1. Overview of the Supreme Court’s 2013 Rulings - Decisions That Affect Our Lives…


    The first half of 2013 was a busy time for the Supreme Court justices, who published more than 70 decisions in the first six months of the year. Here’s a look at some of the more significant ones:

    On Same Sex Marriage

    On June 26, 2013, in United States v. Windsor the Supreme Court overturned Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 law that defined marriage as a “union between a man and a woman,” because it denied federal benefits to married same-sex couples. From Howard Bye-Torre of law firm Stoel Rives:

    “The Court noted in its decision that there are more than 1,000 federal laws that give rights and obligations to spouses and married couples… Now, marriages recognized under controlling state law will be recognized by federal law and spouses in those marriages will have the same rights and obligations under these myriad federal laws as spouses in opposite-sex marriages.”

    The second same-sex marriage case addressed by the Court, Hollingsworth v. Perry, involved a challenge to California’s Proposition 8 limiting marriage in the state to opposite sex couples. The controversial amendment to the California constitution had been on hold since June 2010, when a Federal Court ruled that it violated the US Constitution, a decision that was appealed to the Supreme Court. On June 26, the Court found that the proponents of the measure lacked standing to defend Prop. 8 in federal court, paving the way for same-sex marriages to begin anew in California. 

    On Patenting Human Genes

    On June 13, 2013, the Supreme Court ruled in Assoc. for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc. that isolated human DNA cannot be patented because it is a product of nature, but that synthetic cDNA, not present in nature, is indeed patent eligible. It’s an important ruling, writes Tom Goldstein on ScotusBlog

    “The ruling is significant for a variety of companies (including Myriad) that hold important DNA patents. But for the industry as a whole, it offers the prospect of significant patent protection for cDNA, as well as other inventions derived from human DNA.”

    On the Definition of a “Supervisor” in the Workplace

    In Vance v. Ball State University, decided on June 24, 2013, the Court ruled that a “supervisor” is:

    “not simply an individual who directs the daily activities of other employees but instead is one who has the ability to take ‘tangible employment actions,’ such as hiring, firing, disciplining, promoting, or reassigning.” (Jessica Bauml, Dinsmore & Shohl

    It’s an important distinction because, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act – the law that prohibits discrimination in the workplace – employers are responsible for unlawful conduct perpetrated by supervisors, but not that which is committed by an employee’s co-workers. 

    On Workplace Retaliation Claims

    A second Title VII lawsuit, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, was also decided on June 24. In it, the Supreme Court ruled that an employee who claimed he was terminated in retaliation for complaining about workplace discrimination must prove that the retaliation was the “but for” cause of his termination - that the only reason he was fired (but for) was retaliation on the part of his employer – rather than the looser standard typically applied in Title VII discrimination cases that the retaliation was merely a “motivating factor” in the decision to fire him. 

    On Class Action Waivers

    In American Express Co. v. Italian Colors Restaurant, the Court confirmed its inclination to uphold arbitration agreements when it:

    “handed down a decision enforcing class action waivers in arbitration agreements, even where the plaintiff’s cost of proceeding on an individual basis would exceed the potential recovery for vindicating a federal statutory right. The high court’s decision […] could impact class action litigation in a broad range of contexts, including employment, antitrust, securities, and consumer class action suits.” (Pillsbury

    On Land Use Permits

    On June 25, 2013, the high court ruled in Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District In favor of a property owner who claimed that the conditions for approval of his request to develop portions of his property – which included protected wetlands – were unreasonable and overly burdensome. The ruling: 

    “reinforces the decision … that the government cannot pressure or extort a landowner into giving up property rights or unfairly burdening one’s property in exchange for a building permit, unless the condition for the permit to be issued has some reasonable relationship to the proposed land use.” (Bradley Arant Boult Cummings

    On the Transfer of Intellectual Property Rights When Products Are Sold

    The Court ruled in Bowman v. Monsanto Co., that farmer Vernon Bowman infringed Monsanto’s patents when he attempted to circumvent restrictions on the use of genetically engineered “Roundup Ready” soybean seeds. Bowman claimed that he was permitted to do so under the doctrine of “patent exhaustion,” but the Court disagreed: 

    “Under the doctrine of patent exhaustion, an authorized sale gives the purchaser a right to use or resell a patented article. The Court held that the purchaser is not permitted to make additional copies of that article, including planting and harvesting patented seeds, without the patent holder’s permission.” (Skadden Arps

    On March 19, 2013, the Supreme Court held  in Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. that the “first sale” doctrine – which allows the owner of a copyrighted product to sell that product without restriction – applies to works manufactured outside the United States:

    “Under the ruling, any person or company is free to import and sell in the United States lawful, foreign-made copies of copyrighted works (books, music, movies, etc.) or products that contain copyrighted works (for example, embedded software) without having to separately clear the copyright rights.” (White & Case

    On Affirmative Action in College Admissions

    In Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, decided June 24, 2013, the high court upheld the constitutionality of affirmative action as a factor in college admissions, and – at the same time – set a higher standard for evaluating the fairness of such programs: 

    “When schools decide that a diverse student body will further their educational mission, and decide to implement specific admissions practices to achieve diversity, they should ensure those decisions have been articulated and justified in a reasoned, principled way that will withstand strict scrutiny.” (Reed Smith

    On the Voting Rights Act

    In Shelby County v. Holder, decided June 25, 2013, the Court found unconstitutional a key part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that required certain states to obtain federal “preclearance” before changing their voting laws. The response was almost immediate: 

    “Mere hours after the Court issued its decision, Texas announced that it would activate its controversial voter ID law and possibly the redistricting maps passed by the Texas legislature. The North Carolina legislature has also indicated its plan to enact a statute, stalled in the state senate awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision, that requires voters to present state-issued photo ID to vote.” (Ballard Spahr

    On the Alien Tort Statute

    In Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co., the Court was asked to determine whether foreign plaintiffs could sue foreign defendants for acts that occurred entirely on foreign soil under the Alien Tort Statute. The answer? A resounding “no:”

    “All nine Justices agreed that the Alien Tort Statute (‘ATS’) and federal common law do not extend to allegations by Nigerian nationals that English and Dutch subsidiaries of Shell supposedly aided and abetted the Nigerian government’s human rights violations on Nigerian soil. […] Kiobel focuses on where the relevant conduct occurred, not on the nationality of the defendant. And Kiobel expressly rejected ‘mere corporate presence’ in the United States as sufficient to trigger ATS jurisdiction.” (Quinn Emmanuel

    On “Reverse Payments” in the Pharmaceutical Industry

    In FTC v. Actavis, decided June 17, 2013, the Court determined that “pay-to-delay” agreements – in which a brand-name drug maker pays a generic manufacturer to NOT market its version of a drug – can be challenged as potentially violating antitrust laws. 

    “The Actavis decision has upended the status quo in pharmaceutical patent litigation settlements. Given the scope of the decision, it will necessarily change the approaches courts, drug company litigants, and lawmakers take to the issue of generic entry into a patented brand drug’s market.” (Reed Smith)

    On Product Liability and Generic Drugs

    Generic drug manufacturers are required by law to use precisely the same warning labels on medications as their brand-name counterparts. And that protects them, ruled the Court in Mutual Pharmaceutical Co. Inc. v. Bartlett (June 24, 2013), from design defect lawsuits claiming injuries that resulted from the use of their drugs. In plain English:

    “… the generic drug industry is essentially out of reach in product liability suits.” (Dawn McCord, Sedgwick LLP)


    Read more on the Supreme Court at JD Supra Law News»


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