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Roundup: 4th, 5th, 6th and 9th Circuits

Courts can protect companies from unfair taxation; employers' SOX whistleblower defenses strengthened; decisions hinder plaintiffs surviving motions to dismiss; third-party insurers can be sued under ERISA.

4th Circuit: Courts Can Protect Companies from Unfair Taxation  

The 4th Circuit ruled June 20in GenOn Mid-Atlantic, LLC v. Montgomery County that federal courts can hear cases alleging local tax discrimination against companies.  

GenOn, which operates a power-generation facility in Montgomery County, Md., brought an action to enjoin enforcement of the county’s tax on carbon emissions. The county taxes businesses that annually emit more than 1 million tons of carbon dioxide. When the threshold is reached, the tax then applies to the first ton emitted and each subsequent ton. GenOn is the only company in the county to likely reach that limit.

The district court ruled that it did not have jurisdiction pursuant to the Tax Injunction Act, which states that federal courts cannot hear state or local tax controversies if there is an efficient remedy in the state court system, and dismissed the case. The 4th Circuit, however, ruled that where a tax is a punitive regulatory fee only applicable to a single company, the Tax Injunction Act should not be used to block federal courts from hearing the case. The court reversed and remanded the case.

5th Circuit: Employers’ SOX Whistleblower Defenses Strengthened  

The 5th Circuit’s ruling June 23 in Hemphill v. Celanese Corp. may help employers when it comes to pursuing dispositive motions.

Jeff Hemphill, an internal audit manager for Celanese Corp., had raised concerns over employee compliance with legal requirements and internal policies, which he reported to his supervisors. Celanese investigated his claims and found no violations, leaving Hemphill dissatisfied. Shortly thereafter, Hemphill allegedly verbally abused his secretary and was terminated.

Hemphill filed suit, claiming Celanese fired him for engaging in protected activity and retaliated against him in violation of Section 806 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. The 5th Circuit affirmed the district court’s summary judgment in favor of Celanese, acknowledging that Hemphill failed to prove that his protected activity was the reason for his dismissal, and even if he had proved it, the company still had legitimate grounds for termination based on his personal conduct.   

6th Circuit: Decisions Hinder Plaintiffs Surviving Motions to Dismiss

A pair of Supreme Court decisions proved insurmountable for a plaintiff in a June 21 6th Circuit ruling. A three-judge panel decided in New Albany Tractor, Inc. v. Louisville Tractor, Inc. that it must uphold the district court’s dismissal because of precedent in Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly and Ashcroft v. Iqbal

New Albany filed suit against Louisville Tractor and Scag Power Equipment alleging violations of the Robinson-Patman Act, which prohibits the sale of identical products to different buyers at different prices. The plaintiff claimed the defendants set up a discriminatory pricing scheme between Scag, a mowing-equipment manufacturer, and Louisville, Scag’s wholesale distributor and local retailer. New Albany claims the companies relied upon an “indirect purchaser doctrine,” and that Louisville is a “dummy” operation controlled by Scag.

The 6th Circuit reluctantly upheld the district court’s dismissal, stating that the “plaintiff apparently can no longer obtain factual detail necessary because the language of Iqbal specifically directs that no discovery may be conducted in cases such as this.”

9th Circuit: Third-Party Insurers Can Be Sued Under ERISA  

On June 22, the 9th Circuit held in Cyr v. Reliance Standard Life Insurance Company that the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) permits employee benefit plan beneficiaries to sue parties other than the plan administrator to recover benefits.

Channel Technologies Inc. (CTI) terminated Laura Cyr in October 2000, at which time she filed a long-term disability (LTD) claim for a back condition. CTI provided employees with LTD benefits from Reliance. The insurer eventually approved and made benefit payments based on Cyr’s $85,000 salary.

The next year, Cyr sued CTI for gender discrimination based on unequal pay. The parties eventually agreed to a settlement under which CTI retroactively adjusted her salary to $155,000. Cyr requested Reliance increase her disability benefit payments to reflect the pay increase, to which the insurer initially agreed, but later refused. 

Cyr then sued Reliance under an ERISA provision that allows a civil action to be brought by a plan participant to recover owed benefits. The 9th Circuit upheld a trial court ruling in Cyr’s favor, noting that while the ERISA provision provides a comprehensive listing of what parties can bring civil action, there are no limits about who can be sued. The circuit court added that because the U.S. Supreme Court found no limits in a similar case, it saw no reason to add limitations.

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