Week Twenty-Five

Week of June 19, 2017 through June 23, 2017

Jesse Solomon v. Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Player Retirement (Duncan 6/23/2017): The Fourth Circuit held that retired professional football players who are eligible for social security disability benefits as a result of football-related injuries are deemed to be totally and permanently disabled for the purpose of receiving “Football Degenerative” benefits under the Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Retirement Plan and the NFL Supplemental Disability Plan (collectively, the “Plan”). The court further held that Section 5.1(c) of the Plan, which provides “Football Degenerative” benefits to a retired player who becomes disabled within fifteen years of retirement, does not require a retired player to submit contemporaneous medical evidence that predates the fifteen-year cutoff date. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s order requiring the Plan to provide “Football Degenerative” benefits to the plaintiff. Full Opinion

James Samples v. David Ballard (Floyd 6/23/2017): The Fourth Circuit held that the court’s decision in U.S. v. George, 972 F.2d 1113 (4th Cir. 1992), which held that a district judge must hear objections to a magistrate judge’s proposed findings and recommendations in the context of pretrial suppression of evidence when those claims are first raised, also applies to objections to magistrate judges’ findings and recommendations as to habeas corpus petitions. The court further held that, in the habeas context, an “issue” is ground for relief, and “arguments” are the legal positions related to the ground for relief. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of plaintiff’s habeas petition, finding the district court did not commit reversible error. Full Opinion

U.S. v. Jeffrey Sterling (Diaz 6/22/2017): The Fourth Circuit held that telephone communications, which were made within the district and potentially helped disseminate classified information, were sufficient evidence to support a jury’s finding of venue for several similar offenses when a CIA agent was on trial for allegedly retaining and disclosing classified information. Similarly, the court further held that, from evidence that defendant stored classified documents in his subsequent home, the reasonable inference that defendant also unlawfully retained those classified documents in his prior home was sufficient to support a jury’s finding of venue. However, the court held that the mere retention of those documents in the defendant’s home within the district was insufficient by itself to establish that communication, delivery, or transmission of those documents also occurred within the district. Finally, the court held that snapshots of defendant’s email account, showing an email present in one snapshot but absent in the other, was sufficient evidence for a jury to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant deleted the email to conceal it from a grand jury investigation. The Fourth Circuit vacated the district court’s order of conviction for defendant’s unauthorized disclosure of a letter pertaining to a classified program, but otherwise affirmed the other convictions.  Full Opinion

Janya Sawyer v. Foster Wheeler, LLC (Niemeyer 6/22/2017): The Fourth Circuit held that, under 28 U.S.C. § 1442(a)(1), which provides for removal to federal court of state court actions involving federal officials and their agents in specified circumstances, a federal contractor need only establish a sufficient connection or association between the acts in question and the federal office to prove causation for the purpose of removing a state tort action to federal court. The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s order to remand the case to state court and, because the district court never addressed whether notice of removal was timely, remanded in order to make that determination. Full Opinion

U.S. v. Mario Mondragon (Niemeyer 6/21/17): The Fourth Circuit held that statements indicating that the defendant possessed and displayed a revolver during the time period of a conspiracy at a drug-trafficking associate’s residence constituted sufficient evidence for application of a two-level sentence enhancement under U.S.S.G. § 2D1.1(b)(1), which increases a defendant’s base level offense if a dangerous weapon has a sufficient connection with a drug offense. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s application of the two-level sentence enhancement. Full Opinion

U.S. v. Harold Hall, Jr. (Wynn 6/21/2017): The Fourth Circuit held that the district court abused its discretion in allowing the admission of factually unrelated prior convictions when the government proffered no evidence of any connection or relevance between defendant’s prior drug possession conviction and the present possession with intent to distribute charge. Furthermore, the court held the absence of evidence linking the defendant to contraband in a locked bedroom demonstrated the lack of support needed for the district court’s decision to admit the normally inadmissible evidence of prior convictions. The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s decision to admit Defendant’s prior convictions under Rule 404(b), vacated Defendant’s convictions, and remanded to the district court. Full Opinion

Abella Owners’ Association v. MI Windows & Doors, Inc. (Niemeyer 6/20/2017): The Fourth Circuit held that the district court’s grant of injunction was justified by the relitigation exception to the Anti-Injunction Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2283, because the plaintiff was a class member who received notice and did not opt out of a class action settlement. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s order, which granted the defendant’s motion to enforce the district court’s injunction by enjoining the plaintiff from proceeding in California state court with its claims against the defendant. Full Opinion

U.S. v. Jonathan Pinson (per curiam 6/19/2017): The Fourth Circuit held that the presence of four separate ventures, each with different memberships, methods, and motives, was insufficient to prove a common purpose and relationships, which are necessary for establishing a Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (“RICO”) conspiracy. The court also held that an employee who merely delivers invoices to a government entity cannot be considered an “agent” under 18 U.S.C. § 666. Finally, under 18 U.S.C. § 666, the court held that payments made for a single construction project was merely compensation for a commercial transaction, not a “benefit.” The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s order of convictions for honest services fraud, mail and wire fraud, money laundering, and false statements; vacated Defendant’s convictions for theft and RICO conspiracy; and remanded for resentencing. Full Opinion

U.S. v. Nathan Wolf (Traxler 6/19/2017): The Fourth Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying Defendant’s motion for a new trial based on newly discovered evidence when Defendant was given newly discovered evidence by a former assistant shortly before trial. The Fourth Circuit also held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying a subsequent motion for a new trial based on witness testimony that appeared to be false after the government had presented overwhelming evidence to convict Defendant. The Fourth Circuit affirmed Defendant’s convictions and district court-imposed sentence for Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act conspiracy, bank fraud, and conspiracy to launder money. Full Opinion

U.S. v. Alexsi Lopez (Harris 6/19/2017): The Fourth Circuit held that the Juvenile Delinquency Act, 18 U.S.C. § 5031, is not unconstitutional for treating individuals who commit crimes as juveniles but are adults at the time of indictment as adults because, given prosecutors’ broad discretion as to when to bring charges, due process cannot be triggered simply when the timing of that decision affects the availability of juvenile procedures. Similarly, the court also rejected the defendant’s argument that, by the same rationale, 18 U.S.C. § 5031 also violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment by exposing an indicted individual to adult punishment for a crime committed as a juvenile. Lastly, the expanded limitations period for Hobbs Act federal robbery prosecutions under 18 U.S.C. § 3297 is only relevant when DNA testing actually implicates an identified person, not whether the government could have implicated the person earlier. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s order of conviction for two counts of robbery under the Hobbs Act. Full Opinion

 

Highlight Case

Jesse Solomon v. Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Player Retirement, No. 16-1730

Decided: June 23, 2017

The Fourth Circuit held that retired professional football players who are eligible for social security disability benefits as a result of football-related injuries are deemed to be totally and permanently disabled for the purpose of receiving “Football Degenerative” benefits under the Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Retirement Plan and the NFL Supplemental Disability Plan (collectively, the “Plan”). The court further held that Section 5.1(c) of the Plan, which provides “Football Degenerative” benefits to a retired player who becomes disabled within fifteen years of retirement, does not require a retired player to submit contemporaneous medical evidence that predates the fifteen-year cutoff date. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s order requiring the Plan to provide “Football Degenerative” benefits to the plaintiff.

After retiring from the National Football League (“NFL”), Jesse Solomon (“Solomon”) began to experience many symptoms associated with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (“CTE”), as well as symptoms of extensive football-related orthopedic injuries. Because of those injuries, in 2007, Solomon was forced to resign from his new career as a high school teacher and football coach. For this reason, on March 11, 2009, Solomon sought benefits under the Plan, which provided benefits to retired players who became totally and permanently disabled as a result of their football career. In this first application, Solomon sought benefits for his orthopedic injuries, not his CTE-related disability. Despite medical records suggesting that Solomon was totally and permanently disabled, the Disability Initial Claims Committee (“Committee”) and, later, the Retirement Board (“Board”), which hears appeals, denied Solomon’s application. On December 12, 2010, Solomon submitted a second application, claiming that neurological and cognitive impairments caused him to become totally and permanently disabled. However, Solomon was once again denied benefits under the Plan after the two-person Committee was unable to reach a unanimous decision.

On June 21, 2011, however, an Administrative Law Judge granted Solomon social security disability benefits. If the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) determines that a player is eligible for social security disability benefits, the player is deemed to be totally and permanently disabled for the purpose of benefits under the Plan. Therefore, on August 4, 2011, the Board designated Solomon totally and permanently disabled based upon the SSA’s determination. However, the Board only awarded Solomon “Inactive” benefits as opposed to the more generous “Football Degenerative” benefits, finding that the record after Solomon’s retirement did not support a finding of total and permanent disability before the fifteen-year cutoff date. Consequently, Solomon submitted a reclassification request, but the Board denied this request, finding (1) its denial of Solomon’s first application in 2009 meant Solomon was not totally and permanently disabled as of that date, and (2) Solomon presented no contemporaneous medical evidence prior to the fifteen-year cutoff date.

In affirming the district court’s ruling, finding the Board abused its discretion, the Fourth Circuit emphasized that the Board provided no justification in the record to support its denial of Solomon’s reclassification request. In particular, the court reasoned that the Board’s denial of Solomon’s first application for benefits, which concerned only orthopedic injuries, had no effect on whether Solomon became totally and permanently disabled as a result of neurological and cognitive impairments, a separate and distinct injury. Furthermore, the court disagreed with the Plan’s argument that a submission of contemporaneous medical records that predated the fifteen-year cutoff was necessary for Football Degenerative benefits. Instead, the court found that Section 5.1(c) of the Plan only required the player to become totally and permanently disabled within the relevant time frame, which could be proven without medical records predating the cutoff date.

Ultimately, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s holding, awarding “Football Degenerative” benefits to the plaintiff.

Full Opinion

Chandler D. Rowh