Oct 29 – Nov 7

Some important cases in the next block of arguments, including arbitration, death penalty, and class action settlements.

Monday, October 29

The court takes on arbitration agreements in both cases this morning.  Pre-dispute arbitration agreements are contracts in which the parties agree that any dispute they may have (usually involving a specific subject matter, like an employment or business relationship) will go to arbitration rather than be resolved in court.  Courts are therefore obligated to reject any lawsuit that should instead be arbitrated (by granting a “motion to compel arbitration”). The Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) requires all state courts to enforce these agreements — and in recent decades, the Supreme Court has steadily struck down various legal doctrines that state courts had been trying to deploy to limit arbitration agreements.

One unresolved issue is who decides whether the parties have signed a contract to arbitrate disputes of this kind.  If the agreement is to arbitrate disputes “arising out of the employment relationship,” is that just about wages and benefits or does it include a fall in the workplace parking lot, or a fight at an after-work happy hour?  Typically, if someone files a lawsuit then it is the judge’s job to determine if there’s an agreement that covers that suit.  But parties also can agree to let the arbitrator decide “questions of arbitrability.”  If there is such a clause, then arguably every lawsuit must first be reviewed by an arbitrator, who will decide whether the court can have that case or if the dispute falls within the scope of the arbitration agreement.

In this morning’s first case, Henry Schein Inc. v. Archer & White Sales Inc., there is (at least arguably) an agreement that the arbitrator will decide questions of arbitrability. But the arbitration agreement also clearly states that it does not cover “actions seeking injunctive relief.”  One company filed suit, the other moved to compel arbitration (including of the question whether the arbitration agreement covers this dispute), and the court ruled that it wasn’t going to send the question to an arbitrator because the lawsuit sought injunctive relief, so the suggestion that the agreement covered this type of lawsuit was “wholly groundless.”  This is a doctrine other courts have relied upon, but it’s not clear it’s allowed under the FAA, which strongly favors arbitration.  So the Court has accepted cert. on “Whether the Federal Arbitration Act permits a court to decline to enforce an agreement delegating questions of arbitrability to an arbitrator if the court concludes the claim of arbitrability is ‘wholly groundless.’”

In the second case, Lamps Plus Inc. v. Varela, there’s agreement that the dispute goes to arbitration, but the disagreement is over whether the party can bring a class action claim to arbitration.   (It’s also an interesting factual context:  the employer fell for a phishing scam and revealed personal information about employees.)  The arbitration agreement used common “boilerplate” language that did not specify class actions as either permitted or prohibited, so the court followed a typical “rule of construction” that ambiguities are resolved against the party that drafted the agreement, which in this case meant that class actions were allowed. Again, given the FAA’s pro-arbitration stance, the issue is whether state court doctrines can impose on the arbitration process in this way.

Tuesday, October 30

An interesting tax case (!) involves rights under the Yakama Treaty of 1855.  Washington State taxes fuel that enters the state, and Cougar Den is a fuel wholesaler that brings fuel into Washington by truck.  But Cougar Den is owned by the Yakama Indian Nation, and the Treaty gives them the right to “travel upon all public highways.”  On that basis, the company refused to pay a $3.6 million tax bill.  The closeness of the legal question is illustrated by the conflicting rulings in this case:  at the first hearing, an Administrative Law Judge sided with the tribe; the Director of the tax office reversed that ruling and sided with the state; a state trial level court reversed the Director and ruled for the tribe; and then the State Supreme Court reversed the lower court order and ruled for the state. An interesting and thorough discussion of each side’s arguments are available here; also see the case page for Washington State Department of Licensing v. Cougar Den Inc. to review more of the briefs in this case.

The second case is a technical issue of appellate criminal procedure.  One basis for an appeal is “ineffective assistance of counsel,” but the defendant must show “prejudice” — not only that the lawyer did something wrong, but that the lawyer’s error made a difference in the outcome.  Some types of errors get a “presumption of prejudice.”  One such type of error is failing to file an appeal (for whatever other basis).  But in Garza v. Idaho, the lawyer didn’t file an appeal (even though the client asked him to) because the defendant had previously signed a plea agreement that waived his right to appeal.  The Court will (hopefully) resolve a Circuit split over whether the presumption of prejudice applies where the defendant had waived appellate rights. It may seem like an obscure technical issue, but issues like the validity of the waiver could be raised more easily if the presumption of prejudice applies.

Wednesday, October 31

Frank v. Gaos is a fascinating case, with unusual alliances, challenging cy pres awards in class action settlements.  Lawsuits against Google for disclosing search histories to third parties without consent ultimately settled for $8.3 million, most of which would be paid to several nonprofits according to a “cy pres award.”  This is a method (short for the French “cy près comme possible,” or “as near as possible,” and pronounced by most US lawyers like sigh-prey) that can be employed when it is impossible or impractical to distribute funds (or other property) to individuals who were wronged.  In this case, the parties agreed that it would be impractical to determine what share would be appropriate to apportion to each Google user who had varying levels of personal information disclosed, so the funds went to organizations involved in internet privacy.  The lead objector is from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, but those complaints are supported by groups ideologically aligned with them as well as by the Electronic Privacy Information Center and others from elsewhere on the political spectrum.  For a view on the other side, see the brief from Public Citizen and a group of law professors.  The Court has accepted cert. on “Whether, or in what circumstances, a cy pres award of class action proceeds that provides no direct relief to class members supports class certification and comports with the requirement that a settlement binding class members must be ‘fair, reasonable, and adequate.'”

The second case today, Jam v. International Finance Corp., is not one I would recommend to the casual observer, but stay for it if you are interested and can read up on it in advance.  “Whether the International Organizations Immunities Act—which affords international organizations the ‘same immunity’ from suit that foreign governments have, 22 U.S.C. § 288a(b)—confers the same immunity on such organizations as foreign governments have under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, 28 U.S.C. §§ 1602-11.”

Monday, November 5

(Both cases today will be hard to follow for a casual observer.  Sturgeon v. Frost involves NPS authority over private and native land holdings in Alaska.  Virginia Uranium, Inc. v. Warren is a pre-emption issue regarding state regulations that impact nuclear material.)

Tuesday, November 6

A significant case involving the death penalty is up first today. This is the second of two major capital punishment cases this term (the first, Madison v. Alabama, was argued Oct 2 and noted in my prior post).  See the interesting and detailed discussion of both from The Atlantic.  Bucklew v. Precythe does not challenge the sentence or even lethal injection as a general matter, but argues that this individual has a specific medical condition that will cause him to experience unusually intense pain from the cocktail.  The legal issues are:

(1) Whether a court evaluating an as-applied challenge to a state’s method of execution based on an inmate’s rare and severe medical condition should assume that medical personnel are competent to manage his condition and that procedure will go as intended; (2) whether evidence comparing a state’s method of execution with an alternative proposed by an inmate must be offered via a single witness, or whether a court at summary judgment must look to the record as a whole to determine whether a factfinder could conclude that the two methods significantly differ in the risks they pose to the inmate; (3) whether the Eighth Amendment requires an inmate to prove an adequate alternative method of execution when raising an as-applied challenge to the state’s proposed method of execution based on his rare and severe medical condition; and (4) whether petitioner Russell Bucklew met his burden under Glossip v. Gross to prove what procedures would be used to administer his proposed alternative method of execution, the severity and duration of pain likely to be produced, and how they compare to the state’s method of execution.

(The second case today again is not one I’d widely recommend.  BNSF Railway Company v. Loos involves the Railroad Retirement Tax Act.)

(Wednesday, November 7, also involves two cases that I would not recommend.  Culbertson v. Berryhill involves an unusual Social Security taxation issue.  Republic of Sudan v. Harrison is about how you serve process on a foreign state.)

 

October 2018 term opening (& more)

First Monday brings environmental law and age discrimination cases, with other cases this month involving sex offender registration, execution of people with mental disabilities, arbitration agreements, detention of noncitizens, and liability for Navy sailors’ exposure to asbestos.

I also want to highlight a few cases that will be heard sometime this term but have not yet been set for argument.  I’ll have posts on each in the weeks before the argument.

  • Gamble v. United States asks “Whether the Supreme Court should overrule the ‘separate sovereigns’ exception to the double jeopardy clause.”  This is the doctrine that allows the federal government to charge someone even if they have been tried (and even if acquitted) for the same conduct in a state trial (assuming the same conduct is illegal under both federal and state law).  This could have extremely far-reaching implications.
  • Timbs v. Indiana: “Whether the Eighth Amendment’s excessive fines clause is incorporated against the states under the Fourteenth Amendment.”  So odd that this has not been resolved by now!
  • Nieves v. Bartlett: “Whether probable cause defeats a First Amendment retaliatory-arrest claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.”  Ie, do you have a case if you did something illegal but it’s clear that the real reason the police arrested you was because they didn’t like the content of your speech?

And outside the Supreme Court (for now!), the climate change lawsuit brought by young people against the EPA has survived the initial efforts to dismiss the case and is worth watching.

Now, on to the first two weeks of the term:

Monday, October 1

The first case, Weyerhaeuser v. US Fish & Wildlife Service, involves the Endangered Species Act and deference to administrative agency interpretations.  US Fish and Wildlife designated land owned by Weyerhaeuser as critical habitat for the dusky gopher frog.  The frog has not actually been on that land for decades, but the land could be made suitable for them, and FWS interpreted the ESA as allowing such land to be considered critical habitat, even if not currently habitable.  In siding against Weyerhaeuser, the Fifth Circuit held that the agency’s interpretation was entitled to deference.  That’s an important concept in administrative law and likely will be a focus of the argument, so it’s worth reading the Circuit Opinion as well as this general overview.

Next is Mount Lemmon Fire District v. Guido, interpreting the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. ADEA defines covered employers to mean “a person engaged in an industry affecting commerce who has twenty or more employees . . . .  The term also means (1) any agent of such a person, and (2) a State or political subdivision of a State . . . .” 29 U.S.C. § 630(b).  The 9th Circuit read the two sentences as separate, so even small political entities (like the fire district here) are covered.  Other Circuits have held the opposite, and the Court has accepted cert. to resolve the “circuit split.” It should be an interesting argument; before attending, take a look at an amicus brief from the employee side and another from the government’s side.

Tuesday, October 2

Two criminal law cases today.  The first, Gundy v. United States, involves the Sexual Offender Registration and Notification Act and the nondelegation doctrine.  Nondelegation holds that Congress may not grant too much lawmaking authority to the Executive branch.  Congress routinely grants administrative agencies and officers considerable powers to make regulations, but it must at least spell out an “intelligible principle” that the Executive must follow (and that courts can require them to follow) in carrying out that discretion.  The nondelegation doctrine struggles to allow for the complex administrative state we have without completely abandoning the system of checks and balances.  In this case, SORNA authorizes the Attorney General to decide the circumstances under which the law would have retroactive effect.  Take a look at the amicus brief from a group of legal scholars.

Next up is a death penalty case, in the context of a mental disability that leaves the prisoner with no memory of committing the offense. See the interesting discussion from the American Psychological Association.  The official legal question presented in Madison v. Alabama is:

Whether, consistent with the Eighth Amendment, and the Supreme Court’s decisions in Ford v. Wainwright and Panetti v. Quarterman, a state may execute a prisoner whose mental disability leaves him with no memory of his commission of the capital offense; and (2) whether evolving standards of decency and the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment bar the execution of a prisoner whose competency has been compromised by vascular dementia and multiple strokes causing severe cognitive dysfunction and a degenerative medical condition that prevents him from remembering the crime for which he was convicted or understanding the circumstances of his scheduled execution.

Wednesday, October 3

The first case today, Knick v. Township of Scott, Pennsylvania, is not one that I would generally recommend for a casual observer.  It involves the takings clause, which always gets some interest, but this particular case has some procedural complications and is only addressing the “exhaustion of remedies” issue.  But if you’re interested in it, or going for the second case, then read up on it here.

Arbitration agreements have become increasingly common, and in the past several years the Supreme Court has been holding that the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) preempts a wide array of state law doctrines that had limited their enforceability. Generally, if someone files a lawsuit but there’s a valid arbitration agreement, then the FAA requires the court to dismiss the case and send the dispute to arbitration.  Today the Court takes on “arbitrability” — who decides if there is a valid arbitration agreement?  Some arbitration agreements require that an arbitrator decide all questions, including whether the arbitration agreement covers the particular dispute.  New Prime Inc. v. Oliveira involves transportation workers, and the FAA specifically exempts transportation workers, so the lower courts held that they did not need to consider those recent FAA preemption cases.  But the Court has granted cert. on:

(1) Whether a dispute over applicability of the Federal Arbitration Act’s Section 1 exemption is an arbitrability issue that must be resolved in arbitration pursuant to a valid delegation clause; and (2) whether the FAA’s Section 1 exemption, which applies on its face only to “contracts of employment,” is inapplicable to independent contractor agreements.

This one will be heavily watched by business and consumer and employee advocates. Take a look at the Public Citizen overview and its amicus brief.  Also note that the Court has accepted cert. in two other arbitration cases this term:  Lamps Plus and Henry Schein will be argued Oct 29; more on them to come in a later post.

[the Court does not hear arguments on Columbus Day]

Tuesday, October 9

All three cases today involve statutory interpretation of terms in the Armed Career Criminal Act.  Stokeling v. United States will be argued first and separately, and involves the requirement of enhanced penalties for people with prior “violence felonies.”  Stokeling argues that his prior robbery conviction did not involve a use of force sufficient to constitute violence, but precedent has required a “categorical approach” to deciding if the prior conviction was for a crime that is a violent felony.  US v. Sims and US v. Stitt are consolidated for one hour total and both involve the same question: “Whether burglary of a nonpermanent or mobile structure that is adapted or used for overnight accommodation can qualify as “burglary” under the Armed Career Criminal Act.”

Wednesday, October 10

Nielsen v. Preap is about detention of noncitizens who have been convicted of a crime. Ballotpedia offers a useful summary; follow the link for more and key documents:

Under the mandatory detention provision of the Immigration and Naturalization Act, the government is required to detain noncitizen U.S. residents who were convicted of certain crimes “when…released” from criminal custody. The government had relied on this provision to begin detaining lawful permanent residents years after their release from criminal custody. Three filed suit, alleging that because they were not detained immediately when they were released from criminal custody, the government could not rely on the mandatory detention provision to hold them without bond. The Ninth Circuit agreed, ruling that the mandatory detention provision only applies to noncitizens who are detained by immigration authorities promptly following their release from criminal custody.

The second case today, Air and Liquid Systems Corp. v. Devries, raises some technical jurisdictional and common law issues, but comes in the context of wrongful death claims by widows of Navy sailors who died from cancer after exposure to asbestos in the course of their service.  They brought suit against the manufacturers of products that contained asbestos.  There has been a lot of asbestos litigation over the years, resulting in development of various liability doctrines. But because of the context, the Court has accepted cert. on something new: “Whether products-liability defendants can be held liable under maritime law for injuries caused by products that they did not make, sell or distribute.”