Law News Digest – Week of June 28, 2015

Law news digest

Friday, July 3

BP gets closure on oil spill by paying another $18B in fines: The 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was the worst offshore oil disaster in history, killing 11 workers and spilling millions of gallons of oil into the ocean and onto the shores of 5 states. BP has now paid dearly, almost $54 billion in total for its role in the deaths and the extensive property damage, and for its “gross negligence” under the Clean Water Act. While BP can essentially close this terrible chapter, as a country we are still dealing with the problems of offshore drilling, such as with the recent Santa Barbara oil spill.

If you call it a “service charge,” you better give it to service workers: Super fancy NYC restaurant Per Se had been charging a 20% service charge for private dining events, but did not give this money to the servers and other staff working the events, in violation of state labor laws. The restaurant has agreed to pay out $500k to workers to settle the claims.

Thursday, July 2

Unpaid internships are legal when related to interns’ education: That’s what a federal court said today. The issue of unpaid or underpaid (less than minimum wage) interns has been heating up in the past few years, particularly in the entertainment industry which relies heavily on interns. Most of the court rulings have come down against the employers, saying that they are essentially using interns as a way to avoid hiring employees. The court today said that it’s OK if an intern’s work benefits the company, but the internship should be designed primarily to further a young person’s knowledge in a particular field. Lawyers representing interns are confident that many internships are clearly violating this standard, involving mostly grunt work.

Wednesday, July 1

When does spanking a child become abuse? Massachusetts Supreme Court has an answer: A man in Massachusetts spanked (“tapped,” in his words) his almost 3 year old daughter in public for “talking back to him.” He was promptly arrested and convicted of assault and battery. The state’s highest court overturned the conviction and said parents may spank their children as long as it is used to promote the child’s welfare; and doesn’t cause severe emotional distress or physical harm beyond “fleeting pain or minor, transient marks.” Yet many studies find that any physical punishment is emotionally harmful over time, and actually isn’t effective in getting kids to behave. What do you think? Should spanking be legal or illegal?

Tuesday, June 30

Obama moves to make more workers eligible for overtime pay: Currently under federal law, employers must pay overtime to employees for working more than 40 hours per week, as long as they make less than $23,660 (white collar workers are exempt). That salary threshold was determined over 40 years ago, and today doesn’t cover many people. The Obama administration released a proposal today to increase that threshold to $50,440, which would cover almost 5 million workers. By law the administration can make this change without going through Congress (thankfully, otherwise it would never happen). It will likely take effect next year.

Texas law which would shut down more than half of its abortion clinics is put on hold: Thanks to the Supreme Court, women in Texas who want the option to get an abortion are breathing a bit easier today. A few years ago, Texas passed a law requiring abortion clinics to meet the high standards for hospitals that perform surgery. It is a restriction that most see as medically unnecessary and simply a way to make it harder for women to get an abortion. Because many clinics in Texas are not up to that standard, it would force more than half to shut down, requiring some women to drive over 500 miles to exercise their reproductive rights. The law was due to go into effect in just 2 days, but the Supreme Court has placed it on hold while it considers whether to take a case challenging the law on grounds that it is unconstitutional.

Monday, June 29

Common drug used in lethal injection NOT cruel & unusual: Have you heard about the botched executions of inmates in the past few years? It’s mostly because of a sedative drug that doesn’t fully make inmates unconscious during an execution, leaving them to experience intense pain from the other drugs that stop the heart and lungs. Lawyers for a few death row inmates sued to block the sedative, essentially arguing that lethal injection as a whole is “cruel and unusual punishment” in violation of the 8th amendment. The Supreme Court disagreed today, based on the argument that there is no less painful alternative available. (Except for, you know, NOT executing people)

EPA must consider costs when trying to clean up our air: That’s what the Supreme Court ruled today when it said the Environmental Protection Agency overstepped its authority in trying to limit air pollution from coal-fired power plants. The Clean Air Act allows the EPA to regulate power plants for toxic pollutants if the agency deems it “appropriate and necessary.” In a 5-4 decision, the Court said this language means that the EPA must consider the costs to power plants to comply with regulations, which coal producers say would be almost $10B per year. However, the EPA believes the benefits of cleaner air, including preventing 11,000 premature deaths each year, could amount to $90B per year. The Supreme Court said the EPA will have the chance to make its case in a lower court, and potentially save the regulation (and our lungs).

See last week’s Law News Digest.

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