SKETCHES OF RECENT APPELLATE DECISIONS
(Posted August 10, 2023) Today is yet another dry well at Ninth and Franklin – no published opinions for the third straight Thursday, and no unpubs since the first of June – so let’s take a quick look at some interesting appellate decisions that have come down this week elsewhere. The summaries here won’t contain full analysis; just the key holdings and a link to the slip opinions.
A 21-year precedent falls
On Tuesday, the Fourth Circuit issued an en banc decision that addressed prior circuit precedent regarding fee-shifting awards. In Stinnie v. Holcomb, the full court overturns a panel decision from 2002 that had addressed when a plaintiff could receive a fee award under 42 USC §1988. That panel had ruled that the issuance of a preliminary injunction can never serve as a sufficient basis for a fee award, because no permanent relief was ordered.
That holding left the Fourth Circuit alone among the federal courts of appeal. Every other circuit that addressed this question had ruled that temporary injunctive relief can justify §1988 fees if it leads the defendant to change a challenged policy.
That’s what happened here; the plaintiffs challenged Aunt Virginia’s practice of suspending drivers’ licenses where the licensee had unpaid fines and costs. A district court ordered injunctive relief before trial. While the matter was pending, the General Assembly amended the Code to remove the suspension provision. That mooted the litigation, because the challenged legislation was no longer in force.
A panel of the Fourth, faithful to the interpanel accord doctrine, affirmed the district court’s refusal to award fees. But the court granted en banc review so it could reconsider the doctrine, and by a vote of 7-4, the court overturned the prior holding and joined its sister circuits. The court sends the case back down for an evaluation of the fee petition.
Educational due-process ruling
On Monday, a panel of the Fourth addressed the due-process rights of a student in disciplinary proceedings at a college. In Doe v. Virginia Tech, the panel unanimously affirmed a ruling in favor of the school, holding that the student received all of the process that he was due.
Because the district court had granted a motion to dismiss, the court sets out the facts as they’re alleged in the complaint. That recitation makes the school look bad, in my view, though I understand fully that a trial might well show the facts to be less favorable to the student. The court recognizes that a student in a disciplinary proceeding gets the right to notice, and opportunity to be heard, and the right to present a defense; but not the full protection that the law accords to, for example, a criminal defendant.
New guidance on defensive pleading
The Court of Appeals of Virginia offers defendants some useful advice in Tuesday’s published opinion in Willems v. Batcheller. It’s a trespass-and-nuisance claim, alleging that one neighbor’s bamboo plants encroached on another neighbor’s property, causing damages. The defendant neighbors filed an answer that included an affirmative defense of adverse possession for more than 15 years, pointing to a fence that their predecessor in title had built on the plaintiffs’ side of the lot line.
After a bench trial, the learned judge ruled that the bamboo was indeed a nuisance and the defendants had to address it. But he added a ruling that the defendants had proven their adverse-possession claim, so he fixed the boundary between the properties at the fence line.
There are several interesting rulings in this week’s published opinion from the Court of Appeals, but the one I commend to you here is the holding that raising adverse possession as an affirmative defense isn’t sufficient to state an affirmative claim for relief on that doctrine. Defenses operate to prevent relief that the plaintiff requests, not to request relief themselves. To do that, the defendant would have had to plead a cross-claim or specifically pray for relief. Because they didn’t do that, the circuit court’s order is reversed in that regard.