COVID-19 lawsuit takes on McDonald’s like it was a rowdy bar

By Tom Hals

(Reuters) – As U.S. businesses reopen, worried workers and their advocates are borrowing a legal strategy commonly used to shut down rowdy topless bars to try and force employers to strengthen protection against further spread of the coronavirus.

Workers and their families at McDonald’s Corp’s Chicago restaurants have filed a class-action lawsuit against the fast-food chain that does not seek money for sick staff, but compliance with health guidance such as providing clean face masks.

The strategy was unsuccessful against a meatpacking plant but experts said it could work against McDonald’s and other companies, and a business group warned about a flood of cases.

“The damage done by inadequate safety practices is not confined to the walls of a restaurant but instead has broader public health consequences,” Tuesday’s lawsuit said.

Like an April lawsuit against a meatpacking plant, the case targets McDonald’s as a public nuisance, a legal strategy previously used to shutter strip clubs and the famed Limelight nightclub in Manhattan.

Typically, workplace safety is a matter for the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which has the authority to inspect businesses and issue citations. By focusing on community health, the lawsuit attempts to move outside OSHA’s jurisdiction and into the courts.

McDonald’s workers around the country have protested and demanded safety gear.

In Chicago, workers filed at least four complaints with OSHA, but the agency declined to inspect work sites, according to the lawsuit.

OSHA did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Unions have criticized the agency for lax enforcement and failing to issue mandatory standards for businesses to stem the spread of COVID-19.

“When you don’t have an assertive OSHA you get these creative approaches,” said Michael Duff, a professor at the University of Wyoming College of Law.

McDonald’s called the allegations inaccurate. The company criticized the SEIU service union that is supporting the plaintiffs and said the chain has issued a 59-page guide its restaurants must follow to protect staff and customers.

The Fight for $15 group, which campaigns to raise the U.S. minimum wage to $15 an hour, is also helping the workers.

OSHA has said it is investigating thousands of complaints nationwide and that flexible guidance is better than rigid standards.

The public nuisance doctrine stems from medieval England, where it was used to promote safer roads and to fight infectious diseases.

To prevail, plaintiffs must prove a defendant interfered with public good, like the community’s health. Unlike a typical lawsuit, it does not generally require proof that the defendant directly injured someone.

Rather than prove someone was infected with the coronavirus at McDonald’s, the workers must instead show the company created an unsafe workplace that posed an imminent threat of contributing to its spread.

A similar public nuisance lawsuit filed in April against a Smithfield Foods Inc meat processing plant in Missouri was dismissed because the judge said workplace safety was a matter for OSHA.

But Smithfield was already being investigated by OSHA and unlike McDonald’s, there were no confirmed COVID-19 cases in the Missouri plant.

The Institute for Legal Reform, an affiliate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce business group, has warned the pandemic could prompt a flood of “abusive” lawsuits, and cited the McDonald’s public nuisance case in a call with reporters this week.

“The danger is one case survives and like moths to light you’ll see cases all over the place,” said Michelle Richards, a law professor at the University of Detroit Mercy.

Richard Ausness, a professor at the University of Kentucky College of Law, downplayed the risk of a flood of cases, but said the mere filing of such a lawsuit could push a business to help its workers.

“Who wants to be accused of maintaining a public nuisance? It just sounds awful,” he said.

(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware; editing by Noeleen Walder in New York)

In a first, Missouri sues China over coronavirus economic losses

By Jan Wolfe

(Reuters) – Missouri on Tuesday became the first U.S. state to sue the Chinese government over its handling of the coronavirus, saying that China’s response to the outbreak that originated in Wuhan city led to devastating economic losses in the state.

The civil lawsuit, filed in federal court by Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, alleges negligence, among other claims. The complaint alleges Missouri and its residents have suffered possibly tens of billions of dollars in economic damages, and seeks cash compensation.

“The Chinese government lied to the world about the danger and contagious nature of COVID-19, silenced whistleblowers, and did little to stop the spread of the disease,” Schmitt, a Republican, said in a statement. “They must be held accountable for their actions.”

The lawsuit also accuses the Chinese government of making the pandemic worse by “hoarding” masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE).

U.S. President Donald Trump, also a Republican, initially lavished praise on China and his counterpart Xi Jinping for the official response to the outbreak, which has since spread to infect more than 2.5 million people worldwide. But he and other senior U.S. officials have also referred to it as the “Chinese virus” and in recent days have ramped up their rhetoric.

China is already facing similar lawsuits filed in U.S. courts on behalf of U.S. business owners.

International law experts told Reuters that efforts to hold China liable for the coronavirus in U.S. courts will likely fail.

A legal doctrine called sovereign immunity offers foreign governments broad protection from being sued in U.S. courts, said Tom Ginsburg, a professor of international law at the University of Chicago.

Ginsburg said he thought the recent flurry of lawsuits against China serve a political end for Republican leaders facing an election in November.

“We are seeing a lot of people on the political right focus on the China issue to cover up for the U.S. government’s own errors,” Ginsburg said.

Trump initially downplayed the seriousness of the coronavirus, which has killed more than 43,000 people in the United States out of nearly 800,000 cases as of Tuesday.

The outbreak has also forced state governors to declare stay-at-home orders that have shuttered businesses and social activities, leading a record 22 million people to seek unemployment benefits in the past month.

“If the United States wants to bring claims against China, it will have to do so in an international forum,” said Chimène Keitner, an international law professor at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. “There is no civil jurisdiction over such claims in U.S. courts.”

(Reporting by Jan Wolfe; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

U.S. appeals court throws out Democrats’ lawsuit challenging Trump businesses

By Jan Wolfe

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. appeals court on Friday threw out a lawsuit brought by Democratic lawmakers alleging President Donald Trump’s overseas business dealings violate the U.S. Constitution’s anti-corruption “emoluments” clauses.

Reversing a lower court judge, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said a group of more than 200 Democratic lawmakers lacked legal “standing” to bring the case in the first place.

The three-judge panel said it was bound by U.S. Supreme Court decisions that have limited the ability of individual members of Congress to litigate questions that affect the legislative branch as a whole.

The Democratic lawmakers “can, and likely will, continue to use their weighty voices to make their case to the American people, their colleagues in the Congress and the President himself, all of whom are free to engage that argument as they see fit,” the three-judge panel wrote. “But we will not—indeed we cannot—participate in this debate.”

“We’re disappointed in the panel’s decision and are considering next steps,” said Elizabeth Wydra, a lawyer who argued on behalf of the lawmakers.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Justice, which argued the case for Trump, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The lawsuit was brought in 2017 by congressional Democrats including Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. It is one of a trio of cases against Trump over the rarely tested emoluments clauses, which prohibit presidents from taking gifts or payments from foreign and state governments.

One or more of the cases could end at the U.S. Supreme Court, legal experts said.

The emoluments cases have largely centered on the Trump International Hotel, just blocks from the White House, which the Republican president opened shortly before he was elected in November 2016.

Unlike past presidents, Trump has retained ownership of numerous business interests, including the hotel, while serving as president.

Since Trump’s election, the hotel has become a favored lodging and event space for some foreign and state officials visiting the U.S. capital.

The lawsuits alleged that, in failing to disengage from the hotel, Trump has made himself vulnerable to inducements by foreign governments seeking to curry favor.

(Reporting by Jan Wolfe; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and David Gregorio)

New Jersey mayor sues New York City over moving homeless with ‘offer they can’t refuse’

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Newark Mayor Ras Baraka’s administration has sued New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, accusing the fellow Democrat of dumping his city’s population of homeless people on New Jersey’s biggest city.

The lawsuit naming the city of New York, its mayor and his homelessness czar, Steven Banks, accuses the de Blasio administration’s Special One-Time Assistance, or SOTA, program of using strong-arm tactics to send people across the Hudson River to find a place to live.

“This case concerns an unlawful program of ‘coerced’ migration,” Newark lawyers say in court documents filed in U.S. District Court in New Jersey on Monday.

New York City officials are accused of “forcing SOTA recipients to accept the proverbial ‘offer they can’t refuse,'” the documents said, explaining that the phrase from the 1972 American Mafia film “The Godfather” is “really a command, ‘Do what we say or else.'”

The lawsuit accuses New York of violating federal commerce laws. It cites several former New York shelter residents who were hustled through tours of New Jersey apartments and pressured to quickly commit to one, with the SOTA Program paying landlords a full year’s rent up front.

“She was told by case managers in her shelter that she should look in New Jersey, in the cities of Newark or Paterson, because New York landlords were leery of the SOTA program and because she would find something quicker in New Jersey,” Newark’s lawyers said in court filings.

The de Blasio administration did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Baraka, Newark’s mayor since 2014 and the son of poet and African-American activist Amiri Baraka, and de Blasio, a former Democratic presidential candidate who touts himself as a progressive, appeared together in Newark last year to announce a tenant initiative aimed at keeping people in their homes, in part by ending illegal evictions. The New Jersey program was modeled after one in New York City and both mayors praised one another for pursuing the initiatives.

The vast majority of New Yorkers experiencing homelessness – over 63,000 homeless men, women and children – spend the night instead within the city’s shelter system where they remain unseen, according to The Bowery Mission nonprofit group. In a city of 8.5 million people, nearly one in every 121 New Yorkers is currently homeless.

(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg in New York; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)

Jussie Smollett sues Chicago for malicious prosecution

(Reuters) – The actor Jussie Smollett has sued the city of Chicago and multiple police officers for malicious prosecution, claiming they caused him economic harm, mental anguish and distress.

Smollett made his accusation in a counterclaim made public on Wednesday, in a lawsuit where the city sought to recoup costs for investigating his alleged false claim that he had been the victim of a racist and homophobic beating on a Chicago street.

Chicago had sued Smollett in April, and the lawsuit is pending in Chicago federal court.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

U.S. Supreme Court will not shield gun maker from Sandy Hook lawsuit

U.S. Supreme Court will not shield gun maker from Sandy Hook lawsuit
By Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday dealt a blow to the firearms industry, rejecting Remington Arms Co’s bid to escape a lawsuit by families of victims aiming to hold the gun maker liable for its marketing of the assault-style rifle used in the 2012 Sandy Hook school massacre that killed 20 children and six adults.

The justices turned away Remington’s appeal of a ruling by Connecticut’s top court to let the lawsuit proceed despite a federal law that broadly shields firearms manufacturers from liability when their weapons are used in crimes. The lawsuit will move forward at a time of high passions in the United States over the issue of gun control.

The family members of nine people slain and one survivor of the Sandy Hook massacre filed the lawsuit in 2014. Remington was backed in the case by a number of gun rights groups and lobbying organizations including the powerful National Rifle Association, which is closely aligned with Republicans including President Donald Trump. The NRA called the lawsuit “company-killing.”

The Dec. 14, 2012 rampage was carried out by a 20-year-old gunman named Adam Lanza, who shot his way into the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut and fired on the first-graders and adult staff before fatally shooting himself as police closed in.

The United States has experienced a succession of mass shootings in recent decades, including several that have staggered the public such as the 2017 attack at a Las Vegas concert that killed 58 and one at a nightclub in Orlando in 2016 that killed 49. Assault-type rifles have been a recurring feature in many of the massacres.

The U.S. Congress has not enacted new gun control laws in the wake of the mass shootings largely because of Republican opposition.

The plaintiffs have argued that Remington bears some of the blame for the Sandy Hook tragedy. They said the Bushmaster AR-15 gun that Lanza used – a semi-automatic civilian version of the U.S. military’s M-16 – had been illegally marketed by the company to civilians as a combat weapon for waging war and killing human beings.

The plaintiffs said that Connecticut’s consumer protection law forbids advertising that promotes violent, criminal behavior and yet even though these rifles have become the “weapon of choice for mass shooters” Remington’s ads “continued to exploit the fantasy of an all-conquering lone gunman.” One of them, they noted, stated, “Forces of opposition, bow down.”

Remington argued that it should be insulated from the lawsuit by a 2005 federal law known as the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which was aimed at blocking a wave of lawsuits damaging to the firearms industry.

The case hinges on an exception to this shield for claims in which a gun manufacturer knowingly violates the law to sell or market guns. Remington has argued that the Connecticut Supreme Court interpreted the exception too broadly when it decided to let the case go ahead.

Though the case does not directly implicate the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms, the NRA told the justices in a filing that the lawsuit could put gun manufacturers out of business, making the right meaningless.

A state trial court initially threw out the claims but the Connecticut Supreme Court revived the lawsuit in March, prompting Remington’s appeal.

The justices already have taken up one important gun rights case in their current term.

They are due to hear arguments on Dec. 2 in a lawsuit by gun owners and the state’s NRA affiliate challenging New York City restrictions on handgun owners transporting firearms outside the home. The city had asked the justices to cancel the arguments because its measure was recently amended, meaning there was no longer any reason to hear the dispute. But the court decided to go ahead with the case.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

Christian couple can sue over Minnesota same-sex marriage video law

FILE PHOTO: A rose is seen on a giant rainbow flag at a pro same-sex marriage party after couples registered their marriages in Taipei, Taiwan May 24, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

By Jonathan Stempel

(Reuters) – A federal appeals court on Friday revived a lawsuit by a Minnesota couple challenging a state law requiring that their video production company film same-sex weddings, which they say violates their Christian beliefs.

In a 2-1 decision, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Paul, Minnesota, said Angel and Carl Larsen can try to show that the law violates their rights to free speech and freely exercise their religious beliefs under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Circuit Judge David Stras, an appointee of President Donald Trump, called videos by the St Cloud, Minnesota couple “a medium for the communication of ideas about marriage,” and said the state’s law “is targeting speech itself.”

The court ordered U.S. District Judge John Tunheim in Minneapolis to decide whether the Larsens and their Telescope Media Group deserve a preliminary injunction against the law, which subjects violators to fines and possible jail time. Tunheim had dismissed the lawsuit in September 2017.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose office defended the law, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“Angel and I serve everyone,” Carl Larsen said, in a statement provided by his lawyers at Alliance Defending Freedom. “We just can’t produce films promoting every message.”

The case is among several in recent years where private business owners or individuals invoked their religious beliefs to deny services to same-sex couples.

In June, for example, the Washington Supreme Court ruled for a second time against a Christian florist for refusing to sell flowers to a same-sex couple for their wedding, setting up a potential clash at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis in 2015 cited her religious beliefs in refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Same-sex marriage became legal in Minnesota in 2013, and nationwide in 2015.

The Larsens said they wanted to use their talents to honor God, including by producing wedding videos promoting marriage as a “sacrificial covenant between one man and one woman.”

Minnesota objected, saying the Larsens had to produce videos of same-sex weddings as well as opposite-sex weddings, or else produce none.

But in Friday’s decision, Stras said the Larsens could try to show that Minnesota law interfered with their message “by requiring them to say something they otherwise would not.”

He distinguished antidiscrimination laws targeting conduct and only incidentally affecting speech, calling it “unquestionably” acceptable to require an employer to remove a “White Applicants Only” sign.

Circuit Judge Jane Kelly dissented, saying the majority’s approach could support treating customers differently based on sex, race, religion and disability.

“Nothing stops a business owner from using today’s decision to justify new forms of discrimination tomorrow,” she wrote. “In this country’s long and difficult journey to combat all forms of discrimination, the court’s ruling represents a major step backward.”

The case is Telescope Media Group et al v Lucero, 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 17-3352.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; editing by Jonathan Oatis and David Gregorio)

U.S. abortion rights groups sue over Missouri law

FILE PHOTO: Abortion rights advocates attend a rally after a judge granted a temporary restraining order on the closing of Missouri's sole remaining Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S. May 31, 2019. REUTERS/Lawrence Bryant

By Rich McKay

(Reuters) – Prominent U.S. abortion rights groups Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit late on Tuesday in an effort to stop a new Missouri law that bans almost all terminations of pregnancies after eight weeks.

The new law was signed by Republican Governor Mike Parson in May and is set to go into effect on Aug. 28.

The 31-page complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri contends that the legislation is unconstitutional. It asks for an injunction to stop the law from being enacted next month until the complaint is resolved.

“Without this relief, the bans will have a devastating effect on patients seeking access to abortion in the state,” lawyers wrote in the complaint.

The law is one of the most restrictive in the nation and activists contend it effectively forbids most abortions since many women do not know they are pregnant yet at eight weeks.

In a perennially divisive moral and political fight, similar laws have been proposed in more than a dozen other U.S. states as Republican-controlled legislatures flex their muscles.

Efforts to roll back Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion in 1973, have been emboldened by two appointments by President Donald Trump giving conservatives a solid majority on the court.

Neither representatives for the Missouri governor’s office, nor lawyers for the ACLU and Planned Parenthood, were immediately available for comment early Wednesday.

Parson said in May the new law would make Missouri “one of the strongest pro-life states in the country.”

The legislation allows for an abortion after the eighth week only in the case of medical emergencies, and provides no exceptions for victims or rape or incest.

Plaintiffs in the Missouri complaint said the law conflicts with more than four decades of binding precedent, would prohibit “the vast majority of pre-viability abortions”, and denied patients healthcare they were entitled to.

Planned Parenthood is engaged in separate litigation with the state to keep a St. Louis clinic open. If Missouri officials succeed in closing the clinic, it would become the only U.S. state without a legal abortion facility.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

Notre-Dame toxic fallout lawsuit turns heat on Paris authorities

FILE PHOTO: A view shows the damaged roof of Notre-Dame de Paris during restoration work, three months after a fire that devastated the cathedral in Paris, France, July 14, 2019. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer/File Photo

PARIS (Reuters) – An environmental protection group has filed a suit alleging lives were deliberately endangered after the fire that ravaged Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, saying authorities failed to protect people from lead that spewed into the area.

The April 15 inferno melted hundreds of tonnes of lead in the cathedral’s spire and roof. Unusually high levels of lead were later detected in the air and nearby buildings, including primary schools.

Campaign group Robin des Bois filed a lawsuit dated July 26 against unknown persons, alleging that authorities in Paris were aware the fire had dispersed large quantities of lead into the air and that lead is toxic.

Authorities failed to provide adequate warnings of potential lead poisoning to local residents, tourists and workers on the site before and after the blaze, the suit says.

The authorities’ actions meant there was exposure to toxic fallout and that “lives were deliberately endangered”, Robin des Bois said in its complaint, filed with the Paris prosecutor.

Paris City Hall declined to comment.

The prosecutor will next determine whether the complaint merits deeper investigation.

Health officials have said people living and working in the vicinity of the cathedral were kept informed of risks and safety measures. Nearby residents were advised to wipe down surfaces with a damp cloth.

In June, after unusually high lead levels were detected in a child, pregnant women and young children were invited to get tested for lead levels in their blood.

More than three months after the fire, the Paris prefect suspended restoration work on the cathedral on July 25 until more robust decontamination measures have been put in place. The same day, the mayor’s office temporarily closed a nursery and primary school that were hosting a holiday club for a “deep clean” after high lead levels were detected.

The cathedral’s spire and roof, which collapsed in the fire, contained more than 450 tonnes of lead.

(Reporting by Emilie Delwarde; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Frances Kerry)

‘Good old boy network’ dominates FBI academy, lawsuit claims

FILE PHOTO: FBI headquarters building in Washington, U.S., December 7, 2018. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas/File Photo

(Reuters) – Sixteen women filed a lawsuit against the FBI on Wednesday, claiming sexual discrimination and accusing it of running “a good old boy network” in its training program.

Male instructors exposed the former recruits to a hostile work environment, sexual harassment and inappropriate jokes, according to the lawsuit, which was filed in federal district court in Washington.

Seven of the women still work for the Federal Bureau of Investigation and some did not use their full names in the suit, fearing retaliation, according to a court filing.

According to the suit, the bureau’s instructors are mostly men and they penalized and dismissed female trainees at a significantly higher rate than male trainees.

Some of the litigants accused the instructors of making inappropriate jokes and making multiple sexual advances on at least one of the female trainees.

The lawsuit asked that the bureau review its training evaluation process, pay $300,000 to each of the women for emotional stress, and that it hire more female instructors.

The FBI said in a statement to the New York Times, which first reported the lawsuit, that it was “committed to fostering a work environment where all of our employees are valued and respected.”

A representative for the bureau could not be reached early on Thursday by Reuters.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Nick Macfie)