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

Articles Posted in Government & Administrative Law
by
AFGE filed suit challenging two advisory opinions issued by the OSC, the agency tasked by Congress to advise on the way in which the Hatch Act's prohibitions in the federal workplace applied. The original advisory opinion was promulgated on November 27, 2018, and a clarifying opinion was promulgated three days later (jointly, "the Advisory Opinions"). Both opinions bore on conduct related to President Trump's reelection campaign. AFGE sought a declaration that the Advisory Opinions violated its members' rights under the First Amendment; an injunction against OSC's reliance on and enforcement of the Advisory Opinions; and a court order commanding their rescission. The district court dismissed the complaint on ripeness grounds.The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's dismissal of the action, concluding that AFGE's case is now moot and would otherwise be unripe for review. The court explained that OSC's post-election update of its guidance on impeachment and "the resistance" has removed AFGE's injury-in-fact and, therefore, mooted the case. Furthermore, the issues in this case are not fit for judicial decision and the mere issuance by OSC of a generally addressed advisory opinion falls short of what is required. Finally, the court noted that for it to rule this case justiciable would upend the Hatch Act enforcement scheme whose details Congress has so meticulously set out. View "American Federation of Government Employees v. Office of Special Counsel" on Justia Law

by
The Fourth Circuit held that the district court erred by dismissing under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) the Foundation's complaint against the executive director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections (the Board), alleging a violation of the disclosure provision in the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA). The Foundation sought disclosure of broad categories of documents related to the identification of North Carolina voter registrants whom the Board had identified as potentially failing to satisfy the statutory citizenship requirement.The court vacated the district court's judgment and remanded, concluding that the district court erred in holding that the Foundation failed to state a claim under the NVRA's disclosure provision simply because the request implicated potential criminal conduct of registrants. The court explained that the disclosure provision does not contain such a blanket exemption and requires a more exacting and tailored analysis than what occurred in this case. Because discovery was not conducted, the court cannot discern on this record whether the Foundation may be entitled to disclosure of some of the documents requested. Therefore, the court remanded to the district court for further consideration of the documents subject to four restrictions excluding from disclosure: (1) information precluded from disclosure by the Privacy Act of 1974 and the Driver's Privacy Protection Act of 1994; (2) information obtained from confidential federal databases under the United States Department of Homeland Security's Systemic Alien Verification for Entitlements system (the SAVE system) that is otherwise protected from disclosure by statute or by the Board's agreement with the Department regarding confidentiality; (3) any requested voter registration applications, or the names affiliated with those applications, that are subject to protection as part of any prior or current criminal investigation; and (4) the identities and personal information of individuals who potentially committed criminal offenses, including those who later were determined to be United States citizens, which must be redacted from any documents ultimately released as sensitive information vulnerable to abuse. View "Public Interest Legal Foundation v. North Carolina State Board of Elections" on Justia Law

by
Petitioner filed a whistleblower-retaliation complaint under 42 U.S.C. 5851 after the NRC rejected his applications for promotions. Petitioner is an NRC employee who made disclosures to Congress and the NRC's Inspector General regarding health and safety risks at a nuclear power plant. The ALJ dismissed the case because the United States had not waived sovereign immunity for such whistleblower actions against the NRC, and the ARB affirmed.After determining that it had jurisdiction over the petition, the Fourth Circuit denied the petition for review, agreeing with the ARB that Congress has not waived sovereign immunity for complaints against the NRC. In this case, petitioner failed to make the necessary affirmative showing of waiver with the required unequivocal expression. The court explained that the lesson in its recent decision in Robinson v. U.S. Dep't of Educ., 917 F.3d 799 (2019), is that the substantive and remedial provisions of a statute may not be coextensive. The court concluded that there is no doubt that the NRC is bound by the prohibitions of section 5851, but that fact alone is simply insufficient to form the basis of an unequivocal waiver of sovereign immunity. View "Peck v. U.S. Department of Labor" on Justia Law

by
Plaintiffs, twenty-three individuals who allege they are in the Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB), filed suit alleging that the TSDB program violates the Fifth Amendment's Due Process Clause by failing to include more procedural safeguards.The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of plaintiffs and concluded that plaintiffs have not demonstrated infringements of constitutional liberty interests under the Due Process Clause. The court explained that history and precedent reveal that the government possesses latitude in regulating travel, guarding the nation's borders, and protecting the aspirations of the populace for tranquility and safety. In this case, the typical delay pleaded by plaintiffs, which is around an hour or less at an airport, does not rise up to the level of constitutional concern. The court reasoned that these delays are not dissimilar from what many travelers routinely face, whether in standard or enhanced screenings, particularly at busy airports. Even if the court accepted plaintiffs' assertions that these inconveniences have actually deterred them from flying, the court stated that individuals do not have a protected liberty interest to travel via a particular mode of transportation. Furthermore, plaintiffs do not possess a protected liberty interest in being free from screening and delays at the border.The court also concluded that inclusion in the TSDB does not infringe on plaintiffs' constitutionally protected interest in their reputations. The court rejected plaintiffs' contention that inclusion in the TSDB stigmatizes them by associating them with terrorism. The court explained that plaintiffs have not shown adequate "public disclosure" by the government and the government does not publicly disclose TSDB status. Furthermore, the Supreme Court has explained that stigma or "reputation alone, apart from some more tangible interests such as employment," is not "liberty" within the meaning of the Due Process Clause. The court further explained that the government's act of including names in the TSDB does not mandate that private entities deny people rights and privileges. In this case, plaintiffs have not adequately demonstrated denials of employment, permits, licenses, or firearms. The court explained that speculation coupled with a few isolated incidents inadequately tethered to TSDB status is not enough. Finally, the court doubted plaintiffs' claims as to the adequacy of existing processes where the government's interest is extraordinarily significant in this case, the weight of the private interests at stake is comparatively weak, and the court would not casually second-guess Congress's specific judgment as to how much procedure was needed in this context. View "Elhady v. Kable" on Justia Law

by
The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of Red River on the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act claim. Plaintiffs filed suit alleging that Red River had violated the Clean Water Act, the Surface Mining Act, and, in the alternative, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Plaintiffs' claims stemmed from alleged discharges of pollutants from point sources at Red River's now-inactive mine, and Red River's activities at the mine were governed by a combined Clean Water Act and Surface Mining Act permit issued by Virginia.The court held that, because the Surface Mining Act's lack of a permit shield supersedes, amends, or modifies the Clean Water Act's permit shield, the saving clause prevents liability under the Surface Mining Act for conduct that is otherwise shielded from liability under the Clean Water Act. The court explained that permitting liability under the Surface Mining Act for pollutant discharges that are otherwise exempted from liability under a Clean Water Act permit would contravene the text of the saving clause by allowing the Surface Mining Act to supersede, modify, or amend the Clean Water Act's permitting regime. View "Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards v. Red River Coal Company, Inc." on Justia Law

by
The Society field suit challenging the Corps' issuance of a permit to the Town of Ocean Isle Beach to construct a shoreline jetty to stop chronic erosion of its beaches. The Society claimed that numerous analyses conducted by the Corps in both its Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and its Record of Decision were inconsistent with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Clean Water Act (CWA).The Fourth Circuit applied a deferential standard of review under the Administrative Procedure Act and affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment for the Corps, concluding that the Corps adequately examined the relevant facts and data and provided explanations that rationally connected those facts and data with the choices that it made. In this case, the Corps collected a broad range of data drawn from the facts and objectives of the project at issue, historical statistics and records, computer analyses, and opinions of other specialized agencies, and it analyzed those data to make judgments ultimately based on its own special expertise under the numerous criteria imposed by NEPA and the CWA. View "National Audubon Society v. United States Army Corps of Engineers" on Justia Law

by
The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's dismissal of the class action antitrust claims brought by plaintiff against the Hospital Authority. The court concluded that the Hospital Authority is a "special function governmental unit" under section 34(1)(B) of the Local Government Antitrust Act of 1984. The court explained that Sandcrest Outpatient Servs., P.A. v. Cumberland Cnty. Hosp. Sys., Inc., 853 F.2d 1139, 1142 (4th Cir. 1988), did not address, much less decide, the issues here. The court was unpersuaded that either the Act's text or the statutory interpretation principle noscitur a sociis supports plaintiff's contention that "special function governmental unit" as described in section 34(1)(B) applies only to governmental entities with certain powers and/or characteristics, which the Hospital Authority lacks. The court reasoned that there is no magic combination of powers that a governmental body must have to be classified as a "special function governmental unit," however those of the Hospital Authority readily qualify.The court explained that the Hospital Authority is far more similar to the hospital in Sweeney v. Athens Regional Medical Center, than to the public trust hospital in Tarabishi v. McAlester Regional Hospital, 951 F.2d 1558 (10th Cir. 1991). Finally, the court rejected plaintiff's contention that, even if the Hospital Authority was a "local government" when it was established, it has outgrown its immunity. The court stated that the text of the Act asks only whether an organization qualifies as a "local government" as defined by the Act and that determination requires examining the state law applicable to the entity's creation. Therefore, the court agreed with the district court that the Hospital Authority is a "special function governmental unit" and is therefore a "local government" under the Act. View "Benitez v. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Hospital Authority" on Justia Law

by
The Fourth Circuit granted MVP's petition for review challenging the Department's denial of MVP's Clean Water Act certification. MVP seeks to build a natural gas pipeline running through North Carolina and its rivers, streams, and wetlands.The court held that the Department's denial is consistent with the State’s regulations and the Clean Water Act. The court explained that it need not decide which version of the certification regulation to consider because, under the current version of the regulation, the Department's minimization reasoning is consistent with its water quality standards: namely, its riparian buffer rules. Furthermore, the Department properly denied certification, as it found that the temporal adjustment constituted a practical alternative that would better minimize harm to the State's waters. However, the court held that the Department did not adequately explain its decision in light of the administrative record. While the Department's decision adequately explained its concerns with the Mainline Project and the adverse effects of the Southgate Project, the court concluded that it failed to address the hearing officer's minimization findings and explain why it chose to deny certification rather than granting it conditionally. Accordingly, the court vacated the denial and remanded for additional agency explanation. The court remanded for further proceedings. View "Mountain Valley Pipeline, LLC v. Sierra Club" on Justia Law

by
Various statutory provisions and regulations require the DOD to maintain a publicly accessible website containing all decisions rendered by its Discharge Review Boards and Boards for Correction of Military/Naval Records. When the DOD was alerted in 2019 that some posted decisions contained personally identifiable information, it temporarily removed all decisions from the website. Since then, the DOD has slowly been redacting and restoring the decisions to the site.NVLSP filed suit against the DOD and the Secretaries of the military departments to require them to fulfill the statutory mandate of publishing all decisions and to do so promptly. The district court granted defendants' motion to dismiss, ruling that NVLSP lacked Article III standing to bring the action and that the DoD's conduct was not judicially reviewable under the Administrative Procedure Act.The Fourth Circuit affirmed, concluding that although NVLSP has standing to bring this action, the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction. In this case, NVLSP challenges defendants' ongoing actions in maintaining and managing the website, not any final agency action understood as a discrete agency determination of rights and obligations, as necessary to give a court subject matter jurisdiction under the APA. View "National Veterans Legal Services Program v. Department of Defense" on Justia Law

by
Plaintiffs, former recipients of Social Security disability benefits and former clients of an attorney who orchestrated one of the largest fraud schemes in the history of the SSA, argued in consolidated appeals that SSA's categorical exclusion of allegedly fraudulent medical evidence during the redetermination process was unlawful because they were never afforded any opportunity to rebut the allegation that their evidence was tainted by fraud.The Fourth Circuit joined its sister circuits and held that the SSA's redetermination procedures violate the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) and the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. The court agreed with plaintiffs that it is arbitrary and capricious for the agency to deny beneficiaries an opportunity to contest the Office of the Inspector General's fraud allegations as to their cases, while permitting other similarly situated beneficiaries to challenge similar allegations arising from SSA's own investigations. The court also agreed with plaintiffs that the SSA's redetermination procedures violated their due process rights under the Fifth Amendment because they were denied the opportunity to contest the Office of the Inspector General's fraud allegations against them. In this case, the court considered each Mathews factor and concluded that each factor supports a finding that the SSA's redetermination procedures violated plaintiffs' due process rights. Accordingly, the court affirmed in No. 19-1989 and reversed in No. 19-2028. View "Kirk v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration" on Justia Law