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

Articles Posted in Constitutional 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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A facility caring for an unaccompanied child fails to provide a constitutionally adequate level of mental health care if it substantially departs from accepted professional standards. Appellants, a class of unaccompanied immigrant children detained at Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center (SVJC), filed a class action alleging that the Commission fails to provide a constitutionally adequate level of mental health care due to its punitive practices and failure to implement trauma-informed care. The district court found that the Commission provides adequate care by offering access to counseling and medication.The Fourth Circuit held that neither the Flores Settlement nor SVJC's cooperative agreement prevent appellants from addressing their alleged injuries through the relief they seek from SVJC. On the merits, the court applied the Youngberg standard for professional judgment and reversed the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the Commission. The court explained that the district court incorrectly applied a standard of deliberate indifference when it should have determined whether the Commission substantially departed from accepted standards of professional judgment. Therefore, in light of the Youngberg standard, the district court must consider evidence relevant to the professional standards of care necessary to treat appellants' serious mental health needs. The court left it to the district court to determine in the first instance to what extent, if any, the trauma-informed approach should be incorporated into the professional judgment standard in this particular case. Accordingly, the court remanded for further proceedings. View "Doe v. Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center Commission" on Justia Law

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After Boehringer developed a drug called Pradaxa to help reduce the risk of stroke, the FDA approved the drug and its label. Betty Knight suffered complications from taking the drug and eventually died. Betty's children filed suit against Boehringer asserting a variety of state-law claims alleging Boehringer failed to adequately warn about the risks associated with taking Pradaxa. Boehringer argued that federal law preempted the claims, the district court agreed with plaintiffs, and then the jury returned a mixed verdict. Boehringer appealed, claiming that plaintiffs' fraud claim based on the physician label was preempted.The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court's order denying Boehringer's post-trial motion for judgment as a matter of law. The court held that there is no bright-line, one-size-fits-all line marking the moment when an analysis reveals new information. A careful review of the record is needed to determine whether a conclusion has been reached. Applying careful review here, the court concluded that Boehringer did not have "newly acquired information" regarding an optimal Pradaxa blood concentration level which would have warranted a unilateral change to the physician label. Therefore, the state-law fraud claim is preempted. View "Knight v. Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals, Inc." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff, a prison inmate, filed suit against two correctional officers, alleging that they used excessive force under the Eighth Amendment. The district court granted summary judgment to the officers, reasoning that even if plaintiff was handcuffed and prone when he was pepper-sprayed or beaten, a reasonable jury would have to conclude that both uses of force were necessary to protect officer safety and proportionate to the threat posed by defendant.The Fourth Circuit reversed, holding that a reasonable jury crediting plaintiff's account could find that the officers used force not to protect themselves but to retaliate against plaintiff in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The court explained that the excessive force inquiry turns on motive: whether the officers used force in good faith to protect officer safety, as they contend, or whether, as plaintiff avers, they used force maliciously to punish plaintiff for his head-butts. Viewing the record in the light most favorable to plaintiff, the court did not think this question can be answered in the officers' favor as a matter of law. The court concluded that the officers were on "fair notice" of plaintiff's right not to be subjected to force in the form of pepper spray or a beating if that force was deployed to retaliate against plaintiff after he was subdued, and not to protect officer safety. Accordingly, the court remanded for further proceedings. View "Dean v. Jones" on Justia Law

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Challengers filed suit alleging that a 2018 North Carolina law requiring voters to present photographic identification is unconstitutional because it was enacted with the same discriminatory intent as the 2013 Omnibus Law. The district court found that the Challengers were likely to succeed on the merits of their constitutional claims and issued a preliminary injunction against the law's enforcement.The Fourth Circuit reversed, holding that a legislature's past acts do not condemn the acts of a later legislature, which the court must presume acts in good faith. In this case, the district court considered the General Assembly's discriminatory intent in passing the 2013 Omnibus Law to be effectively dispositive of its intent in passing the 2018 Voter-ID Law. In doing so, it improperly flipped the burden of proof at the first step of its analysis and failed to give effect to the Supreme Court's presumption of legislative good faith in Abbott v. Perez, 138 S. Ct. 2305, 2324 (2018). Consequently, these errors fatally infected its finding of discriminatory intent.Furthermore, once the proper burden and the presumption of good faith are applied, the Challengers fail to meet their burden of showing that the General Assembly acted with discriminatory intent in passing the 2018 Voter-ID Law. The court considered the Arlington Heights factors—the sequence of events leading to enactment, legislative history, and disparate impact—and concluded that they cannot support a finding of discriminatory intent. Therefore, the district court abused its discretion in issuing the preliminary injunction. View "North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP v. Raymond" on Justia Law

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Varner’was having an alcoholic drink and lunch at a restaurant. Deputy Roane approached and requested that he leave the restaurant with him. Varner complied. Roane had previously arrested Varner on drug charges. Outside, Roane asked Varner to empty his pockets. Finding nothing, Roane patted Varner down. No incriminating items were found. Roane asked him to submit to a breath test. Varner stated he would not be driving and refused. K-9 officer Johnson then approached Varner’s car with a drug-sniffing dog, Zeke. Zeke and Johnson had successfully completed Police Narcotic Detection Training. Zeke gave a positive alert. Varner alleges that Johnson manufactured this alert by smacking the side of his car and that Zeke displayed erratic behavior. Johnson contradicted those assertions. No drugs were found in the car.Varner sought damages under 42 U.S.C. 1983. The court dismissed Varner’s claim that he had been unlawfully seized during the pat-down, reasoning that Varner had failed to demonstrate the encounter was anything but consensual. After discovery, the court granted Roane summary judgment on the remaining Fourth Amendment claim, finding no evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude that Johnson had manufactured Zeke’s alert. The Fourth Circuit affirmed. Roane did not use or threaten force, did not restrain Varner, and did not make any misrepresentation as to a warrant. There is nothing to suggest a conspiracy to manipulate Zeke’s behavior. View "Varner v. Roane" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff filed suit against Lowe's for violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), claiming that Lowe's had forced him out of his director-level job even though, with reasonable accommodations for him after his knee surgery, he could still perform its essential functions. Plaintiff also alleged that Lowe's violated the ADA when it refused to reassign him to another director-level position, and that Lowe's discriminated against him in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA).The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of Lowe's, holding that no reasonable jury could find that working over eight hours each day was anything less than an essential function of the Market Director of Stores (MDS) position; plaintiff could no longer perform the essential functions of his job without reasonable accommodation; and no reasonable accommodation, consistent with plaintiff's doctor's orders, would have allowed him to perform his job's essential functions. Furthermore, the court rejected plaintiff's contention that Lowe's violated his rights under the ADA by failing to reassign him to another vacant and comparable position where the record demonstrates that Lowe's extended reasonable accommodations to plaintiff, acting at every stage to ensure that his disability did not unfairly compromise his equality of opportunity at Lowe's. Finally, plaintiff failed to prove a prima facie case under the ADEA where he was not able to perform the essential functions of his MDS job with our without reasonable accommodations. View "Elledge v. Lowe's Home Centers, LLC" on Justia Law

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Brinkley was subject to an arrest warrant. An ATF analyst identified possible addresses. Because a water bill for one address was in Brinkley’s name, Agent Murphy believed that address was Brinkley’s most likely residence. Another address was an apartment. Detective Stark also found multiple addresses, including the apartment. Brinkley’s Facebook page led Starck to believe that Brinkley was dating Chisholm, who was associated with the apartment.Officers went to the apartment. Chisholm opened the door, denied that Brinkley was there, grew “very nervous” and looked behind her. The officers saw another woman and heard movement from a back room. Chisholm stated that she did not want the officers to enter and asked whether they had a warrant. Murphy later testified that the sounds and the women’s reactions led him to believe that Brinkley was in the apartment. Five uniformed, armed officers entered and found Brinkley in a bedroom, then conducted a protective sweep and saw digital scales, a baggie containing cocaine base, and a bullet. They obtained a search warrant and seized firearms. Brinkley was charged with felon-in-possession counts, possession with intent to distribute cocaine base, and firearm possession in furtherance of a drug offense.The Fourth Circuit reversed the denial of a motion to suppress. Though the officers developed a well-founded suspicion that Brinkley might have stayed in the apartment at times, they failed to establish probable cause that he resided there. Because they entered the apartment pursuant solely to the authority of the arrest warrant, their entry was unlawful. When police have limited reason to believe a suspect resides in a home, generic signs of life inside and understandably nervous reactions from residents, without more, do not amount to probable cause that the suspect is present within. View "United States v. Brinkley" on Justia Law

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After determining that plaintiffs have standing to bring their 42 U.S.C. 1983 action, the Fourth Circuit concluded that the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying plaintiffs' request for a preliminary injunction against Baltimore's aerial surveillance (AIR) program.The court concluded that plaintiffs are unlikely to succeed on the merits of their Fourth Amendment claim, because the AIR program does not infringe on a reasonable expectation of privacy. The court explained that the AIR program has built-in limitations designed to minimize invasions of individual privacy. Furthermore, the program seeks to meet a serious law enforcement need without unduly burdening constitutional rights. The court also concluded that plaintiffs are unlikely to succeed on the merits of their claim that the program will violate their First Amendment rights to freely associate with others. The court explained that the basic problem with plaintiffs' argument is that people do not have a right to avoid being seen in public places and, even if that were not so, it is a stretch to suggest people are deterred from associating with each other because they may show up as a dot under the AIR program. Finally, the court concluded that allowing the AIR program to continue is the equitable course of action and serves the public interest. View "Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle v. Baltimore Police Department" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment for the County in an action brought by plaintiff, alleging claims of discrimination and retaliation in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Plaintiff, an employee of the County who suffers from multiple sclerosis, filed suit alleging that she faced unlawful discrimination based on her disability when the County laterally transferred her to another department, and that the transfer came in retaliation for filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).The court held that a transfer is not an adverse action when it is voluntarily requested and agreed upon. In this case, plaintiff requested a lateral transfer, and the County agreed to place her in a position with the same pay and similar responsibilities. Therefore, plaintiff failed to show an adverse action and the district court correctly determined that she failed to make out a prima facie case of discrimination and retaliation. View "Laird v. Fairfax County" on Justia Law