Supreme Court acts on arbitration agreements, genetically engineered seeds

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

On Monday, the Supreme Court:

-- Made it harder for people to challenge arbitration agreements in court. The court, in a 5 to 4 vote, decided that arbitrators are the only ones who can decide whether an arbitration agreement as a whole is "unconscionable" if the contract explicitly delegates that issue to the arbitrator and a person fails to challenge that specific clause.

The case is Rent-a-Center West v. Jackson.

-- Lifted a nationwide ban on the planting of genetically engineered alfalfa seeds, despite claims that they might harm the environment. In a 7 to 1 vote, the court reversed a federal appeals court ruling that prohibited Monsanto from selling alfalfa seeds that are resistant to the popular weed killer Roundup. The Department of Agriculture still needs to authorize use of the seeds before they can be planted on a wide scale. Justice Stephen G. Breyer took no part in the case.

The case is Monsanto v. Geertson Seed Farms.

-- Allowed a new trial in the case of a woman who got breast cancer after taking hormone replacement therapy and is seeking punitive damages against Wyeth Pharmaceuticals. The justices rejected Wyeth's attempt to block the trial because it is to be limited to punitive damages. Wyeth also wanted the high court to throw out $2.75 million in compensatory damages that the Arkansas woman, Donna Scroggin, won after suing Wyeth and Upjohn, another drugmaker. Both companies now are owned by Pfizer.

A jury also awarded Scroggin $27 million in punitive damages after concluding that Wyeth inadequately warned her that its drugs Premarin and Prempro carried an increased risk of breast cancer.

A federal judge struck down the punitive damages award, saying certain testimony from former Food and Drug Administration official Suzanne Parisian, who was the plaintiff's regulatory expert, should not have been allowed at trial. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit in St. Louis ordered the partial retrial, limited to punitive damages.

The case is Wyeth v. Scroggin.

-- Agreed to hear a case on whether Virginia's advocate for the mentally ill can force state officials to provide records relating to deaths and injuries at state mental health facilities. The justices will review a federal appeals court ruling dismissing the state advocate's lawsuit against Virginia's mental health commissioner and two other officials.

Backing the appeal, the Obama administration said the ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond "threatens to undermine the enforcement of federal laws that Congress designed to protect especially vulnerable individuals from the abusive and neglectful practices that can result in injury and death." The Virginia advocate's office, like those in the other 49 states, was created under two federal laws that give states federal money for monitoring the treatment of the mentally ill in state facilities.

The case is VOPA v. Reinhard.

-- Associated Press

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