In shadow of landmark decisions, US SC also rules for business

Written by Reuters | Washington | Updated: Jun 29 2013, 09:14am hrs
Less noticed in a flurry of high-profile rulings on race, voting rights and gay marriage was how the US Supreme Court rounded off its term by delivering a string of victories to businesses and employers.

Just this week, the court handed wins to generic drug manufacturers facing design-defect lawsuits, employers battling harassment and retaliation claims and landowners struggling to obtain permits for construction projects. In all four cases, the court was split 5-4 with the conservatives in the majority.

Overall, during the term that started nine months ago, the Supreme Court has delivered a series of victories for corporate defendants on class action lawsuits and arbitration, curbing the ability of consumers to file mass claims against companies over such matters as defective products and unfair practices. Comcast Corp and American Express were among the big winners in those cases.

As progressive groups have been quick to point out, the US Chamber of Commerce, the main group representing business interests, received a favorable outcome in 14 of the 18 cases in which it filed friend-of-the-court briefs.

The courts business rulings represent troubling trends that reach back a decade or more, with the courts conservative majority making it harder for consumers, workers and small businesses to go to federal court and hold large corporations accountable, said Doug Kendall, president of the Constitutional Accountability Center, a progressive legal group.

Kate Comerford Todd, chief counsel for appellate litigation at the Chambers litigation arm, brushed aside suggestions that the court led since 2005 by chief justice John Roberts, an appointee of Republican President George W Bush was overly friendly to business.

Citing a popular view within the business community, she said the court was merely reining in the plaintiffs lawyers who can make millions of dollars in a single case representing multiple plaintiffs in suits against corporate defendants. We see a court that has in recent years beaten back the plaintiffs bars aggressive campaign to contort the rules and law to serve their purposes, she said.

As is normal for the court in its final week, it issued rulings in some of its most divided cases.

On Monday it issued two rulings that limited the ability of employees to make harassment or retaliation claims against employers under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

The court ruled against an African-American Ball State University catering assistant who claimed she was harassed on the basis of race and a University of Texas doctor of Middle Eastern descent who claimed he lost his job in retaliation for complaining of bias. The rulings prompted liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to call out the majority in a statement from the bench, saying they had corralled Title VII.

The Chamber of Commerce filed briefs in both cases in support of the employer. Todd said the rulings simply set clearer rules for employers and employees alike.

On the same day as the employment decisions, the court also issued its ruling on whether generic drug makers could be sued under state law for design defects in medications that already have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Perhaps the least-noticed, most significant case and thus branded by some as the terms biggest sleeper was Tuesdays ruling on land-use permit applications.