Decided - The FindLaw Noteworthy Decisions and Settlements Blog

June 2010 Archives

Hastings Law Student Group Can't Discriminate, Get Funding

On June 25, the Supreme Court handed down several major opinions, saw the opening of the Kagan nomination hearings and learned that the husband of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg had passed away. Justice Ginsburg herself wrote the majority opinion in one important decision announced today. In the case of Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, the Court found that the First Amendment did not require Hastings law school to support a group which excluded certain people from membership in opposition to the school's policy of non-discrimination.

This case came from Hastings College of Law in San Francisco, California. The Christian Legal Society, a student organization, allowed all students at its meetings, but anyone wishing to be a voting member of the society was required to sign a statement of faith repudiating "unrepentant participation in or advocacy of a sexually immoral lifestyle," according to the Associated Press. Hastings refused to support or fund the group because of what it found was its discriminatory policies. The Law Society was told in 2004 that it was being denied recognition because of its policy of exclusion. CLS sued.

Gun Rights: USSC Extends Heller Decision to States

Today, June 28, the Supreme Court handed down a ruling that has been called a major symbolic victory for advocates of gun rights. In the case of McDonald v. City of Chicago, the Supreme Court followed up on a 2008 decision and held the 2nd Amendment right of individuals to own guns to extends to state and local, as well as federal, laws.

According to The New York Times, the Court's decision in District of Columbia v. Heller held, (in a 5-4 vote) that the federal laws which cover the District of Columbia could not prohibit individuals from owning guns for self protection. The Heller decision specifically did not address whether state laws would be affected in the same way as the federal laws included in that decision. The McDonald decision explicitly takes Heller further and applies it to state and local laws via the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment.

Twitter Settles Consumer Deception, Privacy Charges

Twitter has settled with the Federal Trade Commission after it was accused of deceiving consumers regarding their privacy settings. The FTC argued that Twitter deceived consumers and failed to properly protect their personal information. The FTC complaint cited "serious lapses" during 2009 in the company's ability to restrict unauthorized users from accessing the private data of Twitter users.

A total of 55 accounts were hacked and illegally accessed during breaches in January and April 2009. The hackers used a password guessing tool to guess the Twitter administrator password, which was a "weak, lowercase, letter-only, common dictionary word," according to the FTC complaint. The complaint goes on to blame Twitter for the attacks, stating that Twitter failed to take reasonable steps to prevent unauthorized control of the site.

Toyota Lawsuit: Judge Sets Evidence Rules

Toyota Motor Corporation lost an early battle in the war that is the multi-billion Toyota recall lawsuit, In re: Toyota Motor Corp Unintended Acceleration Marketing, Sales Practices and Products Liability Litigation. Toyota is facing a total of over 200 federal lawsuits and more than 150 state cases. 

Toyota argued in court Wednesday that the protection of trade secrets should receive priority over disclosing the information for the sake of the recall lawsuit. U.S. District Judge James Selna disagreed. 

Judge Selna found that prohibiting confidential information from being shared with outside consultants and plaintiff's experts if those experts had worked for a rival car company in the past year was unnecessary. This despite a plea from Toyota's attorneys to prevent the sharing of the information, especially in the case of experts who had recently worked for a competing car manufacturers.  

Show's Over: YouTube, Google Prevail in Copyright Suit

It's all over but the shouting. That and the video of the victory dance, posted on YouTube. In a opinion and order handed down June 24, a federal judge ruled against Viacom and in favor of Google and YouTube in a sharply contested copyright infringement suit. The judge found that under the "Safe Harbor" provision of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, YouTube is not responsible for policing each piece of visitor posted content before it goes up.

In 2007, Viacom sued YouTube, and its deep pocketed owner Google, for copyright infringement over the practice of visitors posting video of such copyrighted Viacom content as The Daily Show with John Stewart or its upstart little brother, The Colbert Report. According to Reuters, Viacom claimed that YouTube knew that illegal copies of copyrighted videos were posted constantly, but they did nothing to stop it.  Put another way, USA Today reports the Viacom argued the whole business model of YouTube was predicated on the pirating of copyrighted material. The only reason people go to YouTube, they argued was to see popular entertainment for free.

Supreme Court Rules Petition Names Not Private

When you sign a petition calling for a public vote on a controversial law, are you protected from having your name made public?

No, said the United States Supreme Court in a 8-1 ruling in the case of Doe v. Reed on Thursday, June 24, 2010. Justice Thomas was the only dissenter.

The case came to the court after Protect Marriage Washington organized a petition drive for a public vote to repeal the a state law which provided for equal rights in all areas of the law for homosexual couples, with the exception that the couples could not actually marry. The law was called the "everything-but-marriage" law and passed 53% to 46%, granting domestic partners the same legal rights as married couples.

Supreme Court Vacates Part of Skilling Conviction

Today the Supreme Court of the United States announced an opinion that may effect not only the petitioner in the case before it, Jeffery Skilling, but moguls under indictment everywhere. On June 24, the Court's opinion in Skilling v. United States severely narrows the reach of one of the government's favorite tools for prosecuting white collar fraud and crime, the honest services statute. The majority of the Court found that the honest services statue applies only in cases where bribery and kickbacks can be shown. Other applications are simply too vague to be constitutional.

Today's opinion will not spring Skilling from his 24 year stint in a minimum security federal prison. However, at least part of his original conviction has been vacated and other parts may have to be retried, according to the ABA Law Journal. The Court also ruled the pre-trial publicity did not prevent Skilling from receiving a fair trial. The ruling might finally result in a somewhat lessened sentence for a man who, until relieved by Bernard Madoff, was the face of greed and fraud in this country.

Judge Martin Feldman Strikes Down Moratorium, Holds Oil Stock

In a harshly worded opinion, Federal District Court Judge Martin Feldman struck down the six-month moratorium on deep water drilling sought by the Obama Administration. The judge characterized the moratorium as overly-broad and based on the mistaken assumption that because one oil rig failed, all will fail.

Judge Feldman held the Administration's court papers were based on "incomprehensible" studies and made "factually incorrect" arguments that abused "reason (and) common sense." According to CBS News, Feldman called the Deepwater Horizon oil spill "an unprecedented, sad, ugly and inhuman disaster," but noted it was only the fourth such incident worldwide in 41 years, and the first ever in the Gulf of Mexico.

No Material Support: USSC Says this Includes Your Speech

Like everything, free speech has its limits. One of those limits was defined by the Supreme Court on June 21 when it handed down its decision in the companion cases of Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, et al. and Humanitarian Law Project, et al., v. Holder. These are the only "war on terror" cases the Court will decide this term and the decision is a momentous one. The conservative wing of the Court made up the majority opinion, joined by long time liberal, Justice John Paul Stevens. Justices Breyer, Sotomayor and Ginsburg dissented, with Justice Breyer exercising his free speech rights by reading the dissent from the bench.

The case concerns the federal law against providing "material support" to foreign organizations designated by the State Department as engaging in terrorism. According to SCOTUS Blog, the groups challenging the law wished to avoid criminal prosecution for assisting groups listed as terrorist organizations in achieving peaceful goals, such as teaching the groups non-violent conflict resolution. The Court found that the First Amendment did not protect speech in this specific situation.

Supreme Court Rules 9-0: OK to Intercept Police Texts

In April we posed the question: does the Fourth Amendment protect employees from having their text messages intercepted by their government employers when they pay part of their bill?
On June 17, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled no in a 9-0 decision. However, the Court did so on very narrow grounds, concerned that creating a bright line rule could result in unintended consequences for cases it could not yet imagine. The opinion mentioned that the Court is very hesitant to create rules on technology cases before the area of technology is settled. Such rules "might have implications for future cases that cannot be predicted," the Court warned.
In this case, the Court ruled that the Fourth Amendment prohibition of unreasonable search and seizure was not violated when the Ontario police conducted an audit of the officers' text messages:

Florida Beachfront Homeowners: First BP, Now the Supreme Ct.

This year, daydreaming about time on a Florida beach will just not be what it used to. Not only are we haunted by the specter of the spill, but now the Supreme Court has kicked sand in the face of Florida beachfront property owners. Six homeowners petitioned the Court in a challenge to the Florida Supreme Court's decision that the government did not illegally take the property of homeowners when its beach fill-in project denied them rights to private water access.

This case began with the Florida project to repair and restore its beaches by replenishing the sand. According to a report by Reuters, the property owners in Walton County, Fl, claimed this program amounted to a "taking" of their property by the state as the filled-in beaches became state owned property, cutting off the owners' direct access to the waterline. Under the 5th amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the government may not take private property from an owner for a public purpose without just compensation.

Lawyer Finds Empty Cups in Loss Against Solo Cup Co

As discussed in a prior post, a December 2009 ruling by a Federal District Court sharply raised the amount of money that could be awarded to those filing suits against companies for "false marking." False marking is the practice of marking consumer products with patent numbers that are expired, or simply false.

In the aftermath of the ruling raising the potential amount of damages, the number of qui tam suits (those brought in a whistleblower situation by an individual) had risen by April to 175 suits filed. 

The case brought by Matthew Pequignot against the Solo Cup Co may put a lid on that expansion.

Supreme Court Rules Against Deportation for Minor Crimes

Should legal immigrants be subject to deportation when they are convicted of minor crimes, such as drug possession?

The Supreme Court emphatically ruled no on Tuesday, in 9-0 decision. The Court ruled in Carachuri-Rosendo v. Holder that legal immigrants cannot be deported for minor drug possession charges. In order for deportation to be appropriate, a person must be charged with serious or violent crimes.

The Court's ruling was a rebuke of a 1996 federal law that requires automatic deportation of non-citizens found guilty of an aggravated felony. Because the term aggravated felony was not carefully defined, immigration judges could loosely interpret it to include crimes such as a second drug possession conviction. 

Ohio Supreme Court: Frontier of Online Defamation Suits

Ohio is once again, frontier country. The Ohio Supreme Court handed down an opinion on June 9 finding that Ohio businesses can sue in their home state for defamation posted on the internet if it can be shown that anyone in that state saw it. This decision overturned the lower court's ruling that a Virginia man could not be sued in Ohio by an Ohio business for the defamatory comments he allegedly published on various websites.

According to the report by The Columbus Dispatch, this case originally began when Virginia resident Scott Roberts was sued by the Ohio company Kauffman Racing Equipment. Roberts purchased an engine block from Kauffman, modified it and then tried to return it after discovering it was defective. Kauffman refused to refund the purchase price because Roberts had modified the block. Roberts then allegedly proceeded to make very critical comments about the company on online racing sites. Kauffman sued for defamation in Knox County, Ohio, Common Pleas Court.    

A $712 million settlement has been reached in the lawsuit between 10,000 ground zero rescue and cleanup workers and New York City. The previous $657 settlement had been thrown out by a federal judge who said it was too small. Lawyers were up in arms after the Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein rejected the $657 million settlement, but moved swiftly to come to a new agreement. 
Judge Hellerstein acknowledged that his rejection of the settlement was a rare step for a judge, but said that in such a significant case, it was necessary. "It just begs for judicial supervision, and I have exercised it, and I will continue to exercise it ... The niceties of federal practice have to go second to the compelling needs of people to get a recovery that is almost, almost, almost within their grasp."

Supreme Court Rules 9-0 in Case of Mistaken Defendant

In a rare 9-0 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that when a party mistakenly sues the incorrect party, they may still file their claim against the proper party. The court will consider the suit still filed in a timely manner if the party to be added knew or should have known about the lawsuit. The Court found that the Eleventh Circuit applied the wrong standard when it decided the case.
Wanda Krupski, the plaintiff in the case, was injured on a cruise. Her ticket was purchased from "Costa Cruise Lines, N.V.," which was a separate entity from the cruise line, "Costa Crociere S.p.A." The suit was filed only against Costa Cruise Lines as the sole defendant. Costa Cruise Lines waited for the statute of limitations to pass, then moved to dismiss the case, arguing that as the sales agent, it was not responsible for Krupski's injuries. Krupski sought to amend her complaint to name Costa Crociere.

Egg on Their Face: Land O'Lakes Settles Egg Price Fixing Suit

As the saying goes, you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet. In this case, a few eggs must have been broken to get to a settlement between Land O'Lakes, Inc., it's two subsidiaries and plaintiffs, in an price fixing suit over eggs. Plaintiffs allege the company, along with others, was a part of a long-running conspiracy to limit the production and drive up the price of eggs. The motion for approval of the settlement was filed last Friday, in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. 

While this may sound like a dusty little case, there was actually a bit of squabbling in the hen house, resulting in the first price fixing action brought in the agricultural sector according to plaintiff's attorney, Michael Hausfeld.

9th Circuit Rules for City in Day Laborer Free Speech Case

As discussed previously on FindLaw's Law and Daily Life blog, several cities in southern California have passed laws limiting the abilities of day laborers to solicit work. Opponents of these laws have said they are unconstitutional because they limit rights to free speech. The cities claim the laws were enacted solely to protect businesses and individual citizens from problems with noise and loitering.

BofA Settles Countrywide Lawsuit With FTC For $108 Million

Bank of America has settled a Countrywide lawsuit with the Federal Trade Commission for $108 million, over allegations that Countrywide defrauded borrowers with illegal fees in 2008. The settlement represents one of the largest FTC settlements on record and is the largest mortgage service settlement ever. The money will be repaid to borrowers, but it will take several months to calculate and distribute.

FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz was highly critical of the practices of Countrywide, slamming them (and also offering a not-so-subtle dig at fraternities in the process). "The record-keeping of Countrywide was abysmal," said Leibowitz. "Most frat houses have better record-keeping than Countrywide." 

Judge Halts Killing Wolves to Save Alaskan Caribou

In the battle between wolves and caribou, who is king? A federal judge weighed in on that question Thursday, temporarily refusing to allow the state of Alaska to kill seven wolves on a national wildlife refuge. The state has asked for permission to use helicopters to shoot the wolves in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, in order to protect the caribou. According to the state, the number of caribou are dwindling and the wolves are invading their calving grounds.

Interestingly, one of the reasons for the concern over the caribou is because they are a needed food source for a small group of people living on Unimak, an island in the Aleutian chain. In other words, one might say they want to save the caribou so that they can be eaten, though the people on Unimak do not wish to wipe out the entire herd.

Major Retailers Sign Agreement: Get the Lead Out of Purses

Those of you in the female portion of the reading audience may have at one time or another complained that your handbag was so heavy it felt like lead. Surprisingly, it really did, and not because it was crammed with keys, wallet, sunglasses and every tech gadget known to mankind. The Center for Environmental Health announced on May 4, they have settled a suit with numerous national retailers and brands over the lead levels in women's handbags.

According to the Center for Environmental Health, the $1.7 million dollar agreement came after its findings were released last year that hundreds of purses and other accessories contain high lead levels that can pose a health threat, especially to pregnant women and women of child-bearing age.

Supreme Court: Miranda Warnings Only Apply When Invoked

| 1 TrackBack

You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to you. Do you understand these rights as they have been read to you?

Neal Katyal: Key Graham v. Florida Stats Wrong

Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal recently notified the U.S. Supreme Court that a significant report cited in Graham v. Florida, the recent case about minors being sentenced to life without parole, was inaccurate. Katyal informed the Court in a letter that the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP) provided incorrect information in their report that stated that six juvenile prisoners were in prison for life without being convicted of murder.  

GSK Settles More Avandia Lawsuits

GlaxoSmithKline maker of the diabetes drug, Avandia, announced today that it has settled more of the suits over the drug which many sources say led to a much increased risk of heart attack.