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Posts Tagged ‘Shedd’

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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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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The Fourth Circuit today reinstated the claim of a Muslim prisoner incarcerated in Virginia who sued state correctional officials under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”) after they refused to permit him to grow a short beard for religious reasons. The decision means that the prisoners claim can go forward, but further proceedings will be needed to determine whether the prisoner actually wins on the merits.

Chief Judge Traxler wrote the opinion for the court in Couch v. Jabe, in which Justice O’Connor and Judge Shedd joined. Here is the opening of the opinion:

William R. Couch, a Sunni Muslim currently incarcerated in a state correctional facility, brought this action alleging that prison officials violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”) by refusing to permit him to grow a one-eighth-inch beard in compliance with the requirements of his faith. The district court granted summary judgment to the prison officials, and Couch appeals. Because the prison officials did not explain how a one-eighth-inch beard would implicate health or security concerns, they failed
to satisfy their burden under RLUIPA of showing that the general grooming policy that they rely upon is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest. Accordingly, we vacate the grant of summary judgment and remand for further proceedings.

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The Fourth Circuit today joined the Seventh and Eighth Circuits in their split from the Ninth Circuit over the correct application of Georgia v. Randolph, 547 U.S. 103 (2006), in a situation in which consent to search a shared home was given by one person with authority to consent in the absence of another individual who had previously refused consent. Compare United States v. Henderson, 536 F.3d 776 (7th Cir. 2008) (requiring physical presence of objecting co-tenant), and United States v. Hudspeth, 518 F.3d 954 (8th Cir. 2008) (en banc) (same), with United States v. Murphy, 516 F.3d 1117, 1125 (9th Cir. 2008) (allowing prior co-tenant’s refusal to operate even in the absence of continuing physical presence).  The court also upheld the federal anti-stalking statute, 18 U.S.C. § 2261A(2)(A), against a vagueness challenge. Judge Wilkinson wrote the opinion for the court in United States v. Shrader, which was joined in by Judge Motz and Judge Shedd.

With respect to the circuit split over Georgia v. Randolph, the opinion states that the Ninth Circuit’s approach of allowing refusal to operate even in the absence of the objecting co-tenant raises practical problems:

How broadly is constructive knowledge of a suspect’s prior refusal to consent to be imputed to other officers? Must a suspect expressly indicate that he has changed his mind in the future, or may that be assessed from the totality of the circumstances? Is there some point at which the passage of time renders a prior objection inoperative? The Murphy interpretation of Randolph would involve courts in such questions, diverting attention from the basic social expectations that underlie not only the opinion in Randolph, but the larger corpus of Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. Careful observance of the requirement that an objecting cotenant be physically present thus not only shows fealty to the Supreme Court’s precedent, but also focuses police and courts on the customary norms that form the basis for this area of law.

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The Fourth Circuit decided today in Ignacio v. United States that the Federal Tort Claims Act waives the immunity of the United States for intentional torts committed by law enforcement officials, regardless of whether the official was engaged in a law enforcement activity when he committed the intentional tort. Judge Floyd wrote the opinion for the court, which was joined in by Judge Shedd and Judge Diaz. Judge Diaz also authored a separate concurrent. According to the opinions, the decision creates a circuit split with the Third and Ninth Circuits. See Orsay v. United States, 289 F.3d 1125, 1134 (9th Cir. 2002); Pooler v.  United States, 787 F.2d 868, 871-72 (3d Cir. 1986).

The case arises out of a dispute on December 2, 2009 between a Pentagon police officer (Lane) and a contract security officer (Ignacio) who were assigned together to the same security checkpoint for Pentagon employees. The two disagreed over the caliber of an M-16 round. “Initially, their disagreement led only to a bet. It escalated, however, on December 15, when they were again stationed at a security checkpoint for Pentagon employees. Lane allegedly told Ignacio that he would ‘hurt him after work’ and then pretended to punch him in the face.” This led to workplace discipline and, eventually, a lawsuit. The United States sought summary judgment on the basis of an exception from the FTCA’s waiver of sovereign immunity.

The FTCA (i) waives the sovereign immunity of the United States for certain torts committed by federal employees, (ii) excepts certain intentional torts from this waiver, and (iii) then excepts from this exception intentional torts committed by investigative or law enforcement officers. See 28 U.S.C. 2680(h). This exception from an exception from the waiver of sovereign immunity is known as the “law enforcement proviso.” Other circuits interpreting this proviso have limited its application to torts committed by investigative or law enforcement officers in the course of investigative or law enforcement efforts. Applying that interpretation, the district court (Judge O’Grady, EDVA) granted summary judgment to the United States.

In reversing and remanding, the Fourth Circuit faulted the other circuits for “relent[ing] to secondary modes of interpretation without first establishing the ambiguity of the statutory text.”  According to Judge Floyd, the text of the proviso is clear and contains no limitation of the sort read in by the other circuits.

In his separate concurrence, Judge Diaz acknowledges that the interpretation adopted by the court “leads to the anomalous situation in which the federal government could be liable for the actions of a law enforcement officer but would be immune from liability for the same conduct committed by another federal employee under the same circumstances.” This result “can be criticized as inconsistent and unreasonable,” but it is not  “so absurd as to allow us to alter the meaning–as other courts have–of an otherwise unambiguous statute.”

In light of the result and apparent circuit split, the United States may be interested in seeking additional review. Given the panel composition and outcome, the likelihood of obtaining a different ruling en banc is very low. If the Department of Justice determines that the issue is sufficiently important to seek certiorari, this case very well could end up before the Supreme Court. There are unresolved factual disputes about whether the Pentagon police officer was acting within the scope of his employment under Virginia law (a necessary predicate to liability under the FTCA), which could counsel against a grant of certiorari. Because sovereign immunity protects not simply against liability but also against having to answer in court at all, however, that consideration may carry less weight in this case.

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The Fourth Circuit has certified two questions to the Virginia Supreme Court.

One certified question involves the interpretation of a homeowners insurance policy under Virginia law:

For purposes of interpreting an “all risk” homeowners insurance policy, is any damage resulting from [the covered home's] drywall unambiguously excluded from coverage under the policy because it is loss caused by: (a) “mechanical breakdown, latent defect, inherent vice, or any quality in property that causes it to damage itself”; (b) “faulty, inadequate, or defective materials”; (c) “rust or other corrosion”; or (d) “pollutants,” where pollutant is defined as “any solid, liquid, gaseous or thermal irritant or contaminant, including smoke, vapor, soot, fumes, acids, alkalis, chemicals and waste”?

The per curiam unpublished certification order in Travco Insurance Company v. Ward was entered by a panel consisting of Judge Shedd, Judge Wynn, and Senior Sixth Circuit Judge Keith. The panel heard oral arguments on September 20, 2011. The court’s reasoning with respect to certification is not that extensive for the amount of time that this appeal has been pending.

The other certified question arises out of the employment context:

Does Virginia law recognize a common law tort claim of wrongful discharge in violation of established public policy against an individual who was not the plaintiff’s actual employer, such as a supervisor or manager, but who participated in the wrongful firing of the plaintiff?

Judge Floyd authored the certification order in VanBuren v. Grubb, on behalf of a panel that also included Judge Niemeyer and Judge Motz. The reasoning in favor of certification is much more extensive than in Ward. In addition to noting that the Virginia Supreme Court has not addressed this issue, the order notes that no consensus has arisen among Virginia’s trial courts and that other states are split on the issue.

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A split panel of the Fourth Circuit held today that BP could enforce a restrictive covenant in a deed against a purchaser who sought to use the purchased property for a gas station selling different gas than agreed to in the sale of the property. Chief Judge Traxler wrote the opinion in BP Products, North America, Inc. v. Stanley, which was joined in by Judge Shedd. Judge Floyd authored a dissenting opinion.

From the majority opinion:

The parties agree that under Virginia law, covenants “restricting the free use of land are not favored and must be strictly construed.” Mid-State Equip. Co. v. Bell, 225 S.E.2d 877, 884 (Va. 1976). They disagree, however, regarding the test by which such covenants should be judged. Defendants argue that the restriction should be judged by the standard discussed in Omniplex World Services Corp. v. U.S. Investigations Services, Inc., 618 S.E.2d 340, 342 (Va. 2005), which applies to noncompete covenants in employment contracts. BP contends that restrictive covenants in deeds are judged by a different standard, namely the one discussed in Merriman v. Cover, Drayton & Leonard, 51 S.E. 817, 819 (Va. 1905), and that the Omniplex and Merriman tests are distinct from one another. We agree with BP.

* * *

BP advances multiple arguments challenging the ruling by the district court that the PR was overbroad as a result of its
application to the sale of these enumerated items. BP first argues that, as a petroleum refiner, it has a legitimate business
interest in prohibiting the sale of any products that would dilute the demand for BP’s petroleum. BP also maintains that
the PR should be read to prohibit the sale of kerosene, benzol, or naphtha only to the extent those products are used for the
sale of fuel for internal combustion engines. Finally, BP argues that it is not seeking to prevent the sale of lubricants and that any prohibition of such sales “is academic and represents far too slender a reed on which to invalidate the entire Petroleum Restriction, and thereby allow Stanley to use the Property to sell non-BP fuel, the very use the parties indisputably intended that the Property could not be put.” Appellant’s brief at 48.

From the dissent:

BP contends that we can enforce the PR regardless of any overbreadth simply by excising the offending language. And, since oral argument, BP purportedly has released Stanley from the overbroad portions of the PR. See Ante at 13 n.3. Nevertheless, I cannot conclude that the PR becomes enforceable through alteration by the court or BP. First, Virginia law disfavors judicial reformation of covenants through bluepenciling. See Strategic Enter. Solutions, Inc. v. Ikuma, No. CL 2008-8153, 2008 WL 8201356, at *4 (Va. Cir. Ct. Oct. 7, 2008) (“The Virginia Supreme Court has not directly ruled on ‘blue-penciling’ overly broad clauses in restrictive covenants[;] however it is clear from the restrictive covenant jurisprudence in Virginia that the Court does not entertain the notion that these disfavored restraints on trade should be reformed by the judiciary . . . .”); Daston Corp. v. MiCore Solutions, Inc., No. CL-2010-9318, 2010 WL 7375597, at *5 (Va. Cir. Ct. July 30, 2010); Better Living Components, Inc. v. Coleman, No. CH04-13,307, 2005 WL 771592, at *5 (Va. Cir. Ct. Apr. 6, 2005). More fundamentally, however, Virginia law supports narrowly drawn covenants that are reasonable, and general public policy encourages parties to draft precise language on which all participants to a contract can  rely. Allowing BP, a multinational, sophisticated corporation, to draft blatantly overbroad restrictions and then, when challenged, simply declare that such restrictions are a mistake and meaningless not only is contrary to basic contract principles, but also is detrimental to the public interest. Accordingly, I find that the PR’s overbreadth spoils its enforceability and dissent from the majority’s contrary conclusion.

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The Fourth Circuit’s unanimous published opinion today in Gentry v. Siegel looks to be important reading for bankruptcy lawyers and class action lawyers with putative class actions against a company that enters into bankruptcy before a class is certified. The decision arises out of notices of claim filed by lawyers who had filed putative wage-and-hour class actions against Circuit City. Judge Niemeyer wrote the opinion, in which Judge Shedd and Judge Davis joined.

I will leave it to subject-matter experts to digest the analysis, which begins with the following statement:

The Named Claimants’ efforts to pursue class actions in this bankruptcy case reveal gaps in the Bankruptcy Rules and raise some difficult procedural issues about the manner in which the Bankruptcy Rules provide for class actions in bankruptcy cases, as authorized by Rules 7023 and 9014.

The intrepid reader who continues onward will encounter some of these important-looking statements:

It is not completely clear that Civil Rule 23 could ever be applied to a contested matter. . . . For purposes of our holding, we assume, without deciding, that the Civil Rule 23 process could be applied to the resolution of a contested matter. [p. 8, n.1, emphasis in original]

* * *

[T]he Trustee’s construction of the Bankruptcy Rules is unduly cramped and unsuited for application by a court in equity seeking, by application of the Bankruptcy Rules, to accomplish the purposes of the Bankruptcy Act. The Bankruptcy Rules are tools, which include Rule 7023 and derivatively Civil Rule 23, by which the bankruptcy court as a court of equity is to accomplish the Act’s purposes. In the absence of some prohibiting rule or principle, the Bankruptcy Rules should be construed to facilitate creditors’ pursuit of legitimate claims and to allow Civil Rule 23 to be applied if doing so would result in a more practical and efficient process for the adjudication of claims. [10]

* * *

Because the Bankruptcy Rules accept the notion that class action rules may, in appropriate circumstances, be employed in a bankruptcy case, we conclude that they therefore necessarily embrace the notion that the proposal to represent a class is tentative pending approval. And with that notion comes the equally necessary propositions that if the proposal is approved, the approval relates back to when it was made, and if it is rejected, the putative class members must be given time after the court’s rejection to file individual proofs of claim. [11]

* * *

For the most part, Civil Rule 23 factors do not become an issue until the bankruptcy court determines that Rule 7023 applies by granting a Rule 9014 motion. The issue on such a motion centers more directly on whether the benefits of applying Rule 7023 (and Civil Rule 23) are superior to the benefits of the standard bankruptcy claims procedures. While some Civil Rule 23 factors could be relevant to resolving a Rule 9014 motion, extensive discovery related to class certification is not necessary.

* * *

In deciding the Rule 9014 motion, the bankruptcy court assumed that a class action could be certified, thus rendering discovery into certification irrelevant, and concluded nonetheless that the process of a certified class action would be more cumbersome and expensive than the bankruptcy process. Accordingly, the court found that in this particular case, class certification discovery was not necessary. It reached its decision on the Rule 9014 motion on the threshold question of whether the specific claims resolution process established in this bankruptcy case was superior to the resolution process in a class action, assuming that the proposed classes were to be certified. We conclude that this approach was not an abuse of discretion.

Distinct from the bankruptcy court’s denial of class action discovery, we cannot conclude that the court’s ruling on the merits of the Rule 9014 motion was an abuse of discretion. The court noted that approximately 15,000 claims had been filed against Circuit City as part of the claims process and that the structural mechanisms that the court had put in place to process claims were “well underway” and had been operating smoothly to date.

* * *

Because the bankruptcy court denied the Rule 9014 motion to apply Rule 7023, there was no requirement that unnamed class members be notified in accordance with the procedures under Civil Rule 23. The bankruptcy court would have to grant the Rule 9014 motion before the requirements of Civil Rule 23 could apply. Thus, the only notice required was that given by Circuit City for giving notice of bankruptcy procedures and the bar date.

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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’s unanimous opinion today in United States v. Strieper affirms the imposition of two sentencing enhancements on attempted enticement and child pornography charges. Judge Floyd wrote the opinion, in which Chief Judge Traxler and Judge Shedd joined.

Among the issues discussed is whether one can attempt to entice without having identified a particular minor to entice. The panel believed so:

At oral argument, Strieper also suggested that there must be an identifiable victim to constitute an attempt. This argument did not appear in Strieper’s brief, and as such, it is waived. See Edwards v. City of Goldsboro, 178 F.3d 231, 241 n.6 (4th Cir. 1999). In addition, this position lacks merit, as it is well established that attempt requires only the requisite intent to commit the crime and a substantial step toward its commission. United States v. Pratt, 351 F.3d 131, 135 (4th Cir. 2003). So long as these elements are satisfied, no identified victim is necessary. Indeed, as we noted at oral argument, if two individuals intending to rob a bank start out with all accoutrements necessary for a robbery and agree simply to rob the first bank they happen upon rather than identifying a specific bank ahead of time, we could still conclude that the individuals had attempted to commit robbery.

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The Fourth Circuit today issued two published opinions on Monday in argued cases. Both were unanimous affirmances.

In Hennis v. Hemlick, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal without prejudice of a writ of habeas corpus challenging the United States Army’s exercise of court-martial jurisdiction. The district court’s decision was based on Councilman abstention, which takes its name from Schlesinger v. Councilman, 420 U.S. 738 (1975). The Supreme Court held in Councilman that federal courts generally should not get involved in matters that are still working their way through the military justice system.

While serving as an enlisted Army soldier in 1986, Hennis was convicted of one count of rape and three counts of murder. The Supreme Court of North Carolina reversed his conviction. Hennis was acquitted in a retrial in April 1989. He was issued a discharge from the Army on June 12, 1989, re-enlisted one day later, and retired from the Army in 2004. A cold case review by North Carolina authorities matched DNA from Hennis to the woman that he had previously been tried for raping and murdering. The Army recalled Hennis to active duty and began court martial proceedings. Hennis petitioned in federal court for a writ of habeas corpus on the ground that the Army lacked jurisdiction to court marital him for conduct that occurred before his re-enlistment on June 13, 1989. The district court abstained under Councilman, and in this decision, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision to abstain. Judge Wynn wrote the opinion, in which Judge King and Judge Gregory concurred.

The second case from yesterday, United States v. Winfield, addressed the authority of a district court to impose a second sentence for violations of supervised release after effectively revoking supervised release and imposing a prison sentence in a prior hearing. The panel opinion, written by Judge Gregory and joined in by Judge Shedd and Judge Davis, affirms the district court’s sentence.

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A panel of the Fourth Circuit issued an unpublished per curiam opinion in Kronberg v. LaRouche affirming an order of dismissal without prejudice for failure to comply with discovery obligations. Appellants sought the harsher penalty of dismissal with prejudice, as well as a decision on a 12(b)(6) motion. But the appellate court concluded that the district court did not abuse its discretion in ordering dismissal without prejudice. The panel consisted of Judge Niemeyer, Judge Shedd, and Judge Davis.

Some key language:

[T]he decision to implement sanctions is left to the discretion of the trial court. In this case, the magistrate judge weighed the facts before it and ultimately concluded that—because Kronberg had been a diligent litigant when she had counsel of choice—it was unfair to dismiss the case with prejudice. This decision is consistent with the “strong policy that cases be decided on the merits, and that dismissal without deciding the merits is the most extreme sanction” that should only be done “with restraint.” United States v. Shaffer Equipment Co., 11 F.3d 450, 462 (4th Cir. 1993).

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In an unpublished disposition in United States v. Glisson, the Fourth Circuit has affirmed convictions and sentences on narcotics and firearms charges for two brothers, while vacating and remanding on one count for one of the brothers based on a Second Amendment as-applied challenge.

The panel that issued the per curiam disposition consisted of Judge Gregory, Judge Shedd, and Judge Davis. Judge Davis wrote an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment.

The puzzling aspect of the decision is its remand for further evidentiary development of an as-applied Second Amendment challenge to 922(g)(9), which the Fourth Circuit upheld against a similar challenge in United States v. Staten, issued last December. In his partial concurrence, Judge Davis notes that the remand “may seem puzzling in some sense in light of United States v. Staten, — F.3d —, 2011 WL 6016976 (4th Cir. Dec. 5, 2011), but given the  disposition of this appeal, it would seem likely that the government will move successfully to dismiss that charge altogether upon remand.”

Judge Davis is right. The remand does seem puzzling. And the puzzle does not go away upon considering that the remand may be pointless. Is there a new principle that the Fourth Circuit will vacate and remand for harmless non-error?

The more prudent course seemingly would have been to affirm in light of Staten. The panel’s failure to do so, even in an unpublished disposition, suggests that the court may countenance insistence on individualized determinations under Second Amendment challenges to convictions under 922(g)(9), notwithstanding that such insistence appears unwarranted under binding circuit case law.

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The Fourth Circuit’s unpublished per curiam opinion in United States v. Rydland provides a helpful and concise discussion of some rules of evidence relating to the use of notes to refresh a witness’s recollection and to impeach the witness with prior inconsistent statements. The panel that issue the opinion consisted of Judge Wilkinson, Judge Motz, and Judge Shedd.

The panel distilled two key principles that governed the district court’s ruling: ” (1) a party may not attempt to introduce otherwise inadmissible evidence under the guise of refreshing recollection and (2) a witness may not use a document to refresh recollection unless she has exhibited a failure of memory.”

The panel’s distillation of these principles is interesting in itself. In a footnote, the opinion notes that the district court cited three cases, to which citations the opinion added explanatory text. The three citations were to a 2004 opinion from the First Circuit, a 1967 opinion from the Eighth Circuit, and a 1965 opinion from the Fifth Circuit. Presumably, the district court’s ruling was based on something like a reliable bench book containing established principles of evidence law, rather than on-the-spot electronic research into the latest decisions.

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The Fourth Circuit’s sole published opinion today came in Hancock v. Astrue, in which a panel of the Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of an application for supplemental security income (“SSI”). Chief Judge Traxler wrote the opinion, in which Judge Shedd and Judge Floyd joined (a South Carolina trifecta).

The appeal focused on the applicant’s cognitive functioning. Chief Judge Traxler wrote:

The only issue on appeal is whether the ALJ erred by concluding that Hancock’s level of cognitive functioning did not meet or equal the listed impairment for mental retardation, Listing 12.05. Listing 12.05 requires a showing of “deficits in adaptive functioning initially manifested during the developmental period; i.e., the evidence demonstrates or supports onset of the impairment before age 22″ (“Prong 1″). Listing 12.05 also requires the satisfaction of one of four additional requirements identified as Requirements A-D. At issue in this case was Requirement C, which requires “[a] valid verbal, performance, or full scale IQ of 60 through 70″ (“Prong 2″), as well as “a physical or other mental impairment imposing an additional and significant work-related limitation of function” (“Prong 3″).

The ALJ found that Hancock did not establish any of the three prongs of Listing 12.05C. Although Hancock argues that the ALJ erred with regard to his findings as to each of the three prongs, the Commissioner does not contest Hancock’s ability to establish Prong 3. Therefore, we are left to consider whether substantial evidence existed to support the ALJ’s findings with respect to Prongs 1 and 2.

The court affirmed the ALJ’s rejection of an IQ score, based on the ALJ’s assessment of the inconsistency between the findings of the consultative psychologist, Dr. Joseph Appollo, and evidence of the applicant’s actual functioning and notes of treating psychiatrists.

The court also affirmed the ALJ’s conclusion that the applicant had no deficits in adaptive functioning:

In finding no deficits in adaptive functioning generally, the ALJ concluded that “the claimant has worked several jobs and performed a variety of tasks which would be expected to be beyond the capacity of a mentally retarded person.” A.R. 19. With regard to past jobs, the ALJ found that Hancock previously worked as a battery assembler and a drop clipper. [footnote omitted] With regard to tasks, the ALJ noted that Hancock has the ability to shop, pay bills, and make change; that she takes care of three small grandchildren at a level of care that satisfies the Department of Social Services; that she does the majority of her household’s chores, including cooking and baking; that she is attending school to obtain a GED; and that she does puzzles for entertainment. We believe this evidence was sufficient to support the ALJ’s conclusion that Hancock had no deficits in adaptive functioning.

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Earlier this week, a split Fourth Circuit panel result two knotty jurisdictional questions. The first relates to appellate jurisdiction  in a case that has been transferred from a district court in one circuit to a district court in another circuit. The second relates to the commercial activities exception of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. Judge Duncan wrote the majority opinion in Wye Oak Technology, Inc. v.  Republic of Iraq, in which Judge Osteen (M.D.N.C.) joined. Judge Shedd dissented.

Wye Oak sued the Republic of Iraq for breach of contract in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. The underlying contract was between Wye Oak and Iraq’s Ministry of Defense. Iraq moved to dismiss for  lack of jurisdiction (both subject-matter jurisdiction and personal jurisdiction) and for improper venue. The subject-matter jurisdiction argument was based on the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. Wye Oak  invoked the commercial activities exception. Iraq then argued that the commercial activities exception did not apply to the claim against Iraq, because the contract was entered into by Iraq’s Ministry of Defense–a separate legal person–rather than Iraq itself. The District Court held that the commercial activities exception did apply after determining that Iraq and Iraq’s Ministry of Defense should be “treated as one and the same” for purposes of the FSIA. The District Court also held, however,  that venue was improper, and immediately transferred the case to the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. The transferee court stayed the case while the parties appealed the denial of the motion to dismiss to the Fourth Circuit.

The Fourth Circuit affirmed, holding that it possessed appellate jurisdiction notwithstanding the transfer, and that Iraq and Iraq’s Ministry of Defense were not separate legal purpose persons for purposes of the FSIA’s commercial activities exception.

Judge Shedd dissented from the holding regarding appellate jurisdiction over the now-transferred case.

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The Fourth Circuit’s opinion today in United States v. Summers contains a lengthy Confrontation Clause analysis stemming from the government’s introduction of the testimony and report of a DNA lab supervisor who testified and prepared his report on the basis of tests performed by others in the lab (who were not present to testify). Judge King wrote the opinion, which was joined in by Judge Shedd. Judge Floyd concurred in the judgment.

Judge King’s analysis discusses Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts and Bullcoming v. New Mexico, among other opinions.

Judge Floyd contends that the majority should not have reached the Confrontation Clause issues because any error was harmless. The majority agreed that the error was harmless, but only as an alternative holding after concluding that there was no error. The majority does, however, question the wisdom of the prosecution’s introduction of the DNA evidence. The point of introducing the evidence was to link a black NorthFace jacket to the defendant. The defendant was allegedly wearing the jacket before running from police. When they apprehended him, he was not wearing any jacket, but the police found a jacket (containing a handgun and lots of crack cocaine in its pockets) on the roof of a residence along the defendant’s flight path. Here’s what the majority says about the need for the DNA evidence:

[W]e cannot help but note that the government’s decision to introduce DNA evidence derived from the jacket had the unintended collateral effect of rendering a straightforward case significantly more complex. With respect to proving ownership of the jacket, the evidence introduced through Shea was scarcely more than the thin glaze on a dense cake baked to doneness by the officers’ largely unshakable testimony that: (1) Summers was wearing the jacket before he ran; (2) he was not wearing the jacket when he was caught; and (3) the jacket was found in the immediate vicinity of his flight path. Although we suppose that the jury could have been impressed that Quantico weighed in on the issue, we hardly think that the government needed to rely on the FBI’s star power to prevail in its open-and-shut case. Even had the district court’s admission of Shea’s report constituted error, it would surely be harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

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The Fourth Circuit’s unanimous published opinion in F.C. Wheat Maritime Corp. v. United States, released today, provides insight into the valuation of yachts and the difference between “allision” and “collision.” In the opinion, the court of appeals affirms an award of lower damages than sought by the owner of a docked yacht that was smashed up by an Army Corps of Engineers vessel whose captain fell asleep at the helm. Judge Duncan wrote the opinion, which was joined in by Judge Shedd and Judge Osteen (MDNC, sitting by designation).

The first footnote of the opinion reads as follows:

“An allision is a collision between a moving vessel and a stationary object.” Evergreen Int’l., S.A. v. Norfolk Dredging Co., 531 F.3d 302, 304 n.1 (4th Cir. 2008) (quoting Thomas J. Schoenbaum, Admiralty & Maritime Law § 5-2 n.1 (4th ed. 2004)). See also Black’s Law Dictionary 88 (9th ed. 2009) (defining an allision as  [t]he contact of a vessel with a stationary object such as an anchored vessel or a pier”). The Marquessa was stationary at the time of the incident in this case.

Black’s explains, however, that “collision” is often used where “allision” was once the preferred term. Black’s Law Dictionary at 88. And as the Fifth Circuit has noted, “[i]n modern practice, courts generally use the term ‘collision’ as opposed to ‘allision’ when describing contact between vessels that gives rise to a suit.” Apache Corp. v. Global Santa Fe Drilling Co., No. 10-30795, 2011 WL 2747575, at *1 n.1 (5th Cir. Jul. 13, 2011)(unpublished). Indeed, the district court here used the term collision.

We adhere to the more precise usage, and are particularly mindful that admiralty law draws a distinction (albeit not one relevant to this appeal) between allisions and collisions. See Bessemer & Lake Erie R.R. Co. v. Seaway Marine Transp., 596 F.3d 357, 362 (6th Cir. 2010) (noting that admiralty law establishes a rebuttable presumption that in an allision, the moving object is at fault).

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The Fourth Circuit issued two published opinions in argued cases today. Judge Wynn authored both opinions, which were unanimous.

At issue in Creekmore v. Maryview Hospital was the admissibility, under Virginia Code § 8.01-581.20, of the testimony of an OB-GYN about the standard of care for a nurse’s postpartum monitoring of a high-risk patient with preeclampsia. The district court admitted the testimony and the court of appeals affirmed. The panel deciding the appeal consisted of Judge Wilkinson, Judge Wynn, and Judge Floyd.

In CGM, LLC v. BellSouth Telecommunications, the Court of Appeals held that a billing agent for competitive LECs lacked statutory standing to bring an action for declaratory relief against an incumbent LEC regarding the claim that the ILEC failed to pass on to CLECs the full value of discounts offered by the ILEC to its customers. No CLECs were parties in the case. Some key language:

CGM has no interconnection agreement with BellSouth. CGM has not brought this suit pursuant to any interconnection agreement. And no party to an interconnection agreement is a plaintiff in CGM’s suit. Because Section 251(c)’s resale duties and the related 47 C.F.R. § 51.613 are not free-standing but exist, to the extent that they do at all (given parties’ freedom to contract around them), only as embodied in interconnection agreements, CGM has no rights, and BellSouth no duties, under the circumstances of this case.

Although decided on statutory standing grounds, this case has some echoes of the Fourth Circuit’s decision on Article III standing in Neese v. Johanns:

In this case, any claim to a specific sum of money must flow from the contractual relationship between the Secretary and the producer. See 7 U.S.C. § 518b(a) (“The Secretary shall offer to enter into a contract . . . under which the producer of quota tobacco shall be entitled to receive payments under this section. . . .”) (emphasis added). Appellants, however, cannot maintain such a claim. After accepting the Secretary’s offer of payment contracts without reservation and entering into those contracts, they transferred all their rights under those contracts to third parties. Quite simply, appellants have no rights left to invoke and, therefore, lack standing to pursue further contracts or payments from the Secretary.

Procedure buffs may be interested in noting the court’s conclusion that a motion to dismiss for lack of statutory standing is properly brought under FRCP 12(b)(6) rather than FRCP 12(b)(1). It is also worth noting how easily the court dispatched the attempt to rely on the Declaratory Judgment Act as a free-standing cause of action.

The panel deciding CGM consisted of Judge Shedd, Judge Wynn, and Senior Sixth Circuit Judge Keith.

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In United States v. Eligwe, a Fourth Circuit panel consisting of Judge Wilkinson, Judge Shedd, and Judge Agee affirmed the convictions and sentences of three individuals for various offenses related to bank robbery. Of the thirteen issues raised on appeal, the panel opinion addresses only one, finding the other twelve to be without merit. The issue reviewed was whether one of the appellants had unambiguously invoked his right to counsel, so as to require cessation of questioning. To resolve this issue, the court went to the videotape. Judge Shedd wrote for a unanimous panel:

We find that Eligwe did not make an unambiguous request for an attorney. When read out of context, Eligwe’s isolated statements could perhaps be read as such a request. However,  after reviewing the video-taped interview, we conclude that no reasonable officer in light of the circumstances would have  understood those statements to be an unequivocal request for a  lawyer. Eligwe spoke quickly and with a heavy accent, and when  Mason attempted to ask Eligwe clarifying questions, Eligwe spoke over Mason and continued talking about the case. Furthermore, even if Eligwe had invoked his right to counsel, the district court did not err in introducing the custodial statements because Eligwe made the statements at issue after he reinitiated communication with Mason.

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The Fourth Circuit today issued two published opinions and a published order. A look at the three together reveals various ways in which one can end up in a published Fourth Circuit opinion or order, none of them very attractive.

Meyer v. Astrue is an appeal about the denial of Social Security disability benefits. In an opinion by Judge Motz, joined in by Judge King and Judge Duncan, the Fourth Circuit reversed the denial of benefits because the court could not determine from review of the record whether substantial evidence supported the denial of benefits. The facts portion of the opinion begins with the sentence: “In December 2004, Meyer fell 25 feet out of a deer stand while hunting and suffered significant injuries.”

Li v. Holder involves a petition for review of an order of the BIA remanding petitioner’s case to the IJ. Li is a Chinese citizen who entered the country illegally, was found to be removable, and was granted a voluntary departure. The BIA upheld a denial of Li’s application for adjustment of status, but remanded for the IJ to grant a new period of voluntary departure to provide certain “required advisals” that the IJ previously failed to provide. Li petitioned for review. The government contended that the Fourth Circuit lacked jurisdiction. The court disagreed based on binding panel precedent that it found had not been disturbed by the Supreme Court’s decision in Dada v. Mukasey, 554 U.S. 1 (2008). The court nevertheless declined jurisdiction on prudential grounds. The opinion is interesting for its discussion of the circumstances under which intervening Supreme Court precedent displaces prior circuit precedent–not often. Judge Agee wrote the opinion, in which Judge Wilkinson and Judge Shedd joined.

The published order today was a public admonishment of a New York attorney based on five violations of the rules of professional misconduct. It seems piling on to repeat the allegations and plaster the attorney’s name around the internet more, so just read the admonishment if you’re interested.

There were a few other unpublished opinions in argued cases, the most notable of which is Haile v. Holder, in which a panel vacated a denial of asylum. The beneficiary of this ruling is a citizen of Eritrea who asserted past persecution and a well-founded fear of future persecution based on her political opinion and her membership in a social group (which was her family, as her father had been persecuted for his political activities). Judge Gregory wrote the opinion, in which Judge Motz and Judge Shedd joined.

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The Fourth Circuit has issued a published opinion in United States v. Higgs denying 2255 relief on Brady and Strickland claims premised on the government’s use of Comprehensive Bullet Lead Analysis (“CBLA”) evidence. Judge Traxler wrote the opinion, in which Judges Shedd and Keenan joined.

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Today’s split decision in United States v. Powell bristles with strong language on both sides. Writing for a panel majority consisting of himself and Judge Floyd, Judge Shedd upbraids the government and places this case among a trio of recent cases in which the government failed to justify a Terry stop and frisk:

In a case such as this, where law enforcement officers briefly pat down a person for safety reasons, reasonable suspicion that the person is armed and dangerous is necessary in order for the patdown to be lawful under the Fourth Amendment. Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968). Earlier this year, in United States v. Foster, 634 F.3d 243, 248 (4th Cir. 2011), we noted “our concern about the inclination of the Government toward using whatever facts are present, no matter how innocent, as indicia of suspicious activity.” Twice in the past few months, we reiterated this concern. See United States v. Massenburg, 654 F.3d 480, 482 (4th Cir. 2011); United States v. Digiovanni, 650 F.3d 498, 512 (4th Cir. 2011). In all three cases, we held that the Government failed to meet its minimal burden of articulating facts sufficient to support a finding of reasonable suspicion. Today, we once again are presented with a case in which the Government has attempted to meet its burden under Terry by cobbling together a set of facts that falls far short of establishing reasonable suspicion. For this reason, we vacate the judgment.

Responding in dissent, Judge King distinguishes between the justification for a Terry stop and the justification for a patdown, finding that the latter was present:

When a police officer’s life is on the line, common sense tells us that he should sooner be reasonable in his suspicion that a suspect may be armed and dangerous than in suspecting that a passerby is up to no good. The risk of dismissing a suspicion that a suspect may be armed is inherently perilous to arresting officers. As a result, the officers in this case were entitled to take reasonable steps to protect themselves and others after they received confirmation that Powell may be armed, even if that evidence might not have been sufficient for an initial Terry stop.

(more…)

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It has taken me some extra time to post about the Fourth Circuit’s en banc decision earlier this week in United States v. Vann because it has taken me a long time to get through the 100 pages of opinions. The issue in the case is whether a certain individual’s three convictions under North Carolina’s indecent liberties statute qualify as convictions for a “violent felony” under 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2), thereby triggering a mandatory minimum sentence under the federal Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”). The short answer, for this defendant, is no. But whether any convictions for violating the indecent liberties statute can qualify as a “violent felony” in some other case remains unclear. (The write-ups by Jonathan Byrne at Fourth Circuit Blog and Matt Kaiser at his law firm’s blog provide a helpful overview of the opinions and issues.)

The simplest way of understanding the en banc decision, at one level, is in relation to the vacated panel opinion. Judge Niemeyer authored that split decision, which Judge Shedd joined. Judge King dissented. The panel opinion had affirmed the application of the ACCA 15-year mandatory minimum.

The en banc court consisted of twelve judges: Chief Judge Traxler, and Judges Wilkinson, Niemeyer, Motz, King, Gregory, Shedd, Agee, Davis, Keenan, Wynn, and Diaz. (Judge Duncan did not participate and Judge Floyd was not yet on the court.) By a 10-2 vote, the en banc court voted to vacate the sentence. The only two judges supporting the panel opinion are the two judges who joined it initially (Judges Niemeyer and Shedd). But the other 10 judges on the en banc court split 5-4-1 on their reasoning. (more…)

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