The Week Ahead – March 27, 2017

The Court has oral arguments in eight cases scheduled for this week. On Monday, the Court will hear arguments in four cases, three of which are consolidated. The three consolidated cases of Dignity Health v. Rollins, Advocate Health Care Network v. Stapleton, and Saint Peter’s Healthcare System v. Kaplan present the issue of whether the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974’s (ERISA) church-plan exemption applies to plans operated by organizations, such as hospitals, that are affiliated with churches although not themselves churches.

The defendants in the cases are all religiously affiliated operators of hospitals whose employees sued, alleging that the plans do not qualify for the exemption. Advocate Health Care Network is a ministry of the Lutheran and Church of Christ denominations that operates Illinois hospitals. Saint Peter’s Healthcare System is a Catholic ministry that operates a New Jersey hospital. Dignity Health operates several California hospitals sponsored by nuns. The federal agencies that administer ERISA (the Internal Revenue Service, the Department of Labor and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation) have treated the pension plans of such hospitals as exempt from ERISA for more than 30 years.

The exemption from ERISA depends on a definition of “church plan” in the Act. ERISA, as originally drafted, exempted any plan “established and maintained for its employees by a church.” Amendments in 1980 state that a “plan established and maintained for its employees … by a church … includes a plan maintained by an organization … controlled by or associated with a church.” The Atlantic discusses this case in depth, here.

On Monday, the Court also will hear arguments in TC Heartland LLC v. Kraft Foods Group Brands LLC, which analyzes whether the patent venue statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1400(b), providing that patent infringement actions “may be brought in the judicial district where the defendant resides[,]” may be supplemented by 28 U.S.C. § 1391, which contains a subsection (c) that, in some cases, deems a corporate entity to reside in multiple judicial districts. Kraft Foods sued in Delaware, alleging that TC Heartland had infringed Kraft’s patent for a “liquid water enhancer” – a product that allows people to add flavoring to plain water.  Heartland sought to transfer the case to Indiana, its state of incorporation, arguing that Section 1400 does not authorize the case to be heard in a Delaware forum. SCOTUSblog explains that the case allow the Court to focus on forum shopping so extreme in patent ligitation that a single judge in  Marshall, Texas has been was assigned approximately one quarter of the nation’s patent cases in the last three years.

On Tuesday the Court will hear arguments in Lee v. United States. Lee analyzes whether a noncitizen defendant was prejudiced by inadequate legal advice when he rejected a plea offer notwithstanding strong evidence of guilt, and the plea would have resulted in mandatory and permanent deportation. The petitioner in the case, Jae Lee, is a Tennessee man from South Korea. Lee immigrated to the U.S. in 1982 and became a restaurateur. He was charged in 2009 with possession of ecstasy with intent to distribute. Lee’s attorney recommended that Lee plead guilty to receive a shorter sentence, and falsely told him that a guilty plea would not result in Lee’s permanent and mandatory deportation.  Lee sought to vacate his conviction, arguing that he had been deprived of his constitutional right to have adequate counsel. Although the government agreed that the attorney had given inadequate advice, the lower courts ruled that Lee could not show that he was prejudiced by that advice because evidence of his guilt was overwhelming. The ABA Journal discusses the legal question and relevant precedents in more depth.

On Wednesday the Court will hear two consolidated cases that arise from the 1984 murder of a District of Columbia woman: Turner v. United States and Overton v. United States. The cases ask whether the petitioners’ convictions must be set aside under Brady v. Maryland, which held that suppression by the prosecution of evidence favorable to an accused who has requested it violates due process where the evidence is material to guilt or punishment, regardless of the prosecution’s good or bad faith. The petitioners are D.C. men who were convicted, based largely on testimony from alleged eyewitnesses. Decades later, it was revealed that prosecutors had not turned over multiple pieces of discovery that would have strengthened the defendants’ cases. The men sought unsuccessfully in lower courts to vacate their convictions.

Constitution Daily has more on the cases’ history.

Finally on Wednesday, the Court will hear arguments in Honeycutt v. United States, where the Court will analyze whether 21 U.S.C. § 853(a)(1) mandates joint and several liability among co-conspirators for forfeiture of the reasonably foreseeable proceeds of a drug conspiracy. The Honeycutt brothers, Tony and Terry, operated a hardware store in Brainerd, Tennessee. Tony owned the store with their father; Terry was a salaried sales employee. In less than three years, the store sold more than 15,000 bottles of a water purifying product called “Polar Pure.” The police told the family that the product’s iodine ingredient could be used to cook methamphetamine, but they kept selling it. The government indicted the brothers on conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine precursors, among other crimes. Tony pled guilty and accepted a forfeiture judgment. Terry went to trial, and was convicted of 11 counts. The district court declined to order forfeiture against Terry, on grounds that he had no ownership in the store, was salaried, and “did not stand to benefit personally from the illegal sales.” The ruling was reversed and remanded on appeal. The Court will decide whether the statute may empower a federal court to order a defendant to forfeit proceeds that he did not “obtain” under a theory of joint and several liability. The New York Law Journal takes a deeper look at the case and the issue of joint and several liability in forfeiture cases.

On Monday, the Court granted cert in two new cases – a bankruptcy case called U.S. Bank National Association v. Village at Lakeridge, and a securities case about the duty to disclose called Leidos, Inc. v. Indiana Public Retirement System. It also called for the views of the Solicitor General in Snyder v. Doe, which is about the application of the Ex Post Facto clause to sex offender registration. On Friday the Court will meet for Conference, and orders will be released next Monday.

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