August 21, 2019

Ninth Circuit Enjoins Department of Justice from Prosecuting Individuals in Medical Marijuana States

On Tuesday, August 16, 2016, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. McIntosh, a group of ten consolidated interlocutory appeals addressing whether an appropriations ban applies to prosecutions of individuals accused of marijuana crimes in states with medical marijuana laws. All of the appellants were indicted for various infractions of the Controlled Substances Act based on their participation in their respective states’ medical marijuana schemes. The appellants moved to dismiss their indictments or enjoin their prosecutions based on a rider in a federal appropriations bill, which stated:

None of the funds made available in this Act to the Department of Justice may be used, with respect to the States of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin, to prevent such States from implementing their own State laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana.

Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2016, Pub. L. No. 114-113, § 542, 129 Stat. 2242, 2332–33 (2015). The rider was extended and is currently effective through September 30, 2016.

The appellants in the various cases moved to dismiss or enjoin on the basis of the rider, arguing that the Department of Justice was prohibited from using funds to pursue prosecutions. The Department argued that it was merely prohibited from prosecuting states with medical marijuana schemes, but was still free to use the appropriated funds to prosecute individuals who violated the Controlled Substances Act regardless of their compliance with state medical marijuana laws.

The Ninth Circuit first noted that although the Medical Marijuana States had enacted laws permitting the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, marijuana remains illegal under the federal Controlled Substances Act for all purposes. The Ninth Circuit concluded that the superior authority, the federal government through the Controlled Substances Act, could prevent a subordinate authority, the Medical Marijuana States, from implementing rules permitting the conduct by punishing individuals who are engaged in the conduct officially permitted by the subordinate authority. In this instance, the Department of Justice can prevent the Medical Marijuana States from implementing their rules permitting the use of marijuana in medicinal settings by prosecuting individuals for use, possession, distribution, or cultivation of marijuana. The Department of Justice need not take any official action against the states in order to prevent implementation of the states’ rules. The Ninth Circuit therefore concluded that § 542 prohibited the Department of Justice from spending any funds to prosecute individuals in Medical Marijuana States who were engaging in conduct fully permitted by their states’ laws.

Some appellants requested that the Circuit enjoin the Department of Justice from prosecuting any individuals for marijuana violations in Medical Marijuana States, arguing that the implementation of laws necessarily includes all aspects of giving effect to the laws, including prosecutions for violations of the laws. The Ninth Circuit refused to expand the meaning of § 542 to include the prosecution of any individuals in Medical Marijuana States regardless of compliance with their states’ laws. The Circuit found that the Department of Justice was free to prosecute individuals who failed to comply with their state medical marijuana regulations. Because the district courts had not made findings about whether the individuals being prosecuted were in compliance with their respective states’ regulatory schemes, the Ninth Circuit remanded for further proceedings on this issue.

The Ninth Circuit noted the temporal nature of the proceedings, in that the Department had been authorized to prosecute the various individuals initially but lost its funding through the appropriations rider. The Circuit warned that at any moment, Congress could re-authorize the prosecutions of individuals in Medical Marijuana States, or Congress could permanently deprive the Department of funding to prosecute individuals complying with their states’ medical marijuana schemes. In the words of the Circuit, “Congress could restore funding tomorrow, a year from now, or four years from now, and the government could then prosecute individuals who committed offenses while the government lacked funding. Moreover, a new president will be elected soon, and a new administration could shift enforcement priorities to place greater emphasis on prosecuting marijuana offenses.”

The Ninth Circuit cautioned that marijuana remains illegal under the federal Controlled Substances Act, and anyone in any state who possesses, manufactures, or distributes marijuana is committing a federal crime for which they could be prosecuted for up to five years after the date of the offense. The Circuit reminded the district courts of the need to balance the remedy for violations of § 542 with the appellants’ Speedy Trial Act rights. The Circuit also remarked that, under the Supremacy Clause, a state cannot “legalize” any conduct that is illegal under federal law.

The orders were vacated and the cases were remanded for further proceedings to determine whether the appellants were in compliance with their states’ medical marijuana laws.

Tenth Circuit: Collateral Estoppel Bars Relitigation of Claims Decided in Other Federal Courts

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Stan Lee Media Inc. v. Walt Disney Co. on Tuesday, December 23, 2014.

In October 1998, legendary comic book artist Stan Lee entered into an employment agreement (“1998 agreement”) with a Colorado company he formed to create new characters, Stan Lee Entertainment, Inc. (the predecessor to Stan Lee Media). At the time, Lee had worked for Marvel for approximately 60 years, and the agreement expressly recognized he would continue to work for Marvel. In November 1998, Lee entered into a similar agreement with Marvel, transferring to Marvel essentially the same rights he had transferred to Stan Lee Media through the 1998 agreement. In 2001, Stan Lee repudiated the 1998 agreement, contending Stan Lee Media committed material breach and reclaiming ownership of the intellectual property rights. Over five years later, Stan Lee Media recorded the 1998 agreement with the U.S. Copyright Office, asserting in a cover letter that the 1998 agreement transferred to Stan Lee Media ownership rights in many famous characters, including Spider-Man and Iron Man.

Meanwhile, Marvel exploited the comic book universe by selling and licensing the character rights to major production companies in order to create, sell, and distribute motion pictures. These included 2002’s Spider-Man movie, which has grossed over $800 million worldwide. Despite Marvel’s success, Stan Lee Media did not assert ownership interests over the characters until 2007, at which time it filed lawsuits across the country. Many courts have considered Abadin v. Marvel Entm’t, Inc., No. 09 Civ. 0715 (PAC), 2010 WL 1257519 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 31, 2010) (Abadin I) binding precedent, including the lower court in this action.

Stan Lee Media filed a claim against Disney in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado, alleging a single cause of action for federal copyright infringement. The district court granted Disney’s motion to dismiss, relying on Abadin I as precluding the Colorado litigation. Since the district court’s decision, the Ninth Circuit has issued a decision in a related suit. The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California dismissed Stan Lee Media’s claims on res judicata grounds, but the Ninth Circuit affirmed on different grounds, finding that Stan Lee Media failed to state a claim that is plausible on its face.

The Tenth Circuit reviewed the Ninth Circuit decision, the briefing in the Ninth Circuit and the Central District of California, and supplemental briefing submitted in the Tenth Circuit, and found that none of the elements of collateral estoppel can be reasonable debated, because each are present in the Tenth Circuit case.

The Tenth Circuit found that only the fourth element of collateral estoppel was seriously contested — Stan Lee Media alleges it did not have a full and fair opportunity to litigate the ownership issue. However, the Tenth Circuit rejected that argument. Stan Lee Media devoted five full pages in a response explaining how its claims met the Iqbal/Twombly and Rule 8 standards. Further, the Ninth Circuit’s decision was a dismissal with prejudice, so there is no point in allowing Stan Lee Media to amend its complaint. Finally, the Ninth Circuit’s singular and readily discernible rationale for dismissal — that Stan Lee Media’s claims are “simply implausible,” — clears all remaining obstacles to the application of collateral estoppel.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of Stan Lee Media’s complaint for failure to state a claim.

U.S. Supreme Court Denies Review of Veterans’ Benefits Petition

On Monday, January 7, 2013, the Supreme Court of the United States denied a petition for review of a May Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision regarding the processing of medical benefits for veterans. The denial by the Court effectively affirms the Ninth Circuit’s decision that the judicial branch lacks authority to decide such appeals.

The case was originally brought by veterans’ advocacy groups in 2007.  After a bench trial in 2008, United States District Judge Samuel Conti concluded that the court did not have jurisdiction over the appeals, citing the Veterans’ Judicial Review Act and noting that the court lacked power to remedy the wrongs against veterans documented by “voluminous” evidentiary submissions to the court. Veterans for Common Sense v. Peake, 563 F. Supp. 2d 1049 (N.D. Ca. 2008). 

A panel of the Ninth Circuit overturned that decision in 2011, ordering that, because of the serious nature of the claims, veterans groups could ask the court to order changes in the system. Veterans for Common Sense v. Shinseki, 644 F.3d 845 (9th Cir. 2011). Upon request for a new hearing before a larger panel, however, that ruling was reversed.

The full panel of the Ninth Circuit determined that it did not have jurisdiction to hear the appeal.

[W]e lack jurisdiction to afford such relief because Congress, in its discretion, has elected to place judicial review of claims related to the provision of veterans’ benefits beyond our reach and within the exclusive purview of the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims and the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. . . . As much as we as citizens are concerned with the plight of veterans seeking the prompt provision of the health care and benefits to which they are entitled by law, as judges we may not exceed our jurisdiction.

Veterans for Common Sense v. Shinseki, 678 F.3d 1013, 1016 (9th Cir. 2012). In September, the plaintiff veterans organizations submitted a petition for writ of certiorari to the United States Supreme Court, asking the Court to rule on whether the Veterans Judicial Review Act allows veterans to challenge in federal court the systemic delays in the VA’s provision of mental health care and death and disability compensation. That petition was denied on Monday, January 7, 2013. Plaintiff group Veterans for Common Sense issued a statement in response to the denial, stating in part

We are deeply disappointed the Court did not hear the urgent plea of suicidal Veterans who face delays of months, and often years, seeking VA assistance.  Although significant improvements were made in some areas within VA, such as a suicide hotline set up after our lawsuit that rescued 23,000 distraught Veterans, the nation’s second largest department remains in deep crisis.

The Colorado Bar Association, in conjunction with several bar associations across the state, has established Colorado Lawyers for Colorado Veterans, a service where veterans can meet with an attorney regarding their legal issues free of charge. Attorneys wishing to assist with this program can contact Carolyn Gravit.

Eligibility for VA benefits and appeals processes will be discussed at the January 31, 2013 program, “Fundamentals of Practicing Before the Veterans’ Administration 2013.” This three-hour program will take place at 9 a.m. at the CLE offices. It qualifies for the VA three-hour training requirement for attorneys who wish to represent veterans before the Veterans’ Administration. Attorneys can attend for a significantly reduced rate by taking a pro bono case. Click here for registration information.

CLE Program: Fundamentals of Practicing Before the Veterans’ Administration 2013

This CLE presentation will take place on Thursday, January 31, 2013, at 9:00 a.m. Click here to register for the live program, and click here to register for the webcast.

Can’t make the live program? Click here to order the homestudy.