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

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Plaintiffs own a beach house in Dare County, North Carolina. In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dare County banned nonresident property owners from entering the county. As a result, Plaintiffs could not reach their beach house for forty-five days. In response, they sued Dare County, alleging that their property was taken without compensation in violation of the Fifth Amendment. After the district court found that the ban was not a Fifth Amendment taking and dismissed Plaintiffs’ suit for failure to state a claim, Plaintiffs appealed.   The Fourth Circuit affirmed. The court held that the ban did not physically appropriate Plaintiffs’ beach house. And though it restricted their ability to use the house, compensation is not required under the ad hoc balancing test that determines the constitutionality of most use restrictions. The court further explained that Dare County’s order is neither a physical appropriation, a use restriction that renders the property valueless, nor a taking under Penn Central. The effects of the order were temporary, Plaintiffs had a chance to occupy their property before it took effect, and while the order was operative they could still exercise significant ownership rights over their property. View "Joseph Blackburn, Jr. v. Dare County" on Justia Law

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In a class-action proceeding related to a lending scheme allegedly designed to circumvent state usury laws, Defendant appealed from three district court rulings that (1) reconsidered prior factual findings based on a new finding that Defendant made misrepresentations that substantially impacted the litigation, (2) found that Plaintiffs—Virginia citizens who took out loans (the “Borrowers”)—did not waive their right to participate in a class-action suit against him, and (3) granted class certification. Defendant argued that the district court violated the mandate rule by making factual findings related to the misrepresentations that contradicted the Fourth Circuit’s holding in the prior appeal and then relying on those factual findings when granting class certification. He also contends that the Borrowers entered into enforceable loan agreements with lending entities in which they waived their right to bring class claims against him. In addition, he asserts that common issues do not predominate so as to permit class treatment in this case.   The Fourth Circuit affirmed. The court concluded that the district court did not violate the mandate rule and that the Borrowers did not waive the right to pursue the resolution of their dispute against him in a class-action proceeding. Finally, the court concluded that the district court did not abuse its discretion in granting class certification because common issues predominate. View "Lula Williams v. Matt Martorello" on Justia Law

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Appellant Shenzhen Stone Network Information Ltd. (“SSN”) appealed the district court’s order granting summary judgment on Appellee Prudential Insurance Company of America’s (“Prudential”) cybersquatting claim. Prudential owns several registered trademarks on the term PRU and other PRU-formative marks. Prudential initiated the underlying action after discovering that SSN had registered the domain name PRU.COM. Prudential alleged that SSN violated the Anti-Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act (“ACPA”), by registering a domain name identical to Prudential’s distinctive mark with the bad faith intent to profit. The district court determined that SSN could be held liable for cybersquatting because the ACPA is not limited to the initial registration of a domain name but encompasses subsequent re-registrations as well. The district court concluded that SSN possessed the bad faith intent to profit from the disputed domain name and granted Prudential’s motion for summary judgment. On appeal, SSN contests the district court’s ruling that SSN acted in bad faith when registering the disputed domain name.   The Fourth Circuit affirmed, concluding that the totality of the circumstances supports the conclusion that SSN acted in bad faith and that SSN is not entitled to the benefit of the ACPA’s safe harbor provision. The court reasoned that SSN failed to satisfy the statute’s safe harbor provision. First, SSN’s self-serving denials of subjective belief that its use of the PRU.COM domain name was lawful are insufficient to defeat summary judgment absent objective corroboration. Further, SSN did not have reasonable grounds to believe that its registration of the PRU.COM domain name was otherwise lawful. View "The Prudential Insurance Company of America v. Shenzhen Stone Network Information Ltd." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff appealed the district court’s post-trial dismissal of his case for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. A jury found that AXA Equitable Life Insurance Company negligently reported false medical information about Plaintiff to an information clearinghouse used by insurance companies, causing him to become uninsurable. Despite the fact that the parties satisfied the requirements for federal diversity jurisdiction, and the fact that both parties litigated the entire case through trial under North Carolina law, the district court decided that Connecticut law applied and found itself deprived of subject-matter jurisdiction by virtue of a Connecticut statute.   The Fourth Circuit found that the district court erred and concluded that choice of law is waivable and was waived here. And even if Connecticut’s law applied, it would not have ousted federal jurisdiction. Further, the court held that the district court also erred by concluding that Connecticut’s CIIPPA divested it of subject-matter jurisdiction despite that statute affecting only choice of law rather than choice of forum. AXA’s alternative argument for affirmance based on the nature of Plaintiff’s s injury and its causation was thoroughly briefed and argued before the court, and the court found it to be without merit. But because AXA’s argument for post-trial relief challenging the number of damages was neither raised nor briefed before this court, the court remanded to the district court to consider that issue in the first instance. View "Malcolm Wiener v. AXA Equitable Life Insurance Company" on Justia Law

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When the ACA’s mandate and SRP were still in effect, a husband and wife (“Taxpayers”) did not maintain the minimum insurance coverage required by the ACA. The taxpayers did not include their $2409 SRP when they filed their 2018 federal tax return. The Taxpayers filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy protection in the Eastern District of North Carolina. The IRS filed a proof of claim for the unpaid SRP and asserted that its claim was entitled to priority as an income or excise tax under Section 507 of the Bankruptcy Code. The Taxpayers objected to the government’s claim of priority. The bankruptcy court granted the objection, concluding that, for purposes of the Bankruptcy Code, the SRP is a penalty, not a tax, and therefore is not entitled to priority under Section 507(a)(8). The government appealed to the district court, which affirmed the bankruptcy court’s decision. The district court held that even if the SRP was generally a tax, it did not qualify as a tax measured by income or an excise tax and thus was not entitled to priority. The government thereafter appealed.   The Fourth Circuit reversed and remanded. The court concluded that that the SRP qualifies as a tax under the functional approach that has consistently been applied in bankruptcy cases and that nothing in the Supreme Court’s decision in NFIB requires the court to abandon that functional approach. Because the SRP is a tax that is measured by income, the government’s claim is entitled to priority under 11 U.S.C. Section 507(a)(8)(A). View "US v. Fabio Alicea" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff’s father died of carbon monoxide poisoning in his apartment at Allen Benedict Court Apartments, a housing complex owned and maintained by the City of Columbia Housing Authority. The city police and fire chiefs concluded that the cause of the man’s death was a faulty, thirty-year-old furnace that had caused carbon monoxide to leak into his apartment, as well as several others. Plaintiff and the personal representative of his estate appealed the district court’s dismissal of her complaint against the City of Columbia Housing Authority (“Housing Authority”) for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted.   The Fourth Circuit reversed, concluding that Plaintiff alleged sufficient facts to plead a Section 1983 claim against the Housing Authority. The court wrote that Plaintiff has alleged enough facts at this early stage to establish that the Housing Authority recognized the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning and acted inappropriately in light of that risk. By affirmatively adopting regulations recognizing the life-threatening danger of missing carbon monoxide detectors, the Housing Authority demonstrated that it knew the risk of harm that the man faced. Specifically, the Housing Authority failed to install a single carbon monoxide detector at the man’s 244-unit complex. It provided no preventative maintenance of appliances. In sum, at this early stage, Plaintiff has alleged sufficient facts to establish that the Housing Authority’s policies and customs were the moving force behind the constitutional injury. View "Danielle Washington v. Housing Authority of the City of Columbia" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Lancaster Hospital Corporation (Lancaster) operates an inpatient rehabilitation facility that provides services for Medicare beneficiaries. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) denied Plaintiff’s request for reimbursement because the provider failed to submit information in a form that could be audited. The district court granted summary judgment to HHS.   The Fourth Circuit affirmed. The court explained that Lancaster asserts that—even if some reductions were warranted—the Board erred by denying its entire 1997 reimbursement request. There appears no doubt Lancaster provided services to Medicare beneficiaries in 1997, and denying all reimbursement for that year may seem harsh. But the principle that people “must turn square corners when they deal with the Government” “has its greatest force when a private party seeks to spend the Government’s money.” However, the court explained that under Heckler v. Community Health Servs. of Crawford Cnty., Inc., “As a participant in the Medicare program,” Lancaster “had a duty to familiarize itself with the legal requirements for cost reimbursement,” including the need to provide cost data in a form “capable of being audited.” Thus, the Board’s decision to deny reimbursement for the fiscal year 1997 was neither arbitrary nor capricious and was supported by substantial evidence. View "Lancaster Hospital Corporation v. Xavier Becerra" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff, the mother of a minor child with special needs, brings this action for attorney’s fees under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”). The IDEA allows parents who prevail in state administrative proceedings challenging their children’s individualized education programs to recover attorney’s fees in federal court. But Plaintiff did not file her claim for fees until almost two years after her administrative hearing, and the district court dismissed her case as untimely. The district court concluded that a standalone fees action like Plaintiff’s is most comparable to an IDEA claim for substantive judicial review of an adverse administrative determination. And because Virginia, where Plaintiff lives, sets a 180-day limitations period for such substantive IDEA claims, the court deemed her claim time-barred.   The Fourth Circuit affirmed. The court explained that the IDEA contains no express statute of limitations for attorney’s fees actions, so courts must “borrow” an appropriate limitations period from state law. The court wrote that Va. Code Section 22.1-214(D), by allowing parties 180 days to seek substantive judicial review of IDEA due process hearings, provides an appropriate – even generous – analog to attorney’s fees actions under 20 U.S.C. Section 1415(i)(3)(B). The court also agreed with the district court that his 180-day limitations period does not begin to run until after the aggrieved party’s time to seek substantive review has expired, meaning that a party has 360 days from the date of the administrative decision to commence a fees action. View "Jemie Sanchez v. Arlington County School Board" on Justia Law

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Defendant pled guilty to two federal weapons charges after local law enforcement executed a search warrant at his residence and discovered a multitude of firearms, ammunition, and drugs. The district court sentenced Defendant to 117 months imprisonment, at the lowest end of his advisory Sentencing Guidelines range. The Fourth Circuit ordered supplemental briefing and oral argument on two issues– (1) whether the district court plainly erred in assigning one criminal history point to Defendant’s criminal domestic violence offense; and (2) whether the district court adequately explained its rejection of Fowler’s nonfrivolous arguments for a downward departure or variance.   The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment. The court found no reversible error in this case. As a general proposition, this court reviews a criminal sentence for reasonableness “under a deferential abuse-of-discretion standard.” The court reasoned that procedural reasonableness requires the court to “ensure that the district court committed no significant procedural error,” which includes “improperly calculating . . . the Guidelines range.” Thus, any claim of error that was not pursued and preserved in the district court is reviewed only for plain error. The court explained that since Defendant failed to object to the PSR’s inclusion of his CDV conviction, the court found no error by the district court in adopting it. Moreover, Defendant has not borne the heavy burden of satisfying the plain error criteria, as he cannot prove “that, but for the error, the outcome of the proceeding would be different.” View "US v. George Fowler" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Plaintiff spent nearly three months in Middle River Regional Jail. And he alleges that Middle River’s practices during that time substantially burdened his Islamic faith while unconstitutionally favoring the practice of Christianity. He argues that he was kept from engaging in Friday Prayer.   Plaintiff’s claims regarding Friday Prayer implicate the Free Exercise Clause. Under that clause, prisons can impose burdens on inmates’ religious practice— even substantial burdens—so long as the prison rules that do so are “reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.” Middle River had three rules in place that kept Plaintiff from attending in-person Friday Prayer: no inmate led groups; no maximum-security prisoners allowed in any in-person groups; and prisoner services and classes by volunteer or donation only.   The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s Free Exercise decision and remanded for further proceedings on the Establishment Clause. The court explained that Middle River’s policies do not violate the Free Exercise Clause. Each of the rules and regulations that combined to keep Plaintiff from engaging in communal Friday Prayer during his brief stay was reasonably related to a legitimate penological interest and, therefore, acceptable under Turner. Whether the challenged practices violate the Establishment Clause is a question best left to the district court to resolve in the first instance, with the benefit of intervening legal developments. View "David Firewalker-Fields v. Jack Lee" on Justia Law