By Matthew Hooker
Spencer v. Virginia State Univ.
In this civil case, the Fourth Circuit affirmed a grant of summary judgment in favor of Virginia State University concerning the plaintiff’s claim that she was sexually discriminated against with respect to her salary. The plaintiff, a sociology professor, earned a median salary when compared to men who were also full professors in the same department. But the plaintiff argued that the court should compare her pay to that of two former university administrators who earned at least $30,000 more than her. But the Fourth Circuit held that because the plaintiff and these two men did not perform “equal” work requiring “equal skill, effort, and responsibility,” she could not prevail under the Equal Pay Act. “Professors are not interchangeable like widgets.” The two men taught in different departments than the plaintiff, taught at a higher class level, and worked more hours. The Fourth Circuit also held the plaintiff could not prevail under Title VII because the university had explained the pay disparity by showing its practice of paying administrators 9/12ths of their previous salary, which was a nondiscriminatory reason.
In this criminal case, the Fourth Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in admitting certain pieces of evidence when the defendant was ultimately convicted for distribution of over 50 grams of methamphetamine. The defendant had also objected to the use of coconspirator testimony for sentencing purposes after the jury had acquitted him on a charged conspiracy count.
The Fourth Circuit first held that the admission of an out-of-court statement of an informant was not an abuse of discretion because the testimony was offered as an explanation or motive for the officers’ use of the informant, so the testimony was not hearsay under Federal Rule of Evidence 801(c). The Fourth Circuit next held that the government properly authenticated certain photos introduced at trial because, even though there was no direct evidence to authenticate, the context was sufficient to authenticate since “the burden to authenticate under Rule 901 is not high.” The Fourth Circuit also held that an officer’s familiarity with the defendant’s voice was enough to authenticate a recording of a telephone conversation since the officer had in-person conversations with the defendant such that the officer would be able to recognize his voice.
Finally, the Fourth Circuit held that the district court properly explained the sentence imposed, even though the court considered acquitted conduct in establishing the drug amounts. Since it has long been acceptable to consider such conduct, and because the district court did explain its consideration and the defendant’s contrary arguments, the explanation was adequate.
In this immigration case, the Fourth Circuit held that the Board of Immigration Appeals (“BIA”) applied the incorrect standard of review in reviewing an immigration judge’s (“IJ”) determinations. The IJ had concluded that the petitioner was not in his father’s physical custody under the Child Citizenship Act of 2000 (“CCA”), subjecting the petitioner to removal proceedings. In a case of first impression, the Fourth Circuit concluded that whether an individual was in the “physical custody” of a parent under the CCA is a mixed question of fact and law, requiring a bifurcated approach. The Fourth Circuit held that the application of the facts to the relevant state law in determining whether an individual satisfies the physical custody requirement is a legal judgment subject to de novo review by the BIA. Since the BIA reviewed for clear error, remand of the case was necessary for application of the correct standard.
In this immigration case, the Fourth Circuit held that the Board of Immigration Appeals (“BIA”) failed to fully consider all relevant evidence in support of the petitioner’s claim for asylum and relief under the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (“CAT”). The petitioner had expressed great fear that she and her son would be tortured or even murdered by the 18th Street gang if they were removed and sent back to El Salvador. In reviewing the immigration judge’s (“IJ”) denial of relief, the BIA did not adopt the IJ’s opinion but instead offered its own reasons for denying relief, so the Fourth Circuit reviewed the BIA’s reasons. Although the BIA had considered country condition reports, it had ignored the petitioner’s testimony that she twice sought the aid of local police and twice was turned away. Since the BIA wholly failed to consider this evidence, the Fourth Circuit remanded the case for review of all relevant evidence.
In this civil case, the Fourth Circuit affirmed a dismissal for failure to state a claim where the plaintiffs sued a number of government officials and corporate entities for alleged illegal intrusions into the plaintiffs’ electronic devices to conduct unlawful surveillance. The Fourth Circuit first held that the plaintiffs failed to state a Bivens claim. Although Bivens itself recognized a remedy for Fourth Amendment violations, the Fourth Circuit viewed the plaintiffs’ claim as presenting a “new Bivens context” because of the rank of the government officials here and the use of electronic surveillance. Since this was a new Bivens context, the Fourth Circuit had to consider whether there were special factors suggesting denying a cause of action. Here, the Fourth Circuit held such factors were present since Congress had already explicitly legislated in this area without authorizing damages for a Fourth Amendment violation.
The Fourth Circuit next held that the plaintiffs failed to state a claim under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (“ECPA”) because the defendants in question were entitled to qualified immunity. In doing so, the Fourth Circuit declined to review the district court’s interpretation of the ECPA and instead held that qualified immunity was appropriate since there was a “lack of settled precedent supporting the plaintiffs’ ECPA claim.”
Finally, the Fourth Circuit upheld dismissal of the complaint against certain Verizon entities and John Doe agents. Because the plaintiffs had failed to identify or serve any of the John Doe agents, had failed to prosecute their claims, and had failed to respect court orders, the Fourth Circuit held there was no abuse of discretion for the district court to dismiss the complaint as to these final parties.
Brundle v. Wilmington Trust, N.A.
In this civil case, the Fourth Circuit affirmed a judgment finding that an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (“ESOP”) trustee breached its fiduciary duties under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”). The Fourth Circuit noted that, under ERISA, there need not be proof that the fiduciary acted in bad faith, but only that the fiduciary failed to act solely in the interest of the ESOP participants. The defendant primarily challenged the district court’s findings of fact during the bench trial, but the Fourth Circuit held that there was no clear error in those findings. The Fourth Circuit also held that there was no clear error in the district court’s damages award.