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Court sides with employee in benefits case
Court Center | 2008/06/19 17:11
The Supreme Court said Thursday that courts should consider an insurance company's potential conflict of interest when reviewing the denial of an employee's health or disability benefits claim.

The court ruled 6-3 in the case of an Ohio woman who sued MetLife Inc. over a disability claim. She contended insurance companies have a financial incentive to deny claims and that conflict of interest should weigh heavily in employees' favor when they challenge benefit claims in court.

A federal appeals court ordered Wanda Glenn's benefits reinstated. The Supreme Court upheld that ruling.

Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen Breyer said federal law imposes a special standard of care on insurers requiring full and fair review of claim denials. Breyer noted that MetLife had emphasized a medical report that favored denial, de-emphasized other reports suggesting benefits should be granted and failed to provide MetLife's vocational and medical experts with all relevant evidence.

Dissenting, Justice Antonin Scalia said the court is using the wrong standard in dealing with potential conflicts of interest. Scalia said there must be evidence that a conflict improperly motivated a denial of benefits. In the MetLife case, there was no such evidence, Scalia said. Justices Clarence Thomas and Anthony Kennedy also dissented.

MetLife administered a disability plan for Sears, where Glenn worked for 14 years. The insurance company paid benefits for two years but in 2002 said her condition had improved and refused to continue the benefit payments. MetLife saved $180,000 by denying Glenn disability benefits until retirement, her lawyers said in court filings.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Glenn's benefits reinstated in September 2006, ruling that MetLife acted under a conflict of interest and made a decision that was not the product of a principled and deliberative reasoning process. MetLife argued that the standard used by the 6th Circuit would encourage participants with dubious claims to file suit, which in turn would raise the costs of benefit plans to both companies and employers.



ACLU files suit against Texas juvenile prison system
Court Center | 2008/06/17 14:51

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a class action lawsuit Thursday against the Texas Youth Commission (TYC), alleging that five girls imprisoned at the Ron Jackson State Juvenile Correctional Complex were subjected to punitive solitary confinement, physical abuse and invasive strip searches. The ACLU alleged that the treatment violated the girls' rights under the US Constitution and international law, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child. TYC officials responded that the agency is working to address the issues raised in the lawsuit.

In May 2007, TYC announced it would release 226 inmates after an investigation revealed that their sentences had been improperly extended in retaliation for filing grievances. In June 2007, Congress passed a bill to reform the Texas juvenile prison system, creating the Office of Inspector General to internally police the system. The Ron Jackson girls' facility is estimated to hold about 190 inmates.



Ginsburg Reverses FOIA Denial
Court Center | 2008/06/16 14:45
An airplane enthusiast has the right to seek documents from the Federal Aviation Administration, though the lower court had denied his friend the same documents.

Greg Herrick was denied access to the documents, due to an exemption covering trade secrets. When his friend filed a similar lawsuit, the lower court said the lawsuit was precluded by the first ruling. The D.C. Circuit upheld, but Justice Ginsburg reversed, shooting down the Circuit's 5-point test for "virtual representation."

"Extending the preclusive effect of a judgment to a non-party runs up against the deep-rooted historic tradition that everyone should have his own day in court," Ginsburg wrote.

For a lawsuit to be precluded, the two parties must have "pre-existing substantive legal relationship" or one party must have assumed control over the previous litigation, according to the unanimous opinion.


Class Claims Steak House Knowingly Hires Illegals
Court Center | 2008/06/11 14:46
Ruth's Chris Steak House systematically hired undocumented workers and lets them use the Social Security numbers of previous workers, and harassed and threatened a legal worker who complained of it, a RICO class action claims in Federal Court.

The lawsuit claims that after an INS sweep of Ruth's Chris Steak House in Birmingham, many undocumented workers returned "wearing different name tags." It claims the restaurant hires undocumented workers on a "large scale," pays them in cash, knowingly accepts I-9 immigration forms containing false information, and otherwise knowingly violates immigration and employment laws.

Plaintiffs also accuse Ruth's Chris of "stealing" 20% to 25% of its workers' tips.


Judge Removed From Office For Phone Rage
Court Center | 2008/06/10 14:19
Niagara Falls City Judge Robert Restaino was removed from office in an apparent case of telephone rage. Frustrated that no one owned up to the cacophonous cell phone that rang in the back of his courtroom, Restaino sent 46 defendants to jail.

   The New York Court of Appeals said removal was proper, because Restaino acted in a way that eroded confidence in his ability to render fair, rational judgments.
When the cell phone went off, Restaino told the defendants in his courtroom, "Now, whoever owns the instrument that is ringing, bring it to me now or everybody could take a week in jail and please don't tell me I'm the only one that heard that."

After a fruitless inquiry to find the owner, he reiterated, "Everyone is going to jail; every single person is going to jail in this courtroom unless I get that instrument now. If anybody believes I'm kidding, ask some of the folks that have been here for a while. You are all going."

He questioned the 35 remaining defendants and recalled 11 defendants whom he had previously released before the phone rang. Dissatisfied with their responses, he revoked their recognizance release and imposed bail. He even set bail for a petitioner who had been standing next to the judge when the phone rang in the back of the room.

He then ranted about the breach of courtroom decorum. "You know, for some of you folks, this hurts me more than you imagine because someone in this courtroom has no consideration for you, no consideration for me and just doesn't care," he said. "Some of you people may not be in the (same) economic situation (as) this selfish person ... (is who) put(s) their interests (sic) above everybody else's. They don't care what happens to anybody."

The 46 defendants were transported to the city jail, booked, searched and placed in holding cells. Thirty-two defendants posted bail, while the remaining 14 who could not post bail were shackled and bused to the county jail.

The state court said the circumstances qualified as "truly egregious" to merit removal from office. "(I)t is ironic that petitioner displayed the very attributes by which he accused and summarily punished each defendant," the court added. Restaino had "more than 46 chances to correct himself and failed to do so."


Black Public Defenders Sue Atlanta
Court Center | 2008/06/05 14:51
In pursuit of "greater diversity," the City of Atlanta laid off five black female public defenders who were better qualified and had more experience than the white men it retained, the women claim in Federal Court.

The women claim, "the decision makers regarding the reduction in force laid off plaintiffs as part of an effort to achieve what they perceived as greater diversity in a department that had previously had primarily African American and female employees."

The woman want reinstatement, back pay, damages and costs, alleging racial and sexual discrimination.


9th Circuit Halts Logging In Sierra Nevada Forest
Court Center | 2008/05/15 14:39
The 9th Circuit has blocked the government's plan to log parts of the Sierra Nevada forest, rejecting the U.S. Forest Service's argument that it needs to cut and sell large trees in order to raise money for forest-fire prevention.

Sierra Forest Legacy and the state of California appealed the denial of an injunction against the Forest Service to ban the cutting of larger trees, in which several wildlife species thrive. Environmentalists claimed that the agency's plan to sell off trees to cover the costs of fire prevention failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act.

The Forest Service shirked its duty to "rigorously explore and objectively evaluate all reasonable alternatives" to logging in the Basin, Empire and Slapjack sites of the Sierra Nevada forests, plaintiffs claimed.

"In one sale, a fire hazard can be removed and the USFS paid so that it can remove the fuel of future fires," Judge Noonan wrote, acknowledging the seeming practicality of the plan. "Two for one always has an attractive ring. But are there no alternative ways of getting money to do the clearing that is imperative? Obviously, there may be."

Noonan suggested that the mere existence of a lumber-for-funds plan indicates that Congress needs to step in and provide more funding for forest fire prevention. Plaintiffs suggested other alternatives, including reprioritizing other funding and altering the Forest Service's fuel treatment program.

So long as the alternatives remain unexamined, the agency's plan violates federal law, Noonan wrote.

The court stressed that it was not deciding the merits of the case, but ruling that the government's choice of funding for fire reduction does not outweigh the state's preservation interests.
 


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