Justices Deliver Major Rulings in Drug, Workplace Cases

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U.S. Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia
U.S. Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia

If it wanted to, Scalia added, Congress could have worded the statute differently to allow for the 20-year sentence if the drug sold was just a contributing factor. The justice said that, even without proof of direct causation, a defendant could be found guilty of other statutes that carry heavy sentences.

In the labor case, Scalia also used a close study of the words of the statute to decide the outcome. A group of steel workers sued U.S. Steel for back pay to compensate them for the time spend putting on and taking off required protective gear and clothing at the beginning and end of their shifts. The company said that, under the Fair Labor Standards Act, its contract with workers covered that issue and excluded the time from compensation.

In announcing the ruling from the bench, Scalia said, "This case concerns donning and doffing: two words not used very often anymore, although we do still sing, 'Don we now our gay apparel' and a gentleman still may doff his hat to a lady."

Under the ordinary meaning of "changing clothes," Scalia said the issue could be decided by collective bargaining under the fair labor law. He acknowledged that items like safety glasses, earplugs and respirators could not be classified as clothes, but the amount of time needed to put those on and take them off was "minimal" and did not require special consideration. Scalia's ruling upheld a decision written by Judge Richard Posner of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

Advocates for businesses applauded Sandifer. "This should put to rest an issue that is confronting many employers in similar class action lawsuits around the country," said Michael Mueller, co-head of the business litigation practice at Hunton & Williams.

In other action on Monday, the court declined to review the dismissal of a $17 million malpractice suit against Mayer Brown. Last June, the Seventh Circuit dismissed the legal malpractice case, which stemmed from a contract dispute between Spehar Capital and CMGT Inc., represented by Mayer Brown.

The justices also issued an order expanding the amount of time for oral argument in a consolidated group of six cases challenging U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations on greenhouse gases. Private-party challengers will have 30 minutes, states objecting to the regulations will have 15 and the government will have 45 minutes to defend the regulations. The cases are scheduled for argument Feb. 24.

Marcia Coyle also contributed to this report. Contact Tony Mauro at tmauro@alm.com.

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