Baker v. Exxon (2008)

It’s been a generation since the largest oil spill in history devastated Alaska’s Prince William Sound, but for the residents in the small fishing community it might as well have been yesterday.

Locally-owned fishing companies are still being forced to close because there are simply not enough fish left. Residents are suffering from depression and other psychological problems because of the ongoing stress. And there’s still more than 26,000 gallons of oil soaked into the shoreline. Still, even after 18 years, the corporation that caused the damage is still trying to get out of paying the residents.

The saga began on March 24, 1989. Joseph Hazelwood, the captain of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker, was a relapsed alcoholic, and that night he was drinking while he was piloting the ship. He ran the ship aground, spilling 11 million gallons of oil, damaging 1,200 miles of Alaskan coastline, and killing hundreds of thousands of seabirds and marine animals.

The spill devastated the small fishing communities in the Prince William Sound, both economically and emotionally. A group of 33,000 commercial fisherman and residents filed a class action lawsuit against Exxon Valdez. In a victory for the residents, an Alaskan jury decided to punish the corporation by ordering it to pay $5 billion to the Alaskan residents. But Exxon’s been fighting that amount ever since, arguing that it is too high.

After several rounds of litigation, the most recent court to hear the case, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, lessened the amount to $2.5 billion, which is less than three weeks of Exxon’s current net profits. Exxon still thinks that amount is too much.

So the Supreme Court decided it would hear the case this term to decide whether $2.5 billion was too much for Exxon to pay. Exxon lawyers argue that a court has never awarded so much money to plaintiffs for the sole purpose of punishing a corporation. But the plaintiffs argue that the amount needs to be high in order to preserve corporate accountability. If Exxon is forced to pay a large amount of punitive damages, it will set an example to other corporations that this sort of conduct will not go unnoticed. But if the Supreme Court lets Exxon off the hook with a smaller amount, it is sending the message that corporations do not need to be responsible for their wrongdoings.

Only eight of the nine justices will hear this case. Justice Samuel Alito has recused himself from participating because he owns a large amount of stock in Exxon Valdez. No matter what the remaining eight justices decide, this case will have a profound effect on corporate responsibility. Whether it’s a good effect or a bad one is up to the Supreme Court.

For more information see our fact sheet on environmental protection.

Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education (2007)

The Supreme Court last term resurrected “separate but equal” in our schools. Because of the Court’s ruling in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education, schools risk becoming more segregated, and children of all races will likely have fewer opportunities to learn together and become prepared to live and work in a diverse world.

Parents Involved in Community Schools involved a challenge to student admission plans in school districts in both Seattle, Washington and Louisville, Kentucky. Concerned about how racial isolation was affecting their own children and community, locally-elected school boards in Louisville and Seattle had adopted student assignment measures to foster integrated, diverse schools. The voluntary plans used modest measures to promote integration while prioritizing parental choice and community schools. As part of the plans, the school districts looked at race as a factor in determining whether or not to transfer a student. The programs in both Seattle and Louisville had been upheld by lower courts and were similar to programs in many school districts across the country.

But in a 5-4 decision, the Court held that the programs were unconstitutional because they violated the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause in the 14th Amendment. The Court held that using race as a factor in assigning children to schools was discriminatory and could not be justified. The Court’s decision went against the tradition of Brown v. Board of Education, which declared ‘separate but equal’ unconstitutional and held that all students have a right to attend integrated schools. As a result, school districts will find it incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to assign children to schools in a way that ensures diversity. Schools are once again becoming segregated by race as they were before Brown.

For more information see our fact sheets on racial justice, education and children’s rights.

Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District (1998)

Alida Gebser was thirteen years old when she met Frank Waldrup, who would later be one of her teachers during her first year of high school. In her school district in Lago Vista, Texas, class offerings for the most gifted students had just been cut, so Alida took Mr. Waldrup up on his offer to give her one-on-one lessons, in spite of his occasional illicit commentary. Their tutoring sessions quickly turned into a sexual relationship that lasted a year and a half until the police got involved.

Confused and violated, Alida and her family attempted to hold their school district accountable for Waldrup’s behavior. The case Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District was eventually appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled in 1998 that school districts can be held responsible only if they knew about the sexual harassment and refused to do anything about it. This decision is devastating in that it actually provides less recourse for children to file a complaint about harassment than the average adult employee – even the teachers in Alida’s school have more protection against unwanted advances than their vulnerable and impressionable charges.

Further, the Gebser case has been used as precedent to limit liability for damages for harassment based on race, color, and national origin, making it nearly impossible for victims of harassment to sue under Title IX, Title VI, or other related statutes in order to restore their sense of justice.

For more information see our fact sheets on racial justice, children’s rights and women’s rights.

Littleton v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (2007)

Like other 29-year-olds, Charles Irvin Littleton wanted to get a job. But the mental disabilities he was born with made it difficult. He’d graduated from high school with a certificate in special education and had attended a technical college, but he still lived at home and supported himself with social security benefits and the help of his family. He began working with a job coach who arranged for Mr. Littleton to have an interview at an Alabama Wal-Mart store. But when Wal-Mart officials told Mr. Littleton that his job coach could not come to the interview with him, everything went downhill. Mr. Littleton’s interview did not go well and Wal-Mart did not offer him a job.

Mr. Littleton sued Wal-Mart for discriminating against him because of his disability. The case went all the way up the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which held that Mr. Littleton was not disabled under ADA rules and therefore could not sue for disability discrimination. In order to be considered disabled for ADA purposes, Mr. Littleton had to prove that he was ‘substantially limited in a major life activity.’ Even though Mr. Littleton’s disability was permanent and limited his ability to work and learn, the court found this was not enough to prove he was disabled for purposes of the law. Mr. Littleton had attended school and was able to think, communicate and work, the court held, so he was not disabled under the ADA, even though he was mentally challenged.

He tried to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court but the justices denied his petition. Thus, Mr. Littleton’s case now makes the law more difficult for plaintiffs to bring disability discrimination lawsuits. Plaintiffs have to prove much more to show they are ‘substantially limited in a major life activity.’

For more information see our fact sheet on disability rights.

Westside Mothers v. Haveman (2002)

A group of mothers in Michigan organized themselves because their state was not providing their children adequate health care coverage, even though the state was using federal money for Medicaid. The group decided to sue the state to enforce the provisions of Medicaid they were entitled to.

In 2002, the district court in Michigan held that individuals had no right to enforce Medicaid, because it is an agreement between the federal government and the state. The appeals court reversed this decision, but the reasoning in this case has been adopted by other judges and will no doubt be used again in similar situations.

For more information see our fact sheet on health care.

Rapanos v. United States and Carabell v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (2006)

Passed under President Nixon in 1972, the Clean Water Act is one of the most successful and popular environmental laws and gives the federal government authority over the “waters of the United States.” The Supreme Court’s ruling in a 2006 case calls into question the future of the Clean Water Act, and has very wide-reaching implications for both the environment and for the federal government’s power to enforce laws that protect our environment.

The recent Supreme Court ruling was spurred by two Michigan property-rights cases that sought to redefine how the Clean Water Act was interpreted and challenge the power and constitutionality of this important federal statute. John A. Rapanos faced steep criminal charges for filling in federally protected wetlands — without permission — in order to build a shopping center. In the second case, the Army Corps of Engineers denied a permit to a couple who wanted to fill part of their property so they could develop condominiums.

At the core of these cases about “wetlands” — ecosystems essential for flood control, drinking water, agriculture, and wildlife — is also a key issue: Can the federal government pass and enforce laws? The cases raised the question whether Congress can pass a law to protect water that might be just within a single state. There is a lot at stake: thousands of miles of small streams and an estimated 20 million acres of wetlands. Because water in many states is connected, with almost every state downstream from another, federal oversight plays an important role in environmental protection.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court limited the scope of the Clean Water Act, but not as much as Justices Scalia, Thomas, Roberts and Alito would have wanted it to. The confusing ruling may lead to years of regulatory battles and court cases, and threatens the future of the Clean Water Act. For now, because of one vote by Justice Kennedy, the federal government can still regulate and protect our wetlands.

For more information see our fact sheet on environmental protection.

Grutter v. Bollinger (2003); Gratz v. Bollinger (2003)

Written into the civil rights laws of the 1960s, affirmative action was designed to ensure equal opportunity for groups that had long been discriminated against by employers and institutions. Michigan Law School, one of the nation’s top law schools, modified its admission process to ensure the diversity of its student body. According to its admissions policy, the school looks for students with “substantial promise for success in law school” and who have “a strong likelihood of succeeding in the practice of law and contributing in diverse ways to the well-being of others” and “varying backgrounds and experiences who will respect and learn from each other.”

When it denied admission to Barbara Grutter, a white Michigan resident, she sued, saying she was discriminated against on the basis of race. By a margin of only one vote (now-retired Justice O’Connor’s) the Supreme Court decided in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) that it was legal for the law school to use race as one of the factors in deciding which students to admit. The Court found that diversity was valuable and that admissions policies can justify looking at race and ethnicity as factors in admissions in a carefully crafted policy to achieve diversity.

However, the use of race in admission must be limited, and is sometimes difficult to employ. In a companion case, the Supreme Court found University of Michigan’s undergraduate admissions policy to be unlawful. The admissions process was also intended to encourage diversity and it considered many factors, including grades, test scores, high school quality, curriculum strength, where the student is from, relationships with college alumni, leadership potential, and race. Each factor including race was assigned a number of points toward a 100-point minimum for admission. This, the university argued, encouraged diversity and significantly contributed to a better educational environment.

The Supreme Court decided, however, that this admissions policy was unconstitutional because applicants from underrepresented groups were given points based on their race or ethnicity. Colleges and universities that attempt to foster and support diversity have to strike a very delicate balance. And now that the makeup of the Supreme Court has changed, and Justice O’Connor has retired, diversity in the schools hangs in the balance.

For more information see our fact sheets on education and racial justice.

EEOC v. Luce Howard (2002)

If you had to choose between taking a job and signing away your civil rights, which would it be? This was the choice that Donald Lagatree had to make. Because he chose his rights, Donald was out of a job. Donald thought it was unfair for his company to force him to sign an arbitration agreement in order to work for them. To Donald it was important to retain his civil rights — including the right to a jury trial — in the event that he faced employment discrimination. The law firm withdrew its offer to hire Donald.

Arbitration lacks the important protections of our traditional justice system. It is no wonder so many corporations want to force their employees to sign these agreements. Don’t corporations have enough power as it is? Is it really fair to allow them to circumvent the traditional legal system when employment discrimination is at issue?

For more information see our fact sheet on workers’ rights.

Reinforced Earth Company v. Workers Compensation Appeal Board et. al (1994)

Juan Carlos Astudillo worked as a maintenance helper for Reinforced Earth. There, he cut and welded iron and repaired motors, and was required to climb scaffolds and ladders and lift heavy steel beams. In 1994, Juan Carlos was hit in the head, neck, and back by a steel beam, and was rendered unconscious at work. He sustained a concussion, a mild head injury, and as a result, over the next few months Juan Carlos experienced headaches, dizziness, loss of balance, and upper and lower back pain. He was subsequently terminated from his job and he filed for workers’ compensation. In an outrageous move, the company that Juan Carlos had worked so hard for responded to his compensation claim by saying he wasn’t entitled to the benefits because he was undocumented.

Juan Carlos’ case is just another example of a company benefiting from the hard work of an immigrant and then exploiting their undocumented status when the worker tries to exercise one of the few rights that workers have under the law. While the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that Juan Carlos was entitled to medical benefits, it also found that illegal immigration status might justify terminating benefits for temporary total disability.

For more information see our fact sheets on immigrants’ rights and workers’ rights.

Dewakuku v. Martinez, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (2001)

Serena Dewakuku bought a house that was built by the Hopi Tribal Housing Authority through an assistance program that helps low-income Indian families. After she bought the house, Serena found that it had serious structural and design problems. She reported this to the housing authority, but it did nothing to fix the problems. Serena sued claiming that the home she had bought from her housing authority did not meet the standards of a federal law called the Indian Housing Act, which was created to make sure any subsidized housing was of good quality.

The court that heard Serena’s case agreed that the housing authority had violated the law and ordered it to fix the problems. The housing authority challenged this ruling and the case went back to court. This time, the appeals court threw her case out of court on a technicality: This court said that although the housing law said Ms. Dewakuku had rights, it didn’t explicitly say she could go to court if those rights were violated.
Ms. Dewakuku couldn’t go to court and she was stuck with a defective and badly built home. This court tells us that even if a housing authority violates the law, the people who buy shoddily built homes have no legal remedy in court. We may think we have rights because of certain laws, but we can’t necessarily enforce them.

For more information see our fact sheets on housing rights and racial justice.