Breaking News

Court to rule on pregnancy law, church signs

Taking on new social controversies for its next Term, the Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to clarify the protection that women workers get under federal law when they become pregnant, and to consider the right of religious groups to put up outdoor signs to promote their worship services.

The Court added a total of eight new cases to its decision docket for the Term that starts on October 6.  With the new grants, the Justices have now more than filled their argument schedule through December.

The new pregnancy discrimination case, Young v. United Parcel Service, was accepted for review even though the U.S. Solicitor General, when asked for advice, had urged the Court not to hear it.  The government lawyer had told the Court that, while the lower court in this case got the law wrong, Congress had passed some revisions in the law and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is working on new guidance.  Lower courts should be given a chance to take those developments into account, the Court was told.

The Court apparently decided that it should move ahead to resolve a split among federal appeals courts in a case in which a female worker’s lawyers had argued that the lower court ruling in her case revived a kind of gender stereotyping about pregnant workers that the 1978 anti-bias law was designed to outlaw.

The case involves Peggy Young, who lived in the Washington, D.C., area when her case was unfolding.  She was a driver for United Parcel Service.  When she became pregnant, the company expressed sympathy for her but refused to put her on light duty — that is, limiting the weight of packages she had to lift — because that policy was reserved only for those injured on the job, those disabled under federal disability rights law, or those who lost their federal driver certificate.

Young contended that she was treated less favorably than other workers who became temporarily unable to do their normal jobs, and she argued that this violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978.  The EEOC authorized her to sue UPS, but she ultimately lost the case in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

The municipal sign restriction case that the Justices agreed to hear involved a plea by the pastor and his small church in Gilbert, Arizona — the Good News Community Church.  The petition argued that eight different federal appeals courts have issued rulings on the scope of local government power to regulate outdoor signs, but have taken three differing approaches in those decisions.

Gilbert is a fast-growing community of more than 200,000 people in central Arizona, near Chandler and Tempe.  The local sign ordinance requires anyone planning to put up an outdoor sign to first get a permit from the city, although the law provides for nineteen different exemptions.  One exemption permits signs directing patrons to events, but those have varying limitations.  For example, signs regarding political events can be larger, and may be put up at any time.

Pastor Clyde Reed and his church filed a First Amendment challenge to the ordinance, contending that it discriminates on the basis of the messages that the signs convey.  His church has been cited several times for allegedly violating the code with signs directing worshippers to the rented school buildings where services are held.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit rejected the challenge.

UPDATE: The following material has been added to this post.

Some familiar controversies will be returned to the Court in the new Term among the cases accepted on Tuesday.

Once again, the Court will explore the continuing fallout of its major bankruptcy law ruling of 2011, Stern v. Marshall.   This time, the Court will hear the case of Wellness International Network v. Sharif, a long-running legal battle between company marketing health and wellness products and one of its distributors, after that fight wound up in bankruptcy court.

The petition by Wellness International raised four questions about bankruptcy court powers, but the Justices limited their review to two: whether the presence in a bankruptcy case of an issue over state property law takes away that court’s jurisdiction, and whether consent to the court’s jurisdiction is enough to satisfy Article III.

In the case of Direct Marketing Association v. Brohl, the Court will be going back to the seemingly unending fight over state governments’ powers to levy tax or other legal duties on out-0f-state companies.  This case involves the issue of whether the federal Tax Injunction Act, barring lawsuits that seek to stop the collection of tax, denies a federal court the power to rule on a Colorado law that requires out-of-state retailers that send goods into the state but don’t operate there physically can be required to file reports of potential tax liability of the resident consumers who buy the goods.

And, in a third reprise of a prior case, the Court agreed to take another look at the constitutionality of an Alabama tax on motor fuel used by railroads when the same tax does not apply to trucking companies or water carriers.  The case of Alabama Department of Revenue v. CSX Transportation was at the Court in 2011, resulting in a ruling allowing that railroad to challenge that tax under federal law barring discrimination in taxes against railroads.

The Court asked the U.S. Solicitor General to weigh in on the latest petition by Alabama state officials.  The government replied that the Court should not take up the case again, saying it was not worthy of further review.  But, the reply added, if the Court opted to hear the case, it should add a new question: when cases arises over claims of discriminatory taxes against railroads, should the court consider all aspects of a state’s taxing system and not just the specific tax clause at issue.   The Court did exactly that in accepting review.

Here, in brief, are the issues at stake in the other three new cases:

** A plea to clarify when private individuals may stand in for the federal government in claiming that contractors had defrauded a federal agency — specifically, whether that role is barred if such a claim had already been filed by someone else.  The issue arises in Kellogg Brown & Root Services v. U.S. ex rel. Carter — arising out of a claim by two contractors for payment for their service of providing purified water to U.S. military troops serving in Iraq.  The Solicitor General had urged the Court to deny review.

** Whether federal law bars customers who bought natural gas in the resale market from filing state antitrust lawsuits challenging price-setting in the federally-regulated wholesale market.   The case is OneOK v.Learjet.  Again, this is a case that the Solicitor General suggested the Court bypass.

** A case that asks the Court to sort out the roles of a special federal trademark panel, on the one hand, and a regular federal court, on the other, in dealing with disputed trademarks.  The issue is the division of authority between those two federal entities in deciding whether one trademark an issue in a trademark infringement case.  The Solicitor General urged the SCt to hear this case, B&B Hardware v. Hargis Industries, saying thatlower courts are divided on the question.


Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Court to rule on pregnancy law, church signs, SCOTUSblog (Jul. 1, 2014, 10:32 AM),