Supreme Court Notebook

Court rejects farmer who tangled with Tyson

By Mark Sherman

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court on Monday turned down an appeal from a former Tennessee poultry farmer who sued Tyson Farms after losing his contract to raise their chickens.

The justices did not comment in turning away Alton Terry, who said Tyson cut him off because he helped organize area farmers and complained about the company's practices. Lower courts had previously dismissed the lawsuit.

Terry, essentially, argued that he lost his contract to raise chickens on his 12-acre farm, because he squawked too much.

Terry was a poultry farmer who brought together a group of area farmers and told them they had the right to complain about Tyson's practices. He also raised concerns directly with Tyson, among the world's largest meat companies.

Terry says Tyson and other big companies have too much sway over farmers, and federal courts also have bowed to agribusiness interests by setting too high a standard for the farmers to succeed in court.

He casts his fight as a "struggle between those who grow our food and those who process and market it."

Tyson, a unit of Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson Foods, Inc., had urged the court to stay out of the lawsuit, arguing that the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati properly dismissed it.

Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson said the company was not surprised at the high court's action. Tyson denied Terry's claims, "which we believe would have been ultimately disproven had the case gone to trial," Mickelson said.

The 6th Circuit ruled that Terry not only had to show that he was harmed by Tyson actions, but that he also had to prove the company diminished competition by ending Terry's contract and sending a signal to other farmers. Terry didn't even claim anticompetitive behavior by Tyson, much less prove it, the court said.

At an earlier stage in the case, the Bush administration's Agriculture Department sided with Terry. Since Barack Obama became president, USDA has proposed rules that would limit the control chicken companies have over the farmers who raise birds for them and would make it easier for farmers to file suits under the 90-year-old Packers and Stockyards Act. The proposed changes would make clear that farmers don't need to prove industry-wide anticompetitive behavior to sue under the act.

Last year, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the law has not kept pace with the marketplace, where consolidation has strengthened the hand of the big companies in their dealings with farmers. "Our job is to make sure the playing field is level for producers," Vilsack said.

USDA said it is reviewing the 61,000 comments it received about the proposed changes, including opposition from Tyson. The law "only prohibits those practices that harm competition," Mickelson said.

Tyson has contracts with nearly 6,000 farmers to raise broiler chickens. Under the contracts, the company supplies the chicks, feed and know-how to get the birds up to a weight where they can be slaughtered. Growers are paid under a formula that measures weight gain in the birds relative to how much feed has been provided.

Terry bought his farm in 2001, but only after getting assurances from a Tyson manager that the farm he was buying had a first-rate reputation. He says he was led to believe that he would not need to make major investments in the poultry equipment anytime soon.

The following year, he said, he began to learn about problems other farmers were having with Tyson. After a while, he formed an association of area farmers and forwarded complaints about Tyson to USDA.

His growing conflict with Tyson came to a head after he was three times denied permission to watch his birds get weighed by the company, as he claims is his right under federal law and the contract.

By March 2005, less than four years after Terry bought the farm, Tyson told him it would no longer provide chicks. According to Terry, the company said it ended its arrangement with him because the farm needed costly equipment upgrades and his behavior had become confrontational.

But Terry said the real reasons for the termination were his efforts to organize the farmers and his complaints to USDA.

He filed suit in 2008.

After losing the Tyson contract, Terry tried to sell the farm but couldn't, he said, because Tyson's demand for expensive upgrades scared off potential buyers. Eventually he lost the farm to foreclosure.

The case is Terry v. Tyson Farms, 10-542.

Company can't fire employee's fiancée

By Jesse J. Holland

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court says companies can't fire people simply because they are in a relationship with other employees who complain of discrimination.

The high court on Monday unanimously ruled for Eric Thompson, who was fired from a North American Stainless plant in Kentucky after his fiancee, who also worked there, filed a sex discrimination complaint.

Thompson's fiancee and now-wife, Miriam Regalado, filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging that her supervisors at a stainless steel manufacturing plant discriminated against her because of her gender. The EEOC told North American Stainless of her charge on Feb. 13, 2003.

Thompson was fired on March 7.

Thompson then went to the EEOC and complained that he had been fired because of his fiancée's discrimination charge. But the federal courts threw out his lawsuit.

The law does not allow retaliation against people who file discrimination claims. But federal judges have said that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act also does not allow people who haven't complained of discrimination to sue for retaliation.

But Justice Antonin Scalia said in a unanimous court judgment that Thompson clearly falls under the category of people who can sue for retaliation.

"Thompson is not an accidental victim of the retaliation -- collateral damage, so to speak, of the employer's unlawful act," Scalia said. "To the contrary, injuring him was the employer's intended means of harming Regalado. Hurting him was the unlawful act by which the employer punished her. In these circumstances, we think Thompson well within the zone of interests sought to be protected by Title VII. He is a person aggrieved with standing to sue."

Thompson's lawsuit against North American Stainless now goes back to the lower courts.

North American Stainless argued that allowing a fiance to sue would open the floodgates to retaliation lawsuits from everyone who gets fired who had any connection to a complaining employee. But Scalia said the court was refusing to create any hard and fast rules to follow because the anti-retaliation law is worded broadly.

"We expect that firing a close family member will almost always meet the standard, and inflicting a milder reprisal on a mere acquaintance will almost never do so, but beyond that we are reluctant to generalize," Scalia said.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer joined in with the judgment, with Ginsburg noting in a separate opinion that the EEOC's manual says that retaliation can be "challenged by both the individual who engaged in protected activity and the relative, where both are employees."

Justice Elena Kagan did not take part in the case because she worked on it while serving as solicitor general.

Regalado's complaint of gender discrimination was investigated by the EEOC but it found no basis to support her charge.

The case is Thompson v. North American Stainless LP, 09-291.

Chase could increase credit card interest rates

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court says a credit card company legally increased the interest rate on a man's card without telling him.

The high court on Monday ruled for Chase Bank USA and against James A. McCoy.

McCoy complained that Chase increased his interest rate due to his delinquency or default, and applied that increase retroactively. He says credit card regulations make that illegal because Chase did not notify him until after the increase went into effect.

The lower court had thrown out his lawsuit. Justice Sonia Sotomayor agreed, saying in a unanimous court opinion that the Federal Reserve Board's interpretation of the regulations said Chase did not have to inform him of the rate increase.

"In the board's view, Chase was not required to give McCoy notice of the interest rate increase," she said. "We defer to an agency's interpretation of its own regulation, advanced in a legal brief, unless that interpretation is 'plainly erroneous or inconsistent with the regulation.' Because the interpretation the board presents in its brief is consistent with the regulatory text, we need look no further in deciding this case."

Congress changed the law in 2009 to require credit card companies to give a 45-day notice before raising interest rates.

The case is Chase Bank USA v McCoy, 09-329.

Justices rule for prison victim of sex assault

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court on Monday reinstated a $625,000 judgment against Ohio prison officials who did nothing to prevent a guard's sexual assault of an inmate and then punished the victim.

The justices unanimously agreed that a federal appeals court was wrong to throw out the award to Michelle Ortiz. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati had "no warrant" to override the jury's verdict.

Ortiz was serving 12 months at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in November 2002 when she reported that a male guard fondled her breasts and warned, "I'll get you tomorrow, watch." He did, returning when Ortiz was asleep to molest her again.

When Ortiz discussed the attacks with other inmates, she was shackled and sent to solitary confinement.

But the appeals court found by a 2-1 vote that one official, Paula Jordan, could not be held liable even though she did not take immediate action when Ortiz reported the first incident. The court said the other official, Rebecca Bright, did not violate Ortiz's rights by sending her to solitary confinement. A dissenting judge called the outcome "a legal travesty."

Bright and Jordan tried to get the case against them dismissed before the trial. A judge refused to do so and they did not appeal then. The legal issue in the case is whether they could wait until after the trial to appeal the judge's ruling.

The Supreme Court said they could not.

Justices Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas agreed that the appeals court made a mistake, but they would have sent the case back to that court to consider other issues.

The Associated Press normally does not name victims of alleged sexual abuse. In this case, her attorney, David E. Mills of Cleveland, said she could be identified publicly.

The case is Ortiz v. Jordan and Bright, 09-737.

Published: Wed, Jan 26, 2011