Public Citizen Litigation Group is already at work on cases for the Supreme Court’s 2011 Term, including petitions, oppositions to petitions, and merits briefs in two consumer cases that Litigation Group attorney Scott Nelson will argue next fall. In the 2010 Term, the Court delivered some hard blows to consumer and employment rights, in particular to their access to the civil justice system. Nonetheless, we were on the winning side in a number of cases, including the following:
Smith v. Bayer Corporation: In this case, the Court unanimously held that a federal court’s denial of class certification is not binding on a state court considering certification of a similar class action brought by a non-named member of the proposed class in the first case. The ruling prevents corporations from relying on procedural games to deny injured consumers their day in court.
Litigation Group attorneys appeared as co-counsel for the plaintiff, assisting lead counsel Rick Monahan of the Masters Law Firm. The Supreme Court’s opinion agrees with the fundamental arguments we advanced: A state-court motion for class certification under state rules presents a different issue from a federal-court motion invoking federal rules, and members of an uncertified class are not parties who are bound by the judgment in the case where certification was denied. Read more about Smith v. Bayer Corp.
Nevada Commission on Ethics v. Carrigan: The question in this case was whether legislators’ First Amendment rights are violated by laws requiring them to recuse themselves from votes in which they or their close associates have financial interests. In an important win for efforts to prevent government corruption, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that such laws do not violate the First Amendment.
The Litigation group filed an amicus brief supporting the Nevada Ethics Commission. The Court’s opinion agrees with the view presented in our brief that when a legislator votes, she is exercising government authority and not engaging in personal speech protected by the First Amendment. The opinion even borrows some key phrases from our brief. Read more about Nevada Commission on Ethics v. Carrigan.
Milner v. Department of the Navy: This case concerned FOIA requests for records showing the distances at which explosions at Naval Magazine Indian Island in Puget Sound, Washington, would be felt. A resident of the region filed the requests to determine whether he and his neighbors would be at risk in the event of such an explosion. Although the records contained mathematical formulas and technical maps, not personnel rules or employee practices, the Department of the Navy claimed the records could be withheld under FOIA exemption 2, which applies to records "related solely to the internal personnel rules and practices of an agency."
The Supreme Court rejected the argument that exemption 2 covers all internal rules and practices that guide employees in discharging their duties. Such an interpretation, the Court noted, "has no basis in the text, context, or purpose of FOIA," and would "pos[e] the risk that FOIA would become less a disclosure than a 'withholding statute'." Instead, the Court held, the exemption "encompasses only records relating to issues of employee relations and human resources." Public Citizen filed an amicus brief, which the Court cited in its opinion. Read more about Milner v. Department of Navy.
Federal Communications Commission v. AT&T: Accepting Public Citizen Litigation Group’s argument as co-counsel for respondent and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requester CompTel, the Court held that corporations do not have personal privacy rights under FOIA. As the Supreme Court recognized, personal privacy is not a term that is used to refer to corporate interests.
The Supreme Courts decision is important for government transparency. If records could be withheld on the theory that they would embarrass a corporation, as AT&T had argued, the public would be deprived of important information about corporate wrongdoing and the governments response to it. Read more about FCC v. AT&T.
Williamson v. Mazda: The question before the U.S. Supreme Court was whether the Williamsons’ damages claims were barred by implied conflict preemption, on the theory that holding Mazda accountable for failing to install a lap/shoulder belt would pose an obstacle to the federal safety standard in effect at the time. In a unanimous decision, the Court held that the claims were not preempted. The case will now return to the trial court, where the Williamsons will have an opportunity to litigate their case on the merits.
The Williamsons’ lead counsel in the Supreme Court was Martin Buchanan of the Law Offices of Martin N. Buchanan in San Diego. As co-counsel in the Supreme Court, Litigation Group worked closely with Martin on briefing and argument preparation. Read more about Williamson v. Mazda.