Justia Government & Administrative Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
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The Fourth Circuit considered for the second time the Wikimedia Foundation's contentions that the government is spying on its communications using Upstream, an electronic surveillance program run by the NHS. In the first appeal, the court found that Wikimedia's allegations of Article III standing sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss and vacated the district court's judgment to the contrary. The district court dismissed the case on remand, holding that Wikimedia did not establish a genuine issue of material fact as to standing and that further litigation would unjustifiably risk the disclosure of state secrets.The court concluded that the record evidence is sufficient to establish a genuine issue of material fact as to Wikimedia's standing, and thus the district court erred in granting summary judgment to the government on this basis. However, the court concluded that the state secrets privilege prevents further litigation of this suit. Furthermore, Wikimedia's other alleged injuries do not support standing. View "Wikimedia Foundation v. National Security Agency/Central Security Service" on Justia Law

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Enrollees in the North Carolina State Health Plan for Teachers and State Employees (NCSHP) sued, alleging that NCSHP discriminates against its transgender enrollees by categorically denying coverage for gender dysphoria treatments like counseling, hormone therapy, and surgical care, in violation of section 1557 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which prohibits “any health program or activity” that receives federal funds from discriminating against individuals on any ground prohibited by various federal statutes, including Title IX, 42 U.S.C. 18116(a).The Fourth Circuit affirmed the denial of NCSHP’s motion to dismiss, asserting that it was entitled to sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment. NCSHP waived its immunity against this claim by accepting federal financial assistance. Under the Civil Rights Remedies Equalization Act (CRREA), “[a] State shall not be immune under the Eleventh Amendment of the Constitution of the United States from suit in Federal court for a violation of . . . any other Federal Statute prohibiting discrimination by recipients of Federal financial assistance,” 42 U.S.C. 2000d-7. View "Kadel v. North Carolina State Health Plan for Teachers and State Employees" on Justia Law

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The Montgomery County Council established the Emergency Assistance Relief Payment Program (EARP) in March 2020 to provide emergency cash assistance to County residents with incomes equal to or less than 50% of the federal poverty benchmark who were not eligible for federal or state pandemic relief. Although eligibility for EARP aid is not dependent on a person’s status as an undocumented immigrant, such individuals are eligible to receive EARP payments. To fund EARP, the County appropriated $10,000,000 from reserve funds to the County’s Department of Health and Human Services. Taxpayers filed suit in Maryland state court, asserting that EARP violated 8 U.S.C. 1621(a), which, with few exceptions, generally prohibits undocumented persons from receiving state and local benefits. Recognizing that Section 1621 does not authorize private enforcement, the plaintiffs cited the Maryland common law doctrine of taxpayer standing, which “permits taxpayers to seek the aid of courts, exercising equity powers, to enjoin illegal and ultra vires acts of [Maryland] public officials where those acts are reasonably likely to result in pecuniary loss to the taxpayer.” The case was removed to federal court based on federal question jurisdiction, 28 U.S.C. 1331. The court granted the County summary judgment. The Fourth Circuit affirmed. Congress has declined to authorize private parties to enforce Section 1621, a legislative decision that cannot be circumvented by invocation of a state’s law of taxpayer standing. View "Bauer v. Elrich" on Justia Law

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North Carolina filed suit in state court seeking recovery of an unpaid civil penalty against the Marine Corps for failing an air quality compliance test. After the federal government defendants removed to federal court, the district court dismissed the case.The Fourth Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part, holding that the Clean Air Act does not preclude removal but does waive sovereign immunity as to the penalty at issue here. The court concluded that the United States properly removed this suit under the federal officer removal statute and rejected North Carolina's contention that the Clean Air Act's state suit provision, 42 U.S.C. 7604(e), implicitly carves out a narrow exception to removal that precludes federal adjudication of this federal immunity defense. Rather, these two statutes are capable of coexistence and, contrary to North Carolina's argument, section 7604(e) does not require actions brought in state court to remain there. The court also concluded that the Clean Air Act unambiguously and unequivocally waives the United States' sovereign immunity as to all civil penalties assessed pursuant to state air pollution law, including punitive penalties like the one at issue here. The court remanded for further proceedings. View "North Carolina v. United States" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit considered two petitions for review challenging FERC's issuance of a license to McMahan, authorizing McMahan to operate the Bynum Hydroelectric Project on the Haw River in North Carolina. Assuming without deciding that a state may waive its certification authority under section 401 of the Clean Water Act by coordinating with an applicant in a scheme to defeat the statutory review period through a process of withdrawing and resubmitting the certification application, the court concluded that FERC's finding of coordination between McMahan and NCDEQ is not supported by substantial evidence. Furthermore, without evidence of improper coordination, the court concluded that FERC erred by determining that North Carolina waived its certification authority under section 401.In Case No. 20-1655, the court granted NCDEQ's petition for review of FERC's determination that NCDEQ waived its rights under the Clean Water Act to issue a water quality certification for the Project. The court vacated the license issued by FERC and remanded with instructions for FERC to reissue the license to include the water-quality conditions imposed by NCDEQ. In Case No. 20-1671, the court dismissed for lack of jurisdiction that portion of PK Ventures' petition for review challenging the validity of McMahan's state applications for a section 401 certification. Finding no merit to the remaining claims, the court otherwise denied the petition for review. View "North Carolina Department of Environmental Equality v. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission" on Justia Law

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Five former employees of national security agencies who, during their employment, had clearances for access to classified and sensitive information, filed suit against the CIA, the Department of Defense, the National Security Agency, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. They facially challenged the agencies’ requirements that current and former employees give the agencies prepublication review of certain materials that they intend to publish to allow the agencies to redact information that is classified or otherwise sensitive to national security. They alleged that the agencies’ regimes “fail to provide former government employees with fair notice of what they must submit,” “invest executive officers with sweeping discretion to suppress speech[,] and fail to include procedural safeguards designed to avoid the dangers of a censorship system.”The Fourth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the suit, holding that the prepublication review regimes were “reasonable” measures to protect sensitive information and did not violate the plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights. The regimes were not unduly vague under the Fifth Amendment; they adequately informed authors of the types of materials they must submit and established for agency reviewers the kinds of information that can be redacted. View "Edgar v. Haines" on Justia Law

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AFGE filed suit challenging two advisory opinions issued by the OSC, the agency tasked by Congress to advise on the way in which the Hatch Act's prohibitions in the federal workplace applied. The original advisory opinion was promulgated on November 27, 2018, and a clarifying opinion was promulgated three days later (jointly, "the Advisory Opinions"). Both opinions bore on conduct related to President Trump's reelection campaign. AFGE sought a declaration that the Advisory Opinions violated its members' rights under the First Amendment; an injunction against OSC's reliance on and enforcement of the Advisory Opinions; and a court order commanding their rescission. The district court dismissed the complaint on ripeness grounds.The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's dismissal of the action, concluding that AFGE's case is now moot and would otherwise be unripe for review. The court explained that OSC's post-election update of its guidance on impeachment and "the resistance" has removed AFGE's injury-in-fact and, therefore, mooted the case. Furthermore, the issues in this case are not fit for judicial decision and the mere issuance by OSC of a generally addressed advisory opinion falls short of what is required. Finally, the court noted that for it to rule this case justiciable would upend the Hatch Act enforcement scheme whose details Congress has so meticulously set out. View "American Federation of Government Employees v. Office of Special Counsel" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit held that the district court erred by dismissing under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) the Foundation's complaint against the executive director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections (the Board), alleging a violation of the disclosure provision in the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA). The Foundation sought disclosure of broad categories of documents related to the identification of North Carolina voter registrants whom the Board had identified as potentially failing to satisfy the statutory citizenship requirement.The court vacated the district court's judgment and remanded, concluding that the district court erred in holding that the Foundation failed to state a claim under the NVRA's disclosure provision simply because the request implicated potential criminal conduct of registrants. The court explained that the disclosure provision does not contain such a blanket exemption and requires a more exacting and tailored analysis than what occurred in this case. Because discovery was not conducted, the court cannot discern on this record whether the Foundation may be entitled to disclosure of some of the documents requested. Therefore, the court remanded to the district court for further consideration of the documents subject to four restrictions excluding from disclosure: (1) information precluded from disclosure by the Privacy Act of 1974 and the Driver's Privacy Protection Act of 1994; (2) information obtained from confidential federal databases under the United States Department of Homeland Security's Systemic Alien Verification for Entitlements system (the SAVE system) that is otherwise protected from disclosure by statute or by the Board's agreement with the Department regarding confidentiality; (3) any requested voter registration applications, or the names affiliated with those applications, that are subject to protection as part of any prior or current criminal investigation; and (4) the identities and personal information of individuals who potentially committed criminal offenses, including those who later were determined to be United States citizens, which must be redacted from any documents ultimately released as sensitive information vulnerable to abuse. View "Public Interest Legal Foundation v. North Carolina State Board of Elections" on Justia Law

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Petitioner filed a whistleblower-retaliation complaint under 42 U.S.C. 5851 after the NRC rejected his applications for promotions. Petitioner is an NRC employee who made disclosures to Congress and the NRC's Inspector General regarding health and safety risks at a nuclear power plant. The ALJ dismissed the case because the United States had not waived sovereign immunity for such whistleblower actions against the NRC, and the ARB affirmed.After determining that it had jurisdiction over the petition, the Fourth Circuit denied the petition for review, agreeing with the ARB that Congress has not waived sovereign immunity for complaints against the NRC. In this case, petitioner failed to make the necessary affirmative showing of waiver with the required unequivocal expression. The court explained that the lesson in its recent decision in Robinson v. U.S. Dep't of Educ., 917 F.3d 799 (2019), is that the substantive and remedial provisions of a statute may not be coextensive. The court concluded that there is no doubt that the NRC is bound by the prohibitions of section 5851, but that fact alone is simply insufficient to form the basis of an unequivocal waiver of sovereign immunity. View "Peck v. U.S. Department of Labor" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs, twenty-three individuals who allege they are in the Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB), filed suit alleging that the TSDB program violates the Fifth Amendment's Due Process Clause by failing to include more procedural safeguards.The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of plaintiffs and concluded that plaintiffs have not demonstrated infringements of constitutional liberty interests under the Due Process Clause. The court explained that history and precedent reveal that the government possesses latitude in regulating travel, guarding the nation's borders, and protecting the aspirations of the populace for tranquility and safety. In this case, the typical delay pleaded by plaintiffs, which is around an hour or less at an airport, does not rise up to the level of constitutional concern. The court reasoned that these delays are not dissimilar from what many travelers routinely face, whether in standard or enhanced screenings, particularly at busy airports. Even if the court accepted plaintiffs' assertions that these inconveniences have actually deterred them from flying, the court stated that individuals do not have a protected liberty interest to travel via a particular mode of transportation. Furthermore, plaintiffs do not possess a protected liberty interest in being free from screening and delays at the border.The court also concluded that inclusion in the TSDB does not infringe on plaintiffs' constitutionally protected interest in their reputations. The court rejected plaintiffs' contention that inclusion in the TSDB stigmatizes them by associating them with terrorism. The court explained that plaintiffs have not shown adequate "public disclosure" by the government and the government does not publicly disclose TSDB status. Furthermore, the Supreme Court has explained that stigma or "reputation alone, apart from some more tangible interests such as employment," is not "liberty" within the meaning of the Due Process Clause. The court further explained that the government's act of including names in the TSDB does not mandate that private entities deny people rights and privileges. In this case, plaintiffs have not adequately demonstrated denials of employment, permits, licenses, or firearms. The court explained that speculation coupled with a few isolated incidents inadequately tethered to TSDB status is not enough. Finally, the court doubted plaintiffs' claims as to the adequacy of existing processes where the government's interest is extraordinarily significant in this case, the weight of the private interests at stake is comparatively weak, and the court would not casually second-guess Congress's specific judgment as to how much procedure was needed in this context. View "Elhady v. Kable" on Justia Law