Sean focuses his practice on constitutional law, appellate practice and procedure, and strategic counsel for clients embroiled in complex commercial litigation. He is known for providing clients with creative solutions to significant and complex problems, cogent work product, and persuasive advocacy.
Sean has been counsel in numerous federal and state appeals, for parties and amici curiae. He has extensive experience with a range of legal and policy issues affecting business organizations, and he has represented clients across a broad range of industries.
Before returning to Womble in 2022, Sean spent 13 years on the faculty of Duke University School of Law, where he was a Clinical Professor of Law and ran Duke’s appellate program. He was the Director of Duke’s Appellate Litigation Clinic, which operated as a boutique appellate shop, handling federal appeals in multiple circuits and successfully litigating complex issues of constitutional, administrative, and criminal law. His courses included Appellate Practice, concentrating on complex issues of constitutional and administrative law through simulations in which federal appellate judges from around the country participated. While at Duke he also served as a consultant in commercial disputes, typically in state and federal appeals.
Sean joined the Duke Law faculty from Womble Bond Dickinson (then Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice), where he was co-chair of the firm’s appellate group. He came to Womble (and North Carolina) from the Appellate and Constitutional Law group of Gibson Dunn in Washington, D.C.
Sean is a longstanding member of the Appellate Rules Committee of the N.C. Bar Association (NCBA), which evaluates and crafts proposed amendments to the State’s rules of appellate procedure, and he serves as a member of the council for the Appellate Practice Section. He is also a member of the Council of Appellate Lawyers of the American Bar Association and has served on that organization’s pro bono committee. He has presented at CLEs on appellate practice. He recently served by appointment of the N.C. Chief Justice a three-year term on the Chief Justice’s Commission on Professionalism, for which he also served on the Executive Committee.
Any result the lawyer or law firm may have achieved on behalf of clients in other matters does not necessarily indicate similar results can be obtained for other clients.
Sean’s appellate experience includes litigating against government entities in matters involving constitutional, administrative, and criminal law. Examples include the following cases in which he served as lead appellate counsel on behalf of appellants who obtained favorable outcomes.
- Kennedy v. Superintendent Dallas SCI, 50 F.4th 377 (3d Cir. 2022), reversing district court order which dismissed state prisoner’s federal habeas claim as procedurally defaulted and meritless, and directing district court to grant the habeas petition and order appellant’s release forthwith (he was freed the day after the Third Circuit’s mandate issued). The Third Circuit held that the state violated his federal constitutional right to a speedy trial.
- United States v. Norwood, 49 F.4th 189 (3d Cir. 2022), reversing the district court and effectively terminating appellant’s criminal restitutionary liability while ordering the government to repay to him the funds it had seized for restitution. The Third Circuit held that the government would violate the Constitution’s Ex Post Facto Clause by retroactively applying a statute to extend the duration of restitutionary liability, and further held that the government’s timely commencement of a collection proceeding for fines or restitution doesn’t permit collection beyond the applicable statute’s 20-year period.
- Howell v. Superintendent Albion SCI, 978 F.3d 54 (3d Cir. 2020), vacating the district court’s order denying a Rule 60(b)(6) motion to reopen, on a gateway claim of actual innocence, the long-dismissed habeas case of the appellant, who had been convicted of felony murder in 1984, at age 18, and sentenced to life without parole. The Third Circuit remanded for an evidentiary hearing on actual innocence. (On remand, the district court granted the writ of habeas corpus and vacated appellant’s convictions.)
- United States v. Harper, No. 18-7147 (4th Cir. Jan. 10, 2020), vacating appellant’s sentence on appeal from the denial of a 28 U.S.C. § 2255 challenge which claimed that his sentencing counsel and direct-appeal counsel rendered ineffective assistance regarding the government’s and district court’s classification of prior offenses as violent felonies triggering the Armed Career Criminal Act’s 15-year mandatory minimum enhancement. On remand, appellant was resentenced without the enhancement and released.
- Sepling v. United States, 944 F.3d 138 (3d Cir. 2019), vacating order denying 28 U.S.C. § 2255 challenge to sentence for conspiracy to import a Schedule I substance not listed in the Sentencing Guidelines and for which the sentencing court had used MDMA as an analogue. The Third Circuit held that sentencing counsel rendered ineffective assistance by neglecting scientific evidence of drug potency and not attacking the Sentencing Commission’s harsh treatment of MDMA, and that appellant was prejudiced by these omissions despite receiving a variance. On remand, he was resentenced to a reduced term.
- Price v. Warren, 726 F. App’x 877 (3d Cir. 2018), reversing district court’s dismissal of state prisoner’s habeas challenge to his conviction (for which he was serving a life sentence) and directing that the writ of habeas corpus be granted, resulting in his release from prison. The Third Circuit held that his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance with respect to the state’s DNA trial evidence.
- Mack v. Yost, 839 F.3d 286 (3d Cir. 2016), reversing the dismissal of claims brought under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the First Amendment’s Petition Clause. The Third Circuit ruled favorably on the scope of Petition Clause protection, concluded that appellant plausibly alleged a substantial burden on religious exercise under RFRA, and issued the first appellate decision holding that RFRA allows individual-capacity damages.
- Covey v. Assessor of Ohio County, 777 F.3d 186 (4th Cir. 2015), reversing dismissal of civil claims asserting Fourth Amendment violations by officials (a tax assessor, then state and federal law enforcement) who, without a warrant, discovered marijuana in the curtilage of appellants’ rural home. The Fourth Circuit held that appellants stated unreasonable-search claims despite the “knock and talk” doctrine, qualified immunity, etc.
- Branch v. Sweeney, 758 F.3d 226 (3d Cir. 2014), vacating district court’s order dismissing state prisoner’s habeas claim that his counsel at his homicide trial rendered ineffective assistance by not presenting two additional witnesses to bolster the defense’s case about the identity of the shooter. The Third Circuit ordered an evidentiary hearing upon rejecting the state’s AEDPA arguments and ruling that the witness accounts would’ve had a reasonable probability of changing the jury’s verdict, given ballistics and other evidence.
- Lesesne v. Doe, 712 F.3d 584 (D.C. Cir. 2013), reversing summary judgment on appellant’s claim that D.C. officials were deliberately indifferent to his safety and medical needs as a pretrial detainee, in violation of his due process rights. In reinstating his claim, the D.C. Circuit held that the Prison Litigation Reform Act’s exhaustion requirement doesn’t apply to a prison-conditions claim filed after release, and that the forfeiture doctrine didn’t bar resolution of that issue despite his failure to raise it below.
- Boniface v. U.S. Dep’t of Homeland Sec., 613 F.3d 282 (D.C. Cir. 2010), granting petition for judicial review challenging the agency’s application of its Patriot Act regulations to deprive petitioner of an occupational license based on an old criminal conviction. The D.C. Circuit held that the agency acted arbitrarily and capriciously and remanded for the agency to consider a waiver. (On remand to the agency, petitioner prevailed.)
- Robinson v. Clipse, 602 F.3d 605 (4th Cir. 2010), reversing the grant of summary judgment to the defendant, a South Carolina state trooper. The Fourth Circuit reinstated appellant’s claim that the trooper violated appellant’s constitutional right to be free from excessive force when, following a chase, the trooper fired his gun a number of times into the vehicle that appellant was driving, striking him.
- Rendelman v. Rouse, 569 F.3d 182 (4th Cir. 2009). After briefing on appeal from the summary judgment denial of an Orthodox Jewish state inmate’s pursuit of kosher dietary accommodations under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, the state announced—several days before oral argument—that it would change policy to provide kosher accommodations in its prisons. The Fourth Circuit noted this change in ruling that injunctive relief became moot upon appellant’s transfer to a federal prison during appeal.
- Atherton v. D.C. Office of Mayor, 567 F.3d 672 (D.C. Cir. 2009), reversing dismissal of due process claim against a D.C. jury officer and federal prosecutor, holding the district court erred in applying absolute quasi-judicial immunity and prosecutorial immunity.
While a law professor, Sean was retained to consult on various complex commercial litigation matters. They involved, among other issues, large damage judgments, intellectual property, business defamation, administrative agency action, and remedies. E.g., for SAS Institute, Inc., the world’s largest privately held software company, in SAS Inst., Inc. v. World Programming Ltd., 874 F.3d 370, 385 (4th Cir. 2017); World Programming Ltd. v. SAS Inst., Inc., 139 S. Ct. 67 (2018) (denying certiorari); SAS Inst., Inc. v. World Programming Ltd., 952 F.3d 513 (2020); World Programming Ltd. v. SAS Inst., Inc., 141 S. Ct. 1053 (2021) (denying certiorari).
In his prior stint in private practice, Sean was involved in numerous appeals and an array of dispositive motions, including:
- Appellate representation successfully defending the constitutionality of a state’s cap on punitive damages.
- Appellate representation in different cases for large corporations successfully defending the constitutionality of various tax and other economic development incentives.
- Appellate representation in cases involving denial class action certification, approval of class action settlements, the civil RICO statute, investment securities under UCC Article 8, partnership disputes, punitive damages, liability for unfair or deceptive trade practices, and other issues.
- Obtained JNOV in N.C. Business Court on behalf of chair of corporation’s board of directors after jury verdict for fraud and punitive damages in intra-corporate dispute.
- Prepared amicus brief in federal appeal on behalf of economists and scholars of law and economics on the issue of the appropriate cost standard for evaluating predatory-pricing claims under federal antitrust law.
- Prepared amicus brief in state supreme court on behalf of National Association of Manufacturers and the American Tort Reform Association in support of an auto manufacturer’s successful opposition to a “no injury” class action.
- Prepared amicus brief in federal appeal on behalf of nation’s leading franchisors in support of a national franchisor’s successful appellate challenge to $390 million judgment.
- Prepared amicus brief in federal appeal in support of corporation contesting one of the largest damage awards ever in a copyright case.
Professional & Civic Engagement
- Chief Justice’s Commission on Professionalism, Appointed Member, 2018-2021
- American Bar Association, Council of Appellate Lawyers
- North Carolina Bar Association
- Appellate Rules Committee
- Appellate Practice Section Council (elected terms), 2017-2020 and 2022-2025
Clerkships and Previous Legal Experience
- Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, Washington, D.C., Associate
- Hogan & Hartson (now Hogan Lovells), Washington, D.C., Associate
- Clerkship, U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson
- Clerkship, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, Judge M. Blane Michael