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Archive for the ‘Fourth Circuit’ Category

Three-judge panels of two federal courts of appeals today issued directly conflicting rulings on a key IRS regulation implementing the Affordable Care Act. This regulation authorized subsidies for those purchasing insurance from government exchanges, regardless of whether those exchanges were established by the federal government (as in most states) or by an individual state. If this regulation is invalid and subsidies are therefore not available on exchanges established by the federal government, then one leg of the government’s three-legged stool in the Affordable Care Act is removed in more than half the states in the country.

In Halbig v. Burwell, a split panel of the D.C. Circuit held the regulation invalid. Shortly thereafter, the Fourth Circuit issued a directly contrary decision in King v. Burwell, upholding the IRS regulation. Most news coverage thus far has focused on the D.C. Circuit’s decision. There may be a few reasons for this: (1) lots of policy journalists in D.C.; (2) the D.C. decision came first; and (3) the D.C. decision would alter the status quo significantly, while the Fourth Circuit decision would maintain the status quo.

The Fourth Circuit decision is important as well, though less for what it holds than for how its upholding of the regulation might actually benefit the challengers who lost the panel decision. In short, the Fourth Circuit’s decision may speed up the timing of Supreme Court review of this issue. Here’s why: En banc review would probably be favorable for the government in both courts. This means it is likely that the government will seek en banc review in the D.C. Circuit case. The decision to grant en banc review by itself would vacate the panel decision, thus eliminating the existing circuit split, at least for the time being. And if the en banc D.C. Circuit were to rule differently from today’s three-judge panel, then there would not be a circuit split with the Fourth going forward. In the absence of the Fourth Circuit decision, then, it would take a while before the Supreme Court takes a case raising this issue, and the Court might never grant if there is no split. But because the en banc Fourth Circuit is likely favorable for the government, the plaintiffs in that case are likely to bypass en banc review and head straight to the Supreme Court. The Court has discretion whether to grant certiorari, of course, but a circuit split on such an important part of a massive regulatory scheme is the sort of thing that the Supreme Court should hear. Having a final decision in favor of the government therefore is of some help to the challengers because it enables them to go to the Supreme Court more quickly.

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A split panel of the Fourth Circuit has reversed, on interlocutory appeal, the denial of leave to amend a Title VII class action complaint alleging company-wide gender discrimination at  Family Dollar Stores. Judge Gregory wrote the opinion for the court in Scott v. Family Dollar Stores, Inc., in which Judge Keenan (who also wrote a separate concurrence) joined. Judge Wilkinson dissented.

This case is full of issues for proceduralists and class-action lawyers. It is likely to prove a source of significant worry for those defending employment class actions in the Fourth Circuit because it allows plaintiffs to transmute their original class allegations into something substantially different three years into the litigation (after briefing on the defendant’s motion for summary judgment was almost complete). The majority and dissent each think the other misunderstands the meaning of Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, and this back-and-forth is worth studying. But the majority’s answers to the dissent’s identification of the various problems with allowing leave to amend seem unsatisfactory. One prominent criticism of the Supreme Court’s recent jurisprudence tightening up pleading and class certification requirements has been excessive solicitude for corporate defendants’ costs-of-litigation arguments. This decision seem subject to the mirror-image criticism. 

Judge Wilkinson’s discussion of the shortcomings of the majority’s analysis of prejudice is persuasive, particularly given the “clearly erroneous” standard of appellate review of factual determinations related to prejudice wrapped inside the “abuse of discretion” standard for reversing a denial of leave to amend. Perhaps the most impassioned part of Judge Wilkinson’s dissent, however, is his discussion of bad faith. Here is how that discussion begins:

A district court’s refusal to permit a pleading amendment on bad faith grounds is justified where “the plaintiff’s first theory of recovery is based on his own reading of . . . cases and it turns out that he misinterpreted how that theory would apply to the facts of his case.” [438 F.3d] at 428 (emphasis omitted). That situation is precisely what occurred here. Plaintiffs misinterpreted how certain class action precedents would apply to their case and then sought to construct an entirely new set of facts to overcome their error. Their willingness to adopt contradictory factual positions in order to match their evolving legal theories evidences a degree of bad faith sufficient to warrant denial of leave to amend. To the old-fashioned view that prior representations to a court actually count for something, the majority answers: Not much.

Judge Keenan writes separately “to emphasize that despite the dissent’s dystopian view, the majority has rendered a straightforward and limited decision: that the plaintiffs should be permitted to amend their original complaint after a dramatic shift in the law regarding class action certification.” Judge Keenan also notes that the majority opinion does not dictate that class certification is appropriate, and that “if the allegations included in the amended complaint ultimately are not substantiated, the class simply will not be certified, and the plaintiffs’ case will fail.” This observation, however, only underscores the prejudice that the plaintiffs’ flip imposes on the defendant. As the district court observed, “Plaintiffs wish to pursue extensive discovery to support and clarify their new theories, which will require the parties to re-open and conduct new expert discovery based on plaintiffs’ changed version of the facts.”

A footnote in Judge Wilkinson’s dissent responds to Judge Keenan’s concurrence, using about one-and-a-half times as many words in the footnote as the concurrence itself contained. After reciting a litany of questions assertedly unanswered by the majority, Judge Wilkinson concludes: “Perhaps my fine colleagues will some day provide some answers to some of these questions, but for now they are doing what football teams usually do on fourth down.”

On a different note, this is the second decision I’ve noted this week involving the concept of pendent appellate jurisdiction. The Seventh Circuit’s use of what Stephen Vladeck has described as “pendent appellate bootstrapping” seems to have been at the root of the Supreme Court’s DIG in Madigan v. Levin yesterday. The Fourth Circuit’s decision today was enabled by the court’s decision to use pendent appellate jurisdiction to review the denial of leave to amend on interlocutory appeal of the class certification decision. Unless I missed it, Judge Wilkinson did not take issue with this aspect of the majority’s decision, although doing so might have fit well with one of the primary themes of his dissent, namely that “this is a rude reversal.”

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A split panel of the Fourth Circuit today held that Virginia’s ban on certain alcohol advertising in college newspapers violates the First Amendment as applied to Collegiate Times (at Virginia Tech) and Cavalier Daily (at UVA). This holding of as-applied unconstitutionality comes almost three-and-a-half years after the Fourth Circuit upheld the same regulation against a facial challenge in Educational Media Co. v. Swecker, 602 F.3d 583 (4th Cir. 2010). The panel declined to decide whether to apply a form of heightened scrutiny to the Virginia speech regulation, but held that the regulation violated the fourth prong of the four-prong Central Hudson test for assessing the validity of commercial speech restrictions. The opinion for the court in today’s decision, Educational Media Co. v. Insley, was authored by Judge Thacker and joined in by Judge King. Judge Shedd (the author of the panel opinion on the facial challenge) dissented. (For more information and background, see the ACLU’s Press Release touting the victory and AP coverage in the Washington Post.)

As described by the Fourth Circuit, the Central Hudson test provides that “a regulation of commercial speech will be upheld if (1) the regulated speech concerns lawful activity and is not misleading; (2) the regulation is supported by a substantial government interest; (3) the regulation directly advances that interest; and (4) the regulation is not more extensive than necessary to serve the government’s interest.” The parties agreed that prongs (1) and (2) were satisfied, and the court held that its earlier analysis in Swecker established that prong (3) was satisfied. Turning to prong (4), the court held that “the challenged regulation fails under the fourth Central Hudson prong because it prohibits large numbers of adults who are 21 years of age or older from receiving truthful information about a product that they are legally allowed to consume.” In support of this conclusion, the majority observed that “roughly 60% of the Collegiate Times’s readership is age 21 or older and the Cavalier Daily reaches approximately 10,000 students, nearly 64% of whom are age 21 or older.”

Reading today’s opinion in light of the Fourth Circuit’s earlier opinion in Swecker, one should feel some sympathy for Judge Lauck, who has now been twice reversed in this case. Judge Lauck initially held that the regulation violated the First Amendment on its face, only to be reversed in Swecker. Judge Lauck then upheld the regulation against an as-applied challenge under Swecker, only to be reversed in an opinion that, as a practical matter (though not as a technical matter), reaches the same bottom-line conclusion as Judge Lauck’s initial decision. Moreover, the main evidence relied upon by the Fourth Circuit panel in its consideration of the as-applied challenge was before the panel that decided Swecker and was discussed in Judge Moon’s dissenting opinion in that case.  Although the opinion contains several passages discussing the distinction between facial and as-applied challenges, this is an area of the law that is as murky (or murkier) in the Fourth Circuit as it is elsewhere throughout the federal judiciary.

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A split panel of the Fourth Circuit today reinstated the free speech and free association claims of some sheriff’s deputies in Hampton, Virginia who alleged that they had been fired from their jobs for supporting the incumbent sheriff’s political opponent. Among the issues in the case was whether clicking “Like” on the challenger’s campaign page was speech within the protection of the First Amendment. The district court said no: “merely ‘liking’ a Facebook page is insufficient speech to merit constitutional protection.” But the Fourth Circuit today disagreed. Here is the relevant portion of the Court’s analysis (discussing the claim of one Carter):

Here, Carter visited the Jim Adams’s campaign Facebook page (the “Campaign Page”), which was named “Jim Adams for the Hampton Sheriff,” and he clicked the “like” button on the Campaign Page. When he did so the Campaign Page’s name and a photo of Adams –which an Adams campaign representative had selected as the Page’s icon – were added to Carter’s profile, which all Facebook users could view. On Carter’s profile, the Campaign Page name served as a link to the Campaign Page. Carter’s clicking on the  “like” button also caused an announcement that Carter liked the Campaign Page to appear in the news feeds of Carter’s friends. And it caused Carter’s name and his profile photo to be added to the Campaign Page’s “People [Who] Like This” list.

Once one understands the nature of what Carter did by liking the Campaign Page, it becomes apparent that his conduct qualifies as speech. On the most basic level, clicking on the “like” button literally causes to be published the statement that the User “likes” something, which is itself a substantive statement. In the context of a political campaign’s Facebook page, the meaning that the user approves of the candidacy whose page is being liked is unmistakable. That a user may use a single mouse click to produce that message that he likes the page instead of typing the same message with several individual key strokes is of no constitutional significance.

Aside from the fact that liking the Campaign Page constituted pure speech, it also was symbolic expression. The distribution of the universally understood “thumbs up” symbol in association with Adams’s campaign page, like the actual text that liking the page produced, conveyed that Carter supported Adams’s candidacy. See Spence v. Washington, 418 U.S. 405, 410-11 (1974) (per curiam) (holding that person engaged in expressive conduct when there was “[a]n intent to convey a particularized message . . ., and in the surrounding circumstances the likelihood was great that the message would be understood by those who viewed it”); see also Tobey v. Jones,  706 F.3d 379, 388 n.3 (4th Cir. 2013).

In sum, liking a political candidate’s campaign page communicates the user’s approval of the candidate and supports the campaign by associating the user with it. In this way, it  is the Internet equivalent of displaying a political sign in  one’s front yard, which the Supreme Court has held is  substantive speech. See City of Ladue v. Gilleo, 512 U.S. 43,  54-56 (1994). Just as Carter’s placing an “Adams for Sheriff” sign in his front yard would have conveyed to those passing his home that he supported Adams’s campaign, Carter’s liking Adams’s  Campaign Page conveyed that message to those viewing his profile  or the Campaign Page.15 In fact, it is hardly surprising that  the record reflects that this is exactly how Carter’s action was  understood. See J.A. 160 (McCoy’s testimony that in light of  Carter’s liking Adams’s Campaign Page, “everybody was saying  that . . . Carter is out of there because he supported Adams  openly”); see also J.A. 793 (Sheriff’s Office employee stating  that Roberts had said that “certain employees were on the  Facebook page of his opponent, Jim Adams, indicating their support of Adams for Sheriff”).

All of this sounds just right.

Chief Judge Traxler wrote the opinion for the court in Bland v. Roberts, in which Judge Thacker joined.  Judge Hollander (D.Md., sitting by designation) wrote a separate opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part. The judges were not split on the liking-as-speech issue but on the application of qualified immunity, a split largely traceable to different views about the scope of the en banc holding in Jenkins v. Medford, 119 F.3d 1156 (4th Cir. 1997) (en banc).

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A recent post by Michael Dorf about Virginia’s cert petition in Moose v. MacDonald reminded me of one thing that I like about the law. It can channel moral and political disagreement in various ways so that people who might disagree as to non-legal matters can agree about legal matters. Dorf concludes, contrary to some of AG Ken Cuccinelli’s most vocal critics, that “Cuccinelli appears to have a pretty good legal argument that the Fourth Circuit decided the case erroneously.” As I have previously argued (here, here, here, and here), Virginia’s argument is “pretty good” and maybe even better than that. This does not mean that the Supreme Court will grant cert, of course, but this is one of those unusual cases where summary reversal might get serious consideration.

Dorf’s conclusion about the strength of Virginia’s petition depends on the deferential standard of review on federal habeas supplied by 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). That provision prohibits a federal court from granting an application for a writ of habeas corpus to one in custody pursuant to state proceedings unless the State adjudication “resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States.” As long as the Virginia state court’s view was not unreasonable, the Fourth Circuit should not have granted relief.

Although disagreeing with most critics on the merits, Dorf apparently agrees that the course of proceedings nevertheless reveals “Cuccinell’s hypocrisy” and his “audacity.” This assessment relies on Cuccinelli’s opposition to a proposed “Lawrence fix” bill that Cuccinelli voted against as a legislator. Here’s the key paragraph of Dorf’s post on this point:

Much of the media coverage of the case has understandably focused on Cuccinelli’s hypocrisy.  The Virginia legislature tried to replace the blanket sodomy prohibition–which applies to everyone regardless of their age–with a narrower law that would focus simply on sex with minors, but Cuccinelli played a role in squashing that effort.  Now he has the audacity to say that he needs to use the broader law as his only available means to target sodomy with minors. Dahlia Lithwick nicely captures what is so outrageous about this move when she writes: “You can’t really stagger around swinging a huge, unwieldy legal mallet and claiming it’s the only tool you have against pedophilia. Not when you opted to turn down the offer of a scalpel.”

This assessment misdescribes the nature of the proposed “Lawrence fix”  in a way that undercuts the analysis. The bill did three things: (1) it separated the bestiality and sodomy prohibitions into separately numbered subsections; (2) it provided that the sodomy prohibition “shall not apply where all persons are consenting adults who are not in a public place and who are not aiding, abetting, procuring, engaging in or performing any act in furtherance of prostitution”; and (3) it changed the classification of the sodomy offense from a felony to a misdemeanor (which may have been the reason that some legislators opposed it). Note that nothing in these changes had to do with age; the bill did not “focus simply on sex with minors,” but instead codified the Virginia legislature’s understanding of Lawrence.

And here is where things get (legally) interesting: If the Virginia legislature’s understanding of Lawrence was correct, then the Fourth Circuit‘s analysis was wrong. Under the Virginia legislature’s understanding of Lawrence, the conduct underlying the petitioner’s solicitation offense (solicitation of oral sex from a minor) was not constitutionally protected. The narrowing that would have been accomplished as a matter of state law under the proposed fix would not have excluded petitioner’s conduct from the sweep of the prohibition. Not only would sodomy involving minors have remained within the prohibition, so too would have sodomy in a public place, and sodomy related to prostitution. The proposed Lawrence fix relied on the very same reading of Lawrence defended by Virginia in Moose v. MacDonald. 

The Fourth Circuit determined that it could not adopt this reading because “a judicial reformation of the anti-sodomy provision to criminalize MacDonald’s conduct in this case, and to do so in harmony with Lawrence, requires a drastic action that runs afoul of the Supreme Court’s decision in Ayotte v. Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, 546 U.S. 320 (2006).” And yet the Fourth Circuit would have had to do precisely nothing to Virginia’s law in order to deny habeas relief. As a matter of federal law, the prohibition against unconstitutional applications of the sodomy statute already existed because of Lawrence itself. Apart from the change in penalty, there would have been no difference in the state of the law as it existed at the time of petitioner’s September 2004 conduct of conviction if Virginia had enacted the proposed Lawrence fix earlier that year.

And here’s where it gets even more (legally) interesting. The change in penalty would have been significant for petitioner. If the proposed bill had passed, petitioner could not have been convicted of solicitation of a felony because oral sex with a 17-year-old, unrelated minor would have been changed to a misdemeanor instead of a felony. Maybe that would have been a good change in the law; maybe it would have been bad. But by including it in addition to the Lawrence fix, the bill’s sponsors probably lost some votes, perhaps including Cuccinelli’s. If so, then Cuccinelli’s stance is not only not hypocritical, but completely consistent. And it is the critics who are subject to the accusation instead. For the proposed bill would not have enabled Virginia to prosecute the petitioner’s conduct in the way that it did.

Okay, now suppose that Virginia had enacted a Lawrence fix identical to the one proposed but without the change in penalty. Perhaps Cuccinelli could have voted for it. There would have been no reason not to because it would not have worked any real change in the law. If petitioner had then raised a Lawrence-based claim on direct review, he would have had to argue for an extension of Lawrence. And on the supposition that this would have been unsuccessful, his claim for habeas relief would have been unsuccessful because the § 2254(d) standard of review precludes that kind of extension of the law.

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Writing at Slate, Dahlia Lithwick criticizes what she describes as Ken Cuccinelli’s “war on consensual sodomy in the commonwealth.”  I have criticized Cuccinelli before myself, but it is a mistake to view Cuccinelli’s actions here as an attempt to “employ the federal courts to advance a personal moral agenda.” Although Lithwick’s piece makes some good policy arguments about the advisability of revising Virginia law, I disagree with Lithwick’s criticism of the Attorney General of Virginia for seeking Supreme Court review of a federal habeas corpus decision that incorrectly held a state law partially facially unconstitutional notwithstanding the strictures of 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d).

Before getting into some fairly dense discussion of things like facial challenges and severability that explains why Virginia’s position makes good legal sense, it is fitting at the outset (before I have lost both of my readers) to criticize Lithwick’s piece from the standpoint of legal journalism. It is, of course, fair to criticize a discretionary choice to seek discretionary review, and reasonable people may disagree about whether Virginia should have sought certiorari. But Lithwick’s characterization of the arguments advanced by Virginia in its petition for certiorari is inaccurate and misleading. Virginia is not asking the Supreme Court to “interpret [Virginia's] terrifyingly broad sodomy law to apply only to sex involving 16- and 17-year-olds,” as Lithwick puts it. Rather, Virginia is asking the Supreme Court to hold that Lawrence v. Texas invalidated Virginia’s statute only insofar as the statute is applied to criminalize consensual, private, non-commercial, adult conduct of the sort at issue Lawrence. According to Virginia’s petition, that is the view of Lawrence adopted by virtually every other court in the country. And asking the Supreme Court to rein in the Fourth Circuit’s outlier reading hardly amounts to “begging out-of-touch, elitist, liberal federal courts to make ad hoc decisions about which private sex acts are ‘unnatural’.” I realize that there can be many legitimate ways of characterizing legal arguments. But in this piece, Lithwick trades precision for sensationalism. Moreover, the version of the piece that is up as I write contains seventeen links, but not one of these is to Virginia’s actual legal arguments. At a minimum, Slate should immediately include a link to Virginia’s petition so that its readers can judge for themselves. And Slate should probably also add a link to the Fourth Circuit’s opinion itself. (The closest the piece comes now is a link to a post at Constitutional Law Prof Blog. Happy for them to get the traffic, go read!, but there’s nothing like going straight to the source.)

Okay, now for the technical legal stuff of a sort that I find interesting but that has the proven capacity to bore my family (and probably almost anyone else stuck with me on long car trips) to tears. (more…)

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A divided three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit held today that three of President Obama’s appointments to the NLRB were invalid because they did not take place during an intersession recess of the Senate. Senior Judge Hamilton wrote the opinion for the majority in NLRB v. Enterprise Leasing Co. SE, LLC (the lead case on the caption). Judge Duncan joined in full and wrote a separate concurrence. Judge Diaz dissented from the constitutional holding (but concurred in other matters).

Although Judge Hamilton and Judge Duncan were appointed by Presidents Bush 41 and Bush 43, respectively, while Judge Diaz was appointed by President Obama, the best explanation for the differing outcomes tracks methodological rather than partisan political differences. The majority and dissenting opinions exhibit vastly different approaches to constitutional interpretation. The majority emphasizes text and history while the dissent is avowedly pragmatic and functional (indeed the most explicitly functionalist opinion by Judge Diaz that I can recall).

The Fourth Circuit’s decision bodes poorly for the Administration when the Supreme Court addresses these issues next Term in NLRB v. Noel Canning. This assessment is based not simply on the bottom-line conclusion reached by the Fourth Circuit, but on how the opinions were reasoned. On issues like these, the majority of the Supreme Court is methodologically closer to Judge Hamilton than Judge Diaz. It is difficult to see a majority of the Court hewing to the reasoning and conclusions reached by Judge Diaz in this case.

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