Justia Oregon Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

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Plaintiffs, two young Oregonians, concerned about the effects of climate change and their guardians, filed suit against the Governor and the State of Oregon (collectively, the State), contending the State was required to act as a trustee under the public trust doctrine to protect various natural resources in Oregon from substantial impairment due to greenhouse gas emissions and resultant climate change and ocean acidification. Among other things, plaintiffs asked the circuit court to specify the natural resources protected by the public trust doctrine and to declare that the State had a fiduciary duty, which it breached, to prevent substantial impairment of those resources caused by emissions of greenhouse gases. Plaintiffs also asked for an injunction ordering the State to: (1) prepare an annual accounting of Oregon’s carbon dioxide emissions; and (2) implement a carbon reduction plan protecting the natural resources, which the court would supervise to ensure enforcement. The circuit court granted the State’s motion for summary judgment and denied plaintiffs’ motion for partial summary judgment, concluding the public trust doctrine did not encompass most of the natural resources that plaintiffs identified, and did not require the State to take the protective measures that plaintiffs sought. In 2015, the circuit court entered a general judgment dismissing the action, and the Court of Appeals vacated the judgment and remanded for the circuit court to enter a judgment, consistent the Court of Appeals opinion, declaring the parties’ rights. Plaintiffs appealed, arguing that as a matter of common law, the public trust doctrine was not fixed and, that it must evolve to address the undisputed circumstances presented, namely, that climate change was damaging Oregon’s natural resources. They argued the doctrine was not limited to the natural resources that the circuit court identified and, the doctrine should cover other natural resources beyond those that have been traditionally protected. The Oregon Supreme Court held the public trust doctrine currently encompassed navigable waters and the submerged and submersible lands underlying those waters. "Although the public trust is capable of expanding to include more natural resources, we do not extend the doctrine to encompass other natural resources at this time." The Supreme Court also declined to adopt plaintiffs’ position that, under the doctrine, the State had the same fiduciary duties that a trustee of a common-law private trust would have, such as a duty to prevent substantial impairment of trust resources. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the Court of Appeals, which vacated the judgment of the circuit court. The matter was remanded the circuit court to enter a judgment consistent with Supreme Court's judgment. View "Chernaik v. Brown" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Albany & Eastern Railroad Company (AERC) petitioned the Oregon Supreme Court for reconsideration of its decision in Albany & Eastern Railroad Co. v. Martell, 469 P3d 748 (2020). In the previous case, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of defendants, holding that the trial court correctly concluded that defendants established a prescriptive easement over plaintiff AERC’s land. By that decision, the Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals and affirmed the judgment of the trial court. In its petition for reconsideration, plaintiff did not challenge the resolution of the prescriptive easement issue. Instead, plaintiff argued the Supreme Court erred in affirming the judgment of the trial court, rather than remanding the case to the Court of Appeals to consider a separate issue: the trial court’s award of attorney fees to defendants under ORS 20.080(2). Plaintiff had argued to the Court of Appeals that, even if defendants successfully asserted a prescriptive easement counterclaim, the trial court had no authority to award attorney fees to defendants. According to plaintiff, a prescriptive easement was an equitable remedy that fell outside of ORS 20.080. Defendants filed a response, arguing that the trial court was correct in its award of attorney fees. They also filed petitions for attorney fees and costs and disbursements. Plaintiff objected to the request for attorney fees, arguing that the issue of defendants’ entitlement to fees had not yet been resolved and, alternatively, that defendants’ claimed fees were unreasonable. The Supreme Court agreed with plaintiff that the matter of attorney fees should have been remanded to the Court of Appeals following its disposition on the merits. Accordingly, plaintiff’s petition for reconsideration was granted, and the disposition in the earlier case modified. Defendants' petition for fees was denied. View "Albany & Eastern Railroad Co. v. Martell" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs in this case had submitted Initiative Petition 2016-005 (IP 5) to the Oregon Secretary of State so that it could be certified in time for the 2016 ballot. Section (1) of IP 5 provided that the people “call for an Article V Convention by enacting into law this Application, in accordance with Article V of the U.S. Constitution,” for purposes of considering whether to amend the United States Constitution to allow greater regulation of corporations and other artificial legal entities and greater regulation of money used for political purposes. Section (2) added that the call for such a convention was continuing and did not terminate by the passage of time. Section (3) provided for copies of the call to be sent to various persons. And section (4) stated that the call “shall be codified in Title 17 of Oregon Revised Statutes.” In this case, the Secretary refused to certify IP 5 on the ground that it failed to meet the procedural requirements established by the Oregon Constitution. Specifically, the Secretary explained that she “ha[d] been advised that a court review of [IP 5] would probably determine that it does not propose a law within the meaning of Article IV, section 1 of the Oregon Constitution and therefore may not legally be adopted through the initiative process.” Plaintiffs then filed this action in circuit court. Among other things, they sought a declaratory judgment that the Secretary was required to certify IP 5. The Oregon Supreme Court concluded the Oregon voters who adopted the initiative power did not intend that power to extend beyond state lawmaking, and that Article IV, section 1(2)(a) did not authorize the people to directly apply for a federal constitutional convention. View "Harisay v. Clarno" on Justia Law

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Petitioner Ernie Perez pled guilty in 2005 to two aggravated murders that he had committed at the age of fourteen. In 2016, he filed a petition for post-conviction relief raising constitutional claims premised on the Oregon Supreme Court’s interpretation of ORS 419C.349, a statute governing when a juvenile defendant could be waived into adult court, in Oregon v. J. C. N.-V., 380 P3d 248 (2016). The post-conviction court concluded that petitioner’s claims were barred by the claim preclusion rule in ORS 138.550(3) because petitioner could reasonably have raised those claims in an earlier petition that he had filed in 2008. For similar reasons, the post-conviction court held that the claims were barred by the statute of limitations set out in ORS 138.510(3). The Court of Appeals affirmed. The Oregon Supreme Court granted certiorari review to address petitioner's argument that his claims could not reasonably have been raised prior to J. C. N.-V., thereby allowing him to escape the statute of limitations in ORS 138.510(3). The Supreme Court determined petitioner’s claims were indeed barred by ORS 138.550(3) because he failed to show that he could not reasonably have raised those claims at the time of his 2008 petition. The Court therefore affirmed the decision of the Court of Appeals and the judgment of the post-conviction court. View "Perez v. Cain" on Justia Law

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Respondent Eric Nisley was elected to the office of Wasco County District Attorney and began serving a four-year term in January 2017. After respondent’s election, the Oregon State Bar charged him with several violations of the Oregon Rules of Professional Conduct. The Oregon Supreme Court ultimately reviewed the case against respondent, concluded that he had committed some of the charged violations, and imposed the sanction of a 60-day suspension from the practice of law, beginning February 2020. The Supreme Court agreed to exercise its original jurisdiction in the nature of quo warranto to determine whether respondent was the lawful holder of that office. The dispute turned on whether the 60-day suspension from the practice of law caused respondent to “cease[ ] to possess” a qualification for holding office—thus creating a vacancy in the public office—as contemplated by ORS 236.010(1)(g). The Supreme Court concluded respondent’s brief suspension from the practice of law did not render the office of Wasco County District Attorney vacant. View "Oregon ex rel Rosenblum v. Nisley" on Justia Law

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In Senate Bill (SB) 226 (2019), enacted as Oregon Laws 2019, chapter 545, sections 1 to 5, the Oregon Legislature sought to retroactively cure defects in a 2016 local election in which voters approved disincorporating the City of Damascus. Anticipating controversy as to the validity and effectiveness of SB 226 in curing the problem with the election, the legislature included a provision for direct and expedited review by the Oregon Supreme Court upon a timely petition filed by any person who was “interested in or affected or aggrieved” by the statute. Petitioners, who included at least one person who was “interested in or affected or aggrieved,” challenged SB 226 on various statutory and constitutional grounds in a timely filed petition. Having considered their arguments and the state’s responses, the Supreme Court concluded SB 226 was valid, and that it accomplished what the legislature intended, giving effect to the 2016 vote by the city’s residents to disincorporate. View "City of Damascus v. Oregon" on Justia Law

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While defendant Francis Weaver was awaiting trial for murder, the state entered into a plea agreement with one of his codefendants, Michael Orren - a potential witness in defendant’s case. The plea agreement required Orren, if called by defendant as a witness, to invoke his privilege against self-incrimination and not to testify on defendant’s behalf. If Orren complied with the agreement, the state would seek a life sentence with the possibility of parole after 30 years. However, if Orren testified for defendant, even truthfully, the state could seek a death sentence or a sentence of life without parole - two sentencing options that were otherwise taken off the table by Orren’s plea agreement. Defendant attempted to call Orren as a witness, and Orren invoked privilege. Defendant sought to at least place Orren’s plea agreement before the jury, but the trial court ruled that he could not. The jury found defendant guilty of murder and other crimes, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. On appeal, defendant argued the state's conduct interfered with his right to call witnesses under Article I, section 11, and the Sixth Amendment. To this, the Oregon Supreme Court concurred, finding defendant's right to compulsory process was violated. Defendant's convictions were reversed and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Oregon v. Weaver" on Justia Law

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Defendant Austin Haltom was convicted of second-degree sexual abuse, defined in ORS 163.425(1)(a). In Oregon v. Simonov, 368 P3d 11 (2016), in the context of analyzing ORS 164.135(1)(a), the statute criminalized using a vehicle “without consent of the owner;” the Oregon Supreme Court held that the “without consent” element of that offense was part of the “essential character” of the conduct that the statute proscribed, and therefore had to be treated as a “conduct” element for purposes of determining the minimum mental state that attaches to the element when the statute fails to specify a mental state. Relying on the fact that general provisions in the Criminal Code appear to contemplate at least a knowing mental state for any “conduct” element of a crime, the Supreme Court held that the state was required to prove that a defendant charged under ORS 164.135(1)(a) knew that the vehicle’s owner had not consented to its use at the relevant time. The Court rejected the state’s argument that the “without consent” element was a “circumstance” element to which a minimum mental state of “criminal negligence” would attach. In Haltom's case, he contended that the "does not consent" element in ORS 163.425(1)(a) played a similar role to that of the “without consent” element in the unauthorized use of a vehicle statute at issue in Simonov, and that, insofar as ORS 163.425(1)(a) did not specify a mental state that attaches to the “does not consent” element, both the analysis and ultimate conclusion in Simonov applied and established that “knowingly” was the minimum mental state that attached to the “does not consent” element. Thus, he argued that, to convict him under ORS 163.425(1)(a), the state was required to prove that he had engaged in sexual intercourse with the victim knowing that she did not consent and that the trial court therefore erred when it denied his request for an instruction to that effect and entered a judgment of conviction based on a jury finding that he had merely been reckless with respect to the victim’s consent.After review, the Supreme Court concluded the trial court erred and that the judgment of the trial court, and the Court of Appeals decision affirming that judgment, had to be reversed. View "Oregon v. Haltom" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Gene Summerfield, worked for defendant Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC), in its warehouse. In his complaint plaintiff alleged that he and other African-Americans had been subjected to racial discrimination and racial harassment at the warehouse. Plaintiff also alleged that he had repeatedly told defendant about the discrimination and harassment, but defendant had failed to take effective corrective action. Plaintiff filed a workers’ compensation claim for acute stress. The claim was accepted, and plaintiff received treatment. Plaintiff’s treatment provider eventually released plaintiff to return to work, and plaintiff requested reemployment. The jury rejected plaintiff’s first claim; on the verdict form, it answered the questions finding that defendant had not “intentionally discriminate[d] against plaintiff because of his race” and had not “subject[ed] plaintiff to a racially hostile work environment by his co-workers.” The jury also rejected plaintiff’s retaliation claim, finding that defendant had not “retaliate[d] against [plaintiff] for opposing or reporting racial dis- crimination or racial harassment.” But the jury accepted plaintiff’s whistleblowing claim, finding that defendant had “take[n] adverse enforcement [sic] action against plaintiff because he in good faith reported information that he believed was a violation of a law, rule or other regulation.” Plaintiff appealed, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. The Oregon Supreme Court determined the trial court did not err in granting defendant a directed verdict on plaintiff’s reemployment claim; plaintiff bore the burden of proving that defendant had available and suitable employment for him and plaintiff conceded that he had not done so. The Supreme Court also concluded that, although the trial court erred in failing to instruct the jury on the meaning of “adverse employment action” for the purposes of plaintiff’s retaliation claim, the error was harmless because there was no dispute that the actions plaintiff relied on to support his retaliation claim were adverse employment actions and the jury actually found that defendant had committed an adverse employment action. Finally, the Supreme Court concluded that plaintiff has not established that, under the circumstances of this case, the trial court abused its discretion in declining to award plaintiff equitable relief. View "Summerfield v. OLCC" on Justia Law

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The Oregon legislature made various changes to the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) by enacting amendments set out in SB 1049, Or Laws 2019, ch 355. Petitioners were PERS members challenging two of those amendments: (1) the redirection of a member's PERS contributions from the member’s individual account program to a newly created employee pension stability account, used to help fund the defined-benefit component of the member’s retirement plan; and (2) a cap on the salary used to calculate a member's benefits. Petitioners primarily argued the amendments impaired their contractual rights and therefore violated the state Contract Clause, Article I, section 21, of the Oregon Constitution. Respondents were the state, the Public Employees Retirement Board (the board), and various state and local public employers. The Oregon Supreme Court disagreed with petitioners' contentions, finding challenged amendments did not operate retrospectively to decrease the retirement benefits attributable to work that the member performed before the effective date of the amendments. And, although the amendments operated prospectively to change the offer for future retirement benefits, the preamendment statutes did not include a promise that the retirement benefits would not be changed prospectively. The Supreme Court resolved petitioners’ other claims on similar grounds and denied their requests for relief. View "James v. Oregon" on Justia Law