12 June 2017

Harsh Rulings From SCOTUS

* The U.S. Supreme Court has previously held that life without possibility of parole sentences for a rape committed by a juvenile are not permitted. But, it concluded per curiam in Virginia v. LeBlanc that habeas corpus review was not available in such as case when the sentence was only life with possibility of "geriatric release" finding that this was not an objectively unreasonable reading of its ruling by the Virginia Supreme Court. In all likelihood, however, SCOTUS will hold in the proper case that this sentence is unconstitutional, but people with existing sentences will be hard pressed to benefit and will languish in the meantime.

* In Henson v. Santander Consumer USA Inc., SCOTUS gutted the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act by holding that firms that purchase defaulted debts for collection are not subject to the Act. This unanimous ruling is the first written by new Justice Neil M. Gorsuch and reflects a crabbed method of interpreting statutes that focuses on their literal wording rather than their intent, putting form over substance (since a sale of a defaulted debt for collection is for all purposes relevant to the FDCA economically equivalent to collecting debt for a third party).

The background to the grant of certiorari illustrates why the Court's unanimous conclusion was far from a foregone conclusion. As the headings in the Petition for Certiorari explain, the Circuit Courts of Appeal were quite evenly split on this issue and the U.S. Supreme Court adopted the minority rule (incidentally, affirming the much maligned 9th Circuit's position):
There Is A 5-3 Conflict Over Whether Collectors Of Purchased Defaulted Debt Are “Debt Collectors” Under The FDCPA. The Third, Fifth, Sixth, And Seventh Circuits, And The District of Columbia Court of Appeals, Hold That Collectors Of Purchased Defaulted Debt Are Debt Collectors Within The Meaning Of The FDCPA. The Fourth, Ninth, And Eleventh Circuits Reject The Majority Rule.
The majority view was also the interpretation of the Act made by the federal agencies charged with enforcing the law:
As originally enacted, the FDCPA authorized the Federal Trade Commission to “enforce compliance with” the Act, using its powers under the Federal Trade Commission Act. See 15 U.S.C. § 1692l(a). As part of the Consumer Financial Protection Act of 2010, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was also given overlapping enforcement authority with 27 respect to non-bank financial institutions. See id. § 1692l(b)(6). These two agencies and the Solicitor General have consistently construed the FDCPA to apply to purchasers of defaulted debt. 
* In Microsoft Corp. v. Baker, the Court narrowed the availability of the class action remedy by eliminating the right of a class to appeal on an interlocutory basis the denial of class action status, when all of the named Plaintiffs settle, or voluntarily dismiss with prejudice, their cases. This unanimous decision reflects longstanding hostility towards class-action lawsuits by the Supreme Court.

* In Sessions v. Morales-Santana, the Court agrees that the gender discrimination between the citizenship requirements for children with U.S. fathers born outside the U.S. and for children with U.S. mothers born outside the U.S. is improper. But, rather than following the nearly universal rule of leniency in such acses, it adopts the harsher rule applicable to U.S. fathers (prospectively) for mothers while leaving the rule for fathers unchanged, denies the party claiming U.S. citizenship relief, and exhorts Congress to rewrite the law. The decision was unanimous.

* In Sandoz Inc. v. Amgen Inc., the U.S. Supreme Court once again rebuffs the Federal Circuit on a patent law issue related to patent claims in products (basically drugs) biologically similar to products subject to an existing patent. If the inventor of the biosimilar product doesn't have the cooperation the the inventor of the original product, the original product owner may immediately sue for patent infringement. In this case two points were at issue. First, could the new applicant give an FDA required notice before it had its license to sell the product in hand, thereby avoiding a six month waiting period during which the old product owner would have a monopoly. The Federal Circuit held that notice could not be given in advance and the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed, eliminating a six month waiting period for newly approved products going to market. Secondly, it wasn't clear if an injunction against selling the product pending litigation was available in lieu of the waiting period. The U.S. Supreme Court held that an injunction justified by state but not federal law could be available even though the Federal Circuit had held that all state law claims were pre-empted. Overall, the case was a slight win for companies wanting to introduce new biosimilar drugs to the market and a slight loss for companies with existing drug patents whose protection against biosimilar competitors was weakened. This follows the general trend of recent patent holdings of weakening court created protections for existing patent holders (which one would expect the Federal Circuit to create due to industry capture). The decision was unanimous. This is the sixth federal circuit reversal on a patent issue this session of the U.S. Supreme Court, and was a narrow opinion avoiding many of the issues presented.

In addition to these ruling the high court granted cert in yet another patent law case involving the process for reviewing already issued patents.

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