About johnbryanlaw

John H. Bryan is a West Virginia criminal defense and civil rights attorney practicing out of Union, and Lewisburg, West Virginia. For more information, visit his website at www.johnbryanlaw.com.

Update on the lawsuit against the West Virginia Governor’s COVID executive orders

The West Virginia Governor finally submitted his response to our Petition for Writ of Mandamus currently pending before the West Virginia Supreme Court, which challenges his COVID-19 executive orders, closing the state’s economy, among other things. Here’s our petition, if you haven’t read it:

Here is the response brief submitted on behalf of Gov. Justice:

At this point, the Court can now rule on the petition by issuing a written opinion, or can schedule oral arguments. Here’s my initial thoughts on the response. It was written by the Solicitor General under the West Virginia Attorney General, rather than by anyone actually in the Governor’s office, or hired by him. Thus, I think the takeaway from what I see here is a lackluster argument about procedure, rather than a position on the constitutional issues presented. It seems to me that what’s more important, is what went un-said, rather than what was said.

The Governor’s response doesn’t really contest the allegations that he’s acted beyond his constitutional limitations, but rather argues that it should be up to the legislature to stop him, rather than the judicial branch. If that’s the case, then what’s the point of having a judicial branch? It is exactly the purpose of the West Virginia Supreme Court to review questions regarding the extent of the Governor’s executive powers. While they argue that it should be submitted to a circuit court judge first, it would still go right back to the Supreme Court to be decided. It would just cause delay.

Again, reading between the lines here, my takeaway from their filing is, they sent an implicit message to the Court that, so long as they sufficiently address and decide the procedural questions, the Attorney General’s position is that there’s no substantive defense to the constitutional issues. Therefore, if the Court desires the case to go before a circuit court judge first, for some reason, then we can do that, and at some point the constitutional powers issues must still be addressed. I’d be more worried if I saw a convincing substantive argument about emergency powers and its interaction with the state constitution. But I didn’t see one.

As far as the procedural questions go, the response brief focuses on the legislature’s ability to use a supermajority to call itself into session. However, this is a red-herring. Whether or not the legislature is willing, or able, to do its job, or to reign in an out-of-control governor, is besides the point. Maybe they could do it if they had a supermajority. But that doesn’t have any bearing on the issue of the extent of the Governor’s executive powers. He either has the constitutional ability to do what he’s been doing; or he doesn’t. That’s like saying that President Trump can be dictator until Congress steps in to stop him. No. He can’t be a dictator, regardless of whatever Congress does, or doesn’t do. These two things are being conflated.

But all in all, I see the response as implicitly supportive on the underlying constitutional arguments. That being said, we’ll just have to wait and see what the Court does. The issues aren’t going away. If they want us to go to circuit court, we’ll go to circuit court. If they want us to serve pre-suit notice, even though it’s not required, we’ll do that and return. If we have to go to federal court to find relief….. we’ll go there. We will obtain judicial review.

From the day we filed:

What is Qualified Immunity and why does it fail at life?

Section 1983 lawsuits allow private citizens to sue individual government officials, including police officers, for violations of federal rights performed under color of law.

If a government officer violates a federally protected civil right, the citizen has the legal right to file a civil lawsuit against the officer. 42 USC 1983, passed in 1871, allows citizens to sue state and local government officials – especially police officers – for damages when their rights are violated. Even if they’ve suffered no monetary damages, if they are successful, they’re entitled to an award of reasonable attorney fees and expenses. The same sort of lawsuit is available against federal officials pursuant to the U.S. Supreme Court case, Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (1971). Those are known as “Bivens actions.” But before these lawsuits can be successful, they have to get past the obstacle of the Qualified Immunity defense.

Qualified Immunity is a defense to civil lawsuits alleging the violation of federal rights while acting under color of law. It does not apply as a defense to criminal prosecution.

Qualified Immunity is a civil defense to these lawsuits, provided to government officials by the Supreme Court initially in the case of Pierson v. Ray in 1967, and then again, in its current form, in Harlow v. Fitzgerald, in 1982. It was rearranged yet again in Pearson v. Callahan (2009) giving federal judges more discretion in granting qualified immunity.

Qualified Immunity has been the subject of intense debate in recent years, and especially in recent months. Many commentators have criticized it as an example of the Court creating legislation from the bench, and in so doing having created a significant problem for citizens seeking to hold their government officials accountable for the violations of their civil rights.

As Ninth Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt has written, the Supreme Court’s recent qualified immunity decisions have “created such powerful shields for law enforcement that people whose rights are violated, even in egregious ways, often lack any means of enforcing those rights.” Three of the foremost experts on Section 1983 litigation—Karen Blum, Erwin Chemerinsky, and Martin Schwartz—have concluded that recent developments in qualified immunity doctrine leave “not much Hopeless for plaintiffs.” 

Although the concept of qualified immunity was drawn from defenses existing in the common law at the time 42 U.S.C. § 1983 was enacted, the Court has made clear that the contours of qualified immunity’s protections are shaped not by the common law but instead by policy considerations. In particular, the Court seeks to balance “two important interests—the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably.” 

The Supreme Court’s original rationale for qualified immunity was to shield officials from financial liability. The Court first announced that law enforcement officials were entitled to a qualified immunity from suits in the 1967 case of Pierson v. Ray. That decision justified qualified immunity as a means of protecting government defendants from financial burdens when acting in good faith in legally murky areas. Qualified immunity was necessary, according to the Court, because “[a] policeman’s lot is not so unhappy that he must choose between being charged with dereliction of duty if he does not arrest when he had probable cause, and being mulcted in damages if he does.”

How Qualified Immunity Fails, by Joanna C. Schwartz, Yale Law Journal, 127:2 (2017).

The reality of Qualified Immunity, through my eyes, which are the eyes of someone who litigates civil rights lawsuits mostly as a plaintiff, is that it’s more of an annoyance in the usual case litigated by an experienced civil rights attorney, but that it’s often a problem in those unique cases where justice really should be served, but isn’t. The big problem, in my opinion, is the use of an objective standard. Common sense tells us that bad faith conduct by law enforcement should be punished. But the subjective bad faith, or malicious intentions, of a defendant police officer, surprisingly may not even be admissible in court. Because it’s usually irrelevant under the standard.

Qualified Immunity is analyzed using an objective standard, rather than subjective.

At its inception in 1967, there was a subjective component to the qualified immunity analysis. From 1967, when qualified immunity was first announced by the Supreme Court, until 1982 when Harlow was decided, a defendant seeking qualified immunity had to show both that his conduct was objectively reasonable and that he had a “good-faith” belief that his conduct was proper. In 1982, the Court in Harlow dropped the second part, the subjective good faith belief requirement, finding that such a requirement was “incompatible” with the policy goals of qualified immunity, which now not only was to protect law enforcement officers from financial liability, but also now to avoid subjecting them to either the costs and burdens of trial, as well as the burdens of broad-reaching discovery.

Qualified Immunity cannot be justified as a means of reducing civil litigation surrounding allegations of police misconduct.

In a recent study discussed in a Yale Law Journal article, out of a study of 1,183 lawsuits against state and local law enforcement defendants, over a period of two years, in five federal district courts, it was found that qualified immunity was only raised as a defense in 37% of the cases, and out of those, only resulted in dismissal in 3.6% of the casesSee How Qualified Immunity Fails, by Joanna C. Schwartz, Yale Law Journal, 127:2 (2017).

I’ll repeat that: out of 1,183 lawsuits against police officers for civil rights violations, Qualified Immunity was raised as a defense by the officers in only 37% of the cases, and out of those, only 3.6% resulted in dismissals.

Another study by Alexander Reinert, looking at Bivens actions (against federal officials), found that grants of qualified immunity led to just 2% of case dismissals over a three year study period. However, the big difference in those cases from regular Section 1983 cases, is that the defense attorneys are Assistant United States Attorneys – members of the civil branch of each federal district’s federal prosecutor’s office. As such, they may take a different route of defense, as a matter of DOJ policy. So they are somewhat different creatures, though both involve issues of Qualified Immunity.

Therefore, according to the numbers, “Qualified Immunity” itself is rarely the formal reason that civil rights lawsuits against law enforcement end. Moreover, there are certain types of cases where qualified immunity cannot be utilized, such as those against the employers of law enforcement officers (Monell Claims). Out of the 1,183 cases studied, 8.4% fell into this category. 

The Yale study also showed that most of the qualified immunity litigation is taking place at the summary judgment stage, or even the trial stage, rather than at the motion to dismiss stage, as the Supreme Court apparently intended. That means that litigation is not being avoided. It is perhaps being increased. 

As Alan Chen has observed, when considering the deficiencies of qualified immunity, “the costs eliminated by resolving the case prior to trial must be compared to the costs of trying the case . . . . [T]he pretrial litigation costs caused by the invoking of the immunity defense may cancel out the trial costs saved by that defense.”

How Qualified Immunity Fails, by Joanna C. Schwartz, Yale Law Journal, 127:2 (2017).

Moreover, Qualified Immunity likely increases the expense, as well as the delays, associated with federal civil rights litigation.

Although qualified immunity terminated only 3.9% of the 979 cases in my dataset in which qualified immunity could be raised, the defense was in fact raised by defendants in more than 37% of these cases—and was sometimes raised multiple times, at the motion to dismiss stage, at summary judgment, and through interlocutory appeals. Each time qualified immunity is raised, it must be researched, briefed, and argued by the parties and decided by the judge. And litigating qualified immunity is no small feat. John Je ries describes qualified immunity doctrine as “a mare’s nest of complexity and confusion.”155 Lower courts are “hopelessly conflicted both within and among themselves” as a result. One circuit court judge reported that “[w]ading through the doctrine of qualified immunity is one of the most morally and conceptually challenging tasks federal appellate court judges routinely face.”

How Qualified Immunity Fails, by Joanna C. Schwartz, Yale Law Journal, 127:2 (2017).

Qualified Immunity cannot be justified as a means of protecting police officers from personal financial liability.

In the study of 1,183 civil lawsuits, police officer defendants paid little, to none, of settlement or verdict amounts. Out of the 44 largest law enforcement agencies included in the study, which included 70 agencies overall, the individual officers paid just 0.02% of the dollars awarded to the plaintiffs in those suits. In the 37 smaller and midsize law enforcement agencies, no individual officer contributed any amount to any award to a plaintiff during this period. All of the officers were indemnified by the employers, even where they were fired, disciplined, or even criminally prosecuted for their conduct. This has been my experience as well, except in one particular case I’ve personally been involved with. I only know of one other instance in West Virginia where there was a second occurrence.

Qualified Immunity cannot be justified as a means of protecting police officers and government officials from the non-financial burdens of discovery and trial.

Often discussed in Qualified Immunity caselaw is this phrase, and so-called policy objective, of shielding government officials from the burdens of participating in a lawsuit, including the discovery process and the trial itself. For this reason, courts have the discretion to apply Qualified Immunity early in the litigation, including at the motion to dismiss stage, prior to any discovery being conducted. However, the study shows that this policy goal is not being met.

I found that, contrary to judicial and scholarly assumptions, qualified immunity is rarely the formal reason that civil rights damages actions against law enforcement end. Qualified immunity is raised infrequently before discovery begins: across the districts in my study, defendants raised qualified immunity in motions to dismiss in 13.9% of the cases in which they could raise the defense. 

These motions were less frequently granted than one might expect: courts granted motions to dismiss in whole or part on qualified immunity grounds 13.6% of the time.Qualified immunity was raised more often by defendants at summary judgment and was more often granted by courts at that stage. But even when courts granted motions to dismiss and summary judgment motions on qualified immunity grounds, those grants did not always result in the dismissal of the cases—additional claims or defendants regularly remained and continued to expose government officials to the possibility of discovery and trial. Across the five districts in my study, just 3.9% of the cases in which qualified immunity could be raised were dismissed on qualified immunity grounds.

And when one considers all the Section 1983 cases brought against law enforcement defendants—each of which could expose law enforcement officials to whatever burdens are associated with discovery and trial—just 0.6% of cases were dismissed at the motion to dismiss stage and 2.6% were dismissed at summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds.

How Qualified Immunity Fails, by Joanna C. Schwartz, Yale Law Journal, 127:2 (2017).

Thus, Qualified Immunity was the reason for dismissal in only 3.2% of the 1,183 lawsuits in the study. The defendants raised the defense in 37.6% of the cases where the defense was available. Out of these, only 13.9% of these were raised at the earliest point available – that is, the motion to dismiss stage – that being the only method of avoiding the burden of participating in the discovery process. Courts granted less than 18% of those motions raised at the motion to dismiss stage, which includes motions granted “in part,” which means that only some claims were dismissed, and that others were allowed to proceed. 

Therefore, the existence of Qualified Immunity is not serving the alleged policy goal of shielding government officials from the burden of participating in the litigation process. Unless, of course, one considers 3.2% to be a substantial shield from litigation. To the contrary, it arguably has increased the negative public perception of a lack of equal justice in the justice system as a whole.

How to strip a police officer of Qualified Immunity

To strip a police officer of qualified immunity in a civil rights lawsuit, a plaintiff must establish that:

1. the officer’s conduct violated a federal statute or constitutional right; and

2. the right was clearly established at the time of the conduct, such that

3. an objectively reasonable officer would have understood that the conduct

violated that right.

Which comes first? Until recently, the United States Court of Appeals required a court to first determine whether or not a constitutional right had been violated and then determine whether an officer was entitled to qualified immunity. See Saucier v. Katz, 121 S.Ct. 2151 (2001). Courts and attorneys were routinely ignoring this mandate and somewhat recently, the United States Supreme Court in Pearson v. Callahan (2009) reverted back to its initial analysis and now courts are free to evaluate these issues in whatever order the court desires. 

The real world application of Qualified Immunity.

1. There generally tends to be a “grace period “between a change in the law, and then moment it becomes “clearly established” for qualified immunity purposes.

2. Qualified Immunity is generally a poor defense to claims of excessive use of force by a police officer. The reason for this is because this often involves highly contested disputes of fact which make a trial likely. For example, a plaintiff alleges an officer kicked him in the groin while he was handcuffed. The officer responds that the plaintiff is lying, and that he did no such thing. This is most certainly going to require a trial to decide the truth of the matter. It doesn’t really involve a legal analysis of whether a police officer would know it would be a civil rights violation to kick a handcuffed detainee in the groin for no good reason. The primary exception to the excessive force rule is police shooting cases where the plaintiff is dead. Such a case usually involves family members of the decased filing suit. As such, the plaintiff himself/herself cannot tell his/her side of the story. With only one side available in many such cases, the court may grant qualified immunity based on the officers’ un-contradicted affidavits or deposition testimony.

3. Qualified Immunity is a very effective defense when dealing with search and seizure issues, which are rapidly developing and changing (due to commonly being involved in criminal litigation, which occurs in much greater volume and frequency). This creates so-called “grey areas” of the law, for which courts tend to give police officers the benefit of the doubt, so to speak.

4. An officer’s mistaken understanding of the law, or a reasonable misapprehension of the propriety of his conduct, can still provide a defense under Qualified Immunity. See Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 205 (2001) (“The concern of the immunity inquiry is to acknowledge that reasonable mistakes can be made as to the legal constraints on particular police conduct. It is sometimes difficult for an officer to determine how the relevant legal doctrine, here excessive force, will apply to the factual situation the officer confronts. An officer might correctly perceive all of the relevant facts but have a mistaken understanding as to whether a particular amount of force is legal in those circumstances. If the officer’s mistake as to what the law requires is reasonable, however, the officer is entitled to the immunity defense.”).

5. Qualified immunity applies as an effective defense in wrongful arrest cases, where the Court looks at the facts in the record and determines that probable cause exists, or that the officer made a reasonable mistake as to the existence of probable cause.

Therefore, ironically, Qualified Immunity is not much of a bar to a plaintiff seeking to hold a police officer responsible for the use of excessive force, such as in the recent death of George Floyd. Without a doubt, no court in the land would grant Qualified Immunity to the officer involved in Mr. Floyd’s death. There would be, or probably will be, factual issues to be determined at trial. Rather, it mostly is going to apply to those “grey areas” of search and seizure law. Moreover, it’s going to apply usually without regard to the officer’s subjective ignorance, or expertise, regarding the law. It’s an objective, fairly low standard.

For this reason, I agree with the author of the Yale Law Review study, in that rather than calling for the end of Qualified Immunity, it might be best to return to a subjective standard version of Qualified Immunity, where police officers who act in bad faith, as well as those who act in good faith, though objectively unreasonably, can be held accountable. But as for Qualified Immunity itself, whether it exists, or does not exist, it’s not going to apply to any of the officers directly involved in Mr. Floyd’s death. But it will be involved in many other cases, including cases where there certainly was police misconduct, for which the victim will be barred from recovery. That can’t be a good policy, in my opinion.

Fayette County Search Case was Settled

I’ve had several people ask me about an update on the Sizemore case, which was a search and seizure case out of Fayette County, West Virginia, involving a multi-jurisdictional drug task force who were found by a federal judge to have included false allegations in a search warrant application. The federal criminal charges were dropped after the evidence seized during the search was suppressed from evidence. Then the case was brought to me for a civil lawsuit. We filed in in September of 2019. We recently settled the case.

This was the case where the Charleston Gazette newspaper thought it was shocking that we filed a lawsuit over an illegal search where, despite the illegal warrant, drugs actually were found in my client’s house. I believe the headline was, “Officers found his $25k of heroin. He walked free, and now he’s suing police.”

In my December 2019 update, in response to the police officers’ motion to dismiss the lawsuit, I reiterated that equal justice under the law should mean that even people found with drugs should be entitled to the equal application of law and posted our response brief, as well as their motion.

In my January 2020 update, I posted a copy of the federal court’s memorandum opinion and order denying the motion to dismiss, and denying the application of qualified immunity, ordering that the case proceed. You’ve been hearing a lot about qualified immunity lately. The order in this case denied qualified immunity to the officers:

As previously explained, Defendant Morris violated Plaintiffs’ Fourth Amendment protections. Thus, the next question is whether the violated right was clearly established at the time of the events in question. “[I]t has long been established that when law enforcement acts in reckless disregard of the truth and makes a false statement or material omission that is necessary to a finding of probable cause, the resulting seizure will be determined to be unreasonable.” Gilliam v. Sealey, 932 F.3d 216, 241 (4th Cir. 2019); see Franks, 438 U.S. at 157. 

As the Fourth Circuit has explained, “a reasonable officer cannot believe a warrant is supported by probable cause if the magistrate is misled by statements that the officer knows or should know are false.” Miller, 475 F.3d at 632 (quoting Smith v. Reddy, 101 F.3d 351, 355 (4th Cir.1996)).

Qualified immunity is actually pretty rare in excessive force lawsuits – at least where the plaintiff’s attorney knows what he or she is doing. Ideally, there is a dispute of facts, which requires a trial. But in search in seizure cases, it’s usually less of a factual dispute, and more of a legal dispute. The gist of qualified immunity is that courts give some leeway to police officers, who can’t be expected to automatically know each and every new case that comes out. Some courts expand it, unfortunately, but many don’t.

Here, the court equally applied the Fourth Amendment and justice was served. A police officer should not be allowed to lie in order to obtain a search warrant, even where they believe that the ends justifies the means. Here’s the full order, which was quoted above:

My thoughts on the current protests.

If you really care about police misconduct, and if you want to fix things, are you willing to protest over this man? This is James Dean, who died 14 months ago in a hospital in Huntington, West Virginia, after incurring head trauma while handcuffed in the custody of the Kenova, Police Department. After waiting 14 months, the state medical examiner’s office still hasn’t issued a report regarding his cause of death. Why? So they can protect the police, I would presume. The brain surgeon who performed the man’s craniotomy didn’t have any doubt in his mind apparently that the man suffered head trauma causing his brain to bleed.

Petition for Rehearing En Banc Filed Yesterday with the Fourth Circuit in the Orem Search and Seizure Case

Yesterday we filed a Petition for Rehearing En Banc with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in the Orem case. On May 11, 2020, the Fourth Circuit handed down a panel decision in the Orem v. Gillmore, et al., Section 1983 civil rights lawsuit, arising out of Berkeley County, West Virginia.

Here’s the background post on the initial filing of the lawsuit, in April of 2018. This is the case that made national headlines when a Republican nominee for Sheriff was arrested for allegedly overdosing in his home. He was arrested by a state trooper, who showed up at the scene of the medical emergency, and performed a warrantless search of a bathroom in the house. The trooper’s longtime secretary was the married to one of the candidate’s political opponents. During the arrest booking, a photograph was taken of the client while handcuffed inside a secure area of the state police detachment. It was uploaded to social media as a meme, and quickly went viral. Of course, the state police investigated themselves, and strangely were unable to find the culprit.

The damage was done, as far as the election is concerned. The prosecuting attorney determined that the arrest resulted from an illegal search of the bathroom, and evidently the court agreed. The criminal charges were dismissed. We filed a civil lawsuit in federal court. Unfortunately however, the Court granted the trooper qualified immunity on the search, and claimed that we missed the statute of limitations on the false arrest count. I argued up and down that the judge and the opposing lawyer were confused, and that false arrest has a 2 year SOL – not 1 year, as they claimed. Well, I was right. The Fourth Circuit overturned the ruling on the statute of limitations, holding that I was right about it being 2 years. But then they granted qualified immunity anyways.

Here’s the Petition for Rehearing:

Here’s the opinion, if you want to read it. Unfortunately, the opinion was pretty sparse – granting the defendant police officer qualified immunity, with pretty much no explanation whatsoever. They just said, it was “beyond debate.”

The expansion of qualified immunity to police officers who violate the most central tenant of the Fourth Amendment – a warrantless search of a home – is concerning. Qualified immunity is supposed to apply to the gray areas, where we can’t expect police officers to understand all the nuances and constant changes in case law. But the warrant requirement for searching a man’s home? The U.S. Supreme Court has long held that a police officer cannot be entitled to qualified immunity for the warrantless search of a home. Hopefully we get a rehearing on this and a new opinion, or else we very well may end up there.

Lawsuit being filed against the West Virginia Governor today challenging his COVID-19 executive orders

Being filed today: I’m representing S. Marshall Wilson, of the West Virginia House of Delegates, three other delegates, and one West Virginia Senator, in their challenge to the West Virginia Governor’s COVID-19 executive orders. Here’s the petition being filed. Press conference at the State Capitol, today at 11:00 a.m.

Update: some footage from the press conference at the State Capitol:

Article in Saturday’s Charleston Gazette-Mail:

https://www.wvgazettemail.com/coronavirus/lawmakers-file-petition-with-state-supreme-court-over-governors-actions-during-pandemic/article_009e51a9-70da-5bb3-8e48-e4e37f658448.html

Delegate S. Marshall Wilson (right), I-Berkeley, discusses the filing of a petition seeking a writ of mandamus against Gov. Jim Justice Friday outside the state Supreme Court. Attorney John Bryan (left) filed the petition on behalf of five state lawmakers, including Wilson.JOE SEVERINO | Gazette-Mailhttps://www.wvgazettemail.com/coronavirus/lawmakers-file-petition-with-state-supreme-court-over-governors-actions-during-pandemic/article_009e51a9-70da-5bb3-8e48-e4e37f658448.html

A word of caution from a suspicious lawyer on PPP Loans

A word of caution from a suspicious lawyer . . . .So instead of downsizing our massive behemoth of government bureaucracy, Congress passed the CARES Act, establishing the so-called Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which allows the SBA to guarantee 350 BILLION in loans to help small businesses. As of April 16, 2020, a total of 1,661,397 loans have been made through 4,975 lenders nationwide, eating up all the available money thus far.

Many businesses and investors believe they’re not going to have to pay back these loans. If you believe that, you don’t know government. But there’s way more at stake here than just being required to pay back a low interest loan. Way more. Expect the DOJ to turn their attention to small businesses in the very near future. They’re gonna “help” small business all right….

Take a look at the bill. It’s “Yuge.”

It’s gonna take more government officials to run this thing than would be necessary to run 10 or 12 third world countries. I’m skeptical about who’s paychecks are being protected here. But it’s not just the size of the program that gives me concern. More importantly, these loans have been rushed through, under the hysterics created by the government itself, as well as the media. What does one facing the apocalypse – basically, the scenario of riding motorcycles with spiked shoulder pads – represent on an emergency rushed bank loan application? Therein lies the question of the very near future.

Due to widespread shutdowns, we’re headed into an epic economic depression. That will be a depression for those of us in the private sector. At least at first. They can always take out more debt and print money. But that will collapse too without the forecast of an income stream of real money. The government will want its money from these PPP loans. The government always wants its money. Several quotes come to mind:

  • 1. “I’m from the government. I’m here to help.”
  • 2. “F*ck you, pay me.”
  • 3. “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

The False Claims Act (FCA) is a federal law which imposes liability on persons and companies (see “small businesses“) who defraud governmental programs. This law includes a qui tam provision that allows people who are non-government employees (see lawyers and law firms) called “relators” to file lawsuits on behalf of the government. There’s another name for this: “whistleblowers.” Under the FCA, the relators / whistleblowers receive a portion of any recovered damages – generally 15 to 30 percent. This is the basis or all these pharmaceutical lawyer commercials you see on TV. Those lawyers are gonna jump all over this. We need only look to the last “bailout” from Obama’s TARP program in 2008. Just in 2015 alone, the DOJ recovered over 3.5 BILLION in damages under the FCA. And that was the “fourth consecutive year” for such large damages recoveries, as the DOJ proudly announced. It’s an annual expected component of the budget at this point.

Legal experts who practice in the area of the FCA are already warning other lawyers to expect a heightened focus on individuals and small businesses now that these new loans have been made on such a rushed basis. The DOJ recently restated its “commitment to use the False Claims Act and other civil remedies to deter and redress fraud by individuals as well as corporations.”

And it’s not just the private lawyers. Do you think the mountain of lawyers and investigators at the DOJ are going to sit idly by and do nothing? No, they’re ready to get back to work. Remotely of course. In fact, they’ll need even more resources and employees in order to combat the coming fraud crisis you’ll hear about. “With a new national crises at hand, and an even bigger commitment of federal assistance to combat it, expect a plethora of federal and state agencies to join the effort to police recovery spending. Indeed, oversight mechanisms in the act go beyond establishing the special inspector general and include establishing a Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, which is also charged with oversight.” Id.  

Now that’s an acronym that ought to scare the hell out of anyone involved in the application of these loans. I can see that on the side of a van pulling up next to front doors in a Polish ghetto, looking for whatever is deemed verboten.It’s not just the applicants, but the bankers as well, and anyone else connected to the process, or the business. The FCA lawyers and the DOJ, using a theory of mere “false certification” of application information, can go after individuals, small businesses, and the lenders who participated in the program. All it takes is to show false information included in the laundry list of certifications in the applications, including, but not limited to:

  • the recipients must use the funds to retain 90% of their workforce;
  • the recipients must remain neutral in union-organizing efforts;
  • the uncertainty of economic conditions as of the date of the application makes the loan necessary to support ongoing business operations;
  • the recipient INTENDS to restore not less than 90% of its workforce and to restore all benefits to workers no later than 4 months after the termination of the health emergency;
  • the recipient is not a debtor in a bankruptcy proceeding;
  • the recipient will not pay dividends to stockholders.

What is “necessary” and who gets to determine what was “necessary?” And who gets to determine what the recipient “intended?” If the FBI can make General Flynn into a convicted felon just by asking their questions in a certain tricky way, what can they do to you? Not only that, but these applicants are also certifying to all other information provided in these applications. Just take a look:

Government doesn’t word things in such a way as to be concise and clear so that everybody’s on the same page. They word things in such a way so that, if they want to get you, they’ll get you:

Who’s angus is on the line? It’s not just the person who signs the application, but many other potential individuals within a “small business”:

Lastly, to go after you civilly, rather than criminally, under the FCA, the DOJ doesn’t have the usual constraints of the Bill of Rights and the standard of beyond a reasonable doubt. Instead, they only need to prove the civil standards of “deliberate indifference” and “reckless disregard.” You know, like what happens many times when you rush through an emergency apocalypse relief application. It’s just paperwork….

“If Congress can do whatever in their discretion can be done by money, and will promote the General Welfare, the Government is no longer a limited one, possessing enumerated powers, but an indefinite one, subject to particular exceptions.” – James Madison

New issues are presented on whether jail and prison inmates in (or from) West Virginia can/should be released due to COVID-19

We’ve been working hard in multiple cases to try to obtain the release of some non-violent jail and prison inmates who are currently stuck in their cells, having completed the bulk of their sentences for nonviolent offenses. Many of the facilities have stopped all academics and facility programming and just leaving people quarantined in their cells. (Update 4/30/20: Success! First one is out!)

Many of these same individuals have the ability to be self-sufficient in the outside world – even during this crises – rather than requiring prison staff to interact with them, feed them, and so on. Not to mention the requirement of we the taxpayers to fund the whole thing. Yet even with this global pandemic, West Virginia’s correctional facilities are still overcrowded, with more inmates incarcerated than there are “beds available.”

As of April 1, 2020, there were still 270 more prisoners incarcerated than available beds. Many of these prisoners, such as the ones we’ve been trying to help, are nonviolent offenders who’ve already served most of their sentence, who pose no real risk to public safety, and who could be assisting their own families at this time. Some of these individuals have underlying health issues which makes them especially vulnerable.

The West Virginia Division of Corrections has come up with a comprehensive plan to mitigate the likelihood of an outbreak in these facilities, but we’ve all heard about the issues at nursing homes in West Virginia, where our outbreak first started. Vulnerable individuals in institutions such as these are at “grave risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19,” and this includes vulnerable prisoners. See Joe Severino, Charleston Gazette-Mail, A WV Nursing Home Had 29 COVID-19 Cases. Here’s How they Contained the Spread (Mar. 31, 2020).

West Virginia recently passed legislation which was intended to address overcrowding, but which also would be perfectly suited to the COVID-19 threat. However, it doesn’t go in effect until June 5, 2020. In that legislation, the DOC is authorized to develop and approve home plans for certain qualifying inmates. This would help, but June is still some time away. In the meantime, inmates are most likely required to go back to their sentencing judge in the court/county in which they were sentenced. That’s what we’ve been doing.

In federal court, there’s a provision for an inmate to petition for what’s called a “compassionate release,” which would apply well to prisoners with an underlying health vulnerability. However, there’s a problem there as well. By law, they’re required to make an administrative request to the federal Bureau of Prisons first, prior to going to the sentencing judge.

Unfortunately, West Virginia doesn’t have an option for “compassionate release” just yet. But something needs to be done. So far, we’ve filed motions for reconsideration of a sentence under Rule 35(b) of the West Virginia Rules of Criminal Procedure. There’s a time limit of 120 days generally to file this, so most inmates are going to be beyond this number. However, there is an exception which allows a sentencing judge to waive the time limitation so long as it doesn’t “usurp the role of the parole board,” whatever that means. See, e.g., State v. Head, 198 W. Va. 298, 480 S.E.2d 507 (1996). 

We finally have our first hearing coming up this week on a Rule 35 COVID motion. We do know that certain sentencing judges around the state have allowed some of their inmates an early release on bond or home confinement due to COVID-19, but at this point it’s entirely up to the discretion of the court, which means that everything is on a case-by-case basis.

In the federal system, there is a mechanism for release, and there’s a number of set factors for the court to address – also a case by case analysis. But again, there’s that requirement to exhaust administrative remedies from within the BOP first before filing.

So far the ACLU and Mountain State Justice have tried to take action on a multi-client basis and have been denied. Again, these are case-by-case fact-heavy situations which require going to the sentencing judge. In New Jersey, there’s already been a case up to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit on a “compassionate release” petition. (USA v. Raia) However, because they didn’t make the petition to the sentencing judge, and also because the inmate didn’t ask the BOP administratively first, it got sent back with no real decision.

On its own, the West Virginia DOC has already released about 70 parolees who were serving short terms for parole-related violations, and about 70 other work-release inmates on “extended furlough.” Who knows where we go from here, but as they say, “no asky, no gety….”

If you need help with an inmate who you believe is vulnerable medically, or who is a nonviolent offender who has served a substantial portion of their sentence, we would be happy to help. Give us a call. (304) 772-4999. We’re still working, though we’re having all consults via telephone or teleconference.

Case Updates from The Fort

Update on various cases from within the safe confines of our fort headquarters:

Family Court Search Case:

On Monday, Matt Gibson filed a formal complaint with the Judicial Investigation Commission, as well as a written Motion to Disqualify the judge from the video. We will let those take their course and see what happens. I’m told that they may have already been involved prior to the complaint. I still haven’t seen any other cases where this has happened anywhere else in the state, nor anywhere else in the country.  Right now I’ve been informed of multiple instances of this happening – only in this particular county.

Walker Open Carry Case:

We field Notice of Appeal, and it has now been transferred to the US Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. Soon we will receive a scheduling order and proceed with the briefing process.

Correctional Officer Traffic Stop Case:

The officer from the video, who was more specifically a parole officer for the WV Division of Corrections has since resigned. I’m told there’s a pending criminal investigation. I have reached out to the DOC’s counsel and requested negotiations with their insurance adjustor. If they don’t make Shawn a fair settlement offer, we’ll file suit.

Putnam County Search Cases:

Right now we are prepared to proceed on six separate search cases out of Putnam County, all related to the same unit of individuals. Although there was an “internal investigation” which we assisted in, there has been no information provided; no outcome whatsoever. At least one of the officers is still arresting people, according to information I’ve received.  So it sounds like nothing has happened.  We issued additional FOIA requests, and only one of the cases we’re investigating, so far, has returned any documentation or paperwork whatsoever.