Supreme Court Has Opportunity to Halt Lawsuits by Uninjured Plaintiffs

supreme courtFederal courts have been inundated in recent years by suits filed by plaintiffs who have suffered no injury but who allege that a federal statute provides them with “standing” to sue for alleged violations of federal law. Such lawsuits can be extremely lucrative for the plaintiffs’ bar when the statute provides for an award of statutory damages (typically, $100 to $1,000) for each violation; by filing their suits as nationwide class actions, attorneys can often plausibly seek to recover billions of dollars. The Supreme Court may soon make it much more difficult for such suits to survive a motion to dismiss. The Court on Friday will consider whether to grant review in Spokeo v. Robins, a case that squarely addresses whether plaintiffs can assert Article III standing where their only “injury” is the affront to their sensibilities caused by the belief that someone is not complying federal law. The Court has indicated a strong interest in addressing the issue; Spokeo is an appropriate vehicle for doing so and ought to be granted.

The U.S. Solicitor General recently filed a brief recommending that the Court not hear Spokeo. That brief may, ironically, increase the likelihood that the Court will agree to hear the case, because the Solicitor General very pointedly declined to endorse the appeals court’s rationale for concluding that the plaintiff has standing.

Spokeo involves claims filed under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), one of dozens of federal statutes that offer a bounty (in the form of statutory damages) to those who demonstrate a violation of a federal statute. Spokeo, Inc. operates a “people search engine”—it aggregates publicly available information from phone books, social networks, and other sources into a database that is searchable via the Internet, and displays the results of searches in an easy-to-read format. It has always emphasized that it does not verify or evaluate any piece of data and does not guarantee the accuracy of information offered. Continue reading

The Supreme Court Should Not Abandon “Stare Decisis” in “Kimble v. Marvel Enterprises” Case Given Reliance Interest

At issue in Kimble v. Marvel Enterprises

At issue in Kimble v. Marvel Enterprises

The Supreme Court’s 1964 decision in Brulotte v. Thys Co. has been among the Court’s more heavily criticized patent law decisions. A number of academics and appeals court judges have complained that Brulotte, which establishes a rule governing construction of patent licensing agreements, is based on a misunderstanding of the economic considerations underlying such agreements. Perhaps in response to that criticism, the Court granted certiorari in Kimble v. Marvel Enterprises, Inc. to consider a single question: should it overturn the 50-year-old Brulotte rule? The Court will hear oral arguments in Kimble on March 31.

The correct answer is a resounding “no.” At oral argument, the record will show that parties negotiating patent licensing agreements have relied on Brulotte for half a century when drafting terms governing royalty payments. Overturning Brulotte would be a patent troll’s dream. It could expose licensees to unforeseen royalty demands based on long-forgotten license agreements that they reasonably assumed—in reliance on the Brulotte rule—imposed no additional payment obligations after the expiration of the licensed patent. As with patent trolls, the potential liability in some cases may be so high that in terrorem settlement is the licensee’s only reasonable choice. In other cases, the nuisance value of the claim may be smaller than the cost to litigate. Either way, a shortsighted decision in Kimble could lead to decades of costly and vexatious litigation to no one’s benefit. Continue reading

Supreme Court Observations: Interpreting “Perez v. Mortgage Bankers Association”

supreme courtIn its 1997 decision, Paralyzed Veterans of Am. v. Arena, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit created an important bulwark against federal administrative agency evasion of notice-and-comment rulemaking. Under the “Paralyzed Veterans” doctrine, an agency had to comply with formal (and time-consuming) administrative procedures even when it claimed to be doing nothing more than interpreting existing rules, if the agency was de facto reversing its existing regulations. The Supreme Court’s decision last week in Perez v. Mortgage Bankers Assoc. unanimously set aside Paralyzed Veterans. The Court held that the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) does not require a regulatory agency to adhere to notice-and-comment rulemaking when it issues a rule interpreting one of its formal regulations.

Largely ignoring the D.C. Circuit’s rationale, the Supreme Court said that it would presume that the 2010 rule was an “interpretive” rule because (supposedly) “the parties litigated this suit on [that] understanding.” The Court said that the text of the APA does not mandate notice-and-comment rulemaking for interpretive rules and that the D.C. Circuit thus erred in adopting an extra-statutory mandate. But by starting with the premise that the 2010 rule was an interpretive rule, the Supreme Court created a straw-man argument never espoused by the D.C. Circuit, which stated explicitly that its decision to strike down the 2010 rule was based on its reading of the text of the relevant APA provisions.

Moreover, the Respondent repeatedly argued before the Supreme Court that the 2010 rule was not an interpretive rule. The Supreme Court’s only response was to note that the Solicitor General premised his certiorari petition on a claim that the D.C. Circuit had mandated notice-and-comment rulemaking for an interpretive rule, and that the Respondent waived the point by failing to dispute the Solicitor General’s claim in its brief opposing the cert petition. But while that response might justify a ruling against the Respondent in this case, it provides no justification for condemning all non-parties subject to the DOL rule, let alone all applications of the Paralyzed Veterans doctrine, which (as the D.C. Circuit decision below made clear) does not assume that challenged rules are interpretive but rather provides a standard for differentiating between substantive and interpretive rules.

The decision nonetheless provides a glimmer of hope to those wishing to challenge rules adopted without adherence to notice-and-comment procedures. The Court’s ruling assumed (incorrectly, it turns out) that the Paralyzed Veterans doctrine was based on the premise that the challenged re-interpretation of existing regulation qualified as an “interpretive rule” under the APA. Thus, Perez arguably imposes no impediment on a litigant who asserts that the challenged rule is “substantive” in nature, not “interpretive.”

Substantive Rules v. Interpretive Rules. The APA requires federal agencies, before they adopt “substantive” rules (a/k/a “legislative” rules), to provide notice of the proposed rule and a meaningful opportunity for members of the public to comment on the proposal. Exempted from the APA’s notice-and-comment requirement are mere “interpretive” rules. Agencies seek to avoid notice-and-comment requirements by deeming as many rule changes as possible interpretive changes; the requirements are burdensome and can delay agency action for months or even years. Yet, despite nearly 70 years of APA litigation, the scope of exempt “interpretive” rules has never been fully pinned down.

The Paralyzed Veterans doctrine was the D.C. Circuit’s principal contribution to that debate. The appeals court held that when an agency issues a definitive interpretation of one of its formal regulations and later seeks to issue a new interpretation that squarely conflicts with the prior interpretation, the new interpretation is a “substantive” rule and thus may not be adopted unless the agency first goes through notice-and-comment rulemaking. The court sensibly reasoned that when an agency seeks to repudiate its initial interpretation, it has in effect amended its formal regulation, and that an agency should not be permitted to “reinterpret” a regulation as a means of evading the formal rulemaking requirements that (everyone agrees) apply whenever an agency amends its regulations. Continue reading

By Treating Recusal Motions as a Game, Lawyers are Eroding Public Confidence in our Courts

Ill. S CtThe meaning of “chutzpah” is often illustrated by pointing to the man who kills his parents and then throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan. The recent actions of a group of plaintiffs’ lawyers involved in a multi-billion dollar case before the Illinois Supreme Court exhibit a similar kind of chutzpah. They have labored for more than a decade to have Justice Lloyd Karmeier removed from the case, most recently by bankrolling (to the tune of more than $2 million) a “no” campaign for Karmeier’s November 2014 retention election. That effort narrowly failed: 61% of the south Illinois electorate voted to retain Karmeier for another 10-year term.

So last month the attorneys filed a motion to have Karmeier removed from the case. Their reason? Karmeier is likely biased against them because of their persistent efforts to get rid of him, and the integrity of the courts requires the removal of judges whose impartiality might reasonably be questioned. The motion lacks merit and should be denied. Motions of this sort are doing far more to undermine public confidence in the integrity of the judicial system than could a judge’s decision to hear a case despite self-interested allegations of partiality. As Justice Antonin Scalia has explained, such motions feed the perception that litigation is just a game, that the party with the most resourceful lawyer can play it to win, and that our seemingly interminable legal proceedings are wonderfully self-perpetuating but incapable of delivering real-world justice. Continue reading

The “21st Century Cures Act” Draft Legislation Includes Welcome Support for First Amendment Rights

FDAThe House Energy and Commerce Committee released a 400-page “discussion draft” of its proposed “21st Century Cures Act” late last month. The bill includes a broad range of reforms governing the regulation of drugs and medical devices, most of which have been warmly received by broad segments of those industries. The bill is particularly welcome to supporters of commercial speech rights; it includes several provisions designed to ensure that government regulators do not prevent manufacturers from speaking truthfully about their medical products.

Social Media

One particular area of concern has been Food and Drug Administration (FDA) restrictions on manufacturer use of social media. Subtitle I of Title I of the bill would overturn those restrictions. One characteristic of social media is that it places a premium on brevity. For example, Twitter limits messages to 140 characters or less. In a Draft Guidance issued on June 18, 2014, FDA concluded that drug/device manufacturers should rarely, if ever, attempt to use social media platforms with character space limitations because those limitations deprives manufacturers of sufficient space to include all the risk and benefit information that the agency asserts is a necessary part of any such communications. It is not sufficient, FDA concluded, for a Twitter message to include the name of the drug and its intended uses, and then provide a hyperlink where detailed risk and benefit information is available. But as Washington Legal Foundation (WLF) pointed out in comments urging withdrawal of the Draft Guidance, a de facto prohibition on use of social media platforms raises serious First Amendment concerns. The First Amendment does not allow the government to prohibit an entire method of communication simply because other methods of communications are available to the speaker, at least not where the government’s goals can be achieved through more narrowly tailored means. Continue reading

The D.C. Circuit’s “POM Wonderful” Decision: Not So Wonderful for FTC’s Randomized Clinical Trial Push

FTC_Man_Controlling_TradeThe U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit last Friday largely upheld the Federal Trade Commission’s (“FTC”) ruling that POM Wonderful, Inc. violated the Federal Trade Commission Act by making unwarranted disease-prevention claims for its pomegranate juice products. But the ruling is far from the sweeping endorsement of FTC advertising-control measures that the Commission might have been hoping for. In particular, the ruling provides little, if any, support for the FTC’s recent assertions that food and dietary supplement manufacturers are largely barred from including health-related claims on product labels unless their claims are supported by randomized and controlled human clinical trials (“RCTs”). To the contrary, the appeals court made clear medical studies that do not meet RCT standards may nonetheless have considerable value, and that the FTC’s regulation of advertising is subject to strict First Amendment limitations. The decision suggests that courts may be very reluctant to uphold the FTC’s application of RCT standards to claims that a product promotes general health and nutrition, as distinct from claims that a product is effective in preventing or curing specific diseases.

POM’s ads were an easy target for the FTC. The ads touted POM’s products as effective in preventing a variety of diseases/conditions, including cardiovascular disease, prostate cancer, and erectile dysfunction (“ED”). Yet they failed to mention numerous shortcomings in the medical studies on which the disease-prevention claims were based—including that the studies’ findings were directly contradicted by other, larger clinical studies. Indeed, the D.C. Circuit held that it would have concluded that the ads were deceptive even had it chosen to apply a de novo standard of review to the FTC’s findings. (Because the case was on appeal from an FTC administrative proceeding, the D.C. Circuit reviewed those findings under a far more deferential “substantial evidence” standard.) Continue reading

Supreme Court Observations: The Fair Housing Act and “Disparate Impact” Claims

supreme courtThe Supreme Court on Wednesday will hear arguments in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project, a case that will determine whether the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) applies to conduct that, although not intentionally discriminatory, has an allegedly disparate impact on protected groups. Assertions that disparate-impact claims are cognizable under the FHA are difficult to square with the statutory language, which bars housing discrimination “because of” race, color, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin. The phrase “because of” suggests volition by the defendant, not merely that the effects of his actions were felt more strongly by members of protected groups. Proponents of disparate-impact liability frequently respond that whatever the scope of the FHA when first adopted in 1968, Congress later expanded the statute by acquiescing to an unbroken line of court and Executive Branch decisions that had interpreted the FHA as encompassing disparate-impact claims.

But an examination of the federal appeals court decisions cited by the Solicitor General and other disparate-impact claims proponents indicates that lower courts’ endorsement of such claims has been anything but uniform. Thus, putting to one side whether it is ever appropriate to discern the meaning of a federal statute based on evidence of Congress’s inaction in the wake of decisions construing the statute, the case for using that method of statutory interpretation in this instance is particularly weak.

In making the case for congressional acquiescence, the Solicitor General’s brief focuses on 1988, when Congress amended several FHA provisions but did not amend the “because of” language set forth in 42 U.S.C.§ 3604(a). According to the Solicitor General, “Between the enactment of the FHA in 1968 and its amendment in 1988, all nine of the courts of appeals to consider the issue concluded that the Act authorizes disparate impact claims.” Based on that history, he asserts, the 1988 amendments “confirm” that Congress sanctioned disparate-impact claims under the FHA. Continue reading