High court takes 8 new cases, 1 about a religious mailman from Lancaster

Jessica Gresko and Mark Sherman
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court on Friday agreed to consider what employers must do to accommodate religious employees, among eight new cases it added.

The cases are expected to be argued in April. In one involving a former postal employee, the justices will consider what accommodations employers must make for religious employees. The case comes when religious plaintiffs have generally fared well at the court, which is dominated 6-3 by conservative justices.

Under a federal civil rights law, employers can't discriminate against employees because of their religion. The law says employees' religious practices have to be accommodated unless the employer can demonstrate doing so is an “undue hardship” to the business. The justices are being asked to reconsider a 1977 Supreme Court case that challengers say means lower courts almost always side with employers “whenever an accommodation would impose any burden.”

FILE - Members of the Supreme Court sit for a new group portrait following the addition of Associate Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, at the Supreme Court building in Washington, Oct. 7, 2022. Bottom row, from left, Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts, Associate Justice Samuel Alito, and Associate Justice Elena Kagan. Top row, from left, Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett, Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch, Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and Associate Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

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The case the justices agreed to hear involves Gerald Groff, a former postal worker in Pennsylvania. Groff, a Christian, said his religious beliefs required him to be off on Sundays. Initially his bosses were able to accommodate him but eventually that ended. Groff resigned and sued the post office. Two lower courts have ruled against him.

Lancaster Online reports Groff, who is from Quarryvillere, refused to work Sundays, citing the Fourth Commandment to “remember the Sabbath and keep it holy,” but the Postal Service said it couldn’t give him all Sundays off.

Among other cases the justices agreed to hear:

— The case of Billy Raymond Counterman, who was charged with stalking a Colorado musician on Facebook, sending her messages over the course of two years. Counterman argued his messages were protected speech but a court found them to be unprotected “true threats" and he was ultimately sentenced to more than four years in prison. An appeals court also ruled against him. The high court will consider what prosecutors must show to prove a statement is a “true threat.”

— The case of a 94-year-old Minnesota woman who fell behind in her property taxes, then had her home confiscated by local authorities.

Hennepin County sold Geraldine Tyler’s home for $40,000 as payment for approximately $15,000 in property taxes, penalties, interest and costs. But the county kept all the money.

Tyler’s lawyers say the practice, a version of which is used in roughly a dozen states, violates two constitutional provisions, barring excessive fines and taking property without fair payment.

— A case about reviving whistleblower lawsuits claiming that supermarket and pharmacy chains Supervalu Inc. and Safeway overcharged government health-care programs for prescription drugs by hundreds of millions of dollars.

The justices on Friday also agreed to hear appeals from the whistleblowers, who alleged that the companies defrauded the Medicare and Medicaid programs when they reported retail prices for generic prescription drugs, even though they had mainly been sold to customers at deeply discounted prices.

The cases stem from the companies’ effort to match a 2006 decision by Walmart to offer 30-day supplies of many generic drugs for $4.

Supervalu and Safeway matched the discounted price at their pharmacies, but they reported to the federal and various state governments a much higher “usual and customary” price when seeking reimbursement.

An expert for the whistleblower in the Safeway lawsuit testified that the company received $127 million more than it would have gotten had it reported the discounted price, according to court papers.

In the case against Supervalu, the whistleblower said the company matched Walmart’s discounted price 6.3 million times over 11 years, according to court papers.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed both cases, holding that the companies’ decisions to report the higher prices were “not objectively unreasonable.”

In urging the high court to reject the appeals, lawyers for Supervalu wrote that the correct price to report “may seem easy enough to determine in the abstract, but it is far from simple.”

The Biden administration is backing the whistleblowers.