Case: Ashcroft v. Iqbal

Date: Wednesday Dec. 10, 2008

Issue: Whether allegations that a Cabinet-level officer knew of, condoned or agreed to subject an individual to allegedly unconstitutional acts purportedly committed by subordinate officials is sufficient to file a lawsuit. And can that Cabinet officer (Ashcroft/Mueller) be held personally liable for the allegedly unconstitutional acts of subordinate officials on the ground that, as high-level supervisors, they had constructive notice of the discrimination allegedly carried out by such subordinate officials?

Background: Shortly after 9/11 Javaid Iqbal was just one of the many people federal authorities picked up for questioning in the attacks. Iqbal was eventually arrested, jailed and convicted of fraud and after his sentence deported to his native Pakistan. Iqbal then sued 34 federal officials including former Attorney General John Ashcroft and Current FBI Director Robert Mueller. He says the poor treatment he received in jail (Iqbal alleges he was "subjected to solitary confinement, unnecessary and abusive strip searches, and beaten by correction officers”) was done under a supposedly racial and religious discriminatory directive from the agency heads.

Normally, government officials are immune from prosecution for actions done under their official duties. But because the allegation involves decisions supposedly predicated on discriminatory intent lawsuits such as this one can proceed. So far lower courts have not dismissed the case even while acknowledging that allowing the case to proceed could invite the filing of other future lawsuits. The Supreme Court faces this same question of whether or not to allow the case to move forward.

Ashcroft and Mueller argue the lower court's legal analysis was too broad in refusing to dismiss the lawsuit. They argue this case falls squarely within the law preventing government workers from civil litigation. The also add Ashcroft and Mueller were too far removed from Iqbal to be directly responsible for any of his claims of mistreatment. Iqbal contends the lower courts were right to assess this case as the rare example of permitting a lawsuit against government officials and that the High Court should rule the same.

Case: AT&T v. Hulteen

Date: Wednesday Dec. 10, 2008

Issue: Does a company have to restructure its retirement seniority system to reflect a change in law that did not require retroactivity?

Background: The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) of 1978 forced companies like AT&T to treat maternity leave on par with other benefit-giving leaves (i.e. temporary disability.) Prior to the law's enactment, AT&T forced new mothers to use personal leave. The distinction in benefits ultimately mattered to the time accrued for pension purposes. AT&T's seniority system is based on a time served calculation. It argues women who took maternity (personal) leave prior to the PDA should not get credit for service rendered because the PDA was not made retroactive. Four retiring AT&T workers say the company discriminated against them while calculating their pensions under the old formula. That argument found success in the lower court. AT&T says Congress didn’t make the PDA retroactive and accordingly they shouldn't have to recalculate its pension program.