January 27, 2014 United States Supreme Court opinions

Air Wisconsin Airlines Corp. v Hoeper

Air Wisconsin reported that Hoeper had been fired, was authorized to carry a firearm onto airplanes as a deputized pilot and was mentally unstable. Hoeper was removed from his flight home, but, later allowed to return home. He sued for defamation. Air Wisconsin pled immunity under 49 USC 44941. Colorado state courts held that immunity was unavailable to recklessly made true statements and affirmed a judgment for Hoeper. The Court reversed. It unanimously held that 44941 incorporates the Sullivan v New York Times standard which requires material falsity before damages can be recovered. It next unanimously held that materiality for 44941 purposes is viewed from the perspective of a reasonable security officer. Applying the rule, the Court, 6-3, held that the statement that Hoeper was authorized to carry a gun was actually true and immunity applied. It also held that while the statement that Hoeper had been fired was nto literally true, that would not be material to the reasonable officer as Hoeper’s termination was a certainly within a few days at most and the threat assessment would be the same either way. The Court finally reversed as to the statement about mental stability reasoning that the purpose of 44491 would be eviscerated if airline employees were required to run their reports through attorneys to refine the language and remove all ambiguities or possible false impressions. The partial dissent argued that case should have been remanded for further proceedings, but, given the Court’s decision to apply argued that the jury was entitled to find for Hoeper given “mental instability’ means mentally ill, there was no evidence that anyone at Air Wisconsin thought Hoeper was a threat and an accurate account of Hoeper’s outburst would have been material to the security officer.

Sandifer v United States Steel Corp.

Sandifer and others sued US Steel arguing that the time spent putting on protective gear was not changing clothes and thus time spent putting on the gear was compensable under federal labor law. The district court ruled putting on protective gear was “changing clothes” for purposes of 29 USC 203(o) and granted judgment to US Steel. The 7th Circuit affirmed. The Court unanimously affirmed. It held clothes are items to cover the body and includes protective gear. It held changing means either substitution or alteration. Applying here, nine of twelve protective times were obviously clothes and putting them on altered the clothes worn by Sandifer and the other workers. While rejecting a de minimus exception, the Court held judgment was proper here as the bulk of time spent putting on protective gear was spent putting on items of clothing thus satisfying the requirements of 203(o).

Burrage v United States

Burgess was convicted of trafficking drugs which resulted in death under a contributing cause standard. The Court, with two justices concurring in judgment, reversed. It held that “resulting in” required at least but for causation as the normal understanding of the term connects the event and the outcome. It noted this is consistent with how “resulting in” or similar terms are treated in the civil rights context and by most state courts in criminal cases. Six justices rejected the government’s policy argument noting the substantial cause standard argued for is applied differently in states which use it, that the government was unable to explain how to distinguish acts or omissions which are substantial from those which are insignificant and Congress can create a new standard for multiple drug intoxication as some states do. The concurrence would have affirmed solely on lenity grounds.

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