January 12, 2012
Supreme Court Action: Out-Of-Court Identifications, Death Benefits, and the Ministerial Exception to Employment Discrcimination
Here are summaries of the three opinions released yesterday by the United States Supreme Court. The first case is Perry v. New Hampshire (10-8974). Perry was convicted of theft by unauthorized taking. One piece of evidence used against him was an out-of-court identification made by a witness at the time of Perry’s arrest. Perry contended that admitting the statement violated due process. The standard procedure in such cases is for the trial court to decide whether the police used unnecessarily suggestive identification procedures and if so, next determine whether the procedures were so tainted to be unreliable. The trial court denied Perry’s motion to exclude the statement. At the time of his arrest, a witness was asked by the police if she could describe the man who was trying to break into cars in a parking lot, she pointed out of her kitchen window to Perry who was standing next to another policeman. Perry argued that the trial court was wrong to require an initial showing that the police arranged a suggestive identification. Suggestive circumstances alone should have triggered a hearing, implying that most all police requests for identification are suggestive.
The Court responded by stating the Due Process Clause does not require such a hearing absent suggestive circumstances. There are other safeguards under the Sixth Amendment that gives defendants the ability to challenge the credibility of eyewitness identifications. Perry’s reliance on a line of cases where improper police action was clear does not support his position. The decision was an 8-1 split, with Justice Ginsburg writing for the majority. Justice Thomas wrote a concurring opinion, and Justice Sotomayor dissented.
The next case is Pacific Operators Offshore, LLP v. Valladolid (10-507) and it involves determining the correct test for allowing benefits under the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (LHWCA) pursuant to the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA). Respondent’s decedent spent 98 percent of his time working on an offshore platform but was killed in an accident in an onshore facility. The ALJ denied a claim for benefits under the acts as the death occurred on land rather than on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS). The Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that the correct test to allow benefits is a substantial nexus between the injury and the extractive operation.
The Supreme Court affirmed, and resolved a split in the Circuits by doing so. The Fifth Circuit used a test that required geographic specificity as to where the death occurred. The Third Circuit used an expansive test that would allow benefits if death or injury happened in any location as long as there was some connection with the work on the OCS. The Court held that the Ninth Circuit got it right as the language of the statute did not limit the location geographically, and the Third Circuit’s “but for” test was too broad. The decision was more or less unanimous, with Justice Thomas writing for the majority. Justice Scalia wrote an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, joined by Justice Alito. The Court gives the Ninth Circuit a nice pat on the head for a change.
The final case is the one getting the most press. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC (10-553) concerns the right of religious schools to hire and fire teachers it designates as ministers. The case is heavily fact dependent. Hosanna-Tabor classified its teachers into two groups, lay, and called. Called teachers have additional academic qualifications including a course in theological study. Cheryl Perich completed the additional academic requirements and was hired as a called teacher and designated a commissioned minister. She taught religion classes to students, took students to chapel services and at times led such services.
She developed narcolepsy and started the 2004-2005 school year on disability. She decided to return in February of 2005 but the school had hired a lay teacher to fill Perich’s position. The congregation offered to pay for part of her health insurance in return for her resignation. Perich refused and ultimately was fired for insubordination and disruptive behavior.
Perich filed charges with the EEOC that she was fired in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and for threatening to file an ADA lawsuit. The case went to trial in federal court with Perich intervening in the case. Hosanna-Tabor invoked the “ministerial exception” which bars suits under the First Amendment because the claim is between a religious institution and one of its ministers. The District Court agreed but the Sixth Circuit vacated and remanded, recognizing the ministerial exception but stating that Perich did not qualify as such.
The Supreme Court unanimously reversed, stating that Hosanna-Tabor held Perich out as a minister,and she did as well by acceptin the “called” designation and performing religious duties. The Sixth Circuit erred by placing too much emphasis on her secular duties and some of the similarities in duties that lay teachers performed. Perich was a minister under the ministerial exception and as such the suit should be dismissed. Chief Justice Roberts wrote the opinion with Justices Thomas and Alito filing concurring opinions. Justice Kagan joined Justice Alito’s concurring opinion. [MG]