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Supreme Court issued important rulings in 2017, but avoided Title VII


The U.S. Supreme Court issued several important rulings in 2017, including the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s recovery of ill-gotten gains, forum shopping, patent lawsuits and U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission subpoenas.

But it ducked the hot issue of whether employees are protected from discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Meanwhile, awaited this year are high court rulings in the “wedding cake” case over a baker’s free speech rights, widening whistleblower protections and class action waivers.

Important rulings in reverse chronological order include:

Forum shopping curtailed: In June, the Supreme Court limited where lawsuits can be filed, which experts said would reduce forum shopping and curtail situations where defendants may feel pressured to settle litigation because of the large number of cases file against them. The case, Bristol-Meyers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court of California, San Francisco County et al., involved New York-based Bristol-Meyers Squibb, which was sued by 600 plaintiffs in California state court, of whom only 86 were California residents. It was an 8-1 ruling.

Time limit set on SEC disgorgement recovery: The Supreme Court said in its unanimous June ruling in Charles Kokesh v. Securities and Exchange Commission that the SEC’s disgorgement recovery method is subject to a five-year statute of limitation. The justices sided with New Mexico-based investment adviser Charles Kokesh, who had been ordered to pay $2.4 million in penalties plus $34.9 million in the disgorgement of illegal profits after the SEC sued him.

Patent lawsuit forums limited: In what has been described as the first patent law venue change in almost 30 years, the Supreme Court ruled in a unanimous 8-0 ruling in May that patent cases can be filed only in courts located where the target company is domiciled or has a regular place of business. The ruling is expected to lead to a reduction in the number of nuisance patent litigation lawsuits filed against many firms.

Railroad venue defined: In a decision related to its forum shopping ruling, in May the Supreme Court held in its 8-1 decision in BNSF Railway Co. v. Tyrell, in two cases filed by injured workers, that Montana courts could not exercise general personal jurisdiction over the Fort Worth, Texas-based railroad, which maintained track in the state but was not incorporated nor had its principal place of business there.

EEOC gets a win on subpoenas: In a decision described as a victory for the EEOC, the Supreme Court said in April that a federal appeals court should review a lower court’s decision to enforce an EEOC subpoena on the basis of abuse of discretion rather than the “more searching” de novo form of review.

Copyright prerequisites outlined: The court said in March in Star Athletics L.L.C. v. Varsity Brands that to be eligible for copyright, a feature of a useful article “must be able to exist as its own pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work” once it is imagined apart from the useful article, in a 6-2 ruling that focused on cheerleaders’ uniforms. Experts said the ruling could lead to increased litigation in the fashion industry, although it also provided needed guidance on copyright law.

Cases where oral arguments have been heard but no decisions have been issued include Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission over the issue of whether business owners can refuse to serve gay couples if they oppose same-sex marriage on religious grounds. The case involved a Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for two men on the basis of his religious beliefs.

A ruling is also awaited on three cases on the issue of whether arbitration agreements with individual employees bar them from pursuing work-related claims on a collective or class basis, or whether such agreements limit employee rights under the National Labor Relations Act to engage in concerted activities. The cases are National Labor Relations Board v. Murphy Oil USA, Epic Systems Corp. V. Lewis and Ernst & Young v. Morris.

In addition, oral arguments have been heard, but no ruling issued yet, in Digital Realty Trust Inc. v. Somers, over whether protections for corporate insiders who blow the whistle on securities law violations or fraud should be widened.

In December, the Supreme Court issued a denial of certiorari in Jameka K. Evans v. Georgia Regional Hospital, in which a lesbian former security guard had claimed in her lawsuit that she was denied equal pay or work, harassed and physically assaulted or battered while at her job at Georgia Regional Hospital in Savannah. Experts predict, however, that the court will eventually consider the issue.