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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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In Tobey v. Jones, the Fourth Circuit needed to decide whether Aaron Tobey’s First-Amendment-based Bivens claim for money damages against two TSA officers (Jones and Smith, their real last names) survived the federal government’s 12(b)(6) motion. These officers (TSOs) radioed for police assistance after Tobey, having been selected for “enhanced secondary screening” at a Richmond (VA) International Airport security screening checkpoint, stripped down to his running shorts and socks to reveal portions of the Fourth Amendment written on his bare chest. When the airport police arrived, they arrested Tobey. They then questioned him and ultimately released him after about an hour. Tobey boarded his plane without any further difficulty. A few months later he sued the TSOs (Jones and Smith), the airport police, the airport commission, and some higher-level officials at the commission, the Department of Homeland Security, and the TSA.

The district court (Judge Hudson, EDVA) dismissed all of the claims except for a First Amendment-based claim that Smith and Jones “caused [Tobey's] seizure . . . because of the message conveyed by [his] silent, nonviolent expression of objection to the TSA’s screening policies . . . and thereby engaged in content and/or viewpoint discrimination.” The government appealed this denial.

A split panel of the Fourth Circuit affirmed. Judge Gregory, joined by Judge Duncan, held that Tobey’s complaint “plausibly set forth a claim that the TSA agents violated his clearly established First Amendment rights.” Judge Wilkinson authored an empassioned dissent.

Eugene Volokh and most commenters at Volokh Conspiracy have expressed agreement with the panel majority’s analysis. Are they  wrong about what “sounds right”? I think so. Not because of disagreement with Volokh’s take on the First Amendment, but because he focuses on First Amendment principles apart from the appropriate pleading rules and the particular facts of the case.

Viewed through the lens of Twombly and Iqbal, Tobey needed to plead facts rendering it plausible that the TSOs called the police because of disagreement with his message rather than because he stripped off his shirt and pants in the screening area. He did no such thing. Indeed, according to the district court, Tobey’s counsel conceded at oral argument that his behavior was bizarre, “and that the TSOs were justified in summoning the RIC Police for further inquiry.” It seems to me that should be the end of it, for that is all the TSOs are alleged to have done–summon the police. When people act in a concededly “bizarre” fashion in an airport screening area, the TSOs should call the police and let them handle the bizarreness. Whether the police should have handcuffed and arrested Tobey is a separate question from whether the TSOs should have called the police to deal with Tobey. And it is only that latter question that was at issue in the Fourth Circuit appeal.

I should also add that Judge Wilkinson’s take on the effect of taking off one’s shirt and pants in an airport screening area seems better grounded in the reality of modern air travel than Judge Gregory’s. Judge Wilkinson wrote that “[o]utside a few limited contexts, such as public swimming pools, removing one’s shirt and pants will always attract other people’s attention and distract them from whatever they happen to be doing.” Judge Gregory responds that “[p]assengers routinely remove clothing at an airport screening station, and in fact are required to do so by TSA regulations.” But this misses the point. Passengers do not routinely go bare-chested, nor are they are required to do so by TSA regulations. Judge Wilkinson may have overstated the case slightly in asserting that “[i]t is sheer fancy to think that defendants had anything on their minds other than eliminating the distraction that Tobey’s state of dishabille was causing.” But if so, only slightly. And in any event it was Tobey’s burden to allege facts making the alternative retaliation-for-protest explanation plausible.

Judge Gregory’s appeal to “autonomy and the celebration of difference” seems misplaced at an airport screening point. And he surely overstates the case when he writes that “[f]or us to hold today that it is reasonable to cause an arrest due to bizarre behavior and nothing more would violate the most basic [tenets] of our Constitution.” For that redescribes what the TSOs were alleged to have done (call the police) with what followed from that call through the decisions and actions of the police (Tobey’s arrest). Judge Gregory writes that “[i]t is an undoubtedly natural consequence of reporting a person to the police that the person will be arrested; especially in the scenario we have here, where TSA and RIC police act in close concert.” Yes, here, an arrest was a consequence. But to call it an “undoubtedly natural consequence” is to let the adverb and the adjective do too much work, depriving the police of any independent agency. Or so it seems to me.

 

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After seeing the link from Howard Bashman’s How Appealing and some of my prior posts about the Fourth Circuit pregnancy center cases , my friend (and CUA lawprof) Mark Rienzi sent me the plaintiff’s memorandum of law in support of summary judgment in the Montgomery County, Maryland pregnancy center compelled speech case. That case, argued the same morning as the Baltimore case, has proceeded through full discovery and to summary judgment briefing while the appeal of the preliminary injunction has been pending at the Fourth Circuit. This summary judgment record is not before the Fourth Circuit in the en banc appeal, but it is the record to which the legal standard identified by the Fourth Circuit will be applied by the district court.

I am not an impartial observer, as I was already convinced that the Montgomery County and Baltimore ordinances were unconstitutional and I have long supported the pro-life mission of the pregnancy centers targeted by the ordinances. But I believe that an impartial observer would share my assessment that the record in the Montgomery County case firmly establishes the unconstitutionality of the Montgomery County ordinance.

Reviewing this summary judgment memorandum reminds me of two episodes in the oral arguments over the Baltimore and Montgomery County ordinances.

First, near the end of the argument over the Baltimore ordinance, Judge King and Judge Wilkinson had an interchange in which Judge King advocated more discovery while Judge Wilkinson asserted that discovery is not the friend of the First Amendment (his point being that the time it takes to engage discovery is time during which protected speech may be unconstitutionally silenced). The discovery set forth in this brief shows that both judges are right and wrong in different ways. At least as far as the Montgomery County ordinance is concerned, discovery has been the friend of the First Amendment in the sense that it establishes the unconstitutionality of the ordinance. I expect discovery will establish the same about the Baltimore ordinance if that is the disposition ordered by the Fourth Circuit. But extensive discovery was not necessary. Under strict scrutiny, it is not the burden of the challengers to adduce evidence showing that the ordinance is unconstitutional. It is the burden of the government to show that the ordinance is the least restrictive means of accomplishing a compelling government interest. And the evidence on which the legislature acted should have been set at enactment such that extensive discovery is unnecessary.

Second, near the end of the argument over the Montgomery County ordinance, Rienzi as counsel for the challengers emphasized that the case was “fully teed up” for decision by the district court. In my estimation, this brief makes clear why he thought that was worth emphasizing.

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Something has been bothering me for a while about the en banc oral argument last month over a Baltimore ordinance that requires “limited-resource pregnancy centers” to post a notice that they do not refer for abortion or birth control services. I’ve now done some follow-up research. Others may view the results of this research differently, but in my view, counsel for Baltimore’s artful characterization of an advertisement in the record probably misled others present at the argument in the same way that it (temporarily) misled me.

At the argument, counsel for Baltimore asserted that the city was trying to combat “consumer deception in the offer of pregnancy services.” A powerful part of this argument came just two minutes in, when counsel pointed the court to an “Option Line” advertisement in the Joint Appendix that she described as “clearly and inherently misleading.” Counsel argued that the advertisement  was misleading because it offered “medical services” including “abortion” and “morning-after pill,” even though none of the centers actually offered abortions or the morning-after pill. Until near the end of the argument, none of the judges questioned counsel’s characterization of the Option Line advertisement even though she pointed to the page in the Joint Appendix where this “clearly and inherently misleading” advertisement could be found. And by the time one judge asked about it, it seemed as if the rest of the judges had already accepted the characterization.

This has been bothering me because, shortly after the argument, I googled “Option Line” and I could not see how someone scanning the Option Line website would get the impression that one could use the referral service to obtain either an abortion or the morning-after pill. I thought then that, unless Option Line’s advertising had changed substantially between passage of the ordinance (when the Baltimore City Council was allegedly concerned about deception) and the afternoon of the oral argument (when I reviewed the Option Line website), there was a real possibility that counsel for Baltimore had artfully and somewhat misleadingly characterized the advertisement in the JA.

I recently listened to the audio to verify my notes, and I pulled the Joint Appendix off of PACER to check the actual advertisement.  I’ve posted the relevant JA page here. The advertisement contains the words “abortion” and “morning after pill” and “medical services.” But, in my view, the advertisement cannot reasonably be viewed as offering the “medical services” of either “abortion” or the “morning-after pill.” In relevant part, the advertisement states:

Our consultants will connect you to nearby pregnancy centers that offer the following services:

  • Free pregnancy tests and pregnancy information
  • Abortion and Morning After Pill information, including procedures and risks
  • Medical services, including STD tests, early ultrasounds and pregnancy confirmation
  • Confidential pregnancy options

There is an obvious difference between offering information about abortion and the morning-after pill, on the one hand, and offering medical services such as the provision of abortion and the morning-after pill, on the other hand. Baltimore’s argument glides right over this difference. Unfortunately, Baltimore’s artful characterization of this advertisement mattered to the oral argument. Approximately 35 minutes into the argument, for example, Judge Shedd mentioned to counsel for the centers that “we’ve heard about the website that contained the false information,”thus suggesting that he accepted counsel’s artful characterization of the Option Line website.

Near the very end of the argument (around the 1:14:00 mark on the audio), Judge Niemeyer asked counsel whether Baltimore had any evidence that the clinics regulated by the ordinance “have advertised that they do provide abortions, falsely.” She responded “yes,” pointing to the Option Line advertisement. The argument continued:

Q (Niemeyer): What does it say, it says, “we provide abortion”?

A (Counsel): It says we provide medical services, quote, and then it also, quote, abortion and morning-after pill. . . .

* * *

Q (Wilkinson): That’s false advertising, isn’t it? It can be addressed in a variety of ways . . .

A (Counsel): It’s false. It is. . . .

As I’ve previously observed, the drift of this argument seemed to be that the case would be sent back for more discovery. If that happens, I would be surprised if Baltimore is able to show that any of the clinics regulated by their ordinance “have advertised that they do provide abortions, falsely.” As I read it, and as I suspect most other fair-minded readers would read it as well, the advertisement featured by counsel for Baltimore at oral argument does nothing of the sort.

In light of all this, it will be interesting, regardless of the outcome, to see what use the judges of the Fourth Circuit make of the record that is already before them.

[UPDATE: The companion case from Montgomery County has gone through discovery, although that record is not before the Fourth Circuit at this time. A link to the plaintiff’s memorandum of law in support of summary judgment, which contains a discussion of the evidence in that case, is in the post above.]

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This morning’s lively en banc proceedings at the Fourth Circuit in abortion-counseling-related First Amendment challenges did not produce clear signs of a winner, but raised questions (at least in my mind) about what legal issues the court took the cases en banc to address. There was virtually no discussion of commercial speech doctrine, and no judge or set of judges developed a line of questioning that would seemingly lay the foundation to displace strict scrutiny as the appropriate standard of review. That said, oral argument reveals only so much. After all, the panel dissent in one of the cases contained an analysis of commercial speech that was surprisingly detailed in light of the dissenting judge’s failure to lay the predicates for that analysis in oral argument before the panel. It is possible that something similar could happen here–though it is much harder to make that kind of move when writing for a number of judges rather than just for oneself.

The en banc court heard back-to-back oral arguments in First Amendment challenges to Baltimore and Montgomery County (MD) ordinances requiring certain pregnancy counselors to post signs about the limited nature of the services that they offer. The court’s decision to take these cases en banc vacated panel decisions that granted First Amendment victories to the challengers. (For my earlier coverage of the panel decisions, see here; for my earlier coverage of the oral argument to the panel, see here.) Judge Niemeyer authored those vacated panel decisions, which Judge Agee joined, while Judge King dissented. That configuration of a Niemeyer majority with a King dissent produced back-to-back en banc arguments earlier this year in cases involving the liability of military contractors for activities at Abu Ghraib and other locations in the Iraq war zone. Those arguments resulted in procedural holdings about the lack of appellate court jurisdiction rather than definitive merits rulings. Something similarly limited with respect to the merits may result from this morning’s arguments as well.

As the panel dissenter, Judge King was one of the most vocal questioners at oral argument in both cases. In the Baltimore case, Judge King (along with a few other judges) emphasized the need for more discovery and a better developed record. Given the substance of his dissent in the Baltimore case and the tenor of questioning by other judges, my best guess is that the en banc court will vacate the district court decision in the Baltimore case and remand for further development of the underlying facts. That is not to say I think that is the best decision, only that I think it the most likely decision in light of the limited information revealed at oral argument.

In the Montgomery County case, Judge King returned repeatedly to the “abuse of discretion” standard for appellate review of a decision to grant or deny a preliminary injunction. Even when counsel for Montgomery County correctly noted (against interest) that legal issues were to be reviewed de novo within the context of the abuse of discretion standard for the ultimate decision to grant or deny, Judge King continued to highlight the abuse of discretion standard. Some of Judge King’s questions dovetailed in some respects with Judge Wilkinson’s repeated invocations of “balance” in First Amendment analysis. These emphases, together with some other indicators from oral argument, may suggest a narrow affirmance of Judge Chasanow’s decision. That decision identified a difference between the two sentences that the ordinance compelled centers to include on their signs, and split the difference between the two. Judge Chasanow upheld the portion of the ordinance requiring centers to state that they do not have a licensed medical professional staff, but enjoined the requirement to state that the Montgomery County Health Officer encourages women who are or may be pregnant to consult with a licensed health care provider. Judge Wilkinson thought this split-the-difference approach was a sensible balance, and he may not have been alone in that view.

While I have more confidence with respect to the guess about the Baltimore case than the Montgomery County case, I do not have a high level of confidence in either guess. The military contractor en banc cases earlier this year provided much clearer indications of where the center of gravity was on the court at the time of argument. By contrast, there were a number of cross-cutting issues and interventions in these argument.  During portions of the second argument, for example, Judge Gregory and Judge Motz seemed more skeptical of Montgomery County’s ordinance than Judge Wilkinson, who in turn seemed more speech-protective than some of the other judges during argument of the Baltimore case.

Because both of these appeals addressed the issuance of a preliminary injunction, the merits issue of the constitutionality of both ordinances was one step removed from straight-up consideration by the court. Issuance of a preliminary injunction depends on a court’s assessment of the moving party’s likelihood of success on the merits. This is a predictive judgment. If the Fourth Circuit were to hold that the district court in the Baltimore case should not have found a likelihood of success on the merits without allowing for further factual development, while the district court in the Montgomery County case made a reasonable split assessment of the movant’s likelihood of success in that case, that would still leave open the possibility that both ordinances could be completely enjoined down the road.

In my view, that would be the correct ultimate outcome in both cases. The reason for this assessment is the First Amendment standard of review. Both district courts, as well as all three judges on the original panel, thought that strict scrutiny was the appropriate merits standard of review for the preliminary injunction in the Montgomery County case. They were right. Judge King thought that discovery would have helped clarify the appropriate standard of review in the Baltimore case. He argued that Baltimore might have been able to develop evidence to show that the Baltimore ordinance regulated commercial speech. In my view, this argument is based on legal error.

At least as far as the questioning at today’s oral arguments is concerned, the possibility that commercial speech doctrine should apply on remand is the dog that didn’t bark. The qualifier “at least as far as the questioning reveals” is an important one. While Judge King’s questioning at the panel argument was largely favorable to the City, Judge King did not develop lines of questioning to support the analysis that his dissenting opinion ultimately contained. Perhaps a narrow procedural holding would be just an opening move in a push to ultimately apply the standard of review appropriate to regulations of commercial speech. If there is support for that kind of change in the doctrine, it was not revealed at oral arguments today. That is not to say that it did not exist, only that the arguments provided no evidence of the existence of such support. After this morning’s arguments, it remains difficult to see how either Baltimore or Montgomery County can avoid the application of strict scrutiny under First Amendment doctrine as it currently stands.

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Marc DeGirolami has a post bearing this title over at CLR Forum. The post reports on yesterday’s Fourth Circuit decision in Moss v. Spartansburg County School District Seven. Judge Niemeyer wrote the opinion for the court, in which Judge Gregory and Judge Wynn joined.

Apart from its discussion of substantive Establishment Clause principles, the opinion may be of interest for its assessment of Establishment Clause standing (an area of the law that could probably use some rethinking).

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Justin Levitt has a post with this title at Election Law Blog, with an overview and links to coverage. The decision happened yesterday, in United States v. Danielczyk. (See here for my oral argument preview and a link to AP coverage of the oral argument itself.)

Judge Gregory wrote the opinion, which was joined in by Chief Judge Traxler and Judge Diaz. This opinion must have brought Judge Gregory some satisfaction. The controlling Supreme Court decision, FEC v. Beaumont, came to the Supreme Court out of the Fourth Circuit. Judge Gregory authored a panel dissent in that case, and the outcome he advocated in dissent was adopted by the Supreme Court.

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