Week Twenty-Four

Week of June 12, 2017 through June 16, 2017

Int’l Refugee Assistance v. Donald Trump (Gregory 6/15/2017): The Fourth Circuit amended its May 25, 2017 ruling, in which it upheld an injunction against an executive order issued by President Trump that would temporarily restrict entry of citizens from certain countries to the United States. The court reasoned that the President’s broad power to deny entry to aliens under 8 U.S.C. § 1182(f) and 1185(a) was not absolute, as it cannot go unchecked when, as here, the President wields it through an executive order that could cause irreparable harm to individuals across the nation. The court held that the claim was justiciable and that the district court properly enjoined Section 2(c) of the executive order in response to Plaintiffs’ Establishment Clause claim, but that the district court erred in issuing an injunction against the President himself. The court lifted the injunction as to the President himself, but affirmed the remaining substance of the injunction. Full Opinion

Curtis Cox v. Snap, Inc. (Motz 6/13/2017): The Fourth Circuit held that, under the prevention doctrine, when a party to a contract materially contributes to the non-occurrence of a condition precedent by failing to bring that condition about, the condition is excused if the party’s inaction is wrongful under the circumstances. Because violation of a contractual duty is plainly wrongful for the purposes of the prevention doctrine, and the defendant violated the terms of the contract at hand by failing to repurchase stock options, the court held that the prevention doctrine applied and the defendant thus could not avoid liability to the government contracting firm. The court further held that the damages were properly calculated using the defendant’s actual sales instead of an indeterminate figure provided in the contract. The court thus affirmed the district court’s entry of summary judgment in favor of the plaintiff. Full Opinion

US v. Scott Cammorto (Niemeyer 6/13/2017): The Fourth Circuit held that the defendant’s Georgia rape conviction satisfied the requirements of a predicate offense for identifying him as a Tier III sex offender. The court reasoned that the Georgia offense was “categorically comparable to or more severe than,” and was narrower than, the federal crime of aggravated sexual abuse, as described in 18 U.S.C. § 2241, which was one of the offenses defining a Tier III offender, regardless of whether the defendant was an aider or abettor or merely encouraged the commission of the offense. The court thus affirmed the district court’s imposition of an enhanced sentence of 41 months’ imprisonment based on the defendant’s Tier III sex offender status. Full Opinion

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Comm’n v. CONSOL Energy, Inc. (Harris 6/12/2017):  The Fourth Circuit held that an employer was not entitled to judgment as a matter of law when the evidence presented at trial allowed the jury to conclude the employer failed to make available to a sincere religious objector the same reasonable accommodation it offered other employees, in clear violation of Title VII. Evidence that the employee was a devout evangelical Christian, that he firmly believed a new biometric scanning system would affiliate him with the Antichrist, that the employer refused to accommodate his requests while simultaneously offering a cost-free accommodation to those with non-religious objections, and that the employer clearly communicated the employee would be fired if he did not comply was sufficient to support the jury’s findings of failure to accommodate, constructive discharge, and compensatory damages, and the district court’s award of lost wages and back pay, but not punitive damages. The court thus affirmed the district court’s judgment in all respects. Full Opinion

Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. v. AMH Roman Two NC, LLC (Duncan 6/12/2017): The Fourth Circuit held that a bank seeking to reopen bankruptcy proceedings failed to satisfy the requirements of Rule 60(b). Specifically, the court held that it was unreasonable for the bank to wait more than two years from the entry of a bankruptcy court order canceling its deed of trust and several months after an innocent bona fide purchaser bought the property in good faith before seeking relief from the Order. The court affirmed the judgment of the district court, thereby upholding the bankruptcy court’s denial of the bank’s motion to set aside the Order. Full Opinion

 

Highlight Case

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Comm’n v. CONSOL Energy, Inc., No. 16-1406

Decided: June 12, 2017

The Fourth Circuit held that an employer was not entitled to judgment as a matter of law when the evidence presented at trial allowed the jury to conclude that the employer failed to make available to a sincere religious objector the same reasonable accommodation it offered other employees, in clear violation of Title VII. The court also found no error in any of the evidentiary rulings challenged by the employer in its motion for a new trial, and found no error in the district court’s exclusion of pension benefits as a collateral source in its calculation of lost wages. Finally, the court affirmed the district court’s denial of punitive damages. Ultimately, the court affirmed the district court’s ruling in all respects.

The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) filed an action on behalf of Beverly R. Butcher, Jr. (“Butcher”), a former mine employee who was a life-long evangelical Christian. Butcher was employed by defendant Consol Energy, Inc. (“Consol”) with no conflicts for 37 years. Upon Consol’s implementation of a new biometric hand-scanner system to track hours worked, Butcher gave notice that he would be unable to comply for religious reasons. Namely, he believed the hand-scanning system could lead to his identification with the Antichrist. Butcher provided letters from his pastor and himself explaining this undisputedly sincere belief, but Consol consistently refused to provide reasonable accommodations to him and threatened to fire him if he did not comply. Butcher felt he had no choice but to retire. Upon retiring, he discovered that Consol had offered a simple, no-cost accommodation to two other employees who could not use the system for medical reasons. Butcher sought comparable employment in other mines, but was unsuccessful and ultimately accepted a lower-paying construction job. The EEOC filed suit on his behalf, and the jury returned a verdict in its favor. The district court awarded compensatory damages, lost wages, and back pay, but denied the awarding of punitive damages. Consol renewed its motion for judgment as a matter of law, moved for a new trial, and moved to amend the district court’s findings and conclusions regarding equitable remedies. The district court denied all three motions, and Consol appealed. The EEOC filed a cross-appeal of the district court’s ruling on punitive damages.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court on all grounds. The court affirmed the jury’s finding of failure to accommodate because Butcher’s religious belief was sincere despite Consol’s belief that he was mistaken, he provided sufficient reasons for not complying with the new system, Consol refused to allow him to use an already-available alternative method to clock in, and Consol provided a cost-free accommodation to two other employees who objected to the scanner on medical, non-religious grounds. The court recognized that Green v. Brennan’s express holding abrogates prior Fourth Circuit case law by removing the requirement of “deliberateness” for constructive discharge. The court then affirmed the jury’s finding of constructive discharge because Butcher was put in an intolerable position when Consol refused to accommodate his religious objection by requiring him to use the scanner system.

The court continued its analysis by stating that curative jury instructions prevented any prejudice against Consol when evidence of a grievance process was excluded after Consol mentioned it in its opening statement because there was no evidence the jury ignored the instructions or was confused, and that the district court did not err in allowing the jury to re-calculate compensatory damages after the jury was read clarifying instructions. Furthermore, Butcher reasonably mitigated his damages because he searched for jobs at mines and mining job fairs and applied for a mining job before taking the lower-paying construction job. Additionally, the court reasoned that Butcher’s pension benefits were a collateral source and did not require a setoff against his damages because they were required by a collective bargaining agreement and were contributed to a collective pension fund managed by his union. Finally, the court reasoned that punitive damages were inappropriate because the evidence did not suggest the relevant Consol agents engaged in their long negotiations with Butcher in order to reach an agreement that they subjectively believed might violate Title VII.

Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of Consol’s motions for judgment as a matter of law, new trial, and amendment of the district court’s findings; and the court affirmed the district court’s denial of punitive damages.

Full Opinion

Jennifer M. Greene