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Week 15 (2019)

Week of April 8, 2019 through April 12, 2019

McCaffrey v. Chapman (Quattlebaum 4/9/19): The Fourth Circuit held that under the Elrod-Branti exception, a Sheriff’s decision not to re-appoint a Sheriff’s Deputy did not violate the Sheriff’s Deputy’s First Amendment right to freedom of political association. In particular, the Fourth Circuit determined that a sworn Sheriff’s Deputy is type of employee to whom the Elrod-Branti exception applies. Therefore, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision to dismiss the Sheriff’s Deputy’s Complaint for failure to state a claim. Full Opinion

Berkenfeld v. Lenet (Wynn 4/8/19): The Fourth Circuit held that Maryland’s strict contributory negligence law required the issue of contributory negligence to go to a jury in any case where more than one inference could be drawn from the material facts. The Fourth Circuit then determined that more than one reasonable inference, with respect to the issue of Plaintiffs’ contributory negligence, could be drawn from these facts. Therefore, the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings. Full Opinion

Highlight Case

Va. Dep’t of Corr. v. Jordan, No. 17-7594

Decided: April 11, 2019

Argued: November 1, 2018

The Fourth Circuit, in an opinion written by Judge Julius Richardson, held that the Plaintiffs in this case failed to show a further need for discovery that outweighed the burdens that discovery would impose on a non-party to the suit. The Court reasoned that discovery devices used against nonparties are generally limited in scope, and proportional. In addition, such discovery must not subject the nonparty to undue burden. If it does, the district court has the discretion to quash or modify the discovery device. Therefore, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s order granting the Defendant’s motion to quash. 

This appeal is tangentially related to another civil action brought by Richard Jordan (“Jordan”) and Ricky Chase (“Chase”) in the Southern District of Mississippi. In that action Jordan and Chase challenged Mississippi’s method of execution, which they claim will cause them unnecessary physical pain in violation of their constitutional rights under the Eighth Amendment. To prevail in that case Jordan and Chase needed to show “a feasible and readily implemented alternative method of execution.” To that end, Jordan and Chase served a third-party subpoena on the Defendant, VDOC. Jordan and Chase’s subpoena sought both documents and testimony from the VDOC relating to Virginia’s executions, specifically their execution process and execution drugs. The VDOC provided Jordan and Chase with some documents, but otherwise opposed the third-party subpoena claiming that it would subject them to an undue burden. Jordan and Chase argued that the information they sought was relevant to their action in Mississippi and that the requested disclosures would not impose a burden on the VDOC.

Before reaching the merits of the case, the Fourth Circuit had to determine the order of issues it would address. The Court determined that the VDOC’s state sovereign immunity argument should be analyzed after it addressed the merits of the case. In denying Jordan and Cross’s argument, the Fourth Circuit recognized that nonparties deserve a higher degree of protection from discovery because they are strangers to the litigation. As such a district court must engage in an even more “demanding and sensitive” inquiry into the discovery sought. Specifically, a district court must carefully weigh the benefits and burdens of the discovery sought, taking into consideration (1) the relevance of the information sought, (2) the requesting party’s need of the information, (3) the information available to the requesting party from other sources, (4) the financial cost associated with the document production, (5) privacy and confidentiality interests, (6) the recipient’s interests, (7) and whether the subpoena is overbroad. 

After weighing the above factors, the Fourth Circuit determined that the district court did not abuse its discretion when it quashed Jordan and Cross’s third-party subpoena. In particular, the Fourth Circuit focused on the VDOC’s voluntary production of documents, which the Court found responded to most of the document requests, and the burden this subpoena would have on the VDOC and its drug supplier if the supplier’s identity were leaked to the public. 

Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s order granting VDOC’s motion to quash Jordan and Cross’s third-party subpoena. 

Full Opinion

Joshua Hill