[March 21, 2020] Sabbatical update: For obvious reasons, I am home, and not in Africa. Thanks to my wife who booked my return journey from Windhoek to Boston. Stay tuned for a return to normalcy. Meanwhile, #QuarantineLife.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Mass. SJC refuses worker-union privilege in civil discovery



The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court refused to find a worker-union evidentiary privilege in a civil lawsuit by an educator against her school, affirming the Superior Court.

Nancy Chadwick, a Massachusetts teacher at Duxbury High School and former president of the Duxbury Teachers Association, alleged bullying and harassment by a direct supervisor, leading to her dismissal.  She sued for discrimination and retaliation in December 2014.  At issue in discovery were 92 emails sought by the defendant and alleged by the plaintiff to be protected by a union-union member privilege.

The SJC, per Justice Hines, refused to recognize the privilege under Massachusetts labor law or in common law.  The Court recognized that labor statutes at both the state and federal level, the latter per National Labor Relations Board precedent, can privilege communication by union members.  But looking to the apparent intent of the legislature in Mass. Gen. L. ch. 150E, the Court reasoned that the scope of that privilege is the protection of collective bargaining rights, not the furtherance of a civil lawsuit.

In the common law analysis, the Court admonished that its power to recognize privilege under Evidence Rule 501 to be “exercised sparingly.”  The Court observed that the Supreme Court of Alaska recognized a broad privilege under state statute in 2012.  But that is the minority position.  New Hampshire declined to find a privilege in grand jury proceedings in 2007.  And a California appellate court opined in 2003 that the authority to create such a privilege should rest with the legislature.

The SJC agreed that “the Legislature may be in a better position to decide whether to create a privilege and, if so, to weigh the considerations involved in defining its contours.”  McCormick on Evidence (3d ed. 1984) was quoted in a parenthetical: “It may be argued that legitimate claims to confidentiality are more equitably received by a branch of government not preeminently concerned with the factual results obtained in litigation, and that the legislatures provide an appropriate forum for the balancing of the competing social values necessary to sound decisions concerning privilege.”  Moreover, the SJC found “speculative” any harm that might result to the plaintiff for the court’s refusal to recognize the privilege.

In a footnote, the SJC clarified that its decision did not diminish inherent judicial powers to award protective order, as under civil procedure rule 26(c).

The decision is significant in part because Massachusetts is regarded as a state (or commonwealth) friendly to organized labor.  The SJC decision asserts a conservative view of separated powers such as to interpret statute and to evolve the common law under rule 501.  The latter especially has implications for other potential common law privileges, such as the journalist’s privilege.  Also, because the decision arises in the context of public employment, the lack of union privilege may have implications for construction of sunshine laws that incorporate common law and “other law” confidentiality by reference.

The case is Chadwick v. Duxbury Public Schools, no. SJC-12054 (Oct. 4, 2016) (PDF).

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