Supreme Court Preview: The Top 10 Manufacturing Cases

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The Supreme Court’s new term began this month with only eight Justices, with prospects slim for adding a ninth in time to participate in any of the cases being argued over the next seven months. It is thus harder to get a majority of five to agree on a result, and therefore more likely that rulings already made by the lower courts will stand.

Nevertheless, oral arguments will proceed and manufacturers are concerned about ten upcoming decisions that will affect their competitiveness and ability to create jobs.

High on our priority list is Microsoft v. Baker, a class action involving the Xbox 360 console. The Court will decide whether an appeals court was correct in allowing an immediate appeal of a decision that refused to allow a group of plaintiffs to file a class action when they had already voluntarily dismissed their claims. It’s a tortured procedural issue, but will determine whether class action plaintiffs can appeal decisions that deny class certification – that is, decisions that require each plaintiff to sue individually for the damages they allege. The Manufacturers’ Center for Legal Action filed briefs in this case.

Another important case challenges whether the general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board properly authorized thousands of complaints against companies for labor law violations. The outcome could affect decisions made by senior government officials at six other government agencies as well. See our previous blog post here for details.

Other significant cases on the docket are:

  • Samsung Electronics Co. v. Apple Inc. Apple claimed that Samsung infringed upon the patented design of Apple’s iPhone. The legal issue involves calculating damages for infringement – whether “total profit” from the infringement is calculated from sales of all the phones, or rather whether it should be some fraction of that based on the extent to which the design was used on the infringing phones.
  • Star Athletica, LLC v. Varsity Brands, Inc. The Court will explain the appropriate test to determine when the design of a useful article is protected by copyright law. Designs may be copyrighted, but “useful articles” may not.
  • SCA Hygiene Prod. v. First Quality Baby Prod. Patent owners may lose their rights if they don’t sue fast enough for infringement. The Court will clarify the doctrine of “laches” under the patent laws.
  • Venezuela v. Helmerich & Payne Int’l. A company sued Venezuela for expropriating eleven oil drilling rigs and related property, and the question is whether that government can be sued under provisions of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.
  • Life Technologies Corp. v. Promega Corp. At issue is whether supplying a single component of a patented multi-component invention violates a law prohibiting companies from supplying “all or a substantial portion of the components of a patented invention” and from inducing the combination of components overseas in a way that would infringe a patent. The Court will decide how broadly this statute should be interpreted to punish manufacturers of parts that are incorporated into others that infringe patents.
  • Visa, Inc. v. Osborn. Industry trade associations must be careful to avoid agreements in restraint of trade under the antitrust laws, and this case involves whether members of an association are deemed to have entered into an agreement merely because they agree to adhere to an association’s governance rules. The issue arose from an agreement among credit card companies and banks over fees when using automated teller machines. It could result in even stricter limits on association activities.
  • Expressions Hair Design v. Schneiderman. The government regularly compels manufacturers to say things about their products or services that are controversial, without sufficient legal justification. This case involves a law that allows different pricing for cash and credit-card transactions, but prohibits retailers from calling a credit-card differential a “surcharge.” The Court will decide whether this law violates the First Amendment because it restricts what merchants can tell their customers.
  • Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. Haeger. If a manufacturer hires trial counsel to defend a product liability case, and that counsel fails to turn over relevant documents during discovery, what sanction may a court impose on the company? In this case, the Court will decide whether the damages must be limited to the harm directly caused by the misconduct, or can be much higher, without affording the parties the protections of criminal due process.

In addition to some of these cases, the Manufacturers’ Center for Legal Action has been active in others awaiting a decision whether the Court will hear the appeals. We will provide an update on those cases in another blog post shortly.

Supreme Court Preview: Hundreds of NLRB Complaints Are at Risk

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An unusual statutory restraint on the appointment process for the general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is at the heart of a significant case about to be heard by the Supreme Court of the United States. The provision is part of the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998. The court will decide whether Lafe Solomon, a long-serving NLRB official and former acting general counsel of the board for several years, could actually serve as acting general counsel in the face of statutory language prohibiting such service if he was nominated to be general counsel but had not served long enough as first assistant general counsel.

It’s a technical provision with a “notwithstanding” clause that has caused all the confusion. That clause only refers to one subsection of the law, but the rest of the statutory language refers to the entire section. A federal appeals court ruled that Solomon was prohibited from serving as acting general counsel after his nomination and that the unfair labor practice complaint that was issued on his authority was invalid.

The NLRB issues more than 1,200 complaints each year, so thousands of decisions were made by the general counsel or those to whom he delegated decision-making authority from January 5, 2011, to November 4, 2013. This challenge could allow many of those cases to be revisited.

But the case will have an impact on many other federal agencies, arguably going back to 1998. In April, the administration warned the Supreme Court that “Decisions of many former acting officers, including senior officers in the HHS Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, DOJ, DOT, Department of Defense, the Export-Import Bank and General Services Administration could be open to question under the court of appeals’ reasoning. Moreover, the decision below casts a cloud over the service of about half a dozen current acting high-level officers, including in the DOT, HHS, EPA and OPM.”

The Manufacturers’ Center for Legal Action is on the front lines challenging a variety of NLRB actions that skew policy and law against manufacturers in the United States. We look forward to oral arguments at the court on November 7 and a decision thereafter.

Litigation Over the Clean Power Plan: The Big Picture

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The entire bench of the federal appeals court in the District of Columbia is hearing nearly four hours of arguments tomorrow in 39 lawsuits challenging the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan regulation. The challengers represent a broad swath of industries, including mining, transportation, electric utilities, manufacturers and consumers of energy, as well as 27 states.

The Manufacturers’ Center for Legal Action, joined by a manufacturing coalition of more than a dozen other national trade groups, is involved in this case because we are very concerned that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has imposed a set of regulations on electric utility companies that is not authorized by, and contradicts specific provisions of, the Clean Air Act. The rule’s goal is to restructure the power sector by imposing emissions limits that are unachievable without switching fuel inputs. This could undermine the reliability of the electric grid and cause higher energy rates for consumers, including manufacturers in the United States. A ruling in favor of the rule would set the EPA up to impose greenhouse gas regulations on many other sectors of manufacturing.

This case has all the earmarks of a major case that will wind up in the Supreme Court, probably in the fall of 2017. Normally only three judges would hear this first round of arguments, but the appellate court decided to go straight to the full panel of 10 (not counting Chief Judge Garland, who is not participating). This unusual step signals that the judges consider this case extraordinary, and the court has set aside its largest courtroom and two overflow rooms for the large anticipated attendance from litigants and the public.

This regulation is of existential importance for certain sectors and will put substantial upward pressure on energy costs for many manufacturers and other consumers. But beyond raising legal issues of statutory construction, administrative procedure and constitutional compliance, the Clean Power Plan is a prototype for the kind of regulation that tests the limits of the executive branch. Whoever wins the upcoming election, the next administration will have to live within the contours of decisions like the one in this case. The power to regulate comes from the Constitution and the laws enacted in compliance with it, and the courts stand as the final judge on how far that authority goes.

NAM Challenges the DOL’s New Overtime Rule

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The Manufacturers’ Center for Legal Action filed a complaint with a coalition of other associations on September 20 to challenge the Department of Labor’s (DOL) new overtime rule, asserting the new rule exceeds the authority of the DOL under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Unless a court stops it, this unprecedented rule will impair employers’ ability to classify as exempt from overtime executive, administrative, professional and computer employees. The new rule will go into effect on December 1, 2016, causing economic harm to both employers and the employees who will be subject to the new overtime requirements.

The new overtime rule drastically alters the DOL’s minimum salary requirements—increasing the minimum by 100 percent, from $23,660 to $47,476 annually—so as to impose new overtime payment requirements on businesses of all sizes. This directly effects those individuals who have historically been considered exempt from overtime pay. Due to the drastic rise in the salary threshold, employees will have to be reclassified and will inevitably lose many of the benefits and flexibilities that go along with being an exempt employee, such as flexible work schedules that permit employees to sometimes work outside of the normal business hours due to personal obligations.

In addition, the DOL’s new rule permits employers for the first time to count nondiscretionary bonuses, incentives and commissions toward up to 10 percent of the minimum salary level for exemption; however, this provision is so restricted by the DOL as to be meaningless. It also establishes an unprecedented automatic “escalator” provision that will dramatically increase the minimum salary every three years without a rulemaking. Congress has provided for automatic increases in other areas, such as the cost of living for Social Security benefits, but Congress has never provided for automatic increases of the minimum wage. The escalator provision exacerbates the detrimental impact on businesses, both large and small, by automatically updating the minimum salary requirements to even higher levels every three years.

The DOL has failed to recognize the infeasibility, costs and real-world impacts of the new overtime rule. As noted in our press release, manufacturers of all sizes will bear the burden of this costly regulation that will force many employers to cut critical programming, staffing and services to the public. Many of these employers will lose the ability to effectively manage their workforces and provide flexibility to valued employees on the pathway to the middle class. This new rule will injure employers and employees across many industries, job categories and geographic areas by denying them opportunities for advancement and hindering performance of their jobs. We are hopeful that the court will understand the importance of this issue and overturn the DOL’s new overtime rule.

Rhode Island Lawsuit Targets Deep Pockets, Not Justice

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A bedrock principle of tort law in this country is that the party who causes the damage is the one who should be liable for fixing the damage. Even under a standard of “strict liability” where a defendant is liable without a finding of fault, courts require a showing that the damage in question was actually caused by the defendant at the table.

A lawsuit recently filed in Rhode Island, led by the state’s Attorney General and staffed by hired-gun private plaintiff’s lawyers who stand to make a mint if the lawsuit is successful, seeks to break from this foundational principle. That should be of concern to any manufacturer that could become the target of creative plaintiffs’ lawyer lawsuits—which is to say, to every manufacturer.

The lawsuit involves the gasoline oxygenate MTBE, which was for a time blended with motor fuel in order to meet federal emissions standards. The problem with MTBE is that it is highly water soluble, and if underground storage tanks containing gasoline leak, the MTBE stored in them can contaminate groundwater. Of course, the owners of these tanks, if they can be identified, have always been, and continue to be, responsible for cleaning up such leaks. On top of that, Congress created a special trust fund to pay for cleanups when the owner or cause is unknown, or where the owner may not have the wherewithal to pay. The fund, which has been around since the mid-1980s, is paid for by a tax levied on the petroleum industry on every gallon of fuel sold.

Unfortunately, many of the states where MTBE was most heavily used are also states that have suffered poor economic growth and have faced major budget challenges in recent years. This has led many of these states, including Rhode Island, to raid their cleanup funds for other state budget priorities, thus creating the need to find alternative sources of funds to handle these cleanups. Cue the trial bar, who have shopped MTBE lawsuits to several state Attorneys General and have found fertile hunting ground in the cash-strapped northeastern states.

The Rhode Island legal filing includes a smorgasbord of legal theories intended to bypass the inconvenient need to show that the defendants in the case actually caused the damage the lawsuit seeks to remedy. The case seeks to pin liability on any company that sold reformulated fuel in the state—regardless of whose actions or whose storage tanks actually caused contamination. It is remarkably a sanction based on simply doing business in the state of Rhode Island, which the state seeks to allocate according to the market share held by industry participants during the relevant time period. Beyond the tort law implications of this case, it is remarkable that a state so badly in need of economic investment would target an industry simply for doing business there.

No matter how much money defendants have paid into the state fund to cover such cleanups and regardless of the extensive efforts they may have already gone through to prevent leaks and to remediate those that occurred under their watch, the companies are targeted in this lawsuit because they are perceived as most able to pay. This is a case about targeting deep pockets, not about remedying past wrongs, and certainly not about justice.

Unequal Justice Under Law: NAM Files Brief Challenging NLRB’s Permissive Discrimination

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On September 2, the Manufacturers’ Center for Legal Action filed an amicus brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eight Circuit challenging a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decision forcing Cooper Tire & Rubber Company (Cooper) to reinstate an employee who used racial epithets toward a replacement worker while the employee was on the picket line. The NLRB’s decision overturned an arbitration decision finding that Cooper dismissed its employee for good cause. This decision does not align with existing federal law, forces manufacturers to execute a policy that leaves them open to civil liability and requires businesses to tolerate behavior antithetical to American values.

The NLRB’s decision to reinstate an employee who used racist speech does not follow federal law by violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 42 U.S.C. § 1981. These laws prohibit discrimination and harassment on grounds such as race and allow for an employer to fire an employee in violation. The work environment should encourage openness and understanding of all employee backgrounds. Forcing a company to condone racist behavior violates other workers’ rights to a hostile-free workplace. Ultimately, this decision by the NLRB significantly diminishes an employer’s ability to cultivate an inclusive work environment, which hurts workers, productivity and profit.

Not only does this decision negatively impact the working environment, but it also forces manufacturers to accept conduct, which leaves them open to liability. Under federal law, when a racial statement is made directly to an employee, an employer can be liable if it knows about the statement and fails to take proper action. If the NLRB’s erroneous decision is upheld, employers in many instances will be forced to allow discrimination to continue, instead of firing employees for racial harassment. This would, therefore, require employers to follow a pro-discriminatory policy, exposing them to possible litigation and allegations of cultivating a hostile workplace environment.

This NLRB decision challenges American progress on issues of race and diversity in both business and culture. Employers should not be required to condone racism in the workplace. We are hopeful that the Eighth Circuit will understand the importance of overturning this discriminatory NLRB decision, which not only negatively impacts the way we conduct business but also the way we conduct ourselves.

Administration Shoehorns Modern Problems into Antiquated Laws

By | Briefly Legal, Manufacturers’ Center for Legal Action, Shopfloor Legal, Shopfloor Main | No Comments

The federal government is now routinely using laws passed before the invention of the fax machine to control dynamic information systems like cloud computing and broadband access. These efforts to regulate and police the innovation economy will loosen constitutional privacy protections and chill technological innovation.

For example, relying on the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, the Department of Justice has recently sought to search Microsoft customers’ e-mails. Microsoft has pushed back, alleging that the Justice Department’s orders violate its customers’ privacy and infringe on its right to free speech. Many of these demands prohibit Microsoft from informing customers that their information is being investigated.

Most laws governing government searches were written before the widespread use of digital communications. At that time, if the government wanted to execute a search warrant to look through one’s files, notice was necessary since a search would require entering a home or office to access documents. Now that many Internet users store their information in the cloud, rather than locally on their computers, the government can bypass notification of the customer by directly contacting providers such as Microsoft. Therefore, simply because the location of information has changed, users now experience different legal protections. Microsoft argues this is unconstitutional because Fourth Amendment protections on the reasonableness of searches should not discriminate based on how a citizen stores his or her information.

The privacy and free speech implications of the government’s actions have significant consequences for the greater business community and the innovation economy. When the government treats those who store their information at home differently than those who use the cloud, individuals are less inclined to use this potentially transformative new technology to protect their privacy. When individuals forgo cloud-computing services, innovative manufacturers will lose customers.

The National Association of Manufacturers will continue its fight to uphold proper constitutional protections and promote balanced and reasonable resolution through the courts.

Canada in Crosshairs for Promise Utility Doctrine at Investor Dispute Hearing

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Co-authored by Linda Dempsey, Vice President of International Economic Affairs

Canada’s attempts to defend a questionable intellectual property approach have taken a hit in recent weeks as government experts faced scrutiny from a team of neutral international arbitrators, based on the official hearing transcripts released on August 3. These hearings are vitally important for a wide range of innovative manufacturing companies using patents or investing internationally.

During two weeks of International Court of Settlement for Investment Disputes (ICSID) hearings in late May and early June, Canadian officials and experts faced crossfire for attempts to defend Canada’s “promise utility doctrine.” This rule, which constitutes a “revolution” in Canadian patent law, was invented by their courts and rests on the concept that patents that do not fulfill their “promise”as arbitrarily construed by the courts often years after the patent was filedcan be ruled invalid, even if they meet all of the internationally accepted criteria for patentability. Canadian courts began freely applying the rule in 2005 and have since revoked 25 patents that were invented to help millions of people suffering from cancer, osteoporosis, diabetic nerve pain and other serious conditions. Read More

Good News in Case Against “Legal Fraud of the Century”

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There’s some good news today from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in Chevron’s long-running battle over a court ruling in Ecuador that was obtained through a fraudulent scheme. The court affirmed the lower court’s decision, ruling that Chevron does not have to pay billions of dollars in damages because the original verdict was the product of fraud and racketeering activity.

If you’re a regular Shopfloor reader, you will recall many of the details of this case against Chevron, which has been referred to as the legal fraud of the century.” You can read more about the Second Circuit’s verdict and the long, drawn-out court battle here.

The case involves an American plaintiffs’ lawyer drumming up a lawsuit against Chevron for environmental damage in Ecuador, even though Chevron has never operated in Ecuador. As the case unraveled in a very public battle, it turned into a saga of fabricated evidence, intimidation and bribery—or unscrupulous lawyers and corrupt government officials conspiring to make billions they did not deserve.

In short, this case is a reminder that bad actors do try to pervert the justice system for their own financial gain—and that we must remain vigilant against such fraud and corruption. The Second Circuit’s ruling is a victory for Chevron and the people they employ, but more importantly for the rule of the law.

Court Ruling Pushes EPA Toward More Regulation

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Government agencies have a tremendous advantage when it comes to defending new regulations in court. Judges start with a legal presumption that not only gives the benefit of the doubt to the agency, but sets a very high bar for reversing rules that most people might not have issued. As long as an agency’s rules are authorized by statute and not clearly erroneous or otherwise an abuse of discretion, courts will accept them.

That’s what the D.C. Circuit did today when it largely upheld the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) rules on boilers and incinerators. All of the challenges to the rules by the Manufacturers’ Center for Legal Action and other business organizations were rejected by the appellate court. The court upheld one EPA requirement that could not be met by any small, remote incinerator or heavy oil-fired boiler in use today. It similarly rejected industry complaints about new energy assessment and recordkeeping requirements, as well as concerns about compliance with the rules when equipment malfunctions despite full compliance with regulations and due diligence by operators.

What is unusual is that the court agreed with several arguments made by environmental groups. It ordered the EPA to issue a regulation for cyclonic burn barrels and to decide whether certain other incinerators must be regulated under the Clean Air Act. The court also ordered the agency to provide further explanations about the decisions it made not to regulate emissions of a certain hazardous pollutant (non-dioxin/furan organic pollutant), about why certain exemptions should be allowed and about why it declined to regulate certain non-mercury emissions.

The bottom line is the court upheld all of the EPA’s regulations and ordered the agency to cover even more than it did, or at least give a full explanation of why it won’t.

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