Supreme Court Action: Summary Judgment Standards and the Meaning of “Property” in Restitution Cases

Here are summaries of the two opinions the Supreme Court issued yesterday that I hadn’t covered.  The first of these is Tolan v. Cotton (13-551).  The case involves an encounter between a police officer (Cotton) and an individual.  Officer Cotton observed Tolan and his cousin Cooper exit a vehicle at 2 AM on the morning of December 31, 2008.  Office Cotton keyed in the license plate number of the vehicle though he made a mistake in one of the digits.  The error returned a result of a similar make and model that had been reported stolen.  That mistake started an unfortunate sequence of events involving Tolan, Cooper, and Tolan’s parents culminating in Officer Cotton shooting Tolan.  He survived.  Nothing in the opinion indicates that Tolan was ever charged with a crime.

Tolan and his parents brought a §1983 suit alleging that Officer Cotton violated Tolan’s Fourth Amendment rights.  The claim presented was that Officer Cotton used excessive force under the circumstances.  This, one may imagine, is a fact based inquiry.  The District Court, however, granted summary judgment reasoning that Officer Cotton’s use of force was not unreasonable.  The Fifth Circuit affirmed with different reasoning.  That Court declined to say whether Officer Cotton’s actions violated the Fourth Amendment.  Rather it held that he was entitled to qualified immunity as he did not violate a clearly established right.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari.  It drew no conclusions as to the merits of either side’s arguments but agreed that the use of summary judgment was misapplied to the case:

And while “this Court is not equipped to correct every perceived error coming from the lower federal courts,” Boag v. MacDougall 454 U. S. 364, 366 (1982) (O’Connor, J., concurring), we intervene here because the opinion below reflects a clear misapprehension of summary judgment standards in light of our precedents.

The Court emphasized that a motion for summary judgment must be resolved by viewing the evidence presented by the non-moving party in the most favorable light as to whether there is a genuine issue of fact.  The Court determined what actually happened is that the lower courts weighed the evidence and resolved the case in favor of Officer Cotton.  I haven’t included many of the details of the encounter.  They are all in the opinion and reflect, as the Court notes, two different narratives as to what actually happened.  As such there are demonstrated genuine issues of fact that can be resolved by a jury.  The case was remanded.  The opinion is unsigned with no dissents.

The second case is Robers v. United States (12-9012).  The Court here interprets the meaning of the word “property” in the Mandatory Victims Restitution Act of 1996, 18 U. S. C. §§3663A–3664.  The specific provision at issue requires property crime offenders to pay “an amount equal to . . . the value of the property” less “the value (as of the date the property is returned) of any part of the property that is returned,” §3663A(b)(1)(B).

Robers took out two mortgages for a total valuation of $470,000.  He was a straw buyer which led to his conviction.  The banks foreclosed on the property and ultimately sold the properties for $280,000.  The judge at trial ordered Robers to pay $220,000 which represents the loss by the banks and the expenses for selling the property.  The Seventh Circuit affirmed.

Robers argued that the property was worth more as of the date the houses were returned to the banks and he should not be responsible for the fact that the houses were sold in a down market.  The Court examined the statute and said the property in this case is not the collateral to the fraud but the money itself.  The calculation stands.  Justice Breyer delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.  Justice Sotomayor wrote a concurring opinion and was joined by Justice Ginsburg.  –Mark

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