SCOTUS News, Week of March 20th, 2017 (Part 2)

Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District

Last month the Court issued a ruling in Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools affirming certain provisions of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This week, the Court struck a similar note in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District.

Endrew is a student with autism who went to a school receiving federal funds under the IDEA. After years of middling progress, Endrew’s parents placed him in a private school. They sought relief under the IDEA, because his former school had not created an adequate educational plan for him. Several lower courts affirmed that Endrew had in fact received an adequate educational plan under the IDEA’s guidelines.

As we touched on in January, the Justices were primed to issue a more robust educational standard than de minimis. In Endrew, they hit the issue head-on. They note that a “substantive standard was implicit in [the IDEA] all along”. This rebuffs lower court arguments that Endrew received a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) despite a lack of progress in school. An educational plan “must aim to enable a child to make progress”. This plan must also be “appropriately ambitious” in light of a child’s circumstances. Writing for the whole court, Chief Justice Roberts explains that, at least in Endrew’s case, this was not so. The Court reversed and remanded. They declined to establish a bright-line rule on what constitutes an appropriate plan, but they did provide ample guidance for the lower courts.

Endrew douglas county

Endrew F. v. Douglas County School Board

The FantasySCOTUS Crowd nailed this one. {Marshall}+ had some trouble, forecasting a 4-4 split along predictable ideological lines. As we have pointed out before, the Algorithm cannot be blamed for the more subtle rulings this session. The Chief Justice is a consensus builder, all the more so while the Court stands at 8 members. That the Court declined to establish a heftier rule, and merely remanded the case with greater guidance, could be a symptom of this consensus building. At any rate, this is far from the most surprising miss for either the Crowd or Algorithm this session.

Star Athletica LLC v. Varsity Brands, Inc.

SCOTUS ruled this week that a design element of a useful article is eligible for copyright protection if it satisfies two rules. The feature must be “perceived as a…work of art separate from the useful article”, and it must also qualify for protection if it were to exist independently of the article. Varsity Brands holds copyrights on a number of designs for its cheerleading uniforms. Star Athletica used some of those designs on their own cheerleading uniforms. The District Court originally ruled in Star Athletica’s favor, claiming that Varsity’s designs were not separable from the uniforms. The Sixth Circuit reversed on appeal from Varsity Brands, claiming that the designs are separable. SCOTUS upheld the Sixth Circuit’s decision.

Justice Thomas sums things up nicely in the introduction. Writing for the majority, he points out that Congress provides protection for works of art, but not industrial designs. Simply put, the design on the uniforms is a work of art, but the uniforms themselves are industrial designs.

We wrote about this case when it was granted certiorari way back in September. We predicted then that this case could produce an unusual combination of concurring and dissenting voices. We were not wrong. Joining Thomas were Alito, Sotomayor, Kagan, and Chief Justice Roberts. Justice Ginsburg concurred in the judgment. Breyer and Kennedy dissented; they should perhaps stay away from museums of modern art.

What is unusual here is that both the Crowd and the Algorithm expected unanimous reversal of the Sixth Circuit’s ruling in Varsity Brands’ favor. This despite Thomas’ rather repetitious and exhaustive analysis of the Copyright Act and its historical foundations. The problem here is that a more conservative reading of Copyright statute does afford greater rights to Varsity Brands. In addition, the majority, as well as Ginsburg and the dissent, chose not to pass judgment on whether Varsity’s designs should be copyrighted; only that they are eligible. Perhaps for this reason, the Algorithm seemed far less certain that SCOTUS would reverse.

star athletica varsity brands

Star Athletica v. Varsity Brands

Czyzewski v. Jevic Holding Group

Our last case was argued some three months ago. This case concerns whether structured dismissal is a better alternative than ordinary bankrupty under certain circumstances. Former workers at Jevic received wage claims from a structured dismissal. A later settlement agreement in bankruptcy court led to Jevic’s assets being distributed in other ways. No money was allotted for the former workers under this plan, as their claim was pursuant only to a structured dismissal, not a settlement. The District Court and the Third Circuit affirmed this ruling.

SCOTUS reversed and remanded. They point out that the former workers would not get proper redress on their claim unless the structured dismissal is carried out. Additionally, the Court declares that Bankruptcy courts must follow ordinary priority rules. Thus, the workers’ claims cannot be discarded simply because the nature of Jevic’s settlements changed. Because the Bankruptcy court dismissed Jevic’s Chapter 11 filing, but didn’t acknowledge the financial status quo prior to the suit, they erred when they skipped over the claims of the former workers.

The Crowd and the Algorithm both got this one right, but failed to account for the dissent of Thomas and Alito. This is due to the nature of their brief dissent. Thomas doesn’t focus on the question the petitioners ask; instead, he points out that the petitioners raised a different question in their argument before SCOTUS than was raised in their original petition for certiorari. Thomas points out that this new question comes with less disagreement amongst lower courts, which makes it easier to address. Because of this inconsistency, Thomas and Alito think certiorari should be dismissed. Otherwise, they argue, petitioners to the high court could change their arguments after getting their foot in the door. An important detail that the Crowd and Algorithm can be forgiven for overlooking.