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Congress’s power to permit lawsuits at issue

The Supreme Court, moving into a basic separation-of-powers constitutional arena, agreed on Monday to spell out Congress’s authority to give someone a right to sue in federal court — even if that individual cannot show that a specific harm was done.  That is an issue under Article III of the Constitution and arose in the case of Spokeo Inc. v. Robins, which will be heard and decided in the Court’s next Term.

That was one of two new cases that the Justices accepted for review.  The other will clarify the time limits for a federal government employee to file a workplace grievance claiming an illegal “constructive discharge” from the job — that is, the employee was forced to resign because of harmful conditions at work (Green v. Donahoe).   The Court also sent another case on the enforcement of the federal Affordable Care Act’s birth-control mandate for religious non-profit colleges, hospitals, and charities seeking an exemption based on faith back to a lower court for a further look .

Under Article III, federal courts only have authority to decide a case or controversy that has something real at stake — a “live” issue, rather than a theoretical claim.  Normally, a case cannot satisfy that requirement unless the suing individual can show some actual or imminent personal injury, or harm.

At issue in the newly granted Spokeo case is whether an individual can sue based on a simple claim that a right created by federal law has been violated, without proof of an additional injury growing out of that violation.  This particular case tests a lawsuit by a Californian, Thomas Robins, who sued under the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act of 1970, claiming that an online search engine put out inaccurate personal information about him.

The search engine, operated by Spokeo, gathers information about individuals from public sources, such as telephone books, social networks, marketing surveys, real estate listings, business websites, and other databases.  It makes the information to those who search for it online, but cautions them that it does not verify the accuracy of the data.

Robins, who filed a class-action lawsuit, claimed that Spokeo had provided flawed information about him, including that he had more education than he actually did, that he is married although he remains single, and that he was financially better off than he actually was.   He said he was unemployed and looking for work, and contended that the inaccurate information would make it more difficult for him to get a job and to get credit and insurance.

A federal judge dismissed his lawsuit, concluding that Robins had not offered sufficient evidence that he was harmed by the information available through Spokeo.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit overturned that result, clearing the way for the lawsuit to go forward.  It concluded that Congress had created a right to sue under the Act, and that was sufficient to show an injury if a violation of the Act was claimed.

The Supreme Court asked the U.S. Solicitor General for the federal government’s views on the case, and the government urged the Court not to grant review.  While not embracing the Ninth Circuit’s view of the Article III “standing” issue, the Solicitor General argued that the Ninth Circuit’s ruling could actually be understood as going beyond that to find a genuine claim of injury.

The Justices granted review, despite the government’s suggestion.

The federal employee rights’ case involves Marvin Green, an African-American postmaster in Colorado, who claims that he was forced to resign because of a series of allegations — all unfounded — about misconduct in handling the mail.  He sued for retaliation, claiming that the employment actions against him followed his complaint that he was passed over for a promotion because of his race.

His lawsuit came under the protection against retaliation giving to government and private sector employee under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.  Under federal regulations, he had forty-five days to pursue his grievance within the Postal Service.  He was found by lower courts to have missed that deadline.   The issue he raised in the Supreme Court is when that forty-five-day period starts to run — when an employee resigns under pressure, and thus is constructively fired under the law, or when the employer took the last discriminatory act that led to the resignation.   Federal appeals courts have reached conflicting results on this timing period.

The Court’s action on Monday returning a birth-control mandate to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit for a new review came in the case of Michigan Catholic Conference v. Burwell.

Last Term, in the case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, the Court had ruled that the government may not enforce that mandate against a family-0wned (“closely-held”) for-profit business, when the family members objected for religious reasons to providing birth-control services to their female employees.  That partly overturned the federal government’s refusal to grant any exemptions from the contraceptives mandate for for-profit businesses.

The Court has yet to rule, in a definitive way, on the scope of the government’s willingness to grant an exemption from the mandate for non-profit organizations that have religious objections to the mandate.  The Justices appear to be allowing that issue to be worked out first in the lower courts, although the Court did intervene in one non-profit case last Term to give that employer (Wheaton College, in Illinois) an easier way to avoid being involved with actually providing the contraceptive services.

On Mach 9, the Court returned a case involving the University of Notre Dame to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit , with the appeals court ordered to examine the impact on non-profit groups of the Hobby Lobby decision.  That is the same kind of order the Court issued on Monday in the case involving a group of Michigan and Tennessee Roman Catholic non-profit groups, with the new review to be done by the Sixth Circuit.




Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Congress’s power to permit lawsuits at issue, SCOTUSblog (Apr. 27, 2015, 10:44 AM),