[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.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Mass. supreme court: MIT owed no duty in suicide case

Today the high court of Massachusetts held no duty, as a matter of law, in a wrongful death case of attenuated duty and causation in which the plaintiff sought to hold the Massachusetts Institute of Technology liable in negligence for a struggling student's suicide.  The court left the door open for proof of a special relationship on different facts.

Tort watchers and university counsel near and far have been awaiting the decision in Nguyen v. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, No. SJC-12329 (May 7, 2018).  The November 7 oral argument in the case is online here.
 
A university-student relationship is not completely outside the custodial scope that gives rise to a duty in tort law in K12, the court held; nor is it completely the same.  Rather, the court "must ... take into account a complex mix of competing considerations.  Students are adults but often young and vulnerable; their right to privacy and their desire for independence may conflict with their immaturity and need for protection."

With regard to a suicide risk, reasonable foreseeability is key to the special relationship/duty analysis.  Relevant factors include whether student reliance on the university impeded others who might have rendered aid, as might occur in a student-residential environment; and, from research by emerita Washington & Lee University Law School professor Ann MacLean Massie, the court quoting,

"degree of certainty of harm to the plaintiff; burden upon the defendant to take reasonable steps to prevent the injury; some kind of mutual dependence of plaintiff and defendant upon each other, frequently . . . involving financial benefit to the defendant arising from the relationship; moral blameworthiness of defendant's conduct in failing to act; and social policy considerations involved in placing the economic burden of the loss on the defendant."
In discussing the flexibility of this analysis, Judge Learned Hand's famous BPL test made an appearance (a test customarily directed to breach rather than duty), off-setting the gravity of a suicide by probability, and balancing the result against the burden on the university of employing effective preventive measures.  The court also emphasized the dispositive nature of actual knowledge: "Where a university has actual knowledge of a student's suicide attempt that occurred while enrolled at the university or recently before matriculation, or of a student's stated plans or intentions to commit suicide, the university has a duty to take reasonable measures under the circumstances to protect the student from self-harm."

In the instant case, "Nguyen never communicated by words or actions to any MIT employee that he had stated plans or intentions to commit suicide, and any prior suicide attempts occurred well over a year before matriculation."  He also strove to partition his mental health treatment from his academic life.

The court upheld summary judgment for the defendant on the tort claims as a matter of law.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Why do law profs lose their employment suits? Because most plaintiffs lose

An article about litigious law profs in the Albany Law Review by Nova Southeastern Law Professor Robert Jarvis is getting a lot of play in legal academic circles.  Jarvis did an astonishingly thorough and first-of-its-kind survey of cases in which law professors are plaintiffs suing over employment matters.  Here's how the ABA Journal (May 2018, at 15) summarized it:

Law professors often lose when they sue over employment matters such as not getting hired, tenure denials or pay disputes, according to an article by Robert Jarvis in the latest issue of the Albany Law Review. Jarvis, a professor at Nova Southeastern University’s Shepard Broad College of Law, wrote that three issues are at the root of these lawsuits: dissatisfaction with, and professional jealousy of, faculty colleagues; disagreements with, and distrust of, administrators; and feeling that others are receiving better, and undeserved, treatment. In what appears to be the first study of its kind, Jarvis also found that law professor suits are far more common in recent years.
Jarvis's work is quality, but commenters have read too much into his observations.  Eager to dine on the raw flesh of irony, stories such as Above the Law's have ripped lines from Jarvis, such as "many law professors are guilty of a shocking level of thin-skinnedness," to over-explain law profs' poor record in litigation.  First, Jarvis offered that as an observation, not an explanation.  Second, "many" does not mean even "most."  It's surely true of "many," but that hardly explains the litigation record.

Jarvis himself observed, "law professors generally do a poor job assessing their chances, for they lose much more often than they win."  That's just wrong--a non sequitur.  Any plaintiff in a civil action could be said to have assessed the situation poorly, simply because defendants usually win civil actions.  Yet plaintiffs keep suing.  So there must be other reasons to sue.  One reason to sue is that a plaintiff might hope to win a settlement, because a defendant wishes to avoid a public row or litigation transaction costs.  Another reason to sue is that a plaintiff has nothing to lose.  A lawsuit in a hopeless situation might yet stake out a public defense of integrity and leave a record to protect future employment prospects.

Importantly, whether a plaintiff wins in litigation or seeks to accomplish these ancillary aims says nothing definitive as to whether plaintiff was actually wronged.  Plenty of plaintiffs are wronged and lose.  Evidence controlled by defendants often cannot be marshaled sufficiently to make the plaintiff's case to the requisite standard.  Courts broadly defer to universities in the construction of tenure contracts, even though the universities draft them and they're not negotiable.  And all kinds of legal standards, such as sovereign immunity, and sometimes tort reforms, such as anti-SLAPP laws, protect defendants prophylactically. 

So why do law professors lose their cases?  Because all plaintiffs usually lose, for all sorts of reasons, some legitimate, some not.  In academics, universities dominate the employment bargain in a supply-rich market, so law professors, like anyone else, start from a disadvantage.  And law professors might be expected to turn up as plaintiffs more often than the average employee because the law professor correctly calculates that she or he has a better-than-average chance of beating the odds.

Full disclosure, my own once upon a case is mentioned, fairly and correctly, in a footnote in Jarvis's article, on the subject of reputational injury.  When I sued, I was most definitely accused of being thin-skinned--by people who had no idea what it was like to see one's career and livelihood pouring down the drain, and family suffering by association, upon defamatory falsehoods that spread like wildfire.  I could have not sued.  One colleague advised me to just wait five years and let the false allegations fade from memory.  Even if they would have faded, a dubious proposition, waiting would have meant career stasis for at least five years, maybe forever.

And had I not sued, despite the odds, and had the lawsuit as leverage, I never would have received the public letter of exoneration that I did.  My current employer asked to see that letter before I started a new job.  I don't know whether I count as a loss in Jarvis's statistics.  My lawsuit didn't win any money, and I dismissed it with prejudice.  But I don't think I lost.

Anyway, why law profs lose their cases is not what worries me the most about Jarvis's findings.  I'm far more concerned about his observation that lawsuits in legal academics are on the uptick.  This I believe to be the result of worsening employment conditions and the frustration of law faculty--me included--whom, in the troubled legal education market, universities increasingly expect to be vocational trainers and obedient serfs, rather than erudite educators and champions of intellectual freedom.  In examining the unusual incidence of law professor-employee plaintiffs, Jarvis is seeing just the tip of a nasty iceberg.