Senior District Judge Robert E. Coyle passed away on May 7, 2012 at St. Agnes Hospital in Fresno of complications from Alzheimer’s disease. He had turned 82 the day before.
Judge Coyle was respected on and off the bench. He was a distinguished jurist, a creative administrator and an outgoing man who treated people fairly and with dignity. Colleagues had this to say about him:
“Judge Coyle was truly a great leader for our District and for our entire judicial community. We in the Fresno Division are proud and honored to serve in the courthouse named for him in recognition of his years of outstanding service to our nation. Beyond his professional role, he was a dear and wonderful friend to all of us.” – Chief District Judge Anthony W. Ishii
“Judge Coyle loved people – all people. He took great joy in sharing joy and laughter. I never once heard Bob tell anyone that he couldn't help them when they were in trouble. He allowed everyone to leave his presence with their dignity intact. He was a perfect colleague, and I will deeply miss my close friend.” – District Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill
Judge Coyle was nominated to the Eastern District bench by President Reagan on March 11, 1982. He was confirmed by the Senate on March 31, 1982, and received his judicial commission on April 1, 1982. He served as chief judge of the district from 1990 to 1996, when he took senior status. He continued to take cases until 2006.
Judge Coyle’s noteworthy opinions include:
E. & J. Gallo Winery v. Gallo Cattle Co., 12 U.S.P.Q.2d (BNA) 1657 (E.D. Cal. 1989), aff’d as modified, 967 F.2d 1280 (9th Cir. 1992), which permanently enjoined Joseph Gallo, the younger brother of winemakers Ernest and Julio Gallo, of using the Gallo trademark in retailing his cheese after finding “willful exploitation of the fame and advertising value of the Gallo brand.”
EEOC v. Tortilleria “La Mejor”, 758 F. Supp. 585 (E.D. Cal. 1991), which held that undocumented immigrant workers may pursue race and sex discrimination suits against employers under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The ruling was the first to address an ambiguity in the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, and was seen by some observers as opening the door to discrimination suits by hundreds of thousands of undocumented aliens.
Central Green Co. v. United States, 1997 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 23914 (E.D. Cal. 1999), aff’d, 177 F.3d 834 (9th Cir. 1997), rev’d and remanded, 531 U.S. 425 (2001), which dismissed a plaintiff’s action for inverse condemnation, nuisance, trespass and negligence brought against the federal government for water damage caused by a canal that ran through the plaintiff’s property. The plaintiff argued that sovereign immunity, as stated in the Flood Control Act of 1928, 33 U.S.C. § 702c, did not apply because the body of water in question was an irrigation canal rather than one created for flood control. Coyle rejected the argument, noting “The legislative history . . . is very clear that the scope of the immunity is very broad.” The Ninth Circuit affirmed, but the Supreme Court reversed and remanded.
In addition to his jurisprudential contributions, Judge Coyle participated in circuit governance, including chairing the Space and Security Committee. He is also widely credited with bringing about construction of new federal courthouses in Sacramento and Fresno. He personally oversaw construction of the Fresno courthouse, conceiving an innovative management plan that brought the $127-million project to a successful completion in 2005. He was often seen hard hat in hand walking from his chambers to the construction site to meet with project staff.
Judge Coyle’s persistence was recognized in 2007 when Congress authorized dedicating the Fresno courthouse in his name.
A native of Fresno, Judge Coyle received his B.A. from Fresno State College in 1953 and his J.D. from the University of California, Hastings College of the Law in 1956
After law school, Judge Coyle began his legal career as a deputy district attorney in Fresno County. He served in that position from 1956 to 1958, when he went into private practice in Fresno. He worked as an associate at the law firm of Hansen, McCormick, Barstow and Sheppard from 1958 to 1961, and as a partner in McCormick, Bartstow, Sheppard, Coyle and Wayte from 1961 to 1982.
Judge Coyle was active in the Fresno County Bar Association, serving as president and vice-president, and in the community, serving on the Board of Trustees of the United Way Advocate.
Judge Coyle is survived by his wife of 58 years, Faye; a son and daughter-in-law, Robert and Kim, and their children, Hunter and Sydney; and a daughter and son-in-law, Barbara and Michael Vellone, and their children, Morgan and Matthew. He was preceded in death by another son, Richard L. Coyle.
© 2001-2004 United States District Court for the Eastern District of California Historical Society.