Supreme Court ruling: No 'personal privacy' for corporations

By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 1, 2011; 8:51 PM

Corporations have no right to "personal privacy" when it comes to government records requested under the Freedom of Information Act, a unanimous Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

The court made short work of AT&T's argument in a dispute with the Federal Communications Commission. The telecommunications company had contended that because "person" is sometimes defined in federal law to mean a corporation as well as an individual, the company was entitled to a FOIA exemption that relates to "personal privacy."

"We trust that AT&T will not take it personally," Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. concluded in a relatively taut opinion that was long on examples of how adjectives do not always "reflect the meaning of corresponding nouns."

Because the case was argued nearly a year to the day after the court loosened restrictions on corporate electoral spending in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, it attracted outsized attention for any sign that the justices were ready to extend other privileges to corporations.

But Roberts did not mention last year's controversial case in his 12-page opinion, in which he seemed to find sport in spotlighting examples that undermined AT&T's semantic arguments.

The case began in 2004 when AT&T notified the FCC that it might have overcharged the government for some work. An investigation led to a settlement. The FCC released certain documents it had gathered but withheld others under exceptions in the law that cover trade secrets and individuals' right to privacy.

But when Comptel, a trade association representing some of AT&T's competitors, filed a FOIA request for more of the documents, AT&T went to court to keep the FCC from making the disclosure. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit agreed with AT&T's personal-privacy argument.

But Roberts said it was implausible to believe that Congress intended "personal privacy" to relate to corporate interests.

"We do not usually speak of personal characteristics, personal effects, personal correspondence, personal influence, or personal tragedy as referring to corporations or other artificial entities," Roberts wrote.

"Personal privacy" is an even greater problem, he said, because "two words together may assume a more particular meaning than those words in isolation."

He provided an example: "We understand a golden cup to be a cup made of or resembling gold. A golden boy, on the other hand, is one who is charming, lucky, and talented. A golden opportunity is one not to be missed."

The government's appeal was brought while Justice Elena Kagan was President Obama's solicitor general, so she was recused from the case, as well as two other cases decided Tuesday. The government's position in Federal Communications Commission v. AT&T was supported by a number of media companies, including The Washington Post Co.

Job discrimination

In a separate case, Staub v. Proctor Hospital, the court extended its trend of siding with workers who claim that their firings were motivated by bias . It held that an employer could be liable when the person responsible for the firing had no discriminatory intent but was influenced by others in the chain of command who did.

Vincent Staub contended that he was fired from his job as an angiography technician because his immediate supervisors objected to the time he missed because of his duties as a member of the Army Reserve. He said they trumped up charges against him and took them to the boss who actually fired him.

The actions made the company liable, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote. "An employer's authority to reward, punish or dismiss is often allocated among multiple agents," he said. "The one who makes the ultimate decision does so on the basis of performance assessments by other supervisors."

Staub sued under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994, designed to protect military members from being fired for reasons related to their service. But Scalia noted that its wording was similar to Title VII, the more frequently used law that governs employment discrimination.

Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Clarence Thomas agreed with the outcome but thought Scalia's opinion was too broad.

Veterans rights

The court also made it easier for a veteran's family to appeal a decision denying him benefits.

The justices unanimously ruled that there is no reason to believe that Congress meant there could be no exceptions to the 120-day deadline it set for appealing the denial of benefits.

At the center of Henderson v. Shinseki was the late David Henderson, a Korean War veteran who was found to be 100 percent disabled with paranoid schizophrenia.

Later, when he appealed a decision by the Department of Veterans Affairs on his benefits, a special court set up to deal with veterans' problems said he filed 15 days too late. His widow, Doretha Henderson, has taken up his case, saying the problems for which he sought help contributed to him missing the deadline.

Lower courts said they were powerless to help Henderson because of a Supreme Court decision in 2007 involving a less sympathetic character. A slim majority of the court said Keith Bowles, a convicted murderer, could not pursue his appeal because he had filed it two days late. Bowles had met a deadline set by the judge in the case, but the judge had misinterpreted the limit set by Congress for such appeals.

But Alito, writing for all members of the court, said the cases could be distinguished.

"The contrast between ordinary civil litigation - which provided the context of our decision in Bowles - and the system that Congress created for the adjudication of veterans' benefits claims could hardly be more dramatic," he wrote.

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