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

Articles Posted in Communications Law
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Five former employees of national security agencies who, during their employment, had clearances for access to classified and sensitive information, filed suit against the CIA, the Department of Defense, the National Security Agency, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. They facially challenged the agencies’ requirements that current and former employees give the agencies prepublication review of certain materials that they intend to publish to allow the agencies to redact information that is classified or otherwise sensitive to national security. They alleged that the agencies’ regimes “fail to provide former government employees with fair notice of what they must submit,” “invest executive officers with sweeping discretion to suppress speech[,] and fail to include procedural safeguards designed to avoid the dangers of a censorship system.”The Fourth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the suit, holding that the prepublication review regimes were “reasonable” measures to protect sensitive information and did not violate the plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights. The regimes were not unduly vague under the Fifth Amendment; they adequately informed authors of the types of materials they must submit and established for agency reviewers the kinds of information that can be redacted. View "Edgar v. Haines" on Justia Law

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In 2019, the television program CBS This Morning broadcast interviews with two women who accused Fairfax, the Lieutenant Governor of Virginia, of sexual assault. Fairfax had previously denied the allegations. Although he admitted that both sexual encounters occurred, he claimed they were entirely consensual. The CBS interviewer, Gayle King read from a statement Fairfax had given CBS denying the allegations. King directed viewers to Fairfax’s full statement on CBS’s website. Fairfax later issued a public letter to a North Carolina district attorney, alleging for the first time the existence of an eyewitness. Fairfax demanded that CBS retract the interviews, and CBS refused. Fairfax sued CBS for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The district court dismissed the complaint in its entirety but denied CBS’s motion for attorney’s fees and costs finding that CBS established its entitlement to statutory immunity under Virginia’s anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) statute.The Fourth Circuit affirmed. Fairfax’s complaint fails to plausibly allege that CBS made the allegedly defamatory statements with knowledge or reckless disregard of their falsity, as required to state a claim for defamation of a public official. The fee-shifting statute is discretionary, not mandatory or presumptive. Fairfax’s allegations did not plausibly allege that CBS broadcast its This Morning programs despite entertaining “serious doubts as to the truth” of those broadcasts. View "Fairfax v. CBS Corp." on Justia Law

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Puma, a pharmaceutical company, created an investor presentation during a proxy contest with Eshelman, a Puma shareholder and the founder of PPD, another pharmaceutical company. Puma invited its shareholders to visit a link on its website where it had published the presentation, which indicated that, a decade earlier, while Eshelman was CEO of PPD, a clinical investigator falsified documents. The presentation was published at least 198 times. Puma also filed the presentation with the SEC, which made it permanently accessible on its website.Eshelman, a resident of North Carolina, initiated a diversity action with state-law claims of defamation. Puma is incorporated in Delaware and has its principal place of business in California; Auerbach, Puma’s CEO, resides in California. The court found defamatory per se Puma’s statements that Eshelman was “involved in clinical trial fraud” and that Eshelman was replaced as CEO after being forced to testify regarding fraud in 2008. A jury awarded Eshelman $15.85 million in compensatory damages and $6.5 million in punitive damages.The Fourth Circuit affirmed as to liability but vacated the award after finding that Puma waived its personal jurisdiction claim. Each of the statements at issue is capable of a singular, defamatory interpretation but “there is no evidence justifying such an enormous award.” View "Eshelman v. Puma Biotechnology, Inc." 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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Heyer, a Deaf individual who communicates in ASL, is civilly committed as a sexually dangerous person. In prison and while civilly committed, Heyer’s access to the Deaf community has dwindled. Detainees in Heyer’s Unit can communicate with the outside by writing letters, in-person visits, the prison email system, and a TTY machine for making calls under the supervision of a Bureau of Prisons (BOP) staff member to preapproved numbers. BOP also installed a videophone in Heyer's unit and contracted with a provider of SecureVRS services for calls to preapproved numbers, with monitoring. SecureVRS calls do not allow Heyer to call Deaf friends. All of the available means of communication are problematic because Heyer’s English skills are “novice low. ”An expert concluded that his reading and writing skills mimic those of a seven-year-old.The district court held that the BOP’s refusal to allow Heyer to make point-to-point calls with other Deaf individuals did not violate his First Amendment rights. The Fourth Circuit reversed. Heyer’s constitutional rights are not defined merely by his civil detainee status or his past conduct. They are also defined by his status as a Deaf individual cut off from his community in a manner more complete than even foreign language prisoners. The district court erred by crediting BOP testimony about the risks of point-to-point calls without considering testimony about safety features that have managed those risks for other forms of communication it makes available. View "Heyer v. United States Bureau of Prisons" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff filed suit alleging that PDR Network violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) by sending unsolicited advertisements by fax. The district court held that the Hobbs Act did not require it to adopt the FCC's interpretation of the TCPA (the 2006 FCC Rule) because the Hobbs Act does not control when no party "has challenged the validity of the FCC's interpretation of the TCPA." The district court concluded that, under the TCPA, unsolicited fax advertisements are not actionable unless they have a commercial purpose. The district court then determined that PDR Network's fax was not commercial in nature and dismissed the complaint without granting leave to amend.Plaintiff appealed and the Fourth Circuit held that the district court erred in conducting a Chevron analysis, and interpreted the 2006 FCC Rule to mean that a fax offering free goods and services qualifies as an "advertisement" under the TCPA, regardless of whether it has an underlying commercial purpose. PDR Network petitioned for certiorari and the Supreme Court granted review. The Supreme Court determined that to the extent to which the 2006 FCC Rule binds the lower courts may depend on the resolution of two preliminary sets of questions that were not aired before the Court of Appeals.On remand from the Supreme Court, the Fourth Circuit resolved the first five of seven issues submitted to the parties by concluding that a remand to the district court for discovery was not necessary; the relevant portions of the 2006 FCC Rule are interpretive rather than legislative; and thus the third, fourth, and fifth issues are moot. In regard to the sixth issue regarding what level of deference (if any) must the district court afford the 2006 FCC Rule, the court declined to decide in the first instance and remanded for the district court to have the first opportunity to perform the applicable analysis. Given the court's remand to the district court to consider what level of deference the court should afford the 2006 FCC Rule and what the proper meaning of "unsolicited advertisement" is in light of that deference, the court found it unnecessary to resolve the issue of whether the district court erred by failing to grant leave to amend. View "Carlton & Harris Chiropractic, Inc. v. PDR Network, LLC" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit vacated the district court's order denying DIRECTV's motion to compel arbitration in an action brought by plaintiff, alleging violations of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA). Plaintiff alleged that defendants called her cell phone to advertise DIRECTV products and services even though her telephone number is listed on the National Do Not Call Registry.Because plaintiff signed an acknowledgement expressly agreeing to the arbitration provision of the Wireless Customer Agreement with AT&T, which provision applies to her as an authorized user, the court rejected plaintiff's argument that she did not form an agreement to arbitrate. The court held that plaintiff formed an agreement to arbitrate with DIRECTV where the ordinary meaning of "affiliates" and the contractual context convinced the court that the term includes affiliates acquired after the agreement was signed. Furthermore, in light of the expansive text of the arbitration agreement, the categories of claims it specifically includes, and the parties' instruction to interpret its provisions broadly, the court must conclude that plaintiff's TCPA claims fall within the scope of the arbitration agreement. Therefore, the court remanded for further proceedings. View "Mey v. DIRECTV, LLC" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff filed suit against CBS after the CBS Evening News aired two reports on the opioid crisis in West Virginia that featured plaintiff and his pharmacy. Plaintiff alleged claims of defamation, false light invasion of privacy, tortious interference, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of defendants on all claims. On appeal, plaintiff challenged the district court's rulings as to two allegedly defamatory statements in the report.The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's judgment as to the two allegedly defamatory statements in the reports: (1) "Records show Tug Valley was filling more than 150 pain prescriptions a day from one clinic alone," and (2) plaintiff "admit[ted] to filling 150 pain pill prescriptions daily for one clinic alone." The court held that, because plaintiff failed to offer evidence from which a reasonable juror could find that the allegedly defamatory statements in the CBS reports were false, rather than minor inaccuracies, and he bears the burden of proof on this element of his defamation and false light invasion of privacy claims, summary judgment on both claims was appropriate. Finally, the court held that plaintiff's attempt to raise for the first time on appeal two new implications of the news reports is foreclosed. View "Ballengee v. CBS Broadcasting, Inc." on Justia Law

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A Maryland law requiring newspapers, among other platforms, to publish on their websites, as well as retain for state inspection, certain information about the political ads they decide to carry, violates the First amendment. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the preliminary injunctive relief awarded by the district court and explained that, while Maryland's law tries to serve important aims, the state has gone about this task in too circuitous and burdensome a manner to satisfy constitutional scrutiny. The court agreed with the district court that the law is a content-based law that targets political speech and compels newspapers, among other platforms, to carry certain messages on their websites. The court declined to decide whether strict or exacting scrutiny should apply to a disclosure law like the one at issue, and held that the law failed under the more forgiving exact scrutiny standard. View "The Washington Post v. McManus" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff filed suit against Dish Network, alleging that its sales representative, Satellite Systems Network (SSN), routinely violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) by calling numbers on the national Do-Not-Call registry. After the district court certified the class, the case went to trial and Dish ultimately lost.The Fourth Circuit affirmed, holding that the district court properly applied the law and prudently exercised its discretion. The court rejected Dish's challenges to class certification and held that the class certified by the district court complied with Article III's requirements; the court rejected Dish's claims of error under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23 and held that the TCPA supported class-wide resolution of this class; and the court rejected Dish's challenges to the jury findings and held that there was ample evidence for the district court's rationales in the record produced at trial. View "Krakauer v. Dish Network" on Justia Law