The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to decide whether a sweeping federal law aimed at helping prosecutors fight organized crime can also be used by individuals and businesses to sue major corporations.
The question is whether Congress, in passing the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), intended to allow major corporations and banks to be sued as "racketeers" and to be forced to pay triple damages even if the companies have not been indicted or convicted of any crimes or of any connection to organized crime.
The law makes it a crime to participate in a "pattern of racketeering," broadly defined as at least two of a long list of crimes that include what one appeals court called "garden variety" securities and bank fraud cases. Such allegations of racketeering have been used as a tactic in corporate takeover battles.
As a result, there has been an "explosion of litigation" involving RICO charges, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York said recently, not against organized-crime bosses, but against "such respected and legitimate 'enterprises' as American Express Co., E.F. Hutton & Co., Lloyd's of London. . . and Merrill Lynch, to name a few . . . . "
"The uses to which private civil RICO [suits] have been put have been extraordinary, if not outrageous," the appeals court said, ruling that such a suit could not be filed unless the defendant has been criminally convicted. The appeals court also said that those who sue under RICO must show that they were injured by "racketeering," not just that they were the victims of a fraud.
The appeals court threw out the RICO charges in Sedima v. Imrex Co. But the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago reached the opposite result.
That court, acting in a case involving commercial borrowers who said a bank defrauded them by miscalculating the rate of interest they were to be charged, did agree that the law was too broad. "With respect to the case before us," it said, "it does not seem at all likely that Congress anticipated the application of civil RICO to improperly calculated interest charges by a commercial bank."
But unlike the 2nd Circuit court, the 7th Circuit panel refused to throw out the RICO charges. "RICO may be very broad, but there was nothing careless about its drafting. When Congress deliberately chooses to unleash such a broad statute on the nation, in the absence of constitutional prohibitions, complaints must be directed to Congress rather than to the courts." The case is American National Bank and Trust Company of Chicago v. Haroco Inc.
In other action yesterday, the justices:
* Refused to review the embezzlement and state tax fraud convictions of California financier and former San Diego Padres owner C. Arnholt Smith.
Smith, 85, a friend of Richard M. Nixon who contributed $1 million to his 1968 presidential campaign, is serving a one-year jail sentence in San Diego.
He was convicted in 1979 of one count of theft for embezzling from a corporation he owned and of four counts of state income tax fraud, and was sentenced to three years in prison. All the charges were later reduced to misdemeanors and the sentence was reduced to one year. The case is Smith v. California.
* Agreed to decide whether federal regulations prevent state and local governments from enacting tougher standards on the collection of blood plasma from paid donors.
In 1980, Hillsborough County, Fla., officials passed a law requiring donors to give blood at a single center and forcing them to take hepatitis and alcohol tests before they donated.
A Tampa laboratory sued to have the requirements lifted. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed to do so, saying federal regulation preempted any local regulation. The case is Hillsborough County v. Automated Medical Laboratories.
* Agreed to decide whether lawyers have the same First Amendment rights as everyone else to criticize the courts outside the courtroom.
The case, In re Robert Snyder, started out as a minor billing dispute in which Robert Snyder, a Bismarck, N.D., attorney, wrote a letter complaining about the "puny amounts" that lawyers received for defending indigent clients.
The letter went to 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge Donald P. Lay, who promptly moved to suspend Snyder from practicing law in federal courts in the circuit, saying Snyder had been disrespectful.
The dispute has become a minor cause celebre in the North Dakota legal community, with the state bar weighing in on Snyder's side. At the time of the dispute, lawyers assigned to defend indigent clients in federal court were paid a maximum of $20 an hour for time spent preparing the case and $30 an hour for time in court. Congress recently doubled the rates.