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

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The Fourth Circuit denied a petition for review challenging the BIA's order denying petitioner's application for asylum, withholding of removal, and protection under the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT). Petitioner claims that he fears persecution by the gangs and police of El Salvador on account of his status as a former member of the MS-13 gang.The court concluded that petitioner does not identify any purported error in the social-distinction standard applied by the BIA in its order. In this case, the BIA agreed with the IJ that petitioner's proposed groups do not satisfy the social-distinction test because he has not shown that gang members who have renounced their gang membership are recognized in Salvadoran society to be a distinct group. The court concluded that the IJ did not apply the wrong standard and correctly stated that the relevant inquiry was whether "society in El Salvador recognizes former gang members as a group." The court explained that, although the IJ referred to petitioner's repeated testimony that his tattoos would identify him as a former gang member, it did not employ a literal visibility standard for social distinction. The court also concluded that the record does not support petitioner's claim that the IJ failed to consider the documentary evidence in assessing whether his proposed social groups were cognizable. To the contrary, the IJ made clear reference to documents submitted by petitioner and DHS. Finally, the court concluded that, viewed as a whole, the administrative record does not compel a finding that Salvadoran society views former MS-13 members or former MS-13 members who left for moral reasons as socially distinct.In regard to petitioner's CAT claim, the court concluded that the IJ and BIA specifically addressed some of the evidence petitioner contends they ignored; the BIA similarly referenced country-conditions evidence; and petitioner presents nothing to rebut the presumption that the agency considered that evidence to the extent it was relevant. The court also concluded that substantial evidence supported the BIA's finding that petitioner has not shown it is more likely than not he will be tortured if removed to El Salvador. View "Nolasco v. Garland" on Justia Law

Posted in: Immigration Law
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North Carolina filed suit in state court seeking recovery of an unpaid civil penalty against the Marine Corps for failing an air quality compliance test. After the federal government defendants removed to federal court, the district court dismissed the case.The Fourth Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part, holding that the Clean Air Act does not preclude removal but does waive sovereign immunity as to the penalty at issue here. The court concluded that the United States properly removed this suit under the federal officer removal statute and rejected North Carolina's contention that the Clean Air Act's state suit provision, 42 U.S.C. 7604(e), implicitly carves out a narrow exception to removal that precludes federal adjudication of this federal immunity defense. Rather, these two statutes are capable of coexistence and, contrary to North Carolina's argument, section 7604(e) does not require actions brought in state court to remain there. The court also concluded that the Clean Air Act unambiguously and unequivocally waives the United States' sovereign immunity as to all civil penalties assessed pursuant to state air pollution law, including punitive penalties like the one at issue here. The court remanded for further proceedings. View "North Carolina v. United States" on Justia Law

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Marlowe supervised the jail where Kuntz was taken after leaving the scene of a minor accident with a high blood-alcohol level. Kuntz caused a disturbance, Marlowe beat Kuntz. Other officers slammed his head into the wall repeatedly. Officers observed Kuntz lying unconscious in his own vomit and tried to rouse him by pouring ice water over him. Six hours later, an ambulance was called. The EMTs believed they were responding to alcohol poisoning, so Kuntz was not airlifted to a trauma center. Kuntz had irreversible brain damage and died when he was removed from a ventilator. Doctors testified that such injuries are generally treatable if medical attention is sought in the first hours. Convicted under 18 U.S.C. 242, Marlowe was sentenced to life imprisonment.In 2009, Marlowe sought relief under 28 U.S.C. 2255, claiming ineffective representation. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the denial of relief In 2017, Marlowe filed a 28 U.S.C. 2241 habeas petition, citing the Supreme Court’s 2014 “Burrage” decision, interpreting a statute imposing a mandatory minimum sentence for drug offenses where death or serious bodily injury results as requiring a showing of but-for causation. The jury in Marlow's case was not asked to decide whether Kuntz would have lived but for Marlowe’s conduct.The Fourth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the petition. Section 2241 is not available unless a 28 U.S.C. 2255 motion would be “inadequate or ineffective,” meaning that when Marlowe was convicted, the settled law of the Supreme Court or the circuit in which he was convicted established the legality of his conviction. The law concerning 18 U.S.C. 242’s causation standard could hardly be “settled” if the Sixth Circuit never interpreted it. View "Marlowe v. Warden, FCI Hazelton" on Justia Law

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Galvan, a citizen of Mexico, entered the U.S. in 2003 on a six-month nonimmigrant visa but remained in this country with his wife, a citizen of Mexico without legal immigration status, and their four U.S.-citizen children. Galvan, twice convicted of DUI, applied for cancellation of removal, 8 U.S.C. 1229b, arguing that his removal would result in “exceptional and extremely unusual hardship” for his children. His wife testified that Galvan had been the family’s main source of income, his absence during his detention had required her to work longer hours, which had impacted her ability to take care of the children. One child had been diagnosed with ADHD and suffers from anxiety; his wife was concerned that the children would not be able to participate in their established activities.While the IJ found all the witnesses credible, he denied Galvan’s application; Galvan met the temporal and good moral character criteria for cancellation and had not been convicted of any disqualifying offenses but failed as a matter of law to prove that his removal would cause “exceptional and extremely unusual hardship.” The BIA affirmed. The Fourth Circuit denied a petition for review. While the statutory standard of “exceptional and extremely unusual hardship” presents a mixed question of law and fact, giving the court jurisdiction, the IJ did not err in determining that Galvan failed to prove eligibility for cancellation of removal. View "Galvan v. Garland" on Justia Law

Posted in: Immigration Law
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Defendant was convicted of conspiring to engage in sex trafficking after she lured women into prostitution via social media and, in at least one case, attempted to use Facebook to force a young woman who had left her trafficking ring to return. While defendant was later on supervised release from her trafficking conviction, she used Facebook to help broker a drug deal.The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's imposition of a social networking special condition of supervised release, concluding that the condition is not unconstitutionally vague. The court also concluded that the district court did not abuse its discretion by imposing the social networking condition where the condition advanced the statutory goals of deterrence, protecting the public, and rehabilitation, and it deprived defendant of no more liberty than was necessary to accomplish these goals—even if it does prevent her from finding a romantic partner online during the period of supervision. Finally, while the court found no plain error in the district court's management of the hearing, the court joined the Seventh Circuit in cautioning against sitting Probation with the Government while in the courtroom. View "United States v. Comer" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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After defendant pleaded guilty to a single felon-in-possession charge, the district court imposed a two-year term of supervised release as part of his sentence, subject to the Western District of North Carolina's "standard" conditions. On appeal, defendant challenges five of his supervised release conditions as procedurally and substantively unreasonable.The Fourth Circuit agreed with defendant that the district court failed to adequately address nonfrivolous arguments that defendant made regarding the challenged conditions, rendering their imposition procedurally unreasonable. In this case, the whole of the district court's explanation of the supervised release conditions consisted of two sentences. On the record before the court, it is unclear whether the district court gave defendant's nonfrivolous arguments the consideration that they are due. Accordingly, the court vacated those conditions and remanded for resentencing. View "United States v. Boyd" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Plaintiff filed suit alleging that prison officials ignored his repeated medical complaints and denied him meaningful treatment, leading to his collapse and major surgery. Plaintiff alleged a Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) claim against the United States for medical negligence, as well as a Bivens claim against certain individuals involved in his care for deliberate indifference in violation of the Eighth Amendment.The Fourth Circuit concluded that the district court erroneously dismissed the FTCA claim because plaintiff did not secure a certification from a medical expert before filing suit, as required by West Virginia law. As two of its sister circuits have concluded, state-law certification requirements like West Virginia's are inconsistent with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, and thus displaced by those rules in federal court. Accordingly, the court reversed the district court's dismissal of the FTCA claim.The court vacated the district court's grant of summary judgment to individual defendants on plaintiff's Bivens claims. The district court reasoned that plaintiff could not establish deliberate indifference as a matter of law. However, the court concluded that the district court did not first provide plaintiff, who proceeded pro se, with proper notice of his obligation to support his claims or an opportunity to seek discovery. Accordingly, the court vacated this portion of the district court's judgment and remanded for further proceedings on the Bivens claims. View "Pledger v. Lynch" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit affirmed defendant's sentence of 327 months' imprisonment imposed after he pleaded guilty to producing child pornography, as well as his within-Guidelines lifetime term of supervised release.The court concluded that defendants' sentence was procedurally reasonable where the district court imposed an upward variance, rather than a Guidelines departure, and thus notice was not required. The court rejected defendant's contention that the district court's reliance on the victim's self-harm and mental health problems prejudiced him because he lacked access to her medical records. Furthermore, the court found the district court's explanation entirely adequate to support the lifetime term of supervised release, especially in context of the parties' arguments. The court also found no reversible procedural error in the district court's pronouncement of the special conditions for defendant's supervised release. Finally, the court concluded that defendant's sentence was substantively reasonable and the district court did not abuse its discretion in sentencing defendant 5 years above the Guidelines range. Nor was the term of supervised release substantively unreasonable. View "United States v. Williams" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's judgment reducing defendant's sentence by two years, rather than the five years that defendant requested. Defendant sought a reduction in sentence under the First Step Act, and the district court rejected defendant's proportionate argument in favor of individualized consideration. The district court acknowledged that defendant had come a long way since the imposition of his original sentence but that he must take responsibility for his actions in a way that he failed to do during his initial sentencing hearing.The court held that district courts should be afforded significant discretion in addressing requests for sentence reductions under the First Step Act. In this case, the district court fully explained its decision to reduce defendant's sentence by two years, considering defendant's arguments and the nature of his offense, his characteristics, including both his post-sentencing mitigation evidence and his criminal record, his new guidelines sentencing range, and the new statutory mandatory minimum in fashioning defendant's sentence. Therefore, the district court did not abuse its discretion in sentencing defendant. View "United States v. Webb" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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After he was diagnosed with nasal cancer, plaintiff filed suit against defendants, alleging that they produced the lumber that his father used in his woodshop and are liable to him for damages because they failed to warn his father that wood dust causes cancer. The district court granted summary judgment to defendants, concluding that during the exposure period, defendants did not have a duty to warn plaintiff's father that wood dust causes cancer because that fact was not known at the time as part of the "state of the art," i.e., the level of knowledge reached.The Fourth Circuit affirmed, concluding that the district court properly determined from the record that the state of the art did not indicate that wood dust causes cancer until 1995, a few years after the exposure period at issue ended, and thus defendants had no duty to warn plaintiff's father of any risk of cancer during that period. The court rejected plaintiff's contention that the district court established an Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) litmus test to the exclusion of other relevant evidence. Rather, the district court appropriately identified and relied on the state of the art as represented by studies collected and evaluated by experts in the field. View "Lightfoot v. Georgia-Pacific Wood Products, LLC" on Justia Law