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Roundup: 1st, 6th, 7th and Federal Circuits

Defense of Marriage Act ruled unconstitutional; To be discrimination, disability need not be the sole reason for firing; Court says shareholder suit against Sears is shameless ploy for attorney fees; Infringing on the same patent not enough to join multiple defendants in one suit

1st Circuit
Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire,Puerto Rico, Rhode Island

Defense of Marriage Act ruled unconstitutional

Despite President Obama’s recent endorsement of gay marriage, the legal community expects that the Supreme Court will soon have the final word on the issue. But before that happens, the 1st Circuit has thrown its hat in the ring, ruling on May 31 in Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional.

DOMA, which has been on the books since 1996, defines marriage as “only a legal union between one man and one woman,” thus denying federal recognition to same-sex marriages. It also prohibits same-sex couples married under state laws from filing joint federal tax returns or sharing benefits such as health insurance.

In its opinion, the court wrote that DOMA’s purposes, such as “traditional notions of morality,” did not justify discrimination against same-sex couples. Supreme Court precedents also limit the government’s power to take action against “historically disadvantaged or unpopular” groups, such as gays and lesbians, the 1st Circuit said.


6th Circuit
Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee

To be discrimination, disability need not be the sole reason for firing

In its May 25 ruling in Lewis v. Humboldt Acquisition Corp., the 6th Circuit joined the majority of other circuits in finding that an employee does not have to prove that she was fired “solely” because of her disability in order for the termination to qualify as discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Susan Lewis, a former nurse, sued Humboldt, a retirement home operator, claiming the company fired her because of a medical condition that impeded her ability to walk and occasionally required her to use a wheelchair. Humboldt asked the court to instruct the jury that Lewis could only win the suit if she could prove that her disability was the sole factor in her termination. The district court complied with the request, as this had been the 6th Circuit precedent for 17 years.

On appeal, however, the court wrote: “The longer we have stood by this standard, the more out of touch it has become with the standards used by our sister circuits.” Nowhere does the ADA say that an employee’s disability must be the sole motivating factor of the discrimination, so the 6th Circuit reversed and remanded the district court’s decision and granted Lewis a new trial.


7th Circuit
Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin

Court says shareholder suit against Sears is shameless ploy for attorney fees

Trust v. Crowley, a shareholder lawsuit against the board of Sears Holdings Corp., was nothing more than an attempt to fill the pockets of plaintiffs lawyers, the 7th Circuit ruled on June 13.

The investors, Robert F. Booth Trust and Ronald Gross, claimed that two members of Sears’ board serve as directors of companies that are competitors with Sears, a violation of antitrust law. However, they filed the lawsuit before they asked the board to address the situation. In Delaware, where Sears is incorporated, investors must demand that the board take action before suing, unless the directors are disinterested or independent, or the transaction being challenged is protected by the business judgment rule. Sears brought this up in district court, but the court accepted the investors’ argument that a demand would have been useless. What’s more, neither the Department of Justice nor the Federal Trade Commission had noticed there was a problem.

Besides, if Sears and its competitors were to cooperate, the investors would benefit. The antitrust statute is designed to protect outsiders. “The only goal of this suit appears to be fees for the plaintiffs’ lawyers,” the court wrote. “It is impossible to see how the investors could gain from it.”


Federal Circuit

Infringing on the same patent not enough to join multiple defendants in one suit

Patent trolls took a hit with the Federal Circuit’s May 4 decision in In re EMC Corp., Decho Corp. and Iomega Corp., which will make it harder for them to combine multiple defendants accused of infringing the same patent into one lawsuit.

Oasis Research LLC filed suit against 18 companies that allegedly infringed on four of its patents before the America Invents Act (AIA) became law. The act says that accused infringers can only be joined into one lawsuit if each instance of infringement arises out of the same transaction or occurrence.

The Federal Circuit came to the same conclusion in this case, which may provide hope for defendants that were sued before President Obama signed the AIA into law and thus are not covered by it. It is not enough that the defendants be accused of infringing on the same product or process to be joined into one lawsuit, the court wrote. Independent defendants cannot be joined into one case “unless the facts underlying the claim of infringement asserted against each defendant share an aggregate of operative facts.”

Contributing Author

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