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

Articles Posted in Government & Administrative Law

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Relators filed a qui tam action under the False Claims Act (FCA), 31 U.S.C. 3729-3733, alleging that Agape fraudulently billed Medicare and other federal health care programs for services to thousands of patients. The district court determined that using statistical sampling to prove relators' case would be improper. The district court also rejected a proposed settlement between relators and Agape, because the Attorney General of the United States objected to it. The district court concluded that the Government — despite not having intervened in an FCA qui tam action — possesses an unreviewable veto authority over the action's proposed settlement. Then the district court certified both its rulings for these interlocutory appeals. The court concluded that, under the plain language of section 3730(b)(1), the Attorney General possesses an absolute veto power over voluntary settlements in FCA qui tam actions. Therefore, the court affirmed the district court's unreviewable veto ruling. In regard to the statistical sampling ruling, the court concluded that relators' appeal does not present a pure question of law that is subject to the court's interlocutory review under 28 U.S.C. 1292(b). Accordingly, the court dismissed as improvidently granted relators' appeal as to this rule. View "United States ex rel. Michaels v. Agape Senior Community" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff filed suit against the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), 28 U.S.C. 2671 et seq., alleging that Navy officers negligently allowed a training structure to remain in a dangerous condition and failed to warn her of the dangerous gap between the mats placed adjacent to the structure. Plaintiff, a sheriff's deputy, was seriously injured when she jumped from the structure onto the set of mats and landed in a gap between them. The district court granted the government’s motion to dismiss, concluding that the challenged Navy conduct fell within the FTCA’s “discretionary function exception” and therefore that Congress had not waived sovereign immunity for plaintiff's claim. The court affirmed and concluded that the Navy’s decisions regarding the maintenance of its military bases for use by civilian law enforcement involved policy judgments that Congress sought to shield from tort liability under the FTCA. View "Wood v. United States" on Justia Law

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In 2015, the Securities and Exchange Commission instituted an administrative proceeding against Dawn Bennett and her law firm (collectively, Bennett) to determine whether Bennett had violated the anti-fraud provisions of the federal securities laws. The Commission assigned the initial stages of the proceeding to an ALJ, and the ALJ scheduled a hearing on the merits of Bennett’s case. Bennett subsequently filed suit challenging the constitutionality of the administrative enforcement proceeding. Specifically, the Complaint alleged that the SEC’s administrative enforcement proceedings violated Article II of the United States Constitution. The district court dismissed the suit on jurisdictional grounds. The Fourth Circuit affirmed, holding that Congress has impliedly divested district-court jurisdiction over the agency action. View "Bennett v. U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission" on Justia Law

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At issue in this case was the proposed construction of a twenty-two-mile toll road in North Carolina called the Gaston East-West Connector. Two Conservation Groups brought suit against the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT), the Federal Highway Administration (collectively, the Agencies), and others, challenging the environmental analysis conducted for the Connector. The district court granted summary judgment for the Conservation Groups, concluding that the alternatives analysis underlying the Connector violated National Environmental Policy Act and the Administrative Procedure Act and that the Agencies failed adequately to assess and disclose the Connector’s environmental impacts. NCDOT appealed. Before the district court ruled, however, the Connector was stripped of its funding, and the statute that expressly authorized its construction was repealed. Following the district court’s ruling, the Connector was removed from local and state transportation plans. The Fourth District vacated the district court’s judgment and remanded with instructions that the district court dismiss the action, holding that the appeal was moot where the Connector was no longer viable. View "Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation v. North Carolina Department of Transportation" on Justia Law

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Seaside filed suit under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), 28 U.S.C. 1346(b), 2671-2680, alleging that the FDA negligently issued a contamination warning in response to an outbreak of Salmonella Saintpaul that devalued Seaside’s tomato crop by $15,036,293.95. The court affirmed the district court's holding that the FDA was exercising a discretionary function in connection with the contamination warning. The court explained that the ruling was essential to protect the FDA’s vital role in safeguarding the public food supply. Accordingly, the court affirmed the judgment. View "Seaside Farm, Inc. v. United States" on Justia Law

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RB&F seeks relief from the Benefits Review Board's holding that RB&F is responsible for the payment of benefits to Turl Mullins, a coal miner, and survivor's benefits to his widow under the Black Lung Benefits Act (BLBA), 30 U.S.C. 901 et seq. At issue is whether RB&F or another operator is liable for the claim. The court concluded that Wilder is not a “responsible operator” for the purposes of the BLBA. The court explained that a mine operator cannot be the responsible operator if it is financially incapable of assuming liability. In this case, it is undisputed that Wilder is bankrupt and is itself incapable of assuming liability. It is also undisputed that Wilder’s insurance company, Rockwood, is insolvent and is incapable of assuming liability. The court need not reach the preemption issue because the VPCIGA is not an insurer for this claim and is not covered by the BLBA. Under DOL regulations, the liability for Mullins’s claim falls to the “potentially liable operator” that most recently employed the miner. Since Wilder cannot be found to be a “potentially liable operator” under 20 C.F.R. 725.494, the liability properly falls to the miner’s next most recent employer, RB&F. The court need not address RB&F's claim regarding the regulatory burden-shifting analysis because the burden of proof was irrelevant to the outcome of this case. Accordingly, the court affirmed the Board's decision. View "RB&F Coal, Inc. v. Mullins" on Justia Law

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The Commission determined that a fatal accident in a coal mine operated by Consol resulted from Consol's "unwarrantable failure" to ensure that certain equipment in the mine was maintained in a safe, working condition. Consol petitions for review and challenges the Commission's final order. The court concluded that Consol had fair notice that the failure to replace defective shutoff valves raised the possibility of sanctions, and MSHA is therefore not barred from seeking civil penalties in connection with this violation; the ALJ’s conclusion that Addington acted as Consol’s agent in responding to the damaged valves is amply supported by the evidence; the ALJ properly imputed his knowledge and negligence in connection with the accident to Consol; and the court affirmed the ALJ's findings that the challenged violations stemmed from Consol’s unwarrantable failure to comply with applicable MSHA health and safety regulations. Accordingly, the court denied the petition for review. View "Consol Buchanan Mining Co. v. Secretary of Labor" on Justia Law

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An ALJ found that Jerry Addison was entitled to benefits under the Black Lung Benefits Act, 30 U.S.C. 901-944, because he had established the existence of clinical and legal pneumoconiosis that resulted in a total respiratory disability. Sea-B, Addison's former employer, filed a petition for review of the ALJ's decision. The court concluded that the ALJ’s decision to exclude the additional CT scan evidence was not harmless. This error affects the determination of both clinical and legal pneumoconiosis and impacts the ALJ’s consideration of the other evidence in this case. The omitted CT scan evidence is unquestionably probative of the central issue in dispute: whether Addison suffered from pneumoconiosis. Furthermore, the court could not determine from the ALJ’s sparse explanation how, or if, he weighed the x-ray readings in light of the readers’ qualifications. Finally, because the proffered explanation for elevating Dr. Forehand’s diagnosis is not supported, the ALJ must reevaluate that opinion to determine the proper weight it should be given. Accordingly, the court granted the petition for review, vacated the order, and remanded for further proceedings. View "Sea "B" Mining Co. v. Addison" on Justia Law

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Relators filed suit against medical laboratory businesses in 2007 in state court, alleging that the labs had submitted false claims to the Commonwealth for Medicaid reimbursement. Defendants removed to federal court. After the Commonwealth entered into a settlement agreement with defendants, the district court awarded relators a share of the settlement proceeds. Relators appealed, contending that the district court's award was insufficient under state law. The court vacated and remanded to the state court, concluding that the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the qui tam action. In this case, by the plain terms of the complaint, relators could have prevailed on their state law claims by proving that defendants contravened the Commonwealth’s Medicaid regulations, without showing any violation of federal law. View "Commonwealth of Virginia ex rel. Hunter Labs. v. Commonwealth of Virginia" on Justia Law

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Solers challenges the IRS’ response to its request for documents under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 5 U.S.C. 552. The district court granted summary judgment for the IRS. The court concluded that the issue of whether the IRS provided a Vaughn index sufficient to enable the district court to evaluate the IRS’ claimed exemptions became irrelevant and moot after the IRS complied with the district court’s order to produce the records for in camera review and the district court completed its own review of the records. The district court sustained the IRS' position that Exemptions 3, 5, 6, and 7(C) applied to the following four categories: (1) the agent’s handwritten notes; (2) the summary report, graph, and checksheet; (3) the activity record; and (4) the two emails. The court affirmed the judgment. View "Solers, Inc. v. IRS" on Justia Law