[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website] granted certiorari in eight cases Tuesday. In Young v. United Parcel Service [docket; cert. petition, PDF] the court will consider whether, and in what circumstances, an employer that provides work accommodations to non-pregnant employees with work limitations must provide work accommodations to pregnant employees who are “similar in their ability or inability to work.” The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) [text] provides that “women affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions shall be treated the same for all employment related purposes … as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.” Peggy Young was a driver for United Parcel Service (UPS) [corporate website]. When she became pregnant, UPS refused to put her on light duty. Young sued, but the district court granted summary judgment for UPS, and the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed that decision [opinion].
In Kellogg Brown & Root Services, Inc. v. United States ex rel. Carter [docket; cert. petition, PDF] the court will answer the following questions:
1. Whether the Wartime Suspension of Limitations Act (WSLA) [18 USC § 3287]—a criminal code provision that tolls the statute of limitations for “any offense” involving fraud against the government “[w]hen the United States is at war,” … and which this Court has instructed must be “narrowly construed” in favor of repose—applies to claims of civil fraud brought by private relators, and is triggered without a formal declaration of war, in a manner that leads to indefinite tolling.
2. Whether, contrary to the conclusion of numerous courts, the False Claims Act’s so-called “first-to-file” bar [31 USC § 3730(b)(5)]—which creates a race to the courthouse to reward relators who promptly disclose fraud against the government, while prohibiting repetitive, parasitic claims—functions as a “one-case-at-a-time” rule allowing an infinite series of duplicative claims so long as no prior claim is pending at the time of filing.
Benjamin Carter filed a qui tam action [Cornell LII backgrounder] alleging that former Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg Brown & Root Services (KBR) [corporate website] fraudulently billed the US for services provided to military forces in Iraq. The district court concluded that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction over Carter’s claims because of the first-to-file bar and that Carter’s complaint had been filed beyond the six-year statute of limitations, which was not tolled by the WSLA. The Fourth Circuit reversed [opinion].
In Oneok Inc. v. Learjet, Inc. [docket; cert. petition, PDF] the court will decide whether the Natural Gas Act [text] preempts state-law claims challenging industry practices that directly affect the wholesale natural gas market when those claims are asserted by litigants who purchased gas in retail transactions. The plaintiffs, retail buyers of natural gas, brought state-law claims against natural gas companies alleging price manipulation. The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that plaintiffs’ claims were not preempted [opinion].
In B&B Hardware, Inc. v. Hargis Industries, Inc. [docket; cert. petition, PDF] the court will consider (1) whether the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board’s (TTAB) [official website] finding of a likelihood of
confusion precludes Hargis from relitigating that issue in infringement litigation, in which likelihood of confusion is an element; and (2) whether, if issue preclusion does not apply, the district court was obliged to defer to the TTAB’s finding of a likelihood of confusion absent strong evidence to rebut it. Under the Lanham Act, a person generally may neither use nor register a mark that would be “likely to cause confusion” with an existing mark. If a person uses a mark that “is likely to cause confusion” with an existing registered mark, the owner of the registered mark may sue in federal court for trademark infringement. If a person seeks to register a mark that is “likely … to cause confusion” with an existing registered mark, the owner of the existing registered mark may oppose the registration of the new mark before the TTAB. B&B Hardware manufactures sealing fasteners and owns the registered mark “SEALTIGHT.” Hargis also manufactures sealing fasteners, and it used and sought to register the mark “SEALTITE.” The TTAB held that Hargis’s mark created a likelihood of confusion with B&B’s mark. The district court, however, found in favor of Hargis, and the US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed [opinion].
In Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Arizona [docket; cert. petition, PDF] the court will decide whether the town’s sign ordinance violates the First Amendment [text]. The town of Gilbert’s Sign Code categorizes temporary signs based on their content and then restricts their size, duration, location and other characteristics depending on the category into which each sign is placed. Good News Community Church claims that under the Sign Code, their temporary signs promoting church services receive far worse treatment than temporary signs promoting political, ideological and various other messages, even though they equally impact Gilbert’s interests in safety and aesthetics. The Ninth Circuit found [opinion] the Sign Code content neutral and upheld it under the First Amendment. The question presented is: “Does Gilbert’s mere assertion of a lack of discriminatory motive render its facially content-based sign code content-neutral and justify the code’s differential treatment of Petitioners’ religious signs?”
In Alabama Department of Revenue v. CSX Transportation, Inc. [docket; cert. petition, PDF] the court will determine whether a state “discriminates against a rail carrier” in violation of 49 USC § 11501(b)(4) [text] when the state generally requires commercial and industrial businesses, including rail carriers, to pay a sales-and-use tax but grants exemptions from the tax to the railroads’ competitors. The court also directed the parties to brief and argue the following question: “Whether, in resolving a claim of unlawful tax discrimination … a court should consider other aspects of the state’s tax scheme rather than focusing solely on the challenged tax provision.” The court ruled in this case [JURIST report] in 2011 that a railroad may challenge sales and use taxes that apply to rail carriers but exempt their competitors in the transportation industry. On remand, the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled [opinion] that the sales tax is discriminatory.
In Wellness International Network, Limited v. Sharif [docket; cert. petition, PDF] the court limited its grant to questions 1 and 3:
1. Whether the presence of a subsidiary state property law issue in a 11 USC § 541 [text] action brought against a debtor to determine whether property in the debtor’s possession is property of the bankruptcy estate means that such action does not “stem from the bankruptcy itself” and therefore, that a bankruptcy court does not have the constitutional authority to enter a final order deciding that action.
3. Whether Article III [text] permits the exercise of the judicial power of the United States by the bankruptcy courts on the basis of litigant consent, and if so, whether implied consent based on a litigant’s conduct is sufficient to satisfy Article III.
Here, the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held that bankruptcy courts lack the
constitutional authority to decide, in an action against the debtor, whether property in the debtor’s possession is property of the bankruptcy estate because that determination also required the resolution of state-law issues. The Seventh Circuit also held that Article III did not permit a bankruptcy court to exercise the judicial power of the United States to determine an action against a debtor who had consented to the exercise of that power by voluntarily filing his petition in bankruptcy court. The decision will revisit the court’s 2011 ruling in Stern v. Marshall [JURIST report].
Finally, in Direct Marketing Association v. Brohl [docket; cert. petition, PDF] the court will consider whether the Tax Injunction Act (TIA) [28 USC § 1341] bars federal court jurisdiction over a suit brought by non-taxpayers to enjoin the informational notice and reporting requirements of a state law that neither imposes a tax, nor requires the collection of a tax, but serves only as a secondary aspect of state tax administration. The US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit ruled [opinion] that the TIA deprived the district court of jurisdiction to enjoin Colorado’s tax collection effort.