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

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After a trial before a three-member land commission, the district court awarded compensation to Landowners after the government took an easement on their land. The district court awarded Landowners $4.4 million, apportioned attorney's fees and litigation costs, and split the cost of the commission.The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's award of just compensation and the splitting of the commission costs. The court concluded that the district court was within its discretion to weigh the evidence and to determine that the Landowners had shown a non-speculative demand for industrial and residential development in the reasonably near future. Therefore, the court could not say that the district court clearly erred in calculating its award of just compensation. The court also concluded that the district court has broad discretion in apportioning commission costs, and upheld its decision to do so. However, the court concluded that identifying the "prevailing party" for purposes of the attorney's fee award is a legal question that the court reviewed de novo. The court found that the district court erred in making that determination, concluding that because the government's $937,800 value is closer to the district court's final award of $4.4 million, the government, not the Landowners, is the "prevailing party" in this litigation. Accordingly, the court affirmed in part and reversed in part. View "United States v. 269 Acres Located in Beaufort County" on Justia Law

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Appellant filed suit against Appellee Harper and various news organizations, alleging defamation, civil conspiracy, and tortious interference with contract. Appellant, a Russian born academic, alleges that appellees defamed her by falsely stating that she was a Russian spy involved in the alleged collusion between Russia and the campaign of former President Donald Trump. On appeal, appellant challenges the district court's dismissal of her tort claims and Appellee Halper challenges the denial of his motion for sanctions.The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's dismissal of the majority of appellant's defamation claims as time-barred, dismissal of the remaining defamation claims as a matter of law, and dismissal of the vicarious liability claim against NBCUniversal. In regard to statements published prior to May 23, 2018, the court rejected appellant's argument that each time an allegedly defamatory publication was hyperlinked or tweeted, the statute of limitations began anew. The court concluded that the public policy supporting the single publication rule and the traditional principles of republication dictate that a mere hyperlink, without more, cannot constitute republication. The court rejected appellant's contention that third party tweets constitute republication pursuant to Weaver v. Beneficial Finance Co., 98 S.E.2d 687 (Va. 1957), a Virginia Supreme Court decision from 1957. In regard to statements published after May 23, 2018, the court concluded that although these statements are not time-barred, neither can they survive a motion to dismiss. In this case, the Washington Post Article did not defame appellant, and NBCUniversal is not liable for the tweets authored by Malcolm Nance through a respondeat superior theory of liability. Because appellant's defamation claims fail, so too does her civil conspiracy claim. The court also concluded that appellant's claim of tortious interference with contract failed where the allegations of Appellee Halper's knowledge of appellant's business expectancies are wholly conclusory. Finally, the court concluded that the district court acted within its discretion by electing not to award sanctions to appellant's counsel at this point and in denying the motion to sanction without prejudice. View "Lokhova v. Halper" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs filed an antitrust class action against Actelion, alleging that Actelion extended its patent monopoly for its branded drug Tracleer — a drug to treat pulmonary artery hypertension — beyond the patent's expiration date. Plaintiffs claimed that Actelion did so "through illegitimate means" with the intent of precluding competition from generic drug manufacturers and charging supracompetitive prices for Tracleer, in violation of federal and state antitrust laws. Plaintiffs further claimed that, as a result of Actelion's illegal monopolization, they were injured by having to pay supracompetitive prices for Tracleer for some three years after Actelion's patent for Tracleer expired.The Fourth Circuit vacated the district court's limitations ruling and concluded that plaintiffs' antitrust claims did not accrue until they were injured by paying supracompetitive prices for Tracleer after the patent expired in November 2015. Therefore, plaintiffs action commenced in November 2018 was timely. The court also concluded that, even if the February 2014 date, when Actelion entered into agreements settling the generic manufacturers' antitrust claims, marked the last anticompetitive act, damages could not then have been recovered by plaintiffs because their claims would not have been ripe for judicial resolution in view of the speculative nature of future conduct that might have thereafter occurred. Therefore, limitations would not begin to run until the claims became ripe. In any event, the court explained that because plaintiffs alleged that Actelion continued with anticompetitive acts after November 2015 in selling Tracleer at supracompetitive prices, new limitations periods began to run from each sale that caused plaintiffs damages. The court largely agreed with the district court's standing, but concluded that the allegations asserting violations of the laws in states where plaintiffs did not purchase Tracleer may yet be considered when determining whether plaintiffs can, based on a Rule 23 analysis, represent class members who purchased Tracleer in those States, and if they can, then whether plaintiffs can include those claims. View "Mayor and City Council of Baltimore v. Actelion Pharmaceuticals Ltd." on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit affirmed defendant's conviction for receiving and possessing child pornography. Defendant argued that the district court should reduce his Sentencing Guidelines range pursuant to a provision that applies only to defendants whose "conduct was limited to the receipt or solicitation of" child pornography under USSG 2G2.2(b)(1). The court concluded that, because defendant admitted to unintentionally distributing such material, the Guideline does not apply to him. The court also concluded that, even when distribution is unintentional, it is not conduct limited to receipt or solicitation. Therefore, defendant's use of a peer-to-peer file-sharing network to unintentionally distribute child pornography rendered him ineligible for a reduction pursuant to section 2G2.2(b)(1). View "United States v. Miltier" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of defendant's motion to suppress a firearm. The court concluded that the Fourth Amendment was not implicated during defendant's encounter with police on April 7, because he never acquiesced (passively or otherwise) to a show of authority. Furthermore, even assuming that defendant acquiesced to a show of authority, there was a reasonable articulable suspicion to support the seizure in order to investigate who owned the firearm that the officer observed. In this case, the district court's reasonable suspicion determination rested on four factors: (1) the officer saw someone hide a firearm under defendant's seat; (2) defendant's claim of control over the Dodge; (3) defendant being the only adult associated with the Dodge; and (4) the time of day and location of the incident. View "United States v. Cloud" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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BOA appealed the district court's dismissal of its complaint seeking to vacate an arbitration award in favor of defendant, an oncologist and former BOA employee. In this case, the employment agreement between BOA and defendant purported to waive both judicial and appellate review of the arbitrator's decision.The Fourth Circuit agreed with the Tenth Circuit that an appellate waiver in an arbitration agreement under the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) is valid and enforceable. Because the employment agreement contains a severability clause, and because unenforceable provisions in arbitration clauses are severable if they do not go to the essence of the contract, the court need not invalidate the appeal waiver. Accordingly, the court dismissed BOA's appeal. View "Beckley Oncology Associates, Inc. v. Abumasmah" on Justia Law

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After the DEA terminated Darek and Lisa Kitlinski's employment based on their refusal to participate in an internal investigation into their own allegations of misconduct by the DEA, the Kitlinskis alleged that the DEA terminated Darek in violation of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA), and that the DEA terminated Lisa in retaliation for her support of Darek’s USERRA claims against the DEA. The Kitlinskis also claim that the DEA retaliated against them for their prior protected activity in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the DEA, concluding that the Kitlinskis offer no evidence that Darek's military service or his prior USERRA-protected activity was a motivating factor in his termination. Furthermore, even assuming that Armstrong v. Index Journal Co., 647 F.2d 441, 448 (4th Cir. 1981), applies here, the court has little difficulty concluding that the DEA's interest in ensuring its employees' full participation in internal investigations outweighs any interest Lisa had in promoting USERRA's nondiscriminatory purpose. The court also concluded that no reasonable factfinder could conclude that the DEA terminated the Kitlinskis' employment in retaliation for engaging in protected activity. The court explained that the Kitlinskis offer no evidence showing that the DEA terminated their employment for any reason other than their conduct during the OPR investigation. The court rejected the Kitlinskis' remaining claims. View "Kitlinski v. Department of Justice" on Justia Law

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To finance the purchase of a home in 2008, Wood borrowed $39,739.44. About six years later, Wood defaulted, with an unpaid balance of $23,066.66. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which had insured the loan, paid that amount and sent Wood a Notice of Intent to Collect by Treasury Offset, using income tax overpayments. In 2017, Treasury offset Wood's federal tax overpayment of $9,961 toward the debt. In 2018, Wood filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition, opting to exempt any 2017 income tax overpayment. Treasury nonetheless offset a $6,086 overpayment.Wood requested that the bankruptcy court void HUD’s lien and order a return of the $6,086. The court concluded that a debtor’s tax overpayment becomes property of the estate, protected by the stay, and the debtor may exempt the overpayments and defeat a governmental creditor’s right to setoff. The district court agreed, stating that because Treasury had knowingly intercepted the overpayments after the Woods filed for bankruptcy, equity did not favor granting permission to seek relief from the automatic stay.The Fourth Circuit remanded. The protections typically accorded properly exempted property under 11 U.S.C. 522(c) do not prevail over the government’s 26 U.S.C. 6402(d) right to offset mutual debts. Although the government exercised that right before requesting relief from the automatic stay, there is no reason to abridge the government’s 11 U.S.C. 362(d) right to seek the stay’s annulment. View "Wood v. United States Department of Housing and Urban Development" on Justia Law

Posted in: Bankruptcy, Tax Law
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Soloff collected and disseminated pornographic images and videos of children for nearly 20 years. Soloff pleaded guilty to receipt of child pornography, 18 U.S.C. 2252(a)(2). His plea agreement forfeited “all rights . . . to appeal the conviction and whatever sentence is imposed . . . reserving only the right to appeal from a sentence in excess of the applicable advisory Guideline range” or a sentence obtained through prosecutorial misconduct or ineffective assistance of counsel. A magistrate conducted the hearing (FRCP 11), specifically confirming that Soloff understood that the appeal waiver, reading the entire waiver into the record. The magistrate conditionally approved the agreement, noting that “[f]inal approval” would “come at sentencing.” Before the sentencing hearing, the district court conditionally approved the plea agreement “pending receipt of the PSR.”At Soloff’s sentencing hearing, the court accepted the PSR; neither Soloff nor the government objected. Soloff’s Guidelines range was 151-188 months. Soloff’s attorney argued for a downward variance, citing mitigating factors. The court sentenced Soloff to 151 months’ imprisonment, expressly noting the appeal waiver. After the sentencing, the district court issued an Order for Restitution, "in accordance with" the plea agreement. The Fourth Circuit dismissed Soloff’s appeal from his sentence as barred by the plea agreement’s appellate waiver. The court rejected Soloff’s claims that the waiver cannot bind him because the district court never explicitly accepted the plea agreement. All indicia establish that the court constructively accepted the agreement. View "United States v. Soloff" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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In 2014, the Rowlands first met with Morris (SMF), for financial planning advice. In 2015, Morris sold them two annuity contracts; in 2016, Morris sold them universal life insurance. In 2017, the Rowlands hired Morris to manage their investment accounts and completed SMF’s Asset Management Agreement (AMA) and new account forms from TD Ameritrade, which were bundled into a single, 54-page pdf. The Rowlands signed the forms using the online platform, “DocuSign.” The AMA included an arbitration section. Right above the signature block, the contract included this disclaimer, bolded and in all capital letters: “This Agreement contains a pre-dispute arbitration clause.”The Rowlands filed suit, alleging contract and fraud claims. The parties submitted different versions of the AMA to the court for its decision on SMF’s motion to compel arbitration. The district court found that the parties had not formed an agreement to arbitrate. The Fourth Circuit affirmed. Under the Federal Arbitration Act, courts determine whether a contract has been formed. Here, there was no meeting of the minds. The versions of the AMA signed by the Rowlands and by SMF’s agent contained materially different terms. View "Rowland v. Sandy Morris Financial LLC" on Justia Law