary judgment improper.

Wolfington v. Reconstructive Orthopaedic Assocs. II PC, 935 F.3d 187 (3d Cir. 2019). This was a class action under the Truth in Lending Act, 15 U.S.C. 1601 et seq. (“TILA”). The District Court granted a defense motion to dismiss, holding that plaintiff had failed to state a claim under TILA. That court also imposed sanctions under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11 on plaintiff’s counsel. On plaintiff’s appeal, the Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the complaint, but reversed the sanction. Judge Fuentes wrote the panel’s opinion.

Stone v. Troy Construction, LLC, 935 F.3d 242 (3d Cir. 2019). In this Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) class action, the District Court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant, applying a two-year statute of limitations because the judge found no willful violation of the FSLA. Under the FLSA, “[w]hether a violation is willful determines the length of the applicable statute of limitations.” In an opinion by Judge Jordan, the Third Circuit reversed. The panel held that the District Court had applied an incorrect standard in making its willfulness determination, which made its invocation of the two-year statute erroneous.

Fields v. Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, 936 F.3d 142 (3d Cir. 2019). The Third Circuit split 2-1 in this appeal, which addressed practices of Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives related to beginning sessions with a prayer. Two issues were presented. First, the guest chaplains whom the House invited to offer the prayer never included non-theists, which allegedly violated constitutional protections surrounding religion. Second, the House asks visitors to rise for the prayer.

On the first issue, the majority (Judges Ambro and Fisher, with Judge Ambro authoring the opinion) found no impropriety. “[O]nly theistic prayer can satisfy the historical purpose of appealing for divine guidance in lawmaking,” and because “legislative prayer is government speech” that could not be attacked under the constitutional guarantees of free speech, free exercise of religion, or equal protection. The dissenter was Judge Restrepo.

On the second issue, all three judges agreed that plaintiff had no claim. Asking people to rise was not coercive, and a single incident where a security guard pressured someone to stand was moot.

Jester v. Hutt, 937 F.3d 233 (3d Cir. 2019). There were a number of issues on this appeal and cross-appeal, which arose out of a jury verdict in a case involving horse boarding. The issue that likely motivated the publication of the panel’s opinion, by Judge Hardiman, however, was the ruling that cases requiring proportionality between compensatory damages and punitive damages do not require proportionality where the basis for punitive damages was nominal, rather than compensatory, damages.