It's been quite awhile since I've done one of these, and so there is of course a pretty significant backlog. To that end, I'm going to break these up into civil and criminal, and then probably also mention some petitions in a third post (there's one in particular I want to talk about).
All opinions are available here.
Mount Lemmon Fire Dist. v. Guido (Nov. 6, 2018), unanimous decision by Ginsburg.
Two firefighters were fired, and sued their employer under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. Their former employer (a political subdivision of Arizona) argued that it didn't meet the definition of "employer" for the purposes of this law. SCOTUS says that the statute is clear, in that it includes employers of a certain size and political subdivisions as "employers" for the purposes of the Act.
Weyerhaeuser Co. v. United States Fish and Wildlife Serv. (Nov. 27, 2018), unanimous decision by Roberts.
The Fish and Wildlife Service designated a species of frog as endangered in 2001. As part of that, the Service had to designate areas of land that are the frog's habitation. One of the areas had been home to the frog once upon a time, but for decades had been used for commercial timber. The Service designated it as "habitat" anyway, and then did an economic impact analysis and concluded that the conservation benefits outweighed the economic harm to the landowners. The owners sued. SCOTUS found that the statute regarding endangered species only allows the Service to designate current habitats, not historical ones.
Escondido v. Emmons (Jan. 7, 2019), per curiam.
Police officers responded to a domestic violence call, and ended up arresting the father of one of the apartment's residents. The arrest involved throwing the guy to the grown and handcuffing him. There was no dispute that there was probable cause for arrest (on the charge of obstructing an officer), just whether excessive force was involved. The trial court said that qualified immunity applied, but the 9th Circuit reversed. SCOTUS sends it back, saying that the 9th didn't properly analyze the claims under the relevant law.
Culbertson v. Berryhill (Jan. 8, 2019), unanimous decision by Thomas.
When a lawyer represents someone seeking disability benefits from the Social Security Administration, the amount of fee that may be charged is capped by statute. For representation before SSA, the fee is (typically) capped at either $6,000 or 25% of past-due benefits, whichever is less. For representation before a court, the cap is 25%. The question is whether that 25% cap applies to both sets of fees combined, or whether they're separate. SCOTUS says that they're separate.
Henry Schein, Inc. v. Archer & White Sales, Inc. (Jan. 8, 2019), unanimous decision by Kavanaugh.
The parties here had entered into a contract that included an arbitration provision. Archer & White sued Schein, and the latter invoked the arbitration provision. But there was a dispute about whether arbitration would apply, since federal law says arbitration doesn't apply where someone is seeking an injunction (which Archer & White was). Then there was a dispute over whether the question of arbitrability (i.e. whether it could go to arbitration) should itself be heard by the arbitrator rather than the court. Lower courts said no, but SCOTUS says yes, because ultimately the contract must control.
New Prime Inc. v. Oliveira (Jan. 15, 2019), unanimous opinion by Kavanaugh, plus a concurrence by Ginsburg (but who also joined with the majority).
An interesting companion to Schein. In this case, Oliveira was a truck driver who worked as an independent contractor. He brought a class action suit about wages, but his contract had an arbitration provision. The question again was whether a court or the arbitrator should decide whether the underlying case should go to arbitration. The federal law that allows courts to compel arbitration (where the contract provides for it) is not unlimited, and one of the exceptions is where the contract deals with "employment of ... any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce." RBG's concurrence just notes that while it's helpful to look at what words meant when the laws using them were passed, sometimes those words "can enlarge or contract their scope as other changes, in law or in the world, require their application to new instances or make old applications anachronistic."
Helsinn Healthcare S. A. v. Teva Pharmaceuticals USA, Inc. (Jan. 22, 2019), unanimous by Thomas.
Helsinn makes a drug used to treat chemotherapy-induced nausea. It granted a license to another company to sell a specific dosage in the United States, and required that the other company keep all information about the drug confidential. Helsinn's first patent application was filed in 2003, and it filed four additional ones through 2013. Teva began marketing a generic version of the drug in 2011, and Helsinn sued for patent infringement. Teva argues that federal law precludes a patent for anything that is "on sale...or otherwise available to the public" at the time the patent application is filed. Because of the timing, the question is whether the license agreement to this third company (including the confidentiality provisions) meant that the drug was "on sale," i.e. whether this license was Helsinn offering the drug for sale. Helsinn argued that it wasn't, since the licensee was required to keep details confidential. But SCOTUS disagrees, finding that a so-called "secret sale" still means that the drug was "on sale" prior to the patent application, and the patent is invalid.
Dawson v. Steager (Feb. 20, 2019), unanimous by Gorsuch.
Dawson retired from the U.S. Marshals Service and so began receiving a federal pension. West Virginia, where he lived, taxed this pension as income (as it does with all federal employees). State law, however, creates an exception to taxation for pensions paid to some state and local (as opposed to federal) law enforcement. Dawson sues, arguing that WV is violating the intergovernmental tax immunity doctrine (codified by federal law). Via this law, the federal government consents to state income taxes on federal workers, but only if the tax does not discriminate based on the source of the income. SCOTUS says that the duties of federal and state law enforcement are sufficiently similar that WV can't justify treating federal pensions differently from state ones.
Yovino v. Rizo (Feb. 25, 2019), per curiam.
The question this case is quite specific: does the vote of a federal judge in the outcome of case count if that judge dies before the decision is issued? This happened with a judge on the Ninth Circuit, and looking at the laws that set up the federal judiciary, SCOTUS says that it was improper for the Court to count the deceased judge's votes on decisions that hadn't been issued at the time of his death.
Nutraceutical Corp. v. Lambert (Feb. 26, 2019), unanimous by Sotomayor.
Lambert filed a federal class-action lawsuit, accusing Nutraceutical of violating California consumer protection law. The district court de-certified the class, and Lambert's appeal to the Court of Appeals was filed after the 14-day deadline imposed by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. He argued that the clock should have stopped because he'd asked the trial court to reconsider in the meantime, even if the rules didn't specifically provide for this, under the idea of equitable tolling. SCOTUS says no, because the rules specifically say that no extensions of time will be granted in this situation.
Jam v. International Finance Corp. (Feb. 27, 2019), majority by Roberts, joined by Thomas, Ginsburg, Alito, Sotomayor, Kagan, and Gorsuch. Dissent by Breyer.
A federal law passed in 1945 gives international organizations the same degree of immunity as foreign countries, which in 1945 was a lot. By the early 1950s, however, the immunity applied to foreign countries had been narrowed by Congress in a separate law. The question is which definition applies, i.e. whether foreign (non-state) entities should be treated now as they were in 1945 or if the narrowing of the immunity for countries should be moved over. SCOTUS says the latter, and that the statutory language was intended to pin the rules for organizations to those that apply to countries.
Breyer dissents, arguing that a "purpose-based" method of statutory interpretation is more appropriate, and that the majority's emphasis on a different doctrine ("reference canon," which says that language should be read to refer to the law as it exists when a question arises, not when the statute was written) is misplaced. Breyer says that this shouldn't always be the rule, and that the historical context and other factors suggest a different reading.
Fourth Estate Pub. Benefit Corp. v. Wall-Street.com (Mar. 4, 2019), unanimous by Ginsburg.
Fourth Estate is a news organization, and they licensed some of their works to Wall-Street.com to be published there. The agreement was later cancelled, but Wall-Street.com left some of Fourth Estate's works up on their site (from before the cancellation). Fourth Estate had submitted the articles to the U.S. Copyright Office for registration, but that process wasn't completed at the time of the suit.
The lower courts dismissed the suit, citing a federal law that says that an action for copyright infringement cannot begin until "registration ... has been made..." SCOTUS agrees, and says that "registration" occurs when the copyright is granted, not when the process begins. But the Court also adds that a lawsuit filed after the copyright is granted may include a claim for infringement that happens before registration.
BNSF R. Co. v. Loos (Mar. 4, 2019), majority by Ginsburg, joined by Roberts, Breyer, Alito, Sotomayor, Kagan, and Kavanaugh. Dissnet by Gorsuch, joined by Thomas.
Loos was a railroad employee who was injured on the job. He eventually missed too much time due to his injuries and was fired. He sued his employer, and was awarded various damages, including $30,000 for lost wages. BNSF then argued that these wages were taxable under the Railroad Retirement Act (which is an alternate retirement program for railroad employees) and sought to withhold $3,765 of the lost wages.
The majority says that this is indeed taxable. It notes that the RRA's statutory framework in many ways mirrors that of Social Security, and SCOTUS has previously ruled that backpay for wages lost to an employer's wrong were subject to Social Security withholdings (under FICA).
Gorsuch's dissent is interesting, and I think he's got it right. First, he questioned BNSF's argument that they were motivated by maintaining the solvency of the RR retirement fund, and instead suggested that this would allow them to push for lower settlement payments if they agreed to keep the percentage of those settlements attributable to lost wages (and thus subject to taxation) lower.
He then goes on to note what the definitions of words like "compensation" in the RRA actually are, and in particular that it is compensation for "services rendered." It doesn't make any sense, he says, to suggest that the fall that caused Loos' injuries was somehow "services rendered" to BNSF. Furthermore, the law under which Loos sued states that the railroad will be liable for injuries caused by the railroad's negligence, not for services rendered. This is the same way it works in tort law, and Gorsuch notes that if the suit were over an injury to a passenger, there would be no question that lost wages were not subject to FICA withholdings.
Perhaps more significantly, Gorsuch points out that the RRA's language used to include compensation for time lost in its definition of "compensation," but that Congress removed this part of the definition in 1975.
Finally, the Court had ruled less than a year ago in Wisconsin Central Ltd. v. United States (decided in June of 2018) that stock options given as compensation were not taxable under the RRA even though they would be under FICA, and justified its decision on the fact that the two laws use different language to describe what they tax. Justice Gorsuch wrote the majority in that case, and was joined by the conservatives (with Breyer, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan dissenting).
Rimini Street, Inc. v. Oracle USA, Inc. (Mar. 4, 2019), unanimous by Kavanaugh.
Oracle prevailed in a copyright lawsuit against Rimini, and was awarded damages. Among these were a total of $12.8 million in litigation expenses, including expert witnesses, jury consulting, and discovery. Federal law sets out six categories of costs that courts may award in litigation as a general rule. Meanwhile, the Copyright Act allows courts to award "full costs" to a party in copyright litigation.
The district court and the 9th Circuit both went beyond these six categories, concluding that "full costs" in the Copyright Act allows courts to do so. It had ruled similarly in the past, but two other circuits (the 8th and 11th) had ruled to the contrary.
SCOTUS agrees with the latter. "[Full] is...an adjective that means the complete measure of the noun it modifies." In other words, the Copyright Act just says that the prevailing party can get all costs that the law authorizes, which are the six categories mentioned above. SCOTUS goes on to note that some other statutes provide additional categories of costs specifically, and the absence of such language in the Copyright Act is further proof that this was not the intention of the "full costs" wording.