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

An earlier version of this article misidentified the title of Hunton & Williams partner Michael Mueller. He is the co-head of the firm’s business litigation practice group.

Before heading off for a long winter recess, the Supreme Court on Monday issued a major decision that could affect prosecutions when a crime victim dies of multiple causes.

In Burrage v. United States, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for a unanimous court that an Iowa drug dealer cannot be sentenced to a mandatory 20 years in prison when the heroin he sold only contributed to the death of a user who had also ingested many other drugs.

"This is big, because the principle will hold across many other statutes," said Sidley Austin partner Jeffrey Green, one of the lawyers for the defendant in the case. An expert on criminal law, Green said the decision could even affect the recently argued Paroline v. United States case, which asks whether one of many buyers of child porn photographs can be held completely liable for injuries suffered by the child depicted.

In another unanimous ruling written by Scalia, the court in Sandifer v. United States Steel Corp. sided with businesses in a dispute over whether union workers should be compensated for the time they spend "donning and doffing" work clothes and protective gear. The justices also decided Air Wisconsin v. Hoeper by a 6-3 vote, ruling that the airline could not be sued for reporting on the possible security threat posed by a pilot as long as the information is "materially true."

The justices recessed without deciding much-awaited cases on campaign finance and affirmative action, titled McCutcheon v. FEC and Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, respectively. The court returns to the bench on Feb. 24.

The Burrage case tested the meaning of the Controlled Substances Act, a cornerstone of the federal “war on drugs,” which calls for a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence for defendants found guilty of distributing illegal drugs when "death or serious bodily injury results from the use of such substance."

Lawyers for defendant Marcus Burrage argued that the "results from" wording of the law requires a jury finding that death would not have occurred except for the heroin he sold to the victim, Joshua Banka of Nevada, Iowa. Experts testifying in the case said the heroin could not be isolated from the other drugs Banka used at the same time as the cause of death. Jurors were instructed to use a standard under which they could find Burrage guilty even if the heroin was just a "contributing cause." Burrage was convicted and sentenced, and on appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled against him, prompting the petition to the Supreme Court.

Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. urged the court not to adopt the narrower test urged by Burrage, arguing that "a but-for test is an unsound tool in certain circumstances, particularly when multiple forces coincide or combine to produce a given result."

Scalia rejected that argument, asserting that the ordinary meaning of "results from" is that the harm would not have occurred in the absence of the defendant's conduct. Using a baseball analogy, Scalia said that if a home run leads to a 1-0 outcome, "every person competent in the English language and familiar with the American pastime" would agree that the victory was a result of the home run. But if the game ended in a 5-2 score, Scalia added, "one would be surprised to read in the sports page that the victory resulted" from the home run.

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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