In its current term, the U.S. Supreme Court is taking up a number of interesting and very important cases. Many of the cases on the docket are business-related cases. Among the cases with business issues to be heard, the justices will take on major questions concerning federal pre-emption of state tort lawsuits, arbitration, environmental regulation, workplace discrimination, pensions and punitive damages. Thus far, the Court has agreed to decide 15 business-related cases. That makes up about 30 to 40% of the docket, which is a very high number. We will briefly discuss some of the cases below.
The following cases to be heard are extremely important to all American citizens who believe in justice and fair play for all:
Drug maker liability: The preemption case is being heard in the appeal by drug maker Wyeth. Wyeth, backed by the Bush administration, wants the high court to rule that Food and Drug Administration regulation of prescription drugs — in this case, approval of warning labels for drugs — overrides state laws and makes it easier for companies to defend against consumers’ meritorious claims.
Punitive damages: Altria Group Inc.’s Philip Morris is back at the court for a third time trying to reduce the nearly $80 million in punitive damages awarded by Oregon courts to Mayola Williams, widow of a longtime smoker. Oregon’s Supreme Court has upheld the award three times and the high court twice has thrown it out. The most recent ruling by the state court relied on Oregon law to sustain the award. The justices will decide whether they agree or rather believe their Oregon colleagues are, in essence, ignoring them.
The four environmental cases, all appeals from decisions in cases won by environmental groups, on the docket thus far are:
Summers v. Earth Island Institute, which is a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service over regulations limiting notice, appeals and public comment for certain activities.
Winter v. Natural Resources Defense Council, a case in which the Navy, which did not complete an environmental impact statement, challenges an injunction on sonar training exercises that could harm marine mammals.
Entergy Corp. v. EPA is a case raising the issue of whether the Clean Water Act authorizes the Environmental Protection Agency to weigh costs and benefits of systems to be used at water cooling structures rather than using the most advanced technology available.
Coeur Alaska Inc. v. Alaska Conservation Group is a case in which a gold mining company and Alaska challenge a bar against an Army Corps of Engineers permit for discharging toxic tailings into the Lower Slate Lake.
There are also a number of cases involving issues with significant stakes for women. The Court has two major job bias cases involving Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
In Crawford v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville, the justices will decide whether Title VII protects a female employee who is fired because she cooperated in her employer’s investigation of sexual harassment complaints against another employee. At issue is the scope of Title VII’s “opposition” and “participation” clauses. The Court has been favorable to employees in retaliation cases recently.
The appeal in AT&T v. Hulteen is from a suit by a group of AT&T employees who claim that their smaller pensions resulted from the company’s failure to give them full credit for pregnancy leaves taken before the effective date of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, violating Title VII.
There are three other business–related cases involving pension benefits and arbitration that are important.
In Kennedy v. Dupont Plan Administrator, the Court will decide if ERISA’s rule that pension benefits may not be assigned or alienated prevents enforcement of a spouse’s waiver in a divorce decree of her rights to her husband’s pension benefits, particularly when the husband never removed her as beneficiary.
The most potentially significant arbitration case is 14 Penn Plaza v. Pyett. That case involves whether an arbitration clause in a collective bargaining agreement is a waiver of an employee’s right to sue for violations of anti-discrimination law.
A second arbitration case, Vaden v. Discover Bank, involves both arbitration and preemption. At issue is whether federal courts have jurisdiction to enforce a state law arbitration agreement and whether the claims here are preempted by the Federal Deposit Insurance Act.
I believe the Court’s only antitrust challenge to be heard this term is Pacific Bell v. Linkline Communications. At issue in that case is whether Section 2 of the Sherman Antitrust Act permits a “price squeeze” claim the Defendant has no duty to deal. It will be interesting to see how the court deals with that issue.
The following are also important cases on the court’s docket:
Profanity on the airwaves: In the court’s first major broadcast indecency case in 30 years, can the Federal Communications Commission fine broadcast television stations for the one-time use of profanity on live programming? Cher, Nicole Richie and Bono are the celebrities who uttered familiar, but profane words on awards shows. The FCC changed its long-standing policy that exempted such “fleeting expletives” from being labeled indecent.
Cigarette advertising: The court will decide whether cigarette makers can be sued under state law for allegedly deceptive advertising of “light” cigarettes. The tobacco industry is trying to head off a wave of state-based challenges regarding the light cigarettes. At the same time, it is appealing a federal judge’s order to stop marketing cigarettes as “low tar,” “light,” “ultra light” or “mild” because they mislead consumers. Like the prescription drug case, this dispute centers on whether federal regulation bars state fraud claims.
Religious monuments: Pleasant Grove City, Utah, wants the court to back its decision to bar a religious group known as Summum from placing a display in a public park that already has a Ten Commandments monument. A federal appeals court found that the city violated the group’s free speech rights. The Summum believe that when Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, he received a second set of tablets called the Seven Aphorisms.
Detainee lawsuit: A Pakistani Muslim sued former Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert Mueller and others over mistreatment he suffered in federal custody after being rounded up in a post-September 11th sweep. The court will decide if high-ranking officials such as Ashcroft and Mueller can be sued when lower-level government workers allegedly violate people’s civil rights.
Source: Law.com and Associated Press
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