Review: Early Decisions from the Supreme Court’s October 2013 Term


The final couple months of the U.S. Supreme Court’s term is typically packed with highly anticipated, hot-button issues. Before those start to materialize, now is a good time to review the Court’s decisions that have already come out — not necessarily the breaking-news decisions regarding affirmative action or government prayer, but the more nitty-gritty decisions that can affect commercial and environmental litigants on a day-to-day basis. Most of the time, these cases are decided unanimously, or at least by an overwhelming majority. While the sexier cases often fall under 5-4 splits, the daily grits-and-grease cases generally receive overwhelming backing by the Court.

This term’s decisions on civil procedure issues common for routine complex commercial litigation:

  • Atlantic Marine Construction Co. v. U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, No. 12-929 (Dec. 3, 2013). In a unanimous decision authored by Justice Alito, the Court reversed the Fifth Circuit and held that a forum-selection clause may be enforced through a 28 USC § 1404(a) motion for forum non conveniens. The Court held that a forum-selection clause shifts the district court’s usual § 1404(a) analysis such that the plaintiff’s choice of forum bears no weight, that the parties’ private interests aside from the forum selection clause do not come into play, and that public-interest factors will only outweigh the forum selection clause in unusual cases.
  • Heimeshoff v. Hartford Life & Accident Ins. Co., No. 12-729 (Dec. 16, 2013). In a unanimous decision authored by Justice Thomas, the Court held that an ERISA plan may provide a contractual limitations period shorter than that provided by law, and with a triggering event prior to the accrual of a cause of action, as long as the contractual period is not “unreasonably short.”
  • Daimler AG v. Bauman, No. 11-965 (Jan. 14, 2014). In a unanimous decision authored by Justice Ginsburg, the Court held that suit may not be brought in a U.S. district court against a defendant for conduct by a subsidiary entirely outside of the United States.
  • Walden v. Fiore, No. 12-574 (Feb. 25, 2014). In a unanimous decision authored by Justice Thomas, the Court held that a Nevada federal district court could not assert personal jurisdiction over a Georgia law enforcement officer who took actions wholly within the state of Georgia, where the only connection to the state of Nevada was the plaintiffs’ domicile.
  • Mississippi ex rel. Hood v. AU Optronics Corp., No. 12-1036 (Jan. 14, 2014). In a unanimous decision authored by Justice Sotomayor, the Court held that, under the Class Action Fairness Act, a suit brought by a state as the only named plaintiff cannot be deemed a “mass action” for purposes of federal jurisdiction, because the citizens of the state were unnamed parties in interest, and unnamed parties in interest could not be counted toward the mass action requirement.
  • Ray Haluch Gravel Co. v. Central Pension Fund of the Int’l Union of Operating Engineers and Participating Employers, No. 12-992 (Jan. 15, 2014). In a unanimous decision authored by Justice Kennedy, the Court held that a decision on the merits is a “final decision” even if the award or amount of attorney’s fees remains to be determined.

On substantive issues, in a consolidated set of securities class actions, the Court held in a 7-2 decision authored by Justice Breyer that the Securities Litigation Uniform Standards Act of 1998 does not apply to bar class actions asserting violations of state law where there are allegations of misrepresentations of material fact regarding the purchase or sale of uncovered securities if the defendants falsely represented that the uncovered securities were backed by covered securities. This decision has the effect of limiting the reach of the prohibition of state law class actions related to the sale or purchase of covered securities under SLUSA. Chadbourne & Parke LLP v. Troice, Nos. 12-79, 12-86, 12-88 (Feb. 26, 2014).

In other commercial litigation issues, the Court held in a unanimous decision authored by Justice Sotomayor that district courts should maintain flexible discretion in awarding attorney’s fees in patent litigation under Section 285 of the Patent Act. The Court specifically rejected the Federal Circuit’s test of the “exceptional” requirement for Patent-case attorney’s fees, which required either a finding of litigation-related misconduct of an independently sanctionable magnitude or a determination that the litigation was both objectively baseless and brought in subjective bad faith, as an inherently inflexible framework not based on the statutory text. Octane Fitness v. Icon Health and Fitness, No. 12-1184 (April 29, 2014).

On the environmental front, in a 6-2 decision authored by Justice Ginsburg, the Court held that, under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is not required to allow a state a second opportunity to file a State Implementation Plan after the EPA determines the quantity of that state’s interstate emissions impact. The Court also held that the EPA is allowed under the Act to include cost-effectiveness in its allocation of interstate emission reductions among upwind states. EPA v. EME Homer City Generation, No. 12-1182 (April 29, 2014).

The Court’s term is scheduled to conclude July 3.