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appellate and supreme court

Achieving Three Wins at the Supreme Court

Through the history of Jenner & Block’s award-winning Appellate and Supreme Court Practice, our lawyers have argued more than 100 times before the highest court in the land. This year, Partners Adam Unikowsky, Jessie Amunson, Matthew Hellman and Ishan Bhabha argued key pro bono cases before the US Supreme Court.

Artis v. District of Columbia asked a narrow question: When a federal court dismisses federal claims and declines to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over state claims, how much time does a plaintiff have to refile them in state court? The answer turns on the interpretation of the word “tolled” in 28 U.S.C. §1367(d).

When Stephanie Artis was terminated from her job as a DC health inspector, she sued the District in federal court. The federal court dismissed her federal claims and declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over her state-law claims. By the time she filed a new suit in DC Superior Court, 59 days had passed. Her lawsuit was dismissed without being heard because, according to the DC Superior Court and DC Court of Appeals, she only had a 30-day window from the dismissal of the federal suit to refile her claims. This may not have been the most glamorous issue to come before the Court, but it intrigued Partner Adam Unikowsky.

In his first Supreme Court case of 2018, Adam argued that §1367(d) suspends the limitations period for the state-law claim while the claim is pending in federal court—i.e., stops the clock. Thus, Adam argued that Ms. Artis’ DC suit was timely because she had thirty days plus the time remaining on her state-law claims at the time the federal suit was filed.

“It was a tough case. We had a lot of wind blowing against us. Our opponent argued that our position would undermine states’ rights because we were saying that even if a state-law statute of limitations had expired, we were advocating for a federal rule that said that you can nonetheless bring the state claim in a state court for a very long time,” Adam reflected. “But we argued that our position was mandated by a literal reading of the law.”

On January 22, 2018, the Court ruled in favor of Adam’s client Ms. Artis.

In the Court’s opinion, Justice Ginsburg wrote that “Section 1367(d)’s instruction to ‘toll’ a state’s limitations period means to hold it in abeyance, i.e., to stop the clock.” Justice Ginsburg also wrote that “the stop-the-clock interpretation of §1367(d) does not present a serious constitutional problem.”

This decision allowed Ms. Artis to pursue her claims in the DC trial court. “She was happy to get her day in court,” Adam noted.

The 5-4 decision on behalf of Ms. Artis was Adam’s sixth consecutive victory—he won three cases in the prior term and two the term before that. In the 2017-18 term, Adam argued three Supreme Court cases in a 28-day span and achieved unanimous wins in them all. Those cases were Howell v. Howell; Honeycutt v. United States; and Kokesh v. SEC. In the 2016-17 term, Adam earned two additional wins in Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle and V.L. v. E.L.

In October 2017, Partner Jessie Amunson stood before the Supreme Court arguing Class v. United States, a case that asks the question, “What if I am guilty of something that should not be illegal?”

Rodney Class, a retired veteran, pleaded guilty and was convicted of possessing firearms on US Capitol grounds. He then appealed and the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, knowing Jenner & Block’s history of advocacy and pro bono work in the high courts, appointed the firm to represent him in his appeal. The DC Circuit then ruled against Mr. Class, but Jessie and the firm took his case to the Supreme Court, which granted certiorari. 

In Class v. United States, Jessie argued to the Supreme Court that her client’s guilty plea did not bar him from appealing the conviction on Second Amendment and due process grounds. 

“The case presented the question of whether a defendant who enters a guilty plea can then challenge his conviction on appeal by saying that the statute to which he pled guilty was unconstitutional,” Jessie said.

On February 21, 2018, the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of Mr. Class. 

“In this case, Class neither expressly nor implicitly waived his constitutional claims by pleading guilty,” wrote Justice Stephen Breyer. The holding meant that the earlier decision by the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit was reversed, and the case was remanded for further proceedings.

While the matter dealt with a specific crime and set of charges, the ruling carries a significant meaning in the courts.

“This precedent is important because our criminal justice system right now is a system in which an extraordinarily high percentage of people plead guilty rather than going to trial,” Jessie noted. “This allows people who have pled guilty to something that should be challenged as unconstitutional to then raise that challenge on appeal.”

While Adam and Jessie’s matters focused on narrow issues, Partner Matt Hellman’s case before the Court presented an issue relevant to all US residents.

In one of the most followed tax cases in recent history, Matt represented Carlo Marinello in Marinello v. United States. Mr. Marinello challenged a Second Circuit decision upholding his felony conviction for obstructing an IRS investigation. The government read the statute to criminalize any “corrupt” act that ultimately hinders the administration of the tax code. He was charged and imprisoned for a federal crime that could not be applied to all states—an issue that was ripe for a Supreme Court ruling.

To tackle the high-profile matter, Matt teamed up with Partners Geoff Davis, who provided tax controversy counsel, and David Bitkower, who provided criminal law counsel.

“At argument, the justices seemed to realize and focus very heavily on the everyday ramifications of the government’s position,” Matt noted. “If the law was as broad as the prosecutors argued, minor infractions by well-meaning citizens could be considered as grounds for felony obstruction.

“Everybody pays taxes, and if the government had won this case, regular daily things that you do—paying your babysitter in cash, not keeping records—all of that could be the basis of a felony obstruction conviction,” explained Matt. “And now the Court has said, ‘No, Congress didn’t write a statute that broad,’ and they narrowed it so that it’s a much fairer reading.”

Just a month after Jessie secured a win in Class v. United States, Matt received good news. On March 21, 2018, the US Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of Mr. Marinello. The Second Circuit decision was reversed and remanded, meaning that Mr. Marinello’s conviction for obstruction was overturned.

“Being a lawyer means having an immense amount of power. You have the power change how the government works—change what the government can do,” Matt reflected. “And when you get to use that power to right an injustice for an individual person in particular, it’s very rewarding.”


appellate and supreme court

Arguing for Social Security Benefits for Disabled Client

In December, Partner Ishan Bhabha made his first argument before the US Supreme Court. In Biestek v. Berryhill, Ishan represents petitioner Michael Biestek, who applied for Social Security benefits because of a disabling, physical impairment.

During a hearing before an administrative law judge, a vocational expert testified that jobs were available to Mr. Biestek despite his disability. But the vocational expert, citing the “confidentiality” of her files, would not produce the data and analyses underlying her conclusions. The administrative law judge refused to require the expert to produce this information and then denied Mr. Biestek the disability benefits. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the administrative law judge but noted that there is a divide between the Seventh Circuit and other circuits on the issue.

“What Petitioner is asking for here is a reaffirmation of a basic rule of administrative procedure -- which is that an agency cannot make a determination … premised on secret data without ever giving that data to a requesting claimant,” Ishan argued. “That's all the more so in a case like this, where this was the sole basis upon which my client was denied benefits for the relevant time period. This rule has worked without disruption in the Seventh Circuit since 2002, and it is entirely consistent with the very policy the Social Security Administration recognizes as good practice for vocational experts.”

In addition to Ishan, Associates Lauren Hartz and Natacha Lam are on the team.