SCOTUS Opinion Update: Drug Dealing, Patent Stealing, and Crazy Pilots | VALID | #TWIBnation

SCOTUS Opinion Update: Drug Dealing, Patent Stealing, and Crazy Pilots

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The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), decided three cases this week, and one case last week, all of which shed light on several pressing questions in your life and mine. For instance, just how many lies can airline employees can tell about you, if they think you’re suspicious, before you can sue them? Can you get paid for that extra hour it takes you to put on all your protective gear for your job? If I sell drugs to someone and they die of an overdose, is their death (and the 20 years in prison for it) on me? And, finally, is it still my job to show a court that someone is infringing on my patent, when they are the ones who sue me?  Let’s find out!

Air Wisconsin Airlines Corp. v. Hoeper, No. 12-315 (Jan. 27, 2014)

Holding: Airlines are immune from defamation claims under the Aviation and Transportation Security Act if what airline employees say is “materially true”.

Analysis: The plaintiff in this case is a pilot who got really pissed off and swore and threatened people when he failed a licensing test for the fourth time. He had to fly home as a passenger, and before he got on the plane, Air Wisconsin informed the TSA that the pilot’s mental stability was questionable, and that he might be armed, though he wasn’t. The TSA pulled the pilot off that plane, and he had to fly home later. He sued Air Wisconsin for defamation (aka slander) in Colorado state court, saying that the Air Wisconsin employees lied about him to the TSA. Under the Aviation and Transportation Security Act airline employees are immune from civil liability for statements reporting suspicious behavior. Reversing the Supreme Court of Colorado, SCOTUS clarified that airlines are, indeed, immune from civil liability as long as their reports of suspicious behavior as “materially true.”

Does This Matter?: Maybe. It shows that there’s still a strong desire on SCOTUS’ part to perpetuate the TSA’s ability to perform American Security Theatre without fear of being sued for saying false things about suspicious people. It only “maybe” matters because it won’t change much; we already knew the TSA could do pretty much anything.

Sandifer v. United States Steel Corp., No. 12-417 (Jan. 27, 2014)

Holding: Workers can’t get paid for the time spent putting on or removing the protective gear they are required by their employer to wear to work.

Analysis: Workers United States Steel Corp. are required by their employer to wear protective gear so that they don’t die of the hazards on the job or cost the plant a huge fine for violating federal and state regulations. A group of U.S. Steel employees brought suit under the Fair Labor Standards Act, saying that they should be paid for the time it takes to put on and take off their protective gear, since they have to wear it in order to work. SCOTUS ruled against the employees, ruling that, even though  §203 of the Fair Labor Standards Act allowed for it, the union agreement at U.S. Steel did not require management to compensate the employees for time spent changing clothes into their workplace gear.

Does This Matter?: Yes. This decision means that workers’ rights are limited by the union agreements that apply to them. This decision clarifies that the contracts between employees and employers are extremely strong when it comes to articulating, and limiting, employee rights . . . as strong (or stronger) than federal law.

Burrage v. United States, No. 12-7515 (Jan. 27, 2014)

Holding: If the customer of a drug dealer dies, but the death isn’t due to the drugs the dealer sold, that dealer’s penalty cannot be enhanced.  

Analysis: Burrage was a heroin dealer, and Banka was a longtime heroin addict. Banka overdosed and died, using at least some drugs that Burrage sold him. Burrage’s indictment alleged that he 1) unlawfully distributed heroin and 2) “death . . . resulted from the use of that substance.” The Controlled Substances Act enhances drug penalties when they cause death or bodily harm, so that “death resulted” element means that Burrage was subjected to a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence. SCOTUS ruled that, since the record showed that Banka might have died even if he had not taken the heroin that Burrage sold him, Banka’s death was not sufficient to increase Burrage’s penalty.   

Does This Matter?: Yes. This is another in the cases incrementally chipping away at the harsh penalties for drug crimes. These legacies of the War on Drugs have perpetuated violence on poor Americans, mostly of color, for the past three decades.

Medtronic v. Mirowski Family Ventures, No. 12–1128 (Jan. 22, 2014)

Holding: Patent holders always have the burden of proving that their patent was infringed.

Analysis:  Mirowski Family Ventures is a company that owns several patents. They have various agreements with Medtronic, another company, that allows Medtronic to use their patented technology. But, Mirowski thought Medtronic was using some technology it hadn’t paid for a license to use. So, Mirowski threatened to sue Medtronic for infringing its patents. In response, Medtronic went to court, seeking a “declaratory judgment.” In this type of case, the user of patented technology asks the court to “declare” that it is not infringing on the patent by using the technology, instead of waiting for the patent owner to sue them. When Medtronic took them to court, Mirowski alleged that Medtronic had to prove they were not infringing, rather than Mirowski itself having to prove that they were infringing. SCOTUS disagreed, and said that the patent holder (Mirowski) always has the burden to show the court how their patent is being infringed, even though they are not the ones who originally brought the lawsuit.

Does this matter?Yes, because this is the first of several patent cases before SCOTUS this term, and SCOTUS doesn’t normally take patent cases. The only court that decides patent cases, the Federal Circuit, often does its own thing, with basically no fear of a successful appeal of its decisions. This decision, however, goes against the Federal Circuit’s normal, pro-patent-holder pattern. SCOTUS probably didn’t take so many patent cases because they wanted to cosign everything the Federal Circuit was already doing, so it will be interesting to see how patent law changes this year.

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Rad-Femme Lawyer

Rad-Femme Lawyer is a practicing litigator living in Chicago, and a contributor of legal information and opinions to #TWiBNation, Her professional concentrations are commercial and securities litigation, and she also does pro bono work in special education access and employment discrimination.

View all contributions by Rad-Femme Lawyer

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