This morning the Supreme Court issued orders from last week’s Conference, adding a False Claims Act case to its merits docket for next Term and asking the federal government to weigh in on a case involving the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.  The Court also issued two summary reversals, both unsigned, in cases involving inmates in California and Arizona. 

Since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia on February 13, the Court has granted review in only eight cases.  Today’s announcement that the Justices would take on State Farm Fire & Casualty Co. v. United States ex rel. Rigsby means that the Court now has thirteen cases for its next Term, which begins in October.

The case has its roots in the devastation that followed Hurricane Katrina.  Sisters Cori and Kerri Rigsby were working as claims adjusters for a company that provided services to insurance giant State Farm.  The Rigsbys contend that State Farm fraudulently attributed damage to homes caused by high winds – which State Farm would have to cover – to flooding, which the federal government would cover instead under its National Flood Insurance Program.

They filed a lawsuit in federal court under the False Claims Act, a Civil-War-era law enacted to combat fraud against the federal government.  To encourage whistleblowers to report fraud, it allows a private citizen to bring a lawsuit on the government’s behalf; if the suit succeeds, the whistleblower can receive a share of the money that the government recovers.

However, the FCA also requires a whistleblower to file her complaint under seal, where it must remain confidential for at least sixty days.  And that, State Farm alleges, did not happen in the Rigsbys’ case: before the seal was lifted, it contends, the Rigsbys and their attorney at the time – Dickie Scruggs, a prominent Mississippi trial lawyer who would go on to serve six years in federal prison on bribery charges – intentionally told the news media and a member of Congress about the suit, hoping to pressure State Farm to settle.

State Farm asked the district court to dismiss the case, citing the sisters’ “repeated intentional violations of the FCA seal requirement.”  But the district court allowed the case to go forward, and the Fifth Circuit affirmed.

State Farm then filed a petition for certiorari with the Supreme Court, asking the Justices to take the case and determine what standard should apply to determine whether to dismiss an FCA complaint after a violation of the seal requirement.  It contended that the lower courts are divided on what standard should be used:  one circuit has established a bright-line rule that mandates dismissal; others look at whether “the violation incurably frustrates the congressional goals served by the seal requirement”; and the Fifth Circuit in this case used a balancing test that focuses on whether the violation actually harms the government.

In January of this year, the Justices asked the federal government to weigh in on the case.  In a brief filed in April, the government urged the Court to deny review.  It argued that the mandatory-dismissal rule is an “outlier,” while other courts simply hold that the district courts “have discretion to fashion appropriate sanctions for FCA seal violations.”  The Justices did not heed that recommendation, although they did follow the government’s recommendation that review be denied on a second question, involving the standard for liability under the FCA.

In a second order today, the Court asked the federal government to provide its views in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, the case of an autistic child whose parents’ dissatisfaction with his education in a local public school led them to enroll him in a private school and seek reimbursement for the cost of tuition.  Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Endrew and other children with disabilities are entitled to a free appropriate public education, which is implemented through an individualized education program, or “IEP” – a program tailored specifically to each child.  But the courts of appeals disagree on what kind of educational benefits schools must provide.  The Tenth Circuit held in Endrew’s case that schools must merely provide some non-trivial benefit, other courts of appeals have held that schools must provide a substantial benefit, and other courts fall somewhere in the middle.  There is no deadline for the federal government to file its brief, but it is likely to do so in the fall.

The Court denied review today in the case of Lamondre Tucker, a Louisiana death-row inmate.  Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented from that announcement.  Observing that if Tucker had “committed the same crime but been tried and sentenced just across the river in” a different jurisdiction, he “would not now be on death row,” the two Justices would have granted review of the first question presented by Tucker’s petition:  “whether the imposition of the death penalty constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of” the Constitution.  Breyer and Ginsburg expressed a similar view last year, in their dissent from the Court’s decision upholding a challenge to Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocol, but none of the other Justices have displayed any interest in the issue.

Arizona death-row inmate Shawn Patrick Lynch fared better in his efforts to have the Court review his case.  In an unsigned opinion, and without asking for briefing on the merits or oral arguments, the Court reversed a decision in the state’s favor by the Arizona Supreme Court.  It ruled that, when the state had urged the jurors at Lynch’s trial to consider his future dangerousness in sentencing him, and had conceded that the only other sentence that he could receive besides the death penalty was life without parole, Lynch was entitled to tell jurors that he was not eligible for parole.  Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented from the decision, criticizing it as “a remarkably aggressive use of our power to review the State’s highest courts.”

But the state of California scored a victory – here too, without the Court asking for briefing on the merits and oral argument – in the case of Donna Kay Lee, a California inmate convicted for her role in the death of her boyfriend’s mother and ex-girlfriend.  Under federal habeas law, a federal court cannot normally review a claim that was “defaulted . . . in state court pursuant to an independent and adequate state procedural rule.”  And under California law, a claim that is raised for the first time in a state post-conviction proceeding is deemed defaulted if it could have been raised on direct appeal.  In this case, the Ninth Circuit held that the California rule nonetheless does not bar federal habeas review of Lee’s claims because it was not applied consistently and therefore was not “adequate.”  Today the Supreme Court reversed.  Explaining that the Ninth Circuit’s decision “profoundly misapprehends what makes a state procedural bar ‘adequate,’” it concluded that the California bar is indeed adequate because it is both “firmly established” and “regularly followed.”  There were no dissents from that ruling.

Posted in Johnson v. Lee, Lynch v. Arizona, Tucker v. Louisiana, Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, State Farm Fire and Casualty Co. v. U.S. ex rel. Rigsby, Featured, What's Happening Now

Recommended Citation: Amy Howe, Today’s orders: One new grant, one CVSG, two summary reversals, SCOTUSblog (May. 31, 2016, 5:34 PM), http://www.scotusblog.com/2016/05/todays-orders-one-new-grant-one-cvsg-two-summary-reversals/