— Posts About Appeals

Patterson Harkavy files brief with the United States Supreme Court on behalf of the victims of Camp Lejeune’s water contamination

Last week, Patterson Harkavy filed an amicus brief with the United States Supreme Court in support of the rights of individuals injured by exposure to hazardous waste.  Attorneys Burton Craige, Narendra Ghosh, and Paul Smith were responsible for the brief, with Attorney Ed Bell from South Carolina appearing as co-counsel.

The amicus brief addresses one of the nation’s largest environmental disasters, occurring on Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune near Jacksonville, North Carolina.  For decades, Camp Lejeune’s drinking water was contaminated with multiple known human carcinogens.  Although the military had reason to know of the contamination, it did nothing to address the problem until the 1980s.   Once the government finally began closing contaminated wells in 1985, it concealed the scope of the contamination for many more years.  The contamination resulted in illnesses and disorders which have devastated countless lives.

Patterson Harkavy represented five of these individuals before the Supreme Court.  Our clients include some of the highest profile advocates for Camp Lejeune’s victims, including Jerry Ensminger, a former Marine whose deceased daughter Janey is the namesake for federal legislation providing medical benefits to many of the contamination’s victims; Mike Partain, a male breast cancer survivor who has identified an ever-expanding cluster of other male breast cancer victims with similar exposure to Camp Lejeune’s water; and Tom Townsend, a former Marine who lost his infant son to Camp Lejeune’s water, and who has worked with Ensminger to uncover the extent of the base’s contamination and the full scope of the government’s efforts to suppress evidence of its malfeasance.

Patterson Harkavy’s brief was filed in CTS v. Waldburger.  At issue is a 1986 amendment to the Superfund Act.  The amendment was enacted to ensure that individuals injured as a result of their exposure to hazardous waste can bring suit when they discover their injury and its cause, even if their claims would otherwise be barred by state statutes of limitation.  The defendant in Waldburger is seeking to shield itself from legal liability under a provision in North Carolina’s statutes of limitation that prevents many legal claims from being brought more than ten years after the occurrence of the act causing an injury.  Defendant argues that since North Carolina’s provision has been judicially labeled a “statute of repose” instead of an ordinary statute of limitation, the 1986 amendment does not affect it in any way.

Many of those injured by Camp Lejeune’s water developed cancer decades after being exposed to the base’s carcinogenic water.  A ruling in favor of the defendant in Waldburger could therefore prevent these individuals from bringing any legal claims against the military.  The United States government supports the defendant’s position, and has made nearly identical arguments in a separate case in an attempt to avoid liability for its misconduct at Camp Lejeune.

Patterson Harkavy’s brief can be accessed here.  It discusses the scope of the Camp Lejeune disaster and describes how the Supreme Court’s ruling could affect countless military families that were recklessly exposed to hazardous chemicals.

The story of the Camp Lejeune contamination, its effects, and the efforts to uncover the government’s malfeasance has been told in the award-winning film “Semper Fi: Always Faithful,” and in the recently published book “A Trust Betrayed: The Untold Story of Camp Lejeune and the Poisoning of Generations of Marines and Their Families.”  Additional information can be found on the website “The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten.”

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Voucher victory as Court of Appeals permits preliminary injunction to remain in place

Advocates for private school vouchers suffered another defeat today, as the North Carolina Court of Appeals left in place Judge Hobgood’s order enjoining the state’s private school voucher scheme.

The North Carolina General Assembly enacted the scheme in 2013.  If implemented, it would divert money from North Carolina’s public schools to subsidize private school students’ tuition.  Together with attorneys from the Justice Center, Patterson Harkavy attorneys Burton Craige and Narendra Ghosh represent twenty five plaintiffs who claim the scheme violates various provisions of the North Carolina Constitution.  On February 28, Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood agreed, finding that it likely violated the requirement that money allocated for public education be used “exclusively” for free public schools.  He therefore issued a preliminary injunction preventing the state from taking any steps to implement the program.

On March 18, proponents of private school vouchers asked the North Carolina Court of Appeals to delay the implementation of Judge Hobgood’s injunction until an appeal could be heard.  Today’s order denies that petition.  The favorable ruling is the first time an appellate court has addressed any issue in this litigation.

The brief order from the Court of Appeals can be found here.

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Win for Burton and Narendra: Court of Appeals Affirms Dismissal of District Attorney Tracey Cline

The North Carolina Court of Appeals has affirmed a trial court order removing Durham District Attorney Tracey Cline from her office.  In re Cline, __ N.C. App. ___, 749 S.E.2d 91 (2013).  Patterson Harkavy attorney Burton Craige acted as court appointed counsel responding to Cline’s appeal of her dismissal.

The controversy has its roots in late 2011, when Cline began making numerous false and outrageous accusations against Durham Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson, Jr. in public pleadings.  Cline’s behavior lead attorney Kerstin Sutton to petition for Cline’s removal under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7A-66, which establishes a number of grounds on which a district attorney can be removed from office.  Sutton was appointed to present evidence against Cline at a hearing before Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood.  On March 2, 2012, Judge Hobgood found that Cline had engaged in conduct “prejudicial to the administration of justice which brings the office into disrepute” under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7A-66(6), and removed her from office.  Cline appealed.

The court appointed Burton Craige to manage the response to Cline’s appeal.  Burton worked with Sutton and Patterson Harkavy attorney Narendra Ghosh to defend Judge Hobgood’s removal order.  On October 1, a unanimous panel of the North Carolina Court of Appeals published an opinion affirming Judge Hobgood’s order removing Cline from her office.

The News and Observer has engaged in extensive coverage of the controversy, including an investigative series entitled “Twisted Truth: a Prosecutor Under Attack.”  More recent articles explore Burton’s role as court appointed independent counsel and discuss Monday’s Court of Appeals decision.

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Burton and Narendra Secure Court of Appeals Win in Medical Malpractice Discovery Dispute

In Hammond v. Saini, __ N.C. App. ___, 748 S.E.2d 585 (2013), the Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Patterson Harkavy’s client, Plaintiff Judy Hammond.  Ms. Hammond suffered severe injuries from an operating room fire while undergoing surgery to remove a possible basal cell carcinoma from her face.  In her subsequent medical malpractice suit, the Defendants refused to produce certain documents addressing the fire and notes made by the hospital’s risk manager following the fire.  The trial court rejected the Defendants’ argument that these items were privileged and granted Ms. Hammond’s motion to compel discovery.  Burton Craige and Narendra Ghosh represented Ms. Hammond on Defendants’ appeal of that decision.

On September 3, a Court of Appeals panel published a unanimous opinion in favor of Ms. Hammond, affirming the order compelling production of the Defendants’ reports, and remanding the issue of whether the risk manager’s notes were protected by the Work Product Doctrine to the trial court.  For more information, read Burton and Narendra’s brief to the Court of Appeals.

 

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Burton and Narendra File Amicus Brief with NC Supreme Court in Defense of the Racial Justice Act

Burton Craige and Narendra Ghosh have submitted an amicus brief on behalf of the North Carolina Advocates for Justice in North Carolina v. Marcus Reymond Robinson.  The case addresses the first instance of a North Carolina death row inmate having his death sentence reduced to life in prison under the North Carolina Racial Justice Act.

The Racial Justice Act was a landmark piece of legislation enacted in 2009.  It permitted individuals on death row to use statistical analysis when arguing that race played a role in their sentencing; those death sentences found to have been sought or obtained on the basis of race under the act would be commuted to life without possibility of parole.  The Racial Justice Act was weakened in 2012, and repealed in 2013.

Marcus Robinson was the first death row inmate to have his sentence commuted to life without possibility of parole under the RJA.  In April of 2012, Judge Gregory Weeks found that Robinson had introduced “a wealth of evidence showing the persistent, pervasive, and distorting role of race in jury selection throughout North Carolina” that had been largely unrebutted by the State.  Judge Weeks ultimately concluded that prosecutors had intentionally used race as a significant factor when striking potential jurors, and found that race had been a significant factor in determining when the death penalty was sought and imposed at the time of Robinson’s trial.  Judge Weeks therefore commuted Robinson’s death sentence to life without the possibility of parole.  Read this article from the New York Times for more information on Mr. Robinson’s case.

The State appealed Judge Week’s order to the North Carolina Supreme Court.  Burton and Narendra’s amicus brief discusses the nature of racial bias in jury selection, addresses the limited extent to which long-standing constitutional doctrines protect against such bias, explores the manner in which the Racial Justice Act remedied these deficiencies, and argues that Judge Weeks correctly applied the Racial Justice Act in commuting Robinson’s sentence.

 

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Court of Appeals Rejects REDA Claim by Pro Se Plaintiff

In Fatta v M & M Properties Management, Inc. the North Carolina Court of Appeals heard an appeal by a pro se plaintiff of the trial court’s granting of summary judgement.  Plaintiff worked for the company in one of their hotels as a property manager.  During Plaintiff’s training, he was injured while cleaning a room.  He reported the injury to his supervisor and said he would file workers’ compensation paperwork if the injury was more severe than a pulled muscle.  A day after he reported his injury to his supervisor, Plaintiff was given a first and final written warning; five days after the warning Plaintiff was terminated.  Plaintiff filed a Form 18 with the North Carolina Industrial Commission five days following his termination.

Plaintiff contends that the company violated the Retaliatory Employment Discrimination Act (REDA) by firing him while he was engaged in protected activity, namely threatening to file a workers’ compensation claim.  The Court of Appeals agreed that threatening to file a workers’ compensation claim is protected activity.  However, the Court affirmed the trial court’s order because Plaintiff could not show a causal relationship between his termination and threatening to file a claim.  Plaintiff argued that the close proximity in time between when he reported his injury and was terminated showed that Defendant had unfairly retaliated against him for threatening to file a workers’ compensation claim.  However the Court stated that the proximity of the date of injury to the termination date is not enough, standing alone, to show a causal connection.

Given the really close timing here, the Court’s decision seems incorrect.  But, it appears that because the plaintiff was not represented by an attorney, he did not develop the facts in his case as well as he could have. There well could have been more incriminating facts that were not put before the court.

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The 4th Circuit CoA Ruled that the EEOC could be Estopped in an ADA Enforcement Action

In EEOC v. Greater Baltimore Medical Center, Inc., Michael Turner was a unit secretary at GBMC who suffered multiple serious health conditions in 2005 that first required hospitalization in January 2005.  He was out of the work for most of the year and then suffered a stroke in December 2005.  That month he filed an application for SSDI benefits, stating that he had been unable to work since January.  The application stated that he would notify the SSA if his condition improved.  Turner was granted SSDI benefits in January 2006, retroactive to January 2005.  He has continued to receive the benefits.  But, in January 2006, Turner notified GMBC that he wanted to return to work, and his physician indicated that the could return in a part-time position such as a file clerk.  On June 1, 2006, Turner was cleared for full-time file clerk work, but was not given a position.  On June 30, having not obtained any new position with GMBC, Turner was formally terminated.  The EEOC filed suit on his behalf under the ADA claiming disability discrimination after Turner was able to return to work.  The district court granted summary judgment for GBMC on the basis that the ADA claim was incompatible with Turner’s application for and acceptance of SSDI benefits.  The Fourth Circuit affirmed in a split decision.

The ADA requires the plaintiff to be an individual with a disability who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position.  This requirement may be incompatible with the assertion for SSDI purposes that the claimant is totally disabled, and the plaintiff may be estopped from contradicting the SSDI statements.  Under Cleveland v. Policy Mgmt. Sys. Corp., 526 U.S. 795 (1999), a court should require an explanation of any apparent inconsistency between the SSDI standard and the necessary elements of an ADA claim.  In previous cases, the Fourth Circuit had not found any inconsistency between ADA claims and SSDI or workers’ compensation benefits, but the analysis is fact-specific.  Here, the majority found Turner’s ADA claim to be in direct conflict with his SSDI statements that he was disabled continually since 2005.  Turner’s ADA claim that he could work in 2006 after improvement in his condition conflicts with his continued receipt of SSDI benefits and failure to report to SSA any change in condition.  Nor could the conflict be squared by the absence of accommodations; Turner never claimed to need any.

In dissent, Judge Gregory argued that the EEOC should never be estopped by the statements of a claimant because it did not make the statements.  Estoppel against the government is disfavored and is contrary to the purpose of EEOC enforcement of the ADA.  Judge Gregory also argued that Turner’s SSDI benefits and ADA claim were compatible.  For example, a jury could find that Turner had a good-faith belief in his SSDI assertion of disability because that is how GBMC treated him when it refused to give him his job back or to hire him for a new position despite his dozens of applications and superb work history.

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The 4th Circuit CoA Holds that Discrimination in the Offers of Severance Agreements can be Actionable Under Title VII

In Gerner v. County of Chesterfield, Karla Gerner was a twenty-five employee of the county whose position was eliminated in a reorganization.  She was offered a severance agreement that included three months of pay, which she rejected.  The county then terminated her without any severance.  She filed suit under Title VII, alleging sex discrimination in that male counterparts received better severance offers than she did, citing four examples.  The district court granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss based on there being no adverse employment action.

The Fourth Circuit unanimously reversed.  In Hishon v. King & Spalding, 467 U.S. 69 (1984), the Supreme Court held that any “benefit that is part and parcel of the employment relationship may not be doled out in a discriminatory fashion, even if the employer would be free under the employment contract simply not to provide the benefit at all.”  Id. at 75.  In situations like that at hand, in which an employee did not volunteer for a change in employment benefits or retain a job in lieu of a new benefit, courts have consistently recognized that the discriminatory denial of a non-contractual employment benefit constitutes an adverse employment action.  The district court thus erred in concluding a discriminatory denial of a favorable severance offer – a non-required benefit – could not be an adverse employment action.  The district court also erred in concluding that any discriminatory action took place after the employment ended.  First, Gerner alleged that she was still employed when she got the poor severance offer.  Second, even if she were not, “Title VII protects both current and former employees from discriminatory adverse employment actions.”  The Court thus reversed and remanded for the district court to determine if the severance offer was “part and parcel of the employment relationship.”

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4th Circuit CoA Examines Faragher-Ellerth Defense

In Dulaney v. Packaging Corp. of America, Carla Dulaney started working for PCA in 2006 on as assembly line position.  The “lead production worker” was Bobby Mills, who had a number of supervisory powers.  In November 2006, Mills effectively promoted Dulaney from a probationary to permanent position.  The next month, he began repeatedly demanding quid pro quo sexual favors.  At first Dulaney refused, but later did engage in sexual activity with Mills.  Mills would yell at her when she refused him and on occasion would send her home without pay.  When Dulaney reported this to management she was laughed at and told she was replaceable.  Mills continued to face sexual harassment from Mills and rumors were spread by co-workers.  In September 2007, Dulaney and a co-worker complained about Mills’ conduct, which led to his dismissal.  Dulaney’s relationship with her co-workers and supervisor deteriorated after this point.  Finally, she spoke with HR about wanting to find another job and HR gave her a severance agreement three days later.  When Dulaney did not sign the agreement on the spot, she was escorted out of the building and had her keys taken.  After consulting with an attorney, she did not sign the agreement.  Later, she was sent a letter by HR stating she could return to work, but in her unemployment hearing she was still listed as terminated.  Dulaney sued PCA and Mills for gender discrimination and sexual harassment under Title VII and state law.  The district court granted summary judgment for PCA, somewhat confusingly based on the Faragher-Ellerth defense.  The Fourth Circuit unanimously reversed.

The primary issue for the Court was whether the company took a tangible employment action, which would preclude use of the Faragher-Ellerth defense.  The district court reasoned that Dulaney was not fired because she was only given a severance agreement.  However, the agreement could be read to terminate Dulaney, she was escorted off premises when she refused to sign it, and her pay was stopped.  Drawing inferences in her favor, the Court found this constitutes a termination.  The second issue is that there must be “some nexus between the harassment and the tangible employment action for the latter to be actionable.”  Here, the supervisor’s treatment of Dulaney as she sought to report Mills’s sexual harassment and his subsequent involvement in her termination suggested a nexus between Mills’s harassment and her termination.  It was at least enough for a jury to decide the issue.

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4th Circuit Rejected the ADA Claim for a Medical Student with ADHD

In Halpern v. Wake Forest University Health Sciences, Ronen Halpern was enrolled in Wake Forest’s Doctor of Medicine program from July 2004 to March 2009.  Halpern has been diagnosed with ADHD and anxiety disorder, both of which he treats with prescription medications.  Halpern’s difficulties with professionalism began almost immediately after his arrival at the Medical School and continued throughout the first two years of his enrollment.  There were incidents of abusive behavior toward staff and unexplained absences.  Halpern failed his first rotation in 2006 due to “frequent lapses in professionalism,” with poor interpersonal skills and more absences.  Shortly thereafter, Halpern went on medical leave to address the severe side effects of his medications.  Halpern returned in April 2007 and thereafter successfully completed ten clinical rotations.  However, there were several incidents of unprofessional behavior along the way, including poor interactions with staff and faculty.   Finally, in November 2008, Halpern failed to send letters of appreciation to scholarship donors, despite numerous reminders.  Although typically this would not have resulted in expulsion, because Halpern was on probation due to his failure of his first rotation, the Medical School referred his file to the Student Progress and Promotions Committee, which recommended dismissal.  In internal appeals, Halpern proposed a strict probation plan as an alternate remedy.  Concluding that the professionalism concerns would not be addressed by this plan, the Dean of the School decided to dismiss Halpern.

Halpern filed suit under the Rehabilitation Act and ADA.  The district court granted summary judgment for the defendant because Halpern was not “otherwise qualified” and his proposed accommodation was unreasonable.  The Fourth Circuit unanimously affirmed.  In the context of a student excluded from an educational program, to prove a violation of either Act, the plaintiff must establish that (1) he has a disability, (2) he is otherwise qualified to participate in the defendant’s program, and (3) he was excluded from the program on the basis of his disability.  There was no dispute that Halpern had a disability.  As to the second prong, the Court, like other circuits, gave “great deference” to the school’s professional judgments regarding necessary qualifications and the reasonableness of accommodations.  It found that professionalism was an essential requirement of the Medical School’s program and that, without an accommodation, Halpern could not satisfy this requirement.  Despite Halpern’s passing of ten rotations, the Court found there to “extensive evidence of Halpern’s unprofessional behavior.”

The Court also rejected Halpern’s proposed accommodation – psychiatric treatment, participation in a program for distressed physicians, and continuing on strict probation – because it was untimely, had an indefinite duration, and had an uncertain likelihood of success.  Halpern’s expert conceded the last two points.  Finally, the Court rejected the claim that Wake Forest failed to engage in an interactive process.

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