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Posts Tagged ‘Wynn’

The Supreme Court today unanimously overturned a Fourth Circuit decision that affirmed the denial of attorneys’ fees in a civil rights case. The Court in Lefemine v. Wideman vacated a Fourth Circuit decision that affirmed the denial of “prevailing party” attorney’s fees to a plaintiff who had secured declaratory and injunctive relief but no money damages.

Unanimous summary decisions like this one are a problem for any inferior court. Yet some courts deciding some issues seem more likely to result in such decisions (such as the Sixth Circuit operating under AEDPA or the Ninth Circuit examining qualified immunity). The Fourth Circuit has generally steered clear of this kind of unanimous overturning. What happened here?

It looks like the Fourth Circuit panel simply misapplied Supreme Court precedent, in large part because of an earlier circuit precedent (from 1993) that also (but without correction) misapplied Supreme Court precedent.

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

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

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Four owners of a trucking company sold the business’s sole remaining asset–a warehouse–and retired. After selling the warehouse, the businessmen sold their company stock to an investment company that promised to pay the company’s taxes. The investment company never did pay those taxes, and the IRS came after the former owners of the trucking company for the tax bill, which was in the neighborhood of $880,000. The IRS said the transaction with the investment company was a tax shelter scam, but the Tax Court sided with the former owners of the trucking company. A split panel of the Fourth Circuit affirmed. Judge Davis wrote the opinion for the Court in Starnes v. Commissioner, in which Judge Niemeyer joined. Judge Wynn wrote a dissenting opinion.

Depending on one’s view of the facts, either (a) the former owners of the trucking company were victims of unscrupulous cheats, persecuted by an overeager federal government out to take away their hard-earned retirement money, or (b) they pulled a fast one on the federal government, saving themselves over $100,000 each in taxes. Depending on one’s view of the law, either (a) the government should have stayed its hand because it misunderstood North Carolina law, or (b) the government was denied the benefit of federal law elevating substance over form in evaluating the tax consequences of transactions like the one at issue here.

The first few paragraphs of Judge Wynn’s dissent summarize his view of the case:

This case involves a straightforward transaction made complicated so as to facilitate the fraudulent avoidance of a tax liability. Simply put, the petitioners, former shareholders of Tarcon, reduced the sole asset of Tarcon to cash by selling that asset, a warehouse, for $3,180,000. After that October 30, 2003 sale, Tarcon had $3,091,955 in its bank account and no  tangible assets. As a result of the warehouse sale, Tarcon incurred a federal tax liability of $733,699 and a North Carolina tax liability of $147,931, for a total of $881,628. If the story had ended there, the four former shareholders, each of whom owned 25 percent of Tarcon, would have completed the liquidation of Tarcon by paying those tax liabilities and dividing the remaining sum, allowing each to receive a distribution of approximately $552,582.

Of course, the story doesn’t end there. Instead, MidCoast entered with a fraudulent scheme that would allow the former shareholders to avoid paying their $881,628 tax liability. Under its proposal, MidCoast would pay the former shareholders $2,621,136 for their Tarcon stock and legal fees; in return, Tarcon would transfer its sole asset, roughly $3.1 million in cash, to MidCoast. Why, though, would the shareholders turn over Tarcon’s $3.1 million to MidCoast and receive only $2.6 million in return?

The answer is evident when Tarcon’s outstanding tax liabilities of $881,627 are factored into the equation. Indeed, it then becomes clear that the former shareholders actually negotiated to be paid $2.6 million in cash—for cash that in reality totaled only $2,210,425, resulting in a windfall of $410,711. That windfall was, in fact, a cut from Tarcon’s $881,627 tax liability, transferred to MidCoast when it purchased the former shareholders’ stock, and which it undoubtedly was scheming to avoid under the guise of offering an “asset recovery premium.” While I recognize the intricacies of MidCoast’s subsequent actions to avoid paying the full liability of $881,627, this transaction cannot escape its ultimately simple  label: a transparent scam designed by the parties to fraudulently evade paying taxes. Accordingly, I must respectfully dissent.

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By 11-3 vote, the en banc Fourth Circuit in Al Shimari v. CACI International has dismissed the consolidated appeals of military contractors who worked at Abu Ghraib and other locations in Iraq. The contractors had appealed from the denial of their motions to dismiss claims brought by Iraqi nationals. The defendants’ motions to dismiss were premised on various grounds related to their status as military contractors in a theatre of armed conflict.

Judge King wrote the opinion for the court, in which Chief Judge Traxler, and Judges Motz, Gregory, Duncan, Agee, Davis, Keenan, Wynn, Diaz, and Floyd joined.

Judge Duncan authored a concurring opinion, in which Judge Agee joined, urging the district courts to “give due consideration to the appellants’ immunity and preemption arguments . . . which are far from lacking in force.”

Judge Wynn wrote a concurrence emphasizing that the court’s jurisdictional opinion “offers no guidance to the district court on the underlying merits of these matters.” (While this is true as a technical matter, the lawyers on both sides will undoubtedly parse the language very closely for future use in the litigation.)

Judge Wilkinson, Judge Niemeyer, and Judge Shedd dissented. Their grounds for dissent were set forth in dissenting opinions by Judge Niemeyer and Judge Wilkinson.

All told, the opinions take up 114 pages. It will take some time to digest them. In the normal case, the dismissal of appeals for lack of jurisdiction would mean the decisions go back down to the district court. But these consolidated cases are not normal cases, and they very well could end up in the Supreme Court next Term. If the contractors do seek Supreme Court review, that will place the Obama Administration in an awkward position given the “equivocal” nature of the position the federal government has thus far taken in the litigation (as observed by various Fourth Circuit judges at oral argument).

For some flavor of the passion aroused by this jurisdictional ruling, consider the following excerpts from the opening of Judge Wilkinson’s dissent:

The actions here are styled as traditional ones and wrapped in the venerable clothing of the common law. Even on common law terms, however, they are demonstrably incorrect, and the impact which tort doctrine will have on military operations and international relations magnifies the difficulties immeasurably. I dare say none of us have seen any litigation quite like this and we default if we accept uncritically or entertain indefinitely this novel a violation of the most basic and customary precepts of both common and constitutional law.

Sadly, the majority’s opinion does precisely this. After reading its decision, one could be forgiven for thinking that the issue before us is a simple jurisdictional question arising out of ordinary tort suits. But these are not routine appeals that can be quickly dismissed through some rote application of the collateral order doctrine. This case instead requires us to decide whether the contractors who assist our military on the battlefield will be held accountable through tort or contract, and that seemingly sleepy question of common law remedies goes to the heart of our constitutional separation of powers. Tort suits place the oversight of military operations in an unelected judiciary, contract law in a politically accountable executive. And in the absence of some contrary expression on the part of the Article I legislative branch, the basic principles of Article II require that contractual, not tort, remedies apply.

The majority emphatically decides this weighty question by pretending not to decide, as its dismissal of these appeals gives individual district courts the green light to subject military operations to the most serious drawbacks of tort litigation. But arrogating power to the Third Branch in a contest over military authority is the wrong call under our Constitution, and there is no garb for this decision so benign as to obscure the import of what the majority has done.

We tread this territory at our peril. This decision is contrary to decades of Supreme Court admonitions warning federal courts off interference with international relations. Of course military contractors should be held accountable, and it is important that a framework be set in place to accomplish this task. But instead of establishing that framework, the majority succumbs to mere drift and in so doing places courts in the most damaging and least defensible legal landscape possible. None of us have any idea where exactly all this is headed or whether the damage inflicted on military operations will be only marginal or truly severe. At a minimum, however, today’s decision breaches a line that was respected by our predecessors on courts high and low. I would not cross this boundary even if the collateral order doctrine could cloak my steps. With all respect for my fine colleagues, I would remand these actions to the district court with direction that they be dismissed.

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A split Fourth Circuit issued an opinion yesterday in the continuing saga of school desegregation litigation in North Carolina’s Pitt County. The decision vacates and remands a district court decision that had ruled in the school board’s favor in rejecting a challenge to a recent student assignment plan.

The current chapter of the story began with the filing in April 2011 of a motion for injunctive relief by a parents’ group who complained that the School Board’s 2011-12 Assignment Plan insufficiently addressed racial disparities. But the story cannot simply pick up there because a key part of the School Board’s defense to this April 2011 action was that its 2011-12 Assignment Plan complied with a 2009 Settlement Agreement/Release and Order that was reached in mediation of a dispute over the 2006-07 Assignment Plan.

The 2006-07 dispute–known as the Everett litigation–also involved the Greenville Parents’ Association. The Association had filed a complaint with the federal Office of Civil Rights (Department of Education) objecting to the Board’s use of race in the 2006-07 Assignment Plan.

In the litigation over the 2006-07 plan, then, the School Board was being hit from both sides–by some parents for not doing enough about racial disparities and by others for placing too much emphasis on race in student assignments.

The 2009 mediated settlement agreement and order in the Everett litigation created a process for input from all sides in creating the 2011-12 Assignment Plan. The Board and the various interested parties went through this agreed-upon process, but the resulting plan was not satisfactory to the plaintiffs. That dissatisfaction led to the motion for injunctive relief at issue in the appeal decided yesterday.

As presented to the Fourth Circuit, the principal issue was who bore the burden of proof in seeking injunctive relief. The appeal also presented a question about appellate jurisdiction.

In an opinion authored by Judge Wynn, and joined in by Judge Diaz, the Fourth Circuit held in Everett v. Pitt County Board of Education that the district court erred “by failing to apply, and requiring the School Board to rebut, a presumption that racial disparities in the 2011-2012 Assignment Plan resulted from the School Board’s prior unconstitutional conduct in operating a racially segregated school district.” Judge Niemeyer dissented, arguing that the majority’s disposition “overlooks . . . the procedural posture of his case and, most importantly, the impact of the settlement agreement reached by the parties ‘as to all matters in dispute’ from the date of the original desegregation orders to the date of the court’s approval of the settlement agreement in a consent order, dated November 4, 2009.”

The decision is a victory for UNC’s Center for Civil Rights, which represented the plaintiffs. Their background page on the case contains links to the appellants’ brief, the school board’s brief, and the reply brief.

The case raises difficult issues about continuing judicial oversight of a school district that has not yet achieved unitary status. It is difficult to evaluate the dueling opinions without further study of the record, including the precise terms of the settlement agreement/release and order, though my preliminary impression is that the majority opinion does not adequately address the dissent’s contentions about the effect of the 2009 settlement agreement/release and order. The one thing that is clear, though, is that the litigation will continue for the foreseeable future.

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The Fourth Circuit yesterday issued a decision in a messy dispute among plaintiffs’ lawyers, car dealers, and car purchasers over the use of South Carolina’s FOIA law to obtain personal information about car purchasers for use in litigation against car dealers. Judge Davis wrote the opinion for the Court in Maracich v. Spears, in which Judge Duncan and Judge Wynn joined.

The court’s summary of its holding:

[W]e hold that the district court erred in ruling that the Lawyers did not engage in solicitation. Yet, the Lawyers indisputably made permissible use of the Buyers’ personal information protected by the DPPA, here, for use “in connection with [litigation],” including “investigation in anticipation of litigation.” 18 U.S.C. §2721(b)(4). Ultimately, the Buyers’ damages claims asserted under the DPPA fail as a matter of law, notwithstanding the fact that the Buyers can identify a distinct prohibited use (mass solicitation without consent) that might be supported by evidence in the record. In short, where, as a matter of settled state law and practice, as here, solicitation is an accepted and expected element of, and is inextricably intertwined with, conduct satisfying the litigation exception under the DPPA, such solicitation is not actionable by persons to whom the personal information pertains.

The opinion notes that its decision in favor of the lawyers largely tracks the approach of the Eleventh Circuit in Rine v. Imagitas, 590 F.3d 1215, 1226 (11th Cir. 2009). The buyers relied on the Third Circuit’s decision in Pichler v. UNITE, 542 F.3d 380 (3d Cir. 2008), but the court thought that decision to be “plainly distinguishable.”

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The Fourth Circuit held today that section 212(h) of the Immigration and Nationality Act “does not bar an alien who adjusts post-entry to lawful permanent resident status from seeking a waiver of inadmissibility.” Judge Wynn wrote the opinion for the Court in Bracamontes v. Holder, in which Judge Agee joined. Judge Niemeyer concurred in part and dissented in part.

The split between the majority and the dissent focused on whether the statute unambiguously foreclosed the BIA’s interpretation of the relevant statutory provision. Judge Niemeyer’s dissent begins as follows:

While the majority has perhaps set forth a plausible construction of § 212(h) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (“INA”), 8 U.S.C. § 1182(h), its construction is not the only, or even the most, plausible construction. Indeed, I conclude that the different construction given to § 212(h) by the BIA is not only plausible but is more consistent with the other provisions of the INA. But choosing the best construction is not our task. When a statute yields two plausible constructions, we should defer to the agency, especially when the statute pertains to immigration matters.

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