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Posts Tagged ‘Keenan’

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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The Fourth Circuit affirmed the grant of summary judgment to the defendant in a copyright infringement claim brought by a Charlotte, NC architecture firm (Building Graphics, Inc.) against a multi-state building company (Lennar Corp.) and an architecture firm hired by that company (Drafting & Design, Inc.). The appellate court concluded that the plaintiff firm had not “marshaled sufficient evidence to support a finding that there exists a reasonable possibility that [the defendants] had access to its copyrighted plans.” Judge Davis wrote the opinion for the court in Building Graphis v. Lennar Corp., in which Judge Keenan and Judge Gibney (EDVA) joined. (For those who are interested in the potential similarities, an appendix to the opinion includes floor plans and pictures of the houses.)

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The Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in two argued cases today. The result in each case was to vacate and remand a decision out of the Eastern District of Virginia. That may be all that the decisions have in common, however. The first decision left the central issue open for resolution on remand after articulating the legal test for the district court to apply, while the second decision resolved the central issue while seemingly adopting a newly constrictive test.

In Oberg v. Kentucky Higher Education Student Loan Corporation, the court addressed whether corporations organized by Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Arkansas were “persons” subject to suit under the False Claims Act, or instead “state agencies” not subject to suit under the False Claims Act as interpreted in Vermont Agency of Natural Resources v. United States ex rel. Stevens, 529 U.S. 765, 787-88 (2000). The appeals court held that the district court applied the wrong legal test in deciding that the corporations were not subject to suit. The Fourth Circuit vacated and remanded for district court application of the test developed under the test that is also used for the “arm of the state” prong of sovereign immunity analysis. Judge Motz wrote the opinion for the court, in which Chief Judge Traxler and Judge Keenan joined.

In Friends of Back Bay v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the court held that the Army Corps of Engineers improperly issued a permit without completing an EIS under NEPA. Among other things, the court near the end of its opinion aligned the Fourth Circuit with the Second Circuit in stating that “the policy goals underlying NEPA are best served if agencies err in favor of preparation of an EIS when . . . there is a substantial possibility that the [proposed] action may have a significant impact on the environment.” I am not a NEPA expert, but the appellate court’s application of the various EIS factors and its adoption of the Second Circuit’s “substantial possibility” test seemed somewhat casual. Judge King wrote the opinion for the court, in which Judge Gregory and Judge Floyd joined.

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Federal law authorizes immigration authorities to detain a criminal alien without a bond hearing “when the alien is released” from some other custody, such as state imprisonment. See 8 U.S.C. 1226(c)(1). The Board of Immigration Appeals has held that this statute authorizes mandatory detention even if the immigration authorities arrest and detain the individual well after his state custody has ended. The Fourth Circuit held today in Hosh v. Lucero that the BIA’s determination was entitled to Chevron deference and that the immigration-law version of the rule of lenity did not require an alternative outcome. Senior Judge Moon (WDVA) wrote the opinion for the court, in which Judge Keenan and Judge Floyd concurred.

Several district courts have been on both sides of the issue resolved by the Fourth Circuit in this case, although the Fourth Circuit’s decision appears to be the first circuit-level decision on this issue.

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The Fourth Circuit today issued published opinions in piracy prosecutions arising out of foiled attacks on the U.S.S. Ashland and the U.S.S. Nicholas. In both, the federal government won and the pirates lost.

The principal opinion, United States v. Dire, affirms the convictions and life-plus sentences of the Somali defendants against several challenges, including the claim “that their fleeting and fruitless strike on the Nicholas did not, as a matter of law, amount to a § 1651 piracy offense.” Judge King wrote the opinion for the Court, in which Judge Davis and Judge Keenan joined.

The other opinion, United States v. Said, vacates the dismissal of the § 1651 piracy count in the prosecution arising out of the attack on the U.S.S. Ashland. Judge King wrote the opinion for the Court, in which Judge Davis and Judge Keenan joined.

The Dire decision is a ringing endorsement of the thorough analysis provided by Judge Mark Davis (EDVA) earlier in the case. See United States v. Hasan, 747 F. Supp. 2d 599 (EDVA 2010). The Fourth Circuit’s opinion states: “Simply put, we agree with the conception of the law outlined by the court below. Indeed, we have carefully considered the defendants’ appellate contentions–endorsed by the amicus curiae brief submitted on their behalf [filed by counsel for the Said defendants]–yet remain convinced of the correctness of the trial court’s analysis.”

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The Fourth Circuit today affirmed the dismissal of a First Amendment challenge to Arlington, Virginia’s prohibition of a doggy daycare’s mural near the Shirlington Dog Park. Judge Diaz wrote the opinion for the Court in Wag More Dogs, LLC v. Cozart, which was joined in by Judge Duncan and Judge Keenan. The challenger was represented by the Institute for Justice, which has a case page with background and more information, together with a response to today’s decision.

My preliminary reaction is that the opinion’s First Amendment analysis is overly deferential to the government. In assessing whether the challenged sign ordinance is content-based or content-neutral, the opinion follows the regrettable path of focusing almost exclusively on whether the ordinance was enacted because of disagreement with the message conveyed. The most underdeveloped part of the opinion, however, is its application of intermediate scrutiny, particularly the narrow tailoring prong. The county asserted that its ordinance serves two interests: promoting traffic safety and enhancing the County’s aesthetics. The county’s enforcement of its ordinance with respect to the challenged mural raises serious questions about how the ordinance is “narrowly tailored” to serve these interests, questions that the opinion simply does not address. The county told Wag More Dogs that the mural would not run afoul of the ordinance if (1) it depicted anything other than pictures relating to the doggy daycare business, or (2) it included the phrase “Welcome to Shirlington Park’s Community Canine Area.” Given the conceded lawfulness of hypothetical alternative murals that comply with either (1) or (2), it is hard to see how the ordinance is tailored at all, much less narrowly tailored, to the promotion of traffic safety or the enhancement of the County’s aesthetics. Instead of examining this issue, however, the opinion conclusorily asserts that the ordinance’s sign and location restrictions do no more than eliminate the exact source of the evil it sought to remedy.

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The Fourth Circuit’s decision today in Belk, Inc. v. Meyer Corp. provides a detailed primer–at one party’s expense, unfortunately–on the requirements of Rule 50(b) and various other issue-preservation matters. Judge Davis’s opinion for the court, which was joined in by Judge Duncan and Judge Keenan, affirms a jury verdict on federal trade dress infringement and North Carolina Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act claims that resulted in an award of $1.26 million. Because so few business disputes actually make it to trial in federal court, and of those that do, so few result in published appellate opinions, the opinion is worth reading is a refresher for anyone interested in presenting issues so that they are properly preserved for appeal.

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Holding that a criminal trial was tainted by the admission of prior “bad act” evidence, a split Fourth Circuit panel yesterday reversed an individual’s drug and gun convictions. In addition to addressing the admissibility of prior bad act evidence, the opinion contains an extensive discussion of the detention of a vehicle for a canine sniff. Judge Keenan wrote the opinion for the court in United States v. McBride, in which Judge Gregory joined. Judge Wilkinson wrote an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.

The improperly admitted evidence consisted of reliable audio and video recordings of a prior drug transaction in which the defendant sold crack cocaine to a government informant. The panel majority reasoned that the evidence surrounding this earlier transaction, which took place 18 months prior to the charged conduct, “was unrelated in time, place, pattern, or manner to the conduct” for which the defendant was indicted. The panel majority further reasoned that it could not conclude that it was “highly probable that the error did not affect the judgment.”

Judge Wilkinson’s dissent argues that the appellate court’s decision “regrettably pulls the trial process away from both the trial court and the jury, substituting its own assessment of the relevance and weight of the defendant’s criminal activity.” The dissent’s analysis begins with a comparison:

Appellant’s position overlooks simply this: that institutional relationships are to law what personal relationships are to life. And keeping the relationship of trial and appellate courts free of unwarranted encroachments is essential to the harmonious workings of our system. . . . The majority pays lip service to our deferential review of the district court’s evidentiary rulings, but fails to show any actual regard for the reasoned rulings of the trial judge in this case.

The dissent concludes by arguing that “[s]ending this case back to the district court for a second round diminishes the trial process”:

Retrials are like yesterday’s breakfast–always stale and seldom satisfying. Witnesses often try to remember what they said at the first trial rather than their actual recollections of the events in question. Everyone is farther removed from the events the trial process is designed to reconstruct. “The very act of trying stale facts may well, ironically, produce a second trial no more reliable as a matter of getting at the truth than the first.” Mackey v. United States, 401 U.S. 667, 691 (1971) (Harlan, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part).

It does more than merely inconvenience participants to put them through the process twice. Retrials can be traumatic, and criminal trials especially so, as witnesses are brought back for a second time to relive troubling events. As for the jurors here, it reduces to insignificance the time they spent in civic duty listening to evidence and argument and weighing facts whose accuracy is in no way questioned. The majority treads no ground here that was not covered at trial, reviewed by the district judge, and assessed by the jury in rendering a fair verdict. I would let the verdict stand in full. The district court applied proper legal standards, followed case law from ours and other circuits, made a sound and considered evidentiary inquiry, and admirably discharged its obligations throughout. With all respect to my fine colleagues in the majority, the trial court should be commended, not reversed.

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A divided Fourth Circuit panel yesterday affirmed the grant of summary judgment to an employer who refused to rehire to the same position an employee who went on disability leave. The decision turned on the application of Cleveland v. Policy Mgmt. Sys. Corp., 526 U.S. 795 (1999), in which the Supreme Court addressed how courts should assess an ADA claim brought by an individual who has applied for and received Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits.

Judge O’Grady (EDVA, sitting by designation) authored the unpublished opinion for the court in EEOC v. Greater Baltimore Medical Center, Inc., in which Judge Keenan joined. Judge Gregory wrote a dissenting opinion.

Although unpublished, the decision appears to be the first in which the Fourth Circuit has held that the Supreme Court’s decision in Cleveland applies not only to actions brought by individuals who have applied for and received SSDI, but also to actions brought by the EEOC on behalf of such individuals.

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As the United States and a new Somali defendant gear up for trial this week in front of Judge Doumar, one question is on the mind of all concerned: Where are the Fourth Circuit’s piracy decisions?

The Fourth Circuit has been considering the definition of piracy for over a year now. Last spring, a three-judge panel consisting of Judge King, Judge Davis, and Judge Keenan heard oral arguments in an appeal arising out of an attack on the U.S.S. Ashland. Last September, the same panel heard oral arguments in an appeal arising out of an attack on the U.S.S. Nicholas. At the time of the Nicholas arguments, it appeared that the panel had put the case on some sort of fast track after the Ashland appeal was caught up in some procedural confusion. But the Nicholas appeal has not been quickly resolved even though, as I have previously argued, the procedural issue that seemed to dog the Ashland appeal has been resolved  by a different panel in a different case.

Regardless of the outcome of the Ashland appeal, it is curious that the decision in the Nicholas appeal has not yet been issued. Various judges on the panel did show interest at oral argument in issues beyond the definition of piracy, such as the extraterritorial application of Miranda and the unit of prosecution under 924(c). But the panel did not press the government very hard on the definition-of-piracy issues, as one would expect if the judges’ pre-argument review of the case pointed toward a ruling against the government.

There can be many reasons for the passage of so much time without a decision. And in big cases, the decisions can take a long time. Perhaps the panel is deeply fractured on one or more of the issues. Perhaps the judges have been busy working on other cases (as seems to be at least part of the explanation given lengthy or controversial opinions that have been released in recent months by the panel members in other cases). Or perhaps the opinion or opinions at issue raise knotty questions about other aspects of the Fourth Circuit’s case law that need to be smoothed out. At this point, it is all speculative from the outside.

That speculation could start building if more stories like yesterday’s AP story about the upcoming piracy trial begin to appear. As the story explains, “[t]he trial of a Somali man U.S. authorities consider the highest-ranking pirate they have ever captured will begin this week in Virginia under a cloud of uncertainty about what the definition of piracy is.” Part of the uncertainty is whether the crime of piracy requires that the pirate actually took possession of the target ship, committing robbery at sea. Two district courts have gone different ways on that question. These are the two cases currently on appeal to the Fourth Circuit.

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The Fourth Circuit today partially reversed a district court decision that had granted broad protection to Google against trademark infringement claims arising out of its use of trademarked terms in keywords and advertisement text. Chief Judge Traxler wrote the opinion for the court in Rosetta Stone v. Google, in which Judge Keenan and Senior Judge Hamilton joined.

The language software company Rosetta Stone sued Google in 2009 asserting claims of: (1) direct trademark infringement; (2) contributory infringement; (3) vicarious infringement; (4) trademark dilution; and (5) unjust enrichment (under Virginia law). The district court granted summary judgment to Google on all five counts (see here for district court’s trademark claims analysis). Today’s decision affirms the win for Google on vicarious infringement and unjust enrichment, but vacates and remands with respect to direct infringement, contributory infringement, and trademark dilution.

With respect to direct infringement, the appeals court rejected Rosetta Stone’s argument that it is reversible error for a district court to decline to address all factors in the Fourth Circuit’s nine-factor, non-exclusive, totality-of-the-circumstances test for likelihood of confusion. The opinion suggests, however, that “[i]n the future . . . a district court opting not to address a given factor or group of factors should provide at least a brief explanation of its reasons.” The appellate court did, however, fault the district court for applying a too-demanding standard to Rosetta Stone’s evidence of intent to cause confusion, actual confusion, and consumer sophistication. This portion of the opinion contains a discussion of anecdotal and survey evidence, including in-house studies on confusion performed by Google. The Fourth Circuit also criticized the district court’s functionality analysis for focusing on whether Rosetta Stone’s mark made Google’s product more useful, rather than considering whether the mark was functional as Rosetta Stone used it. The appellate disposition of this functionality affirmative defense precludes Google’s further use of it in the litigation, but the remainder of the disposition simply leaves open the path for future litigation over the facts.

On contributory infringement, the Fourth Circuit held that the district court relied too heavily on the Second Circuit’s decision in Tiffany (NJ) Inc. v. eBay Inc., 600 F.3d 93 (2d Cir. 2010), which was an appeal from a jury verdict rather than a decision at the summary judgment stage.

Finally (with respect to the claims that the Fourth Circuit vacated), the court held that the district court impermissibly collapsed good faith and nominative fair use into a single question in assessing trademark dilution. The appeals court further held that the district court mistakenly read Louis Vuitton Malletier S.A. v. Haute Diggity Dog, L.L.C., 507 F.3d 252 (4th Cir. 2007) to require proof of actual economic loss or reputational injury, rather than a likelihood of dilution.

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The Fourth Circuit yesterday affirmed the dismissal of contract and tort claims brought by driver Jeremy Mayfield against NASCAR and associates arising out of a positive drug test. Judge Gregory wrote the opinion for the Court in Mayfield v. NASCAR, in which Judge Keenan and Judge Grady (EDVA) joined. The decision upholds the application of a contractual liability waiver and applies Twiqbal to the defamation claim.

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If the title of this post means something to you, then you might find of interest the Fourth Circuit’s opinion today in New Cingular Wireless PCS, LLC v. Finley. Judge Davis wrote the opinion for the Court, which was joined in by Judge Agee and Judge Keenan.

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Last Friday, the Fourth Circuit dismissed as non-justiciable the appeal of a judgment in a challenge to potential improvements to specific sections of I-81. Judge Wilkinson wrote the opinion for the Court in Shenandoah Valley Network v. Capkawhich was joined in by Judge King and Judge Keenan. The I-81 improvement project will take place in two tiers. This litigation arose at the end of Tier 1, before Tier 2 had run its course. The nub of the dispute was the extent to which decisions made at Tier 1 would foreclose consideration of alternatives at Tier 2. The court concluded that the appellants were mistaken about the extent of foreclosure at Tier 2. The court was satisfied that, once the parties’ positions were clear, there was no actual dispute giving rise to a case or controversy. Accordingly, dismissal was warranted: “Because such [an actual] dispute is lacking here–and because we cannot issue an advisory opinion–we have no authority to adjudicate this suit.” The court also cashed out its justiciability conclusion in standing terms: There was no injury or threat of imminent injury.

One interesting feature of the decision comes in a footnote at the end, in which the court notes that it would not order vacatur of the district court’s judgment: “The gist of the district court’s ruling is that the review process should be allowed to move beyond Tier 1 to Tier 2. Because vacatur is an equitable remedy, U.S. Bancorp Mortg. Co. v. Bonner Mall P’Ship, 513 U.S. 18, 29 (1994), and because the balance of factors reveals no good reason to vacate the district court’s ruling, we decline to do so.” This reasoning, and the court’s careful phrasing of the justiciability problem (i.e., “there remains nothing to dispute” and “no justiciable controversy lingers”) suggests that the justiciability problem was not a pure standing issue, but some combination of mootness (of claims about Tier 1) and ripeness (of claims about Tier 2) .

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The Fourth Circuit issued two published opinions in argued cases today.

In McDaniel v. Blust, the court affirmed dismissal of several claims that arose out a bankruptcy proceeding. Chief Judge Traxler wrote the opinion for the court, which was joined in by Judge Gregory and Judge Wynn. The opinion addresses the contours of the Barton doctrine, which provides that “before another court may obtain subject-matter jurisdiction over a suit filed against a receiver for acts committed in his official capacity, the plaintiff must obtain leave of the court that appointed the receiver.”

In United States v. Sarwari, the court affirmed the convictions and sentence of a man who submitted passport applications for his stepchildren, describing himself  as their “father” even though he was neither their birth father nor adoptive father. Judge Motz wrote the opinion for the court, which was joined in by Chief Judge Traxler and Judge Keenan. The opinion focuses primarily on the Bronston defense. In Bronston v. United States, 409 U.S. 352 (1973), “the Supreme Court held that an individual cannot be convicted of perjury when the allegedly false statement was ‘literally true but not responsive to the question asked and arguably misleading by negative implication.” In Sarwari, the panel first assumed without deciding that the Bronston defense was available against the particular false statement charges advanced by the government. The panel then proceeded to hold that the facts of the case did not fit within the defense. The panel reasoned that the term “father” is not “fundamentally ambiguous,” and that the evidence was sufficient for the jury to conclude that the defendant understood the term in the same way that it was understood by the government.

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The Fourth Circuit today unanimously reversed the grant of habeas relief to a North Carolina capital defendant, Timothy Richardson, by Judge Boyle of the Eastern District of North Carolina. Judge Keenan wrote the opinion for the court in Richardson v. Branker, in which Chief Judge Traxler and Judge Motz joined.

The decision, which relies heavily on the Supreme Court’s decision last Term in Harrington v. Richter, ___ U.S. ,___ 131 S. Ct. 770, 786-87 (2011), rests on the appellate court’s determination that the district court did not demonstrate adequate deference to the state court decision at issue. The opinion states that the “required deference to the MAR court’s adjudication of Richardson’s claim of ineffective assistance of appellate counsel was wholly lacking in the district court’s consideration of the habeas petition.”

Along with analysis of North Carolina law governing when it is necessary to submit to the jury the mitigating factor of the defendant’s age–the (f)(7) mitigation factor–the opinion also discusses Brady and Atkins claims.

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A divided panel of the Fourth Circuit held today in Prudencio v. Holder that the framework used by federal immigration judges to decide whether an individual has previously been convicted of a crime of moral turpitude is unauthorized because in conflict with the relevant provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act. Judge Keenan wrote the opinion, in which Chief Judge Traxler joined. Judge Shedd penned a vigorous dissent.

The decision defies easy summary, but the dispute is an important one. Here is how Judge Shedd’s dissent begins:

The categorical approach adopted by the majority is a doctrine created by the judicial branch to address issues of concern to the judicial branch—protection of Sixth Amendment rights and efficient use of judicial resources. Although an agency may choose to adopt some version of this approach, there is no  requirement to expand this difficult, almost unworkable, limiting analysis to an agency, especially in the immigration context, and I would not do so.

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The Fourth Circuit today unanimously affirmed a grant of summary judgment in favor of the United States on the claim of activist photojournalist Isis for money damages under the Privacy Protection Act. Chief Judge Traxler wrote the published opinion in Sennett v. United States, which was joined in by Judge Motz and Judge Keenan.

The claim arises out of a lawless protest by anti-IMF activists at the Four Seasons hotel in Washington D.C. in 2008. Isis asserts that she went to the hotel around 2:30 a.m. one morning after receiving an anonymous tip about an impending demonstration. She proceeded to video a protest in the hotel lobby that involved firecrackers, smoke-generating pyrotechnic devices, and paint-filled balloons, causing more than $200,000 in property damage. The police tracked her down, searched her residence, and hauled away a lot of her gear. She never was charged with a crime. She sued under the Privacy Protection Act and lost on summary judgment. The Fourth Circuit affirmed. The decision involves an extended analysis of the “suspect exception” in the PPA.

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The Fourth Circuit issued published opinions in five cases today. That is a large number of opinions in argued cases for a single day. Two of the cases were argued in September. Both were split decisions. Two of the cases were argued in October. Both were unanimous as to outcome, but one featured an unusual concurring opinion joined by a panel majority. The fifth decision, from a case argued in December, was unanimous. I hope to have more to say about at least some of these opinions in the future, but here is a capsule summary for now.

Fortier v. Principal Life Ins. Co.  is a dispute over disability insurance. A split panel affirms the interpretation of an ERISA plan administrator that resulted in a denial of benefits. Judge Niemeyer wrote the opinion, which was joined in by Judge Wilkinson. Judge Floyd dissented. 

Lee-Thomas v. Prince George’s County is a dispute over sovereign immunity for a county board of education. A split panel affirms the district court’s decision that a statutory waiver of immunity, as interpreted by Maryland’s Court of Appeals, preserved claims against a county board’s of education for $100,000 or less. Judge King wrote the opinion, which was joined by Judge Davis. Judge Keenan dissented. 

Peabody Holding v. United Mine Workers presents a dispute about who decides arbitrability. A Fourth Circuit panel unanimously holds that the court rather than arbitrator must decide arbitrability, because the agreement contains no language unmistakably designating arbitrability for arbitration. Addressing arbitrability in an exercise of its independent judgment, the appellate court concludes that the dispute is arbitrable. Judge Diaz wrote the opinion, which was joined in by Judge Niemeyer and Judge Wynn. 

Zelaya v. Holder is an immigration case. The Fourth Circuit denies the petition for review with respect to an asylum claim and a withholding of removal claim, but grants the petition for review with respect to a Convention Against Torture claim. Senior Judge Hamilton wrote the opinion for the court, which was joined in by Judge Davis and Judge Floyd. Judge Floyd wrote a separate concurrence, in which Judge Davis joined. (One lesson? When Judge Floyd writes a separate concurrence, turnabout is fair play. See here for this panel’s similar voting in a different case. One question: What is going on with this panel?)

Warren v. Sessoms & Rogers is a case about the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. The Fourth Circuit holds that the district court, based on the defendant’s characterizations of its Rule 68 offer of judgment, incorrectly dismissed the FDCPA complaint. Judge Motz wrote the opinion, in which Judge Gregory and Judge Floyd joined. (Judge Floyd did not write a separate concurrence.)

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The police in Raleigh, NC pulled over a Crown Victoria and found a firearm in the console between the passenger and driver. The vehicle had broken some traffic laws, but the real reason that the policed pulled it over was because Officer Greenwood had relayed to the stopping officers information from a confidential informant about the presence of a man with a gun in the vehicle. The vehicle’s passenger first denied but later admitted that the gun was his. He stated that he had fired the gun earlier in the day to scare Chill Will, a man with whom he was having a dispute. At trial, the district court admitted Officer Greenwood’s testimony about what the confidential informant told him, not for the truth of the matter but for the purpose of explaining why the police acted as they did.

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the resulting conviction today in an unpublished opinion in United States v. Washington. Judge Wynn authored the opinion, in which Judge Keenan and Senior Judge Hamilton concurred. The panel rejected Confrontation Clause and Rule 403 challenges.

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Judge Diaz of the Fourth Circuit found himself considering North Carolina business law once again, writing the unpublished opinion in The Country Vintner of North Carolina, LLC v. E&J Gallo Winery, Inc., which was joined in by Judge Davis and Judge Keenan. Before reaching the issues of North Carolina law, though, Judge Diaz needed to address abstention issues that only arise in federal court: whether the district court should have abstained under Burford or Thibodaux. The opinion, affirming the judgment of the district court in favor of defendant Gallo Winery. The court affirms the district court’s determinations that the plaintiff’s Uniform and Deceptive Trade Practices Act claim was just a repackaged Wine Act claim, and that the Wine Act claim failed.

Here is how the opinion begins:

We consider in this case whether, under the North Carolina Wine Distribution Agreements Act, (“Wine Act” or “Act”) a wine  wholesaler’s contractual right to distribute an imported wine survives a change in the winery that imports the brand. The district court declined to abstain from resolving this issue in favor of a state court proceeding, and held that Appellant’s  distribution rights did not survive a change in importers. The district court also dismissed Appellant’s separate claim under  the North Carolina Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act. We affirm.

Some key language regarding abstention:

[T]he district court was interpreting a straightforward regulatory scheme that had not been the subject of much controversy in prior state or federal cases. Further, it carefully distinguished prior cases in which we held that abstention was appropriate and found that the circumstances here were inapposite. Moreover, a 2010 amendment to the Wine Act makes it unlikely that the question presented in this appeal is likely to recur. In sum, Country Vintner has failed to overcome the heavy deference we accord district courts in deciding whether to abstain from hearing a case.

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In the last two weeks of 2011, the Fourth Circuit issued five unpublished opinions after argument, two in criminal cases and three in civil cases, all unanimous. The court affirmed in three cases, reversed in one, and affirmed in part and vacated in part in the fifth case.

In United States v. Davis, the court affirmed denial of a motion to suppress notwithstanding the appellant’s argument that the officers extended the scope and duration of a traffic stop beyond the circumstances justifying it. A panel consisting of Judge Niemeyer, Judge Duncan, and Judge Floyd issued  a per curiam opinion.

In United States v. Buczkowski, a panel consisting of Chief Judge Traxler, Judge Agee, and Judge Diaz reduced twenty-seven counts of transporting child pornography down to one. The unpublished per curiam opinion begins as follows:

Daniel Buczkowski was convicted of one count of possessing  child pornography, see 18 U.S.C. § 2252(a)(4)(B), and twenty-seven counts of transportation of child pornography in  interstate or foreign commerce, see 18 U.S.C. § 2252(a)(1).  Buczkowski appeals, challenging the convictions and sentences imposed on the transportation counts only. While we find the  government’s evidence sufficient to establish that Buczkowski transported child pornography, that evidence established only a  single act of transportation. Accordingly, we affirm the  conviction and sentence on the first transportation count,  vacate the remaining transportation convictions and sentences, and remand for resentencing.

In Miller v. Montgomery County, the Fourth Circuit affirmed a dismissal for lack of standing. Miller sought to challenge the denial of an application for an exemption from Montgomery County’s Conservation Law relating to certain trees that Miller intended to harvest, but the landowner rather than Miller signed the application. Judge Keenan wrote the opinion, in which Chief Judge Traxler and Judge Gregory joined.

In Young Again Products, Inc. v. Acord, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the imposition of sanctions and a civil contempt order. Judge Duncan wrote the opinion, in which Judge Wilkinson and Judge Motz concurred.

In Trice, Geary & Myers, LLC v. CAMICO Mutual Insurance Company, a Fourth Circuit panel unanimously reversed a grant of summary judgment in favor of an insurance company, holding that claims brought against a policyholder triggered a duty to defend. Judge Wynn wrote the opinion, in which Judge Gregory and Judge Diaz joined.

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Fourth Amendment cases sometimes raise questions that (one hopes) would otherwise never need to be asked or answered. A Fourth Circuit panel’s split decision in United States v. Edwards appears to turn on the answer to just such a question.

In the course of (what the Fourth Circuit appears to treat as) a permissible search, a Baltimore City police officer located a plastic sandwich baggie containing several packets of cocaine tied around a man’s penis. The officer proceeded to cut the baggie off with a knife. According to a Fourth Circuit panel majority consisting of Judge Keenan and Judge Motz, this action violated the Fourth Amendment and required suppression. According to Judge Keenan’s majority opinion, “in the absence of exigent circumstances, the right of the police to seize contraband from inside Edwards’ underwear did not give the officers license to employ a method creating a significant and unnecessary risk of injury.”

As Judge Diaz points out in dissent, however, the record evidence does not support the majority’s assertion about the nature of the risk posed by the police’s actions. The majority suggests that the police could have requested and used blunt-edged scissors, but the knife may have been no riskier: “the record of the suppression hearing offers little information about the knife, the manner in which it was used to remove the contraband, or how long it took to accomplish the task. The district court, moreover, made no mention of the knife in its ruling. This omission was not an oversight, but rather reflected the fact that the knife was not the focus of the parties’ evidentiary presentations.”

At points, Judge Keenan’s opinion hints at another possible rationale for the majority’s ruling–that the use of a knife in this circumstance “could only cause fear and humiliation.” But the majority does not rest on this rationale, and never undertakes a comparative assessment of the fear and humiliation involved in alternative methods of removing a baggie from this sensitive location. As Judge Diaz points out, the alternatives of untying, removing, or tearing the baggie, “would require that officers physically touch Edwards’ penis. . . . [And] a rule that directs officers to place their hands on a defendant’s genitals as a first option for seizing contraband in a baggie that the defendant has chosen to strap to his penis seems no more attractive than the careful use of a knife.”

Judge Diaz argues not only that the police did not violate the Fourth Amendment, but also that, if they did so, suppression was not the appropriate remedy.In responding to this point, the majority contends that suppression here serves the goal of deterrence. According to Judge Keenan, “Baltimore City police officers conduct searches inside the underwear of about 50 percent of arrestees, in the same general manner as the strip search performed on Edwards.” But the majority does not seek to deter such searches, only the use of a knife to remove what some of those searches reveal. And this poses a more significant problem: If the behavior to be deterred is routine, and if it poses a significant and unnecessary risk of harm, then wouldn’t the police have made a stray cut before now?

This question, and others, are raised by the panel opinion. It will be interesting to see whether, and if so, how, the case is revisited in en banc proceedings.

For those who track such things, all three judges on the panel were appointed by Democrats. Two were appointed by President Obama (Judge Keenan and Judge Diaz) and one by President Clinton (Judge Motz). Two judges are female (Judge Keenan and Judge Motz) and one judge is male (Judge Diaz).

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When the police find a plastic baggie full of suspected drugs attached to a man’s penis, does it violate the Fourth Amendment for the police to cut it off with a knife? “Yes,” according to a 2-1 vote of the Fourth Circuit. Judge Keenan wrote the majority opinion in United States v. Edwards, in which Judge Motz joined. Judge Diaz authored a dissent.

Some snippets from the majority opinion:

As they were looking inside Edwards’ underwear, the officers saw that there was a plastic sandwich baggie tied in a knot around Edwards’ penis. From Bailey’s vantage point and with the assistance of the flashlight beam, Bailey could also see that the sandwich baggie contained smaller blue ziplock baggies, which contained “a white rock-like substance.” Based on his training and experience, Bailey concluded that the baggie and its contents were consistent with the packaging or distribution of a controlled substance.

Upon discovering the sandwich baggie tied around Edwards’ penis, another officer held Edwards’ pants and underwear open while Bailey put on gloves, took a knife that he had in his possession, and cut the sandwich baggie off Edwards’ penis with the knife. After Bailey cut the baggie,  he reached into Edwards’ underwear and removed the baggie and its contents. During this procedure, Edwards remained in handcuffs with his hands secured behind his back.

* * *

We conclude that Bailey’s use of a knife in cutting the sandwich baggie off Edwards’ penis posed a significant and an unnecessary risk of injury to Edwards, transgressing well-settled standards of reasonableness. The fortuity that Edwards was not injured in the course of this action does not substantiate its safety.

* * *

Manifestly, in the present case, there were several alternatives available to the officers for removing the baggie from Edwards’ penis, which neither would have compromised the officers’ safety nor the safety of Edwards. These alternatives included untying the baggie, removing it by hand, tearing the baggie, requesting that blunt scissors be brought to the scene  to remove the baggie, or removing the baggie by other non-dangerous means in any private, well-lit area. Thus, we conclude that, in the absence of exigent circumstances, the right of the police to seize contraband from inside Edwards’ underwear did not give the officers license to employ a method creating a significant and unnecessary risk of injury.

A cut from Judge Diaz’s dissent:

The majority does not suggest that the officers should have allowed Edwards to remove the contraband himself. But while it posits certain alternatives for seizing it, I fail to see  how the majority’s suggestions are any more reasonable than the method chosen by the officers. The first three suggestions—untying, removing, or tearing the baggie—would require that officers physically touch Edwards’ penis. In my view, however, a rule that directs officers to place their hands on a defendant’s genitals as a first option for seizing contraband in a baggie that the defendant has chosen to strap to his penis seems no more attractive than the careful use of a knife. The majority next suggests that officers should have arranged for blunt scissors to be brought to the scene to remove the baggie. But this assumes that the knife actually used was not blunt, whereas the record offers no evidence as to its characteristics. Finally, the majority’s catch-all suggestion that officers should have used “other non-dangerous means in any private, well-lit area,” Maj. Op. at 14, does not specify a method of removal, but instead relies on the location of the search—a Bell factor that the majority explicitly declines to adopt as a basis for its decision. Thus, while criticizing the officers’ use of the knife as unreasonable, the majority has failed to articulate a method of removal that is any more reasonable. On that issue, the majority is in good company, for even Edwards’ counsel conceded at oral argument that there was “no good option” for removal.

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The Fourth Circuit yesterday issued a published opinion in United States v. Wellman affirming convictions on three offenses related to child pornography possession along with a ten-year sentence on one of the counts. Judge Keenan wrote the opinion, which was joined in by Judge Wynn and Senior Judge Hamilton.

In disposing of the defendant’s Fourth Amendment claim, Judge Keenan assumed without deciding that the content of the warrant application was insufficient to find probable cause, but held that the evidence was not subject to suppression because the West Virginia State Police relied in good faith on the issued search warrant. Although the structure of this reasoning does not yield clear guidance about what must be included in a warrant application, the panel did “decline to impose a requirement that a search warrant application involving child pornography must include an image of the alleged pornography.”

The opinion rejects the defendant’s statutory argument as an impermissible “attempt to graft a subjective, fact-based knowledge requirement onto an objective legal standard.”

The Eighth Amendment proportionality analysis concludes easily that Congress acted “well within its authority” in providing for a ten-year sentence for recidivist possessors of child pornography. In the lead-up to the analysis, Judge Keenan quotes a First Circuit decision stating that the instances of disproportionate sentences invalid under the Eighth Amendment should be “hen’s-teeth rare.” This suburbanite does not know what that means based on any experience with hens, but I suppose the number of such sentences is not much more than a goose egg.

 

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