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Court to rule on raisin program

The Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to decide whether the federal government can be challenged in a regular federal court for taking over a part of an annual raisin crop from packers and processors, under a marketing program.  That was one of two newly granted cases.  The other tests whether a family that fails to make a claim on time for injuries due to a vaccine may still be entitled to recover its attorney’s fees.

The raisin case, a dispute over the proper court to hear a “takings” claim under the Fifth Amendment, is Horne v. U.S. Department of Agriculture (docket 12-123).  The vaccine case involves a government appeal, in Sebelius (HHS Secretary) v. Cloer (12-236).

Under a federal marketing program for California raisins, the government seeks to stabilize prices by taking some of the annual crop off the market.   A federal committee each year recommends to the Agriculture Department the part of the crop that it believes should be held off the market.   A packer or processor may buy raisins from the growers for the part of an annual yield that can be marketed, but the part ordered to be withheld must be kept in reserve.   These so-called “reserve tonnage” amounts, though, can be sold in markets where competition does not exist, such as school-lunch programs.   The proceeds from selling those raisins are used to pay the costs of running that part of the program.

A group of grape vineyard operators in California were accused by the Department of setting up a program to evade the reserve pool requirement by processing their own grapes into raisins, then selling them.   They countered that they were only producers, not processors, and so were not covered by the marketing order and its reserve set-aside.   The Department sought to compel them to obey the marketing order, and the vineyards ultimately were ordered to pay $483,844 in civil penalties.

The vineyards went to court, contending that the reserve set-aside requirement amounted to a “taking” of their private property without just compensation, as required by the Fifth Amendment.  A federal district court judge ruled for the Department, finding that the vineyard operators were, in fact, functioning as processors or packers.   Transfer of title to the reserve raisins was not a “taking,” the judge concluded.

The Ninth Circuit Court ultimately ruled that it lacked jurisdiction to hear the “takings” claim, and that the vineyards should take that plea to the Court of Federal Claims under the so-called “Tucker Act,” which allows lawsuits against the government seeking monetary compensation for taking private property for public use.   The vineyards then took the issue of where they may sue to the Supreme Court, resulting in Tuesday’s grant of review.

The other newly granted case involves an attorney’s fee issue under the 1986 program created by Congress to compensate for injuries due to vaccinations.   That program was set up as an alternative to private damages lawsuits against vaccine makers.  The law provides a time limit for filing a claim with the Court of Federal Claims; a claim must be filed within thirty-six months after the occurrence of the first symptom or onset of a claimed injury from a vaccination.   The program also provides a system of awards of attorney’s fees and costs.  Victory on a claim is not always necessary in order to receive such an award.

The case involves a Colorado woman, Melissa Cloer, who had received three Hepatitis B vaccine shots in 1996 and 1997.   In mid-1997, she experienced the initial symptoms of multiple sclerosis.   She did not file a claim, however, until 2005, some eight years later.  Her claim was dismissed as too late.

Even so, her attorneys sought more than $118,000 for their fees and the costs of their work in the Circuit Court for the Federal Circuit.   The Circuit Court agreed that she might be able to recover fees and costs, if she could prove that, even though she filed too late, her claim had been made in good faith.  That is the conclusion that the federal government asked the Supreme Court to overturn.


Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Court to rule on raisin program, SCOTUSblog (Nov. 20, 2012, 1:15 PM),