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

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Appellant appealed the district court’s denial of his motion for a reduced sentence pursuant to section 404 of the First Step Act of 2018 (the “First Step Act”), which makes retroactive the provisions of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (the “Fair Sentencing Act”) that reduced sentencing disparities between cocaine and crack cocaine offenses. Appellant contends that pursuant to United States v. Collington, 995 F.3d 347 (4th Cir. 2021), section 404 decisions must be procedurally and substantively reasonable, and the district court’s decision not to reduce his sentence was substantively unreasonable. In contrast, the United States (the “Government”) insists that Collington is distinguishable and limited to section 404 grants as opposed to denials. Therefore, the Government argues that the more circumscribed review for abuse of discretion applies to the district court’s denial of section 404 relief in this case.   The Fourth Circuit vacated the district court’s order denying Appellant’s section 404 motion and remand for reconsideration. The court concluded that the requirements outlined in Collington apply generally in the section 404 context -- that is, regardless of whether the district court grants or denies the motion. Here, although the district court’s order denying Appellant’s section 404 motion was procedurally reasonable, it was not substantively so. View "US v. Mitchell Swain" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Defendant was convicted at a bench trial of receiving and possessing child pornography found on his phone. He appealed, making six arguments. The Fourth Circuit explained that based on the totality of the circumstances of Defendant’s questioning show Defendant was not in custody, so his Miranda rights were not violated. Although admitting the cellphone report into evidence violated Defendant’s Confrontation Clause rights, the court found that the error was harmless. And the district court did not abuse its discretion in admitting evidence of past wrongs, in allowing the Detective’s lay-opinion testimony, or in fashioning its restitution order. But the lifetime ban on internet and computer usage is foreclosed by the Fourth Circuit’s caselaw. So the court reversed as to that condition and remanded to the district court. View "US v. Augustin Arce" on Justia Law

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The Tennessee Valley Authority sells its power to the BVU Authority in Virginia, one of its many customers. The BVU Authority in turn sells its power to local consumers who need electricity. Among those local consumers is Plaintiff, who believes that the TVA has a statutory duty to use the fruits of its sales to large industrial buyers to subsidize consumers’ electricity consumption. Plaintiff believes that a string of TVA rate changes, shifting costs from industry to consumers, were illegal. So he sued BVU Authority and TVA under three theories, which all more or less amount to claims that the TVA failed to live up to its statutory duties under Section 11. The district court dismissed all three claims because TVA’s rate-making authority is committed to agency discretion and thus unreviewable.   The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of all three of Plaintiff’s claims. The court explained that Section 11 of the TVA Act lays out broad policies and goals that operate more like aspirations than commands. It does not support any of the claims that Plaintiff offers against TVA or BVU Authority. TVA rate-making is a presumptively unreviewable category of agency action under 701(a)(2), and the policy-laden language of Section 11 does not provide any guidelines or limits to overcome that presumption. Because the TVA-BVU contract simply repeats the vague statutory language, Plaintiff’s contract claim is really a statutory claim in disguise, and Section 11 of the TVA Act does not provide a private cause of action. View "David Holbrook v. Tennessee Valley Authority" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff appealed the district court’s dismissal of his amended complaint filed against Cable News Network (“CNN”) alleging defamation and false light invasion of privacy. Plaintiff challenges the district court’s finding that his amended complaint failed to cure deficiencies identified in his initial pleading. He and his counsel also appealed the court’s award of fees, expenses, and costs and the court’s inherent authority based on a finding that the amended complaint “unreasonably multiplied the proceedings.   The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s finding that Plaintiff’s amended complaint failed to state a claim of either defamation or false light invasion of privacy. But the court vacated the district court’s award of sanctions, finding that the court abused its discretion in awarding them where the record does not support a finding that Plaintiff or his counsel filed the amended complaint in bad faith.   The court explained that CNN reiterated that the proceedings were multiplied by the filing of a nearly-identical Amended Complaint that did nothing to cure the deficiencies, and this bad faith conduct warranted sanctions. Thus, the district court, having received a written argument on both the procedural and substantive issues, ruled on the request without further briefing or a hearing. In light of these facts, and where there were ample opportunities to object, the court wrote it cannot conclude that it was an abuse of discretion for the district court to consider the sanctions request without a formal motion. Further, the record does not support a finding that Plaintiff and his counsel undertook the effort to amend the complaint and to survive CNN’s motion to dismiss in bad faith. View "Derek Harvey v. CNN" on Justia Law

Posted in: Personal Injury
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Appellant challenges the district court’s dismissal of his complaint -- which alleges whistleblower protection and discrimination claims relative to his employment at the federal Drug Enforcement Agency (the “DEA” or the “Agency”) -- for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The Fourth Circuit concluded that the district court correctly held that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction to consider the whistleblower protection claims, and the court affirmed the district court’s dismissal of those claims. However, the court remanded the case to the district court so that it may consider in the first instance whether it possesses subject matter jurisdiction to adjudicate the merits of Appellant’s discrimination claims.   The court explained that Appellant points out that if an IRA appeal cannot serve as the basis for a mixed case, then an employee alleging both WPA claims and discrimination claims would be required to pursue those claims separately. But because the MSPB cannot consider an employee’s discrimination allegations as part of his IRA appeal, his WPA claims and his discrimination claims are, by necessity, already bifurcated.   Lastly, Appellant argues that even if he failed to allege a mixed case, the district court should still have considered his discrimination claims. However, the district court considered only whether Appellant’s discrimination claims were properly before it as part of a mixed case, not whether it could adjudicate the Title VII claims independently of the other claims. Accordingly, remand is necessary for the district court to decide in the first instance whether it may address the merits of Appellant’s Title VII claims. View "Robert Zachariasiewicz, Jr. v. DOJ" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff alleged that she was subjected to multiple instances of racial harassment and other discrimination during two periods of employment with the defendant Oakland Living Center, Inc. (“OLC”). According to Plaintiff, she was compelled to resign for good in the summer of 2018 after repeatedly being called racial slurs by the six-year-old son of an OLC supervisor and others (collectively “Defendants”).   Plaintiff contests the district court’s award of summary judgment to OLC on her hostile work environment and constructive discharge claims under both Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 42 U.S.C. Section 1981. The Fourth Circuit vacated the judgment and remanded for further proceedings on the claims against OLC.   The court explained that in considering all of the circumstances, the fact that the three n-word incidents were perpetrated by a six-year-old boy does not preclude a finding that those incidents are sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter Plaintiff’s conditions of employment and create an abusive work environment. Accordingly, the court rejected OLC’s contention that it is entitled to summary judgment for lack of an adequate showing on the third element of Plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim.   Further, here, the record indicates that OLC failed to provide reasonable procedures for complaints of workplace harassment. OLC has produced no evidence that it had any harassment reporting policy in July and August 2018, when the three n-word incidents occurred. In these circumstances, a reasonable jury could charge OLC with constructive knowledge of all three n-word incidents. View "Tonya Chapman v. Oakland Living Center, Inc." on Justia Law

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A jury convicted Defendant for his role in a drug trafficking conspiracy, and the district court sentenced him to 276 months in prison. On appeal, his counsel filed a brief pursuant to Anders v. California, 386 U.S. 738 (1967), representing that Defendant has no meritorious grounds for appeal but questioning whether the district court erred by applying the Sentencing Guidelines’ two-level enhancement for maintaining a premises for the purpose of drug distribution.   The Fourth Circuit affirmed. The court concluded that the evidence supports the district court’s findings that Defendant and his coconspirator dealt drugs out of the coconspirator’s home, where they stored and packaged drugs that Defendant then sold directly outside the home and along the street. The district court, therefore, did not clearly err in applying the premises enhancement. View "US v. Keith Barnett" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Defendant a Mexican citizen who migrated to the United States illegally as a minor in 2006, was deported in 2011 following a four-minute removal hearing. During that hearing, the immigration judge neglected to advise Defendant about his eligibility for voluntary departure or inform him of his right to appeal. Then, in his written summary order, the immigration judge indicated that Defendant had waived his right to appeal. Upon discovering him in the country once again in 2018, the Government opted to arrest and charge him with illegal reentry. Defendant moved to dismiss his indictment, arguing that the 2011 deportation order underlying his Section 1326 charge was invalid.   The district court agreed, finding that the immigration judge’s failure to advise Defendant regarding his eligibility for voluntary departure rendered his 2011 removal fundamentally unfair. Defendant nevertheless maintains that the district court’s decision must be affirmed on an alternative basis: that the immigration judge’s denial of his right to appeal also prejudiced him. The Fourth Circuit agreed and affirmed the dismissal of Defendant’s indictment.   The court concluded that Defendant would have been granted voluntary departure on remand. The court rejected the Government’s contentions that Defendant would not have been eligible for voluntary departure. Further, the Government has waived any other arguments against that eligibility by failing to raise them before the court. Ultimately the court agreed with Defendant that, but for the denial of his appeal rights, he would not have been deported. Accordingly, the court concluded that his 2011 removal hearing was fundamentally unfair. View "US v. Bonifacio Sanchez" on Justia Law

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Appellants operated for around seven years an enterprise known as “Trained to Go” (TTG) within one of West Baltimore’s neighborhoods. Appellants distributed drugs and engaged in countless acts of violence using firearms. They exercised their constitutional right to a jury trial and were convicted for their actions, including for conspiring to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). They now bring numerous challenges to their convictions and sentences, including their right to a public trial, the evidence admitted at trial, and more.   The Fourth Circuit affirmed Appellants’ convictions and sentences on all fronts, save one. The court reversed one Appellant’s Section 922(g)(1) conviction, vacated the judgment as to him, and remanded for further proceedings consistent with our opinion. The court explained that Appellants contend that any RICO conspiracy was confined to a neighborhood in Baltimore. But the government must only prove a “de minimis” effect on interstate commerce. Appellants argue that the de minimis standard does not apply to their activity because it was purely intrastate activity. But the de minimis standard does in fact apply. In Gonzales v. Raich, the Supreme Court made clear that “when ‘a general regulatory statute bears a substantial relation to commerce, the de minimis character of individual instances arising under that statute is of no consequence.’” Construing all this evidence in the light most favorable to the government, the court found there is sufficient evidence that the conspiracy affected interstate commerce. View "US v. Montana Barronette" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff, a transgender woman with gender dysphoria, spent six months incarcerated in the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center. Though prison deputies initially assigned her to women’s housing, they quickly moved her to men’s housing when they learned that she was transgender. There, she experienced delays in medical treatment for her gender dysphoria, harassment by other inmates, and persistent and intentional misgendering and harassment by prison deputies. Following her release from the detention center, Plaintiff filed a Section 1983 action against the Sheriff of Fairfax County, a prison deputy, and a prison nurse alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), the Rehabilitation Act, the United States Constitution, and state common law. The district court dismissed the case, holding that the complaint failed to state grounds for relief with respect to some claims and that the statute of limitations barred others.The Fourth Circuit reversed the remanded the district court’s ruling. The court held that Plaintiff has plausibly alleged that gender dysphoria does not fall within the ADA’s exclusion for “gender identity disorders not resulting from physical impairments.” In addition, the court held that Plaintiff’s Amended Complaint relates back to her Original Complaint and that she has stated claims of gross negligence against the Sheriff and Deputy. View "Kesha Williams v. Stacey Kincaid" on Justia Law