Wake Forest Law Review

By M. Allie Clayton

Today, in the civil case of Barton v. Constellium Rolled Products-Ravenswood, LLC., a published opinion, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court in granting summary judgment for the company. The court stated that the governing collective bargaining agreement did not provide for vested retiree health benefits, and thus the former employer was within their power to unilaterally alter its retiree health benefits program.

Facts

A class of retirees and their union, The United Steel, Paper and Forestry, Rubber, Manufacturing, Energy, Allied Industry & Service Workers International Union AFL-CIO/CLC (“The Union”), filed this action. The union had represented the retirees since 1988 and had negotiated collective bargain agreements with their previous employer—Constellium Rolled Products-Ravenswood, LLC (“Constellium”).

The Parties’ Agreement

There was a specific provision of their collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”) that governed group health insurance benefits: Article 15. The 2010 provision of Article 15 stated:

  1. The group insurance benefits shall be set forth in booklets entitled Employees’ Group Insurance Program and Retired Employees’ Group Insurance Program, and such booklets are incorporated herein and made a part of the 2005 Labor Agreement by such reference.
  2. It is understood that this agreement with respect to insurance benefits is an agreement on the basis of benefits and that the benefits shall become effective on July 15, 2010, except as otherwise provided in the applicable booklet, and further that such benefits shall remain in effect for the term of this 2010 Labor Agreement.

In addition to Article 15 and the various booklets incorporated by reference therein (which operated as summary plan description (“SPD”)), Constellium (or its predecessors) and retirees agreed to further parameters governing retiree health benefits that were contained in “Cap Letters.” The cap letters throughout the years governed how Constellium (or its predecessors) would allocate health care spending of employees based on pre- and post-January 2003 retirees. The third cap letter, which took effect on January 1, 2011, was unique in that it took effect after the concurrently-negotiated collective bargaining agreement did.

The Unilateral Change Leading to Litigation

While the parties were negotiating a new CBA in July 2012, Constellium proposed a change to Article 15 that would extend the cap on its contributions to retiree health benefits to those who retired before January 1, 2003, and freeze its Medicare Part B premium reimbursement amount for all hourly retirees at $99.90. The Union refused to bargain about this issue because it asserted that the retiree health benefits had already vested. Constellium notified the Union that it planned to make those changes on January 1, 2013, and made those changes on that day.

Procedural History

After discovery, the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. The district court granted the company’s motion and dismissed the case.

The Issue

Did Constellium’s unilateral alteration of those benefits breach its obligations under the CBA?

Reasoning

The Supreme Court in M&G Polymers USA, LLC v. Tackett stated that courts must “interpret collective-bargaining agreements, including those establishing ERISA plans, according to ordinary principles of contract law, at least when those principles are not inconsistent with federal labor policy.” Therefore, as this court was interpreting the collective bargaining agreement with the parties, it was bound by ordinary contract principles. Those ordinary contract principles included the rule that states that in order to find that the retiree health benefits vested, there must be unambiguous evidence that indicates that the parties intended that outcome.

The Fourth Circuit found that the plain language of the CBA and the SPD indicated that the benefits did not vest. They found that there was explicit durational language in the retiree health benefits SPDs. Bolstering that conclusion was the contrast of the retiree health benefits section with a different section of the SPD that stated unambiguously that the pension plans cannot be reduced and they are paid monthly for the participants. Because the language was unambiguous in another section, it clearly demonstrated that the parties knew how to express their intent that certain benefits should vest.

Disposition

Because there were clear temporal limitations on the employee health benefits, the retirees’ and the Union’s arguments that the benefits had already vested cannot be upheld. Therefore, the grant of summary judgment in favor of Constellium by the district court is affirmed.

By Ali Fenno

On February 21, 2017, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the civil case of vonRosenberg v. Lawrence. In vonRosenberg, the Fourth Circuit addressed whether the district court abused its discretion by staying a federal proceeding until the conclusion of a similar state action involving different parties and claims. After examining the abstention standard from Colorado River Water Conservation District v. United States, the Fourth Circuit vacated the abstention order and remanded the case back to the district court, holding that the district court abused its discretion by abstaining in favor of state court proceedings that were not parallel to the federal court proceedings.

Facts

Both this federal proceeding and the related state proceeding concerned whether the Diocese of South Carolina (the “Diocese”) dissociated itself from the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States (the “Episcopal Church”). Bishop vonRosenberg, the federal plaintiff-appellant, claims that the Episcopal Church appointed him as Bishop of the Diocese after removing Bishop Lawrence, the federal defendant-appellee, from the position. But Bishop Lawrence contends that the Episcopal Church could not have removed him because the Diocese of South Carolina had dissociated from the Episcopal Church and acted independently of the organization. Thus, each party claimed to be the Bishop of the Episcopal Church in South Carolina.

State Claim

Litigation over the dissociation matter first began when the Diocese filed suit against the Episcopal Church in a South Carolina state court, claiming that the Diocese had dissociated from the Episcopal Church and sought “resolution of their real and personal property rights.” The Episcopal Church then counterclaimed for trademark infringement and dilution under the Lanham Act. It also requested that Bishop Lawrence and others be added as counterclaim defendants, but the state trial court denied the request in September 2013.

The state court issued its final order on February 3, 2015. It held that the Diocese had validly dissociated from the Episcopal Church and owned the property at issue, and permanently enjoined the Episcopal Church from using the Diocese’s marks. The Episcopal Church appealed, and the South Carolina Supreme Court heard oral arguments on September 23, 2013. No opinion from the state supreme court has yet been issued.

Federal Claim

Bishop vonRosenberg filed this federal action on March, 13, 2013, seeking declaratory-injunctive relief against Bishop Lawrence. He claimed that Bishop Lawrence violated the Lanham Act by falsely advertising himself as the Bishop of the Diocese. But the district court abstained the proceeding in favor of the state court proceedings in August 2013. The court reasoned that it had broad authority to decline jurisdiction on cases seeking declaratory relief. On appeal, the Fourth Circuit vacated the abstention order on the grounds that the district court had applied the wrong abstention standard; the district court should have applied the standard for actions involving both declaratory and non-declaratory relief from Colorado River Water Conservation District v. United States. The Fourth Circuit remanded the case so this correct standard could be applied.

On remand, the district court again abstained in favor of the state proceedings, and Bishop vonRosenberg appealed.

Failure to Meet the “Exceptional Circumstances” Abstention Standard

The Fourth Circuit began its analysis by establishing that Colorado River is a narrow standard; it requires that abstention of jurisdiction be justified by “exceptional circumstances.” The Fourth Circuit identified the first step in this “exceptional circumstances” test to be a determination of whether the state and federal cases are parallel. It listed three guiding principles for this determination: (1) the federal and state parties should have more in common than merely the litigation of substantially similar issues; (2) the parties themselves should be nearly identical; and (3) despite overlapping of facts, there must not be serious doubt that the state action would not resolve all the claims. The Fourth Circuit then noted that even if the if the factual circumstances are sufficiently parallel, Colorado River requires that a handful of procedural factors be balanced before abstaining.

In applying these principles to this case, the Court first observed that the parties in the two cases are not the same. Neither Bishop Lawrence nor Bishop vonRosenberg were parties to the state action. Furthermore, the two courts were not litigating the same claims. The state court looked only at the Episcopal Church’s false advertising claim, not that of Bishop vonRosenberg. Thus, because the state and federal cases involved different parties and different claims, the cases were not parallel as required by Colorado River‘s “exceptional circumstances” standard.

Conclusion

The Fourth Circuit concluded that the state and federal proceedings failed to meet Colorado River’s “exceptional circumstances” standard because, as they involved different parties and different claims, they could not be considered parallel cases. Accordingly, it vacated the abstention order and remanded the case back to the district court.

By M. Allie Clayton

On February 15, 2017, in the civil case of Crouse v. Town of Moncks Corner, the Fourth Circuit held that the police chief in Moncks Corner had qualified immunity against a claim by two police officers that they had been fired in retaliation for the exercise of their First Amendment rights.

Initial Facts

Appellants are two detectives, Richard Crouse and George Winningham, who were forced to resign from the Moncks Corner Police Department in October 2013.  The officers were forced to resign due to an interaction they had with Mr. Berkeley regarding Mr. Berkeley’s treatment at the hands of their supervising officer, Lieutenant Michael Roach.  Mr. Berkeley was arrested by Lt. Roach on October 4th. Prior to this incident, the relationship between Lt. Roach and the two detectives, Crouse and Winningham, had been deteriorating, with at least one of the detectives complaining to Captain Murray and Chief Caldwell. Prior to the incident with Mr. Berkeley, the complaints dealt with his management style, treatment of criminal suspects, and showing the officers inappropriate pictures, but did not include accusations of excessive use of force.

The Incident(s) with Mr. Berkeley

On October 4, 2013, James Berkeley was arrested by Lt. Roach. Reports of the arrest conflicted, even by those who were present. The actual facts of the arrest are inconsequential, however, because, on Monday, October 7, 2013, Crouse and Winningham heard a version of what happened. Another officer told Crouse and Winningham that he had heard that Lt. Roach had “kneed Mr. Berkeley in the groin.” Crouse and Winningham further investigated the arrest incident by reading the incident report and viewing pictures of the incident. Crouse talked to Capt. Murray about his concern.

The next day, October 8, 2013, Crouse and Winningham decided to speak to Berkeley. During lunch, the two officers went to Berkeley’s house. Although the two were wearing plain clothes and driving in an unmarked car, the officers’ badges and guns were visible. The two were sitting outside Berkeley’s home for a few minutes when they saw Berkeley and initiated a conversation with him. Crouse and Willingham encouraged Berkeley to file a complaint against Roach, telling him that other officers supported his version of the story. Winningham suggested Berkeley get an attorney. Crouse handed Berkeley a form that the police department had created for citizens to submit complaints about police officers. That form was freely available in the police station and had been handed out upon request by clerical staff and police officers.

Crouse and Winningham attempted to conceal the fact that they had met with Berkeley. Crouse made sure that his fingers never touched the form that was given to Berkeley. Crouse also instructed Berkeley to pretend that he did not recognize the officers if they saw each other later. The two originally agreed to tell anyone who asked that Berkeley had flagged them down, but later decided that they would tell the truth if they were questioned.

All of the countermeasures that the two men used to try to conceal their interaction with Berkeley were in vain, as Mr. Berkeley called Officer Winder that same day. Berkeley told Officer Winder that a Moncks Corner police officer had encouraged him to sue Roach and the Moncks Corner police department. Officer Winder informed Chief Caldwell, who responded by assigning Lieutenant Mark Fields to investigate both Berkeley’s claim of excessive use of force and Berkeley’s visit by the mystery officers.

The Investigation by Lt. Fields

The investigation by Lt. Fields did not require much in order to discover who the mysterious officers were. On October 15, 2013, Lt. Fields interviewed Mr. Berkeley, both about the arrest and about the mysterious officers. Based on the physical description of the two men, Fields immediately suspected Winningham and Crouse. Fields told Chief Caldwell of his suspicions and then proceeded to interview Crouse and Winningham separately. Both Crouse and Winningham admitted what they had done, both orally and in written statements. Fields told Chief Caldwell of the confession. Chief Caldwell then instructed Captain Murry to offer Crouse and Winningham an ultimatum: either the two could voluntarily resign or they would be terminated.

Procedural History

On February 19, 2014, Crouse and Winningham filed suit against Chief Caldwell and the Town of Moncks Corner. They raised three claims, two about their wages and a claim under 42 U.S.C. §1983. Regarding their §1983 claim, the detectives argued that their forced resignations were unconstitutional because they were in retaliation for the detective’s exercise of their First Amendment rights. The district court held that Chief Caldwell was entitled to qualified immunity regarding the First Amendment claim and granted summary judgment in favor of Chief Caldwell. The district court reasoned that the Chief was entitled to qualified immunity because, under Garcetti v. Ceballos, acting as a private citizen was a required element of a First Amendment retaliation claim, and the plaintiffs did not clearly establish that element. The two other claims were dismissed without prejudice, and the plaintiffs re-filed those claims as a separate action.

The Issue

The issue in this case is whether the chief of police had qualified immunity on the 42 U.S.C. The §1983 claim, and, if the chief did not have qualified immunity, whether the plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights were violated.

The Law

Employees do not surrender their First Amendment rights, even if they are employed by the government. The interests underlying the rule are both the employee’s interest in commenting upon matters of public concern and the community’s interest in hearing the opinion of the employees’ informed opinions. (See Pickering v. Bd. of Educ. & City of San Diego v. Roe). While the government employer might impose certain restraints on the employees’ speech.

Under McVey v. Stacy, the Fourth Circuit has established a three-prong test to determine whether an employee’s First Amendment rights were violated. The first two prongs of which are questions of law. The first prong involves two inquiries: (1) whether the speech was made as a citizen or pursuant to the employee’s duty & (2) whether the speech addressed a matter of the community’s interest or complaints regarding internal office affairs. If the speech was made as a private citizen about a matter of public concern, the inquiry can proceed to the second prong. The second prong requires the court to balance the interest of the employee in speaking and the interest of the government in providing efficient services, which requires a “particularized inquiry into the facts of a specific case.” Only if the employee’s interest outweighed the government employer’s interest, does the court proceed to the third prong—a determination whether the speech caused the disciplinary action.

Qualified Immunity

An employer is entitled to qualified immunity from those claims if either of the first two prongs cannot be resolved under clearly established law. Under Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, to defeat a claim for qualified immunity, a plaintiff must show two things: (1) that the official violated a constitutional or statutory right & (2) that the right was “clearly established at the time of the challenged conduct.” In order to demonstrate that the right was clearly established, there must be existing precedent that places the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate. The inquiry depends on the official’s perceptions when the incident occurred.

Holding and Reasoning

Chief Caldwell is entitled to qualified immunity because he reasonably could have viewed the actions of Crouse and Winningham as “surreptitious conduct designed to foment complaints and litigation against a supervisor with whom they did not get along. The Fourth Circuit further stated that the right is not clearly established in this case, and thus the Fourth Circuit did not even address whether or not the constitutional violation occurred.

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court which stated that Caldwell was entitled to qualified immunity because it was unclear whether Crouse and Winningham were speaking as citizens or as government employees.  The inquiry of whether Crouse and Winningham were speaking as citizens involves a practical inquiry into the employee’s daily professional activities to determine whether the task was within the scope of the employee’s duties.  The Court reasoned that under the facts to his case, Chief Caldwell was reasonably able to believe that Crouse and Winningham were speaking as employees of the police department.  Crouse and Winningham were identified as police officers and their speech resembled their daily duties as detectives.  According to the court, Chief Caldwell “is not liable for bad guesses in gray areas.” Because Chief Caldwell’s belief was reasonable, he is thus entitled to qualified immunity

Disposition

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court of South Carolina’s decision that Chief Caldwell was entitled to qualified immunity. The Court affirmed that Chief Caldwell had a reasonable belief that Crouse and Winningham were acting as police officers and thus, have viewed his interest in maintaining discipline within the department as paramount, leading to a proper exercise of his discretion.

By: Kristina Wilson

On Friday, November 18, 2016, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the civil case RB&F Coal, Inc. v. Mullins. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the U.S. Department of Labor’s Benefits Review Board’s finding that a coal miner, Turl Mullins, and his wife, Deloris Mullins, were entitled to employment and survivors’ benefits under 30 USC § 901 et seq (Black Lung Benefits Act). While the parties agreed that the Mullinses should be compensated, on appeal, the parties disputed whether RB&F Coal, Inc. should be responsible for paying the benefits.

The Statutory Scheme

The Fourth Circuit’s analysis was governed by the Black Lung Benefits Act (“BLBA”) and Virginia’s Guaranty Act. Under the BLBA, a mine operator that employs a miner who becomes disabled by pneumoconiosis is responsible for compensating the miner. 30 USC §§ 901(a), 922(a), 932(b), 932(c). Where multiple coal companies employ a miner, the most recent company to employ the miner is liable for the payments, as long as the company qualifies as a “potentially liable operator.” 20 C.F.R. § 725.495(a)(1). To be a “potentially liable operator,” the coal company and/or its insurer must be financially capable of assuming liability. Id. § 725.494(e).

Virginia’s legislature established the Virginia Property and Casualty Insurance Guaranty Association (VPCIGA), a state chartered non-profit association that provides payment of “covered claims” resulting from insolvent insurers. Va. Code Ann. § 38.2-1603. Virginia state laws require all insurance companies conducting business in Virginia to join the VPCIGA. Id. §§ 38.2-1604. The VPCIGA is only responsible for the claims of an insolvent insurer that are “covered claims,” as defined in the Guaranty Act. Id. § 38.2-1606(A)(1). “Covered claims” include “. . . any claim filed with the VPCIGA after the final date set by the court for the filing of claims against the liquidator or receiver of an insolvent insurer.” Id. § 38.2-1606(A)(1)(b).

Facts and Procedural History

Between 1985 and 1988, Turl Mullins worked for several different coal companies, including RB&F Coal, Inc. (“RB&F”) and Wilder Coal (“Wilder”). Mullins developed pneumoconiosis in 2009 and filed a Black Lung Benefits Act (“BLBA”) claim in that same year. At the time of filing, Mullins’s most recent employer, Wilder, was out of business and its insurer declared insolvent. Therefore, the Department of Labor district director imposed liability on RB&F for payments to the Mullinses. RB&F challenged the finding and transferred the case to an Administrative Law Judge.

The Administrative Law Judge affirmed the Department of Labor’s finding because RB&F failed to prove that Wilder Coal was capable of financially assuming the liability. RB&F appealed the Administrative Law Judge’s finding with the Department of Labor’s Benefits Review Board, but the Benefits Review Board affirmed. This appeal followed.

Wilder Is Not a “Responsible Operator” under the BLBA

On appeal, RB&F first argued that Wilder qualified as a “responsible operator” because Wilder’s claims are still “otherwise guaranteed,” under Virginia’s Guaranty Act. However, Virginia’s Guaranty Act excluded claims filed after the final date set by a court for claims against an insolvent insurer. Va. Code Ann. § 38.2-1606(A)(1)(b). The final date set by a court for claims against Wilder’s insurer was August 26, 1992. Mullins did not file his claim until 2009. Therefore, Mullins’ claim was not “otherwise guaranteed.”

The BLBA Does Not Preempt the Guaranty Act

RB&F next argued that the BLBA preempted the Guaranty Act’s limitation of liability for black lung claims. In so arguing, RB&F assumed that the VPCIGA was an insurer under the BLBA. The Department of Labor regulations implementing the BLBA provide that an insurer is any fund, including a State fund, that is authorized under a state’s workers’ compensation laws to insure employers’ liability. 20 C.F.R. § 725.101(a)(18). However, Virginia’s workers’ compensation laws prevented the VPCIGA from covering Wilder’s insurer’s claims past a certain date. In fact, the Guaranty Act precluded the VPCIGA from providing full coverage of all the claims of an insolvent insurer. Thus, the VPCIGA is not an insurer under the BLBA, and as such, the BLBA does not preempt the Guaranty Act.

Disposition

Therefore, because RB&F established neither that Wilder was a “responsible operator” nor that the BLBA preempted the Guaranty Act, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the Benefits Review Board’s imposition of liability on RB&F.

 

 

 

meeting-room-10270_1280

By M. Allie Clayton

On November 15, 2016, the Fourth Circuit released a published opinion in the civil case of United States v. Government Logistics N. V., and held that, while the substantial continuity test for successor corporate liability did not apply, the factual allegations regarding the fraudulent transaction test could not be resolved in this case except by a fact finder, and thus reversed.

Facts and Procedural History

This complex case began over fifteen years ago as a bid-rigging scheme by shipping businesses in order to defraud the United States. The Fourth Circuit has entertained appeals from decisions in this case at three different points throughout the litigation.

This case began in the year 2001, when Gosselin Group N. V. (then known as Gosselin World Wide Moving, N. V.) and at least one other entity, the Pasha Group, implemented a bid-rigging scheme with regard to two government programs—the International Through Government Bill of Lading (“ITGBL”) program and the Direct Procurement Method (“DPM”) program—that facilitate the trans-Atlantic shipping of household goods that belong to military and domestic personnel. The ITGBL program involves the Department of Defense (“DOD”) soliciting bids from domestic freight forwarders, and those domestic forwarders subcontract foreign operations to businesses overseas. The DPM program involves the DOD soliciting bids from international businesses. Both programs were administered by the Army’s Military Transport Management Command (the “MTMC”).

The Gosselin defendants (Gosselin Group N. V., Gosselin World Wide Moving N. V., and Gosselin Group’s CEO and former managing director, Marc Smet) and the Pasha Group (“Pasha”) implemented a bid-rigging scheme in which they increased the prices that the DOD paid to ship goods to and from Europe under the ITGBL and DPM programs. This led to the DOD paying millions of dollars more than it should have paid. Those bid-rigging schemes did not go undetected, and led to the qui tam proceedings in this case, and successful criminal prosecutions. Qui tam proceedings are lawsuits in which a whistleblower brings a civil claim pursuant to the False Claims Act (“FCA”). Under the FCA, 31 U.S.C. § 3730, whistleblowers are rewarded for assisting the United States in recovering any money lost to the defendants, up to 25% of the proceeds if the government participates, and up to 30% of the proceeds if the government does not participate.

The Criminal Prosecutions

In November of 2003, a grand jury returned a two-count indictment against Gosselin Group and Smet that charged each with “conspiracy to restrain trade, in violation of 15 U.S.C. § 1, and conspiracy to defraud the United States, in contravention of 18 U.S.C. § 371.” In February 2004, Gosselin Group and Pasha agreed to be charged and prosecuted by criminal information for the conspiracy offenses. Gosselin Group N. V. and the Pasha Group entered conditional guilty pleas to a pair of criminal conspiracy offenses. Smet signed the plea both for himself and for the Gosselin Group, thereby escaping further criminal prosecution. Pursuant to that plea agreement, both the Gosselin Group and Pasha admitted to various elements of the conspiracy. The plea agreement was accepted on February 18, 2004. As a result of a contemporaneous agreement between Smet and the Army, Smet was barred from doing business with the United States for three years (March 2004-March 2007). A United States Management Team—consisting of four Gosselin Group employees: COO Stephan Geurts St., Stephan Geurts Jr., Timotheus Noppen, and Ludi Bokken—was created within Gosselin Group to allow Gosselin Group to continue working with DOD, in the absence of Smet.

Under the plea agreement, Gosselin Group and Pasha were able to pursue an immunity claim in the district court to seek dismissal of both the charges lodged in the information. The two defendants claimed that the bid-rigging scheme was immune from federal prosecution. In August 2004, the Eastern District of Virginia dismissed one of those charges, finding that certain provisions of the Shipping Act granted Gosselin Group and Pasha immunity from federal prosecution on the antitrust conspiracy. However, the district court also found that the defendants did not have immunity from prosecution on the charge of conspiracy to defraud the United States. Therefore, the two defendants were sentenced only on the latter charge. This decision led to cross appeals from the defendants and the United States. The Fourth Circuit determined that immunity did not apply to either charge, and further held that the defendants were both criminally liable for both conspiracies and remanded to the district court for resentencing. United States v. Gosselin World Wide Moving, N. V., 411 F. 3d 501 (4th Cir. 2005). The resentencing proceedings began in 2006. The district court imposed a $6 million dollar fine on Gosselin Group, and two separate $4.6 million dollar fines on Pasha. The court also ordered both defendants to make restitution to the DOD in the sum of $865,000.

The Qui Tam Proceedings

In 2002, realtors Kurt Bunk and Ray Ammons (the “Realtors”) brought qui tam proceedings against the Gosselin defendants under the FCA. Bunk filed his qui tam action alleging an FCA claim related to the DPM program in the Eastern District of Virginia in August of 2002. Ammons filed his qui tam action alleging an FCA claim related to the ITGBL program (“ITGBL claim”) and to Gosselin Group exerting pressure on Covan International (“Covan claim”) and Cartwright International Van Lines (the “Cartwright claim”) to submit higher ITGBL claims. These cases were sealed, pursuant to 31 U.S.C. § 3730, and remained under seal and pending while the criminal cases were resolved.

Once the criminal proceedings were resolved in 2006, the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) gave the Gosselin defendants notice of the two pending qui tam actions. The DOJ not only detailed the false claims and bid rigging evidence that was underlying the qui tam actions, but also advised the Gosselin defendants that the United States might intervene. In January 2007, the DOJ sent a settlement demand to the Gosselin defendants.

Smet conveyed his frustration regarding the criminal liability and pending civil matters to Geurts Jr. Later Smet approached Jan Lefebure, the Managing Director of International Freight Forwarding Service—the company that handled Gosselin Group’s commercial exports—with a proposal to move Gosselin Group’s business as it related to the United States to another business entity. Lefebure owned another corporation called Brabiver—described as a “company doing nothing” but that had “a license for transportation or freight forwarding.” Smet proposed to Lefebure a scheme to rebrand and reopen Brabiver and move all of his [a.k.a. Gosselin Group’s] government contracts into Brabiver.

On June 27, 2007, Smet made several interest free loans, totaling over €100,000 to the four principles involved in the Brabiver venture, Noppen, Geurts Jr., Lefebure, and Rene Beckers. The loans were not secured, and only repayable on Smet’s demand, but that never occurred. The next day, Smet’s principles used the loans to purchase shares in Brabiver and formalize the change from Brabiver to GovLog. The very next day, GovLog and Gosselin Group entered into a series of agreements that were memorialized by contracts with terms dictated by Smet, not negotiated, and drafted by Smet’s attorneys and presented by Smet to the GovLog principals. These agreements transferred Gosselin Group’s business with the DOD to GovLog, and also committed GovLog to exclusively use Gosselin Group and its related entities to perform said DOD contracts. In exchange for Gosselin Group’s business with DOD, GovLog did not pay, but promised Gosselin Group a percentage of its future net revenue—“all of those revenues received by GovLog . . . minus the amount of the [services] invoiced by [Gosselin Group] to GovLog in connection with the services provided to GovLog by Gosselin Group and its subsidiaries.” Once GovLog obtained Gosselin Group’s DOD contracts, it began its shipping operations on behalf of Gosselin Group on July 1, 2007—approximately four days after Smet made loans to the GovLog Principals.

GovLog consisted of 20 employees, all but one of whom were previous Gosselin Group employees. Their sole business was signing contracts with DOD and arranging shipping services for DOD, but GovLog was not responsible for any actual shipping, nor did it have any warehouses (GovLog leased warehousing facilities from Gosselin Group). All GovLog actually owned was a couple of automobiles, a chair, and a table. GovLog earned no net revenues during 2007 or 2008, and thus was not obligated to pay any funds to Gosselin Group in exchange for Gosselin Group’s business with the DOD. However, GovLog did pay for the leased warehouse facilities and other services provided by Gosselin Group, which essentially meant that any “money that’s going to GovLog is actually ending up being paid to Gosselin.”

Later that year, on November 7, 2007, Ammons’s qui tam action was transferred to the Eastern District of Virginia and consolidated with Bunk’s qui tam action. In 2008, the Realtors’ complaints were unsealed, but on July 18, 2008 Ammons’s qui tam action was superseded by the government’s Complaint in Intervention under 31 U.S.C. § 3730(b)(2). The government did not intervene in Bunk’s qui tam suit. In the Complaint in Intervention, the government named GovLog as a defendant, and alleged that GovLog was “a successor/transferee in interest of Gosselin [Group].” On October 2, 2008, Bunk filed his Second Amended Complaint, which included GovLog as a named defendant and alleged successor corporation liability claim against GovLog.

The Bunk Complaint pleaded numerous FCA theories of liability against the Gosselin defendants and others. Bunk joined several additional complaints, including a 42 U.S.C. § 1985 claim and state law claims. However, only his DPM claim was not superseded by the government’s Complaint in Intervention. In 2011, the government and the Relators moved for summary judgment on the issue of whether GovLog was liable as a successor corporation of Gosselin Group. The district court severed the claims against GovLog from those against the Gosselin defendants, and then proceeded to conduct a trial to first resolve the claims against the Gosselin defendants.

On July 18, 2011, the jury trial for the Gosselin defendants began on the DPM, ITGBL, and Covan claims. At the close of the government’s case, the district court awarded judgment as a matter of law to the defendants on the ITGBL claim, and submitted the DPM and Covan claims were submitted to the jury. On August 4, 2011, the jury returned a verdict against the Gosselin defendants on the DPM claim and in favor of the Gosselin defendants on the Covan claim. Despite evidence establishing that the defendants had submitted over 9,000 false invoices to the DOD, the district court did not impose any civil penalties, reasoning that such an award would be unconstitutionally punitive (each false claim authorized a minimum civil penalty of $5,500, which would have resulted in a cumulative penalty in excess of $50 million dollars).

Both parties appealed. Bunk challenged the district court’s denial of civil penalties, the government challenged the court’s award of judgment on the ITGBL claim, and the Gosselin defendants argued that Bunk lacked standing. The Fourth Circuit rejected the Gosselin defendants’ standing argument, and directed the court to amend its civil penalties judgment and award $24 million dollars in civil penalties on the DPM claim. The Fourth Circuit also vacated the grant of judgment in favor of the Gosselin defendants on the ITGBL claim and remanded the matter for further proceedings.

Once the claims against the Gosselin defendants were resolved, the district court proceeded to determine the successor corporation liability claims pending against GovLog. The district court initially focused on identifying the applicable legal test for successor corporation liability claim. In September 2014, the district court ruled that application of Carolina Transformer’s substantial continuity test would be inconsistent with the Supreme Court’s decision in Bestfoods. United States v. Carolina Transformer Co., 978 F.2d 832 (4th Cir. 1992); United States v. Bestfoods, 524 U.S. 51 (1998). The court then found that only traditional common law principles governed the issue of GovLog’s liability as a successor corporation.

On November 3, 2014, the Relators and the government moved for summary judgment, relying on the common law’s fraudulent transaction theory of successor corporation liability. Bunk presented two theories of successor corporation liability against GovLog: (1) the substantial continuity theory, and (2) the fraudulent transaction theory. GovLog cross-moved for summary judgment, stating that the theory proposed by the government and the Relators was entirely speculative. On December 23, 2014, the district court granted judgment to GovLog under two theories: (1) neither complaint had properly alleged that GovLog was liable as a successor corporation under any recognized legal theory; and (2) GovLog was entitled to summary judgment for want of a genuine dispute of material fact. The court ruled that the transactions between GovLog and Gosselin Group were not shown to have been pursued with a fraudulent intention because there was “no evidence sufficient to establish any of the recognized ‘badges of fraud’” in regard to the creation or operation of GovLog. On December 29, 2014, the court entered judgment in favor of GovLog. The Relators appealed from the judgment, and the Fourth Circuit has jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291.

The Initial Jurisdictional Question

Initially, the Fourth Circuit addressed whether or not the district court had subject matter jurisdiction over Bunk’s successor corporation complaint. The Fourth Circuit found that the court possessed supplemental jurisdiction over Bunk’s claim. Bunk’s FCA claim provided original jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331. The question remained whether the successor corporation liability claim revolves around the same central fact pattern as the original FCA claim against the Gosselin defendants. The Fourth Circuit held that GovLog’s successor corporate entity liability is wholly dependent on the Gosselin defendants’ liability. Because the “successor corporation liability question is part and parcel of Bunk’s original qui tam action,” the district court did not err in exercising supplemental jurisdiction on this claim.

The Alleged Errors

The Fourth Circuit had to decide whether or not the district court erred by entering judgment in favor of GovLog on the successor corporation liability issue. Bunk challenged the three rulings of the District Court: (1) that the substantial continuity test is inconsistent with Supreme Court precedent; (2) that Bunk had not adequately pleaded the fraudulent transaction theory; and (3) that the fraudulent transaction theory was without evidentiary support, thus leaving no genuine issue of material fact and entitling GovLog to summary judgment.

Successor Corporation Liability Theories

There are four exceptions from the general rule that a corporation that acquires the assets of another corporation does not acquire its liabilities. Under federal common law, a successor corporation takes on the liabilities of its predecessor if: (1) the successor agrees to assume the liabilities; (2) the transaction is a de facto merger; (3) the successor may be considered a “mere continuation” of the predecessor; or (4) the transaction is fraudulent. United States v. Carolina Transformer Co., 978 F.2d 832 (4th Cir. 1992).

Under exception (3), the mere continuation theory states that liability can pass to the successor if “after the transfer of assets, only one corporation remains.” This is not applicable to Bunk’s case because two corporations were viable after the transfer of assets. However, there was another theory proposed in Carolina Transformer—the substantial continuity theory. Substantial continuity theory allows a court to look at eight factors to determine whether successor corporation liability should be imposed. However, the Supreme Court stated in United States v. Bestfoods that “‘[i]n order to abrogate a common-law principle, the statute must speak directly to the question addressed by the common law.’” United States v. Bestfoods, 524 U.S. 51 (1998) (quoting United States v. Texas, 507 U.S. 529 (1993)). Because the FCA doesn’t speak to successor corporation liability, it has “no impact on the traditional common law principles governing successor corporation liability.” Therefore, the district court did not err in declining to apply the substantial continuity test.

Bunk also relied on exception (4), the “fraudulent transaction theory of successor corporation liability.” Because this was dismissed on a motion for summary judgment, the Fourth Circuit reviewed whether the pleadings were legally sufficient under a de novo standard of review. The Fourth Circuit did not decide whether the heightened standard of pleading in Fed. R. Civ. P. 9(b) applied because the Court stated that even if there was a heightened standard it was satisfied in this case. The Bunk Complaint sufficiently outlined the dealings between GovLog and Gosselin Group that formed a solid foundation for the fraudulent transaction theory. Therefore, the district court erred in dismissing Bunk’s successor corporation liability claim as insufficiently pleaded.

The Fraudulent Transaction Theory

However, because the district court ruled in the alternative that GovLog was entitled to summary judgment on Bunk’s fraudulent transaction theory, the Fourth Circuit had to also address whether the summary judgment award was warranted.

Because direct evidence of intent to defraud is rare, courts have developed recognized “badges of fraud” that constitute indirect and circumstantial evidence. Those “badges of fraud” include; (1) the conveyance is to a spouse or near relative; (2) inadequacy of consideration; (3) transactions different from the usual method of transacting business; (4) transfers in anticipation of suit; (5) retention of possession by the debtor; (6) transfer of all or nearly all of the debtor’s property; (7) insolvency caused by the transfer; (8) failure to produce rebutting evidence when the circumstances surrounding the transfer are suspicious; or (9) transactions in which the debtor retains benefits.

In this situation the court found that the evidence did not simply fail to dispel the required fraudulent intention, but it could easily establish it. The Fourth Circuit found that “[a]t least four of the badges of fraud are readily apparent on the evidence . . .:” (1) inadequacy of consideration; (2) transactions different from the usual method of transacting business; (3) transactions in anticipation of suit or execution; and (4) transactions through which the debtor retains benefits. The consideration was found to be grossly inadequate because, in effect, GovLog paid nothing for the business interests it received from Gosselin Group. The transaction was made in haste and with little input from GovLog or any GovLog owners, and Smet was in control of every facet of the transaction—which is not something that occurs in the usual mode of transacting business. Also, the Fourth Circuit found that a reasonable juror could find that Gosselin Group continued to reap the benefits of the business that it transferred to GovLog. But the most suspicious aspect, according to the Fourth Circuit, was the timing of the transaction. “[T]he temporal proximity of the Gosselin defendants’ being advised of the qui tam actions and the GovLog transaction being consummated suggests that the transaction was made to defraud Bunk and the United States out of civil penalties.”

Disposition

According to the Fourth Circuit, the various factual disputes in this case cannot be resolved by anyone except a factfinder. Therefore, the district court erred in awarding summary judgment to GovLog. The Fourth Circuit vacated the judgment and the case was remanded to the district court for further proceedings.

By: Kristina Wilson

Earlier today, November 4, 2016, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the civil case Wells Fargo Equipment Finance v. Asterbadi. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s decision in favor of Wells Fargo. On appeal, the parties disputed whether the statute of limitations on a debt collection judgment against Asterbadi had restarted upon registration in a new district.

Facts and Procedural History

On October 4, 1993, the District Court of Virginia entered a debt collection judgment against Asterbadi for over 2 million dollars. Under Virginia law, the judgment was enforceable for twenty years. Asterbadi made several payments on the judgment, but it remained mostly unsatisfied. The creditor, CIT/Equipment Financing Inc. (“CIT”), registered the debt in Maryland in 2003, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1963. At the time of registration, Asterbadi still owed over 1.5 million dollars on the debt, most of which was interest. After unsuccessful attempts to enforce the judgment against some of Asterbadi’s stocks in Maryland, CIT took no further action to enforce the judgment.

In June of 2007, CIT sold and assigned the judgment to Wells Fargo. Starting in April of 2015, Wells Fargo attempted to enforce the judgment. It filed a notice of assignment and a copy of the assignment in the Circuit Court of Montgomery County, as well as a notice of assignment in the District Court of Maryland. In May of 2015, Asterbadi sought a protective order, stating that Wells Fargo was attempting to enforce a Virginia judgment that was outside Virginia’s and Maryland’s statutes of limitations. In August of 2015, Wells Fargo filed a renewal of its registered judgment in the district court.

The district court ultimately held that the statute of the limitation on the judgment began when the judgment was registered with the district court , which was in August of 2003. Thus, the District Court denied Asterbadi’s motion for a protected order because the judgment was still enforceable against him.

Asterbadi Can Appeal the Protective Order

The Fourth Circuit considered two jurisdictional issues on appeal. First, Wells Fargo argued that Asterbadi’s appeal was limited to an injunction entered against him by CIT in September of 2015. Second, Asterbadi contended that Wells Fargo lacked standing to enforce the judgment.

In September of 2015, the District Court entered an injunction against Asterbadi, and in October of 2015, the District Court denied Asterbadi’s motion for a protective order. Asterbadi appealed the entry of the injunction, but Wells Fargo argued that Asterbadi should have appealed the denial of the protective order instead. However, in its September of 2015 order, the District Court explicitly rejected Asterbadi’s claims that Wells Fargo did not have standing and that the statute of limitations had run on the judgment. The Fourth Circuit stated that these claims were “ necessary conditions precedent” to a grant of injunctive relief. Thus, the Fourth Circuit concluded that Asterbadi could challenge the District Court’s rulings on those two claims.

Wells Fargo Does Have Standing

Asterbadi argued that Wells Fargo lacked standing because it did not comply with Maryland Rule 2-624. Under Maryland Rule 2-624, an assignee may enforce a judgment in its own name when it files the assignment in the court where the judgment was entered. Asterbadi contended that Wells Fargo had only submitted a notice of assignment and not the actual copy of assignment to the District Court. However, Asterbadi himself provided the District Court with a copy of the assignment in an earlier proceeding. Therefore, the District Court had both the notice and the copy of the assignment. The District Court consequently held that Wells Fargo had satisfied Maryland Rule 6-264, and the Fourth Circuit affirmed.

The Judgment’s Statute of Limitations Restarted under Maryland Law

Asterbadi argued that the statute of limitations on the judgment had expired, while Wells Fargo contended that registering the judgment in Maryland constituted a “new judgment” and that the statute of limitations therefore started tolling upon its registration in Maryland.

The Fourth Circuit evaluated both arguments under 28 U.S.C. § 1963. Under this section, debt collection judgments from one district are enforceable in a different jurisdiction if they are registered by filing a certified copy of the judgment in the other jurisdiction’s District Court. The statute’s intent was to minimize the inefficiency and awkwardness of requiring creditors to obtain new judgments against a debtor in order to enforce a judgment in a different jurisdiction. In interpreting § 1963 in this manner, the Fourth Circuit rejected Asterbadi’s contention that the registration was simply a “ministerial act” and a procedural mechanism to enforce the Virginia judgment. The Fourth Circuit reasoned that if registration was just a “ministerial act,” § 1963 would not need to explicitly provide that registered judgments are equally as enforceable as other judgments entered in the registration court.

Because the statute allowed creditors to obtain “new judgments,” without litigation, the Fourth Circuit treated Wells Fargo’s judgment as a “new judgment” upon its registration in Maryland. The Fourth Circuit applied Maryland law and held that debt collection judgments are enforceable for twelve years, pursuant to Maryland Rule 2-625. Accordingly, the judgment against Asterbadi would only have been enforceable until August 27, 2015. However, Wells Fargo filed for renewal on August 26, 2015. Thus, the Fourth Circuit held that Wells Fargo’s judgment will remain enforceable for twelve more years.

Disposition

Therefore, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s denial of Asterbadi’s motion for a protective order.

asylum-1262370_960_720

By Mike Stephens

In a civil case, Zhikeng Tang v. Loretta E. Lynch, decided today, October 28, 2016, the Fourth Circuit denied petition for review of an order from the Board of Immigration Appeals (“Board”) denying requests for asylum, withholding of removal, and protection under the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (“CAT”). The Court ultimately denied the Petitioner’s petition for review because substantial evidence supported the Board’s decision.

Facts and Procedural History

The Petitioner, Zhikeng Tang (“Tang”), is a native and citizen of China. In July 2009, Tang entered the United States illegally. Tang was introduced to Catholicism in 2011 and began attending a church. In 2011, Tang filed for asylum and the United States government began removal proceedings.

At a hearing before an immigration judge (“IJ”), Tang requested asylum, withholding of removal, and CAT protection based on his religious practice. Tang produced evidence of his membership in the Catholic Church and testified that his faith was genuine. Tang argued that his practice of the Catholic faith required attendance in an underground church in China and not a church sanctioned by the Chinese government. Tang claimed that removal to China would result in persecution from the Chinese government due to his participation in an underground church. In support of this argument, Tang provided the IJ with letters from his family that showed underground churches in China were persecuted. In addition, Tang also produced two State Department reports that criticized the Chinese government’s treatment of religious groups in China.

While the IJ found Tang’s testimony to be credible, the IJ rejected Tang’s asylum request. The IJ found that Tang did not provide sufficient evidence to show that Tang “faces an objectively reasonable risk of persecution on account of his Roman Catholicism.’ Additionally, because Tang’s claim for asylum failed, the IJ determined Tang had failed to meet the higher standard required for withholding of removal. Lastly, the IJ also concluded that Tang did not show sufficient evidence that his chances of torture were “more likely than not” upon removal to China.

The Board, on administrative appeal, upheld the IJ’s conclusion that Tang had failed to meet his burden for asylum or withholding of removal. The Board noted that Tang had not shown that the Chinese government knew or would gain knowledge of Tang’s faith and that Tang had not “established that there is a pattern or practice of persecution in China of persons similarly situated to him.” In addition, the Board concluded that Tang had waived his CAT claim because he did not challenge the IJ’s ruling on this claim. Tang appealed, challenging the Board’s denial of asylum, withholding of removal, and CAT protection.

Asylum

Tang argued the Board erred in denying his request for asylum, claiming that he met his burden of proof required for showing a fear of persecution in China. Tang claims that the instances of persecution evidenced in the letters from China and the State Department reports show a “pattern or practice of persecution in China.”

The Fourth Circuit rejected Tang’s argument and upheld the Board’s denial of asylum. The Court held that Tang’s evidence was not sufficient to allow a reasonable fact-finder “to conclude that the requisite fear of persecution existed.” While the Fourth Circuit found that Tang satisfied the subjective component required for asylum, the Court determined that Tang had failed to demonstrate an objective fear of persecution.

The Court found that Tang did not meet either of the requirements to satisfy the objective component provided for within 8 C.F.R. § 1208.13(b)(2). First, the Court concluded that Tang had waived a challenge to the Board’s conclusion that he would face individual persecution from the Chinese government because he failed to raise this argument. Second, the Fourth Circuit determined that Tang did not satisfy his burden of proving “an objectively reasonable chance” of facing a pattern or practice of persecution in China. The Court noted that the two State Department reports that Tang provided showed that the Chinese government recognized the Catholic faith and also permitted practice of the faith in churches and at home. Additionally, the reports and the letters from Tang’s family only showed “random” or “isolated and sporadic” instances of harassment. Thus, because the persecution was not “thorough or systematic,” the Fourth Circuit declined to “disturb the Board’s conclusion that Tang failed to establish a well-founded fear of persecution.”

Withholding of Removal

Tang also claimed the Board’s refusal to grant his application for withholding of removal was erroneous. Tang argued that the evidence he provided in support of his claim for asylum was sufficient to grant his withholding of removal.

The Fourth Circuit held that Tang did not meet the necessary burden to entitle him to a withholding of removal. The requisite burden of proof in a withholding of removal claim is that of a “clear probability,” which means “it is more likely than not that [Tang’s] life or freedom would be threatened in the country of removal.” The Fourth Circuit noted that this burden of proof “is more demanding than that of asylum” and that an applicant’s claim for withholding of removal would fail when their claim for asylum failed. Therefore, the Fourth Circuit held that Tang had failed to satisfy his burden or proof and was not entitled to a withholding of removal.

Protection Under CAT

Lastly, Tang appealed the Board’s denial of protection under CAT. Tang asserted that his evidence showed that the Chinese government’s torture of unregistered church members was “prolific in China.”

The Fourth Circuit refused to review this claim due to lack of jurisdiction. Under 8 U.S.C. § 1252(d)(1), courts can only review an order of removal once the “alien has exhausted all administrative remedies available to the alien as of right.” The Court held that Tang did not exhaust his administrative remedies because he failed to bring this issue on appeal before the Board.

Disposition

The Fourth Circuit ultimately denied Tang’s petition for review of the Board’s decision.

paper-trail-1557043

By Mike Stephens

This afternoon, October 7, 2016, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the civil case McCray v. Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision to dismiss the Plaintiff’s Truth in Lending Act (“TILA”) claims regarding notice. However, the Fourth Circuit reversed and remanded the district court’s decision that two of the defendants, the White Firm and the “Substitute Trustees,” were not “debt collectors” under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”).

Facts and Procedural History

In October 2005, Renee McCray took out a loan to refinance her house. The loan documents were sold to the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (“Freddie Mac”). Wells Fargo was retained to service the loan. After several years of payments, McCray disputed a billing statement in June 2011 and sent Wells Fargo several requests for information regarding the costs contained within the statement. Wells Fargo either failed to respond or did not respond adequately to McCray’s requests. Eventually, McCray stopped making payments after April 2012 and the loan went into default. Wells Fargo employed the White Firm to initiate the foreclosure.

The White Firm sent McCray a letter dated September 28, 2012, notifying McCray that the firm had been retained to begin the foreclosure proceedings on her home. The letter ended by stating, “This is an attempt to collect a debt. This is a communication from a debt collector. Any information obtained will be used for that purpose.” The White Firm also sent McCray another letter notifying her that the loan was “154 days past due” and that $4,282.91 was needed to cure the default. Members of the White Firm were placed as trustees on the deed of trust and filed a foreclosure action in February 2013, which is still pending. McCray filed suit in 2013, alleging violations of FDCPA and TILA. The district court dismissed four of McCray’s claims and granted summary judgment on the fifth. McCray raised three issues on appeal.

Defendants Were Debt Collectors Subject to the FDCPA’s Regulation

McCray first alleged that the the district court erred in concluding the White Firm and the Substitute Trustees were not “debt collectors” as defined within the FDCPA. McCray argued that the facts contained within the complaint regarding the firm’s letter were sufficient to show that the White Firm “regularly collect[ed] or attempt[ed] to collect debts” that were owed to another, consistent with the definition in 15 U.S.C. § 1692a(6). The White Firm responded that their actions did not qualify them as debt collectors as they never actually sought collection of money because, as the district court concluded, there was no “express demand for payment or specific information about [McCray’s] debt.” The White Firm also argued that their foreclosure action was “incidental to [their] fiduciary obligation,” placing them within an exception in § 1692a(6)(F)(i).

The Fourth Circuit reversed and remanded the district court’s dismissal, holding that McCray’s complaint sufficiently alleged that the White Firm were debt collectors and that their actions in initiating the foreclosure constituted debt collection activity for the purposes of the FDCPA. The Court rejected the White Firm’s argument for two reasons. First, the Court held that the FDCPA did not require an “express demand for payment.” Instead, activities “taken in connection with the collection of a debt or in an attempt to collect a debt” are actionable under the FDCPA. Second, the Court held that foreclosure is not merely “incidental,” but instead “central to the trustee’s fiduciary obligation under the deed of trust.” Thus, because McCray’s complaint alleged facts showing the White Firm was retained to collect the loan in default, and because the firm’s letter concluded that it was “an attempt to collect debt,” their actions fell within debt collection activity that is regulated by the FDCPA.

The District Court Properly Dismissed McCray’s TILA Claim

McCray also alleged that the district court wrongfully dismissed her TILA claim against Freddie Mac. McCray argued that Freddie Mac failed to give her notice of its purchase of the loan in violation of § 1641(g). This provision was added by Congress in 2009, which provides that:

not later than 30 days after the date on which a mortgage loan is sold or otherwise transferred or assigned to a third party, the creditor that is the new owner or assignee of the debt shall notify the borrower in writing of such transfer.

The district court found that McCray’s complaint failed to allege that Freddie Mac acquired the loan after Congress amended TILA to require notice. Additionally the district court found that McCray received notice of her claim in October 2011 because Wells Fargo sent her a letter notifying her that Freddie Mac was the “investor” on the loan. Because McCray filed suit in 2013 after receiving notice of the TILA claim in October 2011, the district court held, in the alternative, that her claim was barred by TILA’s one-year limitations period.

The Court affirmed the district court’s initial conclusion because McCray did not challenge the district court’s dismissal for failure to allege that her loan was sold after Congress amended TILA in 2009.  The Court affirmed the district court’s alternative holding as well. McCray did challenge the district court’s alternative conclusion, alleging hat the district court erred by not allowing her the opportunity to amend her complaint.  McCray pointed out that the October 2011 letter was not included in her complaint and instead was contained within the defendants’ motion to dismiss. Yet, McCray submitted an affidavit in her response where she stated she received a letter in December 2011 which repeated that “[t]he investor/noteholder for this loan is [Freddie Mac].” The Court found McCray’s claim was barred by the statute of limitations because McCray conceded notice that Freddie Mac was the owner of the loan in December 2011.

Wells Fargo Did Not Hold Legal Title

Lastly, McCray argued the district court wrongfully dismissed her claim that Wells Fargo violated § 1641(g) when it failed to give her notice that it had been assigned the deed of trust. The district court concluded that § 1641(g) was not applicable because Wells Fargo only received a “beneficial interest” to service the loan and “not legal title.” McCray claimed that a line in the deed of trust granted Wells Fargo an ownership interest and that failure to notify her of this interest was in violated of TILA.

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court, holding that the Wells Fargo did not obtain an ownership interest because the note was not sold to Wells Fargo. The Court found that simply because the note “can be sold” does not mean “the note was in fact sold to Wells Fargo.” The Court also highlighted that this claim contradicted McCray’s previous claim that Freddie Mac owned the note and failed to provide timely notice of ownership.

Disposition

The Court ultimately reversed and remanded McCray’s FDCPA claim that the White Firm and the Substitute Trustees were acting as “debt collectors.” The Court was careful to note that this reversal was not to indicate whether or not the defendants actually violated the FDCPA. The Court affirmed the district court’s dismissal of McCray’s TILA claims.

Judge Johnston Concurring in Part and Dissenting in Part

Judge Johnston, District Judge for the Southern District of West Virginia, sitting by designation, only dissented on the portion of the decision to affirm dismissal of McCray’s TILA claim against Wells Fargo for failing to provide notice of its interest in the loan. Judge Johnston noted that McCray’s complaint was filed pro se, and as such, should have been construed liberally. Because of this, the complaint could be read to infer that McCray could not identify the actual owner of the mortgage loan. In essence, the TILA claim regarding notice was nothing more than a pro se litigant attempting to “cast a wide net” by alleging both Wells Fargo and Freddie Mac failed to provide her notice of which entity owned the loan. Judge Johnston found the majority opinion’s reading of a pro se complaint to be “unduly strict” at the pleading stage when discovery would surely reveal whether Wells Fargo did receive an ownership interest.

courtroom

By Daniel Stratton

Today, March 21, 2016, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the civil case Jane Doe #1 v. Matt Blair, vacating the district court’s decision. The Fourth Circuit held that the lower court incorrectly determined that there was no federal diversity jurisdiction because the defendant corporation failed to allege its principal place of business. The Fourth Circuit overturned the decision because it was a procedural determination rather than a jurisdictional one.

The Case Bounces Between State and Federal Courts

On March 27, 2014, Ben and Kelly Houdersheldt filed a complaint in West Virginia state court as the next friends and guardians of Jane Doe #1, against Matt Blair and Res-Care, Inc. On July 14 of that same year, Res-Care removed the case to federal court, claiming subject matter jurisdiction based on diversity. Res-Care alleged that Jane Doe #1 was a resident of West Virginia and that Blair was a resident of Virginia. The company alleged that it was incorporated in Kentucky, but did not allege the state in which it had its principal place of business. The Houdersheldts, acting as next friends and guardians of Jane Doe #2, amended the complaint to include the second plaintiff. Jane Doe #2 and the Houdersheldts were residents of West Virginia.

On January 20, 2015, the district court sua sponte remanded the case back to state court, asserting that diversity subject matter jurisdiction had not been established. The court asserted that because neither party had asserted where Res-Care had its principal place of business, the court did not have jurisdiction based on diversity. Defendant Blair filed a motion to amend under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e) and for reconsideration under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60. Res-Care joined the motion. In the motion, the defendants argued that no party had challenged the diversity jurisdiction and that the parties had determined that Res-Care’s principal place of business was Louisville, Kentucky. The plaintiffs did not oppose Blair and Res-Care’s motion, but the district court denied it. Res-Care and Blair appealed.

Procedural or Jurisdictional: The Threshold Question for Reviewing Removal Orders

Federal circuit courts are restricted in reviewing district court orders remanding removed cases to state court. Under 28 U.S.C. § 1447(d), remand orders are generally “not reviewable on appeal or otherwise.” Supreme Court precedent, however, limits 28 U.S.C. § 1447(d) to cases where (1) a district court lacks subject matter jurisdiction, or (2) there is a defect in removal (other than a lack of subject matter jurisdiction) that was raised by a motion filed by a party within thirty days after the notice of removal was filed.

Under this system, a court can remand a case sua sponte for lack of subject matter jurisdiction at any time. Such an order is not reviewable by a federal appellate court. However, if the remand is based on another defect, a motion must be timely filed. If no motion is filed, 28 U.S.C. § 1447(d) does not bar a court’s review. Essentially, whether an appellate court has jurisdiction to review a district court’s remand order turns on whether the order was jurisdictional or procedural in nature.

How Have Other Circuits Tackled This Question?

In deciding how to resolve this case, the Fourth Circuit took notice of how other circuits have dealt with the the precise issue of “whether a failure to establish a party’s citizenship at the time of removal is a procedural or jurisdictional defect.” Three other circuits – the Fifth, Seventh, and Eleventh Circuits – had previously determined that this type of failure was “procedural, rather than jurisdictional.” Those circuits determined that a procedural defect was any defect that did not go to the question of whether the case could have been brought in federal court in the first place.

The Fourth Circuit, in the 2008 case Ellenberg v. Spartan Motors Chassis, reached a similar decision in regards to the amount in controversy component of diversity jurisdiction. In that case, the complaint did not state a dollar amount for damages claimed. The notice of removal to federal court there stated that the amount in controversy exceeded $75,000. Once the case was in federal court, the district court sua sponte considered whether the case should be remanded to state court. There, the district court found that the defendants’ allegations of diversity jurisdiction failed because they had failed to establish that the amount in controversy exceeded the required jurisdictional amount. Soon after, the defendants filed a motion with facts supporting their allegations regarding the amount in controversy, which the district court denied. On appeal, the Fourth Circuit determined that it was not barred from reviewing the lower court’s decision because the remand order was based on a procedural insufficiency rather than on finding a lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

The Fourth Circuit Applies Ellenberg; Adopts Approach of the Other Circuits

Turning to the present case, the Fourth Circuit noted that the district court had proceeded in a manner similar to the district court in Ellenberg. Like that court, the court in the current case had “recited the well-established principles of subject matter jurisdiction” then determined that diversity jurisdiction had not been established. Then, after Blair attempted to correct this failure with his Rule 59(e) motion, the court here denied that motion, much as the court in Ellenberg.

The Fourth Circuit was not persuaded that in the present case the lower court had explicitly concluded that there was no subject matter jurisdiction, because such an order required an examination of the underlying substantive reasoning. This, the Fourth Circuit reasoned, was enough to show that the district court had not based its decision on a lack of subject matter jurisdiction, but instead on the procedural insufficiency of the removal notice. As a result, the court explained that the only way the this procedural deficiency could be raised would be by a party filing a timely motion, which did not occur here. Thus the Fourth Circuit adopted the approach used by the Fifth, Seventh, and Eleventh Circuits.

The Fourth Circuit Remands the Case Back to Federal District Court

Because the district court improperly remanded this case sua sponte, the Fourth Circuit reversed the lower court’s decision and remanded the case back for further proceedings. The Fourth Circuit also granted a motion made by Res-Case to amend its removal notice to correct its earlier deficiency.

mining

By Daniel Stratton

On March 8, 2016, the  Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the civil case Peabody Holding Company, LLC v. United Mine Workers of America, vacating the district court’s decision. The Fourth Circuit held that under the complete arbitration rule, an arbitrator handling a labor dispute between Peabody Holding and United Mine Workers of America should have been allowed to finish resolving both the liability and remedial phases of the dispute before the matter was moved to federal court.

United Mine Workers and Peabody Coal Company Enter into Job Opportunity Agreement

In 2007, the United Mine Workers of America and Peabody Coal company entered into a Memorandum of Understanding Regarding  Job Opportunities (“Jobs MOU”). Peabody Coal signed the agreement on behalf of itself and its parent company, Peabody Holding. The purpose of the Jobs MOU was to require non-unionized companies within the Peabody corporation to give preference to coal miners who either worked for or were laid off by Peabody Coal with regards to hiring treatment. The Jobs MOU included an arbitration clause that required all disputes involving the MOU to be submitted to an arbitrator, whose decisions would be final and binding.

That same year, Peabody Energy Corp., the ultimate corporate parent of Peabody Holding,  Peabody Coal, and another company, Black Beauty Coal Company, began a process to spinoff part of its mining operation into a new entity known as Patriot Coal Corporation. Peabody Coal was spun off into Patriot. All of the Peabody subsidiaries that became part of Patriot had been signatories to the Jobs MOU. The only subsidiary that had been a signer to the Jobs MOU that was not spun off into Patriot was Black Beauty. At the completion of the spinoff, Peabody Coal had no corporate relationship with Peabody Holding or Black Beauty.

In 2008, Black Beauty hired United Minerals Company to assist with mining operations on Black Beauty’s property. Both United Minerals Company and Black Beauty were non-unionized. Shortly after United Minerals Company began working with Black Beauty, the United Mine Workers of America sent a letter to Peabody Energy and Peabody Holding explaining that Peabody Holding and Black beauty were still bound by the Jobs MOU. Peabody disagreed, arguing that after Peabody Coal had been spun off, the rest of the Peabody corporate family no longer had any obligation under the Jobs MOU.

Peabody initially argued that this dispute with United Mine Workers was not arbitrable, an argument that the Fourth Circuit rejected in 2012. After being sent back to arbitration, the union and Peabody agreed to bifurcate the dispute into separate liability and remedy phases. The arbitrator ruled that the Jobs MOU remained in effect despite the fact that Peabody Coal had no corporate relationship with Peabody Holding. The arbitrator declined to rule on whether or not Black Beauty was actually exempt from the Jobs MOU, deferring its decision on that question until the remedy stage.

Peabody and United Mine Workers Take Their Dispute to the Courts

Peabody sought to vacate the arbitrator’s decision, filing an declaratory judgment action in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. At the same time, the United Mine Workers filed a counterclaim to enforce the decision by the arbitrator.  Under Section 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act (“LMRA”), some courts viewed their jurisdiction as being limited to “review of final arbitration awards,” while others believed that Section 301 provided “sweeping jurisdiction.” The district court ultimately declined to weigh in on that debate, instead noting that because the liability portion of the arbitration was finished, it was final and therefore reviewable. The district court found in favor of the union, holding that the arbitrator was right to find the Jobs MOU still valid. Peabody and its subsidiaries appealed the district court’s decision. After the parties briefed the appeal, the Fourth Circuit asked for additional briefing on whether the arbitrator’s decision was even properly before the circuit, because the arbitration was not yet complete.

The Limits and Scope of the Complete Arbitration Rule

Under Section 301 of LMRA, federal district courts have jurisdiction over suits involving contract violations between employers and unions. The Supreme Court has long held that Section 301 can be used to seek enforcement of an arbitration award made under a collective bargaining agreement’s arbitration clause. As a threshold matter however, a court must determine that the award is final and binding. Many courts have held this to mean that an arbitrator must have ruled on both liability and remedies before the decision can be reviewable.

Some judicial decision viewed the complete arbitration rule as a restriction on federal jurisdiction. Other decisions had focused on Section 301’s broad language, and have viewed the complete arbitration rule to be “only a prudential limitation on judicial involvement” in an arbitrated labor dispute.

The Fourth Circuit Finds that the Arbitration Decision was sent to the Courts Too Soon

The Fourth Circuit noted that several courts which view the complete arbitration rule in jurisdictional terms still concede that there are exceptions to the rule in extreme cases. Based on this, the Fourth Circuit noted that this necessarily meant that the complete arbitration rule only constituted a prudential limitation. The Court also noted many policy rationales for the complete arbitration rule were the same as those used for strictly jurisdictional relatives. Like the rules that require a district court to enter a final judgment or order before an appellate court can review the case, the complete arbitration rule promotes the same goals of preventing “piecemeal litigation and repeated appeals.” Applying the complete arbitration rule also helps prevent a party from using courts to delay the arbitration, the Fourth Circuit noted.

In terms of actually applying the complete arbitration rule, the Fourth Circuit noted that the application was straightforward. Generally, when an arbitrator decides liability and “reserves jurisdiction to decide remedial questions” later, a federal court should wait to review until all questions have been resolved.  The Court was unpersuaded by Peabody’s arguments that the liability phase was final and thus reviewable. The Fourth Circuit noted that such a division was sensible and common. Just because the parties decided to split their dispute did not change the fact that they agreed to submit the entire dispute to the arbitrator.

The Fourth Circuit also quickly dismissed Peabody’s arguments that reviewing the liability portion now would promote efficiency. Such efficiency arguments could potentially be applied to virtually any case, the court noted, before explaining that by waiting until after the remedy portion was resolved the court was actually promoting efficiency. This was because the parties could still reach a settlement at some point, making a review of the liability portion moot. The Fourth Circuit concluded by explaining that arbitration is a matter of contract, and as such the parties should be able to design an arbitral process that best suits the needs of the parties.

The Fourth Circuit Remands the Case Back to the Arbitrator

The Fourth Circuit ultimately held that the arbitrator’s decision had been prematurely sent to the courts, and remanded the case back to the district court to remand the case back to the arbitrator to continue the arbitration.

Oil Pumps

By Daniel Stratton

Today, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the civil case K & D Holdings, LLC v. Equitrans, L.P. In K & D Holdings, the court held that an oil and gas lease granted to defendants, Equitrans and EQT, by plaintiff, K & D Holdings, was not divisible into separate components. In reaching that conclusion, the court reversed and remanded the case to the district court with instructions to enter judgment in favor of Equitrans and EQT.

The Terms of the Original Lease

In December 1989, Henry Wallace and Sylvia Wallace signed a lease granting Equitrans the oil and gas rights to an area of land covering 180 acres in Tyler County, West Virginia. Currently, K & D is the successor in interest to the Wallaces. Additionally, Equitrans L.P., the successor-in-interest to Equitrans Corp., subleased the rights to produce and store gas on the land to EQT Corp. Essentially, the terms of the lease now govern a relationship between K & D and EQT.

The terms of the lease grant EQT the right to use the land to explore and produce oil and gas, store gas, and protect stored gas. The lease’s initial term ran for five years and would continue on for as long as a portion of the land was used for “exploration or production of gas or oil, or as gas or oil is found in paying quantities thereon or stored thereunder, or as long as said land is used for the storage of gas or the protection of gas storage on lands in the general vicinity.” After taking control of the land, EQT never engaged in exploration, production, or gas storage, but has engaged in gas storage protection.  Equitrans owns the nearby Shirley Storage Field, a natural gas storage facility. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission established a buffer zone of 2000 feet around the storage area for protection of the storage facility. The leased land falls within that buffer zone.

Due to EQT and Equitrans not using the leased land for gas or oil production, K & D sought to end the arrangement and enter into a more lucrative contract with another company. On September 20, 2013, K & D filed a lawsuit in state court against EQT, arguing that it was entitled to a rebuttable presumption under West Virginia state law that EQT had abandoned the land after not producing or selling gas or oil from the property for more than twenty-four months. EQT removed to the United States District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia. EQT and K & D filed cross motions for summary judgment.

On September 30, 2014, the court denied both cross motions. Acting sua sponte, the district court found as a matter of law that the lease was divisible. The court argued that because the lease had two primary purposes, (1) exploration and production and (2) storage and protection, the lease could be divided into two separate leases. The lease for exploration and production of oil and gas had expired in the district court’s view, because the initial five-year term had elapsed without EQT exploring for or producing oil or gas. The court held however, that the second lease, for storage and protection, was still in force because EQT had used the land for that purpose.

On January 21, 2015, the district court issued its final order, stating that K & D was entitled to drill exploration and production wells in areas that were not within the buffer zone of the Shirley Storage Field. EQT appealed.

West Virginia is for Lessors

Because this case was heard under diversity jurisdiction, West Virginia state law applies. Under West Virginia law, contract law principles apply equally to the interpretation of leases. The primary criterion for determining if a contract is severable is whether such an intention was reflected by the parties in the terms of the contract itself, the subject matter of the contract, and the circumstances giving rise the question.  A contract is not severable when it has material provisions and considerations that are interdependent and common to each other. Additionally, under West Virginia state law, there is a presumption against divisibility unless the contract explicitly states that it is divisible or the parties intent of divisibility is clearly manifested. As a general matter, West Virginia law regarding oil and gas leases are liberally construed in favor of the lessor, but only when there is ambiguity as to the lease terms.

A Lease Divisible Cannot Stand

On appeal, EQT made two arguments. First, it argued that the district court erred as a matter of law in holding the lease divisible. Second, EQT contended that the district court was wrong in determining that the exploration portion of the lease had terminated after its initial five-year term. Reviewing the district court’s findings of fact for clear error and its conclusions of law de novo, the Fourth Circuit agreed with both of EQT’s arguments.

Starting with its first argument, EQT pointed to the language of the lease itself. The lease’s use of the word “or” between each act required of EQT in order to continue the lease indicated that the acts were alternatives, and that only one would be required to keep the entire lease in effect. Applying West Virginia’s test for determining if a contract is severable, the Fourth Circuit concluded that the lease was intended to be entire and not divisible.  The Fourth Circuit applied the plain, ordinary meaning of the word “or,” holding that in this case it was a disjunctive and could not be considered to have the same meaning as the word “and.”

K & D argued that because EQT paid different rents depending on what activities it was engaging in, the lease was divisible. The court found this argument to not be persuasive, noting that the activities EQT could engage in under the lease were interrelated. Additionally, because the Fourth Circuit found no ambiguity in the lease, it did not need to liberally interpret in favor of the lessor.

Having decided that the lease was not divisible, the court then turned to the question of whether EQT had continuing rights under the lease. The terms of the lease dealing with renewal stated that the lease would continue beyond the initial five-year term if “(1) the lessee explores for or produces gas or oil; (2) ‘gas or oil is found in paying quantities thereon or stored thereunder’; or (3) the ‘land is used for the storage of gas or the protection of gas storage on lands in the general vicinity.” Again noting the use of the disjunctive “or,” the court found that because it was undisputed that part of the land was being used for protection, EQT continued to hold all rights under the original lease.

The Fourth Circuit Hold the Lease is Not Divisible and Valid; Reverses and Remands 

Having determined that the lease was not divisible and that EQT still held all rights under the original lease, the Fourth Circuit reversed and remanded the lower court’s decision, instructing that court to enter judgement in favor of EQT and Equitrans.

peanuts

By Malorie Letcavage

On December 2, 2015, the Fourth Circuit issued its published opinion in Severn Peanut Co., Inc. v. Industrial Fumigant Co. In this case, appellant Severn Peanut Co. (“Severn”) asked the Fourth Circuit to overturn the lower court’s grant of summary judgment for appellee, Industrial Fumigant Co. (“IFC”) on both the breach of contract and the negligence claim. The Fourth Circuit ultimately affirmed the grant of summary judgment because the consequential damages provision in the contract overcame the breach of contract claim and North Carolina law does not allow a plaintiff to pursue a tort claim under the guise of a contract claim.

Background

Severn entered into an agreement with IFC to apply a pesticide, phosphine, to its peanut storage dome. The parties signed a Pesticide Application Agreement (“PAA”) which detailed that Severn would pay IFC $8,604 for the pesticide services. The contract specified that the sum excluded IFC assuming any risk of “incidental or consequential damages” to Severn’s “property, product, equipment, downtime, or loss of business.” It also stipulated that the pesticide would be applied according to the instructions on its label.

The label on the phosphine requires the user to avoid the pesticide tablets from piling up because this could lead to fire or an explosion. Despite this warning, IFC dumped 49,000 tablets of the pesticide into the peanut dome through a single hatch. The pile up of the tablets caused a fire and an explosion. Severn’s insurer paid to cover Severn’s loss of peanuts, business income, and the damage to the peanut dome. Severn filed against IFC for breach of contract and negligence. The District Court granted partial summary judgment for IFC on the breach of contract claim because it found that the consequential damages clause in the PAA excluded a claim for breach of contract. It also found Severn to be contributorily negligent, and thus granted summary judgment in favor of IFC on the negligence claim.

Breach of Contract Claim

The Court examined the consequential damages limitations in North Carolina. It found that this doctrine allows parties the freedom to contract. It strongly stressed that it would not overhaul a valid enforceable contract that both parties agreed to and signed. It held that the consequential damages doctrine may only be limited if the clause is unconscionable. The Court found that overall the doctrine is a widely used tool for completing business.

In application to Severn’s case, the Court held that the language of the PAA established a valid consequential damages clause, and the items damaged fell within this language. It also found that the clause was not unconscionable. A clause is unconscionable when no reasonable person would view the contract’s result without feeling injustice. However, this clause was conscionable because it was between two experienced business parties who contracted specifically to include the provision; it was a fair result according to the contract.

The Court also rejected Severn’s argument that the clause was a violation of public policy. The Court refused to find consequential damage clauses against public policy without a clear indication from the North Carolina courts, of which there was none. It held that North Carolina law provides other criminal and civil penalties for the misapplication of the pesticide, so there was no reason to hold private liability as the only means of enforcement. Thus, the Court affirmed summary judgment on the breach of contract claim because the contract was an agreement between two sophisticated commercial entities who should be held to the terms of the contract they signed.

Negligence Claim and Economic Loss Doctrine

While the Court agreed with Severn’s argument that the ruling of contributory negligence ignored material facts, it still affirmed the grant of summary judgment for IFC because of the economic loss doctrine. The Court found that the negligence claims would not survive the assent to the consequential damages limitation. The economic loss doctrine “prohibits recovery for purely economic loss in tort when contract…. operates to allocate the risk.” The doctrine encourages parties to allocate the risk of loss themselves, as they are in the best position to do so.

In this case, Severn wanted to claim a remedy in tort for IFC’s breach of duty to apply the pesticide according to the label, which is the same source as their breach of contract claim. Yet since Severn bargained to limit consequential damages caused by breach of contract they cannot be allowed to try to undo that bargain using tort law. Additionally, the Court found that the storage dome and peanuts were not outside of the contract, and were not exempt from the economic loss doctrine.

Summary Judgment Affirmed

Thus, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s grant of summary judgment for IFC on both the breach of contract and the negligence claim.