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Week 35 (2020)

Week of August 24 through August 28, 2020

Finch v. Covil Corp. (Motz 8/24/2020): The Fourth Circuit held that the district court’s jury instructions gave proper guidance to determine whether the manufacturer’s insulation constituted a substantial factor in the decedent’s mesothelioma; that the instructions embodied the general principles of law set forth by Lohrmann v. Pittsburgh Corning Corp., 782 F.2d 1156, 1162 (4th Cir. 1986); and that the district court’s refusal to reduce the jury’s award of damages was not an abuse of discretion. The court reasoned that because the instruction required the jury to consider how often the decedent was around asbestos-containing insulation sold by the manufacturer, and how much exposure to asbestos was attributable to the insulation, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in providing the instruction. The court also concluded that because the manufacturer failed to argue at trial that federal law mandated a verdict comparison, the company waived the argument on appeal. Further, the court found that the manufacturer failed to meet its burden of proving that statements made by plaintiff’s counsel during closing argument improperly prejudiced the jury, and that the trial evidence provided a basis for the jury’s award, the trial court did not abuse its discretion. Therefore, the court affirmed the district court’s denial of relief. Full Opinion

United States v. Miselis (Diaz 8/24/2020): The Fourth Circuit held that the Anti-Riot Act, 18 U.S.C. §§ 2101-02, is not unconstitutionally vague under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment, but that it unconstitutionally limits protected speech under the First Amendment in some of its applications. The court reasoned that the Anti-Riot Act prohibition on speech that tends to “encourage” or “promote” a riot, as well as speech “urging” others to riot or “involving” mere advocacy of violence, violates the First Amendment because those forms of speech are protected advocacy under the Brandenburg test for incitement. Still, the court found that the Anti-Riot Act comports with the First Amendment in other respects and posed no concern as applied to the defendants’ own conduct. Therefore, the court affirmed the district court’s refusal to dismiss the defendants’ indictments. Full Opinion

Valentino v. Clarke (Richardson 8/26/2020): The Fourth Circuit denied a convicted state prisoner’s petition for federal habeas relief, holding that the state court’s denial of post-conviction relief was an adjudication on the merits and was neither unreasonable nor inconsistent with Supreme Court precedent, where the petitioner alleged that his lawyer should have sought forensic testing of various items at the crime scene to bolster his defense. The court found that the state court reasonably determined that counsel’s performance was not deficient as to the items found at the crime scene and that the state court reasonably believed that the failure to test petitioner’s sock did not cause prejudice. Therefore, the court affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the petition. Full Opinion

Grimm v. Gloucester Cty. Sch. Bd. (Floyd 8/26/2020): The Fourth Circuit held that the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. § 1681(a), protect transgender students from school bathroom policies that prohibit them from affirming their gender. On the Equal Protection claim, the court concluded that the school board’s restroom policy—which provided only male and female restrooms and locker rooms and limited use of those facilities to the corresponding genders—constituted sex-based discrimination. The court reasoned that transgender persons constitute a quasi-suspect class, and that the board’s policy was not substantially related to its interest in protecting students’ privacy, as required under heightened scrutiny review. On the Title IX claim, the court relied on the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, 140 S. Ct. 1731 (2020), to conclude that the bathroom policy discriminated against the appellee “on the basis of sex.” Therefore, the court affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment on both claims. Full Opinion

Farkas v. Butner (Richardson 8/26/2020): The Fourth Circuit held that a prisoner could not file a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2241 because his previous motion failed to show § 2255 was “inadequate or ineffective to test the legality of his detention.” The court reasoned that the prisoner was unable to satisfy either of the two limited circumstances provided for in the “savings clause” of § 2255(h)(2). Therefore, the court affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the prisoner’s § 2241 application based on lack of jurisdiction. Full Opinion

Long v. Hooks (Thacker 8/24/2020; amended: 8/26/2020): The Fourth Circuit vacated the dismissal of a prisoner’s habeas petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, holding that the North Carolina post-conviction court involved an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law. The court reasoned that the state post-conviction court’s conclusion—that the petitioner failed to show that several pieces of evidence were exculpatory and would have had an impact on the outcome of the trial—violated his constitutional rights under Brady v. Maryland because it subjected the prisoner to an enhanced burden, unreasonably applied Supreme Court caselaw, and was objectively unreasonable. Thus, the court remanded to the district court to consider whether the petition can survive the threshold requirements of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 and to permit further discovery. Full Opinion

United States v. McLeod (Motz 8/27/2020): The Fourth Circuit dismissed the defendant’s appeal, holding that his challenge, under 18 U.S.C. § 3583(e)(2), was impermissible because it rested on the factual and legal premises that existed at the time of his sentencing. The court reasoned that because the defendant failed to object at sentencing and failed to file a direct appeal, enforcing the defendant’s current challenge would undermine Congress’s detailed scheme of appellate and collateral review. Therefore, the court held that the time for both an objection and a direct appeal had passed, the defendant could not use § 3583(e)(2) to evade these requirements, and ultimately dismissed the appeal. Full Opinion

United States v. Green (Gregory 8/28/2020): The Fourth Circuit held that an indictment, which failed to provide proper notice, combined with an improper jury instruction (omitting an essential element of a crime) were substantial errors that ought to be corrected under plain error review. Relying on its recent decision in United States v. Medley, 2020 WL 5002706 (4th Cir., Aug. 21, 2020), the court concluded that these errors were sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome of the proceedings. Therefore, the court vacated the defendant’s conviction and remanded with instructions to the district court to enter judgment dismissing the count without prejudice. Full Opinion

John Bozeman