March 1, 2011
Supreme Court Action Today
The Supreme Court issued three opinions this morning. None of them are controversial, though they do settle some points of law. The most newsworthy opinion involves the privacy rights of corporations under FOIA law. At issue in the case of FCC v. ATT, Inc. (09-1279), is whether some of the documents AT&T filed with the FCC are protected by the personal privacy exemption in the Freedom of Information Act.
The FCC Enforcement Bureau investigated AT&T at some point, and the company provided requested documents. The CompTel trade association sought those documents in a FOIA request. The Bureau felt that the exemption in 5 U. S. C. §552(b)(7)(C), which exempted disclosure that “could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” applied to individuals identified in the documents but not to AT&T as a company. The Third Circuit disagreed with that finding and held that (7)(c) applied to AT&T as well.
The Supreme Court reversed. The Court focused on the meaning of the words "person" and "personal" in the statute's context. Person is defined while personal is not. Even though corporations are considered persons artificially, the Court focused on the ordinary meaning of the word personal as it applied to real people. The statute's context used the word personal in ascribing documents and items that actually belonged to people. In contrast, another section of the Act dealt with corporations and their various business documents and trade secrets. Given the details of those points, the Court was unwilling to extend the concept of personal privacy to a corporation in an FOIA proceeding.
The second case is Henderson v. Shinseki (09-1036). Henderson was denied benefits by the Department of Veterans Affairs. The procedural path was through the Regional Office, the Board of Veterans' Appeals, and since 1988, to the Court of Appeals for Veteran's Claims. Henderson missed the 120 deadline for filing an appeal with the Veterans' Claims Court. Based on other Supreme Court precedent holding that the time limit was jurisdictional, the Veterans' Claim Court would not excuse his delay under equitable tolling principles. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that its earlier precedent applied to Article III courts, and not to the Article I court Congress created to handle veteran benefits appeals. The statute creating the Court did not imply jurisdictional limitations in the way it expressed time limits, as well as other factors in how Congress handled veterans' affairs.
The third case is Staub v. Proctor Hospital (09-400). Staub worked for Proctor Hospital and was a member of the U.S. Army Reserve. His two immediate supervisors were hostile to his military obligations, which are protected under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA). Staub received a disciplinary warning requiring him to report to these two individuals when his cases were completed. The two supervisors determined that Staub violated his Corrective Action and the vice president of human resources reviewed Staub's file and fired him. Staub sued under the Act, claiming that the supervisors fabircated claims against him based their hostility to his Army reserve status. The trial court and jury held for Staub but the Seventh Circuit reversed on the basis that the decisionmaker relied on more than the supervisors' report.
The Supreme Court reversed in favor of Staub, holding that the hospital's agents intended for the discriminatory action to occur to be the proximate cause of of the injury to Staub. The vice president of human resources could not shield the supervisors or the hospital from the discriminatory acts they induced. None of the cases filed today had any dissents. [MG]