Justia Government & Administrative Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Supreme Court

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New Indiana law altered the manner in which abortion providers may dispose of fetal remains. It excluded fetal remains from the definition of infectious and pathological waste, thereby preventing incineration of fetal remains along with surgical byproducts. It also authorized simultaneous cremation of fetal remains, which Indiana does not generally allow for human remains. The law did not affect a woman’s right under existing law “to determine the final disposition of the aborted fetus.” The Supreme Court reversed the Seventh Circuit, upholding the provision. The law does not create an undue burden on a woman’s right to obtain an abortion and does not implicate a fundamental right; it is subject only to ordinary rational basis review. The Supreme Court has previously acknowledged that a state has a “legitimate interest in proper disposal of fetal remains.” Indiana’s law is rationally related to that interest, even if it is not perfectly tailored to that end. The Court denied certiorari and declined to address the second issue, i.e., whether Indiana may prohibit the knowing provision of sex-, race-, and disability- selective abortions. Only the Seventh Circuit has addressed that kind of law and the Supreme Court ordinarily denies petitions insofar as they raise legal issues that have not been considered by additional Courts of Appeals. View "Box v. Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky, Inc." on Justia Law

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The Social Security Act permits judicial review of “any final decision . . . after a hearing” by the Social Security Administration (SSA), 42 U.S.C. 405(g). Claimants for Title XVI supplemental security income disability benefits must generally proceed through a four-step process before federal-court review: seek an initial determination of eligibility; seek reconsideration; request a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ); and seek review of the ALJ’s decision by the Appeals Council within 60 days of receiving the ALJ’s ruling. If the claimant misses that deadline and cannot show good cause for doing so, the Appeals Council dismisses the request. Smith’s claim for disability benefits was denied on initial determination, upon reconsideration, and on the merits by an ALJ. The Appeals Council dismissed Smith’s request for review as untimely. Smith sought judicial review of the dismissal. The Sixth Circuit affirmed dismissal for lack of jurisdiction, holding that the Appeals Council’s dismissal of an untimely petition is not a “final decision.” A unanimous Supreme Court reversed. An Appeals Council dismissal on timeliness grounds after a claimant has had an ALJ hearing on the merits qualifies as a “final decision . . . made after a hearing” under section 405(g). The Appeals Council’s dismissal is the final stage of review, 20 CFR 416.1472; Smith obtained the kind of hearing that section 405(g) most naturally suggests. The dismissal is not merely collateral but an end to a proceeding in which a substantial factual record has been developed. The Court noted that “Congress designed [the statute as a whole] to be ‘unusually protective’ of claimants” and “the strong presumption that Congress intends judicial review of administrative action.” View "Smith v. Berryhill" on Justia Law

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An 1868 treaty between the United States and the Crow Tribe promised that in exchange for the Tribe’s territory in modern-day Montana and Wyoming, its members would “have the right to hunt on the unoccupied lands of the United States so long as game may be found thereon . . . and peace subsists,” 15 Stat. 650. In 2014, Wyoming charged Herrera with off-season hunting in Bighorn National Forest. The state court held that the treaty right expired upon Wyoming’s statehood and that, in any event, the national forest became categorically "occupied" when it was created. The Supreme Court vacated. Hunting rights under the Treaty did not expire upon Wyoming’s statehood. The crucial inquiry is whether Congress “clearly express[ed]” an intent to abrogate an Indian treaty right or whether a termination point identified in the treaty has been satisfied, The Wyoming Statehood Act does not clearly express an intent to end the Treaty's hunting right. There is no evidence in the Treaty that Congress intended the hunting right to expire at statehood, or that the Tribe would have understood it to do so. Bighorn National Forest did not become categorically “occupied” within the meaning of the Treaty when the national forest was created. Construing the treaty’s terms as “they would naturally be understood by the Indians,” the word “unoccupied” denoted an area free of residence or settlement by non-Indians. Nor would mining and logging of the forest lands before 1897 have caused the Tribe to view the Bighorn Mountains as occupied. The Court clarified that Bighorn National Forest is not categorically occupied, but that not all areas within the forest are necessarily unoccupied and did not address whether Wyoming could regulate the Treaty right “in the interest of conservation.” View "Herrera v. Wyoming" on Justia Law

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Merck’s drug Fosamax treats and prevents osteoporosis in postmenopausal women. When the FDA approved Fosamax in 1995 (21 U.S.C. 355(d)), its label did not warn of the then-speculative risk of atypical femoral fractures associated with the drug. Stronger evidence connecting Fosamax to such fractures developed later. The FDA ordered Merck to add a warning to the Fosamax label in 2011. Individuals who took Fosamax and suffered atypical femoral fractures sued, claiming that state law imposed upon Merck a legal duty to warn. Merck asserted that the FDA would have rejected any attempt to change the label. The district court agreed with Merck’s pre-emption argument and granted Merck summary judgment. The Third Circuit vacated. The Supreme Court remanded. The Third Circuit incorrectly treated the pre-emption question as one of fact. A state-law failure-to-warn claim is pre-empted where there is “clear evidence” that the FDA would not have approved a change to the label. “Clear evidence” shows the court that the manufacturer fully informed the FDA of the justifications for the warning and that the FDA would not approve a label change to include that warning. FDA regulations permit drug manufacturers to change a label to “reflect newly acquired information” if the changes “add or strengthen a . . . warning” for which there is “evidence of a causal association.” The pre-emption question can only be determined by agency actions taken pursuant to the FDA’s congressionally delegated authority. The question of agency disapproval is primarily one of law for a judge to decide. Judges, rather than juries, are better equipped to evaluate an agency’s determination and to understand and interpret agency decisions in the statutory and regulatory context. While contested facts will sometimes prove relevant, they are subsumed within a tightly-circumscribed legal analysis and do not warrant submission to a jury. View "Merck Sharp & Dohme Corp. v. Albrecht" on Justia Law

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The False Claims Act permits a private person (relator) to bring a qui tam civil action in the name of the Federal] Government, 31 U.S.C. 3730(b), against any person who “knowingly presents . . . a false or fraudulent claim for payment” to the Government or to certain third parties acting on the Government’s behalf. The Government may choose to intervene. An action must be brought within either six years after the statutory violation occurred or three years after the “the official of the United States charged with responsibility to act in the circumstances” knew or should have known the relevant facts, but not more than 10 years after the violation, section 3731(b)(2). The later date starts the limitations period. In November 2013, Hunt filed suit alleging that defense contractors (Cochise) defrauded the Government by submitting false payment claims for providing security services in Iraq until early 2007. Hunt claims that he revealed Cochise’s allegedly fraudulent scheme during a November 30, 2010, interview with federal officials about his role in an unrelated contracting fraud. The United States declined to intervene. The Eleventh Circuit reversed the dismissal of the case. A unanimous Supreme Court affirmed. Section 3731(b)(2) applies in a relator-initiated suit in which the Government has declined to intervene. Both Government-initiated suits and relator-initiated suits are “civil action[s] under section 3730,” so the plain text of the statute makes the two limitations periods applicable in both types of suits. The relator in a non-intervened suit is not “the official of the United States” whose knowledge triggers section 3731(b)(2)’s three-year limitations period. A private relator is neither appointed as an officer of nor employed by the United States; private relators are not “charged with responsibility to act.” View "Cochise Consultancy, Inc. v. United States" on Justia Law

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Hyatt sued the Franchise Tax Board of California in Nevada state court for alleged torts committed during a tax audit. The Supreme Court affirmed the Nevada Supreme Court, holding that the Full Faith and Credit Clause did not prohibit Nevada from applying its own immunity law. On remand, the Nevada Supreme Court declined to apply a cap on tort liability applicable to Nevada state agencies. The Supreme Court reversed but was divided on whether to overrule Nevada v. Hall, which held that the Constitution does not bar suits brought by an individual against a state in the courts of another state. On remand, the Nevada Supreme Court instructed the trial court to enter damages in accordance with Nevada’s statutory cap. The Supreme Court then overruled Nevada v. Hall. States retain sovereign immunity from private suits brought in courts of other states. The Constitution assumes that the states retain sovereign immunity except as otherwise provided and fundamentally adjusts the states’ relationship with each other. Article III abrogated certain aspects of the states’ traditional immunity by providing a neutral federal forum in which the states agreed to be amenable to suits brought by other states; in ratifying the Constitution, the states similarly surrendered some of their immunity, consenting to suits brought against them by the United States in federal courts. The Eleventh Amendment confirms that the Constitution was not meant to “rais[e] up” any suits against the states that were “anomalous and unheard of when the Constitution was adopted,” and implies that the Constitution was understood, in light of its history and structure, to preserve the states’ traditional immunity from private suits. State sovereign immunity in another state’s courts is integral to the structure of the Constitution. The states “are no longer fully independent nations free to disregard each other’s sovereignty.” View "Franchise Tax Board of California v. Hyatt" on Justia Law

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The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a government-owned corporation that provides electric power to millions of Americans, may “sue and be sued" in its corporate name; 16 U.S.C. 831c(b), waives some of the sovereign immunity from suit that it would have enjoyed as a federal government entity. The Federal Torts Claims Act subsequently waived immunity from tort suits involving federal agencies, except for claims based on a federal employee’s performance of a “discretionary function,” 28 U.S.C. 2680(a). Congress specifically excluded from the FTCA—including the discretionary function exception—claims arising from TVA activities. TVA employees were raising a downed power line that was partially submerged in the Tennessee River when Thacker drove his boat into the area at high speed and collided with the power line, seriously injuring him and killing his passenger. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the suit. The Supreme Court unanimously reversed and remanded. TVA’s sue-and-be-sued clause is not subject to a discretionary function exception and Congress made a considered decision not to apply the FTCA to the TVA. The Court declined “to negate that legislative choice.” An “implied restriction” is appropriate only where the suit at issue is “not consistent with the statutory or constitutional scheme” or the restriction is “necessary to avoid grave interference with the performance of a governmental function.” The discretionary acts of hybrid entities like the TVA may be commercial in nature, and a suit challenging a commercial act will not interfere with governmental functions. To determine whether the TVA has immunity, the court on remand must decide whether the allegedly-negligent conduct is governmental or commercial in nature, and, if governmental, decide whether prohibiting this type of suit is necessary to avoid grave interference with the governmental function’s performance. View "Thacker v. Tennesse Valley Authority" on Justia Law

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Biestek, a former construction worker, applied for social security disability benefits, claiming he could no longer work due to physical and mental disabilities. To determine whether Biestek could successfully transition to less physically demanding work, the ALJ heard testimony from a vocational expert regarding the types of jobs Biestek could still perform and the number of such jobs that existed in the national economy. The statistics came from her own market surveys. The expert refused Biestek’s attorney's request to turn over the surveys. The ALJ denied Biestek benefits. An ALJ’s factual findings are “conclusive” if supported by “substantial evidence,” 42 U.S.C. 405(g). The Sixth Circuit and the Supreme Court upheld the ALJ’s determination. A vocational expert’s refusal to provide private market-survey data upon the applicant’s request does not categorically preclude the testimony from counting as “substantial evidence.” In some cases, the refusal to disclose data, considered along with other shortcomings, will undercut an expert’s credibility and prevent a court from finding that “a reasonable mind” could accept the expert’s testimony; the refusal will sometimes interfere with effective cross-examination, which a reviewing court may consider in deciding how to credit an expert’s opinion. In other cases, even without supporting data, an applicant will be able to probe the expert’s testimony on cross-examination. The Court declined to establish a categorical rule, applying to every case in which a vocational expert refuses a request for underlying data. The inquiry remains case-by-case, taking into account all features of the expert’s testimony, with the rest of the record, and defers to the presiding ALJ. View "Biestek v. Berryhill" on Justia Law

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The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) set aside 104 million acres of federally-owned land for preservation, creating 10 new national parks, monuments, and preserves (units), 16 U.S.C. 3102(4). In establishing boundaries, Congress followed natural features rather than enclosing only federally-owned lands, sweeping in more than 18 million acres of state, Native, and private land, which could have become subject to many National Park Service rules, 54 U.S.C. 100751 (Organic Act). ANILCA Section 103(c) states that only “public lands,” defined as most federally-owned lands, waters, and associated interests, within any unit’s boundaries are “deemed” part of that unit and that no state, Native, or private lands “shall be subject to the regulations applicable solely to public lands within units." The Service may “acquire such lands,” after which it may administer the land as public lands within units. Sturgeon traveled by hovercraft up the Nation River within the boundaries of the Yukon-Charley Preserve unit. Park rangers informed him that the Service’s rules (36 CFR 2.17(e)) prohibit operating a hovercraft on navigable waters “located within [a park’s] boundaries.” That regulation, issued under the Service’s Organic Act authority, applies to parks nationwide without regard to the ownership of submerged lands, tidelands, or lowlands. The district court and the Ninth Circuit denied Sturgeon relief. A unanimous Supreme Court reversed. The Nation River is not public land under ANILCA. Running waters cannot be owned; under the Submerged Lands Act, Alaska, not the United States, holds “title to and ownership" of the lands beneath navigable waters, 43 U.S.C. 1311. Even if the United States has an “interest” in the River under the reserved-water-rights doctrine, the River itself would not be “public land.” Section 103(c) exempts non-public lands, including waters, from Park Service regulations, which apply “solely” to public lands within the units. View "Sturgeon v. Frost" on Justia Law

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The State of Washington taxes “motor vehicle fuel importer[s]” who bring large quantities of fuel into the state by “ground transportation,” Wash. Code 82.36.010(4), (12), (16). Cougar, a wholesale fuel importer owned by a member of the Yakama Nation, imports fuel over Washington’s public highways for sale to Yakama-owned retail gas stations located within the reservation. In 2013, the state assessed Cougar $3.6 million in taxes, penalties, and licensing fees for importing motor vehicle fuel. Cougar argued that the tax, as applied to its activities, is preempted by an 1855 treaty between the United States and the Yakama Nation that reserves the Yakamas’ “right, in common with citizens of the United States, to travel upon all public highways,” 12 Stat. 953. The Washington Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed. The statute taxes the importation of fuel, which is the transportation of fuel, so travel on public highways is directly at issue. In previous cases involving the treaty, the Court has stressed that its language should be understood as bearing the meaning that the Yakamas understood it to have in 1855; the historical record adopted by the agency and the courts below indicates that the treaty negotiations and the government’s representatives’ statements to the Yakamas would have led the Yakamas to understand that the treaty’s protection of the right to travel on the public highways included the right to travel with goods for purposes of trade. To impose a tax upon traveling with certain goods burdens that travel. View "Washington State Department of Licensing v. Cougar Den, Inc." on Justia Law