The increasing social acceptance of a variety of relationships somewhere between the traditional married and single status has forced the legal community to reexamine old precepts that use the wedding ceremony as a bright line between those who had certain rights and those to whom they could be denied.
As in so many such areas, California has been in the forefront, grappling with the new kinds of demands; courts there have been giving a lot of attention to the impact of alternative family arrangements on unemployment compensation payments.
Unemployment compensation is supposed to go to those laid off through no fault of their own, and employers generally try to keep their payments into state insurance funds low by opposing claims from workers with questionable explanations for their departure. A person compelled to leave a job by circumstances beyond his or her control, however, is often deemed eligible for the payments. And, under the rubric of the importance of preserving family units, courts have found that leaving a job to stay with a spouse who is moving elsewhere is a compelling reason.
But what about when the person the worker wants to continue living with is not a spouse? A mid-level California court three years ago said that such a worker has no claims on unemployment compensation, but the legislature was so outraged by the decision that it amended the unemployment insurance law to make clear that a marriage license does not have to be a requirement for a relationship to be one worth preserving.
The couple in that dispute still did not win. Last year, the state Supreme Court decided the two simply could not prove they were committed enough to each other to merit the same treatment given a married couple. And the justices worried that "the potential for administrative intrusions into the rights of privacy would be severe" if hearing examiners had to decide which live-togethers were serious about each other and which were simply enjoying passing fancies.
Nonetheless, that same California Supreme Court last month came back to the issue in another case and, overturning an appellate court decision, ruled that a waitress living under these circumstances could get unemployment compensation. One key difference: In the latest case, MacGregor v. Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board, there was a child. Without being able to spell out exactly how much evidence, short of marriage, shows that a couple has become a family, the opinion notes that the two had given their baby daughter the father's surname, and that they were providing her a stable home. Another important factor: The parents had lived together for more than two years before the baby was born.
But the new ruling gives no real help in avoiding the problems the justices worried about last year: how to preserve privacy while bureaucrats gather enough evidence of how a man and woman relate to each other to rate the stability of their living arrangement.
In other cases, courts ruled that:
* A city can ban fast-food restaurants in particular picturesque neighborhoods while it plans future zoning rules. The U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans approved such a moritorium in that city, over protests of property owners that the city was usurping their rights to use their real estate as they wished. A key element in the court decision: The city's refusal to issue building permits for new fast-food outlets is to run for only 10 months, with a firm expiration date after the planning study is completed. (Schafer v. New Orleans, Oct. 11)
* Competitors can obtain summaries of technical bid proposals under the Freedom of Information Act, even if the summaries reveal confidential structuring techniques. There was no argument that most of the 245-page proposal submitted to the Air Force was so full of trade secrets that it could not legally be given to those who asked for it. But the service and the company clashed over the confidentiality of 38 pages that encapsulated the rest of the bid: the title page, table of contents and cross-referencing key. The bidder insisted that those pages would give another company valuable insights into how the proposal was put together, but the U.S. District Court here ruled that the disputed material was not detailed enough to be exempt from the FOIA. (Dynalectron v. Air Force, Oct. 30)
* Some aspects of the operation of a law firm are "trade or commerce," covered by some -- but not all -- state consumer protection laws. The Supreme Court of Washington State refused to write a blanket rule giving either a green light or a red light to plaintiffs who want to sue lawyers for damages under the state's prohibition of deceptive acts and practices. When the claims have to do with the law part of the law business -- whether the attorneys chose the right strategy in a case or were competent -- they do not fall under the statute, the justices decided. But when the complaints have to do with the entrepreneurial aspects of running the law firm, they can be grounds for a consumer protection suit. That opens the way for litigation over pricing, billing activities and the marketing methods used by the firm to win clients. (Short v. Demopolis, Nov. 6)
Bank stockholders unhappy with the way the institution has been run cannot sue the officers or directors in federal court. Congress in 1978 gave the Comptroller of the Currency the power to fine bank managers for violations of banking rules, and one of the regulations issued under that authority requires officials to use "prudent banking judgment" in all securities transactions. But the U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati decided that that law was not passed for the benefit of the stockholders; Congress meant to give the comptroller flexibility in cracking down on dubious banking practices, and that would be undercut by letting private parties take to judges matters that the comptroller might decide differently. The ruling still lets stockholders sue bank managers in state courts, but such cases are tougher to win. (Marx v. Centran Corp., Nov. 8)