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

Articles Posted in Labor & Employment Law
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A former coal miner s filed a claim for benefits under the Black Lung Benefits Act. An administrative law judge (ALJ) and the Benefits Review Board both determined that Petitioner, Edd Potter Coal Company, would be responsible in the event that the coal miner was entitled to benefits. Once the Board remanded the case to determine if benefits were in fact appropriate, Edd Potter decided to raise an Appointments Clause challenge. Both the ALJ and the Board concluded that Edd Potter had forfeited this issue by failing to timely raise it.    Given Edd Potter’s double forfeiture, the Fourth Circuit denied the petition for review. The court explained that the Department of Labor’s regulations requires issue exhaustion both before the ALJ and before the Board. The court wrote that it is firmly established that, before an agency, parties must raise all issues they seek to maintain on appeal “at the time appropriate under its practice.” United States v. L.A. Tucker Truck Lines, Inc., 344 U.S. 33 (1952). The court explained the Department’s regulations, the Board’s consistent practice, and the mandate rule’s application all point in the same direction as logic. On remand, parties may not raise whatever new issues they would like if they have previously failed to bring those issues to the attention of the ALJ and the Board. The mere fact of a remand does not wipe the whole slate clean. Further, the court found that Edd Potter forfeited its Appointments Clause claim not once but twice. View "Edd Potter Coal Company, Inc. v. DOWCP" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff was transferred from a class where she instructed emotionally disturbed (“ED”) children to a class where Plaintiff worked with children with moderate intellectual disabilities. Plaintiff alleged that one of her students sexually harassed her between fall 2018 through mid-March 2019. This student, S.M., was an eight-year-old boy diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (“ADHD”). Although the teacher in the classroom recorded the incidents in her notes, or “point sheets,” where she detailed each student’s daily behavior, Plaintiff claims the teacher was generally dismissive of her concerns. After exhausting her remedies with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Plaintiff filed suit against the Chesterfield County School Board (“the School Board”) alleging that she was subjected to a sexually hostile work environment in violation of Title VII.   The district court granted the School Board’s motion for summary judgment. At issue on appeal is whether the district court erred in dismissing Plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim on summary judgment. The Fourth Circuit affirmed, finding that the record does not support a prima facie case for hostile work environment sexual harassment. The court explained that Plaintiff cannot primarily rely upon her own statements to argue that S.M.’s conduct surpassed what could be expected of an eight-year-old child with his disabilities after two special education experts testified that it did not—instead, she is required by law to demonstrate it. Further, even if Plaintiff established that S.M. targeted her because of sex, she would still be unable to meet the third required element—that is, show that S.M.’s conduct rose to the level of severe or pervasive. View "Regina Webster v. Chesterfield County School Board" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff appealed the district court’s new orders on damages, attorneys’ fees, and costs in his suit against American Airlines (“AA”) pursuant to the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act ("USERRA"). Plaintiff challenged the district court’s determination as to the equivalence of the position as the basis for its reassessed damages as well as the methods by which the district court calculated the new costs and fees award.   The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s award. The court wrote that the sole factual determination before the district court on remand was whether the position AA offered to Plaintiff on October 22 was equivalent to his escalator position as a line pilot. Section 4313(a)(3)(A) instructs that the alternative position must be one the individual is “qualified to perform” and which is “equivalent in seniority, status, and pay.” The court explained that district courts are best positioned to make factual determinations concerning warranted damages and the need for costs and fees.   Here, the court held that Plaintiff’s arguments fail to convince the court of the clear error in the district court’s determination as to the equivalence of the position AA offered. Further, the district court’s total award in attorneys’ fees based on these calculations does not constitute an abuse of discretion. The court employed the proper methodology: It calculated the lodestar by multiplying a reasonable hourly rate by the number of hours reasonably expended, appropriately considering the relevant factors. Ultimately, Plaintiff failed to demonstrate that any aspect of the district court’s fee award determination constitutes an abuse of its broad discretion. View "Thomas Harwood, III v. American Airlines, Inc." on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs were fired from their Department of Public Safety positions with the Village of Bald Head Island (“the Village”), a municipality located in Brunswick County, North Carolina. Following their departures, Village employees published Plaintiffs’ termination letters and department separation affidavits which accused Plaintiffs of violating certain employee policy provisions. Plaintiffs filed suit alleging numerous claims. As relevant here, they brought defamation claims under North Carolina state law against the Village;.the Village Town Manager (“Manager”) ; and the Village Director of Public Safety (“Director”). The district court dismissed the defamation claims against the Village but found the Manager and Director liable for defamation for publishing the termination letters and separation affidavits, respectively. Defendants appealed and Plaintiffs cross-appealed as to the dismissal of the Village.   The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s (1) judgment against the Manager for libel per se arising from publication of the separation affidavits; (2) dismissal of all defamation claims against the Village; (3) denial of leave to amend to add the August 28, 2014 email as a third publication; (4) exclusion of the August 28 email for other purposes; (5) exclusion of Facebook posts; and (6) denial of Plaintiffs’ untimely Rule 59(e) motion seeking prejudgment interest. The court reversed the district court’s judgment against the Manager on all libel claims stemming from the publication of the termination letters for lack of actual malice. Finally, the court denied Plaintiffs’ pending motion, purportedly filed under Rule 60, “for corrections based on clerical mistakes, oversights, and omissions.” View "Thomas Cannon v. Calvin R. Peck, Jr." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff alleged that his employer, the Alexandria Fire Department, intentionally discriminated against him because of his race in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. Section 2000e et seq. After Plaintiff saw white colleagues on other Fire Department shifts receive internships before him, he believed that the Fire Department was violating its placement practice and delaying his promotion because he is Black. The Fire Department explained that the first-come, first-served practice is shift-specific. The district court granted Defendant’s summary judgment motion.   The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling holding that Plaintiff offered no evidence to prove that the Fire Department’s explanation—which is supported by its practice—is pretextual. The court explained that to establish the fourth element of his prima facia case, an inference of unlawful discrimination, Plaintiff claimed that the Fire Department had a practice of placing applicants with the first available field training officer regardless of shift, but the Department placed three later-certified white firefighters into the program ahead of him. However, the Fire Department’s evidence supports its claim that it places interns with training officers on a first-come, first-served basis within each shift. The court found that Plaintiff’s evidence only shows that he misunderstood the Fire Department’s internship placement practice. View "Micheall Lyons v. City of Alexandria" on Justia Law

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Defendant operates an acute care facility as well as a vocational and career-training program intended to help individuals facing barriers to employment find jobs. Disabled individuals who complete the program are eligible for job placement, possibly as janitors for Social Security Administration facilities. The Union sought to represent all janitors; however, Defendant objected, claiming that the janitors have a "rehabilitative" relationship and not an employment relationship. The NLRB determined the janitors are statutory employees. After a vote, the Union passed, but Defendant refused to recognize it.The Fourth Circuit held that the Board's determination that the janitors were statutory employees was supported by the evidence. Thus, the NLRB had jurisdiction to certify the Union and, by refusing to acknowledge the Union, Defendant violated labor laws. View "Sinai Hospital of Baltimore, Inc. v. NLRB" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff appealed the district court’s decision granting summary judgment to the Acting Secretary of the Navy (the “Navy”) on her employment retaliation claims under Title VII, 42 U.S.C. Sec. 2000e, and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, 29 U.S.C. Sec 621, (“ADEA”). The district court awarded judgment after concluding that Plaintiff failed to exhaust certain claims because they were not raised in her Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) charge. It also rejected her remaining retaliation claims.   The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision granting summary judgment to the Acting Secretary of the Navy (“the Navy”). The court first reasoned that Plaintiff’s claims are without merit because she is procedurally barred from pursuing her claims of exclusion from the CPI Team and the Navy’s alleged failure to promote her because she did not raise them at the administrative level.   Further, even if Plaintiff had administratively exhausted her CPI Team and failure-to-promote claims, the court held it would reach the same result because she failed to plead them in her Amended Complaint.  Third, the district court also correctly determined that Plaintiff’s remaining retaliation claim was unsustainable because there is no direct evidence of retaliation as part of her lateral realignment.  Finally, Plaintiff points to only one alleged comment over six years, which did not amount to evidence of “recurring retaliatory animus.” View "Cathy Walton v. Thomas Harker" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff, a former Federal Public Defender, was subject to sexual harassment by a supervisor. After attempting to pursue her administrative remedies, Plaintiff claimed she was constructively discharged and resigned. Plaintiff then filed claims under the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses, as well as under 42 U.S.C. Sections 1985(3) and 1986, against various executive and judicial officers. The district court dismissed all of Plaintiff's claims based on her failure to state a claim and Defendant's sovereign immunity.The panel held that Plaintiff's Due Process claim sufficiently plead a deprivation of her property interests, but failed to plead a deprivation of her liberty interest. The panel also held Plaintiff's Equal Protection claim adequately plead sex discrimination; however, her claims under 42 U.S.C. Sections 1985(3) and 1986 failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. Finally, the court determined that Plaintiff could only pursue back-pay benefits from all Defendant's named in their official capacity and that all Defendant's named in their individual capacity were entitled to dismissal under Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents, 403 U.S. 388 (1971). Thus, the court affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings. View "Caryn Strickland v. US" on Justia Law

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Former employees of Nationwide Motor Sales Corporation sued the company and its owners (collectively, Nationwide) in district court, alleging fraudulent payment practices that reduced employees’ sales commissions and final paychecks. Nationwide produced its Employee Handbook’s provision requiring arbitration. The employees contended that the arbitration agreement is invalid because Nationwide retains the right to change, delete, or modify the policies. The district court denied Nationwide’s motion to compel arbitration, finding the Arbitration Agreement illusory due to the Modification Clause   Applying Maryland law, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision, reasoning that the promise to arbitrate was illusory because, on the agreement’s signature page, the employer retained the right to amend or abolish the agreement without notice to the employees. Further, in reviewing the plain meaning of the Acknowledgement Receipt “as a whole,” it is clear that the Modification Clause applies to the Arbitration Agreement. View "Michael Coady v. Nationwide Motor Sales Corp." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff sued his former employer, the Maryland Military Department, and related entities, alleging that they discriminated against him on the basis of race in violation of Title VII 42 U.S.C. Sections 2000e to 2000e-17. The district court dismissed Holloway’s complaint for failure to state a claim.   The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of Plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim and reversed the dismissal of his unlawful termination and retaliation claims. The court reasoned that to state a claim for unlawful termination, a Title VII plaintiff must allege facts sufficient to raise a plausible inference that his employer discharged him because of his race. Here, Plaintiff alleged facts crucial to raise the inference of a Title VII violation “above a speculative level.”   Next, Title VII prohibits an employer from discriminating against an employee “because he has opposed any practice made an unlawful employment practice by [Title VII], or because he has made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing” under Title VII. The court held that Plaintiff’s claim passes muster at the pleading stage.   However, the court held that Plaintiff failed to state a claim that he was subject to an abusive or hostile work environment based on his race or protected activity. The court rejected Plaintiff’s contention that one episode of yelling and pounding the table is sufficiently severe or pervasive to establish an abusive environment. View "Charles Holloway v. State of Maryland" on Justia Law