Fourth Circuit Survey

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Week of June 25, 2018 through June 29, 2018

Jose Santos Guzman Gonzalez v. Jefferson B. Sessions, III (Wynn 6/27/2018): The Fourth Circuit held the imposition of $100 in court costs, assessed attendant to a prayer for judgment continued under North Carolina law, does not qualify as a “conviction” within the meaning of the Immigration and Naturalization Act. The court granted the plaintiff’s petition for review, reversed the Board of Immigration Appeals’ Order, and remanded the case for further proceedings. Full Opinion


Highlight Case

United States of America v. Christian M. Allmendinger, No. 17-6447

Decided: June 26, 2018

The Fourth Circuit held that a criminal defendant’s attorney provided constitutionally ineffective representation for failing to raise the “merger problem” in a money laundering case. The court reasoned that the defendant’s attorney’s failure to raise this defense satisfied both the performance and prejudice prongs as required by Strickland v. Washington. Therefore, the court vacated and remanded the judgment of the district court for further proceedings.

On appeal, the defendant Christian Allmendinger asked the Fourth Circuit to reverse the district court’s judgment by holding that his counsel in his direct appeal provided inadequate representation by failing to raise the “merger problem.” Allmendinger and his associate, Abdulwahab, founded a company which sold interests in life insurance policies to investors. When marketing products for the company, Allmendinger and Abdulwahab “lied about many critical facts” and misrepresented their company’s “size, staff, and record of earning returns for its investors.” They both misappropriated millions of dollars for their personal benefit, and the fraudulent scheme resulted in investors losing roughly $100 million. A jury found Allmendinger guilty of mail fraud, conspiracy to commit mail fraud, securities fraud, conspiracy to commit money laundering, and two counts of money laundering. This resulted in a sentence of 540 months’ imprisonment. Abdulwahab was found guilty of mail fraud, conspiracy to commit mail fraud, securities fraud, conspiracy to commit money laundering, and money laundering. This resulted in a sentence of 720 months’ imprisonment.

On direct appeal, Allmendinger’s appellate counsel raised four principal arguments, failing to raise the “merger problem.” The Fourth Circuit rejected all of these arguments. Subsequently, Abdulwahab appealed, and his appellate counsel raised the “merger problem” which would bar Abdulwahab’s money laundering convictions. The Fourth Circuit agreed and therefore reversed Abdulwahab’s money laundering convictions; however, the district imposed the same sentence on remand. Allmendinger brought this § 2255 action claiming his appellate counsel provided ineffective representation by failing to raise the “merger problem.”

The Fourth Circuit reasoned that in order to have a finding of ineffective representation, the two prongs of Strickland must be satisfied: (1) appellate counsels performance must have been deficient at the time of trial, and (2) appellate counsel’s deficient performance must have caused him prejudice. Under the first prong, the court reasoned that if appellate counsel raised the “merger problem,” it would have had a near-certain chance of success on appeal, therefore causing his two counts of money laundering to be barred. While Allmendinger’s original appellate counsel specifically considered the “merger problem” but failed to raise it for “strategic purposes,” the court was not persuaded. The court explained that counsel’s actions must pass the test of reasonableness and not every purported “strategic reason” will do. As to the second prong, the court did not accept the argument that Allmendinger’s sentence would not have ultimately changed. The court instructed that had counsel raised the “merger problem” on direct appeal, they would have reversed the money laundering counts. Therefore, prejudice was established due to appellate counsel’s deficient performance.

Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit vacated the district court’s order and remanded for further proceedings.

Full Opinion

Ryan W. Van Buren