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

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In 2013, Smith began working with DEA as a subcontractor in the geospatial intelligence program. Smith has a disability that adversely affects her mobility; she was granted accommodations. In 2015, Smith was authorized to work remotely 50 percent of the time. Through 2017, Smith received positive performance reviews. Smith’s position did not change in 2016 when CRSA became the prime contractor. In 2017, Quinn, DEA’s Acting Deputy Assistant Administrator became dissatisfied when Smith was unable to answer questions about the Program. Quinn directed that Smith begin reporting to DEA headquarters. Smith lobbied to maintain her remote work arrangement. DEA officials did not respond to Smith’s request but, because of parking and transportation problems, Smith intermittently continued to work remotely despite notification that she was not authorized to do so. DEA concluded it could not grant the request; the CSRA contract did not expressly provide for remote work and DEA’s building lease limited the issuance of parking passes to employees. DEA alleges that it developed concerns about Smith’s technical skills and performance.DEA officials retrieved the equipment that supported Smith’s remote access and revoked Smith’s security clearance. CSRA terminated the Consultant Agreement. Smith sued, alleging disability discrimination and retaliation under the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. 791, against DEA, and violations of the Rehabilitation Act and the ADA, 42 U.S.C. 12101, against CSRA. The district court rejected the claims on summary judgment.The Fourth Circuit affirmed as to Smith’s disability discrimination claim but vacated as to her retaliation claim. Smith was an independent contractor and not a CSRA employee. DEA was not required to offer Smith a remote work accommodation and its failure to do so was not a refusal to accommodate but Smith established a prima facie case of retaliation. View "Smith v. CSRA, Inc." on Justia Law

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In 2015, Dylann Roof, then age 21, shot and killed nine members of the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina during a meeting of a Bible-study group. A jury convicted him on nine counts of racially motivated hate crimes resulting in death, three counts of racially motivated hate crimes involving an attempt to kill, nine counts of obstructing religion resulting in death, three counts of obstructing religion involving an attempt to kill and use of a dangerous weapon, and nine counts of use of a firearm to commit murder during and in relation to a crime of violence. The jury unanimously recommended a death sentence on the religious obstruction, 18 U.S.C. 247, and firearm counts. He was sentenced accordingly.The Fourth Circuit affirmed, upholding findings that Roof was competent to stand trial and a ruling that allowed him to represent himself during the penalty phase of his trial. Neither the Constitution nor the Federal Death Penalty Act requires that mitigation evidence be presented during capital sentencing over a defendant’s objection. Isolated witness testimony describing Roof as “evil” and stating that he would go to “the pit of hell” did not render the trial fundamentally unfair. The court rejected arguments that his convictions for religious obstruction were invalid under the Commerce Clause or required proof of religious hostility; that the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, 18 U.S.C. 249, was an unconstitutional exercise of Congress’s Thirteenth Amendment authority; that the Attorney General erroneously certified Roof’s federal prosecution; and that Roof’s firearm convictions under 18 U.S.C. 924(c) were invalid because the predicate offenses are not categorically crimes of violence. View "United States v. Roof" on Justia Law

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Sardis was attempting to adjust a container containing a garage door hood on a forklift when the wood slat constituting the container’s handhold broke off, causing him to fall off a ladder rack and hit his head on the pavement nine feet below. He died two weeks later. His estate sued, alleging that ODC was negligent in designing the container’s handholds, and had a duty to warn foreseeable users of the container to not rely on the handholds for pulling it. The estate offered Sher Singh, Ph.D., a packaging design engineer, as its sole expert on design defects and Michael Wogalter, Ph.D., who described himself as an expert on “human factors,” as the sole expert on failure to warn. The court rejected “Daubert” challenges to both experts. The jury rendered a $4.84 million verdict.The Fourth Circuit reversed. The district court abdicated its critical gatekeeping role to the jury and admitted Singh’s and Wogalter’s “irrelevant and unreliable” testimony without engaging in the required Rule 702 analysis. Without that testimony, the estate offered insufficient admissible evidence as a matter of law to prevail on any of the claims. Even if an expert provides relevant testimony as to how an allegedly defective product breached a governing industry standard (which Singh did not), that says nothing about whether the expert reliably opined that said breach caused a plaintiff’s harm. Wogalter’s testimony was incompatible with the governing Virginia “reason to know” standard. View "Sardis v. Overhead Door Corp." on Justia Law

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Doe, a student at a public school in Virginia, had recently undergone a gender transition. Vlaming, Doe’s French teacher, refused to use male pronouns to refer to Doe. Vlaming argued that using male pronouns to refer to someone who was born a female violated his religious beliefs. Eventually, the superintendent placed Vlaming on administrative leave and recommended his dismissal. After a hearing, the School Board dismissed Vlaming for failure to comply with his superiors’ directives and violations of policies prohibiting discrimination and harassment. Vlaming sued, alleging statutory and constitutional violations and breach of contract. The Board removed the case to federal court, arguing the district court had removal jurisdiction because it had federal question jurisdiction, 28 U.S.C. 1441(c), over whether Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity. The Board also argued that because Title IX, 20 U.S.C. 1681, was a “law providing for equal rights,” section 1443(2), the civil rights removal statute, authorized removal.The district court granted Vlaming’s motion for remand. The Fourth Circuit affirmed. Because none of Vlaming’s state law claims necessarily raises a federal issue, federal question jurisdiction is lacking, and section 1441(c) does not provide a basis for removal. The Supreme Court has limited the meaning of a “law providing for equal rights” in section 1443 to only those concerning racial equality. View "Vlaming v. West Point School Board" on Justia Law

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Stokes’s South childhood included extreme abuse and neglect. When Stokes was 13, his mother died, leaving Stokes parentless. Stokes repeated the eighth grade three times. Stokes, at age 15, became involved with Smith, a friend of his mother’s. They married. In 1988, Stokes was convicted of assaulting Smith with a knife. The couple reunited. In 1991, Stokes assaulted Smith again. After his release from prison, Stokes participated in the rape and murder of his cellmate’s ex-wife. Stokes penned a detailed confession. The jury also heard about the subsequent murder of Ferguson, who had been aware of the murder plot. Stokes pleaded guilty to Ferguson’s murder.Sims’s appointed attorneys for the 1998 trial conducted a mitigation investigation. For the penalty phase, they planned to argue that Stokes’s HIV-positive status made him suitable for a life sentence. On the eve of sentencing, Stokes withdrew his consent, refusing to allow his counsel to mention his HIV status. Counsel did not present any personal evidence, believing that “an Orangeburg County jury” at that time would not be receptive to evidence about his childhood and “white jurors might react especially to Stokes, a Black man, raping Snipes, a white woman. They presented a single mitigation witness, a retired prison warden, who refused to meet Stokes, or interview anyone who knew Stokes. His testimony was counter-productive. The prosecution presented robust aggravating evidence. Evidence of Stokes’s 1991 assault of Smith was especially relevant; Stokes’s lead trial counsel had personally prosecuted that case against Stokes. Stokes was sentenced to death.The Fourth Circuit reversed the denial of habeas relief. Post-conviction counsel were ineffective, providing good cause for Stokes’s procedural default of his claim. The failure to adequately investigate and present personal evidence was objectively unreasonable and prejudicial. View "Stokes v. Stirling" on Justia Law

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The Montgomery County Council established the Emergency Assistance Relief Payment Program (EARP) in March 2020 to provide emergency cash assistance to County residents with incomes equal to or less than 50% of the federal poverty benchmark who were not eligible for federal or state pandemic relief. Although eligibility for EARP aid is not dependent on a person’s status as an undocumented immigrant, such individuals are eligible to receive EARP payments. To fund EARP, the County appropriated $10,000,000 from reserve funds to the County’s Department of Health and Human Services. Taxpayers filed suit in Maryland state court, asserting that EARP violated 8 U.S.C. 1621(a), which, with few exceptions, generally prohibits undocumented persons from receiving state and local benefits. Recognizing that Section 1621 does not authorize private enforcement, the plaintiffs cited the Maryland common law doctrine of taxpayer standing, which “permits taxpayers to seek the aid of courts, exercising equity powers, to enjoin illegal and ultra vires acts of [Maryland] public officials where those acts are reasonably likely to result in pecuniary loss to the taxpayer.” The case was removed to federal court based on federal question jurisdiction, 28 U.S.C. 1331. The court granted the County summary judgment. The Fourth Circuit affirmed. Congress has declined to authorize private parties to enforce Section 1621, a legislative decision that cannot be circumvented by invocation of a state’s law of taxpayer standing. View "Bauer v. Elrich" on Justia Law

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Frank embezzled $19 million from his former employer, NCI, and pleaded guilty to wire fraud, 18 U.S.C. 1343. The district court sentenced Frank to 78-months’ imprisonment and ordered Frank to pay restitution of $19,440,331. The government has recovered over $7 million and attempted to garnish Frank’s 401(k) retirement account under the Mandatory Victims Restitution Act (MVRA), filing an Application for Writ of Continuing Garnishment, 18 U.S.C. 3664(m)(1)(A)(i), naming Schwab as the garnishee. Schwab currently holds approximately $479,504 in Frank's 401(k) account, which is covered by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. 1001. Frank argued that ERISA’s anti-alienation provision protects retirement plans against claims by third parties. The Fourth Circuit affirmed that the MVRA permits the seizure of Frank’s 401(k) retirement account, notwithstanding ERISA’s protections. When the government enforces a restitution order under the MVRA, it stands in the shoes of the defendant, acquiring whatever rights to 401(k) retirement funds he possesses; the government’s access to the funds in Frank’s 401(k) account may be limited by terms set out in Frank’s plan documents or by early withdrawal penalties to which Frank would be subject. The court remanded so that the district court may decide what present property right Frank has in his account. The court rejected an argument that the Consumer Credit Protection Act, 15 U.S.C. 1673(a), limits the government to taking 25 percent of the funds. View "United States v. Frank" on Justia Law

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In 1993, Plymail was convicted for a 1992 sexual assault. Plymail filed a notice of intent to appeal in March 1994. What followed was an ordeal spanning over 20 years, six lawyers, and multiple state courts. Many delays stemmed from disagreements with the attorneys, difficulty contacting them, various courts taking too long to rule on simple motions, and Plymail’s battle with ulcerative colitis. The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals affirmed Plymail’s convictions in 2015.Plymail filed a federal habeas petition asserting that his incarceration was unconstitutional based on the delay of his appeal, comments made by the trial judge that coerced the jury into rendering a verdict, and improper statements made by the prosecutor during closing arguments. The district court rejected his claims. The Fourth Circuit reversed. Plymail is entitled to habeas relief based on the prosecutor’s improper statements exhorting the jury to protect women and send a message to the community and to “sadomasochistic” persons. Those statements rendered the trial so fundamentally unfair as to deny Plymail due process of law. View "Plymail v. Mirandy" on Justia Law

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In 2008, Zito purchased a beachfront house and lot on Nags Head (a barrier island). In 2016, the house burned down. The lot is governed by North Carolina’s Coastal Area Management Act (CAMA): buildings with less than 5,000 square feet must be set back at least 60 feet or 30 times the local rate of erosion, whichever is farther, from the vegetation line. Buildings of less than 2,000 square feet built before June 1979 fall under a grandfather provision, requiring a setback of only 60 feet from the vegetation line. The Zito property qualifies for the grandfather provision but is set back only 12 feet from the vegetation line. In 2018, the coastline by the property eroded at an average rate of six feet per year. Experts indicate that coastal erosion and rising sea levels could cause the property to be underwater by 2024. The permit officer denied Zito’s application to rebuild The Coastal Resources Commission denied a variance, informing Zito of the right to appeal in state superior court.Zito filed suit in federal court, arguing that CAMA’s restrictions amounted to an unconstitutional taking. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the suit. The Commission qualifies as an arm of the state subject to the protection of sovereign immunity; the Eleventh Amendment bars Fifth Amendment taking claims against states in federal court where the state’s courts remain open to adjudicate such claims. View "Zito v. North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission" on Justia Law

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Before pleading guilty, Glover attempted to hire an attorney. The attorney sent thousands of dollars sent by Glover's family to the DEA, believing the funds were drug proceeds. The government seized the funds under 21 U.S.C. 881(a)(6). Glover began filing pro se motions concerning the seized funds. Glover and his second appointed counsel (Ehlies) requested a “Farmer” hearing on the subject of the seized funds. The government acknowledged that a hearing pursuant to Farmer "might be necessary.” Instead of setting such a hearing, the court focused on Glover’s frequent pro se motions and whether Glover wanted to continue to be represented by counsel. The court stated that it would not appoint new counsel and indicated that it would not address the “Farmer” issue unless Glover chose to represent himself.Glover pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute 500 grams or more of a drug containing cocaine, heroin, fentanyl, methamphetamine, and marijuana; and conspiracy to conduct financial transactions involving proceeds of unlawful activity. Before sentencing, Glover filed a pro se motion requesting to withdraw his plea, making numerous allegations of misconduct by Ehlies. The court declined to appoint new counsel, determining that Glover could either proceed pro se (he again declined) or be represented by Ehlies, and denied the motion.The Fourth Circuit vacated. Precedent precluded Glover’s argument that the government wrongly seized untainted assets needed to hire the counsel of his choice but Glover’s attorney had a conflict of interest at his plea withdrawal hearing and substitute counsel should have represented him there. View "United States v. Glover" on Justia Law