U.S. v. TINEKA S. MCLAUGHLIN, No. 14-4920

Decided: February 16, 2016

The Fourth Circuit dismissed the defendant’s motion to appeal.

Tineka McLaughlin pleaded guilty to bank fraud in violation of 18 U.S.C § 1344 as a result of her participation in an ATM fraud scheme in Fayetteville, North Carolina. This appeal concerns McLaughlin’s right to appeal her sentencing under her interpretation of her plea agreement. As part of her plea agreement, McLaughlin agreed to waive, in part, all of her rights to “appeal the conviction and whatever sentence is imposed on any ground, including any issues that relate to the establishment of the advisory Guideline range, reserving only the right to appeal from a sentence in excess of the applicable Guideline range . . .” In essence, the plea agreement limited McLaughlin’s right to appeal to any part of the sentencing, referred to as an upward departure, in excess of the advisory Guideline range but not the established advisory Guideline range itself. At sentencing, McLaughlin was asked by the district judge if she understood that her plea agreement only reserved her the right to appeal an upward departure from the Guideline range established at sentencing and otherwise waived all rights to appeal whatever sentence is imposed, to which she responded, by saying, “Yes, sir.”

McLaughlin was subsequently sentenced to pay restitution and to serve twenty-seven months’ imprisonment. McLaughlin’s sentence was based upon two variables. First, the district court calculated McLaughlin’s Guideline range using a four-level role-in-the-offense enhancement pursuant to U.S.S.G § 3B1.1(a) that produced an advisory Guideline range of 15 to 21 months. Second, the district court, based upon the notion that the lower Guideline range underestimated the seriousness of McLaughlin’s criminal history and her likelihood of recidivism, imposed an upward departure. The upward departure increased McLaughlin’s sentence to 27 months.

Following her sentencing, McLaughlin appealed. However, McLaughlin misconstrued her right to appeal the upward departure with her waiver of the right to appeal the advisory Guideline range. The United States moved to dismiss, arguing that she waived her right to appeal issues related to the establishment of her advisory Guideline range. McLaughlin countered, arguing that she could appeal the sentence because it was in excess of the applicable advisory Guideline range. Though she did retain a right to appeal this particular issue, in reality, McLaughlin’s appeal did not actually concern the upward departure, but rather only concerned the establishment of the advisory Guideline range. Pointing to principles of contract law which govern the construction and interpretation of plea agreements, the Fourth Circuit pointed out that McLaughlin cannot employ “selective reading” of her plea agreement and must instead “give meaning and effect to every part of the contract.” The Court seemed somewhat perplexed as to why McLaughlin declined to include a motion to appeal her sentence’s upward departure, which she was entitled to do, and instead challenged the establishment of her Guideline range, which she was not permitted to do. Nevertheless, the Court was forced to dismiss McLaughlin’s motion to appeal.

McLaughlin also argued that the plea agreement was at least ambiguous and should thus be construed in her favor. However, the Fourth Circuit declined to accept this contention, and pointed out that the fact that parties in an “adversary system unsurprisingly argue for different interpretations of an agreement does not in and of itself render an agreement ambiguous.”

Accordingly, the Court dismissed the Defendant’s motion to appeal.

Opinion

Brandon Gregg

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