SCOTUS Roundup: Complicated Cases and Surprising Splits

If it’s Monday in the late spring, it’s Decision Day on the Supreme Court. Justices handed down decisions in four cases yesterday, both unanimous and contentious, and at least one surprising in its makeup. Medicare reimbursements, bankruptcy law, job bias suits, and supervised release made up the docket this week. The big ticket items, however, remain.

Taggart v. Lorenzen, in the words of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, “arises out of a complex set of bankruptcy proceedings,” going back some twelve years. Proceedings began with an attempted real estate transfer by developer Bradley Taggart in Sherwood, Oregon in 2007. The Ninth Circuit found that creditors Terry Emmert, Keith Jehnke, Stuart Brown and the Sherwood Park Business Center, could not be held in contempt for violating a bankruptcy discharge because they believed, in good faith, that the injunction did not apply. However, the High Court disagreed. In a unanimous decision, authored by Justice Breyer, creditors can be held in civil contempt if there is no fair ground of doubt as to whether the order barred the creditor’s conduct.

The Roberts Court, November 30, 2018. Seated, from left to right: Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Clarence Thomas, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Samuel A. Alito. Standing, from left to right: Justices Neil M. Gorsuch, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Brett M. Kavanaugh. Photograph by Fred Schilling, Supreme Court Curator’s Office.

In another unanimous decision, the Court made it harder for employers to defeat and dismiss job bias claims. In Fort Bend County v. Davis, a former government IT supervisor was fired after being denied time off from a Sunday work assignment to attend church. She sued under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act for religious discrimination, and other claims. Title VII requires plaintiffs to exhaust their administrative remedies before filing formal charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the basis of Fort Bend County’s case. However, Justice Ginsburg’s 9-0 decision ruled that the precondition was not a jurisdictional requirement.

The Court also removed an Obama-era rule change on Medicare reimbursements because officials did not follow the proper notice and comment regulations. The issue behind Azar v. Allina Health Service involved a 2014 policy, which greatly and retroactively reduced payments to hospitals serving low-income patients. In a 7-1 ruling, authored by Justice Gorsuch, the court agreed with the DC Circuit, that the adjustment was not merely an “interpretive rule,” and that the Department of Health and Human Services violated the Medicare Act in doing so. Justice Breyer dissented, arguing the agency’s action should not require going through a full notice and comment process.

The most contentious ruling of the day surprised at least one legal observer in its lineup of justices. In Mont v. United States, a federal drug-related offender on supervised release was indicted for state-law offenses. Following precedent, an appeals court ruled that a term of supervised release for one offense is paused by imprisonment for a new one. In a 5-4 decision, the Court agreed, that if pretrial detention is later credited as time served, the detention counts as imprisonment in connection with a conviction. Justice Thomas wrote the majority opinion, which was joined by most of the Court’s conservatives, except Gorsuch. Justice Sotomayor wrote the dissent, joined by most of the Court’s liberals, except Ginsburg. Jonathan Adler, writing for The Volokh Conspiracy, noted that “the resulting division is thus neither one we expect to see ideologically, nor is it readily explained on the basis of other common jurisprudential divisions.”

The Court also rejected a request by the Trump administration to fast track a decision on the president’s rescinding of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Other high-profile cases, on partisan gerrymandering and the U.S. Census, remain. The latter case received a minor bombshell over the weekend, when it was revealed a recently-deceased notorious Republican gerrymanderer advised the Trump administration to include the contentious citizenship question as a means of helping Republicans electorally. It might not matter, and those attempting to read the tea leaves received no considerable insight this week.

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Robert Martin (CN Staff)

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