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U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Baltimore County

United States District Court, D. Maryland

August 24, 2016

U.S. EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION, Plaintiff
v.
BALTIMORE COUNTY, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Richard D. Bennett United States District Judge

         In April of 1999 and January of 2000, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) issued Notices of Charge of Discrimination to Baltimore County on behalf of two Baltimore County correctional officers who alleged that Baltimore County's employee pension plan, and employee plan contribution rates, discriminated against them based on their ages. See EEOC v. Baltimore Cty., et al., 747 F.3d 267, 271 (4th Cir. 2014), cert. denied sub nom. Baltimore Cty. v. EEOC, 135 S.Ct. 436 (2014). The County timely denied these charges and provided the EEOC with all requested information, including its actuary's cost justification for the employee contribution rates. With no further inquiry from the EEOC, five and one half years passed until March of 2006 when the EEOC issued a notice that the County's pension plan violated the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (“ADEA”). Another year and one half passed before the EEOC brought this action against Baltimore County (“Defendant” or the “County”) in September of 2007, alleging violations of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (“ADEA”), as amended, 29 U.S.C. § 621, et seq. See generally Am. Compl., ECF No. 57. Specifically, the EEOC has alleged that “[since] at least January 1, 1996, [the] County has engaged in unlawful employment practices by requiring Wayne A. Lee, Richard J. Bosse, and a class of similarly situated [County employees at least forty years of age] to pay higher contributions than those paid by younger individuals to Defendant's pension plan, ” in violation of 29 U.S.C. §§ 623(a)(1) & (i)(1). Id. at ¶ 14.[1] Via Memorandum Opinion and Order dated October 17, 2012, Judge Benson E. Legg[2] of this Court “grant[ed] partial summary judgment in favor of the EEOC on the issue of liability.”[3] EEOC v. Baltimore Cty., No. L-07-2500, 2012 WL 5077631, at *1 (D. Md. Oct. 17, 2012). Judge Legg's ruling was subsequently affirmed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit and remanded “for further proceedings to address the issue of damages.” EEOC v. Baltimore Cty., et al., 747 F.3d 267, 274-75 (4th Cir. 2014).

         There is no dispute in this case that the Union Defendants have bargained for the County's pension plan contribution rates from the 1970s through the present and in fact “acquiesce[d]” to “or even support[ed]” those rates. Mem. Supp. EEOC Mot., p. 16, ECF No. 241-1. Additionally, as discussed infra, the parties and all six Union Defendants have approved a plan for the gradual equalization of contribution rates under the County's pension plan. The terms of that plan have since been incorporated into a Joint Consent Order Regarding Injunctive Relief, signed by this Court on April 26, 2016 (ECF No. 238).[4]However, the EEOC contends that both retroactive and prospective monetary damages are mandatory in this case and are still necessary to compensate older County employees for the excess contributions they have previously made to the County's discriminatory pension plan and will continue to make over the next two years as the pension plan's contribution rates are gradually equalized. The County argues that neither retroactive nor prospective monetary relief is mandatory and that neither form of relief is warranted in this case.

         Currently pending before this Court is the EEOC's Motion for Determination on Availability of Retroactive and Prospective Monetary Relief (ECF No. 241). The parties' submissions have been reviewed, and a hearing on the pending Motion was held before this Court on July 29, 2016. At that hearing, counsel for the EEOC acknowledged to this Court that the EEOC's delay of eight years in filing this action “trouble[d]” him. Hearing Tr., at M-72. This Court finds that the EEOC's eight-year delay in prosecuting this case and its present position on the issue of damages are more than “troubl[ing]” and are in fact untenable. Counsel for the County have represented that the County's retroactive liability alone could total $19 million. County Response, p. 24, ECF No. 243. The EEOC has conceded “that the amount of an award of monetary relief in this case could be substantial, that ‘[r]etroactive liability could be devastating for pension funds, ' and that the ‘harm would fall on innocent third parties, ' including county tax payers, as well as current and retired employees.” Mem. Supp. EEOC Mot., p. 20, ECF No. 241-1 (quoting City of Los Angeles, Dep't of Water & Power v. Manhart, 435 U.S. 702, 722-23 (1978)). For the reasons stated herein, the EEOC's Motion for Determination on Availability of Retroactive and Prospective Monetary Relief (ECF No. 241) is DENIED. Neither retroactive nor prospective monetary relief is mandatory under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”) and, under the circumstances of this case, neither form of relief is appropriate. Even if retroactive monetary relief were mandatory, a closer question than prospective relief, this Court would still decline to award retroactive relief in this case due to the EEOC's unreasonable delay in pursuing its claims. Accordingly, neither retroactive nor prospective monetary relief is available in this case.[5] As a result of the Joint Consent Order (ECF No. 238), there are no further issues in this case. After over seventeen years, this matter is now concluded.

         BACKGROUND

         The facts of this case are set forth fully in EEOC v. Baltimore Cty., 747 F.3d 267, 270 (4th Cir. 2014); EEOC v. Baltimore Cty., No. L-07-2500, 2012 WL 5077631, at *1 (D. Md. Oct. 17, 2012); and EEOC v. Baltimore Cty., 593 F.Supp.2d 797, 799 (D. Md. 2009).

         In 1945, Defendant Baltimore County (“Defendant” or the “County”) established a mandatory Employee Retirement System (the “pension plan” or “ERS”) for all “general” County employees, under which employees were eligible to retire and receive pension benefits at age 65, regardless of their length of employment. EEOC v. Baltimore Cty., 747 F.3d 267, 270 (4th Cir. 2014). The County planned to fund half of the ERS on its own and relied on employee contributions to fund the other half. Id. The County required employees to contribute to the ERS over the course of their employment at contribution rates calculated by the County's actuarial firm, Buck Consultants. Id.

         To ensure that employee contributions were sufficient to fund the Plan, Buck Consultants “based its calculations for employee contribution rates on the number of years that an employee would contribute to the plan before being eligible to retire at age 65.” Id. “Using the retirement age of 65, Buck ultimately concluded that older employees who enrolled in the plan should contribute a higher percentage of their salaries, because their contributions would earn interest for fewer years than the younger employees' contributions.” Id. The County adopted the Buck Consultants calculations and, accordingly, “the older that an employee was at the time of enrollment [in the ERS], the higher the rate that the employee was required to contribute.” Id.

         The County modified the terms of the ERS several times. Most notably, in 1973 “[t]he County . . . added an alternative term of retirement eligibility that permitted general employees to retire after 30 years of service irrespective of their age.”[6] Id. The County lowered the employee contribution rates once in 1977 “based on expected increases to the rate of return on invested contributions.” Id. at 271. However, “[t]his reduction did not alter the fact that rates were based on an employee's age at the time of plan enrollment and were higher for older employees.” Id.

         “In 1999 and 2000, two County correctional officers, Wayne A. Lee and Richard J. Bosse, Sr., aged 51 and 64, respectively, filed charges of discrimination with the EEOC alleging that the County's plan and disparate contribution rates discriminated against them based on their ages.” Id. The County has indicated that it “denied the charges and supplied EEOC with all the information it requested, including the cost justification from its actuary for the employee contribution rates.” County Response, p. 5, ECF No. 243 (citing Joint Appendix 321-403). However, “[a]fter an unexplained hiatus of 5 and ½ years, on March 6, 2006, the EEOC issued Determination Letters finding that the County's retirement system violated the ADEA.” Id. (citing Joint Appendix 72-75).

         The parties were unsuccessful in reaching a conciliation agreement, and the EEOC filed the present action in 2007-eight years after the first charge of discrimination was filed.[7] See generally Am. Compl., ECF No. 57. The EEOC has alleged that “[since] at least January 1, 1996, [the] County has engaged in unlawful employment practices by requiring Wayne A. Lee, Richard J. Bosse, and a class of similarly situated [County employees at least forty years of age] to pay higher contributions than those paid by younger individuals to Defendant's pension plan, ” in violation of 29 U.S.C. §§ 623(a)(1) & (i)(1). Id. at ¶ 14.

         On January 21, 2009, Judge Benson E. Legg[8] of this Court granted the County's Motion for Summary Judgment and ordered that this case be closed. See EEOC v. Baltimore Cty., et al., 593 F.Supp.2d 797 (D. Md. 2009). Judge Legg reasoned that “the ADEA does not prohibit employer actions when the motivating factor is something other than the employee's age.” Baltimore Cty., 593 F.Supp.2d at 800 (citing Hazen Paper Co. v. Biggins, 507 U.S. 604, 609 (1993)). Judge Legg concluded that the County's contribution rates did not violate the ADEA because they were “actually motivated not by age, but by the pension status-i.e. the number of years until retirement eligibility-of older new-hires.” Id. Furthermore, Judge Legg analogized the present case to the Supreme Court's decision in Kentucky Retirement Sys. v. EEOC, 554 U.S. 135 (2008), in which the Court held that “[w]here an employer adopts a pension plan that includes age as a factor, and that employer then treats employees differently based on pension status, a plaintiff, to state a disparate treatment claim under the ADEA, must adduce sufficient evidence to show that the differential treatment was ‘actually motivated' by age, not pension status.” Id. at 801. Judge Legg held that the factors underlying the Supreme Court's decision in Kentucky Retirement Systems “appl[ied] equally to the instant situation, ” and, accordingly, concluded that the County had not violated the ADEA. Id. at 802.

         The EEOC argued that the contribution scheme was invalid under the Supreme Court's decisions in Ariz. Governing Comm. v. Norris, 463 U.S. 1073 (1983) and Los Angeles Dep't of Water and Power v. Manhart, 435 U.S. 702 (1978), two Supreme Court cases invalidating retirement plans under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq., “that paid equal retirement benefits to men and women of the same age, seniority, and salary, but required female employees to make larger monthly contributions.”[9] Id. at 802. However, Judge Legg distinguished Manhart and Norris from the present case on the grounds that “those decisions involved situations where an employer facially discriminated against its employees on the basis of sex, a protected category.” Id.“In contrast, ” he concluded, “Baltimore County's system is based not on age-a protected category-but on the number of years an employee has until reaching retirement age.” Id.

         The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit subsequently vacated Judge Legg's ruling, holding that a genuine issue of material fact remained as to whether the County's “contribution rates [were] justified by permissible financial considerations.” EEOC v. Baltimore Cty., 385 F.App'x 322, 325 (4th Cir. 2010). The Court reasoned as follows:

[U]nder the express terms of the ERS, two new-hires with the same number of years until retirement age, and therefore the same time value of money, can be required to pay different contributions into the ERS. For example, if a twenty-year-old new-hire and a forty-year-old new-hire enroll in the ERS as correctional officers at the same time, they have the same number of years until retirement eligibility. However, the forty-year-old must contribute 5.57% of his annual salary while the twenty-year-old need only contribute 4.42%. This disparity is not justified by the time value of money because both employees contribute for the same twenty years.

         Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit remanded this case for further proceedings consistent with its opinion. Id. at 326. On remand, Judge Legg proceeded to grant partial summary judgment for the EEOC on the issue of liability. EEOC v. Baltimore Cty., No. L-07-2500, 2012 WL 5077631, at *1 (D. Md. Oct. 17, 2012). He characterized “[t]he problem identified by the Fourth Circuit” as “an unintended consequence, resulting from the interaction of two separate and independently lawful provisions of the County Code enacted decades apart.” Baltimore Cty., 2012 WL 5077631 at *3. Judge Legg observed the following:

It is clear from the record that the age-based contribution rates, when put in place in 1945 until modified in 1977, were fully justified by the time value of money rationale identified by this Court in its prior opinion. Using projected years until retirement, Buck calculated the percentage of an employee's pay that would be required to fund approximately one-half of his or her retirement benefit. Because all employees were eligible to retire at age 65, age served as a proxy for years until retirement. Thus, notwithstanding the fact that the ERS nominally based an employee's contribution rate on the age at which he or she was hired, years until retirement was the real determining factor. In 1973 the County, at no additional cost to employees, added a generous early retirement option based on years of service. Such a benefit is explicitly authorized by § 4(1) of the ADEA, which provides that no violation occurs solely because “a defined benefit plan . . . provides for . . . payments that constitute the subsidized portion of an early retirement benefit.” 29 U.S.C. § 623(1)(1)(A)(ii)(I). A secondary effect of this provision, however, was to decouple an employee's age from his or her years until retirement. Age of retirement is no longer yoked to chronological age because some employees take early retirement while others do not. Id.

         Judge Legg concluded that “after the County adopted the early retirement option, the different contribution rates charged to different employees are explained by age rather than pension status.” Id. at 5. Therefore, he reasoned, “[p]ension status . . . cannot be the driving factor behind the disparate treatment, which is directly linked to an employee's age.” Id. Judge Legg held that “because age [was] the ‘but-for' cause of the disparate treatment, the ERS violated the ADEA.” Id. (quoting Gross v. FBL Fin. Services, Inc., 557 U.S. 167, 177 (2009)). However, Judge Legg granted the County leave to file an interlocutory appeal on the issue of liability, concluding that “the question presented [was] a novel one, ” and that “the magnitude of the effort [related to the damages phase of the case] counsel[ed] in favor of making certain that the effort is necessary before it is undertaken.” Dec. 7, 2012 Letter Order, p. 4, ECF No. 206. The Fourth Circuit affirmed Judge Legg's ruling on appeal and remanded this case “for further proceedings to address the issue of damages.” EEOC v. Baltimore Cty., et al., 747 F.3d 267, 274-75 (4th Cir. 2014).

         The parties and all six unions (“Union Defendants”) representing the County employees participating in the ERS have since agreed to a Joint Consent Order (ECF No. 238), which includes a plan for equalization of pension plan contribution rates over the next two years. That Joint Consent Order, with respect to the injunctive portion of this case and the equalization of member contribution rates, has now been entered by this Court. However, the Order indicated that the “EEOC intend[ed] to seek retroactive monetary relief from the County for individuals harmed by the pension practice found to be unlawful by this Court, and also intend[ed] to seek prospective monetary relief from the County for employees who may be harmed by the phase-in of age-neutral contribution rates . . . .” Joint Consent Order, p. 6, ECF No. 238. This Court subsequently directed the parties to brief the “question of any damages to be awarded either retroactively or prospectively, ” and a hearing on that question was held before this Court on July 29, 2016. Letter Order, ECF No. 237.

         ANALYSIS

         I. A Retroactive Award of Compensation for Amounts Owing is Not Mandatory Under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”)

         The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) argues that this Court “must award retroactive relief to Wayne A. Lee, Richard J. Bosse, and the class of similarly situated aggrieved individuals.” Mem. Supp. EEOC Mot., p. 3, ECF No. 241-1. Specifically, the EEOC requests an award of “amounts owing, ” i.e. “the amounts of contributions of employees age 40 or over, who were required to participate in [Baltimore County's Early Retirement System (“ERS”)], in excess of the amounts they would have contributed if age were not a factor in employee contribution rates.”[10] Id. at 5.

         Section 626 of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”), the ADEA's enforcement provision, provides the following:

The provisions of this chapter shall be enforced in accordance with the powers, remedies, and procedures provided in sections 211(b), 216 (except for subsection (a) thereof), and 217 of this title, and subsection (c) of this section. Any act prohibited under section 623 of this title shall be deemed to be a prohibited act under section 215 of this title. Amounts owing to a person as a result of a violation of this chapter shall be deemed to be unpaid minimum wages or unpaid overtime compensation for purposes of sections 216 and 217 of this title: Provided, That liquidated damages shall be payable only in cases of willful violations of this chapter. In any action brought to enforce this chapter the court shall have jurisdiction to grant
such legal or equitable relief as may be appropriate to effectuate the purposes of this chapter, including without limitation judgments compelling employment, reinstatement or promotion, or enforcing the liability for amounts deemed to be unpaid minimum wages or unpaid overtime compensation under this section.

29 U.S.C. § 626(b). Additionally, Section 216 of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), incorporated into the ADEA's enforcement provision supra[11], provides the following:

Any employer who violates the provisions of section 206 or section 207 of this title shall be liable to the employee or employees affected in the amount of their unpaid minimum wages, or their unpaid overtime compensation, as the case may be, and in an additional equal amount as liquidated damages. Any employer who violates the provisions of section 215(a)(3) of this title shall be liable for such legal or equitable relief as may be appropriate to effectuate the purposes of section 215(a)(3) of this title, including without limitation employment, reinstatement, promotion, and the payment of wages lost and an additional equal amount as liquidated damages. 29 U.S.C. § 216(b).

         The EEOC contends that “[t]he [United States] Supreme Court has interpreted these provisions as depriving the courts of discretion in awarding compensation for monetary harm resulting from an ADEA violation.” Mem. Supp. EEOC Mot., p. 3, ECF No. 241-1. The EEOC relies primarily on Lorillard v. Pons, 434 U.S. 575 (1978), in which the Supreme Court held that “in a private action under the ADEA a trial by jury [is] available where sought by one of the parties.” Lorillard, 434 U.S. at 585. In reaching that conclusion, the Supreme Court in Lorrilard compared the plain language of the ADEA's enforcement provisions to the enforcement provisions of the FLSA, under which the “right to a jury trial in private actions” was “well established, ” and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq., “which petitioner [Lorillard] maintain[ed] d[id] not provide for jury trials.” Id. at 580-585. The Court ultimately concluded that “by directing that actions for lost wages under the ADEA be treated as actions for unpaid minimum wages or overtime compensation under the FLSA . . . Congress dictated that the jury trial right then available to enforce that FLSA liability would also be available in private actions under the ADEA.” Id. at 582-83. Additionally, the Court observed that “[t]he word ‘legal' is a term of art: [i]n cases in which legal relief is available and legal rights are determined, the Seventh Amendment provides a right to jury trial.” Id. at 583 (citing Curtis v. Loether, 415 U.S. 189, 195-96 (1974)). Accordingly, the Court inferred that “by providing specifically for ‘legal' relief” under the ADEA, “Congress . . . intended that there would be a jury trial on demand to ‘enforc[e] . . . liability for amounts deemed to be unpaid minimum wages or unpaid overtime compensation.' ” Id. (quoting 29 U.S.C. § 626(b)).

         The Supreme Court identified “significant differences” between “the remedial provisions” of Title VII and the ADEA. Id. at 584. While “Congress specifically provided for both ‘legal and equitable relief' in the ADEA, “legal” relief was “not authorize[d] . . . in so many words under Title VII.” Id. Additionally, the Court observed that “the ADEA incorporates the FLSA provision that employers ‘shall be liable' for amounts deemed unpaid minimum wages or overtime compensation, while under Title VII, the availability of backpay is a matter of equitable discretion.” Id. at 584. Finally, “rather than adopting the procedures of Title VII for ADEA actions, Congress rejected that course in favor of incorporating the FLSA procedures even while adopting Title VII's substantive prohibitions.” Id. at 584-85. Therefore, the Court concluded that “even if [Lorrilard] is correct that Congress did not intend there to be jury trials under Title VII, that fact sheds no light on congressional intent under the ADEA.” Id. at 585.

         The EEOC further contends that “[t]he Fourth Circuit has likewise ruled that monetary relief under the ADEA is a mandatory legal remedy.” Mem. Supp. EEOC Mot., p. 5, ECF No. 241-1. The EEOC cites Loveless v. John's Ford, Inc., 232 F.App'x 229, 239 (4th Cir. 2007) (unpublished) (per curiam) (concluding that “a liquidated damages award [w]as mandatory . . . where [the plaintiff was] a prevailing plaintiff relying on a jury finding of a willful violation of the ADEA by [his employer].”); Fariss v. Lynchburg Foundry, 769 F.2d 958, 964 (4th Cir. 1985) (“The ‘amounts owing' under the ADEA, § 626(b) [including ‘job-related benefits'] are legal damages, unlike the equitable remedies directing employment, reinstatement and promotion.”); and Sailor v. Hubbell, Inc., 4 F.3d 323, 325-26 (4th Cir. 1993) (“[A] back pay award given under the ADEA is a legal remedy.”).

         Contrary to the EEOC's representations, no court has held that a retroactive award of compensation for amounts owing is mandatory under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”)[12]. The Fourth Circuit in Loveless concluded only that liquidated damages[13] were mandatory “in th[at] case” because a jury had determined that the plaintiff, Loveless, was discharged “on the basis of his age” and that his employer's “conduct was a willful violation of the ADEA.” See Loveless, 232 F.App'x at 239-240 (emphasis added). “Liquidated damages are available under the ADEA in an amount equal to other damages where the employer is guilty of ‘willful violations.' ” Fariss v. Lynchburg Foundry, 769 F.2d 958, 967 (4th Cir. 1985) (quoting 29 U.S.C. § 626(b)). However, the Fourth Circuit in Loveless said nothing about whether those “other damages, ” including “back pay” or retroactive “amounts owing” are mandatory. At this Court's July 29, 2016 hearing, counsel for the EEOC posed the question, “[h]ow could liquidated damages be mandatory if back pay isn't?” Hearing Tr., at M-36. He argued that “[i]t doesn't make any sense logically for one to be mandatory and the other not to be, ” although he cited no authority in support of that position. Id. While the Fourth Circuit did address “amounts owing” and “back pay” in Fariss and Sailor, the Court concluded only that they were “legal, ” as opposed to “equitable, ” remedies. See Fariss, 769 F.2d at 964; Sailor, 4 F.3d at 325-26. Here, Defendant Baltimore County (“Defendant” or the “County”) does not contest that the retroactive monetary relief sought by the EEOC is a “legal” remedy. See Cty. Response, p. 3, ECF No. 243. Rather, the County argues that the ADEA's enforcement provisions plainly grant this Court discretion to award “ ‘such legal and equitable relief as may be appropriate.' ” Id. (quoting 29 U.S.C. § 626(b)) (emphasis added).[14]

         Likewise, the Supreme Court's decision in Lorrilard does not directly support the EEOC's position. The question before the Supreme Court in Lorrilard was whether a right to a jury trial existed in private actions brought under the ADEA, not whether any remedy available under the ADEA was or was not mandatory. See Lorrilard, 434 U.S. at 585. While the Court did contrast the ADEA's enforcement provisions with Title VII's enforcement provisions, under which “backpay is a matter of equitable discretion, ” the Court did not hold that a retroactive award of compensation for amounts owing is mandatory under the ADEA. See id. at 584. Additionally, the Court contrasted sections of the ADEA and FLSA, under which back pay is mandatory, observing the following:

[I[n enacting the ADEA, Congress exhibited both a detailed knowledge of the FLSA provisions and their judicial interpretation and a willingness to depart from those provisions regarded as undesirable or inappropriate for incorporation. For example, in construing the enforcement sections of the FLSA, the courts had consistently declared that injunctive relief was not available in suits by private individuals but only in suits by the Secretary. Powell v. Washington Post Co., 105 U.S.App.D.C. 374, 267 F.2d 651 (1959); Roberg v. Henry Phipps Estate, 156 F.2d 958, 963 (CA2 1946); Bowe v. Judson C. Burns, Inc., 137 F.2d 37 (CA3 1943). Congress made plain its decision to follow a different course in the ADEA by expressly permitting “such . . . equitable relief as may be appropriate to effectuate the purposes of [the ADEA] including without limitation judgments compelling employment, reinstatement or promotion” “in any action brought to enforce” the Act. § 7(b), 29 U.S.C. § 626(b) (emphasis added). Similarly, while incorporating into the ADEA the FLSA provisions authorizing awards of liquidated damages, Congress altered the circumstances under which such awards would be available in ADEA actions by mandating that such damages be awarded only where the violation of the ADEA is willful. Finally, Congress expressly declined to incorporate into the ADEA the criminal penalties established for violations of the FLSA.

Lorillard, 434 U.S. 575, 581-82 (1978). Furthermore, the Supreme Court specifically cited the language in the ADEA's enforcement provision that the County claims grants this court discretion to award retroactive relief: “[I]n any action brought to enforce this chapter the court shall have jurisdiction to grant such legal or equitable relief as may be appropriate to effectuate the purposes of this chapter.” Id. at 579, n. 5. The Supreme Court has ...


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