Monday, October 21, 2019

Whistleblowers call foul, Play the Game

Marcus Carmichael
(Chris Turner CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Whistleblowers are basking in an adoring limelight in the United States right now. They better enjoy it while it lasts, because the American taste for whistleblowing is fickle.

All the attention being paid to whistleblowing in Washington, you would think that whistleblowers are heroes of democratic liberty, Paul Reveres on midnight rides of revelation. Now there’s a second whistleblower, and maybe a third, and, why, people just can’t get in line fast enough to become whistleblowers.

I have to roll my eyes when I hear people waxing poetic over the great tradition of the American whistleblower. Catch those same people on a different day, different issue, or different side of the fence, and they’ll be lashing the whistleblower to the stake and setting their torches to the kindling like it’s the Spanish Inquisition. For much of American history, whistleblowing has been synonymous with disloyalty and treachery.

The Washington whistleblower caused WNYC’s On the Media to replay a 2015 segment in which Brooke Gladstone interviewed language writer Ben Zimmer and consumer protection advocate and civil rights crusader Ralph Nader. The early-20th-century word whistleblowing, Zimmer explained, comes from what it sounds like: a referee blowing the whistle to stop play in event of a penalty. (See Transparency International for the word’s translations, born of other cultural contexts.) No sooner did the word come about that it acquired a dark connotation. It meant, Gladstone said, “to snitch, to rat, to steal.” You can hear that usage, Zimmer pointed out, in the classic film On the Waterfront (1954), in reference to the enemies of organized labor. In this sense, Trump’s “spy” notion is not so far off the mark.



Nader was responsible for turning the word around in the 1970s. He pleaded for insiders to break ranks in his public safety crusade against Big Auto, and he repurposed the term whistleblowing with the positive spin of serving the greater good, despite disloyalty in the short term. So the word is not the thing. Gladstone nailed the salient distinction, which is whether the whistleblowing accords with one’s value judgments. Trump’s traitor is Pelosi’s star witness. Ed Snowden deserves either a presidential medal or an espionage prosecution. Even Upton Sinclair was a duplicitous meatpacking worker.

Blow the Whistle


Our ambivalence about whistleblowers finds expression in law. When we protect whistleblowers at law—common law usually does not—it’s usually a legislative reaction to something awful that happened, when we wonder why no one in the know said anything. While whistleblower protection statutes are prevalent in the United States at state and federal levels, they are often controversial, hardly comprehensive, and likely to pertain only to the public sector. Protection tends to be narrow and sectoral in scope; to depend upon abundant and variable technical prerequisites; and to offer scant shield from the full range of consequences, formal and informal, that the whistleblower faces. Woe to the would-be whistleblower who fails to hire a lawyer in advance to navigate the legal process. The Washington whistleblower was meticulous. The person either is a lawyer or consulted one.

Far from the glamorous escapades of the Hollywood Insider, the real-life whistleblower’s lot in life is lousy. More whistleblowers become infamous than famous, and most become no one significant at all. Typically whistleblowers find themselves, through no fault of their own, in a catch-22. Behind door number one, go with the flow, stay with the pack, look the other way, and sell out your principles. Behind door number two, stand on principle, and probably lose your job, your livelihood, your home, and your friends, alienate your family, and maybe put your life at risk.

To be fair, not all whistleblowers are motivated by altruism, and not all whistleblower motives are altruistic. Sometimes whistleblowers themselves are victims of the misconduct they are reporting. Sometimes they are grinding an unrelated ax against a perpetrator—which doesn’t make the perpetrator less an offender. Whistleblowers’ motives can be complicated. People are complicated. Altruism is a factor. Courage is a constant.

Play the Game


Last week, I had the extraordinary experience of meeting some whistleblowers in world sport. For me, it was the highlight of Play the Game, an initiative and biennial conference of the Danish Institute for Sports Studies, its first meeting outside Europe.  Play the Game aims to raise ethical standards and to promote democracy, transparency, and freedom of expression in world sport.

Whistleblowing in sport might not sound like a big deal, but it is. Consider that transnational sport governors such as the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) are among the most powerful non-governmental organizations in the world. Technically they are “nonprofits,” but no one says that with a straight face. Until recently, FIFA and IOC execs sashayed into the offices of presidents, prime ministers, governors, and mayors like they were Regina George’s mean girls on a tear at North Shore High. There were real costs to their shameless greed: global contrails of worthless constructions, impoverished populations, and broken dreams.

That started to change when FIFA and IOC were exposed as corrupt at their cores. Their corruption was exposed by whistleblowers.

Bonita Mersiades (Play the Game CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Bonita Mersiades was a top exec with the Australian Football Federation from 2007 to 2010, when she worked on Australia’s failed bids for the 2018 and 2022 FIFA World Cup tournaments. She blew the whistle on the extraordinary demands that FIFA placed on would-be hosts and her own country’s willingness to bend the public interest to conform. Those tournaments we know now were awarded to Russia and Qatar upon such rank corruption as resulted in a 2015 raid by U.S. and Swiss law enforcement and dozens of criminal indictments. Mersiades herself was outed when the investigative report of Assistant U.S. Attorney (now N.Y. Judge) Michael Garcia was made public.

At Play the Game, Mersiades described social ostracism in her community, loss of her career in sport administration, burglary of her home, and hacking and online harassment. She wrote about FIFA corruption and her experience in a 2018 book, Whatever It Takes: The Inside Story of the FIFA Way.

Yuliya and Vitaly Stepanov (Play the Game CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Also on the whistleblower panel (below in full) were Yuliya Stepanova and Vitaly Stepanov. Yuliya was a Russian Olympic runner, and Vitaly worked for the Russian anti-doping agency. Together they blew the whistle on Russian doping, breaking open a massive scandal that rocked Russia and the world, exposing not just systematic Russian doping but reckless, if not criminal, indifference in the World Anti-Doping Agency. With good reason, the Stepanovs feared for their lives.  They applied for Canadian asylum and now live in the United States (with their adorable little boy, also in attendance).


Vitaly told a spellbound audience that the stress of the couple’s situation had them on the verge of divorce when, at last, they took the leap into whistleblowing history together. They would have to leave homeland and family behind, and their lives would never be the same. But it was OK, he said, because “after that, … we were united.”

My dinner companions: Mersiades and Dr. Joel Carmichael,
chiropractor to U.S. Olympic athletes
When, over dinner, I lamented the state of patchwork American whistleblower protection law, Mersiades was quick to correct me. It’s much better than Australia, she said. [See UPDATE below.]  In the United States, we do have a somewhat vigorous qui tam field. (Read more at Troxel, Krauss, & Chapman.)  And the federal whistleblower law now at the heart of the impeachment inquiry is better than the yawning void of jeopardy into which FBI Special Agent Coleen Rowley stepped when she testified in the Senate on 9/11 failures in 2002. She retired from the FBI two and a half years later.

Mersiades book
Still, it seems to me that as a society, we should be able to do better still. When the dust settles around the peculiarly technically adept Washington whistleblower, we might ought wonder why whistleblowers aren’t all around us—at every level of government, and in the private sector. Did no one at Purdue Pharma know about aggressive opioid peddling? We should wonder why, in the land of the First Amendment, there are so many disincentives—legal, social, economic—for anyone to speak out as a citizen on a matter of urgent public interest.

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it,” Sinclair said in 1934. That’s why the rule of law must support the apostate who speaks the truth.

The documentary Icarus tells the Russian doping story.
Director Bryan Fogel also spoke on the whistleblowing panel (above) at Play the Game 2019.


For more from Play the Game 2019, see the conference website and the #ptg2019 Twitter feed.

[UPDATE, Oct. 21, at 10:50 a.m.: A testament to Mersiades's lament that Australian whistleblower protection lags behind democratic demands, witness today's remarkable protest action by Australian newspapers.] 

Friday, October 11, 2019

Law profs advise on law jobs

Just out from my friend, colleague, and fellow torts prof Andrew McClurg and co-authors, legal writing prof Christine Coughlin and torts prof Nancy Levit: Law Jobs: The Complete Career Guide.  Here is the publisher's description:

Choosing a legal career that fits a student’s personality, skillset, and aspirations is the most important and difficult decision a law student faces, yet only a small number of law schools incorporate career-planning into their curriculums. Law Jobs: The Complete Guide seeks to fill the gap. Written by three award-winning professors, Law Jobs is a comprehensive, reader-friendly guide to every type of legal career. Packed with authoritative research and featuring comments from more than 150 lawyers who do the jobs, Law Jobs offers in-depth exploration of each career option, including general background, pros and cons, day in the life descriptions, job availability, compensation, prospects for advancement, diversity, and how students can best position themselves for opportunities in the field. Covered jobs include:
  • Large and Medium-Sized Law Firms
  • Small Firms and Solo Practitioners
  • In-House and Other Corporate Counsel
  • Government Agency Lawyers
  • Non-Governmental Public Interest Law
  • Prosecutors and Public Defenders
  • Private Criminal Defense
  • JD Advantage Jobs
  • Contract (Freelance) Lawyering
  • Judges, Mediators, and Arbitrators
  • Judicial Law Clerks
  • Legal Academic Jobs
Other chapters address lawyer happiness, the rapidly changing face of the legal profession due to technology and other forces, the division between litigation and transactional law, and the top-50 legal specialty areas.

Together, the authors have received more than thirty awards for teaching and research, and have written extensively about law students and lawyers in books such as 1L of a Ride (McClurg), A Lawyer Writes (Coughlin), and The Happy Lawyer (Levit).

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Planet Money tackles litigation financing, champerty

One of my long-term favorite podcasts, Planet Money, last week tackled litigation financing.  We talk a lot in Torts in law school about America's runaway transaction costs and how they affect, or impede, civil justice.  Litigation financing can seem like manna from heaven when one thinks of tragedy-of-the-commons problems such as climate change.  But then there are the problems of corporatocracy, secrecy, and the distastefulness of commodification. Planet Money traces our distaste to champerty in British common law.  Here's the introduction:
Litigation financing allows third-party funders like Burford Capital to invest in other people's lawsuits, but it's long been considered unethical, and is illegal in many places.  But justice can often hinge more on how much money each side has than on what's actually right or wrong. So Burford argues that allowing investments in lawsuits will give more people access to better justice. And it's been a good business for them. But others worry it might warp the justice system.
Listen to "Capitalism in the Courtoom," episode 942, at NPR, here, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Honduran law dean joins UMass comparative law class

Speaking from UNITEC in Tegucigalpa, Dean Castro Valle explained how her 2018 English-language article on comparative tort law (featured) fit into her broader dissertation project on regional class actions for environmental justice in Central America.

UMass Law comparative law students asked about legal harmonization in Central America and asked Dean Castro Valle to assess the prospect of a supranational entity in the region, akin to the European Union, that might advance economic development. She said such a project has been in the works since the 1950s. Pointing to present discontent with President Ortega in Nicaragua, for example, she explained that not enough states have been stable and interested in pursuing the project at the same time. Meanwhile she and other legal scholars are working to harmonize civil codes and arbitration process to increase legal certainty sufficiently to attract investment from transnational business.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Info reg round-up: French feud, global injunction, foreign discovery, and literal grains of paradise

I've lately been swamped by developments in global information regulation.  Here's a round-up of highlights with links to read more.

Google-France feud.  Fresh on the heels of Google v. CNIL (read more), tensions are heating up again between Google and France, as Google refuses to play ball with France's new copyright law.  The 2019 EU Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market aimed, inter alia, to protect publishers from the scraping of their news product for aggregators' clips and snippets without compensation.  France was the first country, and only so far, to transpose the directive's article 15 (né draft article 11) into national law.  Effective this month, the French law would compel an aggregator such as Google to pay news publishers for the content that appears in Google search results.  How much money Google makes from Google News is disputed, but it's a lot.  Google contends that news providers are well compensated by traffic driven to their websites.  The news industry doesn't feel that way and blames aggregators for killing the business model of news, public interest journalism along with it.  Now Google has said that search results in France will exclude content that would require payment under the new copyright law.  The News Media Alliance, a U.S. industry association, has called Google's move "extortion."

Eva Glawischnig-Piesczek, Austrian Green
EU: Global injunction of one country's "defamation."  The European Union (EU) continues to amp up internet service provider (ISP) accountability.  A chamber of the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) ruled that European law—including EU information market directive, the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU, and the freedom of expression—does not preclude a member state from issuing a global injunction to take down unlawful content.

The facts reveal the problematic scope of the state power implicated, as the case arose from a Facebook post disparaging, e.g., "traitor," an Austrian politician.  The disparagement was regarded as defamation in the Austrian courts, but would be protected as core political commentary or hyperbolic opinion in the United States and many other countries.  The prospect of a state order with global reach was raised by the recent CJEU decision in Google v. CNILSlate's take took no prisoners: "In so ruling, the court demonstrated a shocking ignorance of the technology involved and set the stage for the most censor-prone country to set global speech rules."

The case is Glawischnig-Piesczek v. Facebook Ireland Ltd., No. C-18/18 (Oct. 3, 2019).

US: Extraterritorial discovery.  The Second Circuit meanwhile published an opinion that pushes outward against the territorial bounds of U.S. law.  The court ruled that statutory civil procedure under 28 U.S.C. § 1782 may reach records held outside the United States and is co-extensive in scope with the maximum long-arm personal jurisdiction of constitutional due process.

The case arose from Banco Santander's acquisition of Banco Popular Español (BPE) after a criminal investigation and government-forced sale of the latter.  Mexican nationals and investors opposing the acquisition sought discovery in the U.S. District Court in New York against Santander and its New York-based affiliate, Santander Investment Securities (SIS), under § 1782.  The law compels discovery against a person or legal entity that "resides or is found" in the U.S. jurisdiction.

Santander New York (© Google Earth)
The court rejected Santander's contention, supported by academic opinion, that the language could not reach a mere "sojourner" in the jurisdiction.  The court furthermore held that the presumption against extraterritoriality of statutory interpretation does not apply to a jurisdictional statute, and even if it did, the design of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, with which the statute fits, plainly and expressly encompasses extraterritorial reach.

However, the court held, only SIS, not Santander, was within the reach of long-arm personal jurisdiction.  SIS was subject to general jurisdiction, but was not meaningfully involved in the BPE acquisition.  Santander had hired New York consultants to contemplate an acquisition of BPE, which could subject Santander to specific jurisdiction, but that was an entirely different transaction, prior to the government-forced sale of BPE.

Though the case deals with conventional discovery, it has important implications for transnational business in the age of e-discovery.  Expansive U.S. discovery practice is incompatible with more restrictive norms in much of the world, Europe included.  Section 1782 is a potentially powerful tool for savvy litigants to get their hands on opponents' materials when foreign courts won't allow it.  That's bound to rub transnational business and foreign regulators the wrong way.

The case is In re Del Valle Ruiz, No. 18-3226 (2d Cir. Oct. 7, 2019).  Hat tip to New York attorney Ken Rashbaum, at Barton LLP, who telephonically visited my Comparative Law class and referenced the case, and will be writing more about it soon. 

Gin labeling and grains of paradise.  OK, this is more about misinformation than information, and it is globally important.  Law and gin, two great international cultural forces and loves of my life, come together in a recently filed lawsuit over grains of paradise.  You can't make up stuff this dry yet thirst-quenching.

Bombay Sapphire Bottle (by @Justintoxicate)
In a class-action complaint removed to the U.S. Southern District of Florida in mid-September, plaintiffs accuse Bacardi USA, maker of Bombay Sapphire Gin, and Winn-Dixie supermarkets of selling "adulterated" product, because Bombay gin contains a botanical literally called "grains of paradise."  According to the complaint, grains of paradise, scientific name Aframomum melegueta, "is an herbaceous perennial plant native to swampy habitats along the West African coast."  Turns out, it's illegal under Florida law, section 562.455.

The ABA Journal explained: "The 150-year-old Florida law was passed when people thought grains of paradise was a poisonous drug. The misconception likely arose when home distillers added other, dangerous ingredients to gin to 'mask the awful distilling and make more money,' according to Olivier Ward, a British gin expert and consultant who spoke with the Miami Herald."  Bacardi is not hiding anything and maintains that its products comply with all health and safety regulations.  The complaint itself states that grains of paradise are listed in the ingredients and actually etched on the gin's blue bottle.

The case is Marrache v. Bacardi, U.S.A., Inc., No. 1:19-cv-23856 (S.D. Fla. docketed Sept. 16, 2019).

Monday, September 30, 2019

Court refuses to dismiss Harvard in student-suicide suit

The Massachuetts Superior Court, per Judge Michael D. Ricciuti, denied Harvard University's motion to dismiss a negligence claim brought by the parent of a student, Luke Tang, who committed suicide on campus in 2015.  The case comes in the wake of a 2018 Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) decision refusing to allow the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to be held responsible for a student's suicide.

Luke Tang lived at Harvard's Lowell House.  (Photo by Carrie Anderson
CC BY-SA 2.0)
In the 2015 case, Nguyen v. MIT, discussed here, the SJC ruled that the university-student relationship does not support a duty in tort law akin to the custodial relationship between a parent and child, or custodian and dependent.  That ruling was consistent with historic and enduring common law norms, which hold that a person's intentional suicide, in some jurisdictions a crime, interrupts the chain of duty and causation that would link the death to any earlier-in-time carelessness.

However, the SJC left open the possibility that a university could be responsible for a suicide if the decedent had been in a "special relationship" with the defendant.  "Special relationship" is a term of art in tort law, referring to the very relationships in which public policy supports a person's expectation of care from another.

In the instant case, Tang v. Harvard College, plaintiff seeks to pin liability on Harvard and its employees through that very allowance for special relationships.  As reported by the Harvard Crimson last year, Tang was known to Harvard as a suicide risk.  Tang had been transported to a hospital after a suicide attempt freshman year.  When he returned to school, he signed an agreement with Harvard that he would stay in counseling with Harvard mental health staff.  Returning to school after the summer, though, Tang failed to keep his appointments, and the complaint alleges that Harvard failed to follow up.

Special relationships in tort law can be created when a medical professional undertakes care of a patient, or when any person voluntarily takes on the responsibility of caring for another, which can be signified by action or contract.  Tang's theory of special relationship resonates in those ways, considering the counseling function of Harvard staff and the agreement that Tang signed with Harvard.

Superior Court Justice Michael D. Ricciuti found sufficient basis to distinguish Nguyen.  Justice Ricciuti wrote, "Harvard's argument to dismiss this case reduces Nguyen to a check-box, and that once a university checks one of the three boxes—a protocol, or if there is none, clinical care, or if that is refused, reaching an emergency contact—its duty ends regardless of how well or poorly the university fulfils its duty. That interpretation cannot be correct."

Justice Ricciuti is himself a 1984 graduate of Harvard Law.  A native of Quincy, Massachusetts, he was in private practice and served as federal prosecutor before being confirmed to the bench.

The case is Tang v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, No. 18-2603 (Mass. Super. Ct. Sept. 9, 2019).  Hat tip @ Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly (pay wall).  Read more at The Harvard Crimson.  For a short time, I will park a copy of Justice Ricciuti's ruling here.

A documentary film about Luke Tang, Looking for Luke, seeks to raise awareness of mental health problems affecting young people.  Here is the trailer.


Sunday, September 29, 2019

Conn. adopts alternative liability in mill-fire suit against teen smokers

The Connecticut Supreme Court adopted alternative liability in a case seeking to hold three smoking teens responsible for a vacant-mill fire.  The case is Connecticut Interlocal Risk Management Agency v. Jackson, No. SC-19946 (Conn. Sept. 17, 2019).  Here are the facts from the court opinion:

At approximately 1 a.m. on June 2, 2012, the defendants, all of whom were teenagers at the time, entered an abandoned mill located in the town. Once inside, the defendants proceeded to explore the multistory structure while drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes. Each of them smoked approximately five cigarettes, and each discarded the cigarette butts by tossing them onto the wooden floor of the mill without extinguishing them.  The defendants left the mill at approximately 1:45 a.m.  By about 2:20 a.m., the property was engulfed in flames, and the Somers Fire Department had been dispatched to the scene. The fire destroyed both the mill and the sewage line.

Law students usually encounter “alternative liability” in the classic California case, Summers v. Tice, 199 P.2d 1 (Cal. 1948).  This multiple-liability concept allows a plaintiff to charge multiple defendants with responsibility for a wrong without establishing that any one of them was in fact responsible.  In other words, the doctrine engages a fiction as preferable to letting all defendants off the hook.

Beaver Creek quail hunting (Torrey Wiley CC BY 2.0)
In Summers, plaintiff was struck in the eye by shot as his two fellow hunters fired at quail.  It could not be determined to a preponderance of the evidence, i.e., more than 50% likelihood, which of the hunters actually fired the shot that struck the plaintiff.  But because both bore equal moral culpability under the circumstances, relative to the position of the plaintiff, it makes more sense to hold them both liable then to let both prevail.  A little shy of that result, technically, the actual effect of alternative liability is to shift the plaintiff’s burden to prove a defendant’s responsibility to a burden of each defendant to prove non-responsibility.

Alternative liability, as articulated in the Second Restatement of Torts and the Court (quoted here), pertains when: (1) “all of the defendants acted negligently and harm resulted,” (2) “all possible tortfeasors have been named as defendants,” and (3) “the tortfeasors’ negligent conduct was substantially simultaneous in time and of the same character so as to create the same risk of harm.”  Alternative liability is a lawyer-at-cocktail-party favorite, but few cases have facts that can measure up to this stringent test.

Alternative liability had ramifications in the later development of narrow but important product liability doctrines, in cases in which plaintiffs struggle to link a single manufacturer among many with a particular injurious product—think in terms of a dangerous pesticide containing a mix of chemical compounds, each purchased from various sellers.  Some extension of the doctrine has been controversial in the scholarship and ill received in the courts, insofar as product liability is strict, that is, not arising upon proof of any legal or moral fault by a defendant seller.  It can seem, then, that strict product liability effectively penalizes participation in the marketplace.  Add to that the fiction of alternative liability, and it can be just too much for the conscientious economic conservative.

HT @ TortsProf Blog.  Images, by Jim Michaud, from the 2012 mill fire: