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

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The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's dismissal of plaintiff's Title IX claim against the Visitors of Virginia State University and his Fourteenth Amendment claims against a university administrator. Plaintiff's claims arose from an altercation with a former girlfriend in a VSU dormitory.The court adopted the Seventh Circuit's approach, which closely tracks the text of Title IX, asking merely "do the alleged facts, if true, raise a plausible inference that the university discriminated against [the student] on the basis of sex?" By adopting this approach, the court merely emphasized that the text of Title IX prohibits all discrimination on the basis of sex. The court clarified that inherent in this approach is a requirement that a Title IX plaintiff adequately plead causation—that is, a causal link between the student’s sex and the university’s challenged disciplinary proceeding. The court concluded that plaintiff's Title IX claim was properly dismissed where there is no plausible inference that plaintiff's gender was the but-for cause of his treatment under VSU's disciplinary proceedings. Likewise, plaintiff's equal protection claim under 42 U.S.C. 1983 fails for largely the same reasons. In regard to plaintiff's due process claim under section 1983, the court concluded that the administrator is entitled to qualified immunity because there was no clearly established right to continued enrollment in higher education. View "Sheppard v. Visitors of Virginia State University" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of defendant's motion for compassionate release. Defendant began serving a 57-month term of imprisonment at FCI Elkton shortly after he pled guilty to one count of traveling to engage in illicit sexual conduct. Defendant sought compassionate release after staff and incarcerated persons were infected with the coronavirus, arguing that his chronic health conditions placed him at a heightened risk for contracting and suffering severe complications from the disease.The court concluded that, although the district court erred in applying USSG 1B1.13, p.s. to defendant's motion, the district court did not abuse its discretion in applying the 18 U.S.C. 3553(a) factors to defendant's case. In this case, the district court was entitled to consider the amount of time defendant had already served as one factor and to give great weight to the nature of defendant's offense, noting the particular circumstances of his conviction. View "United States v. Kibble" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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The Fourth Circuit affirmed defendant's sentence for being a felon in possession of a firearm, holding that the district court did not err in computing defendant's criminal history score. The court rejected defendant's contention that the district court erred in adding one criminal history point under USSG 4A1.1(c) based on his North Carolina conviction for possession of marijuana, which was treated under North Carolina law as a prayer for judgment continued (the PJC disposition).The court explained that Section 4A1.1(c) directs that one additional point be added to a defendant's criminal history score for any "prior sentence" less than 60 days, with a limitation of four total points under that section. The court further explained that the plain language of Section 4A1.2(f) encompasses defendant's PJC disposition, notwithstanding the fact that his sentencing in that case was deferred indefinitely. Contrary to defendant's contention, the court stated that the range of sentencing options under North Carolina law is not dispositive in the court's analysis, because federal rather than state law applies to its interpretation of the Guidelines. Furthermore, the naming conventions of the state dispositions do not affect the present outcome. Nor does state law treatment of a diversionary disposition influence application of the Guidelines. Therefore, the court concluded that, under the Guidelines, the adjudication or admission of guilt preceding entry of the PJC, rather than the ultimate outcome of the PJC disposition, places such a disposition in the category of cases assigned one criminal history point under Section 4A1.1(c). In this case, the record shows that defendant had been afforded the benefit of rehabilitative disposition but did not take advantage of that benefit. View "United States v. Miller" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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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

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The Fourth Circuit vacated defendant's conviction and 210-month sentence for possession with intent to distribute hydrocodone and oxycodone. The court concluded that counsel was constitutionally ineffective because counsel unreasonably failed to argue meritorious objections and advised his client to waive those objections without understanding the gravity of that waiver. Furthermore, those objections would have resulted in a reduction of the Guidelines range applicable to defendant's sentence. Based on the disparity between her sentence and those of similar defendants, and on the overwhelming record evidence of defendant's addiction to opioids, the court concluded that defendant has rebutted the presumption of reasonableness and established that her sentence is substantively unreasonable. The court remanded for resentencing. View "United States v. Freeman" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court's denial of defendant's motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity in a 42 U.S.C. 1983 action brought by plaintiff, who is serving a life sentence. Plaintiff filed suit alleging that defendant violated his right to due process by failing to provide advance notice of a security detention hearing that led to more restrictive confinement.The court assumed without deciding that a due process violation occurred and conclude that, even so, the right to fair notice of a security detention hearing was not clearly established at the time such that a reasonable official would have known that plaintiff had the right to be notified prior to his security detention hearing. Accordingly, the court remanded with instructions to enter an order granting the motion. View "Halcomb v. Ravenell" on Justia Law

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After David Mays was arrested for public intoxication, he was placed in a cell at the county jail to sober up, and was later found dead. Mays' estate filed suit against the officers involved, alleging claims that stemmed from allegations that the officers were deliberately indifferent to Mays' medical needs. The district court granted the officers' motion to dismiss.The Fourth Circuit reversed, holding that the complaint plausibly alleges that Mays had an objectively serious medical condition requiring medical attention and that the officers subjectively knew of that need and the excessive risk of their inaction. Therefore, the officers are not entitled to qualified immunity. The court also concluded that plaintiff has alleged enough facts to make out a plausible claim for deliberate indifference to Mays' serious medical condition under the Fourteenth Amendment. View "Mays v. Sprinkle" on Justia Law

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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

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The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court's denial of defendant's motion to suppress, concluding that officers did not have reasonable suspicion to stop and frisk him and thus violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search.In this case, officers relied on information from a confidential informant; two interactions that officers believed were consistent with the manner in which illegal drugs are bought and sold, but in which no drugs were found; and a single officer witnessing a handshake between defendant and another man and concluding that it was a hand-to-hand drug transaction, even though the officer did not see anything exchanged. Furthermore, the officers concluded that this amounted to reasonable suspicion, overlooking the facts that the interaction took place in a public space, in broad daylight, outside of the vehicles, and in front of a security camera. After the interaction, defendant went into a store, rather than immediately leaving the scene. Therefore, the court agreed with defendant that, under the totality of the circumstances, the officers did not have more than a mere hunch that criminal activity was afoot when they stopped him. View "United States v. Drakeford" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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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