U.S. Supreme Court: May 2010 Archives
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May 2010 Archives

American Needle, Inc. v. Nat'l Football League, No. 08-661, involved an an antitrust action challenging the NFL's grant to Reebok of an exclusive license to create apparel incorporating the NFL's intellectual property.  The Supreme Court reversed the Seventh Circuit's affirmance of summary judgment for defendants, holding that the alleged conduct related to licensing of intellectual property constituted concerted action that was not categorically beyond the coverage of Section 1 of the Sherman Act.

As the Court wrote:  ""Every contract, combination in the form of a trust or otherwise, or, conspiracy, in restraint of trade" is made illegal by §1 of the Sherman Act, ch. 647, 26 Stat. 209, as amended, 15 U.S.C. §1. The question whether an arrangement is a contract, combination, or conspiracy is different from and antecedent to the question whether it unreasonably restrains trade. This case raises that antecedent question about the business of the 32 teams in the National Football League (NFL) and a corporate entity that they formed to manage their intellectual property. We conclude that the NFL's licensing activities constitute concerted action that is not categorically beyond the coverage of §1. The legality of that concerted action must be judged under the Rule of Reason."

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High Court Rules in Another Firefighter Discrimination Suit

Lewis v. Chicago, No. 08-974, concerned a Title VII action challenging Chicago's practice of selecting only applicants to firefighter positions who scored 89 or above on a written examination because of its disparate impact on African-Americans.  The Court reversed the Seventh Circuit's reversal of judgment for plaintiff, holding that a plaintiff who does not file a timely charge challenging the adoption of a practice may assert a disparate impact claim in a timely charge challenging the employer's later application of that practice as long as he alleges each of the elements of a disparate impact claim.

As the Court wrote:  "Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from using employment practices that cause a disparate impact on the basis of race (among other bases). 42 U. S. C. §2000e-2(k)(1)(A)(i). It also requires plaintiffs, before beginning a federal lawsuit, to file a timely charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). §2000e-5(e)(1). We consider whether a plaintiff who does not file a timely charge challenging the adoption of a practice--here, an employer's decision to exclude employment applicants who did not achieve a certain score on an examination--may assert a disparate-impact claim in a timely charge challenging the employer's later application of that practice."

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In US v. O'Brien, 08-1569, the Supreme Court affirmed the First Circuit's decision affirming defendant's sentence for using a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence, holding that, contrary to the government's arguments, the fact that a firearm was a machine gun is an element to be proved to the jury beyond a reasonable doubt, not a sentencing factor to be proved to the judge at sentencing.

As the Court wrote:  "The Court must interpret, once again, §924(c) of Title 18 of the United States Code. This provision prohibits the use or carrying of a firearm in relation to a crime of violence or drug trafficking crime, or the possession of a firearm in furtherance of such crimes. §924(c)(1)(A). A violation of the statute carries a mandatory minimum term of five years' imprisonment, §924(c)(1)(A)(i); but if the firearm is a machinegun, the statute requires a 30 year mandatory minimum sentence, §924(c)(1)(B)(ii). Whether a firearm was used, carried, or possessed is, as all concede, an element of the offense. At issue here is whether the fact that the firearm was a machinegun is an element to be proved to the jury beyond a reasonable doubt or a sentencing factor to be proved to the judge at sentencing."

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Parties Need not be "Prevailing" for ERISA Attorney's Fees Award

Hardt v. Reliance Std. Life Ins. Co., No. 09-448, involved an action alleging that defendant violated the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) by wrongfully denying her benefits claim.  The Court reversed the Fourth Circuit's order vacating the district court's award of attorney's fees to plaintiff, holding that: 1) a fee claimant need not be a "prevailing party" to be eligible for an attorney's fees award under 29 U.S.C. section 1132(g)(1); and 2) a court may award fees and costs under section 1132(g)(1), as long as the fee claimant has achieved some degree of success on the merits.

As the Court wrote:  "1) a fee claimant need not be a "prevailing party" to be eligible for an attorney's fees award under 29 U.S.C. section 1132(g)(1); and 2) a court may award fees and costs under section 1132(g)(1), as long as the fee claimant has achieved some degree of success on the merits."

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In US v. Marcus, No. 08-1341, perhaps more popularly known as the "S&M Svengali" case, the Supreme Court reversed the Second Circuit's reversal of defendant's forced labor and sex trafficking conviction, on the ground that the Second Circuit's plain error standard, under which a retrial was necessary whenever there was any possibility, no matter how unlikely, that the jury could have convicted based exclusively on defendant's conduct prior to the enactment of the statute under which he was charged, was inconsistent with the Supreme Court's approach to plain error, under which: 1) the error must affect the appellant's substantial rights, which in the ordinary case means it affected the outcome of the district court proceedings; and 2) the error must seriously affect the fairness, integrity or public reputation of judicial proceedings.

As the Court wrote:  "The question before us concerns an appellate court's "plain error" review of a claim not raised at trial. See Fed. Rule Crim. Proc. 52(b). The Second Circuit has said that it must recognize a "plain error" if there is "any possibility," however remote, that a jury convicted a defendant exclusively on the basis of actions taken before enactment of the statute that made those actions criminal. 538 F.3d 97, 102 (2008) (per curiam) (emphasis added). In our view, the Second Circuit's standard is inconsistent with this Court's "plain error" cases. We therefore reverse."

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In Jefferson v. Upton, No. 09-8852, a capital habeas matter, the Supreme Court vacated the Eleventh Circuit's affirmance of a denial of petitioner's habeas petition, holding that the court of appeals did not fully consider several remaining potentially applicable exceptions to the presumption of correctness given to state court factual findings under 28 U.S.C. sections 2254(d)(1)-(8).

As the Court wrote:  "Petitioner Lawrence Jefferson, who has been sentenced to death, claimed in both state and federal courts that his lawyers were constitutionally inadequate because they failed to investigate a traumatic head injury that he suffered as a child. The state court rejected that claim after making a finding that the attorneys were advised by an expert that such investigation was unnecessary. Under the governing federal statute, that factual finding is presumed correct unless any one of eight exceptions applies. See 28 U.S.C. §§2254(d)(1)-(8) (1994 ed.). But the Court of Appeals considered only one of those exceptions (specifically §2254(d)(8)). And on that basis, it considered itself "duty-bound" to accept the state court's finding, and rejected Jefferson's claim. Because the Court of Appeals did not fully consider several remaining potentially applicable exceptions, we vacate its judgment and remand."

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Full Text of Jefferson v. Upton, No. 09-8852

Court Tackles Parental Child Abduction Case

Abbott v. Abbott, No. 08-645, concerned a petition seeking an order requiring petitioner's son's return to Chile under the Convention and the implementing statute, the International Child Abduction Remedies Act (ICARA).  The Court reversed the Fifth Circuit's affirmance of the district court's denial of the petition, holding that petitioner had a right of custody under the Convention by reason of that parent's ne exeat right under Chilean law, because: 1) Chilean law determined the content of petitioner's right, while the Convention's text and structure resolved whether that right was a right of custody; 2) that the child was wrongfully removed from Chile in violation of a right of custody was shown by the Convention's text, by the U.S. State Department's views, by contracting states' court decisions, and by the Convention's purposes; and 3) while a parent possessing a ne exeat right has a right of custody and can seek a return remedy, return will not automatically be ordered if the abducting parent can establish the applicability of a Convention exception.

As the Court wrote:  "This case presents, as it has from its inception in the United States District Court, a question of interpretation under the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction (Convention), Oct. 24, 1980, T. I. A. S. No. 11670, S. Treaty Doc. No. 99-11. The United States is a contracting state to the Convention; and Congress has implemented its provisions through the International Child Abduction Remedies Act (ICARA), 102 Stat. 437, 42 U. S. C. §11601 et seq. The Convention provides that a child abducted in violation of "rights of custody" must be returned to the child's country of habitual residence, unless certain exceptions apply. Art. 1, S. Treaty Doc. No. 99-11, at 7 (Treaty Doc.). The question is whether a parent has a "righ[t] of custody" by reason of that parent's ne exeat right: the authority to consent before the other parent may take the child to another country."

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In Graham v. Florida, No. 08-7412, the Supreme Court reversed defendant's life sentence without the possibility of parole for violating the term of probation related to a burglary offense, holding that the Eighth Amendment's Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause does not permit a juvenile offender to be sentenced to life in prison without parole for a nonhomicide crime.

The Court summarized the issue as follows:  "The issue before the Court is whether the Constitution permits a juvenile offender to be sentenced to life in prison without parole for a nonhomicide crime. The sentence was imposed by the State of Florida. Petitioner challenges the sentence under the Eighth Amendment's Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause, made applicable to the States by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Robinson v. California, 370 U. S. 660 (1962)."

The Court concluded as follows: "The Constitution prohibits the imposition of a life without parole sentence on a juvenile offender who did not commit homicide. A State need not guarantee the offender eventual release, but if it imposes a sentence of life it must provide him or her with some realistic opportunity to obtain release before the end of that term."

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US v. Comstock, No. 08-1224, involved civil commitment proceedings under 18 U.S.C. section 4248.  The Supreme Court reversed the Fourth Circuit's affirmance of the district court's grant of respondents' motions to dismiss on the grounds that 1) the Necessary and Proper Clause granted Congress broad authority to pass laws in furtherance of its constitutionally enumerated powers; 2) Congress has long been involved in the delivery of mental health care to federal prisoners, and has long provided for their civil commitment; 3) there were sound reasons for section 4248's enactment; 4) section 4248 did not "invade" state sovereignty, but rather required accommodation of state interests; and 5) section 4248 was narrow in scope.

As the Court wrote:  "A federal civil-commitment statute authorizes the Department of Justice to detain a mentally ill, sexually dangerous federal prisoner beyond the date the prisoner would otherwise be released. 18 U. S. C. §4248. We have previously examined similar statutes enacted under state law to determine whether they violate the Due Process Clause. See Kansas v. Hendricks, 521 U. S. 346, 356-358 (1997); Kansas v. Crane, 534 U. S. 407 (2002). But this case presents a different question. Here we ask whether the Federal Government has the authority under Article I of the Constitution to enact this federal civil commitment program or whether its doing so falls beyond the reach of a government "of enumerated powers." McCulloch v. Maryland, 4 Wheat. 316, 405 (1819). We conclude that the Constitution grants Congress the authority to enact §4248 as "necessary and proper for carrying into Execution" the powers "vested by" the "Constitution in the Government of the United States." Art. I, §8, cl. 18.

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In Renico v. Lett, No. 09-338, a case involving a first-degree murder prosecution, the Court reversed the grant of petitioner's habeas petition, holding that it was reasonable for the Michigan Supreme Court to determine that the trial judge had exercised sound discretion in declaring a mistrial, and thus the state court's decision was not an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law under a proper application of the AEDPA's deferential standard of review.

As the Court wrote:  "This case requires us to review the grant of a writ of habeas corpus to a state prisoner under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), 28 U. S. C. §2254(d). The District Court in this case issued the writ to respondent Reginald Lett on the ground that his Michigan murder conviction violated the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Constitution, and the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed. In doing so, however, these courts misapplied AEDPA's deferential standard of review. Because we conclude that the Michigan Supreme Court's application of federal law was not unreasonable, we reverse."

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Hui v. Castaneda, No. 08-1529, involved an action raising medical negligence claims against the U.S. under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) and the Bivens doctrine.  The Supreme Court reversed the denial of defendants' motion to dismiss the Bivens claims, holding that the immunity provided by 42 U.S.C. section 233(a) precluded Bivens actions against individual Public Health Service officers or employees for harms arising out of constitutional violations committed while acting within the scope of their office or employment.

As the Court wrote:  "This case presents the question whether 42 U. S. C. § 233(a), as added, 84 Stat. 1870, precludes an actionunder Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents, 403 U. S. 388 (1971), against U. S. Public Health Service (PHS) personnel for constitutional violations arising out of their official duties. When federal employees are sued for damages for harms caused in the course of their employment, the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), 28 U. S. C.§§1346, 2671-2680, generally authorizes substitution of the United States as the defendant. Section 233(a) makes the FTCA remedy against the United States "exclusive of any other civil action or proceeding" for any personal injury caused by a PHS officer or employee performing a medical or related function "while acting within the scope of his office or employment." Based on the plain language of §233(a), we conclude that PHS officers and employees are not personally subject to Bivens actions for harms arising out of such conduct."

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