Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Trial court loses jurisdiction to enforce plea agreements after sentencing, rules Ohio Supreme Court

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that a trial court cannot rescind a sentence ordered under a plea agreement when the defendant fails to comply with that agreement after the defendant has already been sentenced. As reported by Court News Ohio, the case before the court, State v. Gilbert, involves a defendant who entered into a plea agreement where he would plead to a number of counts of manslaughter, weapons charges and intimidation of a witness, while other counts were reduced or dismissed, in exchange for testifying against his father in a murder case. The defendant, Kareem Gilbert accepted the deal and was sentenced to 18 years in prison.

After beginning his prison term Gilbert refused to testify against his father, and the State accused him of breaching his plea agreement. He was brought back to court and the original plea deal was thrown out. Gilbert then entered another plea and was resentenced, this time for 18 years to life. He appealed to the First District, who reversed the lower court, finding that it did not have the authority to revisit the final judgment after sentencing the defendant, irrespective of whether the plea agreement had been breached.

The Supreme Court of Ohio upheld the decision of the First District, finding "Once the final judgment was entered and Gilbert was sentenced to prison, the trial court lost jurisdiction to vacate its judgment of conviction and to resentence Gilbert. There must be finality to a court’s judgment. There is no authority for a court to revisit a sentence that has already been imposed based on a defendant’s failure to fulfill his obligations under a plea agreement."

In a decision penned by Justice O'Neill, the court acknowledged that while contract rules do generally apply to plea agreements, the trial court loses jurisdiction to enforce them after sentencing occurs. The Court stressed that if the trial court wishes to keep jurisdiction of the case, it should postpone sentencing until after the terms of the agreement are completed, stating "As every teacher knows, you reward the student after the desired behavior occurs, not before. Much like teaching, plea negotiations are driven by the fact that the incentive to do the act in question disappears once the reward has been given."

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor and Justices Lanzinger, Pfeifer and French joined in the majority decision. Justice O'Donnell drafted a dissent which was joined by Justice Kennedy.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Voter ID laws stand in Texas as Supreme Court declines to intervene

SCOTUS Blog reports that the U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene Saturday morning in a Texas case challenging restrictive voter identification laws, which are in place in the state for the first time in a federal election. This effectively upholds a ruling by the 5th Circuit permitting the laws to remain in place for the upcoming November election, despite findings by the district court that the measures violate civil rights.

A federal district judge in Corpus Christi granted a permanent injunction of the voter ID laws, holding that they violated the Voting Rights Act because they had a racially discriminatory purpose and would yield discriminatory results. The judge also found the laws to be an unconstitutional poll tax because of the costs associated with obtaining the specific forms of ID required by the laws. The 5th Circuit granted a stay of the district court's injunction, citing concerns that the election was imminent, and effectively allowing the restrictive measures to remain in place. Because the Supreme Court chose not to intervene, this ruling will stand until further order of the 5th Circuit, which still has to hear a full appeal of the case. The laws, passed in 2011, have been in effect since 2013, but never during a federal election.

Neither the 5th Circuit or the Supreme Court has ruled on the constitutionality of the laws at this point, and SCOTUS Blog reports that it is likely that the case will return to the Supreme Court after the 5th Circuit hears the full appeal. The Supreme Court's decision in this case was entered without explanation, although there is a lengthy dissent penned by Justice Ginsburg and joined by Justices Sotomayor and Kagan, in which Justice Ginsburg states, "the greatest threat to public confidence in elections in this case is the prospect of enforcing a purposefully discriminatory law, one that likely imposes an unconstitutional poll tax and risks denying the right to vote to hundreds of thousands of eligible voters."

This case is one in a number of cases regarding voting and electoral issues that have been brought to the Supreme Court in recent weeks. In September the Court granted a stay in Ohio, eliminating some additional early voting time ordered by a federal district court. In early October the Court blocked restrictive voter identification measures in Wisconsin, but upheld some restrictive measures in North Carolina.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Ebola lawsuits? Liability concerns are not limited to hospitals

The National Law Journal (sub. req.) reports that there is potential for a broad net of liability to be cast in Ebola cases. Concerns about Ebola in the U.S. have increased since news broke that Liberian national Thomas Duncan was infected with the disease and was initially misdiagnosed and sent home by Texas Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas in September.  Duncan later returned to the hospital where he was treated by a team of doctors and nurses. He died there on October 8. Since then two nurses who treated Duncan have also come down with the virus. This caused heightened concern about the spread of the disease, as one of the nurses traveled by commercial airline when she had an elevated temperature.

The Wall Street Journal reports that lawsuits against the hospital itself by either Duncan's family or the nursing staff would face difficulties. Texas law provides medical malpractice caps at $250,000 for pain and suffering and punitive damages are rarely awarded in these cases. Before the case could even proceed, plaintiffs would have to demonstrate the merit of their claims with expert testimony that the bad care by the hospital caused the injuries. Additionally, while employees could file worker's compensation claims, they would have to show the hospital was grossly negligent in order to sue for damages.

The National Law Journal suggests that there is significant potential for liability among multiple sources in Ebola cases, however. Hospitals would be an obvious target for lawsuits from patients and employees were the disease to spread, with many states not having laws limiting malpractice to the same extent as Texas. Because of the nature of the disease, liability may also expand to other entities, such as airlines, mortuaries and other businesses with which Ebola patients have had contact. Both members of the public and workers in these industries may have claims against these entities if they were to become infected. For example, passengers who contracted Ebola might have a case against an airline who allowed an infected passenger to board, and workers might have a case if they did not have sufficient training or preparation to deal with passengers with the disease. Similarly, workers in mortuary services may have cases against their employers for failing to provide appropriate training or protective gear for dealing with the infected.

Attorneys interviewed for the National Law Journal piece stressed the importance of preparation, including having protocols in place to protect employees, patients and the general public as a means to create safer environments and limit liability. For example, if a hospital or medical practice failed to inquire about whether a patient had traveled to countries in West Africa, that lack of protocol might create public health problems and serve as a "red flag for lawyers who bring medical malpractice cases," says Judith Livingston, a partner at New York's Kramer, Dillof, Livingston & Moore. According to the article, educating employees about the disease and providing CDC guidance may be important steps in promoting public safety and reducing potential liability.