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

Articles Posted in Constitutional Law
by
Plaintiffs hired Defendant o renovate their home in Washington, D.C. Because Defendant told Plaintiffs he was properly licensed, they thought everything was above board. Yet, delayed and defective, the renovations did not go well. And, as it turned out, Defendant was not properly licensed. So the Plaintiff sued him in D.C.’s Superior Court. But then Defendant filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Plaintiffs pursued him, filing a two-claim complaint against him in bankruptcy court. The bankruptcy court rejected Count II, finding that, if a debt existed, it was dischargeable. So it partially dismissed the adversary proceeding. But it allowed Count I to proceed toward trial to determine whether Defendant owed the Plaintiffs any money. Plaintiffs then voluntarily dismissed the surviving claim without prejudice. They could then immediately appeal the court-dismissed claim and decide afterward whether it was worth further litigating the party-dismissed claim. Plaintiffs appealed their Count II loss to the district court, who affirmed it.   The Fourth Circuit vacated the district court’s order. The court explained that bankruptcy courts are not Article III courts. So Article III constraints do not apply to them. They only apply if Congress said so in a statute. But it hasn’t. And that means whether Count I was constitutionally moot is beside the point. The bankruptcy court could still adjudicate it. Since Plaintiffs cannot argue that their adversary proceeding was constitutionally moot when Count II was dismissed, they have not shown the proceeding was legally doomed when they dismissed Count I. They are thus left arguing the order was final because Count I was practically over post-dismissal. View "Roee Kiviti v. Naveen Bhatt" on Justia Law

by
Plaintiff alleged that two sheriff deputies unlawfully entered his home. The deputies claim Armstrong’s then-wife invited them in. But although they disagree on whether the deputies’ conduct was reasonable, they do not dispute the historical facts as to what happened. Plaintiff filed a claim under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983. The deputies moved for summary judgment on the merits claiming that, even construing the facts in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, their conduct was objectively reasonable. Alternatively, the deputies claimed they should be granted summary judgment based on qualified immunity. The district court agreed with the deputies on the merits, finding the deputies reasonably believed that Roadcap had the authority to consent to the deputies’ entry.   The Fourth Circuit affirmed. The court explained that, construing the evidence in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, the deputies did, as the district court concluded, briefly detain Plaintiff. But the court agreed with the district court that the deputies acted reasonably as a matter of law because they were responding to a domestic situation, there were guns in the house, and Plaintiff was argumentative. Accordingly, the court affirmed the district court’s order granting summary judgment on the seizure of person claim as well. Moreover, the court wrote that, construing the evidence in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, the deputies exercised some care. Thus, the district court properly dismissed the gross negligence claim. Last, as to the conversion claim, the district court properly explained that there is no evidence in the record that the deputies possessed, touched or exercised any authority over Plaintiff’s personal property. View "Adam Armstrong v. Bryan Hutcheson" on Justia Law

by
Defendant pled guilty to possessing a firearm as a convicted felon, in violation of 18 U.S.C. Sections 922(g)(1) and 924(a)(2). At the time of his offense, Defendant had numerous prior felony convictions. The Government requested an enhanced sentence under ACCA. “ACCA mandates a 15-year minimum sentence for a defendant convicted of a firearms offense who has three or more prior convictions for either a ‘serious drug offense’ or a ‘violent felony.’” The Government argued that two of Defendant’s prior convictions qualified as serious drug offenses, which he does not dispute, and that his 2017 conviction for aggravated assault in violation of Tennessee Code Section 39-13-102 qualified as a violent felony. The district court agreed, overruling Defendant’s objection, and sentenced him to 210 months in prison. The only issue Defendant raised on appeal is whether his Tennessee conviction for aggravated assault qualifies as a violent felony.   The Fourth Circuit affirmed Defendant’s sentence. The court concluded that Defendant’s Tennessee conviction for aggravated assault is a violent felony within the meaning of the ACCA. Defendant argued that aggravated assault cannot be a violent felony because the second element of the crime—simple assault—requires only de minimis force. While it is true that “de minimis physical force, such as mere offensive touching, is insufficient to trigger the ACCA’s force clause,” the court explained that Defendant overlooks the third, aggravating element of the offense. Each of the aggravating circumstances listed in the statute involves the use, attempted use, or threatened use of violent physical force. View "US v. Bryan Ogle" on Justia Law

by
A federal grand jury indicted Defendant for possessing a firearm while being an unlawful user of a controlled substance. Defendant moved to suppress the firearm and other physical evidence, arguing that the officers lacked reasonable suspicion for the stop. After the district court denied his motion, Defendant entered a conditional guilty plea that preserved his right to appeal the suppression ruling.   The Fourth Circuit vacated Defendant’s conviction and remanded for further proceedings. The court held that the officers lacked reasonable suspicion of criminal activity when they first detained Defendant. The court explained that in considering the totality of the circumstances known to the officers when they stopped Defendant, it concludes the officers did not have objectively reasonable suspicion that Defendant was, or had been, engaged in theft. The court wrote that when the officers stopped Defendant, they knew he was a man with a weighed-down sweatshirt pocket who had walked through a residential neighborhood past an occasionally unoccupied home next to a commercial area in broad daylight and who had behaved evasively when a neighborhood resident watched and followed him. These circumstances, without more, do not give rise to reasonable suspicion of theft. As such, the court held that at bottom, the totality of the circumstances does not support a reasonable, articulable suspicion that Defendant had engaged, or was about to engage, in theft. View "US v. Daniel Critchfield" on Justia Law

by
Petitioner, a citizen of the Republic of Lithuania, challenged the district court’s denial of his request for a preliminary injunction (the “Injunction Denial”). Petitioner sought— in connection with his petition for habeas corpus relief under 28 U.S.C. Section 2241 — to prevent the defendant government officials from carrying out his extradition to Lithuania. The district court denied Petitioner’s request for injunctive relief, deeming him unlikely to succeed on the merits of his claim that his extradition to Lithuania would contravene the extradition treaty between that country and the United States. More specifically, Petitioner maintained that Lithuania’s 2015 extradition request fails to comply with the treaty’s mandate that Lithuania produce what is called “the charging document” (the “charging document contention”). The Injunction Denial ruled, however, that the documents produced by Lithuania comply with the extradition treaty, and that Petitioner is therefore not entitled to preliminary injunctive relief.   The Fourth Circuit reversed. The court explained that it is satisfied that Petitioner is likely to succeed on the merits of his claim that Lithuania’s 2015 extradition request does not satisfy the charging document mandate of the extradition treaty. The court wrote that Petitioner has demonstrated that Lithuania’s 2015 extradition request to return him to that country does not satisfy the Treaty’s requirements. And the public’s interest in the Secretary of State recognizing and fulfilling Treaty obligations outweighs any detrimental impact that the denial of an improper extradition request could have. View "Darius Vitkus v. Antony Blinken" on Justia Law

by
Plaintiff was brutally beaten by three Maryland corrections officers because they believed he had taken part in an assault on another officer. He sued their warden along with the officers who attacked him and their direct supervisors. A federal jury awarded Plaintiff $700,000. The warden appealed. He argued that this case should never have proceeded to trial because Plaintiff failed to exhaust his administrative remedies before suing. He also believes the district court should have found that the evidence failed to support the jury’s verdict and that he was entitled to qualified immunity.
The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court. The court held that Plaintiff was not required to exhaust because no administrative remedies were available, the evidence supports the jury’s verdict, and the warden was not entitled to qualified immunity based on the facts found by the jury. The court explained that this case was properly tried before a jury because inmates cannot receive any relief through Maryland’s administrative grievance proceedings when the Intelligence and Investigative Division is investigating the subject matter of the grievance. And the jury’s role in trials is enshrined in the Seventh Amendment for good reason. Resolving factual disputes, weighing the evidence, and determining whom to believe is within its province. When a jury performs these functions, the court will not disturb its conclusions based on a cold record unless those conclusions lack evidentiary support. Here, the evidence was sufficient to support the jury’s conclusions. And based on how the jury resolved these issues, the warden’s conduct violated clearly established law. View "Kevin Younger v. Tyrone Crowder" on Justia Law

by
A South Carolina jury convicted Petitioner of voluntary manslaughter concerning the death of his girlfriend. Almost 20 years later—following three rounds of collateral litigation in state court and one 28 U.S.C. Section 2254 habeas petition in federal court—Petitioner sought permission to file a second Section 2254 petition. In that application, Petitioner claims he now remembers that his girlfriend died by suicide. According to Petitioner, his memory was repressed at the time of his trial and his regained memory satisfies the rigorous newly discovered evidence requirements of 28 U.S.C. Section 2244(b)(2)(B), allowing him to file a second habeas petition.     The Fourth Circuit denied the petition. The court explained that one of those requirements is that Petitioner demonstrate, by clear and convincing evidence, that no reasonable factfinder, considering his alleged regained memory with the rest of the evidence, would find Petitioner guilty of manslaughter. Because Petitioner failed to meet this burden, the court denied his application to file a successive Section 2254 habeas petition View "In re: Weldon Stewart, Jr." on Justia Law

by
Defendant pled guilty without a plea agreement to possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. At issue in this appeal is the district court’s application of two enhancements to Defendant’s Sentencing Guidelines offense level. First, the court applied a four-level enhancement for possession of a firearm in connection with another felony offense, specifically felony possession of drugs. Second, the court applied a six-level enhancement for the knowing creation of a substantial risk of serious bodily injury to a law enforcement officer.   The Fifth Circuit affirmed the application of the six-level enhancement. As to the four-level enhancement, because the court made no findings connecting Defendant’s possession of a firearm to his felony drug possession, the court vacated Defendant’s sentence and remanded for resentencing. The court reasoned that battery is a general intent crime that requires only the intentional performance of the unlawful act. With these principles in mind, the court concluded the evidence on this record establishes that Defendant’s conduct encompassed the requisite intent to satisfy Section 3A1.2(c)(1)’s assault requirement where Defendant did not simply throw one reflexive punch at Jones but threw repeated punches to his head and arms. Further, the court explained that without deciding whether the application of Section 2K2.1(b)(6)(B) is supported under the facts of the present case, the court restated that the district court must first evaluate whether evidence exists to support a finding that Defendant’s possession of the gun facilitated or had the potential to facilitate his possession of drugs. View "US v. Patrick Mitchell" on Justia Law

by
While working an IT position at Enterprise Services LLC, Plaintiff said he was discriminated against because he has disability—an arthritic big toe. The company says the issues arose because Plaintiff didn’t work well with others, and actually, didn’t work much at all. Plaintiff says the issues arose because of his alleged disability. After he was fired, he brought claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act asserting that Enterprise Services discriminated against him because of his toe and retaliated against him for seeking toe-related accommodations. For the retaliation claim, the district court held that Enterprise Services’ only potentially retaliatory act was firing Plaintiff and allowed him to take that claim to trial. But Enterprise Services moved to strike Plaintiff’s jury-trial demand. The district court granted the motion. Following the bench trial, the district court entered judgment for Enterprise Services on the remaining claim because Plaintiff failed to prove he was fired because he asked for disability accommodations.   The Fourth Circuit affirmed. First, while the district court did cite an outdated EEOC regulation when determining he is not disabled within the meaning of the ADA, he is not disabled under any reasonable reading of the ADA. So that disposes of every claim except retaliation. Second, Burlington Northern makes clear that only “significant” harm to an employee constitutes retaliatory adverse action. And only his termination met that threshold. Third, a straightforward reading of Section 1981a(a)(2) shows that an ADA-retaliation plaintiff is not entitled to legal damages and, therefore not guaranteed a jury trial by the Seventh Amendment. View "Jeffrey Israelitt v. Enterprise Services LLC" on Justia Law

by
On July 30, 2014, a jury convicted Defendant on seven counts, including two counts of possessing a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime in violation of 18 U.S.C. Section 924(c). At the time of Defendant’s sentencing, his two Section 924(c) convictions carried a five- and twenty-five-year mandatory minimum sentence, respectively. The district court thus sentenced Defendant to thirty years in prison for his Section 924(c) convictions and, together with his other five convictions, to fifty-seven years’ imprisonment total. In July 2020, Defendant moved for compassionate release pursuant to 18 U.S.C. Section 3582(c)(1)(A). Defendant primarily argued that his release was warranted because he was at risk of serious illness from COVID-19 and because, under the First Step Act’s amendment to Section 924(c) sentencing, he would only be subject to a combined ten-year mandatory minimum for his two Section 924(c) convictions if sentenced today. The district court twice denied Defendant’s motion, each time without addressing the disparity between his Section 924(c) sentence and the much shorter mandatory minimums the First Step Act now prescribes.   The Fourth Circuit reversed and remanded. The court held that the district court abused its discretion by denying Defendant’s motion because his disparate sentence creates an “extraordinary and compelling reason” for his early release, and the Section 3553(a) sentencing factors overwhelmingly favor a sentence reduction. The court explained that because Defendant was subject to a mandatory minimum sentence that is twenty years longer than it would be if he were sentenced today for the same conduct, a sentence reduction is necessary to mitigate the gross disparity between Brown and similarly situated defendants. View "US v. Kelvin Brown" on Justia Law