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U.S. Supreme Court Agrees to Hear 5 New Cases — Here’s What You Need to Know


The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari on Monday in five new cases.  The petitions vary widely, encompassing legal issues in environmental law, torts, international family law, racial discrimination, and the death penalty.

Here’s a primer on these fascinating and important cases.

Atlantic Richfield Co v. Christian

Issue: Can a state private remedy trump the Environmental Protection Agency in remediation of a Superfund site?

This is a case about what happens when someone wants an environmental remedy that conflicts with the EPA’s work.  The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been working for 35 years to remediate Montana’s Anaconda Smelter Superfund site, at a cost of approximately $470 million. Private landowners at that site sued for state-law “restoration,” which would require companies to pay remedies directly to them.

The Montana Supreme Court ruled that these private landowners had a right to bring their claims, even though their private remedies conflict with those chosen by the EPA.  It’s not just about a turf-battle, either; there’s at least some indication that the private remedial plans will actually damage the environment.

SCOTUS’s decision here will not be one that rests on environmental or scientific principles – such analysis is the job of the trial court. Instead, the Court will grapple with jurisdictional and state/federal preemption, and other primarily procedural questions.

The Court likely granted cert because this case affords a unique opportunity to address state and federal conflicts under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (“CERCLA”).

As the petitioner explained in its petition for certiorari:

A decision that threatens to frustrate a federal agency’s implementation of an important federal scheme warrants this Court’s review. Congress enacted CERCLA to ‘promote the timely cleanup of hazardous waste sites,’ Burlington, 556 U.S. at 602 (quotations omitted), to centralize decision making in expert agencies like EPA, Akzo Coatings, 949 F.2d at settlement,” Chubb Custom Ins. Co. v. Space Sys./Loral, Inc., 710 F.3d 946, 956 (9th Cir. 2013).

The petition went on to call out the Montana Supreme Court for “cavalierly ignoring the views of the [EPA]…”

McKinney v. Arizona

Issue: Whether James Erin McKinney’s death sentence should stand, even though the trial court never heard evidence about his Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

In 1996, McKinney was convicted and sentenced to death by a judge in Arizona for a 1993 murder. Two decades later, the Ninth Circuit sided with McKinney on his appeal; because no Arizona court had ever considered mitigating evidence that McKinney suffered PTSD as a result of severe childhood abuse, the death sentence was pronounced in error. McKinney then petitioned to be re-sentenced by a jury, which became the required procedure in 2002. However, he lost that motion, and was re-sentenced to the death penalty – again, by only a judge.

SCOTUS will answer the question of timing: must McKinney’s second sentencing hearing follow the procedural laws on the books at the time that hearing occurred in 2002, or is it sufficient that the rules followed were those in play back in 1996 when his conviction was first finalized?

Intel Corp. Investment Policy Committee v. Sulyma

Issue: How much does ERISA’s “actual knowledge” exception to its statute of limitations for breach-of-fiduciary-duty claims require that a plaintiff actually know?

Intel v. Sulyma presents another issue of timing, this time from the world of employment law and high finance. Christopher Sulyma was a recent graduate who worked for Intel; one of his employee benefits was a 401K plan.  After the 2008 financial crisis, Sulyma’s plan included investments in hedge-funds and private-equity investments that made up a disproprortionately large percentage of the assets in those funds.  Sulyma had “virtually no investing experience: He did not know what a hedge fund was and had never heard of private equity.”

After eventually learning that that his investments soured, Sulyma sued the 401K administrator for breach of fiduciary duty. The applicable statute (ERISA) allowed a six-year statute of limitations, and Sulyma’s claim clearly fell within that time frame. However, ERISA only allows a three-year window to bring a lawsuit when the claimant has “actual knowledge” of the wrongdoing. In Sulyma’s case, the relevant information may well have been available to him, but without context or outside knowledge, he may not have understood that he was victimized.

In its appeal to the Supreme Court, Intel asks the Court to settle whether ERISA’s “actual knowelege” exception to its statute of limitations applies when, “all of the relevant information was disclosed to [Sulyma] more than three years before the plaintiff filed the complaint, but the plaintiff chose not to read or could not recall having read the information.”

Monasky v. Taglieri

Issue: Under the Hauge Convention, what is the appropriate way to determine an infant’s “habitual residence” in a case where an American citizen fled Italy with a newborn baby to escape domestic violence?

Michelle Monasky is an American citizen who married Domenico Taglieri, an Italian citizen, in Ohio back in 2011. In 2013, Taglieri moved back to Italy for employment purposes; six months later, Monasky joined him. According to Monasky, Taglieri was regularly physically and sexually abusive; one alleged sexual assault caused her to become pregnant.

During Monasky’s pregnancy, the alleged abuse intensified, and she began to make plans to move back to the United States. At the time, she and Taglieri were living 165 miles away from each other. She applied for American employment, said that she wanted a divorce, and told Taglieri that she planned to take the child to the U.S. once the baby was born.

According to court documents, days before the child was born, Taglieri told Monasky, “f[uck] you, go back to the States with your mom on [February] 27th.” Monasky’s mother was visiting her daughter in Italy, and assisted Monasky with post-childbirth recovery. After several increasingly violent incidents, Monasky and Taglieri jointly applied for a passport for the child, A.M.T. Monasky then took the baby to the police, who placed mother and child in a domestic violence safe house, where they stayed for two weeks before leaving immediately for the U.S. A.M.T. was eight weeks old upon arriving in the U.S.

Taglieri now seeks that A.M.T be returned to him in Italy on that grounds that under the Hague Convention’s International Child Abduction laws, any child wrongfully removed from her country of “habitual residence” must be returned to that country. SCOTUS is now asked to decide whether Italy is truly A.M.T.’s “habitual residence.”

Currently, there is a circuit-split on the issue of how to analyze “habitual residence”; there’s also the related question whether Monasky and Taglieri’s agreement that mother and child relocate to the U.S. is sufficient to establish “habitual residence” for a very young child.

Comcast Corp. v. National Association of African American-Owned Media

Issue: What is the right standards of evidence in a case in which a media company claims to have been discriminated against by a cable distributor?

This is a civil rights case that is also about media, entertainment, and contracting.

Entertainment Studios Networks, Inc. (“Entertainment Studios”) is an African-American-owned media company that owns and operates television networks. For years, Entertainment Studios has been trying to get onto Comcast’s distribution list, but Comcast has consistently refused. Entertainment Studios sued for illegal racial discrimination, arguing that Comcast contracted with white-owned networks, but unfairly refused to carry Entertainment Studio’s channels.

Comcast won its motion to dismiss the lawsuit, but on appeal, that dismissal was reversed by the Ninth Circuit. Now on appeal to the Supreme Court, the decision will turn on what type of evidence is required for Entertainment Studios to move ahead with its claim. Comcast argues that a “but for” test is appropriate. Such a standard would mean that to prevail on a claim, racial discrimination needs to be the deciding reason that Comcast chose not to contract with Entertainment Studios.  By contrast, Entertainment Studios argues that if racial discrimination was one among several factors influencing Comcast’s decision, it has a valid discrimination claim.

Even if SCOTUS ultimately sides with Entertainment Studios, the company will have a long road ahead.  A win on this appeal will simply allow the case to proceed to trial, where the ultimate outcome is far from certain.

[image via ERIC BARADAT/Getty Images]

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Elura is a columnist and trial analyst for Law & Crime. Elura is also a former civil prosecutor for NYC's Administration for Children's Services, the CEO of Lawyer Up, and the author of How To Talk To Your Lawyer and the Legalese-to-English series. Follow Elura on Twitter @elurananos