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Media Alerts - Aikens v. Ingram et al. -- Fourth Circuit
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February 23, 2016
  Aikens v. Ingram et al. -- Fourth Circuit
Rights Without Remedies: Suit For Damages For Alleged Constitutional Violations Found Nonjusticiable

Areas of Law: Federal Jurisdiction, Justiciability, Enforcement Act of 1871

Issue Presented: Whether a member of the North Carolina National Guard can sue other members of the North Carolina National Guard in federal court for alleged constitutional rights violations that occurred while the service member was deployed on active duty.

Brief Summary: The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit found that a section 1983 civil action for damages initiated by one service member against another for alleged constitutional violations that occurred while the service member was deployed on active duty is not justiciable in federal court.

Extended Summary: In 2003, Aikens, a member of the North Carolina National Guard ("NCNG"), was deployed on active duty to Kuwait. While there, his emails were illegally intercepted by other service members and relayed to NCNG executive officer von Jess, appellee. Von Jess, who was not deployed at the time, referenced the emails in a memorandum addressed to the North Carolina Governor's chief of staff and forwarded the emails to the Department of the Army Inspector General ("DAIG"). The DAIG concluded that, although the emails were obtained improperly, the information within the emails constituted instances of active duty misconduct, which ultimately lead to Aikens losing his federal recognition and his termination from the NCNG.

In 2006, Aikens sued both Ingram and von Jess under 42 U.S.C. section 1983 for an alleged violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. Aikens claimed that Ingram and von Jess encouraged the unconstitutional search and seizure of his emails while he was deployed in Kuwait. At trial, the district court found Aikens' claims nonjusticiable using a four-factor test described in Mindes v. Seaman and granted summary judgment for Ingram and von Jess. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision, although under the "incident to service" test in Feres v. United States. The court declined to apply Mindes because, according to the court, Mindes applies to actions seeking equitable relief, not actions seeking damages.

By applying Feres, the Fourth Circuit joined nine other circuits in concluding that the "incident to service" test articulated in that case may bar section 1983 actions. The court explained that, although the Supreme Court has not yet applied Feres to section 1983 actions, the Court has used the "incident to service" test to bar Bivens claims between military personnel. Both Bivens claims and section 1983 claims allege constitutional violations. Also, relief under either claim would interfere with military discipline and decision-making. Citing those similarities, the court extended Feres and found that it may bar section 1983 actions.

Applying Feres, the court found that the alleged Fourth Amendment violation arose out of activity that was incident to service. Recognizing that the test is broad and amorphous, the court explained that because Aikens was deployed on active duty in a war zone and using a military computer to send his emails, the alleged violation was incident to his service in the military. In reaching its conclusion, the court was undeterred by the fact that Aikens was a member of the NCNG and neither in Ingram nor von Jess' chain of command.

Although he fully agreed with the majority opinion, Judge Shedd wrote separately to explain that Aikens' claim was insufficient on other grounds. Aikens failed to present evidence that either Ingram or von Jess were personally involved in the email monitoring. Aikens' case, therefore, was premised on conclusory allegations and summary judgment was proper as a matter of law.

To read the full text of this opinion, please click here.

Panel: Judges Thacker, King, and Shedd

Argument Date: 12/9/2015

Date of Issued Opinion: 01/29/2016; amended on 02/1/2016

Docket Number: 14-2419

Decided: Affirmed by published opinion

Case Alert Author: Travis Bullock, Univ. of Maryland Carey School of Law

Counsel: ARGUED: William Woodward Webb, Sr., EDMISTEN & WEBB, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellant. Gerald Kevin Robbins, NORTH CAROLINA DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellees. ON BRIEF: William Woodward Webb, Jr., EDMISTEN & WEBB, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellant. Roy Cooper, North Carolina Attorney General, NORTH CAROLINA DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellees.

Author of Opinion: Judge Thacker

Concurring Opinion:
Judge Shedd

Case Alert Supervisor:
Professor Renée Hutchins

    Posted By: Renee Hutchins @ 02/23/2016 06:36 PM     4th Circuit  

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