Tag: lawsuits

Frivolous Lawsuit Aimed at Silencing Critics of Eminent Domain Abuse

In Kelo v. City of New London, the Supreme Court ruled that a locality could use its eminent domain authority to seize private property to sell to private developers. Cato’s amicus brief opposing this abuse of the Takings Clause is available here, and an article on Kelo and other property law rulings of the 2004-2005 term by law professor James W. Ely, Jr. is available here.

One positive outcome of Kelo was the legislative restriction of eminent domain usage in state houses across the country. On the other hand, developers and localities have attempted to muzzle their critics with frivolous lawsuits. The Institute for Justice is currently litigating one of these actions in Texas:

Investigative journalist Carla Main wrote a book about eminent domain abuse in Freeport, Texas.  The city is attempting to force out a generations-old family shrimp and marine supply business to make way for a luxury marina development that was to be owned and operated by Royall’s private company.  When the victims of this eminent domain abuse complained, Royall sued them for defamation.  Main’s book, Bulldozed: “Kelo,” Eminent Domain, and the American Lust for Land, tells the story of the Gore family’s generations-old shrimp business and how Royall and the city tried to take their land.  Prominent law professor Richard Epstein (University of Chicago and New York University) contributed a blurb to the back cover of Bulldozed.

Royall sued Main, Epstein and Encounter Books (the publisher) for defamation over the contents of Bulldozed.  He also sued two newspapers and a journalist who published reviews of Bulldozed.  Royall is attempting to use the power of the courts to silence his critics.

A Dallas trial court ruled last year that the lawsuit was not barred by the First Amendment, even though Royall could not point to any statement in Main’s book that came close to the legal standard for defamation. The Institute for Justice is appealing the trial court’s decision. As Bill McGurn writes in today’s Wall Street Journal, this suit is one of the “high costs of Mr. Kennedy’s concurrence” in Kelo. Here’s hoping that rights protected by both the First and Fifth Amendments can prevail.

Susette Kelo, the owner of the Little Pink House at the center of the Kelo case, spoke at the Cato Institute about her ordeal, and her story is the subject of this Cato Institute video.

The Likelihood of Repealing ObamaCare

The political science blog Rule 22 has a post discussing the likelihood of repealing at least some part of ObamaCare.  Author Jordan Ragusa finds:

  • If “the Republicans regain only the House in the upcoming election…the estimated likelihood of at [least] some repeal during the 112th Congress is 52 percent.”
  • If “Republicans regain both chambers in the upcoming midterm…the estimated likelihood of at [least] some repeal is 59 percent.”
  • If “Republicans regain unified control of government in 2012…the estimated likelihood of some repeal in the 113th Congress is 69 percent.”

Ragusa is predicting only that the odds are better than 50-50 that Congress will repeal some part of the law, such as the expanded 1099 reporting, which House Democrats have already moved to eliminate because small businesses find it so onerous.  He is not laying odds on whether Congress will repeal the entire law or its most important and unpopular provisions (i.e., ObamaCare’s individual mandate).

His post does shed light on the likelihood of repealing the individual mandate, however.  As the below graph shows, the probability of repealing any provision of major legislation rises in each of the next five Congresses (i.e., over the subsequent 10 years).  After that point, the probability of repeal begins to fall.

Note that this graph shows the instantaneous probability of repeal.  The cumulative probability is the area under the curve, and increases monotonically over time.  Thus the probability that Congress will repeal some part of ObamaCare by 2020 is more than 13 percent.

Ragusa therefore concludes:

the newly enacted law will be most “at risk” not in the next Congress, but a decade from now.  So sit tight.

Also noteworthy is that Ragusa presents only the probability of legislative repeal.  The prospect that the courts may invalidate all or part of the law increases the probability that some day, ObamaCare will no longer be on the books.

Twombly and Iqbal: Reality Check

In Bell Atlantic v. Twombly (2007) and Ashcroft v. Iqbal (2009), the Supreme Court gave trial courts more latitude to dismiss a lawsuit at a very early stage, before the parties have had a chance to engage in discovery (the often lengthy and expensive fact-finding stage of civil litigation), if judges think the suit is not founded on “plausible” allegations of wrongdoing. 

There’s a rich, angry debate about the effect the decisions will have on dismissal rates of meritorious suits in lower courts. But the consensus among academics seems to be that both decisions will trigger a sea-change in lower court practice—one deeply unfavorable to plaintiffs.

We won’t know the real effect of these decisions for many years to come. But a 2007 study by the Federal Judicial Center on the effect of a trio of similarly controversial 1986 Supreme Court decisions (known as the “Celotex trilogy”) raises questions about dire claims that Twombly or Iqbal will dramatically change lower court practice.

The debate over the Celotex trilogy in the 1980s is eerily similar to today’s debate over Twombly and Iqbal. Responding to concerns that juries award arbitrarily large judgments against corporate defendants, the Celotex trilogy gave lower courts more latitude to grant summary judgment—that is, to toss lawsuits at the end of discovery, before a case gets to a jury, when the judge thinks there is insufficient evidence to justify a jury trial. Many academics complained that the cases would result in a radical sea change in lower court practice—one that benefited corporate defendants at the expense of plaintiffs.

The FJC’s 2007 study is the most comprehensive study of the effect of the decisions to date. Based on data drawn from 15,000 docket sheets in randomly sampled terminated cases in six district courts, the FJC found (as expected) that, before and after the trilogy, summary judgment filing and disposition rates vary significantly from circuit to circuit and between types of cases. After controlling for differences in filing rates across circuits and for changes over time in the types of cases filed, the authors found that “the likelihood that a case contained one or more motions for summary judgment increased before the Supreme Court trilogy, from approximately 12% in 1975 to 17% in 1986, and has remained fairly steady, at approximately 19% since that time.” Moreover, between 1975 and 2000, “no statistically significant changes over time were found in the outcome of defendants’ or plaintiffs’ summary judgment motions, after controlling for differences across courts and types of cases.” Indeed, despite anecdotal claims that Celotex prompted a significant increase in summary judgment in civil rights cases, the authors found “no evidence that the likelihood of a summary judgment motion or termination by summary judgment has increased” in civil rights cases since 1986.

It’s easy to overstate the FJC’s findings. (The data tell us nothing about the quality of summary judgment decisions before or after Celotex, and shed no light on disposition rates at a micro-level, i.e. in product liability actions, as opposed to other tort actions, or Title VII actions, as opposed to other civil rights actions, for example.) The study nonetheless lends some plausibility to the view that Celotex was less a catalyst for change than a ratification of preexisting lower court practice that had evolved largely in spite of the Supreme Court and which the Court was, and is, largely powerless to control.

It’s easy to think of reasons why trial courts’ summary judgment practice might evolve independently of the Supreme Court. A surprisingly large number of trial court decisions, including grants of partial summary judgment, are not immediately appealable—and the pervasiveness of settlement means many of these decisions are never appealed. Intermediate appellate courts, moreover, affirm trial court decisions at an incredibly high rate. And the Supreme Court, which takes only about 80 appeals a year, has dramatically limited capacity to police the innumerable summary judgment dispositions made daily throughout the federal court system. The upshot is that trial courts, as a practical matter, have long had wide discretion to decide even pivotal motions, like summary judgment, with relatively light appellate oversight.

Are Twombly and Iqbal a replay of the Celotex trilogy? Only time will tell. But what we know, to date, about the Celotex trilogy suggests that, whatever you think about Twombly or Iqbal, strong claims about the influence of either decision may well overstate the Supreme Court’s power and influence over trial court practice.