Wake Forest Law Review

By John Van Swearingen

On March 24, 2017, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the prisoner civil rights case Porter v. Clarke. Plaintiffs, originally four Virginia death row inmates, filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia alleging that the conditions of their confinement amounted to cruel and unusual punishment violative of the Eighth Amendment. One inmate was executed during the course of this action, leaving three inmates as Plaintiffs. Defendants, the Director of the Virginia Department of Correction and the Warden of the Sussex I State Prison, thereafter changed the policies at issue in the complaint. The district court subsequently dismissed Plaintiff’s action for mootness. Plaintiffs timely appealed, claiming their action is not moot.

Facts and Procedural History

In November 2014, when Plaintiffs filed this lawsuit, the Virginia Department of Corrections was operating under a pair of 2010 policies that governed the living conditions of death row inmates. Plaintiffs spent twenty-three hours a day in seventy-one-square-foot cells, alone, with a steel bed, a desk, and a combination commode-and-sink. Death row inmates could not have “contact” visits with anyone; all visitation was separated by plexiglass. The warden had unlimited discretion in granting contact visits with immediate family under “extreme circumstances.”

Inmates were allotted one hour of “outdoor recreation” five days a week. This consisted of an empty outdoor cell similar in size to the inmates’ living cells. Inmates had zero access to any group behavioral, educational, vocational, or religious services.

In August 2015, Defendants established new interim guidelines permitting death row inmates one-and-a-half-hour weekly contact visits with immediate family, one-and-a-half-hour weekend and holiday contact visits with other approved visitors, one-and-a-half-hour outdoor recreation sessions five days a week, daily one-hour indoor recreation sessions with up to three other inmates, and a daily fifteen-minute shower. Defendants built a new outdoor recreation area for group activities and an indoor recreation dayroom for group behavioral, educational, vocational, and religious services.

In December 2015, Plaintiffs and Defendants filed cross-motions for summary judgment. Defendants never explicitly moved for dismissal on the grounds of mootness. At the motion hearing, Defendants also noted that they would not take any action binding them to the new guidelines, stating instead that the fluid nature of corrections require that they be able to increase security back to “lockdown status” if need be.

In May 2016, the district court requested an update from Defendant’s on the status of the interim guidelines. Defendants filed an affidavit stating they had updated to new policies providing one-and-a-half-hour outdoor recreation five days a week, one-hour indoor recreation with up to four inmates daily, fifteen minute daily showers, weekly one-and-a-half-hour contact visitation sessions with immediate family and one approved other visitor, non-contact weekend and holiday visitation, and extended visitation sessions granted on a case-by-case basis. Per Defendants’ affidavit, the new policies will be reviewed annually and updated in no later than three years.

In July 2016, the district court granted summary judgment for Defendants’ despite the Defendants’ refusal to neither admit that the pre-2015 inmate conditions violated the Eighth Amendment nor offer any guarantee that the pre-2015 policies would not be restored. The lower court dismissed the Plaintiff’s cross-motion as moot, and Plaintiffs timely appealed.

Mootness Requires More Than a Voluntary Cessation of the Challenged Behavior

Under Article III § 2 of the United States Constitution, federal courts are deprived of subject matter jurisdiction when litigation ceases to involve a “case or controversy.” In other words, as noted by the United States Supreme Court in Powell v. McCormack, “a case is moot when the issues presented are no longer ‘live’ or the parties lack a legally cognizable interest in the outcome.” 395 U.S. 486, 496 (1969).

However, in City of Mesquite v. Aladdin’s Castle, Inc., the Supreme Court also noted that “a defendant’s voluntary cessation of a challenged practice does not deprive a federal court of its power to determine the legality of the practice.” 455 U.S. 283, 289 (1982). As noted by the First Circuit in ACLU of Mass. v. U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, a savvy litigant could otherwise render itself immune to litigation by voluntary ceasing a challenged behavior upon the filing of a complaint, then resume that behavior following dismissal for mootness. 705 F.3d 44, 54–55 (1st Cir. 2013).

Instead, a Defendant seeking dismissal for mootness must, pursuant to the Supreme Court’s holding in Friends of the Earth, Inc. v. Laidlaw Environmental Services (TOC), Inc., meet the heavy burden of showing that “it is absolutely clear the allegedly wrongful behavior could not reasonably be expected to recur.” 528 U.S. 167, 190 (2000). This burden is not met if, as in the Fourth Circuit’s decision in Pashby v. Delia, a defendant retains the authority to reinstate a challenged policy. 709 F.3d 307, 316–17 (4th Cir. 2013).

Nothing here bars Defendants from returning to the original policies addressed in Plaintiff’s complaint. Indeed, they have stated that the policies may be reinstated in some form if a situation demanded “lockdown” of the inmates. Further, Defendants expressly refused to commit to the revised policies or admit that the original policies violated Plaintiff’s Eighth Amendment rights. The Fourth Circuit expressly declined to support or denounce the original policies, noting that there may be valid “penological rationale” for reverting to the original policies as described if a situation rendered those policies appropriate. However, the Fourth Circuit noted that this very possibility rendered the dismissal of Plaintiff’s complaint for mootness improper.

Disposition

The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s judgment and remanded for further proceedings. Since Defendants expressly retained the discretion to reinstate the policies challenged by Plaintiffs, the voluntary dismissal of those policies did not render the action moot.

By Kelsey Hyde

On March 17, 2017, the Fourth Circuit published an opinion in the civil matter of Sharma v. USA International, vacating the district court’s grant of summary judgment and remanding for further proceedings. In departing from the lower court’s ruling, the Court found the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia improperly granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment based solely on the contested issue of plaintiff’s purported damages.

Factual & Procedural Background

The plaintiffs in this case, Jatinder Sharma & his corporation Haymarket Fast Foods, Inc., were involved in a business transaction with defendants Khalil Ahmad and Mahrah Butt, partners at USA International, LLC. Sharma became interested in purchasing two restaurants– a Checkers and an Auntie Anne’s– from defendants upon learning how these restaurants were generating high sales. Throughout negotiations for the purchase of these restaurants, Sharma reviewed USA International’s tax returns and financial statements, which indicated the combined sales of the restaurants for the most recent months were about $75,000 per month.

The parties’ first purchase agreement specified a price of $720,000, and made the sale contingent on the stores collectively acquiring $90,000 in monthly sales in the two months prior to a settlement. Subsequent financial statements revealed lower monthly sales, thus the price was later reduced to $600,000 and the conditional-sale provision was eliminated from the final agreement. Sharma formed the entity Haymarket Fast Foods, Inc. in relation to the transaction, and also applied for a loan at his bank to secure part of the purchase price. His application represented that the restaurants’ average monthly sales based on the figures presented in the financial statements provided by defendants.

Shortly after the closing, Sharma noticed sales well below the figures that had been conveyed by defendants. Sharma looked further at other elements of the business– namely the supply orders, employee’s personal observations, and bank records– in an attempt to uncover the discrepancy. This investigation made Sharma realize that, based on the supplies available, the amount of sales defendants had purported to make were simply not possible; he then suspected that defendants had inflated their sales on the income statements provided to him before closing. Further, employees who had been working for defendants revealed to Sharma that defendant Butt had, on numerous occasions, rung up high sales for food not ordered by customers, and then directed employees not to prepare the food that coincided with these orders. Moreover, Bank of America accounts revealed that deposits attributable to the restaurant were substantially lower than those represented in the statements given to Sharma.

In response to these findings, Sharma filed on action for fraud against the defendants, alleging they had inflated sales figures and lied during negotiations, resulting in fraudulent inducement to pay a higher price for the business than it was truly worth. He proposed that damages be calculated by either (1) multiplying weekly sales by 36, or (2) multiplying monthly earnings by 48, either of which meant to provide the proper valuation of the business.

Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, claiming plaintiffs had failed to sufficiently establish the materiality of the alleged misrepresentations, their reliance on the misrepresentations, and their damages (i.e. three of the particular elements necessary to succeed on a fraud claim). The district court found that plaintiffs had adequately shown the materiality of and reliance on defendants’ misrepresentation, but had indeed failed to provide enough evidence for a factfinder to estimate with reasonable certainty the amount of damages they sustained. Namely, the court rejected the two methods proposed by plaintiff for finding the actual value of the two restaurants, concluding that neither method conformed to any generally accepted methods for valuing a business, nor sufficiently proved they were independently reliable. Thus, because damages are a necessary element of a fraud claim under controlling state law, the court granted summary judgment. On appeal, the sole issue presented regarded the district court’s finding of insufficient evidence of damages.

Elements of the Claim & Standards to be Met on Motion for Summary Judgment

On a motion for summary judgment, the court takes the record in the light most favorable to the non-movant party. The moving party is entitled to a grant of summary judgement as a matter of law if they show there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact. F.R.C.P. 56(a).

To establish a claim for fraud under Virginia law, a plaintiff must show: (1) false representation, (2) of a material fact, (3) made intentionally and knowingly, (4) with intent to mislead, (5) reliance by the party misled, and (6) resulting in damages to the party so misled. Evaluation Research Corp. v. Alequin, 439 S.E.2d 387, 390 (Va. 1994). Because all such elements are necessary, failure to satisfy any one element is enough to bar relief for a fraud claim, as the district court found in their ruling based on failure to establish damages.

Under Virginia law, when a dispute involves the transfer of goods or property, damages are measured by the difference between the asset’s actual value at the time of contract and the asset’s purported value if the representations made had instead been true. Courts have previously treated sales prices as sufficient evidence of value, especially in arms’ length transactions. Virginia law maintains that plaintiffs need not prove damages with absolute certainty, but a plaintiff still must provide sufficient evidence to allow a factfinder to make an intelligent, probable estimate of the damages or losses allegedly sustained.

Fourth Circuit Finds Plaintiffs’ Evidence Regarding Estimated Damages Sufficient to Survive Motion for Summary Judgement

The Court concluded that plaintiffs had indeed met their burden and had put forth sufficient evidence to allow an estimate of damages by a factfinder. Namely, the Court emphasized that the parties’ arms-length transaction would allow a reasonable factfinder to conclude that the restaurants’ final sales price represented their value, as needed for the calculation of damages. Viewing the record most favorably for the plaintiffs, the Court found that negotiations surrounding the final price of the restaurants evidenced that both parties’ relied on a valuation of the businesses derived from a multiple of weekly and/or monthly sales. Moreover, the entire content of negotiations between the parties clearly revolved around the restaurants’ weekly or monthly sales, from Sharma’s initial interest in purchasing the restaurant to the later financial statements used by defendants to further persuade Sharma to go forward with the purchase. The Court even performed its own calculations to affirm this result, despite the defendants’ refusal to confirm the calculation methods used to arrive at the sales price.

However, the Court also emphasized that the actual multiplier-numbers used or derived are not dispositive in this case, and that defendants could indeed challenge those numbers as a matter of fact later in the case. Instead, the true question was whether plaintiffs provided sufficient evidence, as a matter of law, for a factfinder to estimate a probable calculation of damages. In the Fourth Circuit’s opinion, the plaintiffs did just that by presenting their own estimate with reasonable precision and support for their own calculations, using an accepted approach based on income and computing their results with specific numbers provided by defendants to estimate the purchase price.

Vacated & Remanded

Based on their finding that Plaintiff’s purported estimates of damages were acceptable and sufficient to create a material dispute of fact, the Fourth Circuit vacated the District Court’s grant of summary judgement and remanded for further proceedings to continue plaintiff’s fraud claims.

By John Van Swearingen

On March 13, 2017, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the criminal case United States v. Winston. Robert Winston (“Appellant”), currently serving a 275-month sentence for a federal firearms charge from 2002, filed a motion for post-conviction relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 (2012) in the United States District Court for the Western District of Virginia. Appellant asserted the sentencing enhancements applied to his case were invalidated by Johnson v. United States (“Johnson II“), a 2015 Supreme Court decision striking part of the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”) and narrowing the scope of “violent felonies” included thereunder. No. 13–7120, slip op. at 15 (U.S. June 26, 2015). The district court rejected Appellant’s arguments. On appeal, the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court, holding Virginia’s common law robbery no longer qualified as a “violent felony” under the ACCA, and remanded the case for further proceedings.

Facts and Procedural History

In 2002, Appellant was sentenced to 275 month’s imprisonment for a federal firearms charge. Appellant’s sentence was enhanced under the ACCA, which mandates a fifteen-year minimum sentence for any person convicted of a firearms offense who has three prior “violent felonies” or serious drug offenses. At the time, the ACCA had categories of “violent felonies:” those established under the statute’s force clause and those under the statute’s residual clause, which included burglaries, arsons, and any other conduct that posed a serious risk of injury to another person. Appellant had four prior then-qualifying convictions: (1) rape under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (“UCMJ”), (2) common law robbery in Virginia, (3) possession of cocaine with intent to distribute in Virginia, and (4) a federal conviction for distribution of cocaine base.

After the Supreme Court published its 2015 opinion in Johnson II, which limited the definition of “violent felony” under the ACCA by striking the residual clause for vagueness, Appellant filed the instant action asserting that neither the UCMJ rape conviction nor the Virginia robbery conviction satisfied the new definition of “violent felony.” Without the ACCA sentencing enhancements, Appellant’s maximum sentence in 2002 would have been ten years, meaning Appellant would be immediately available for release.

The district court has not yet addressed Appellant’s rape conviction. The matter before the Fourth Circuit focused solely on Appellant’s common law robbery conviction. The government argued two points to challenge Appellant’s motion for relief. First, the government argued that, since Appellant could not prove that his robbery conviction was defined a “violent felony” under the now-stricken residual clause of the ACCA, Appellant did not rely on a new rule of constitutional law and was thus foreclosed from requesting relief. Second, the government argued that common law robbery still satisfied the limited definition of “violent felony” under the ACCA.

The district court disagreed with the government’s procedural assertion but agreed with the government’s substantive assertion, and it accordingly held the Virginia crime of common law robbery was a “violent felony” under the ACCA. Appellant timely filed the instant appeal.

Appellant Relied on a New Rule of Constitutional Law for the Motion for Post-Conviction Relief.

28 U.S.C. §§ 2244(b)(2)(A), 2244(b)(4) (2012) requires that motions for post-conviction relief rely on a new rule of constitutional law. The record never established that Appellant’s common law robbery conviction was only considered for enhancement by the sentencing court under the residual clause of the ACCA struck in Johnson II. Thus, the government argued, Appellant could not show reliance on the holding in Johnson II and was, therefore, barred from moving for relief.

The Fourth Circuit agreed with the district court that the sentencing court’s failure to disclose the clause or clauses of the ACCA under which it considered Appellant’s convictions could not be fatal to Appellant’s claim. The Fourth Circuit held that any movant seeking post-conviction relief, where that movant’s conviction may have been enhanced based on the now-void residual clause struck in Johnson II, may challenge their sentence. To hold otherwise, according to the Fourth Circuit, would punish defendants for a sentencing court’s discretion in failing to disclose the clauses of the ACCA under which it evaluated the defendant’s enhancements.

The Virginia Crime of Common Law Robbery Is Not a Violent Crime under the ACCA

Appellant challenged the district court’s holding that the Virginia crime of common law robbery was a “violent felony” under the ACCA. Since the residual clause was struck from the ACCA, all violent felonies must meet the definition established in the statute’s force clause, 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B)(i) (2012), which requires an element of “use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another.” The force clause was clarified in the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in United States v. Johnson (“Johnson I”), which defined “physical force” in the statute to mean only “violent force” that could cause injury or pain. No. 08–6925, slip op. at 6 (U.S. Mar. 2, 2010).

The Fourth Circuit noted that the Supreme Court’s decision in Moncrieffe v. Holder required the reviewing court to consider the “minimum conduct criminalized” by a state criminal law. No. 11–702, slip op. at 5 (U.S. Apr. 23, 2013). In Virginia, a common law robbery conviction can be sustained where a defendant steals the property of another by “violence or intimidation.” Pierce v. Commonwealth, 138 S.E.2d 28, 31 (Va. 1964). The “violence” element of the crime can be satisfied by the bare minimum of physical force needed to overcome a victim’s resistance. Maxwell v. Commonwealth, 183 S.E. 452, 454 (Va. 1936).

A conviction for common law robbery could therefore be sustained where only a minimum amount of “violence” is used – for example, turning someone’s body in order to grab their purse. Injurious “violent force” is not an element of the crime. The crime is therefore not a “violent felony” for sentencing enhancements under the ACCA. Thus, the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s holding and held the Virginia crime of common law robbery did not meet the standard set by the force clause of the ACCA, as clarified in Johnson I.

Disposition

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s holding regarding the procedural matter but reversed the district court’s substantive holding regarding the status of common law robbery as a “violent felony.” Thus, the district court’s judgment was vacated, and the case was remanded for further consideration regarding Appellant’s rape conviction under the UCMJ.

By John Van Swearingen

On Wednesday, November 9, 2016, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the civil case LeBlanc v. Mathena. This matter was a habeas corpus petition brought by a juvenile offender sentenced to life without parole for a non-homicide offense. The District Court of the Eastern District of Virginia had previously concluded that Virginia’s Geriatric Release program, which provides offenders sentenced to life without parole the opportunity to petition for conditional release after the age of sixty, violated the minimum standards of the incorporated Eighth Amendment as held in Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010). In Graham, the Supreme Court of the United States held that the Eighth Amendment forbids the sentencing of juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses to life without parole. Juvenile life sentences for non-homicide offenses must provide a meaningful and realistic opportunity to obtain release based on “demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” Here, the circuit court affirmed the district court’s ruling, holding that Geriatric Release does not meet the requirements of Graham.

Facts and Procedural History

On January 1, 1995, Virginia enacted Va. Code Ann. § 53.1-165.1 (2015), abolishing parole for felonies convicted after that date. On July 6, 1999, the Petitioner committed the crimes of rape and abduction, and on July 15, 2002, he was convicted and sentenced to two life sentences.

After the Supreme Court decided Graham in 2010, the Petitioner filed a motion in Virginia state court to vacate his sentence of life without parole. In 2011, the state trial court denied Petitioner’s motion based on Angel v. Commonwealth, a contemporaneous Virginia Supreme Court decision holding that Virginia’s Geriatric Release program satisfied the requirements of Graham.

In June of 2012, the Petitioner filed a writ of habeas corpus in the District Court of the Eastern District of Virginia. The district court granted the habeas petition, holding that the Geriatric Release program did not meet the standards established in Graham. The Respondents in this case, the state, timely filed this appeal.

Virginia’s Geriatric Release Program

Virginia’s Geriatric Release program is a two-stage process by which convicted offenders with life sentences can apply for conditional release. Unlike Virginia’s abolished parole doctrine, the Geriatric Release program is not automatic. Offenders must initiate the process with a petition to the Parole Board – and again, they may only do so after their sixtieth birthday.

The first stage of the Geriatric Release process requires the offender’s petition demonstrate a “compelling” reason for the release of the offender. The term “compelling” is not defined in the relevant statute or administrative regulations. The Parole Board is able to deny the petition for Geriatric Release for any reason at this point.

Should the Parole Board permit the petition to go to the second stage, the offender will be provided the opportunity to make oral and written statements to the Parole Board to advocate for his or her release. If at least four out of five members of the Board agree, the offender’s petition for Geriatric Release will be granted.

Again, the process is distinguishable from the old parole system. Geriatric Release cannot be initiated until the offender turns sixty. Virginia’s parole process typically initiated after offenders had served about fifteen years. The Petitioner would likely have been eligible for parole, under the old system, after around twenty years. Under the Geriatric Release program, that length of time is approximately doubled. Further, only three out of five members of the Parole Board had to agree to grant parole. The Geriatric Release program requires one more member of the board for approval.

Standard of Review for Habeas Corpus Petitions

When a habeas petition is filed, the standard of review turns on whether the petition involves a question of law or fact. This case presents a question of law, meaning the standard of review is stated at 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(2) (2012). If the court’s decision was an “unreasonable determination” of how the law applies to the facts in this case, then the court’s decision was improper. If the decision was reasonable, it stands.

Habeas petitions in federal district courts must review the case at hand in addition to the most recent state case addressing the issue. In this case, the most recent state case was the Angel decision, which held that the Geriatric Release program met the requirements of Graham. Since the state decision is contrary to the district court’s decision, either Angel or the district court’s decision will be determined unreasonable, and one holding will be affirmed.

The Standard Established in Graham

The holding in Graham was based on the Supreme Court’s conclusion that juveniles are less culpable for crimes than adults. Juvenile brains, the Court noted, are still developing. Because of this, the Court stated, juvenile offenders are less likely to be “irretrievably depraved” than adults. With that in mind, the Court examined the prospect of life without parole for juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses in the context of the Eighth Amendment.

The Court noted that life without parole is only second to the death penalty in its harshness and ability to deprive convicted persons of hope. Life without parole is, therefore, an ultimate judgment of the irrevocable nature of an offender’s character. Given those points, the Court held that life sentences for juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses must meet three requirements.

First, the sentence must provide an opportunity to obtain release based on “demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” Second, this opportunity must be meaningful and realistic. Third, the state’s parole and release programs at large must account for the lesser culpability of juveniles.

The Geriatric Release Program Does Not Satisfy the Graham Requirements

The Fourth Circuit held that the Virginia Geriatric Release program does not meet any of the three requirements set out in the Graham decision, thus overturning Angel and affirming the district court’s holding.

First, the Geriatric Release program does not require the Parole Board to consider any factors relevant to the juvenile’s maturity or rehabilitation. Additionally, because of the two-stage review process, a petition can be denied at the first stage – before the presentation of oral and written arguments. Also, over 95% of the denials of Geriatric Release petitions were based on the nature of the underlying crimes, which, again, precludes consideration of maturity and rehabilitation. Therefore, the program does not meet the first requirement of Graham.

Second, the circuit court held the extended duration of time compared to parole, coupled with the lack of consideration for juvenile-specific factors, rendered the opportunity provided under the Geriatric Release program neither meaningful nor realistic for juvenile offenders facing life sentences. Therefore, the program does not meet the second requirement of Graham.

Finally, the Geriatric Release program fundamentally contravenes the concerns underlying the Court’s third requirement in Graham. Unlike the abolished parole program, which counted time served regardless of age, the Geriatric Release program requires juveniles serving life sentences to spend a longer percentage of their life incarcerated than an adult serving the same sentence. Essentially, the program ensures that juveniles, though deemed to be less culpable by the Supreme Court, will bear a harsher punishment than adults.

Disposition

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s order remanding the Petitioner’s case for resentencing. The Virginia Geriatric Release program permits the denial of offender’s petitions without requiring consideration of demonstrated maturity or rehabilitation. The program, in execution, results in more comparably harsh sentences for juvenile offenders than adult offenders. Therefore, the Geriatric Release program does not meet the requirements of the incorporated Eighth Amendment as enumerated in Graham.