Every year, a few blockbuster Supreme Court oral arguments and decisions dominate the news. In 2013, voting rights, LGBT equality, and affirmative action in education took center stage. Many Americans, whether lawyers or not, understood that these decisions could affect their own lives.
Almost under the radar, however, the Court has been chipping away at the very process that enables the American people to seek redress in court when they’ve been injured. In particular, the Court’s decisions enforcing arbitration clauses and class action waivers have closed the courthouse door to litigants harmed by corporate wrongdoing. Most recently, in American Express Corp v. Italian Colorslast Term, the Court ruled that class action waivers are enforceable even when they render it functionally impossible for plaintiffs to vindicate their rights under federal law.
Rich Freer, the Robert Howell Professor of Law at Emory Law School, explains the impact of these cases.
Fifty years ago, a unanimous Supreme Court held in Gideon v. Wainwright that “in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person hauled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him.” This holding was described in the opinion to be “an obvious truth,” a recognition that Gideon’s clear and powerful proclamation – protecting the fundamental human right to liberty – is one that resonates with us all.
But the mandate was not self-executing, and far too little planning or coordination was undertaken to translate the legal pronouncement into consistent practice. The fundamental constitutional right of the Sixth Amendment was left to fall victim to the inertia of the “machinery of criminal justice” – a counterweight poignantly exposed in Gideon -- and the political realities of each state and county. The failure to act on a federal level has reversed the tides of history to the very problem Gideon attempted to correct. That is: local political entities cannot be solely relied upon to ensure the constitutional right to counsel is properly structured and funded. As a result, the Attorney General declared on the anniversary of the Gideon decision: “It’s time to reclaim Gideon’s petition – and resolve to confront the obstacles facing indigent defense providers.”
The criminal justice system is an eco-system in which the component parts are inextricably intertwined. If police officers arrest more individuals, prosecutors have more cases to process and public defense organizations have more people for whom to provide legal representation. However, while other system actors have mechanisms to prioritize cases or to exercise discretion over which cases to pursue, the Constitution affords public defenders no such “release valve” for controlling workload. This reality exacerbates funding inequities that exist at the state and local levels.
“[I]n our adversary system of criminal justice, any person hauled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him.” Fifty years ago this past March, Justice Hugo Black wrote those words for a unanimous Supreme Court in holding that the Sixth Amendment provided Clarence Earl Gideon with the right to counsel, despite his indigent status, as he stood trial in Florida for allegedly breaking and entering a Panama City pool hall.
Gideon v. Wainwright forever changed American jurisprudence, ensuring that guilt or innocence in a criminal matter would be fairly adjudicated, regardless of a defendant’s economic circumstance. But as states and the federal government have dramatically slashed their budgets over the last several years, the promise enshrined by Gideon has come under increased threat as public defenders have seen theirbudgets bear a significant brunt of these cuts.
Congressman Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) introduced this week a bill to help remedy the effect of these cuts and ensure the promise of Gideon. Entitled the “National Center for the Right to Counsel Act,” the measure would establish a private, non-profit center to provide “financial support to supplement…funding for public defense systems” as well as provide “financial and substantive support for training programs that aim to improve the delivery of legal services to indigent defendants.” The Act would also create geographically-based “regional backup service centers” which would provide public defenders with access to investigators and sentencing mitigation experts as well as information on available financial grants. A nine-person “State Advisory Council” would be formed in each state to monitor the quality of public defender services and ensure compliance with the Act.
The U.S. Supreme Court this week heard argument in DaimlerChrysler AG v. Bauman, a case arising out of the Dirty War in Argentina. The plaintiffs allege that Daimler, the German automaker, is responsible for the disappearance and torture of workers at a Mercedes-Benz plant in Argentina, because plant managers identified union leaders and others as “subversives” who were then targeted for persecution. This case is worth watching, because it could herald broad new protections for multinational corporations that enjoy the privilege of doing business in the United States.
The focus of the Supreme Court hearing, however, was not on the substance of the claims, but on whether Daimler can be sued in the United States at all. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Daimler could be sued in California because its subsidiary Mercedes-Benz USA (MBUSA) does extensive business in California, and MBUSA’s activities could be attributed to Daimler. My organization, EarthRights International, submitted an amicus brief on the side of the Bauman plaintiffs, arguing that the Constitution does not require courts to treat corporations and their subsidiaries separately for jurisdictional purposes, especially where they are economically integrated.
Several justices seemed hostile to the victims of torture and disappearance, but they did not suggest a coherent rationale for dismissing the case. Few seemed to want to constitutionalize a rule of corporate separateness, but most expressed some discomfort with the case.
What’s at stake here is essentially whether Congress, or any U.S. state, has the power to tell a corporation: “If you do business here, even if it’s through a subsidiary, victims of your crimes in other countries can sue you here.” In this case, the abuses are torture and disappearance; in another case it might be selling chemical weapons. Do we really want to establish a constitutional rule that a company that sells chemical weapons to a foreign regime can exercise the privilege of doing business in the United States without submitting to justice from its victims?
Two years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court let Wal-Mart block its female workers’ sex discrimination claims in Wal-Mart v. Dukes by changing the rules governing class actions. Next Tuesday, Wal-Mart will ask the Court to block its workers’ long-term disability claims in Heimeshoff v. Hartford Life & Accident Insurance Co. and Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., by changing the rules governing statutes of limitations, too. The company is arguing, believe it or not, that the statute of limitations to sue it for wrongfully denying long-term disability benefits starts running shortly after the claims for benefits are submitted, long before it rules on them (much less denies them), and long before the injured workers could ever file a case in court.
As Public Justice’s Matt Wessler will tell the Court and our briefs explain in detail, we think Wal-Mart is wrong. So does the U.S. Government, which has filed an amicus brief agreeing with us --and disagreeing with Wal-Mart -- on every issue in the case.
Every first-year law student learns that statutes of limitations, which set a time limit on how long a person has to sue, don’t start running -- can’t start running, as a matter of common sense -- until a person suffers a wrong and could actually file a case in court. If someone tries to sue before that, his or her case will be thrown out. As the Supreme Court has long said, “All statutes of limitation begin to run when the right of action is complete...” Clark v. Iowa City, 20 Wall. 583, 589 (1875). Indeed, the Court has “repeatedly recogn
Under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA, the federal law that governs Wal-Mart’s long-term group disability insurance plan (administered by Hartford), injured workers seeking benefits have to file a claim for them, submit “proof of loss” (evidence they are entitled to the benefits that is supposed to be filed within 60 days
of the claim), and go through an internal claims resolution process, including an internal appeal. Until they do that and lose the appeal, their claim is not officially denied -- and they cannot file a suit in court. That makes sense because the lawsuit ERISA authorizes is for wrongful denial of benefits.
Julie Heimeshoff worked for Wal-Mart for almost 20 years, rising to the position of Senior Public Relations manager. When Ms. Heimeshoff began suffering from significant pain and fatigue, she had trouble working. She was later diagnosed with fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, lupus, and several other chronic pain sources. In June 2005, her pain became so severe that she had to stop working altogether. She sought benefits and, after a long internal process, her claim was denied. The statute of limitations was three years and, less than three years later, she filed suit.