Justia U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

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Plaintiffs, three death row inmates in Virginia, filed suit alleging that their conditions of confinement amounted to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Death row inmates, among other things, spent 23 hours a day alone; had only non-contact visits and contact visitations with immediate family members were subject to unspecified "extreme circumstances" with the warden maintaining unconstrained discretion to grant or deny such requests; and were barred from joining general population inmates for vocational, educational, or behavioral programming. After plaintiffs filed their complaint, defendants substantially changed the policies governing the conditions of confinement for inmates on Virginia's death row, addressing virtually all of the issues raised in plaintiffs' complaint. The district court concluded that plaintiffs' action was moot. The court agreed with plaintiffs that defendants' voluntary cessation of the challenged practice has not yet mooted this action because defendants failed to meet the Supreme Court's requirement of showing that it was absolutely clear the allegedly wrongful behavior could not reasonably be expected to recur. In this case, nothing bars the Corrections Department from reverting to the challenged policies in the future. Accordingly, the court reversed and remanded. View "Porter v. Clarke" on Justia Law

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Defendant appealed his conviction and sentence from various offenses arising from his leadership of schemes wherein fraud was systematically utilized to keep his real estate empire afloat. The court concluded that there was sufficient evidence to convict defendant of the thirteen charges stated in the indictment; the trial court acted well within its discretion by instructing the jury on willful blindness; and defendant's below-Guidelines sentence of 216 months in prison was substantively reasonable. Accordingly, the court affirmed the judgment. View "United States v. Vinson" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff, an inmate who is missing toes on his right foot, filed suit against defendants after he fell and injured himself while ascending the stairs to his upper-tier cell. The district court sua sponte dismissed the complaint based on failure to exhaust administrative remedies. The court held that the district court improperly sua sponte examined defendant's administrative exhaustion requirement. In this case, it was not apparent from the face of the complaint that plaintiff had failed to exhaust his administrative remedies. The court explained that before Jones v. Bock, this court allowed district courts to sua sponte dismiss an inmate's complaint where exhaustion was not apparent in his pleading, so long as the court gave the inmate an opportunity to address the exhaustion question. In Jones, the Supreme Court held that failure to exhaust is an affirmative defense, and that inmates are not required to specially plead or demonstrate exhaustion in their complaint. After Jones, this Court held that, where exhaustion is not apparent from an inmate's pleading, a complaint may be dismissed on exhaustion grounds so long as the inmate is first given an opportunity to address the issue. The court held that to the extent that Anderson v. XYZ Corr. Health Servs., Inc., allows courts to sua sponte dismiss complaints where exhaustion is unclear so long as an inmate receives only an opportunity to address the issue, it is irreconcilable with Jones and cannot survive. Because the district court erred in this case when it sua sponte examined plaintiff's exhaustion of available administrative remedies, the court vacated and remanded for further proceedings. View "Custis v. Davis" on Justia Law

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The United States filed an application for prejudgment remedies under the Federal Debt Collection Procedures Act (FDCPA), 28 U.S.C. 3001 et seq., seeking writs of attachment against personal and real property owned by defendants and writs of garnishment against bank accounts totaling approximately $16.7 million. The government argued that, because defendants violated the Anti-Kickback Statute, 42 U.S.C. 1320a-7b, and the False Claims Act, 31 U.S.C. 3729 et seq., defendants owed the United States at least $298 million. On appeal, defendants challenged the district court's denial of their motions to quash the writs of attachment against real and personal property and writs of garnishment against two bank accounts. The court dismissed for lack of jurisdiction because the denial was an unreviewable interlocutory order. View "Bluewave Healthcare v. United States" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs, a class of retirees and their union, filed suit against Constellium after the company unilaterally altered its retiree health benefits program. The district court granted summary judgment to Constellium. The court interpreted Article 15 of the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) using ordinary contract principles and concluded that the plain language of the CBA and summary plan description (SPD) clearly indicated that the retiree health benefits did not vest. The court rejected plaintiffs' assertion that the Cap Letters and other provisions of the CBA evince an intent to vest the retiree health benefits. The court also rejected plaintiffs' remaining claims and affirmed the judgment. View "Barton v. Constellium Rolled Products-Ravenwood, LLC" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff, a former Battalion Chief, filed suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983 against the County and others, alleging that he was fired in retaliation for exercising his First Amendment free speech rights, and that the Department's social media policy was facially unconstitutional under the First Amendment. The district court granted summary judgment for defendants on the First Amendment claim, and dismissed as moot the facial challenge to the social media policy. The court held that the district court properly granted summary judgment to defendants as to the First Amendment claim. In this case, at least some of plaintiff's Facebook activity prompting his termination implicated matters of public concern, and the Department's interest in workplace efficiency and preventing disruption outweighed the public interest commentary contained in plaintiff's Facebook activity. Because the court found that the district court properly granted defendants' motion for summary judgment against plaintiff, the court declined to review the as-applied challenge. The court concluded that the third-party facial challenge was properly dismissed as moot where defendants have adopted a new social media policy and revised code of conduct, as well as declared that the Department has no intent to reenact the offending policies. Accordingly, the court affirmed the judgment. View "Buker v. Howard County" on Justia Law

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This case involved the differences between how ad valorem taxes are determined in South Carolina for railroad property and how they are determined for most other commercial and industrial property. CSXT filed suit against the State, alleging that the property taxes imposed for the 2014 tax year will discriminate against CSXT. CSXT sought a judgment declaring that excluding CSXT from the benefit of the caps of the South Carolina Real Property Valuation Reform Act (SCVA), S.C. Code 12-37-3140(B), violates the Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act of 1976, 49 U.S.C. 11501(b)(4), which prohibits the imposition of "another tax that discriminates against a rail carrier." CSXT also sought preliminary and permanent injunctions. The district court ultimately rejected CSXT's section 11501(b)(4) challenge. The court explained that Congress designed section 11501(b)(4) to prohibit taxes that discriminate against railroads. In this case, CSXT alleged that if it is not allowed to benefit from the SCVA cap, its 2014 property tax will be just such a tax. The court concluded that there was no basis for precluding CSXT from proving the claim it alleged – discrimination – and requiring CSXT instead to fit its challenge into a provision that does not even address discrimination and that required proof of facts CSXT has not even alleged. Therefore, the court vacated and remanded for further proceedings because the district court granted judgment against CSXT without ever reaching the question of whether the challenged tax was discriminatory. View "CSX Transportation, Inc. v. South Carolina Department of Revenue" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff filed a class action against Machine Zone, alleging a claim under Maryland's gambling loss recovery statute, Md. Code Ann., Crim. Law 12-110. Plaintiff claimed that she and thousands of similarly situated individuals lost money participating in an unlawful "gaming device," a component of Game of War that allows players to "spin" a virtual wheel to win virtual prizes for use within that video game. Plaintiff also asserted claims on her behalf and or the alleged class under the California Penal Code, and the California Unfair Competition Law (UCL), Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code 17200, et seq., as well as a common law claim of unjust enrichment. The district court dismissed the complaint under Rule 12(b)(6). Plaintiff appealed only from the district court's dismissal of her claim under the Loss Recovery Statute. The court held that the district court correctly concluded that plaintiff did not "lose money" within the meaning of the Loss Recovery Statute as a result of her participation in the Game of War casino. Accordingly, the court affirmed the judgment. View "Mason v. Machine Zone, Inc." on Justia Law
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Plaintiff filed suit against defendants, alleging fraud and conspiracy and seeking as damages the difference between the price he paid and the actual value of the restaurants he purchased from defendants based on a multiple of the restaurants' actual sales. The district court granted summary judgment for defendants, concluding that plaintiff failed to introduce adequate evidence of damages, particularly of the actual value of the restaurants at the time of the sale. The court vacated and remanded, concluding that plaintiff presented sufficient evidence to create a dispute of material fact as to the amount of their damages. In this case, plaintiff attempted to estimate with reasonable precision the actual value of the restaurants at the time of purchase, using the widely accepted income-based approach with a capitalization multiplier that was purportedly the industry standard and that the parties allegedly used to agree on the $600,000 purchase price. View "Sharma v. USA International, LLC" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff filed a qui tam suit under the False Claims Act (FCA), 31 U.S.C. 3729-3733, and the state equivalents, alleging that Manor Care was overbilling the government for medical services. Plaintiff also alleged a separate claim of retaliation, claiming that he was terminated after he notified his employer of the alleged overbilling. Christine A. Ribik had previously filed a qui tam suit under seal in the Eastern District of Virginia on behalf of the United States against Manor Care. The court dismissed the complaint under the FCA's first-to-file rule. The court concluded that plaintiff has not managed to avoid the first-to-file bar simply by alleging additional facts relating to how Manor Care overbilled, even though some of those specific allegations were not mentioned in Ribik's complaint. The court also concluded that plaintiff's alternative argument, that his complaint should not be dismissed because the district court consolidated them with Ribik's, failed under the plain language of the FCA. Therefore, the district court properly determined that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction over plaintiff's qui tam action under the FCA. The court concluded, however, that the first-to-file rule has no relation to a claim for retaliation. Finally, the court concluded that the district court did not support its decision with any discussion or authority to establish that any of the states apply the FCA first-to-file rule, or its equivalent, to that state's statute. Therefore, the court affirmed in part, but vacated and remanded that part of the judgment concerning plaintiff's retaliation and state fraud claims. View "US ex rel. Carson v. Manor Care, Inc." on Justia Law