Tag Archives: Mauler

Government Official’s “Personal” Facebook Page is a Public Forum under First Amendment

In what will likely be one of his last opinions before retiring from the Eastern District of Virginia bench, Judge James C. Cacheris authored an important decision applying traditional free speech principles to a local government official’s Facebook page.  This opinion provides important guidance regarding an official’s ability to regulate speech in the emerging digital public square.

In Davison v. Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, 1:16-cv-932, 2017 WL 3158389 (E.D. Va. July 25, 2017), a pro se plaintiff filed suit against Chair Phyllis J. Randal of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors.  The lawsuit resulted after Chair Randall blocked the plaintiff from commenting on her Facebook page.  After a bench trial, Judge Cacheris granted the plaintiff judgment, holding that 1) Chair Randall’s Facebook page was a public forum for speech purposes under the First Amendment, and 2) Chair Randall acted under color of state law when she banned the plaintiff, which violated the plaintiff’s free speech rights.

The facts of this case are rather mundane, in reality.  The plaintiff, a resident of Loudoun County who regularly attends county board meetings, posted comments on Randall’s Facebook page implying that members of Loudoun County School Board were corrupt and financially benefiting family members.  Chair Randall deleted the plaintiff’s post and then banned him from commenting further on the page.  Chair Randall, however, had a change of heart the next morning and “unbanned” the plaintiff from the page.  In all, the plaintiff had been banned for about 12 hours.

After laying out the facts, Judge Cacheris first considered whether the Facebook page constituted a public forum for free speech purposes.  The interesting point here is that Chair Randall’s Facebook page started off as a non-public forum, and she defended this lawsuit by claiming the page was “personal.”  The page was first created by Randall the day before she was sworn in on the Board, and it was not created by County employees or through the County’s IT staff.  Instead, Randall “brought” the page with her to her new elected role.

The page became a public forum, however, based upon a “totality of circumstances” focusing on the current use of the page.  For example, Chair Randall’s Chief of Staff assisted in maintaining the page as part of her duties.  Official newsletters issued by the Chair’s office (and drafted by County employees) included links to the page.  And, as Judge Cacheris’s opinion notes in detail, Chair Randall went to great efforts to “swathe . . . the Facebook page in the trappings of her office.”  This included her official title of “Chair” prominently featured on the page, along with her official government contact information, official County website address, and her encouragement of “back and forth constituent conversations.”

Once Judge Cacheris determined the Facebook page had morphed into a public forum, he then turned to the content of the plaintiff’s speech.  Chair Randall testified she banned the plaintiff because she was offended by the criticism of her colleagues on the School Board.  She also noted that she had no way to tell if the criticism was valid or not, and she did not want to leave such criticism available on the page.

While Judge Cacheris noted that such a feeling was understandable, it was not a valid reason for deleting the comment or banning the plaintiff from the forum.  Quoting the recent Matal v. Tam Supreme Court decision, the judge noted that “[i]f the Supreme Court’s First Amendment jurisprudence makes anything clear, it is that speech may not be disfavored by the government simply because it offends.”  Judge Cacheris then held that Chair Randall had “engaged in viewpoint discrimination by banning Plaintiff from her Facebook page” and that “[v]iewpoint discrimination is ‘prohibited in all forums.’”

Turning to the form of relief, Judge Cacheris declined to order injunctive relief since the plaintiff had already been unbanned from the page.  But the judge did issue a declaratory judgment in the plaintiff’s favor.

Judge Cacheris’s opinion is noteworthy for multiple reasons, and not only because a pro se plaintiff won a case at trial against skilled counsel from Fairfax.  Rather, this opinion provides important guidance for government officials at all levels in their social media interactions with constituents.  It also demonstrates the “morphing” ability of a private web space into a public forum due to new circumstances.  Considering the frequent use of Twitter by high-ranking government officials (and the ease of blocking followers from such accounts), we will likely see more litigation over this new digital forum in the near future.

C-Span to Broadcast Live Audio of Today’s 4th Circuit’s Argument on Immigration Executive Order

The Fourth Circuit will hear en banc the oral argument today at 2:30 pm in International Refugee Assistance Project v. Trump.   For the first time (that we know) the Court will allow a live audio broadcast of proceedings.

Earlier this year the Ninth Circuit permitted the live audio broadcast of the argument on the prior Immigration Executive Order.  137,000 people logged in to listen.

Listeners can find the link to the audio feed on the Fourth Circuit’s web page here.  The Court has also advised that an MP3 audio file will be available for download approximately one hour after the argument concludes here.Graphic

The case Orders and Briefs are available online on the site.  In the Case Information section under Public Advisory #4 in the News & Announcements section on Page 1, the Orders, Briefs and more are accessible.

Only 14 of the Court’s 15 active judges will hear the case.  Judge Wilkinson has recused himself because his son-in-law is the Acting Solicitor General.  The even number of participating judges presents the awkward possibility of a tie vote.

For an overview of the issues in the appeal, you should see our earlier EDVa Update posts on the Immigration Order battles here, here, here, here, and here.  But if you only have time to review one post, go our March 30th post.   While the instant appeal addresses an order from the District Court for Maryland, and not Judge’s Trenga’s ruling in Sarsour et al. v. Trump, his opinion provides extremely well-reasoned coverage of the issues.

En Banc 4th Circuit to Hear Trump Immigration Executive Order Appeal

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals will sit en banc to hear the latest appeal regarding President Trump’s second Executive Order regarding immigration.  All active judges of the Fourth Circuit will now participate in oral argument scheduled for May 8th in Richmond, instead of the customary three-judge panel.  

This decision comes from the Fourth Circuit itself, after acting sua sponte to request the views of the parties in the case (we discussed the court’s request in our earlier post here).  As a practical matter, this potentially eliminates one round of appellate review in the Fourth Circuit, speeding up the timeline to reach the U.S. Supreme Court with this case.  Otherwise, a party losing in front of a three-judge panel could petition for an en banc hearing in front of the full Fourth Circuit, which could have added another 6-9 months before an appeal to SCOTUS.  

The May 8th oral argument promises to be a spectacular event, at least for appellate aficionados.  Both sides will present experienced appellate advocates, and the Fourth Circuit’s information office has already set aside an overflow room with a live audio/video feed of the argument, in addition to accepting credentialed media in reserved seating.  

If you want to attend the argument in person, plan on showing up to the courthouse well in advance of the 2:30 p.m. hearing.  Otherwise, pull the parties briefs off the Fourth Circuit’s website here, and wait for the audio of the argument to be posted the following day on the court’s website here.

EDVA: Legal Malpractice Does Not Give Rise to Breach of Fiduciary Duty Claim

A claim of legal malpractice by client against a former attorney does not, at the same time, give rise to a breach of fiduciary claim under Virginia law, according to Judge Henry Hudson of the Eastern District of Virginia (Richmond Division).  Judge Hudson’s ruling is a development in the law of fiduciary duty, and it goes into territory that has not yet been covered by the Virginia Supreme Court.

In Kylin Network (Beijing) Movie & Culture Media Co. Ltd v. Fidlow, 3:16-cv-999-HEH, 2017 WL 889620 (E.D. Va. Mar. 6, 2017), the case began with a Chinese company that wanted to make a movie about the life of martial arts legend Bruce Lee.  The company hired the defendants (a Virginia attorney and his former law firm) to negotiate and obtain the movie rights with the supposed copyright owner.  According to the Complaint, after some negotiation, the attorney recommended that the plaintiff pay $1 million to the supposed seller of the rights.  After the payment was made, the plaintiff allegedly discovered the seller did not have good title to the movie rights.  The unhappy client then filed a three-count complaint in federal court against its former attorney for legal malpractice, breach of fiduciary duty, and fraud.

The defendants sought to dismiss all counts of the Complaint under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6).  The defendants first argued that the legal malpractice claim failed due to the plaintiff’s contributory negligence.  While Judge Hudson recognized that contributory negligence could be a complete defense to legal malpractice, he ruled that the defense had to be resolved at trial by the fact-finder when “reasonable minds could disagree” on the disputed facts.  Thus, the judge denied the 12(b)(6) motion on this count.

The defendants, however, had better luck on the remaining two counts.  The plaintiffs’ breach of fiduciary duty claim, according to Judge Hudson, was based upon duties arising from the attorney-client relationship.  In turn, this relationship was based in contract, specifically the written engagement agreement between the law firm and the clients that gave rise to the legal malpractice claim.  Judge Hudson noted that the Virginia Supreme Court has not ruled on the issue, but based upon prior precedent, he held that the breach of fiduciary duty had to arise from a duty independent of the attorney-client contract.  According to Judge Hudson, “[i]n Virginia, because legal malpractice is a contract claim, an additional claim for breach of fiduciary duty must be based on something other than a violation of a duty arising under the attorney-client relationship.”

Judge Hudson then made short work of the remaining fraud count, dismissing it on similar grounds and holding that such a claim must arise from a source other than the contractual relationship between the parties.

The plaintiffs’ legal malpractice claim survived the 12(b)(6) stage, which appears to be the true core of the plaintiffs’ case.  But Judge Hudson’s opinion is notable as a development in the law of fiduciary duty in Virginia, a claim that seems to appear more frequently in business litigation in the Eastern District.

Suing a URL: A Roadmap to a Cybersquatting Action

As more economic activity occurs online, internet domain addresses are increasing in value, especially for small- and medium-sized businesses.  Businesses of all sizes need to pay attention to the security of their internet domain addresses, and a recent EDVA decision highlights the dangers of losing control of a business’s domain address.

In Jacobs Private Equity, LLC v. <JPE.com>, Case No. 1:16-cv-01331, 2017 WL 830397 (E.D. Va. Feb. 2, 2017), Magistrate Judge Ivan D. Davis faced a “cybersquatting” claim that is becoming more common.  Plaintiff Jacobs Private Equity, LLC, operated www.jpe.com as its website for over 12 years.  One day, however, its employees suddenly found that their login credentials to the website no longer worked.  According to the Complaint, an employee was the victim of an email “phishing” scheme where she was conned into divulging her login credentials.  The hackers then logged into the internet domain registry and changed the password to the business’s account.  As a result, the business lost control over its website and email addresses, and a new entity registered its purported ownership of the domain address.

Represented by Mark H. M. Sosnowsky of Drinker Biddle’s DC office, the business filed suit in the Eastern District of Virginia under the federal Anti-Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act (the “ACPA”), 15 U.S.C. § 1125(d), et seq.  The Eastern District frequently sees these actions because many of the most popular internet domain registrars have offices in northern Virginia.  In this case, VeriSign, Inc., served as the registry, and it has an office in Reston, Virginia.

Suing an Internet Address

In a marriage of ancient legal principles and new information technology, a lawsuit under the ACPA is an in rem action against the internet domain address itself (and similar to an in rem action against a parcel of real estate or tangible personal property).  While the actual internet domain address is named as a defendant, the real defendant is, of course, the party who registered the address.

An ACPA action also involves elements of traditional trademark law.  In fact, the ACPA is part of Title 15 of the U.S. Code which focuses on federal law governing trademarks, also commonly referred to as the Lanham Act.  Under the ACPA, a court may order the forfeiture or cancellation of a domain name, or transfer of a domain address to the rightful owner of the mark. The ACPA applies, for the most part, to marks that are distinctive or famous.

A Common Problem

Fraudulent phishing schemes, such as the one that snared Jacobs Private Equity, are unfortunately increasingly common.  The usual pattern for this scheme is that bad actors outside of the United States will either take over the registration for a valuable website, or will watch for a non-renewal of registration for an active website.  The new party will swoop in, register the domain, and then offer to sell the domain back to the previous user for exorbitant amounts.  This frequently ensnares small businesses who fail to renew a website registration, such as by relying upon an expired credit card for an expected “auto-renewal” that never occurs.  The ACPA was enacted in 1999 in hopes of curbing such problems.

Elements of an ACPA Claim

Judge Davis’s opinion provides a useful roadmap for cybersquatting claims.  Treating an internet domain address as a trademark, a plaintiff must prove two elements to succeed on a cybersquatting claim:

  1. The domain name is identical or confusingly similar to the plaintiff’s mark.
  2. The registrant had bad-faith intent to profit from the domain name.

Traditional Trademark Law

The ACPA protects both registered trademarks and unregistered, common law marks.  While a common course of action for a business is to register its trademarks with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, a business may also acquire common law trademark rights by actual use of the mark in the market place.  For example, a small jewelry shop that has operated for 15 years as “Kitty’s Fine Jewelry” likely has a common law trademark rights in the name.  And if that small jewelry shop also operated a website (such as www.kittysfinejewelry.com), it will likely have a strong ACPA claim against a subsequent registration of the domain by a party acting in bad faith.  A business need not make a formal registration with the USPTO to have such protection.

Proving Bad Faith

Proving “bad faith intent” is often the challenge in these types of cases.  Because we cannot see into a person’s mind to determine intent, the ACPA sets forth nine “factors” that a court “may consider” in determining a person’s intent.  These factors operate as non-exclusive guides to the court (which is a concept similar to the common law “badges of fraud” used in traditional fraudulent conveyance law).  The nine factors under § 1125(d)(1)(B)(i) are as follows:

  1. Any preexisting trademark or other rights in the name used in the domain address.
  2. Whether the domain name contains the legal name of the person or a name that is commonly used to identify the person.
  3. Prior use of the domain name in connection with bona fide goods or services.
  4. Legitimate noncommercial or fair use of the mark in a site that uses the mark in the domain address.
  5. Intent to divert consumers from the mark owner’s online location to another site that could harm the goodwill represented by the mark.
  6. Whether the person offered to sell the domain name back to the mark owner for financial gain without having used the domain in any legitimate business activities. (This factor also includes whether the person has engaged in such activity in the past, indicating a pattern of such conduct.)
  7. Providing false or misleading contact information during the registration of the domain address.
  8. Acquiring multiple domain names which are identical or confusingly similar to multiple preexisting marks.
  9. Whether the mark is distinctive or famous at the time of registration of the domain name.

Of course, not all of these factors will apply in a given case, and there is no set standard for how many factors need to be present to establish bad faith.  Rather, a court has wide-latitude in these fact-intensive cases.

Service of Process Issues

In Jacobs Private Equity, the new registrant of the disputed internet domain address never responded to the complaint, so Judge Davis recommended that a default judgment be entered.  In Judge Davis’s Report and Recommendation (“R&R”), he first focused on the efforts that the plaintiff went to effect service of process.  The plaintiff tried the telephone number, mailing address, and email address listed by the new registrant, but all turned out to be bogus.  The plaintiff then sought court approval to publish notice of the lawsuit in The Washington Times.  Once this was accomplished, the court was satisfied that the default judgment could be granted.

The Plaintiff Prevails

Even though the defendant defaulted, Judge Davis still performed the ACPA statutory analysis in his R&R.  He determined that the plaintiff had a valid common law trademark rights in “JPE” and that the new registrant acted in bad faith by providing bogus contact information to VeriSign, among other factors.  No objections to Judge Davis’s R&R were ever filed, and on March 2nd, District Judge Liam O’Grady adopted the R&R in full, ordering the internet register to return the domain address to the plaintiff.

Alternatives to Litigation

 While the ACPA provides a legal remedy in federal court, aggrieved mark owners can also pursue an administrative challenge to bad-faith registration.  Known as a “Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy” (“UDRP”) proceeding, the action is essentially a private arbitration filed with the internet registry overseeing the disputed domain.  While it can be faster and cheaper than litigation, the range of remedies allowed in such an arbitration are fewer than those available from a federal court.  And a successful arbitration can have little or no deterrence or precedential value against other cybersquatters targeting a specific website.

 Conclusion

The ACPA provides a legal remedy to businesses and individuals who have been victimized by the theft  or loss of control of their internet domains.  The statutory framework is straight-forward, but proving bad-faith intent can be challenging, especially when defendants evade service of process or mask their identities.  Yet, with the rise of online commerce (especially for small- and medium-sized businesses), we will likely see more incidents of stolen internet websites, and by virtue of the Eastern District’s geographic location, more cybersquatting claims brought in this court.

EDVA Back in the Immigration Fray: Judge Trenga Provides Qualified Win for President Trump’s New Immigration Order

The Eastern District of Virginia continues to influence the national debate over President Trump’s new Executive Order on immigration.  Judge Anthony Trenga of the EDVA offered one of the first wins for the Government when he denied immediate injunctive relief against the new Executive Order.  While Judge Trenga’s opinion was not the first to arrive in the Fourth Circuit, his decision is already appearing in the Government’s appellate briefs.

On Friday, March 24, 2017, in Sarsour et al. v. Trump (Case No. 1:17cv 120), Judge Trenga denied injunctive relief sought by plaintiffs challenging President Trump’s second Executive Order on immigration.  In a 32-page opinion, Judge Trenga provided detailed consideration of the replacement Immigration Executive Order issued by the Administration on March 6, 2017.  After cataloging significant changes in the replacement Order, the judge concluded that it’s not likely that the plaintiffs can prove that the President acted outside his delegated and constitutional authority, and thus the Court denied the emergency relief sought by the plaintiffs.

In our March 20th blog post, we reported on decisions from district courts in Hawaii and Maryland that granted nationwide temporary injunctive relief enjoining critical parts of the replacement Order.  The Government has noticed an appeal of the Maryland order to the Fourth Circuit.  Judge Trenga’s ruling is the first significant decision arguably upholding the constitutionality of the replacement Immigration Executive Order.

Meanwhile in the Fourth Circuit, the Maryland Order is on the hot seat.  The Government has moved to stay that Order and asked for accelerated briefing.  The Fourth Circuit granted the acceleration request on March 23rd, and the Government filed its Opening Brief the following day.  Additionally, 12 states field an amici brief in support of the Government’s position.  The opposition briefs are due on April 14th, and oral argument is scheduled for May 8th in Richmond.  Further, the Fourth Circuit sua sponte has requested the views of the parties whether the May 8th hearing should be en banc before all of the Fourth Circuit judges, instead of the customary three-judge panel.  The deadline for the responses of the parties on this issue is today.

The Replacement Immigration Executive Order

In a previous blog post, we summarized the replacement Order.  The first Executive Order from late-January had obvious facial flaws, including the absence of any national security justification for the critical and controversial “travel ban” provisions.

The replacement Order is, by all measures, facially neutral, and the Administration has provided its statement of justification focused on national security concerns.  The justification includes explanations of why each “travel ban” country poses significant immigration dangers.

Judge Trenga’s Sarsour v. Trump Opinion – Preliminaries

The Sarsour Complaint was filed by a series of individual plaintiffs; unlike the earlier Aziz v. Trump case where the Commonwealth of Virginia assumed the lead in the case, there is no state presence in this case.

The specific substantive claims are similar to those in the Hawaii and Maryland cases.  That is, there is a count based on the Immigration and Naturalization Act (“INA”), a claim grounded in the Establishment Clause, and then Due Process claims.

Judge Trenga sets the stage for his Sarsoar opinion by reminding us that he’s ruling on a TRO/Preliminary Injunction motion.  These are both “extraordinary remedies” which should be “granted only sparingly and in limited circumstances.”  He then outlines the now-familiar four-step analysis from Winter v. Nat.  Res. Def. Council, Inc., 555 U.S. 7 (2008).

The Court’s findings recognize that the plaintiffs have sufficiently shown their standing to challenge the new Executive Order.  The opinion then turns to the INA and APA-based claims. Recall that the earlier Maryland District Court opinion rejected the INA claim as a basis for temporary injunctive relief.  Judge Trenga likewise concluded that the plaintiffs have failed to clearly show that the President’s authority is limited under the relevant INA sections

The Critical Establishment Clause Analysis

As before in the other cases, Judge Trenga’s core analysis is directed to the Establishment Clause claim, which is Count 1 in the Sarsour Complaint.  Sarsour’s allegation is that the replacement Immigration Executive Order “violates the Establishment Clause because it disfavors the religion of Islam.”  Sarsour conceded that the new Executive Order does not facially violate the Establishment Clause, and the District Court then applied the three-part test from Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971).  Within this test, Judge Trenga focused on the first part of the Lemon test, specifically whether the replacement order has a secular purpose.

Judge Trenga rejected the Government’s argument that the President offered a legitimate, rational, and non-discriminating purpose in the replacement Executive Order, and in turn, this permitted the federal courts to go outside of the four corners of the Order to analyze constitutional validity.  (This was the same argument that the Government made unsuccessfully in defense of the original Executive Order; the argument was also unsuccessful before the Ninth Circuit and before Judge Brinkema in Aziz v. Trump.)

Judge Trenga then went to the heart of the case: “[T]he question is now whether the President’s past statements continue to fatally infect what is facially a lawful exercise of presidential authority.”  The past statements are those by candidate Trump and campaign surrogates promising a ban on Muslim immigration.  These allegedly anti-Muslim statements were the bases for the earlier federal court decisions enjoining the original Executive Order, and they served as the bases in the Hawaii and Maryland District Court decisions enjoining the new Order.  Citing Supreme Court authority, Judge Trenga explained that “past actions [do not] forever taint any effort on [the government’s] part to deal with the subject matter.”

Continuing in the next paragraph, Judge Trenga wrote, “the Court cannot conclude for the purposes of the motion that the statements, together with the President’s past statements, have effectively disqualified him from exercising his lawful presidential authority . . . .”   He then concludes “the substantive revisions reflected in [the replacement immigration Executive Order] have reduced the probative value of the President’s statements to the point that it is no longer likely that Plaintiffs can succeed on their claim that the predominant purpose . . . is to discriminate against Muslims based on their religion . . . .”   The Establishment Clause count, therefore, failed at this point in the proceedings.

Continuing with the four-step TRO/Preliminary Injunction analysis, Judge Trenga agreed that the plaintiffs made an adequate showing of irreparable harm.  But because of the revisions in the replacement Executive Order, the plaintiffs did not establish that the equities tipped in their favor, and the plaintiffs also did not establish that the public interest favored the issuance of immediate injunctive relief.

The Fourth Circuit Accelerates Consideration of the Maryland District Court’s Ruling

On March 17th, the Government noticed its appeal of the injunction granted by the Maryland District Court.  If Judge Trenga’s Sarsour ruling is appealed, then the Fourth Circuit might consolidate the two cases. But even without a formal appeal, the Fourth Circuit will have before it multiple citations to Judge Trenga’s opinion and analysis in the Government’s opening brief.

At this point, the Maryland District Court injunction remains in place, and the Fourth Circuit will consider the matter promptly.  As noted above, the Government has already filed its Motion to Stay the Maryland Injunction, and the Fourth Circuit has accelerated consideration of the appeal.

At this point, the Fourth Circuit is likely to see the next major action on the Executive Order, as it appears that the Government is more interested in appellate review here as opposed to the Ninth Circuit.

Stay tuned.

Practitioners’ Alert: New Procedure to Request Emergency Relief After Business Hours

The EDVA Clerk’s Office recently announced a new procedure for civil emergency matters (such as requests for emergency injunctions or TRO’s), that seek the immediate attention of a district judge outside of regular business hours or during weekends / holidays.  This is a brand-new procedure – for both attorneys and staff in the Clerk’s Office.

The new procedure is briefly described here on the EDVA website.  First, a party must electronically file a written motion requesting the emergency relief.  If no case is currently pending, the attorney will need to electronically open a new case (see here for the process to open new cases), followed by electronically filing the motion that requests the relief.

Once the motion is filed, the party must then call the Clerk’s Office via a special telephone number, which varies among the divisions within EDVA.  The telephone numbers are:

  • Alexandria Division:      (703) 403-2789
  • Norfolk / Newport News Division:      (757) 619-0307
  • Richmond Division:      (804) 313-1762

According to the Clerk’s Office, these numbers will go to cell phones that will be monitored by Clerk’s Office staff members.  Attorneys who call the numbers should expect to leave a voice mail explaining the emergency, in addition to providing the case number and contact information for the attorney.  The staff member will then triage the voice mail messages in consultation with a judge who is “on duty,” and then return the call “within a reasonable period of time” to advise how the request will be handled.  Practitioners should not expect to speak directly to a staff member during the initial phone call.

Practitioners should also be aware that this is a new procedure for the Clerk’s Office, and staff members have yet to be fully trained on the new process.  While that training unfolds across EDVA’s divisions, practitioners should keep a handy reference back to the Clerk’s Office web page outlining the procedure.

The EDVa Drama Over the Immigration Executive Order: From IAD to Courtroom 701 in Seven Wild Days

News reports have followed the short saga of the Immigration Executive Order issued on Jan. 27th by President Trump, but the legal saga culminating in this morning’s hearing (Friday, Feb. 3rd) before Judge Brinkema is remarkable, even by EDVA standards.

Earlier this morning, the first confrontation over the Executive Order unfolded in Judge Brinkema 7th Floor courtroom in Aziz at al. v. Trump, Case No. 1:17cv116—LMB/TCB.  As filed, the matter addressed the detainment of two brothers, both Green Card holders, traveling through Dulles Airport on their way to meet their father, who lives in Flint, Michigan.  The plight of the Aziz brothers appears now to be resolved, but the Commonwealth of Virginia has sought to intervene to push the broader issues with the Executive Order.

The issues before Judge Brinkema included the original parties’ Motion for Abeyance, Virginia’s Intervention Motion, the Motion of a second set of Plaintiffs to Intervene, and a Rule to Show Cause.  The Minute Order shows that the judge granted both Motions to Intervene and the original parties’ Motion to Hold Claims in Abeyance.  The judge denied, however, the Motion for the Rule to Show Cause.

The case thus continues with the Commonwealth of Virginia seemingly in the driver’s seat on the Plaintiffs’ side.

Friday Afternoon Executive Order

President Trump signed his Executive Order at about 4:30 PM on Friday, January 27, 2017.  As of the time of signing, flights from the Middle East heading to various US international airports were already in the air with arrivals beginning on Saturday morning.  This meant that a number of passengers from the seven foreign nations identified in the Executive Order were flying into an uncertain situation.  These passengers held Green Cards and valid student/work visas – without this advanced-entry approval, they never would have been permitted to board the international flights in the first place.

Saturday Morning—Incoming Flights

The first of the affected flights landed at JFK Airport early on Saturday, January 28th.  About 45 minutes later the first affected flight landed at Dulles Airport.  On board the Dulles fight were the two Aziz brothers, Yemeni nationals who were granted Green Cards because their father is a US citizen.  The brothers were connecting through Dulles on the way to Michigan where their father was planning to meet them.

The Aziz brothers and as many as 60 other arriving passengers were detained by the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and blocked from leaving a designated area at Dulles Airport.  CBP is an agency within the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Habeas Petition and TRO/Injunction

Apparently anticipating a showdown, a group of immigration lawyers gathered at Dulles Airport.  By questioning passengers who were not detained, the lawyers confirmed that the Aziz brothers and others were in fact detained.  There was also concern that this group of detainees were being questioned by CBP officers and possible arrangements had been made to return the detainees to the countries from which they came.

The lawyers sought access to their new clients, but the CBP denied all access.

Late that afternoon, a Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus and Complaint for an Injunction were filed in the Alexandria federal court.  The filing sought a targeted TRO: first, the Petitioners asked that the attorneys be granted access to their clients, and second, that for a minimum of at least seven days the detainees not be removed from the United States.

At about 9:30 PM on Saturday night, Judge Brinkema signed a two-point Temporary Restraining Order.  The Order requires that “respondents shall permit lawyers access to all legal permanent residents being detained at Dulles International Airport.”  The TRO continues that “respondents are forbidden from removing petitioners–lawful permanent residents at Dulles International Airport–for a period of 7 days from the issuance of this Order.”

CBPs Saturday Night Defiance of the TRO

Copies of Judge Brinkema’s Order were delivered to the lead CBP officers at Dulles Airport.  The CBP officers apparently defied the federal court order–the lawyers who were to have access to their clients were again denied that access.  It also is the case that CBP put several, and perhaps many, of the detainees on return flights during the day on Saturday.

Sunday—Congressional Visitors to Dulles

On Sunday, January 29th, several members of Congress from the DC area, including Rep. Don Beyer, appeared at Dulles.  Beyer, in an affidavit later filed with the federal court, reported that “to my knowledge, not a single attorney was permitted access to any detained traveler.  My congressional colleagues and I were also denied access to detainees.”  Beyer concluded in his affidavit that “CBP’s continued enforcement of the Executive Order amounted to a constitutional crisis: four members of Congress asked CBP officials to enforce a federal court order and we were all turned away.”

Commonwealth of Virginia’s Intervention

On Tuesday, the Commonwealth of Virginia sought to intervene through its Attorney General, Mark Herring.  The next morning, Virginia filed with the federal court a Motion for a Rule to Show Cause, essentially requesting that the recipients of the TRO Order be required to explain their defiance or be held in contempt of court.  The Virginia pleadings sought a hearing on Friday, February 3rd.   Virginia additionally moved for a Preliminary Injunction to enjoin enforcement of Section 3(c) of the Executive Order, the broader section of the Executive Order.  Judge Brinkema set the Virginia Intervention Motion and the Motion for the Rule to Show Cause for a hearing this morning (Feb. 3rd).

On Wednesday, the U.S. Attorney entered an appearance.  Not long afterwards, the original parties filed a Joint Request to Hold Claims in Abeyance.  The pleading states that the parties “have a signed agreement to resolve Petitioner’s claims against Defendants.”   For this reason, the parties asked that Petitioner’s claims in this case be held in abeyance.

Thursday’s Pleadings Avalanche

The pleadings continued to pour in on Thursday—the PACER Docket Sheet lists twelve entries.

Virginia offered an additional Declaration in support of its motion for a Rule to Show Cause.  Virginia also filed its Opposition to the Joint Motion to Hold Claims in Abeyance. The Virginia Brief argues that “the Government’s conduct suggests that it may be maneuvering to delay the case in order to avoid having to account for whether it complied with this Court’s Temporary Restraining Order.”  The argument continues, “the Government has been holding press conferences claiming that it promptly complied with this Court’s TRO. It has time to explain why it appears that not even a single LPR [Green Card or student/work visa holder] detained at Dulles has been allowed to see a lawyer.”

The Virginia position is that while the claims of the Aziz brothers appear to be on their way to resolution, the issues regarding the constitutionality of the Executive Order still must be adjudicated.  Then, a second group of individual plaintiffs filed their own Motion to Intervene.

Just before 7 PM, Virginia filed its Brief in Support of Preliminary Injunction.  The US Attorney then filed its Opposition to Virginia’s Intervention and Opposition to the Rule.

Friday Morning Hearing

The Court’s schedule for this morning’s hearing showed Aziz v. Trump as the only remaining matter on Judge Brinkema’s 10AM docket.  Local authorities warned of traffic backups in the vicinity of the Alexandria federal courthouse.

The Court’s Minute Order confirms a 64-minute hearing and provides a cryptic summary of the rulings.  Judge Brinkema granted the joint Motion to Hold Matters in Abeyance—this perhaps resolves the Aziz brothers claims.  But the judge granted Intervention to the Commonwealth of Virginia and to the second Plaintiffs (though the Motion for a Rule to Show Cause was denied).  The Preliminary Injunction Hearing remains on the calendar for next Friday, February 10th.

A wild week in the Rocket Docket, and with the potential for more to come next week.

Is there a New Cap on Recoverable Attorney Rates in EDVA?

There is yet further disagreement among the judges of the Eastern District regarding reasonable attorney hourly rates.  As we noted in a previous EDVA Update here, this disagreement is manifesting itself most frequently in the Alexandria Division, as judges there confront (and push back against) the higher hourly rates frequently charged by larger law firms in the Northern Virginia/ DC metro area.

Today’s example of the disagreement comes in the recent case of Integrated Direct Marketing, LLC v. Drew May, et al., 1:14-cv-1183, 2016 WL 3582065 (E.D. Va. June 28, 2016).  In this case, Judge Leonie M. Brinkema of the Alexandria Division of the Eastern District invited a plaintiff to file a motions for sanctions and attorney’s fees after successfully demonstrating that the defendant made materially false statements in both an affidavit and during courtroom testimony.  But after the plaintiff petitioned for over $63,000 in attorney’s fees, Judge Brinkema strongly criticized the hourly rates and record keeping of plaintiff’s counsel, and she cut the fee award down to only $17,000.

To justify their hourly rates, plaintiff (represented by attorneys from both the DC and Connecticut offices of Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, PC) relied upon the matrix of hourly rates approved by Judge Gerald Bruce Lee in Vienna Metro (discussed in a prior EDVA Update here).  But Judge Brinkema rejected the Vienna Metro matrix.  By doing so, she sided with Judge T.S. Ellis’s opinion in Route Triple Seven (also discussed in a prior EDVA Update here) in the ongoing dispute regarding hourly attorney rates.  Below is a summary of the experience levels of each attorney, the hourly rates sought by the plaintiff, and the rates awarded by Judge Brinkema:

Attorney’s Legal Experience

Requested Hourly Rate

Awarded Hourly Rate

30 years $ 545 $ 450
9 years $ 395 $ 350
6 years $ 335 $ 275
5 years $ 320 $ 250

To set these hourly rates, the court followed the rates determined by Judge Ellis in Route Triple Seven.  Significantly, Judge Brinkema did not rely upon any other expert witness testimony or evidence to set these hourly rates.  (And, as we saw in the Route Triple Seven case, there the court relied upon its own “experience” to determine an appropriate reasonable rate.)  These hourly rates are in sharp contrast to the $550 – $600 hourly rates approved by Judge Lee in Vienna Metro.

It is clear that a revolt against high hourly rates (or, at least, rates perceived as high) is brewing among many judges of the Alexandria Division of the Eastern District.  It also appears that a hard cap of approximately $450 – $500 for an experienced attorney’s hourly rate is forming, at least in the eyes of several judges who have rejected the Vienna Metro matrix.