Legal News Roundup: March 7, 2016
Let’s take a look at this week in legal news.
The loss of Justice Scalia leads to uncertainty about class action cases
Justice Antonin Scalia’s death leaves the US Supreme Court with the potential for 4-4 ties between the evenly split conservative/liberal justices. Given a 4-4 decision, the lower court’s ruling stands. This leaves corporations with a less certain win when considering settlement versus an appeal to the high court in class action lawsuits.
Rather than gambling on an uncertain decision from a Supreme Court without Justice Scalia, Dow Chemical settled a urethane price-fixing class action lawsuit for $835 million last week. In 2013, a jury awarded the claimant’s a $1.1 billion judgment in Dow Chemical Co. v. Industrial Polymers, Inc., which Dow planned to appeal to the Supreme Court. With the unexpected loss of Justice Scalia, Dow opted to settle, saying in a statement: “Growing political uncertainties due to recent events within the Supreme Court and increased likelihood for unfavorable outcomes for business involved in class action suits have changed Dow’s risk assessment of the situation,”
Justice Scalia was considered friendly to business interests in class action cases. He wrote the 5-4 decision in two critical cases that dramatically reduced the ability for consumers to bring class action lawsuits – in a 2011 class action lawsuit against Wal-Mart, and again in a 2013 case against Comcast.
Now class action case wins before the Supreme Court are less certain. With the Dow case settled, and two more class action lawsuits pending before the court against Tyson Foods and Wal-Mart, all eyes are on the corporations as they make new decisions based on the current and future makeup of the court.
Somali pirate left overboard in lost appeal
A Somali man convicted of piracy has lost his appeal to withdraw his plea deal.
In 2009, Abdiwali Abdiqadir Muse was the sole surviving pirate after he and three accomplices hijacked an American commercial ship, the Maersk Alabama. Armed with an AK-47 assault rifle, Muse fired at Captain Richard Phillips, forcing him to stop the ship and demanding $30,000. Muse was taken into custody when snipers from the USS Bainbridge, a U.S. Navy missile destroyer, shot and killed his accomplices. The FBI brought Muse to New York to stand trial.
Although his attorneys argued at trial that Muse’s impoverished upbringing in Somalia brought him to a life of piracy, and attempted to argue that Muse was only 16 at the time of the hijacking, the court found that he was at least 18 at the time of the crime.
At sentencing, Muse told the court through a translator that he was “very sorry” and asked for forgiveness from those he harmed and the U.S. government. “I got my hands into something that was more powerful than me,” said Muse, claiming that he had been “deluded” by people who were smarter and more powerful than him.
During sentencing, U.S. District Court Judge Loretta Preska, read multiple letters from victims of the hijacking. In his letter Captain Phillips implored the judge not to see the event as adventure at high sea, pleading “not for revenge or brutality, only justice,” stating that piracy “affects us in our daily lives and it is not a Disneyland-esque problem. These are not Johnny Depps.”
Judge Preska, appearing emotional as she read through the victim’s letters, chose to sentence Muse at the high end of the range, stating that, “General deterrence of this type of conduct is the most important sentencing factor.”
In spite of a clause in Muse’s plea agreement promising “not to seek to withdraw his guilty plea or file a direct appeal or any kind of collateral attack challenging his guilty plea or conviction based on his age either at the time of the charged conduct or at the time of the guilty plea,” Muse filed a proceeding to set aside his conviction on the grounds that the magistrate judge did not have the authority to decide whether he was an adult and that he had been provided “ineffective assistance” by his lawyer in not pursuing that defense more rigorously. In spite of an additional petition for a writ of habeas corpus, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower courts decision, based on the waiver in Muse’s original plea agreement.
Muse will experience his own term of captivity after an attempted life of crime on the high seas.
In 2013 Quincy Jones filed a lawsuit against Sony Entertainment and MJJ Productions, a company controlled by the estate of Michael Jackson, claiming that he is owed $10 million dollars for breach of contract. His suit claims loss of royalties, remixing fees, and compensation for the loss of producer credit.
Jones’ attorney, Henry Gradstein, told The Hollywood Reporter, “Quincy has been frustrated with these matters for a number of years, felt he was not making any progress and needed to take more formal action.”
This week Judge Michael Stern denied a motion for summary judgment from defendant, MJJ Productions. In spite of what Judge Michael Stern called simple arguments about contract law that “you learn in the first six months of law school” without any “diversions or frills,” Stern denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss based on factual disputes that needed further exploration.
Will the discord between two legends continue? Stay tuned this summer, when the trial is scheduled to begin.
More Legal News of Note:
In a surprise move, Utah’s State Senate votes to abolish the death penalty. It now moves on to the Utah House of Representatives for a vote. It is unknown whether Utah Governor Gary Herbert will sign or veto the bill, if passed. Herbert has consistently stated his support for capital punishment.
Justice Clarence Thomas speaks! After a decade of silence from Justice Thomas, an audible gasp is heard throughout the courtroom when he spoke up with questions during arguments being heard in Voisine v United States.
Have you ever wondered why there are so few portraits of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg astride a unicorn? The makers of a RBG-themed coloring book have heard your cries, and are here to solve that problem. Celebrate Women’s History Month with an amazing Ruth Bader Ginsburg-themed coloring book.
Former judges take on one of their own in Williams v Pennsylvania, set to be heard before the US Supreme Court, asserting in a brief that one biased judge can taint the deliberations of an entire appellate court.
And the most pressing legal question of all – is an alligator a deadly weapon or not?