Olympic Airways v. Husain (02-1348), Doe v. Chao (02-1377), General Dynamics Land Systems v. Cline (02-1080) and Groh v. Ramirez (02-811)

February 26, 2004 Supreme Court Update

Greeting Court fans!

As promised, the four remaining opinions from earlier this week. I'll do my best to be brief.

First, let's fly through Olympic Airways v. Husain (02-1348). In this case, the Court construed Article 17 of the Warsaw Convention to affirm a judgment finding Olympic Airways liable for Dr. Hanson's death on one of its planes. When Hanson, an asthmatic with a severe smoke allergy, discovered that he was seated just three rows in front of the smoking section on his flight, he asked a flight attendant to reseat him. She refused (repeatedly), and Hanson ultimately died. The Warsaw Convention imposes liability on airlines for a passenger's death caused by "accidents" that occur in connection with international flights, and so the question in this case is whether the flight attendant's refusal to reseat Hanson was an "accident." In a prior case interpreting the Convention, the Court held that an accident is "an unexpected or unusual event or happening that is external to the passenger" and not "the passenger's own internal reaction to the usual, normal, and expected operation of the aircraft." The prior Court also emphasized that multiple events could "cause" an accident and thus that a plaintiff need only be able to prove some link in the causal chain was an unusual or expected event external to the passenger. So in this case, (opinion by Thomas for everyone but Scalia, O'Connor and Breyer) while the ambient smoke certainly contributed to Hanson's death, so did the flight attendant's refusal to reseat him. Moreover, the airline's argument that the failure to reseat Hanson -- a form of inaction -- cannot be an accident is misplaced. The Convention makes no distinction between actions and inactions.

Scalia dissented (joined in part by O'Connor). (Breyer was recused from the case.) Although Scalia is usually against using decisions from foreign tribunals, he believes that in the interpretation of treaties, the Court should consider judgments from other signatory nations. He would rely on decisions from England and Australia and hold that inaction cannot constitute an accident.

Next, on to Doe v. Chao (02-1377), a case that is unlikely to have any significant practical impact. The Privacy Act requires federal agencies to carefully guard private information about individuals in their files. So, when the Department of Labor used social security numbers to identify claimants on public hearing notices, it violated the Act. Doe sued for this violation, but the Fourth Circuit held that he was not entitled to the $1,000 statutory minimum damages because he had not proved any actual damages. The Supreme Court (Souter for himself, the Chief, O'Connor, Kennedy, Thomas, and Scalia) affirmed. Souter believes that the text requires proof of actual damages (I'll spare you the details) and that this interpretation is consistent with traditional principles of tort law that require proof not only of wrongful act and causation, but also of damages. Moreover, Souter concludes that general (or presumed) damages are not allowed under the Act because Congress (1) created a commission to study that very topic and (2) deleted language from the bill that would have authorized presumed damages. (Scalia doesn't join this paragraph, for obvious reasons.) The rest of the opinion responds to some of Doe's other arguments, none of which are very interesting. In sum, to recover the $1,000 in damages under the Act, a plaintiff must first show some actual damages. This holding is unlikely to have any real impact because the Court also suggests that the fees expended for obtaining a credit report would qualify as actual damages, so any plaintiff worth his salt should be able to meet this standard.

Ginsburg (joined by Stevens and Breyer) dissented. According to Ginsburg, the text, purpose and legislative history of the Act do not require proof of actual damages. (I would go into detail here, but come on, do you really care what the dissent thinks about the text, purpose and legislative history of the Privacy Act?) Breyer writes a separate dissent to emphasize that the statute (as interpreted by the dissenters) is unlikely to drain the treasury.

In General Dynamics Land Systems v. Cline (02-1080), another Souter opinion, the Court held that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act does not prohibit an employer from favoring older employers over younger ones. In 1997, General Dynamics eliminated health benefits for its retired employees, except as to then-current workers who were at least 50 years old. Cline (and others) were at least 40 (and so covered by the ADEA), but not 50, so they argued that the change favoring older employers over younger ones violated the ADEA. The ADEA, as its name suggests, prohibits age discrimination in employment, and in its usual role, protects older workers against discrimination in favor of younger ones. Although the statute could be read to prohibit the "reverse" discrimination at issue in this case (the statue just refers to discrimination on the basis of age), Souter concludes that that is not the best reading of the statute. The whole point of the ADEA was to protect older workers, as demonstrated by the legislative history and prefatory provisions of the act. Cline has three counter arguments: (1) Cline first argues that "age" merely means the length of a person's life and points to other parts of the statue where his definition of "age" makes more sense. Souter's response is twofold. First, according to Souter, Cline misapplied the presumption that identical words in a statute have identical meanings. This presumption is not rigid and yields when, for example, the relevant word has several commonly understood meanings among which a speaker can alternate without being confused or getting confusing. Age is just such a word. Second, this argument ignores the context surrounding the word. It's not just about interpreting the word "age," but rather, it's about interpreting "discrimination . . .because of age." (2) Cline's next argument rests on a floor colloquy involving a Senate sponsor of the bill. Souter acknowledges that the Senator's statements have often been persuasive but declines to follow them here because the remark in question is just one clause in all of the legislative history going the other way. In other words, the statement is an outlier and so will not be followed. (3) Finally, Cline argues that the Court should defer to the EEOC's interpretation of the Act. Souter does not weigh in on the parties' debate about how much deference should be afforded the agency's interpretation because, according to Souter, the EEOC is clearly wrong. Deference is only appropriate when the statute yields no sense of congressional intent, but here, regular methods of interpretation leave no question of congressional intent.

Scalia dissented. He would defer to the EEOC's interpretation. Thomas (joined by Kennedy) also dissented. The plain language of the statute does not restrict itself to discrimination in favor of younger workers, so Thomas would uphold that plain language.

Finally, we come to Groh v. Ramirez (02-811). Groh, an ATF agent, searched Ramirez's house pursuant to a warrant that failed to describe with particularity the "persons or things to be seized." In fact, in the portion of the form for describing the persons or things to be seized, the warrant merely described Ramirez's house. The Court (Stevens, for himself, O'Connor, Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer) held that this was constitutionally deficient and, moreover, that Groh was not entitled to qualified immunity for the violation. The particularity requirement comes from the Constitution itself, and it is not satisfied by particularity in supporting documents such as the application for the warrant. The fact that the actual search was itself "reasonable" in its scope is irrelevant. Warrantless searches of a home are presumptively unreasonable, and the presumptive rule against warrantless searches applies with equal force to searches whose only defect is a lack of particularity in the warrant. Groh tried to save the search by arguing that the goals of the particularity requirement -- if not the requirement itself -- had been met in this case through the accompanying documents. Stevens rejected this argument. The particularity requirement assures that the Magistrate Judge (not the law enforcement officer) found probable cause to search for all of the listed items, and assures the individual whose property is being searched of the lawful authority of the searching officer and the limits of that authority. After finding a constitutional violation, Stevens rejected Groh's argument for qualified immunity. As you know, qualified immunity turns on whether the right was "clearly established," and Stevens had no problem finding that the right to a particular warrant was clearly established. After all, the Constitution itself requires it. No reasonable officer would be unaware of this rule.

Kennedy (joined by the Chief) dissented. He agrees that there was a constitutional violation, but he would give the officer qualified immunity. He sees the problem here as a clerical error and believes that Groh deserves immunity for that error. Thomas (joined by Scalia, and in part by the Chief) also dissented. Thomas sees grave problems with the Court's Fourth Amendment jurisprudence, specifically the relationship between the Warrant requirement and the "reasonableness" standard. He agrees the warrant was invalid, but would ask whether, despite the invalid warrant, the resulting search was reasonable and hence constitutional. He would find it reasonable and constitutional. Even assuming a constitutional violation, however, he would grant Groh qualified immunity.

Whew! Done. That's all till next week. Until then, thanks for reading, and have a wonderful weekend! (It's supposed to be beautiful here along the Connecticut shoreline!)


From the Appellate Practice Group at Wiggin and Dana.
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