Linda Greenhouse’s Blatant Effort to Invoke “Greenhouse Effect” in Affordable Care Act Case Fails

NYTMark S. Chenoweth, WLF’s General Counsel, contributed to this post

Linda Greenhouse is at it again. The New York Times Supreme Court reporter-turned-opinion writer is deeply troubled by the possibility that the Supreme Court may actually construe the Affordable Care Act precisely as Congress wrote it. And she is up to her old tricks of trying to influence the justices by suggesting that they “will have a great deal of explaining to do—not to me, but to history” if they strike down the proposed IRS rule at issue in the case.

Now that the Supreme Court has agreed to decide the proper scope of tax credits available under the law, Ms. Greenhouse laments, “[n]ot only the Affordable Care Act but the court itself is in peril as a result.” Chief Justice Roberts, by her lights, “saved the day” last time around. “The fate of the statute hung in the balance then and hangs in the balance today,” she continues, but “… [t]his time, so does the honor of the Supreme Court.”

And yet King v. Burwell is precisely the sort of case that the Supreme Court is supposed to decide. Not only does it raise an issue of exceptional importance—whether the IRS is permitted to appropriate billions of dollars in tax credits each year absent an express authorization from Congress to do so—but the Fourth and D.C. Circuits have issued conflicting decisions on that question, and only the Supreme Court can resolve such a conflict.

Although the text of the ACA couldn’t be any clearer that only those taxpayers who purchase health insurance on exchanges “established by a State” are entitled to subsidies in the form of a tax credit, Ms. Greenhouse argues that the law’s “context” points in the opposite direction. But even if the law is ambiguous, Ms. Greenhouse strenuously avoids addressing the overriding reason for any ambiguity—the ACA was the sloppiest piece of legislative draftsmanship in a generation or more. Continue reading

Will the High Court Permit Backdoor Regulation of Natural Gas Industry Via State-Law Antitrust Suits?

oneokEarlier this month, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in ONEOK v. Learjet, an important case that hinges on the scope of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC) field preemption under the Natural Gas Act (NGA). I attended to hear the argument in person because Washington Legal Foundation has been quite active in the case.

While it is undisputed that the NGA preempts state-law claims directed at conduct affecting the wholesale rates for natural gas, the Court must now consider whether such claims are preempted when the same alleged conduct affects both wholesale and retail rates. Reversing the district court, the Ninth Circuit rejected ONEOK’s preemption argument on the basis that the state-law claims brought by the plaintiff-purchasers arose from retail gas transactions.

On behalf of ONEOK, Neal Katyal argued that even though the alleged conduct at issue in this case affected both retail and wholesale rates, it still counts as a practice that affects wholesale rates for preemption purposes. The only relevant question, then, is whether plaintiffs’ state-law claims are directed at conduct in the field that the NGA occupies—and they are. The United States, representing FERC’s regulatory interests, filed an amicus brief and argued on the merits in support of ONEOK’s position.

From his questions, Justice Breyer seemed to appreciate the difficulty in setting a strict boundary between wholesale and retail sales in cases where the retail and wholesale prices are both affected by the same conduct. He could prove to be the decisive vote in the case.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Jeffrey Fisher insisted that FERC has no power over antitrust claims tied to retail prices, which the NGA excepts from federal regulation. The State of Kansas as amicus curiae, joined by 20 other states, argued in support of Plaintiffs, with attorney Steven McAllister emphasizing the states’ strong interest in policing antitrust violations.

Justice Kagan seemed fully prepared to side with the Plaintiffs, explaining that so long as no conflict exists between state antitrust liability and regulation by FERC, “I don’t really see a reason … why you would exclude the state entirely, even if nothing the state was doing was conflicting with federal regulation or federal policy.”

In all likelihood, the Supreme Court will issue its decision within the next few months. As WLF’s amicus brief argued, the stakes for the natural gas industry are high. The NGA promotes uniformity, not random regulation by jury verdicts in 50 states. Permitting private plaintiffs to pursue state-law antitrust remedies that second-guess FERC—including in states where antitrust remedies dwarf those available under federal law—would create industry-wide chaos and an unnecessary drag on investment in a vibrant and growing sector of the economy.

The Court agreed to grant review in the case following WLF’s brief in support of the petition for certiorari—and WLF’s separate online analysis of the Solicitor General’s unusual advice to the Supreme Court about (not) granting review in the case. WLF’s brief on the merits provides the Court with additional policy reasons to overrule the Ninth Circuit.

Also published by Forbes.com at WLF’s contributor page

SCOTUS Fishing for a Way to Overturn Conviction in “Yates” without Tossing Law Overboard

supreme courtIt is notoriously difficult—if not foolish—to predict the outcome of a Supreme Court case from the questions the justices pose at oral argument. The case of Yates v. U.S., concerning a commercial fisherman who was convicted and sentenced under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, is no exception.

And yet, after today’s argument (transcript here), it appears that some members of the Court are grappling for a way to overturn Yates’s conviction without completely rewriting the statute.

Three years after Mr. Yates received an administrative fine for harvesting undersized fish, the U.S. Attorney indicted him for destroying a “record, document, or tangible thing” under the “anti-shredding” provision of Sarbanes-Oxley. The “tangible things” at issue, the government insisted, were undersized red grouper Yates evidently ordered crew members to throw overboard.

Although the government seemingly got the better of the statutory interpretation argument today, a number of justices appeared uncomfortable with the breadth of the government’s application of the statute. While conceding that the government made some good arguments, Justice Alito nevertheless told the government’s attorney, “[Y]ou are really asking the Court to swallow something that is pretty hard to swallow.” Many justices were concerned that the statute contains a 20-year maximum sentence and applies to any matter within the jurisdiction of any department or agency of the United States.

red grouper

red grouper

Even more troubling, the government attorney informed the Court that once a decision is made to prosecute, the U.S. Attorney’s Manual recommends that the “prosecutor should charge the offense that’s the most severe under the law.” That assertion drew concern from many justices, including Justice Scalia, who responded that if that is the DOJ’s position, then the Court would need to be much more careful about how extensively and broadly it construes severe statutes in the future. Justice Kennedy even went so far as to question whether the Court should even mention the concept of prosecutorial discretion ever again.

For his part, Justice Breyer exhibited keen interest in void-for-vagueness objections to the statute, expressing his concern that the language of the anti-shredding provision is so broad that it encourages arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement. Although counsel for Yates did not devote very much space to that issue in his merits briefs, that was precisely the issue that WLF focused on as amicus curiae.

Also published by Forbes.com on WLF’s contributor site

Eleventh Circuit Ruling a Welcome Judicial Pushback against Criminal Enforcement of Regulations

strickly skillz

On a balmy late August day in Orlando, Florida, nearly a dozen Orange County police officers, some dressed in ballistic vests and masked helmets, swept into Strictly Skillz barbershop with their guns drawn. As their colleagues blocked off the parking lot entrances and exits, the officers declared that the shop was closed and ordered its patrons to leave, depriving the shop of business and perhaps deterring future patrons. Two barbers and the owner were handcuffed. A plain-clothed member of the raiding party demanded to see the barbershop’s business license.

Yes, you read that correctly. On August 21, 2010, a veritable SWAT team of heavily armed police conducted a warrantless inspection to check for barbers’ licensing violations. The Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR) inspector soon determined that Strictly Skillz barbers were properly licensed (which, as you’ll learn below, they already knew), so the police uncuffed the detained barbers and owner and left the shop.

The owner and three barbers sued a number of the officers involved for violating their Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure, and a federal district court denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds. On September 16, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit issued a strongly worded opinion affirming the lower court (Berry v. Leslie). The ruling provides a forceful reminder that the Fourth Amendment protects businesses (and their employees) from overzealous regulatory inspections. Continue reading

Federal Workplace Police Cast Aside Rules that Inhibit Capitalist Punishment

oshaNLRBAn excellent Economist article recently critiqued the ever-increasing criminalization of the American business community by federal regulators:

The formula is simple: find a large company that may (or may not) have done something wrong; threaten its managers with commercial ruin, preferably with criminal charges; force them to use their shareholders’ money to pay an enormous fine to drop the charges in a secret settlement (so nobody can check the details). Then repeat with another large company.

None of this is news to us here at WLF, where we have long been at the forefront of those who are concerned about the federal erosion of business civil liberties.

But what if, despite the heavy-handed leverage, government regulators still don’t get the results they are looking for? That’s easy—change the rules. That’s precisely what OSHA Administrator David Michael recently revealed he intends to do with the standard of proof required in whistleblower merits determinations.

Despite boasting to a recent meeting of the Whistleblower Protection Advisory Committee that, from 2009 to 2014, OSHA more than doubled the number of complaints it found to have merit, recovering over $119,000,000 in damages for whistleblower complainants in the process, Michael announced that OSHA will soon release a policy memo that will change the burden of proof in whistleblower investigations.

No longer will whistleblowers be required to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that it is “more likely than not” that a violation occurred. Rather, under the new regime, whistleblowers will need only establish “reasonable cause” that a violation occurred. That lower bar will undoubtedly result in many, many more cases being found to have merit by OSHA, which is what OSHA wants.

OSHA is not the only federal workplace cop pursuing rule changes on the fly to advance its ideological agenda. As explained in a new WLF Legal Backgrounder by Littler Mendelsohn LLP attorneys Michael Lotito and Missy Parry, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is poised to radically alter long-standing definitions of who counts as an employer to favor unions, plaintiffs’ lawyers, and, of course, federal regulators.

Under the view of agencies like OSHA and NLRB, due process in the face of a government-decreed worthy goal is no virtue.  And drumhead justice in pursuit of that same goal is no vice.

Also published by Forbes.com at WLF’s contributor page

Second Circuit Overturns Law that Compelled Businesses to Advertise their Competitors’ Services

2nd CircuitOn September 4, with Safelite Group, Inc. v. Jepsen, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit made an important contribution to the jurisprudence of compelled speech (an area of growing disharmony in the federal courts, as we’ve noted recently). The court unanimously struck down a Connecticut law that permitted certain businesses to promote their auto-glass repair services only if they mentioned the similar services of their competitors.

The Law at Issue. The Petitioner, Safelite Group, is an insurance claims management company that owns and operates a Connecticut affiliate, Safelite Auto Glass. If auto insurance companies direct Connecticut drivers with auto-glass claims to Safelite, Safelite can recommend (but, under state law, cannot require) Safelite Auto Glass to do the repairs. When it does so, Safelite voluntarily discloses its ownership interest to the insureds. If insureds cannot or do not want to utilize a Safelite Auto Glass shop, Safelite recommends another shop that Safelite has pre-approved.

Unaffiliated Connecticut auto-glass shops took their complaints about Safelite’s “unfair” practices to the legislature, which in May 2013 adopted a law that in part prohibits insurance companies or their claims administrators from mentioning their affiliate repair shops unless they also reference a competitor.

First Amendment Challenge. Safelite sought a preliminary injunction against Connecticut’s enforcement of the law, arguing in federal district court that the compelled speech requirement abridged its First Amendment rights. The district court denied the injunction, holding that the mandate simply required disclosure of factual, uncontroversial information that does not offend the company’s First Amendment freedoms. Continue reading

Five Ways to Undo your Own Class-Action Settlement

zero dollars“This settlement is so unfair, it cannot be fixed.”

That statement marked the beginning of the end of a federal district court judge’s opinion, as well as the class-action settlement to which the opinion referred. U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California Judge William Alsup’s May 29 opinion in Daniels v. Aéropostale West, Inc. provides a tutorial on how not to win judicial approval of a class-action settlement.

Ms. Daniels alleged that she and other employees of the trendy apparel retailer Aéropostale were denied non-discretionary bonus pay (i.e., overtime) in violation of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Judge Alsup conditionally certified the class in April 2013. Daniels provided notice to all employees in the class, and 594 opted into the suit. The parties filed a motion on April 24, 2014 seeking preliminary approval of a proposed settlement.

For reasons we will elaborate, Judge Alsup refused to grant approval. On June 12, the court entered an order decertifying Daniels, dismissing the claims, and extending the statute of limitations for 30 days so dismissed plaintiffs could pursue individual suits if they wish. The order noted that the parties agreed to the decertification, and that Aéropostale would make payment to any class member “who did not receive full payment for the overtime adjustment on any non-discretionary bonus earned during the collective action period.” The plaintiff’s lawyers agreed to provide notice of the action’s decertification at their own expense.

Lessons. In just 12 pages, Daniels offers litigants and their lawyers at least five lessons on how to undo your own class-action settlement.

Lesson #1: Be unresponsive to the court’s requests

In just the second paragraph of the opinion, Judge Alsup took the unusual step of noting the name and affiliation of all counsel of record in the case. This was not done to recognize their brilliant advocacy. As the rest of the opinion reveals, the lawyers, among other things, failed to provide the court with expert damage reports as required by federal procedural rules. After the parties filed their proposed settlement, the court had to ask twice for more information or corrections to the document. When pressed by Judge Alsup, Daniels’s lawyer could not state how much the plaintiff would ask the jury to reward. In addition, “Plaintiff’s counsel also failed to provide any specific information about overtime hours worked and non-discretionary bonuses paid.” Continue reading