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Following are case highlights for the topic areas of Education, Election Law, Employee Benefits, Employment Law, and Environmental Law. To access other case highlights for the 2005-2006 Term or previous terms, or to return to the main Case Highlights page, use the Topic Area menu to the right.

EDUCATION



EDUCATION
Schaffer v. Weast
Docket No. 04-698
Affirmed: The Fourth Circuit

Argued: October 5, 2005
Decided: November 14, 2005
For Case Analysis: See ABA Preview 4

In an administrative hearing challenging an individualized education program under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), does the burden of persuasion lie with the party seeking relief?

Yes. Because the IDEA does not specify which party bears the burden of persuasion when evidence is in equipoise, the burden is properly placed on the party seeking relief, whether that is the disabled child or the school district.

From the opinion by Justice O'Connor (joined by Justices Stevens, Scalia, Kennedy, Souter, and Thomas):

Decisions that place the entire burden of persuasion on the opposing party at the outset of a proceeding—as petitioners urge us to do here—are extremely rare. Absent some reason to believe that Congress intended otherwise, therefore, we will conclude that the burden of persuasion lies where it usually falls, upon the party seeking relief.

Concurring: Justice Stevens
Dissenting: Justice Ginsburg
Dissenting: Justice Breyer
Taking no part in the consideration or decision of the case: Chief Justice Roberts

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ELECTION LAW



ELECTION LAW
Randall v. Sorrell
Docket No. 04-1528
Reversed: The Second Circuit

Argued: February 28, 2006
Decided: June 26, 2006
For Case Analysis: See ABA Preview 270

Is a Vermont law constitutional if it stringently limits both the amounts that candidates for state office may spend on their campaigns and the amounts that individuals, organizations and political parties may contribute to those campaigns?

No. The expenditure limits violate the First Amendment's free speech guarantees under Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1 (1976). The contribution limits violate the First Amendment because those limits, in their specific details, burden protected interests in a manner disproportionate to the public purposes they were enacted to advance.

From the opinion by Justice Breyer (joined by Chief Justice Roberts and joined in part by Justice Alito):

Well-established precedent makes clear that the expenditure limits violate the First Amendment . … The contribution limits are unconstitutional because in their specific details (involving low maximum levels and other restrictions) they fail to satisfy the First Amendment 's requirement of careful tailoring. ... That is to say, they impose burdens upon First Amendment interests that (when viewed in light of the statute's legitimate objectives) are disproportionately severe.

Concurring in part and in the judgment: Justice Alito
Concurring in the judgment: Justice Kennedy
Concurring in the judgment: Justice Thomas (joined by Justice Scalia)
Dissenting: Justice Stevens
Dissenting: Justice Souter (joined by Justice Ginsburg and joined in part by Justice Stevens)

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EMPLOYEE BENEFITS



EMPLOYEE BENEFITS
Sereboff et ux. v. Mid Atlantic Medical Services, Inc.
Docket No. 04-1704
Affirmed in relevant part: The Fourth Circuit

Argued: March 28, 2006
Decided: May 15, 2006
For Case Analysis: See ABA Preview 309

In a claim brought to enforce the terms of a health care plan reimbursement clause under Section 502(a)(3) of ERISA, is the remedy of a constructive trust or an equitable lien permitted as a form of equitable restitution?

Yes. The Court held that the employer sought identifiable funds within the petitioner's possession and control—that part of the tort settlement due the employer under the ERISA plan and set aside in the investment account.

From the opinion by Chief Justice Roberts (for a unanimous Court):

Mid Atlantic sought "specifically identifiable" funds that were "within the possession and control of the Sereboffs"—that portion of the tort settlement due Mid Atlantic under the terms of the ERISA plan. … Mid Atlantic did not simply seek "to impose personal liability . . . for a contractual obligation to pay money." ... It alleged breach of contract and sought money, to be sure, but it sought its recovery through a constructive trust or equitable lien on a specifically identified fund, not from the Sereboffs' assets generally, as would be the case with a contract action at law. ERISA provides for equitable remedies to enforce plan terms, so the fact that the action involves a breach of contract can hardly be enough to prove relief is not equitable; that would make §502(a)(3)(B)(ii) an empty promise.

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EMPLOYMENT LAW



EMPLOYMENT LAW
Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway Co. v. White
Docket No. 05-259
Affirmed: The Sixth Circuit

Argued: April 17, 2006
Decided: June 22, 2006
For Case Analysis: See ABA Preview 377

Under Title VII, is retaliatory discrimination confined to activity that affects the terms and conditions of employment?

No. The anti-retaliation provision does not confine the actions and harms it forbids to those that are related to employment or occur at the workplace.

From the opinion by Justice Breyer (joined by Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Stevens, Scalia, Kennedy, Souter, Thomas, and Ginsburg):

We conclude that the anti-retaliation provision does not confine the actions and harms it forbids to those that are related to employment or occur at the workplace. We also conclude that the provision covers those (and only those) employer actions that would have been materially adverse to a reasonable employee or job applicant. In the present context that means that the employer's actions must be harmful to the point that they could well dissuade a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.

Concurring in the judgment: Justice Alito

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EMPLOYMENT LAW
IBP Inc. v. Alvarez and Tum v. Barber Foods, Inc.
Docket Nos. 03-1238 and 04-66
Affirmed: The Ninth Circuit
Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded: The First Circuit

Argued: October 3, 2005
Decided: November 8, 2005
For Case Analysis: See ABA Preview 18

Is the time employees spend walking between changing and production areas, and the time employees spend waiting in line to don and doff required gear, compensable under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)?

Yes. The time respondents in No. 03-1238 spend walking between changing and production areas is compensable under the FLSA; the time the No. 04-66 petitioners spend walking to and from the production floor after donning and before doffing, as well as the time spent waiting to doff, is also covered by the FLSA. However, the time spent waiting to don gear is not compensable.

From the opinion by Justice Stevens (for a unanimous Court):

[W]e hold that any activity that is "integral and indispensable" to a "principal activity" is itself a "principal activity" under § 4(a) of the Portal-to-Portal Act. Moreover, during a continuous workday, any walking time that occurs after the beginning of the employee's first principal activity and before the end of the employee's last principal activity is excluded from the scope of that provision, and as a result is covered by the FLSA. … The time spent waiting to don—time that elapses before the principal activity of donning integral and indispensable gear—presents the quite different question whether it should have the effect of advancing the time when the workday begins. … [W]e are not persuaded that such waiting—which in this case is two steps removed from the productive activity on the assembly line—is "integral and indispensable" to a "principal activity" that identifies the time when the continuous workday begins. Accordingly, we hold that § 4(a)(2) excludes from the scope of the FLSA the time employees spend waiting to don the first piece of gear that marks the beginning of the continuous workday.

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EMPLOYMENT LAW
Whitman v. Department of Transportation et al.
Docket No. 04-1131
Vacated: The Ninth Circuit

Argued: December 5, 2005
Decided: June 5, 2006
For Case Analysis: See ABA Preview 135

Does 5 U.S.C. § 7121(a)'s provision that the negotiated grievance procedures of a federal collective bargaining agreement be "the exclusive administrative procedures" to resolve grievances preclude an employee from seeking direct judicial redress when he otherwise would have an independent basis for judicial review of his claims?

Vacated. The judgment of the Court of Appeals is vacated, and the case remanded for further proceedings.

From the per curiam opinion:

In deciding the question of jurisdiction and preclusion, the Court would be required first to ascertain where Whitman's claims fit within the statutory scheme, as the CSRA provides different treatment for grievances depending on the nature of the claim. It may be, for example, that the FAA's actions, as described by the petitioner, constitute a "prohibited personnel practice." … Both the petitioner and the Government say they do not, but because the ultimate question may be jurisdictional, this concession ought not to be accepted out of hand. ... The Court of Appeals did not decide whether the petitioner's allegations state a "prohibited personnel practice." The proper course, then, is to remand for the Court of Appeals to address the matter ... as well as the ultimate issue of preclusion.

Taking no part in the decision or consideration of the case: Justice Alito

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ENVIRONMENTAL LAW



ENVIRONMENTAL LAW
Rapanos v. United States
Docket No. 04-1034
Vacated and Remanded: The Sixth Circuit

Argued: February 21, 2006
Decided: June 19, 2006
For Case Analysis: See ABA Preview 255

Did a court err in concluding that certain ditches or drains near wetlands are "navigable waters" under the Clean Water Act?

Yes. The court made this determination without considering all the factors necessary to determine that the lands in question had, or did not have, the requisite "significant nexus" to waters that are navigable in fact or that could reasonably be made so.

From the opinion by Justice Scalia (joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas and Alito):

Because the Sixth Circuit applied the wrong standard to determine if these wetlands are covered "waters of the United States," and because of the paucity of the record in both of [the] cases [before the Court], the lower courts should determine, in the first instance, whether the ditches or drains near each wetland are "waters" in the ordinary sense of containing a relatively permanent flow; and (if they are) whether the wetlands in question are "adjacent" to these "waters" in the sense of possessing a continuous surface connection that creates the boundary-drawing problem we addressed in [a prior case].

Concurring: Chief Justice Roberts
Concurring in the judgment: Justice Kennedy
Dissenting: Justice Stevens (joined by Justices Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer
Dissenting: Justice Breyer

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ENVIRONMENTAL LAW
S.D. Warren Co. v. Maine Board of Environmental Protection, et al.
Docket No. 04-1527
Affirmed: The Supreme Judicial Court of Maine

Argued: February 21, 2006
Decided: May 15, 2006
For Case Analysis: See ABA Preview 251

Does operating a dam to produce hydroelectricity raise the potential for discharge into the navigable waters of the United States, so that state certification that water protection laws will not be violated is required?

Yes. The Court held that a dam does raise a potential for a discharge, and, therefore, a federal license under § 401 of the Clean Water Act requires state approval.

From the opinion by Justice Souter (joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Stevens, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Alito; and joined in part by Justice Scalia):

Congress passed the CleanWater Act to "restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation's waters," … the "national goal" being to achieve "water quality [providing] for the protection and propagation of fish ... and ... for recreation." … To do this, the Act deals with "pollution" …generally … which it defines as "the man-made or man-induced alteration of the [water's] chemical, physical, biological, and radiological integrity." … Because the alteration of water quality as thus defined is a risk inherent in limiting river flow and releasing water through turbines, changes in the river's flow, movement, and circulation fall within a State's legitimate legislative business. State certifications under § 401 are essential in the scheme to preserve state authority to address the broad range of pollution. Reading § 401 to give "discharge" its common and ordinary meaning preserves the state authority apparently intended.

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