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

Articles Posted in Legal Ethics

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After the Court of Appeals of Maryland suspended Michael Tankersley’s law license when he refused to provide his social security number to the Client Protection Fund of the Bar of Maryland, Tankersley filed suit against the trustees of the Fund, and the judges and the clerk of the Court of Appeals. Tankersley filed suit against these defendants in their official capacities, seeking injunctive relief based on his claim that his suspension violated the federal Privacy Act, 5 U.S.C. 552a. The district court granted defendants’ motion to dismiss. Both the Tax Reform Act, 42 U.S.C. 405(c)(2)(C)(i), and the Welfare Reform Act, 42 U.S.C. 666(a)(13)(A), allow states to collect individuals’ social security numbers in specific situations. The court held that the district court erred in relying on section 666 of the Welfare Reform Act to dismiss Tankersley’s complaint. In this case, the court agreed with Tankersley that “applicant” cannot properly be read to include a Maryland attorney who must pay an annual fee to maintain his license. However, the court concluded that section 405 of the Tax Reform Act applies to Tankersley, and the state of Maryland may lawfully compel him to provide his social security number to the Fund or consequently have his law license suspended. Accordingly, the court affirmed the district court's judgment. View "Tankersley v. Almand" on Justia Law

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NAAMJP filed suit challenging the conditions placed on the privilege of admission to the Bar of the United States District Court for the District of Maryland in Local Rule 701. Among other things, the Rule contains requirements based on the state of licensure and, in some instances, the location of the attorney’s law office. The district court granted defendants' motion to dismiss and denied NAAMJP's motion for summary judgment. The court concluded that Rule 701 does not violate the First Amendment where it qualifies as a general applicable licensing provision, prescribing which attorneys may practice in the District Court based on their state of licensure in relation to the location of their principal law office; Rule 701 does not violate the Equal Protection Clause where it does not infringe a fundamental right or disadvantage a suspect class; Rule 701 does not violate the Rules Enabling Act, 28 U.S.C. 2071, where the Rule does not violate any Acts of Congress or any federal rules of practice and procedure adopted by the Supreme Court pursuant to section 2072; and Rule 701 does not violate the Supremacy Clause where it remains a federal rule prescribed pursuant to federal statute. Accordingly, the court affirmed the judgment. View "NAAMJP v. Lynch" on Justia Law

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Defendant was convicted of charges related to his involvement in prostitution and drug rings. This appeal presents an issue of first impression in this Circuit: whether a defendant’s right to effective assistance of counsel is violated when his counsel sleeps during trial. The court held that a defendant is deprived of his Sixth Amendment right to counsel when counsel sleeps during a substantial portion of the defendant’s trial. In this case, multiple witnesses testified that counsel was asleep during multiple occasions. The court concluded that the fact that counsel was sleeping during defendant's trial amounted to constructive denial of counsel for substantial periods of that trial. Furthermore, the facts of this case are equally -if not more - egregious than the facts presented in cases where other circuits have presumed prejudice. Accordingly, the court vacated the conviction and sentence, directed entry of judgment in favor of defendant on his 28 U.S.C. 2255 motion, and remanded for further proceedings. View "United States v. Ragin" on Justia Law

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NOM appealed the district court’s denial of its motion under 26 U.S.C. 7431(c)(3) to collect attorneys’ fees from the IRS. NOM had filed suit against the IRS seeking damages for unlawful inspection and disclosure of confidential tax information by IRS agents. NOM sought statutory damages, actual damages, punitive damages, and costs and attorneys’ fees. the district court concluded that NOM was not a “prevailing party” under section 7430(c)(4)(A) because (1) it did not “substantially prevail[] [in litigation against the IRS] with respect to the amount in controversy, or . . . the most significant . . . issues presented,” and, alternatively, (2) the government’s position in the litigation was “substantially justified” under 7430(c)(4)(B). The court could not say that the government acted unreasonably prior to the summary judgment stage of the litigation by waiting to see what NOM’s evidence was and then challenging its sufficiency. In this case, the government adopted a reasonable strategy in conceding statutory damages, but challenging the existence and amount of both actual and punitive damages. The court agreed with the district court that the government’s litigation position was “substantially justified,” which, by itself, is sufficient to find that NOM was not a “prevailing party” under the statute. Accordingly, the court affirmed the judgment. View "National Org. for Marriage v. IRS" on Justia Law
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Columbus-America, acting as the agent for Recovery, discovered the wreck of the "S.S. Central America," which was loaded with tons of gold when it sank. The district court granted Columbus-America salvage rights. Robol represented Columbus-American in proceedings to establish salvage rights. Robol subsequently filed a claim in this in rem admiralty action to obtain a salvage award for himself, alleging that he had provided voluntary assistance to the Receiver in turning over files and documents related to the salvage operation, which proved useful in the continuing salvage of the sunken vessel. The district court dismissed Robol’s claim for failure to state a claim. The court affirmed, agreeing with the district court's conclusion that Robol had been obligated to return the files and documents to his former clients under the applicable rules of professional responsibility and principles of agency law and therefore that his act of returning the materials to his former clients was not a voluntary act, as would be required for him to obtain a salvage award. View "Robol Law Office v. Recovery Ltd. P'ship" on Justia Law

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The district court entered a Rule 60(a) clarifying order imposing sanctions on plaintiffs' attorney, Peter A.T. Sartin. Sartin hired the McNair Firm to represent him and to appeal the clarifying order, but the McNair Firm filed the notice of appeal two days late. The appeal was voluntarily abandoned. Sartin then filed a malpractice suit against the McNair Firm and the district court granted the Firm's motion for summary judgment. The court concluded that the district court's original intent was to impose sanctions on Sartin individually and, therefore, that the district court did not abuse its discretion in giving effect to that intent in its Rule 60(a) clarification order. Because the court concluded that the district court's earlier case properly employed Rule 60(a), the court affirmed the district court's conclusion in this case that the McNair Firm's failure to appeal the earlier Rule 60(a) clarification order caused Sartin no injury. The court disposed of Sartin's remaining arguments and affirmed the judgment of the district court.View "Sartin v. McNair Law Firm PA" on Justia Law

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Respondent, civilly committed as a sexually dangerous person, challenged the denial of the motions to extend and reopen the discovery period, motions to withdraw as counsel, and motions to appoint a second expert. The court concluded that, in proceedings that could result in the lifelong incarceration of respondent who has already served his full sentence, respondent was forced to be represented by an attorney asserting multiple conflicts of interest with whom he had not prepared for trial because of their inability to communicate. The district court abused its discretion in requiring counsel to continue representing respondent and the error was not harmless. Therefore, the court vacated the district court's judgment as to the motions to withdraw and remanded for the district court to consider these motions after engaging in the appropriate inquiry regarding the extent of counsel's conflicts.View "United States v. Blackledge" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff successfully sued various Greenwood County Sheriff's Office officials for First Amendment violations. The court held that qualified immunity, the absence of a policy or custom of discrimination, and the nature of the relief granted here - whether considered individually or together through a "totality of the circumstances" lens - could not support the denial of attorneys' fees to plaintiff, a prevailing civil rights plaintiff; the district court abused its discretion by denying these fees and the court reversed the judgment; and the court remanded with instructions to allow plaintiff to make a fee application and for ensuing determination of the reasonable fee award for his successful prosecution of the civil rights matter, including the time spent defending entitlement to attorney's fees. View "Lefemine v. Wideman" on Justia Law

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Petitioner sought attorney's fees from Ceres for his purusit of a claim for disability benefits under section 928(a) of the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act (LHWCA), 33 U.S.C. 928(a). The court concluded that section 928(a)'s plain language requires fee-shifting only when an employer has paid no compensation within 30 days of receiving the official claim. In this case, Ceres voluntarily paid petitioner one week's compensation within 30 days of receiving his claim, and thereby admitting to liability for the injury for the purposes of section 928(a). Ceres met the requirement of section 928(a), moving the dispute to section 928(b). Petitioner was entitled to the services of an attorney but, under the LHWCA's fee-shifting scheme, petitioner was not entitled to have that attorney paid for by Ceres. The court held that Ceres's payment of one week's benefits at the maximum compensation rate, being directly tied as it was to petitioner's alleged injury, qualified as "compensation" within the meaning of section 928(a). Finally, the court rejected petitioner's claim that when Ceres filed a notice of controversion prior to the payment at issue, it signaled that it was controverting his claim, and by doing so, irrevocably triggered section 928(a). Accordingly, the court denied the petition View "Lincoln v. DOWCP" on Justia Law

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Claimant was awarded benefits under the Black Lung Benefits Act (BLBA), 30 U.S.C. 901-945. At issue was whether the awards of attorneys' fees properly reflected market-based evidence of counsel's hourly rate, as required by the lodestar analysis in Hensley v. Eckerhart. The court held that neither the ALJ nor the BRB abused its discretion in concluding that counsel provided sufficient market-based evidence of rates, and that the number of hours billed for attorneys' services reasonably reflected the work completed. The court also held that the award of fees for work performed by certain legal assistants was not supported fully by the record, and modified that award accordingly. View "Eastern Associated Coal Corp. v. DOWCP" on Justia Law