Breaking News

Supreme Court takes up RICO and veterans “benefit of the doubt” cases

In a list of orders released from the justices’ private conference last week, the justices granted review in four cases – adding those cases to the lone four cases that they have agreed to take up for the 2024-25 term since early January. Monday’s grants involve (among others) the interpretation of federal racketeering laws and the “benefit of the doubt” rule for veterans.

In Medical Marijuana v. Horn, the Supreme Court agreed to decide whether a commercial truck driver who lost his job after he failed a drug test can bring a claim under federal racketeering laws against the makers of the product that he says was responsible for that failed test.

The driver, Douglas Horn, began taking Dixie X CBD Dew Drops Tincture to relieve chronic pain from injuries he sustained in a serious trucking accident in 2012. Horn and his wife, Cindy Harp-Horn, who was also a truck driver, believed – based on the advertising for the tincture – that the product did not contain THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. Horn and Harp-Horn sought to confirm the absence of THC, however, by watching YouTube videos, reviewing the “frequently asked questions” page on the Dixie X website, and calling the company’s customer service line.

After he began using Dixie X, Horn failed a drug test – and, as a result, lost his job and his insurance and pension benefits. Harp-Horn, who had worked with her husband, then quit her job, because she believed it was not safe to work without him.

When an independent lab test confirmed that Dixie X contained THC, Horn filed a lawsuit in federal court in New York under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, alleging that the makers of the product had engaged in mail and wire fraud and that, as a result, he had lost his job and therefore suffered – as RICO requires – an injury to his business or property.

The district court ruled for Medical Marijuana and the other companies on Horn’s RICO claim. It concluded that because Horn’s lost earnings flow from a personal injury – his ingestion of THC – he had not suffered an injury “to business or property” for which he could recover under RICO.

Horn appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, which reinstated his RICO claim. It ruled that because RICO’s reference to the term “business” includes “employment,” Horn had indeed suffered an injury to his “business” for purposes of the RICO law. The court of appeals acknowledged that there is no liability under RICO when the “injuries alleged are personal ones,” but it cautioned that “there is no reason to extend that bar to an injury to business or property for which a personal injury was a necessary precursory.”

The companies came to the Supreme Court last fall, asking the justices to take up the case and weigh in. They described the question presented by the case as “critically important,” explaining that “RICO is a frequently litigated federal statute that imposes treble damages and attorneys’ fees.” “If quintessential personal injuries count as injuries to ‘business or property’ just because economic damage inevitably results,” the companies told the justices, “Congress’ careful limitation on civil RICO claims would be toothless.”

Horn urged the justices to allow the 2nd Circuit’s decision to stand and to stay out of the dispute. He contended that the companies’ proposed rule would “override the statute’s text, undermine its purpose, and afford a windfall to criminal enterprises across the country. And the” companies’ petition for review, he argued, “resurrects stale debates over civil RICO’s scope that have little to do with this case.”

After considering the case at their conferences on April 19 and April 24, the justices granted the companies’ petition for review on Monday.

In Bufkin v. McDonough, the justices agreed to weigh in on the application of the “benefit of the doubt” rule – the idea that a veteran, rather than the government, should receive the benefit of the doubt on close issues involving veterans’ law. The Veterans Benefits Act directs the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims to “take due account of the” application of the “benefit of the doubt” rule by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs. The question that the justices agreed to decide is whether that means that the Veterans Court is only required to review the factual findings of the Veterans Administration for clear error, or whether it must conduct a more thorough review that looks at whether the veteran actually received the benefit of the doubt on close factual issues.

Joshua Bufkin and Norman Thornton, two veterans who lost in the lower courts, urged the justices to take up their cases, calling the “benefit of the doubt” rule one of “the oldest and most fundamental building blocks of the veterans’ claims system. If left to stand,” they contended, the ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit “will severely narrow the Veterans Court’s review, resulting in many veterans being denied benefits which they have earned through their service and to which they are entitled by law.”

The justices granted two other petitions for review on Monday:

  • Bouarfa v. Mayorkas, involving whether courts can review a decision to revoke approval of a petition for an immigrant visa on the ground that the government had initially misapplied nondiscretionary criteria during the approval process, and when the applicant would have had a right to review of an initial decision denying review of the application; and
  • Royal Canin U.S.A. v. Wullschleger, in which the justices will consider whether a plaintiff – here, a dog owner alleging that the designation of specialized dog food as “prescription” dog food is misleading – whose state-court lawsuit has been transferred by the defendants to federal court can seek to have the case sent back to state court by removing all references to federal law.

The four cases granted on Monday will likely be argued in October. The justices’ next regularly scheduled conference is Thursday, May 9; orders from that conference are expected to follow on Monday, May 13, at 9:30 a.m.

This article was originally published at Howe on the Court

Recommended Citation: Amy Howe, Supreme Court takes up RICO and veterans “benefit of the doubt” cases, SCOTUSblog (Apr. 29, 2024, 10:58 AM),