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

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Defendant was a successful franchise operator of several tax preparation businesses under the umbrella of JTH Tax, Inc. and SiempreTax+ LLC (together, "Liberty Tax"). In this case, Liberty Tax requested that defendant assign it the leases for the franchise properties, as provided for by the Purchase and Sale Agreement (PSA). However, the parties could not agree to terms for the assignment. Liberty Tax subsequently filed suit and defendant countersued. Defendant largely prevailed and was awarded a significant sum of damages. The Fourth Circuit vacated a substantial portion of the damages award but upheld the judgment in defendant's favor. On remand, the district court recalculated damages based on the Fourth Circuit's instructions and then, on defendant's motion, subsequently amended the judgment, increasing the damages based on purportedly new evidence. Both parties appealed again.The Fourth Circuit found no error in the district court's denial of defendant's arguments for reinstatement of much of the original damages. The court explained that the district court did not err in concluding that the Rule 59(e) standard and the mandate rule precluded defendant's disgorgement theory. However, the court found error in the district court's conclusion that defendant met the standard for relief based on newly discovered evidence and in the award of nominal damages. The court concluded that, in the declaration and now on appeal, defendant does not show he exercised reasonable due diligence during the three years of litigation to discover and present evidence of unpaid rent on the Burnside property. Furthermore, nominal damages were unavailable because defendant was awarded compensatory damages to remedy Liberty Tax's breach of contract, regardless of the finding that Liberty Tax also breached the contract by breaching the implied covenant. Accordingly, the court affirmed in part, reversed and vacated in part, and remanded with instructions to recalculae damages. View "JTH Tax, Inc. v. Aime" 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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In 2001, defendant was convicted of one count of possessing a firearm as a felon and sentenced under the heightened penalties of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) based on then uncontested proof that he had at least three violent felony convictions. After the Supreme Court's ruling in Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015), defendant filed a 28 U.S.C. 2255 motion contending that he had been improperly sentenced as an armed career criminal and sought resentencing without the ACCA's enhanced penalties.The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court's denial of the section 2255 motion, holding that defendant's 1971 conviction for attempted rape, in violation of Va. Code Ann. 18.1-44, does not qualify as a violent felony under the ACCA's force clause and cannot be used to support his ACCA-based conviction. The court explained that every conviction for section 18.1-44 does not necessarily involve a use of force sufficient to satisfy the ACCA's force clause. The court also held that defendant's 1990 burglary conviction does not qualify as an ACCA predicate under the force clause. The court took no position on the substantive question of whether defendant's conviction for use of a firearm during an abduction qualifies as an ACCA violent felony. The court remanded with instructions for the district court to consider the parties' arguments in the first instance. View "United States v. Al-Muwwakkil" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Defendant was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder for hire, carjacking resulting in death, and murder with the use of a firearm in relation to a crime of violence. Defendant was sentenced to death, and the Fourth Circuit affirmed. Defendant now files this motion under 28 U.S.C. 2255 to vacate or correct his sentence, asserting 18 grounds for relief. The district court denied his motion and denied a certificate of appealability (COA).The Fourth Circuit granted a COA as to four issues: (1) whether defendant's 18 U.S.C. 924 conviction is invalid; (2) whether trial counsel provided ineffective assistance; (3) whether the government violated Brady v. Maryland; and (4) whether the government exercised its peremptory jury strikes in a discriminatory manner. The court vacated the district court's ruling dismissing defendant's claim that his counsel was constitutionally ineffective in failing to investigate mitigating evidence of brain injury and potential mental illness and remanded that claim for an evidentiary hearing. The court otherwise affirmed the district court's judgment. View "United States v. Runyon" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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After defendant, the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia, was convicted of mail fraud and wire fraud for the misuse of public assets, he filed a motion challenging the fairness of his trial on the grounds that a juror allegedly engaged in misconduct and was biased. The district court denied defendant's motion for a new trial, sentenced defendant to 24 months' imprisonment, and imposed a fine and restitution. In the present appeal, defendant challenged the district court's judgment dated February 25, 2019, alleging only that the district court abused its discretion in denying his request for an evidentiary hearing to investigate the juror's potential misconduct and bias.The Fourth Circuit rejected defendant's contention that a juror's use of social media during the trial constituted misconduct in violation of Remmer v. United States, 347 U.S. 227 (1954), entitling him to an evidentiary hearing. In this case, the juror's Twitter activity related to football and did not refer to any facts about the case or the scandal at large. The court concluded that, at bottom, the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying defendant's motion for an evidentiary hearing under Remmer because defendant failed to make a credible allegation that an improper contact occurred. The court also held that because defendant has not made a colorable showing that the juror dishonestly answered material questions during voir dire, the district court did not abuse its discretion in failing to hold an evidentiary hearing to investigate McDonough bias. Finally, the district court did not abuse its discretion in refusing to hold an evidentiary hearing on actual bias. View "United States v. Loughry" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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The Fourth Circuit vacated defendant's conviction of one count of employing, using, persuading, inducing, enticing, or coercing a minor to engage in sexually explicit conduct "for the purpose of producing [a] visual depiction of such conduct" in violation of 18 U.S.C. 2251(a). The court agreed with defendant that the district court incorrectly instructed the jury that section 2251(a) merely requires filming to be "a purpose," which can arise at any time, of engaging in the sexual conduct. The court stated that the instructional error in this case—which was objected to and went to the absolute heart of the defense—is too much to overlook because it fundamentally misconstrued the statute, prejudicing defendant. The court remanded for further proceedings. View "United States v. McCauley" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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In 2008, Homeland Security passed rules requiring that employers receive a favorable labor certification from Labor before obtaining a visa. Homeland Security and Labor jointly issued a new series of rules in 2015. Plaintiffs, a group of employers and associations whose members rely on H-2B visas, filed suit challenging Homeland Security's 2008 Rules and the joint 2015 Rules as exceeding the agencies' statutory authority.The Fourth Circuit held that there is standing to challenge the 2008 Rules but the challenge is time-barred; there is standing to challenge the 2015 Program and Wage Rules; and the 2015 Program and Wage Rules are valid exercises of Labor's implied delegation to rulemake as part of its duty as Homeland Security's chosen consulting agency. The court explained that this implied delegation is evident from the statutory circumstances in the Immigration and Nationality Act, including the requirement that Homeland Security engage in "consultation with appropriate agencies," the definition of H-2B, and Labor's rulemaking powers for similar visas. The court concluded that, while there are limits on which agencies Homeland Security can choose and on those agencies' ability to rulemake, Labor's 2015 Program and Wage Rules fall within both boundaries. View "Outdoor Amusement Business Association, Inc. v. Department of Homeland Security" on Justia Law

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Residents and businesses of Lumberton, North Carolina filed a putative class action alleging that CSX Transportation caused their property to be flooded during Hurricanes Matthew and Florence. The district court dismissed each claim as either insufficiently pleaded or preempted by federal law.The Fourth Circuit concluded that dismissal of the breach of contract claim was premature because plaintiffs have plausibly alleged that the Tri-Party Agreement was intended to directly benefit the class of persons to which they belong—the residents and businesses of South and West Lumberton left vulnerable to flooding through the gap. However, the court's holding is limited to the Tri-Party Agreement. In this case, plaintiffs alleged the existence of a second, unnamed and undated agreement, but failed to produce it or to plead any of its essential terms. The court also concluded that plaintiffs' tort claims are preempted by the federal Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act. Accordingly, the court affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded. View "Edwards v. CSX Transportation, Inc." on Justia Law

Posted in: Contracts
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Defendant sought to appeal the district court's order denying relief on his 28 U.S.C. 2255 motion. The Fourth Circuit granted a certificate of appealability on the issue of whether defendant's counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to assert a double jeopardy defense.The court affirmed the portion of the district court's order denying relief on defendant's ineffective assistance of counsel claim. The court first joined its sister circuits in holding that the Double Jeopardy Clause prohibits imposition of cumulative punishments for 18 U.S.C. 924(c) and 924(j) convictions based on the same conduct. However, the court cannot conclude that the double jeopardy claim that defendant now presses was sufficiently foreshadowed at the time of trial to render his counsel's failure to raise it constitutionally deficient representation. The court denied a certificate of appealability as to the remaining issues and dismissed the remainder of the appeal. View "United States v. Palacios" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court's order affirming the SSA's denial of plaintiff's application for disability insurance benefits, holding that the ALJ erred by determining that plaintiff was not disabled during the relevant period.The court concluded that the ALJ erred in discrediting plaintiff's subjective complaints by applying the wrong legal standard by effectively requiring plaintiff to provide objective medical evidence of her symptoms; improperly cherry-picking, misstating, and mischaracterizing facts from the record; and drawing various conclusions unsupported by substantial evidence and failing to explain them adequately. Furthermore, the ALJ's decision exhibits a pervasive misunderstanding of fibromyalgia. Applying its discretion to review the issue, the court concluded that the ALJ erred by according little weight to plaintiff's treating physician's opinion. In this case, the ALJ's treatment of the doctor's opinion contains several errors and is not supported by substantial evidence. The court held that the record as a whole clearly establishes plaintiff's disability and thus her legal entitlement to disability benefits. The court remanded to the Commissioner for calculation of disability benefits. View "Arakas v. Commissioner" on Justia Law

Posted in: Public Benefits