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

Articles Posted in Civil Procedure
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Following severe cold weather in January 2014, Old Dominion, a nonprofit electric utility that serves customers in Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware, unsuccessfully sought to recover certain electricity generation costs from PJM, a “regional transmission organization” that operates the electrical grid in a defined geographic area, in an administrative proceeding before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Old Dominion filed suit in Virginia state court, pursuing four putative state law claims, seeking the same relief unsuccessfully claimed before FERC. PJM removed the case, arguing that the complaint contests electricity transmission rates set forth in PJM’s federally filed tariff and that the district court was vested with federal question jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. 1331.The district court denied Old Dominion’s remand motion and dismissed each of its claims with prejudice, as effectively challenging the terms of PJM’s federal tariff. The court concluded that the “filed-rate doctrine” barred it from awarding damages on Old Dominion’s claims. The Fourth Circuit affirmed. Old Dominion’s claims necessarily present a substantial question of federal law by seeking relief precluded by the PJM Tariff, asking a state court to fix a reasonable tariffed rate applicable only to the utility’s 2014 losses, and effectively challenging the terms and enforceability of the Tariff’s rate cap. The district court correctly dismissed those claims. View "Old Dominion Electric Cooperative v. PJM Interconnection, LLC" on Justia Law

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The federal government used the 433-acre Institute Facility for synthetic rubber production during World War II. In 1947, UCC purchased the Facility and began manufacturing hydrocarbon and agricultural products. In 1986-2015, the property was owned and operated by various companies, before ownership returned to UCC, a subsidiary of Dow Chemical. In 1984, UCC applied for a permit to operate hazardous waste management units, under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), 42 U.S.C. 6901. The EPA published a report documenting groundwater contamination at the Facility. Since 1988, as part of the permitting process, the EPA instituted corrective actions at the Facility to address groundwater contamination. In 2013, the West Virginia Department of Administration transferred land to West Virginia State University (WVSU), so that WVSU was immediately adjacent to the Facility. WVSU refused to sign an environmental covenant agreeing not to use the groundwater and ultimately filed suit in state court, asserting state and common law claims and seeking remedial measures, beyond those recommended by the EPA.Defendants removed the action to federal court invoking federal question jurisdiction, diversity jurisdiction, and federal officer jurisdiction, 28 U.S.C. 1331, 1332, 1441, 1442, and 1446. The Fourth Circuit affirmed a remand to state court. Defendants were not “acting under” the “subjection, guidance, or control” of the EPA. There is no federal question jurisdiction, 28 U.S.C. 1331, over WVSU’s state claims because they neither challenge an EPA-directed CERCLA “cleanup” under nor arise from RCRA remedial measures and, thus, are not preempted. View "West Virginia State University Board of Governors v. The Dow Chemical Co." on Justia Law

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Coley fraudulently procured satellite television programming from DIRECTV, then sold and distributed that programming to unwitting customers. On a cross-complaint against Coley under the Federal Communications Act, 47 U.S.C. 605(a), the district court found that Coley was liable for 2,393 violations, and awarded DIRECTV a $2,393,000 judgment plus $236,000 in attorneys’ fees. Coley attempted to thwart DIRECTV’s recovery, failing to participate in post-judgment discovery, engaging in extensive dilatory litigation to prevent recovery against his shell companies, failing to comply with court orders, and other fraudulent acts.The district court amended the damages award to specify that it could be enforced against Coley and the related companies the court found were Coley’s alter egos, with joint and several liability, and later appointed a receiver to aid in the execution of the judgment. The Fourth Circuit affirmed. DIRECTV then sought attorneys’ fees related to the appeal and all post-judgment enforcement proceedings. Coley filed a suggestion of bankruptcy that resulted in an automatic stay of court proceedings. DIRECTV obtained relief from the automatic stay and renewed its motion for $57,295 in fees and $1,403.03 in costs not covered by prior order. The Fourth Circuit granted the motion. Attorneys’ fees and costs incurred while pursuing post-judgment collection and enforcement litigation, including appeals, qualify for compensation under the mandatory fee-shifting provision of the Act. View "Coley v. DIRECTV, Inc." on Justia Law

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Lighthouse Church filed suit challenging the legality of executive orders the Governor of Virginia issued to combat the spread of COVID-19. The specific executive orders that Lighthouse Church challenged expired in June of 2020, and the state of emergency in Virginia upon which they were predicated ended on July 1, 2021. Furthermore, the end of the state of emergency terminated all outstanding COVID-19-related executive orders.The Fourth Circuit vacated and remanded for dismissal of the action as moot, concluding that the executive orders that Lighthouse Church challenges are no longer in effect and no exception to mootness is applicable. Therefore, there is no live controversy between the parties in these proceedings. Because the action is moot, the court also vacated the district court's judgment without reaching or addressing the issue concerning Governor Northam's entitlement to sovereign immunity. View "Lighthouse Fellowship Church v. Northam" on Justia Law

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Ge, then a citizen of China, entered the U.S. on a student visa. After pursuing his education for four years, he enlisted in the Army through the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program, which allows foreign nationals to enlist in the armed forces and thereafter apply for naturalization under 8 U.S.C. 1440(a). Ge filed his application in May 2016. After completing interviews and tests administered by USCIS, he received notice in July 2017, that his naturalization oath ceremony had been scheduled for later that month. Days later, he was informed that the ceremony had been canceled. USCIS had a new policy, requiring that enhanced Department of Defense background checks for all MAVNI applicants before their naturalization applications could be granted.Ge filed suit in December 2018, under 8 U.S.C. 1447(b). The district court directed USCIS to adjudicate Ge’s naturalization application within 45 days. Shortly after the court’s remand order, Ge reported that he had been sworn in as a citizen. The court dismissed Ge’s action. Ge then sought attorneys fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act, 28 U.S.C. 2412, alleging that he was the “prevailing party” and that USCIS’s position was not “justified in law and fact at all stages.” The district court denied his motion, ruling that Ge did not qualify as a prevailing party because its remand was not a judgment on the merits or consent decree that created a “material alteration of the legal relationship of the parties.” The Fourth Circuit affirmed. After the remand order, Ge was still the applicant; USCIS was still the agency that could grant or deny the application. The legal relationship had not changed. View "Ge v. United States Citizenship & Immigration Services" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit dismissed the Media Entities' appeal of the district court's denial of their motion to intervene and in support of unsealing and vacating non-disclosure orders entered in two cases that were pending before that court. In this case, after briefing in the appeal concluded, the district court unsealed both cases and lifted the non-disclosure orders. The court held that the district court's recent orders in the underlying proceedings have rendered the Media Entities' appeal moot. The court explained that, at bottom, the Media Entities sought to intervene to challenge orders that are no longer in effect. View "In re: Capitol Broadcasting Company, Inc." on Justia Law

Posted in: Civil Procedure
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“Jane Doe,” age 19, filed suit. She alleged in detail multiple acts of sexual harassment and sexual abuse, including rape, against her during several months when she was a student at a Fairfax County, Virginia middle school, and the school’s inaction to end the offensive conduct when it was ongoing. She claimed violations of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and other laws. She alleged that the defendants undoubtedly knew her identity from the extensive details included in the 40-page complaint. Nonetheless, the defendants filed motions to dismiss, arguing that the plaintiff’s failure to provide her true name had deprived the court of subject-matter jurisdiction and that this jurisdictional flaw could no longer be remedied because the statute of limitations for the federal claims had lapsed days after Doe filed her complaint. The plaintiff then disclosed her true name to the court and requested that she be allowed to proceed under a pseudonym.The district court denied the defendants’ motions, and, because the sensitive nature of the allegations warranted “the utmost level of privacy,” it allowed the action to proceed pseudonymously. The Fourth Circuit affirmed. While the plaintiff had not adhered to FRCP 10(a), which requires that the title of a complaint include the names of all parties, that failure was immaterial to the court’s subject-matter jurisdiction. View "B.R. v. F.C.S.B." on Justia Law

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Marshall, while under the age of 21, wished to purchase a handgun from a federally licensed firearms dealer and sued to challenge the constitutionality of the federal laws and regulations that prohibited her from doing so while she was 18–20 years old. A divided panel of the Fourth Circuit found those laws violated the text, structure, history, and tradition of the Second Amendment. After the opinion was issued but before the mandate, Marshall turned 21, rendering her claims moot. She attempted to add parties and reframe her claimed injuries.The Fourth Circuit concluded that it is too late to revive the case and that it must be dismissed as moot. The court vacated the opinions and remanded with direction to dismiss. View "Hirschfeld v. Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco & Firearms" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit considered for the second time the Wikimedia Foundation's contentions that the government is spying on its communications using Upstream, an electronic surveillance program run by the NHS. In the first appeal, the court found that Wikimedia's allegations of Article III standing sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss and vacated the district court's judgment to the contrary. The district court dismissed the case on remand, holding that Wikimedia did not establish a genuine issue of material fact as to standing and that further litigation would unjustifiably risk the disclosure of state secrets.The court concluded that the record evidence is sufficient to establish a genuine issue of material fact as to Wikimedia's standing, and thus the district court erred in granting summary judgment to the government on this basis. However, the court concluded that the state secrets privilege prevents further litigation of this suit. Furthermore, Wikimedia's other alleged injuries do not support standing. View "Wikimedia Foundation v. National Security Agency/Central Security Service" on Justia Law

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Doe, a student at a public school in Virginia, had recently undergone a gender transition. Vlaming, Doe’s French teacher, refused to use male pronouns to refer to Doe. Vlaming argued that using male pronouns to refer to someone who was born a female violated his religious beliefs. Eventually, the superintendent placed Vlaming on administrative leave and recommended his dismissal. After a hearing, the School Board dismissed Vlaming for failure to comply with his superiors’ directives and violations of policies prohibiting discrimination and harassment. Vlaming sued, alleging statutory and constitutional violations and breach of contract. The Board removed the case to federal court, arguing the district court had removal jurisdiction because it had federal question jurisdiction, 28 U.S.C. 1441(c), over whether Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity. The Board also argued that because Title IX, 20 U.S.C. 1681, was a “law providing for equal rights,” section 1443(2), the civil rights removal statute, authorized removal.The district court granted Vlaming’s motion for remand. The Fourth Circuit affirmed. Because none of Vlaming’s state law claims necessarily raises a federal issue, federal question jurisdiction is lacking, and section 1441(c) does not provide a basis for removal. The Supreme Court has limited the meaning of a “law providing for equal rights” in section 1443 to only those concerning racial equality. View "Vlaming v. West Point School Board" on Justia Law