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Justices consider hearing a case on ‘most offensive word’
Court Watch | 2021/05/14 03:17
Robert Collier says that during the seven years he worked as an operating room aide at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, white nurses called him and other Black employees “boy.” Management ignored two large swastikas painted on a storage room wall. And for six months, he regularly rode an elevator with the N-word carved into a wall.

Collier ultimately sued the hospital, but lower courts dismissed his case. Now, however, beginning with a private conference that was scheduled for Thursday, the Supreme Court is considering for the first time whether to hear the case. (Although the court did not comment, the case remained on its calendar, which likely means it was discussed Thursday.)

Focusing on the elevator graffiti, Collier is asking the justices to decide whether a single use of the N-word in the workplace can create a hostile work environment, giving an employee the ability to pursue a case under Title VII of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Already, the court’s two newest members, both appointed by President Donald Trump, are on record with seemingly different views. The case is also a test of whether the justices are willing to wade into the ongoing, complex conversations about race happening nationwide. The public could learn as soon as Monday whether the court will take Collier’s case.

Jennifer A. Holmes, a lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which has urged the court to take the case, says she hopes the conversations taking place nationally will push the justices in that direction.

Doing so gives the court an “opportunity to show that they’re not insensitive to issues of race,” Holmes said. And courts are “all the time” confronting workplace discrimination claims involving use of the N-word, she said. The question for the justices, she said, is just whether someone who experiences an isolated instance of the N-word can “advance their case beyond the beginning stage.” Two of the court’s nine justices have experience with similar cases.


Top Kansas court upholds law barring ‘wrongful birth’ suits
Court Watch | 2021/05/01 22:51
Kansas’ highest court on Friday upheld a law barring so-called wrongful birth lawsuits against doctors, in a case in which a couple sued because they weren’t told of serious fetal defects until after an abortion could have been obtained.

The state Supreme Court ruled against the parents of a girl born with a severe brain abnormality who said they would have opted for an abortion had they known of their daughter’s medical problems months before her May 2014 birth.

The Republican-controlled Legislature and then-GOP Gov. Sam Brownback passed the law  against wrongful birth lawsuits in 2013 at the urging of abortion opponents. It overturned a 1990 state Supreme Court ruling saying Kansas law allowed such lawsuits, and current Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, then a state senator, voted against it.

The parents’ attorneys argued that the law violated provisions of the state’s bill of rights declaring the right to a jury trial “inviolate” and providing a right to “remedy by due course of law” for injuries. But four of the seven state Supreme Court justices concluded that the state’s 1850s founders didn’t recognize wrongful birth as a legal concept, making it an “innovation” that isn’t covered by those constitutional provisions.

“It is a new species of malpractice action first recognized in 1990,” Justice Dan Biles wrote in their opinion.

The decision upholds a policy favored by anti-abortion groups, who’ve long criticized the court as too liberal. The state Supreme Court declared in 2019 that access to abortion is a “fundamental” right under the state constitution, meaning it would be protected in Kansas if the U.S. Supreme Court overturned its landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. But Friday’s ruling did not cite the 2019 decision or frame the issues in terms of abortion rights.

“The birth of a child should be cause for celebration, not for the law to award damages because the child was ‘wrongfully’ born,” said Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican, who defended the law and is running for governor in 2022.

The four justices were joined in upholding the law by Justice Caleb Stegall, Brownback’s only appointee on the court. He was the lone dissenter in the 2019 ruling protecting abortion rights.

Stegall argued that the majority should have simply overturned the 1990 ruling, calling it “one of the worst decisions in our court’s history” and a “black mark” on par with a U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the right to inter Japanese Americans during World War II.


Supreme Court rejects lingering 2020 election challenge case
Court Watch | 2021/04/19 22:20
The Supreme Court on Monday said it will not hear a case out of Pennsylvania related to the 2020 election, a dispute that had lingered while similar election challenges had already been rejected by the justices. The high court directed a lower court to dismiss the case as moot.

The justices in February, after President Joe Biden’s inauguration, had rejected a handful of cases related to the 2020 election. In the case the court rejected Monday, however, the court had called for additional briefing that was not complete until the end of March.

The case involved a federal court challenge to a Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision requiring election officials to receive and count mailed-in ballots that arrived up to three days after the election. More broadly, however, the case concerned whether state lawmakers or state courts get the last word about the manner in which federal elections are carried out.

The Democratic National Committee was among those that argued the case should be rejected as moot because the 2020 election is over. Those that brought the case said the justices should hear it because the issues involved are important and recurring.

The court had previously rejected other cases that had involved the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision to extend the deadline for mail-in ballots. Three of the court’s conservative justices dissented, saying they would have taken up the cases.

The genesis of the cases were changes Pennsylvania lawmakers made to the state’s election laws in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Despite the changes, lawmakers left in place a Nov. 3 deadline to receive absentee ballots. Democrats sued, and Pennsylvania’s highest court cited the ongoing pandemic and United States Postal Service delays in extending the deadline for mailed-in ballots to be received.

Wanda Murren, the communications director for the Pennsylvania Department of State, said Monday the elections agency is considering what to do about those ballots now, and whether they should be added to the final tally. In all, just over 10,000 ballots were received by elections officials after polls closed on Election Day, Nov. 3, but before 5 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 6.

“We are pleased that yet another court ruling has affirmed the accuracy and integrity of Pennsylvania’s November 2020 election,” Murren said.

More than 600 of the ballots received during those three days had no postmark or an illegible postmark.

The 10,000 ballots would not have altered the outcome of the presidential election in the state, which former President Donald Trump lost by some 80,000 votes.



Alaska denied oil check benefits to gay couples, dependents
Court Watch | 2021/04/15 17:45
Alaska discriminated against some same-sex spouses for years in wrongfully denying them benefits by claiming their unions were not recognized even after courts struck down same-sex marriage bans, court documents obtained by The Associated Press show.

The agency that determines eligibility for the yearly oil wealth check paid to nearly all Alaska residents denied a dividend for same-sex spouses or dependents of military members stationed in other states for five years after a federal court invalidated Alaska’s ban on same-sex marriage in 2014, and the Supreme Court legalized the unions nationwide in June 2015, the documents show.

In one email from July 2019, a same-sex spouse living out-of-state with his military husband was denied a check because “unfortunately the state of Alaska doesn’t recognize same sex marriage yet,” employee Marissa Requa wrote to a colleague, ending the sentence with a frown face emoji.

This Permanent Fund Dividend Division practice continued until Denali Smith, who was denied benefits appealed and asked the state to start including her lawyer in its correspondence.

Smith later sued the state, seeking an order declaring that state officials violated the federal court decision and Smith’s constitutional rights to equal protection and due process

Smith and the state on Wednesday settled the lawsuit. Alaska admitted denying benefits to same-sex military spouses and dependents for five years in violation of the permanent injunction put in place by the 2014 U.S. District Court decision. The state also vowed to no longer use the outdated state law, to deny military spouses and dependents oil checks going forward, and updated enforcement regulations.

There were no financial terms to the settlement. In fact, Smith had to pay $400 out of pocket to file the federal lawsuit to get her oil check, and her attorney worked pro bono.

In Alaska, the oil wealth check is seen as an entitlement that people use to buy things like new TVs or snowmobiles, fund college savings accounts or, in rural Alaska, weather high heating and food costs. The nest-egg fund, seeded with oil money, has grown into billions of dollars. A portion traditionally goes toward the checks, but the amount varies. Last year, nearly every single resident received $992. The year before, the amount was $1,606.

About 800 pages of emails provided by the state for the lawsuit show a clear misunderstanding or outright disregard of the 2014 precedent and reluctance to reach out to the attorney general’s office for guidance.


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