Wake Forest Law Review

By Cole Tipton

SummitBridge National v. Faison

In this bankruptcy action, SummitBridge National (“National”) appeals the district court’s holding that it is barred from claiming attorney’s fees incurred after a bankruptcy petition was filed.  The contract between National and Ollie Faison (“Faison”) stated that Faison would pay “all costs of collection, including but not limited to reasonable attorneys’ fees.”  The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s holding and stated that the Bankruptcy Code does not preclude contractual claims to attorney’s fees that were guaranteed by a pre-bankruptcy contract.  The determination of the district court was reversed and remanded for further proceedings.

US v. Pratt

In this criminal action, Samual Pratt (“Pratt”) appeals his conviction of various counts of sex trafficking and child pornography due to evidentiary errors.  Pratt contends the district court should have suppressed evidence from his cellphone and should not have admitted certain hearsay statements.  First, the Fourth Circuit held that it was reversible error to admit evidence from Pratt’s cellphone because the phone was seized without consent and the government waited thirty-one days before obtaining a search warrant.  The Court stated that such a delay was unreasonable.  Second, the Fourth Circuit held that an unavailable witness’s hearsay statements were admissible because Pratt had procured the witness’s unavailability through phone calls and threats.  Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit vacated Pratt’s convictions on the two counts prejudiced by the cell phone evidence, vacated his sentence, and remanded.

Parker v. Reema Consulting Services, Inc 

In this civil action, Evangeline Parker (“Parker”) appeals the district court’s dismissal of her complaint against her employer, Reema Consulting Services, Inc. (“Reema”).  The central issue of the appeal was whether a false rumor circulated by Reema that Parker slept with her boss for a raise could give rise to liability under Title VII for discrimination “because of sex.”  The Fourth Circuit held that because the complaint alleged Reema spread the rumor and acted on it by penalizing the employee, a cognizable claim for discrimination “because of sex” was alleged.  The district court’s dismissal was reversed.

US Dep’t of Labor v. Fire & Safety Investigation

In this civil action, Fire & Safety Investigation Consulting Services, LLC (“Fire & Safety”) appealed the district court’s determination that they violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) for failing to pay overtime compensation.  Fire & Safety uses an alternative work schedule for its employees in which an employee works 12 hours per day for 14 days and then receives 14 days off.  Because employees under this plan will work 88 hours in one work week, Fire & Safety pays its employees a blended rate for all 88 hours that is supposed to account for the 48 hours of overtime worked, rather than paying 40 hours of standard pay plus 48 hours of overtime.  The Fourth Circuit held that this blended rate fails to observe the formalities required by the FLSA which requires all overtime hours be recorded and paid at one and one-half times the standard rate of pay for all hours worked over 40.  Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment, including over $1.5 million in back wages and liquidated damages.

Trana Discovery, Inc. v. S. Research Inst.

In this civil action, Trana Discovery, Inc. (“Trana”) brought a fraud and negligent misrepresentation action against Southern Research Institute (“Southern”).  Trana alleged that Southern had provided false data in research reports of a new HIV medication it was researching.  The district court granted summary judgment for Southern on both claims.  The Fourth Circuit upheld the grant of summary judgement, stating that there was no genuine dispute of material fact due to an insufficiency of evidence regarding damages and the standard of care Southern was exacted to.  Accordingly, summary judgement was affirmed.

Jesus Christ is the Answer v. Baltimore County, Maryland

In this civil action, Jesus Christ is the Answer Church (“Church”) brought an action alleging violation of the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause, the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, the Maryland Declaration of Rights, and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person Act.  Church alleged that Baltimore County, Maryland (“Baltimore”) had infringed upon their State and Federal rights by denying their modified petition for zoning variances to establish a church.  Several neighbors, who had expressed open hostility towards Church, opposed the petition.  After the petition was denied, Church filed an action in district court which was dismissed for failure to state a claim.  On appeal, the Fourth Circuit reversed and remanded because Church’s complaint contained facts sufficient to state a claim that was “plausible on its face.”  The Fourth Circuit held that the neighbors apparent religious bias towards Church was sufficient to plead a plausible Constitutional claim and violation of the Religious Land Use Act. 

Curtis v. Propel Property Tax Funding

In this civil action, Garry Curtis (“Curtis”) brought a suit on behalf of himself and similarly situated individuals against Propel Property Tax Funding (“Propel”), alleging violations of the Truth in Lending Act, the Electronic Funds Transfer Act, and the Virginia Consumer Protection Act.  Propel was engaged in the practice of lending to third parties to finance payment of local taxes.  The district court denied Propel’s motion to dismiss and certified two interlocutory questions.  Propel appealed, asserting that Curtis did not have standing and that he failed to state a claim for relief.  The Fourth Circuit upheld the district court’s ruling, finding that: 1) Curtis had standing because he was personally subject to the harms these consumer protection statutes were designed to protect against; and 2) Curtis had sufficiently pled violations of the lending acts because Propel was conducting consumer credit transactions.

US v. Charboneau

In this civil action, Blake Charboneau (“Charboneau”) challenges the determination that he is a “sexually dangerous person” under the civil commitment provisions of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006.  The district court held that Charboneau was a “sexually dangerous person” within the meaning of the act and committed him to the custody of the Attorney General.  On appeal, Charboneau raised two issues: 1) whether he must be diagnosed with a paraphilic disorder to be committed under the act; and 2) if the record supported the district court’s findings.  The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment, holding that an actual diagnosis was not necessary under the act and the record was sufficient under a clear error standard of review.

US v. Johnson

In this criminal action, Willie Johnson (“Johnson”) appealed a district court’s order to resentence him for bank robbery under the sentencing recommendation in his original plea agreement.  Johnson argued that the government’s original agreement not to seek a mandatory life sentence under the federal three-strikes law was not beneficial because his prior state crimes should not be counted for federal three-strikes treatment.  The Fourth Circuit held that state crimes are encompassed by the three-strikes program and the district court’s decision to honor the original sentencing recommendation was affirmed.

Mountain Valley Pipeline, LLC v. 6.56 Acres of Land

In this civil action, owners of 6.56 acres of land appealed a district court judgement granted Mountain Valley Pipeline, LLC (“Pipeline”) a preliminary injunction for access and possession of property it was acquiring through eminent domain.  The Fourth Circuit reviewed the district court’s application of the test set forth in Winter v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 555 U.S. 7, 20 (2008) for preliminary injunctions.  In doing so, the Court found that Pipeline had established it was likely to succeed on the merits, would suffer irreparable harm, the balance of equities was in its favor, and that an injunction served the public interest.  Accordingly, the district court was affirmed.

Booking.com B.V. v. US Patent & Trademark

In this civil action, Booking.com and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) appeal the district court’s grant of summary judgment protecting the trademark BOOKING.COM.  Booking.com appeals the district court’s grant of attorney’s fees to the USPTO, and the USPTO appeals the court’s decision that BOOKING.COM is protectable.  The Fourth Circuit held that BOOKING.COM is not generic and can be registered as a descriptive mark with secondary meaning.  Moreover, the Court upheld the grant of USPTO’s expenses because the Lanham Act requires a party to pay “all the expenses of the proceeding” when a USPTO decision is appealed to the district court.  Thus, the district court’s judgment was affirmed.

US v. Jones

In this criminal action, James Eric Jones (“Jones”) appeals the district court’s denial of a motion to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence.  Jones was originally sentenced under the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”) which requires a mandatory fifteen-year minimum sentence for defendants with at least three prior violent felony convictions.  However, Jones claims that he does not qualify for sentencing under the act because his South Carolina conviction for assaulting, beating, or wounding a police officer is not a violent conviction as defined by the ACCA.  The Fourth Circuit held that assaulting, beating, or wounding a police officer does not qualify under the ACCA because it includes conduct that does not involve violent physical force. Therefore, the district court’s judgment was vacated and remanded.

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.

9-11-14 Letter to Southeast Toyota Finance

By Sarah Walton

On June 18, 2015, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the civil case of Design Resources, Inc. v. Leather Industries of America. The court held that Defendants’ statements about leather products were not false or misleading descriptions of fact, and therefore did not meet the standard for false advertising.

Origins of the Dispute

Plaintiff Design Resources, Inc. (“DRI”) produces furniture coverings and sells them to furniture manufacturers. DRI created a product known as “NextLeather®” (“NextLeather”), which consisted of 61% polyurethane, 22% poly/cotton, and 17% leather. DRI subsequently reached out to Dr. Nicholas Cory (“Cory”), a leather chemist and director of a laboratory owned by Leather Industries of America (“LIA”). DRI sought Cory’s opinion on whether it could market its product as “leather.” Cory told DRI that its product could not be marketed as leather, but suggested that it could market the product as “bonded leather” instead. DRI adopted Cory’s suggestion and marketed its product as bonded leather. In anticipation of the Spring High Point Furniture Market, DRI sold samples of NextLeather to various furniture manufacturers. A few weeks before the High Point event, Ashley Furniture (“Ashley”) ran an advertisement (“Ashley Advertisement”) in a trade magazine that read, “Is It REALLY LEATHER? … Some upholstery suppliers are using leather scraps that are mis-represented as leather …. Know What You Are Buying[.]” Several months later, Cory was quoted in two articles (“Cory’s Statements”), published one week apart, in which he stated that (1) referring to bonded leather products as “leather” was an outright deception, and (2) bonded leather products had the potential to confuse customers because the term did “not represent [the product’s] true nature.”

The District Court Grants Summary Judgment for Cory and Ashley

In February 2010, DRI filed a complaint against LIA, Cory, Ashley, and Todd Wanek, Ashley’s president, asserting false advertising claims under the Lanham Act and violations of North Carolina and Washington law. DRI moved for partial summary judgment and Ashley and LIA filed cross-motions for summary judgment. The district court granted Defendants’ motions and reasoned that (1) the Ashley Advertisement and Cory’s first statement were true, and (2) Cory’s second statement was an opinion, rather than a description of fact.

The Lanham Act

A plaintiff who alleges a violation of the Lanham Act must prove that (1) the defendant made a false or misleading description of fact; (2) the misrepresentation was material; (3) the misrepresentation actually deceived or had the potential to deceive; (4) the defendant placed the false statement into interstate commerce; and (5) the plaintiff was injured or is likely to be injured as a result of the misrepresentation.

DRI Failed to Prove that Defendants’ Descriptions Were False or Misleading Descriptions of Fact

The Fourth Circuit focused on the false or misleading element. For the Ashley Advertisement, the court reasoned that DRI could not prove that it was false or misleading because the advertisement only targeted products wrongly marketed as leather. As a result, the court concluded that customers would not be able to make inferences about DRI’s product because it was properly marketed as bonded leather.

For Cory’s Statements, the Fourth Circuit reasoned that Cory’s first statement was true because referring to bonded leather products as “leather” was misleading. The Fourth Circuit also concluded that Cory’s second statement about the confusing nature of the term “bonded leather” was not a fact, but rather an opinion. The court reasoned that Cory hypothesized that “bonded leather” could potentially confuse customers, but his hypothesis had no basis in fact. As a result, the court held that DRI could not succeed on the first element of the Lanham Act.

The Fourth Circuit Affirms the District Court’s Grant of Summary Judgment

Because DRI could not prove that the advertisements and statements at issue were false or misleading descriptions of fact, the court concluded that DRI could not succeed on its false advertising claim. Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment to Cory and Ashley.