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

Articles Posted in Legal Ethics
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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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After wrecking his car while intoxicated, Ziegler falsely, unsuccessfully claimed to be an Assistant U.S. Attorney in an attempt to avoid charges and retrieve his impounded car. He made those claims to deputies, the magistrate judge, and the towing company. In his prosecution for impersonating a federal officer, 18 U.S.C. 912.1, Ziegler, though not a lawyer waived his right to counsel and represented himself.The Fourth Circuit affirmed his conviction, rejecting Ziegler’s claims that the court erred in permitting Ziegler to represent himself because he was incapable of doing so and failed to make necessary inquiries into his mental competency and that the evidence does not show that he “acted” as a federal officer. The district judge thoughtfully evaluated Ziegler’s request to represent himself. The public defender, initially appointed to Ziegler’s case, said that he did not “have any questions with [Ziegler’s] legal competency” based on Ziegler’s “base of experience.” The court repeatedly counseled Ziegler that he should allow the public defender to represent him. Ziegler claimed to be an Assistant U.S. Attorney and told police officers that, as a result of this position, the officers lacked jurisdiction over him, the charges would get dismissed, and he did not need a license. This is a sufficient show of authority to “act” as an official. View "United States v. Ziegler" on Justia Law

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After petitioner prevailed on an application for a writ of habeas corpus seeking release from federal immigration detention, he sought to recover attorney's fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act. The Fourth Circuit has previously held, pursuant to O'Brien v. Moore, 395 F.3d 499, 508 (4th Cir. 2005), that the Act does not apply to a habeas proceeding seeking release from criminal detention. The court held that the same is true for habeas proceedings seeking release from civil detention. Therefore, the court affirmed the district court's denial of attorney's fees because the Act does not provide a basis for petitioner to recover attorney's fees. View "Obando-Segura v. Garland" on Justia Law

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After a trial before a three-member land commission, the district court awarded compensation to Landowners after the government took an easement on their land. The district court awarded Landowners $4.4 million, apportioned attorney's fees and litigation costs, and split the cost of the commission.The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's award of just compensation and the splitting of the commission costs. The court concluded that the district court was within its discretion to weigh the evidence and to determine that the Landowners had shown a non-speculative demand for industrial and residential development in the reasonably near future. Therefore, the court could not say that the district court clearly erred in calculating its award of just compensation. The court also concluded that the district court has broad discretion in apportioning commission costs, and upheld its decision to do so. However, the court concluded that identifying the "prevailing party" for purposes of the attorney's fee award is a legal question that the court reviewed de novo. The court found that the district court erred in making that determination, concluding that because the government's $937,800 value is closer to the district court's final award of $4.4 million, the government, not the Landowners, is the "prevailing party" in this litigation. Accordingly, the court affirmed in part and reversed in part. View "United States v. 269 Acres Located in Beaufort County" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit vacated the district court's order denying plaintiff's motion seeking to recover reasonable attorney's fees, costs, and expenses from Montgomery County, Maryland. This case arose from the County's failure to reasonably accommodate plaintiff's disability. The district court concluded that plaintiff is not eligible for such an award because she was not a prevailing party under 29 U.S.C. 794a(b).The court found this case similar to Parham v. Southwestern Bell Telephone Co., 433 F.2d 421 (8th Cir. 1970), and concluded that plaintiff is even more of a prevailing party than the Parham plaintiff. The court explained that plaintiff is not a prevailing party because she catalyzed the County to change its behavior by filing a lawsuit; rather, she is a prevailing party because she proved her claim to a jury before the County capitulated by transferring her to another call center. Furthermore, the transfer was key to the district court's subsequent finding that the County reasonably accommodated plaintiff and thus the district court's ultimate denial of plaintiff's request for equitable relief. Accordingly, the court remanded for further proceedings. View "Reyazuddin v. Montgomery County, Maryland" on Justia Law

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A law firm challenged the government's use of a "Filter Team" — created ex parte by a magistrate judge in the District of Maryland and comprised of federal agents and prosecutors — to inspect privileged attorney-client materials. The district court denied the law firm's request to enjoin the Filter Team's review of seized materials.The Fourth Circuit held that the use of the Filter Team was improper because the Team's creation inappropriately assigned judicial functions to the executive branch, the Team was approved in ex parte proceedings prior to the search and seizures, and the use of the Team contravened foundational principles that protect attorney-client relationships. Therefore, the court held that injunctive relief was warranted and the district court abused its discretion by failing to enjoin the Filter Team's review of the materials. The court reversed and remanded for further proceedings. View "United States v. Under Seal" on Justia Law

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CAI filed suit against state prosecutors, seeking to enjoin the enforcement of state unauthorized practice of law (UPL) statutes against it. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment to defendants, holding that the UPL statutes did not unconstitutionally restrict CAI's associational rights. In this case, like the solicitation statute in Ohralik v. Ohio State Bar Ass'n, 436 U.S. 447 (1978), North Carolina's UPL statutes only marginally affected First Amendment concerns and did not substantially impair the associational rights of CAI.The court also held that the UPL statutes did not unlawfully burden CAI's freedom of speech. Determining that intermediate scrutiny was the appropriate standard for reviewing conduct regulations that incidentally impact speech, the court held that barring corporations from practicing law was sufficiently drawn to protect clients. The court also held that the UPL statutes did not deny CAI due process, were not unconstitutionally vague, and did not violate the state constitution's Monopoly Clause. Finally, CAI's commercial speech claim was not an independent basis for granting relief and the state may forbid CAI from advertising legal services barred by law. View "Capital Associated Industries v. Stein" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court's order denying Citizens' motion for attorney's fees, expert fees, and costs stemming from a 42 U.S.C. 1983 action that successfully challenged a 2015 state law that redrew Greensboro City Council districts. The court held that civil rights fee-shifting statutes, such as those at issue here, are not meant to punish defendants for a lack of innocence or good faith but rather to "compensate civil rights attorneys who bring civil rights cases and win them." The court explained that "innocence" or a "lack of responsibility" for the enactment of an unconstitutional law was therefore not an appropriate criterion to justify denying a fee award against the party responsible for and enjoined from enforcing the unconstitutional law. View "Brandon v. Guilford County Board of Elections" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's order sanctioning three attorneys and their law firms under both its inherent authority and 28 U.S.C. 1927. The court held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in awarding compensatory sanctions totaling $150,000. In this case, the sanctioned attorneys' objections to the authenticity of certain documents abused the judicial process both because they lacked a good faith basis and because the attorneys made repeated misrepresentations to the court in order to sustain these objections. Furthermore, under section 1927, the district court found that the attorneys engaged in bad-faith conduct and that this conduct multiplied the proceedings unreasonably and vexatiously. The court held that the district court correctly articulated the applicable legal standards, made appropriate factual findings, and supported its conclusions with ample evidence from the record. View "Six v. Generations Federal Credit Union" on Justia Law

Posted in: Legal Ethics
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Verisign filed suit against XYZ, alleging false advertising based on a false "gold rush" scheme involving domain names. The district court ultimately granted summary judgment for XYZ, but denied it attorney fees under the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. 1117(a). The Fourth Circuit held that a prevailing party need only prove an exceptional case by a preponderance of the evidence, rather than by clear and convincing evidence. The court further clarified that a prevailing party need not establish that the losing party acted in bad faith in order to prove an exceptional case. Therefore, the court remanded for the district court to consider the motion under the appropriate legal and evidentiary standards. View "Verisign, Inc. v. XYZ.Com LLC" on Justia Law