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Erin Tanner (’11) argues in Fourth Circuit as part of Appellate Advocacy Clinic

Erin Tanner (’11) argued recently in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in the case of Beasley v. Arcapita, Inc., as part of the Appellate Advocacy Clinic.  Amy Puckett (’11), who worked with Tanner on the appeal, also attended the argument, which was held in the Fourth Circuit courthouse in Richmond, Va., on Friday, March 25.

The Clinic represents Denise Beasley and Marcus Beasley.  The Beasleys entered into an agreement to operate a Church’s Chicken franchise at Baltimore Washington Airport.  They allege that after they entered into the agreement and were given assurances that they could sell pork products, the ownership of Church’s Chicken was transferred to a corporation that requires its franchisees to comply with Shari’ah law and that thereafter would not allow them to sell pork products.  As a result, their sales suffered and they eventually went out of business. 

The Beasleys claim that the defendants violated 42 U.S.C. § 1981, which prohibits racial discrimination in the making and enforcement of contracts, because the defendants only enforced the non-pork products edict against the Beasleys, who are African-American.  

The issue on appeal is whether the Beasleys have standing to sue.  The United States District Court for the District of Maryland dismissed the case for lack of standing, on the ground that the Beasleys entered into the agreement only as a corporate entity but brought the lawsuit as individuals.  The Beasleys appealed, their prior counsel withdrew after filing the initial appellate brief, and the Fourth Circuit then appointed the Appellate Advocacy Clinic to represent them. 

On appeal, the Beasleys contend that either they did enter the agreement as individuals, based on certain provisions in the agreement, or that they had standing pursuant to a separate guaranty or surety agreement they signed as individuals.  The defendants argue that the District Court properly dismissed the case for lack of standing.  In addition, after the appeal began, the defendants argued alternatively that the case should be dismissed based on res judicata due to a decision in a related state court case that became final after the Fourth Circuit appeal began.

The panel that heard oral argument included Judge Diana Motz of Maryland, Judge Dennis Shedd of South Carolina, and Judge Roger Gregory of Virginia.  All three judges actively questioned both Tanner and the defendants’ attorney.

“Erin did a fantastic job preparing for the argument and handling many questions, including some very difficult ones,” said Professor John Korzen, director of the Appellate Advocacy Clinic.  “She and Amy wrote a great reply brief and spent countless hours digging into a couple aspects of the appeal for which there is little to no case law on point.”

The oral argument took a surprising twist, when the judges began questioning both advocates about parts of the contract not addressed in the parties’ briefs.  Some of the judges’ questions suggested agreement with the Beasleys’ first argument that they were individually parties to the agreement itself, without regard to the guaranty/surety agreement.  The oral argument was unusual in another way, when the judges asked the defendants’ attorney questions long after the 20-minute time limit had elapsed.  The attorney remained at the podium for at least 15 extra minutes, facing numerous questions.

After the argument, in a tradition unique to the Fourth Circuit, the judges came down to shake hands and briefly chat with the advocates.  Judge Shedd told Tanner that he hoped she “at least had some fun” and also that she could report back at Wake Forest that she had “dominated the Fourth Circuit.”  He was only partly jesting.  Judge Gregory said “way to represent the Demon Deacons!”

Afterwards, Tanner said, “I wasn’t sure what to expect going into the day, but the argument ended up going very well and I really enjoyed the experience.  After three years of working on hypothetical law school problems, it was neat to finally have the opportunity to brief and argue a real case and I am grateful I was given the opportunity to do so in the Fourth Circuit.”

Puckett observed, “I was particularly impressed by how engaged the judges were throughout the oral argument.  It was fascinating to watch them interact with the parties and with each other.”

Tanner’s oral argument was the fourth for the Appellate Advocacy Clinic this school year.  The Clinic represents indigent clients in various appellate courts.  For more information about the Clinic, contact Professor Korzen.