Learn more about Peltz-Steele v. UMass Faculty Federation at Court Listener and the Liberty Justice Center. Please direct media inquiries to Kristen Williamson.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Legal scholars overlook scholarship about state FOIA, but dedicated academics toil for state transparency

Professor Robert Steinbuch and I aim to draw attention to the undersung work of state-law transparency  scholars through our recent publication in the Rutgers Law Record.  Here is the introductory paragraph.

We have read with interest Christina Koningisor’s publication, Transparency Deserts. While there is much to be lauded in the work – all access advocates would like to see more scholarship and publicity about the importance of transparency and accountability – we are disheartened by the article’s failure to recognize the extant vibrant body of scholarship and activism in state freedom of information law.

[¶] We, moreover, find this omission characteristic of a broader ignorance in legal academia of the sweat and toil of legal scholars, scholar-practitioners, and interdisciplinary academics who analyze and advocate for state transparency laws. This blind spot particularly manifests, unfortunately, among those at elite (typically coastal) law schools, who generally contribute vitally to the literature of the undoubtedly important federal transparency regime. These federal freedom-of-information scholars too often neglect the critical importance of state transparency laws – as well as state-transparency legal academics.

[¶] Quite in contrast, state-law access advocates generally acknowledge the value of federal statutory analogs, often referencing federal norms and practices comparatively, while, nonetheless, working upon the apt assumption that state access laws, en masse, have a greater day-to-day impact in improving Americans’ lives and in enhancing democratic accountability in America than does the federal Freedom of Information Act. Koningisor’s article evidences this disappointing tension. 

The publication is Transparency Blind Spot: A Response to Transparency Deserts, 48 Rutgers L. Rec. 1 (2020).  The publication is available for download from SSRN.  

Christina Koningisor, author of the referenced Transparency Deserts, kindly responded on the FOI listserv and gave me permission to share her thoughts.  Included is a link to her ongoing work.  Professor Steinbuch and I could not be happier to engage in a dialog that educates scholars and the public on the importance of state FOIA.

[T]hank you to Rick and Rob for taking the time to so thoughtfully respond to my piece. I sincerely appreciate it. And I take your points of criticism. The article certainly could have benefited from drawing more upon the excellent state-level scholarship that you cite in your response to my piece. I will also be sure, moving forward, to draw more heavily from the accomplished work being done by communications and journalism scholars. The point that I meant to make in my article, and which I should have stated more clearly, is that there is less overarching scholarship on public records laws across the fifty states. Of course, there are excellent state-by-state studies and critiques, some of which I cite in my piece, and many of which I do not, and which you have helpfully flagged in your response. But I was more interested in the work that has been done looking at the state of these laws as a whole. At this level, we can begin to make generalizations about what is working and what is not that are more difficult to observe when focusing solely on a single state. Rick and Rob's response seems to suggest that such surveys are inherently flawed, because they will inevitably be underinclusive and cannot possibly account for the variation across the fifty state legal regimes and the hundreds of thousands of state and local government entities. I agree—I explicitly make this point, and acknowledge the limitations of tackling such a diverse array of laws and government entities in my article's methodology section. But I believe it is nonetheless important to take stock of how these laws operate nationwide, so long as we are forthright and honest about the limitations of any fifty-state survey. I think there is value in and space in the literature for both state-by-state deep-dives and overarching cross-state examinations. Rick and Rob do highlight, in their appendix, some of the broader cross-state scholarship on state public records law that I failed to cite, most of which are published in communications and journalism journals. Again, I concede this point and agree that I should become more familiar with this interdisciplinary work.

I also want to note briefly that my Article reaches a somewhat more nuanced conclusion than transparency is simply worse at the state and local level. I do stress the significant advantages that many state public records laws have over FOIA, including the more rapid response times, the absence of a national security apparatus and classification process impeding access, and, often, the greater accessibility of state and local records officers, among other advantages. I also note that many of these state laws suffer drawbacks when compared to FOIA: many do not have easy and relatively cheap administrative-level appeal options, for example, and the costs of records production at the state and local level can often be prohibitive. Further, although there is no national security secrecy apparatus at the state and local level, it is often exceptionally difficult to obtain records from state and local law enforcement agencies. The piece was in fact inspired by my experiences working as a lawyer at The New York Times, where, in the process of assisting reporters with their federal, state, and local records requests across the country (not just in the coastal states!), I noticed that local police departments were often the most difficult agencies to obtain records from, in some ways even more secretive and difficult to work with than even the federal intelligence agencies. But more critically, the article emphasizes that when these state laws do fail—and I think we can all agree that they sometimes do—there are fewer alternative routes for information to come to light. These transparency failures are exacerbated by broader structural features of state and local government, including reduced external checks from local media and civil society organizations, and reduced intra-governmental checks between the various branches of government. This is of course not to say that every law fails in every instance, or that there aren't many excellent civil society organizations in many places doing critical work on government transparency and oversight. Of course there are abundant examples of such laudable advocacy efforts. But there are also many places across the country where local media institutions have disappeared, civil society organizations are in dire financial straits, and intra-governmental checks are muted. The nation's access laws are remarkably diverse, and contain myriad examples of both transparency failures and successes.

Once again, I very much appreciate these thoughtful and incisive responses to my piece, and I hope to continue this conversation moving forward. I have a new state transparency law-related article, [Secrecy Creep,] forthcoming in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review. It is still quite early in the editing process, so I would love to hear any feedback and suggestions ....

Sunday, October 25, 2020

'Right to repair' of Mass. Question 1 would close loophole, aid consumers; industry opposition misleads

Teen mechanic in Philippines, 2014
(Rojessa Tiamson-Saceda, USAID, via Pixnio CC0)
Massachusetts has a right-to-repair initiative (Question 1) on the ballot this Election Day.

Voter information explains: "Under the proposed law, manufacturers would not be allowed to require authorization before owners or repair facilities could access mechanical data stored in a motor vehicle’s on-board diagnostic system, except through an authorization process standardized across all makes and models and administered by an entity unaffiliated with the manufacturer."

Passing this initiative should be a no-brainer.  The provision is in fact only an update to an existing law that voters approved in 2012.  Extending the right to repair to "telematic" data, the new law would close a right-to-repair loophole, through which carmakers can shield vehicle data against access by transmitting data out from the vehicle to a proprietary server.  The only source of controversy here should be how we let corporations continuously try to exploit law and technology to evade accountability to consumers and line their pockets with monopolistic product strategies.

The initiative is opposed by the "Coalition for Safe and Secure Data."  The organization's tack is that if you vote yes on Question 1, you'll facilitate domestic violence, because vehicle information can be misused by violent ne'er-do-wells.  The threat is a repulsive red herring, especially considering that telematic data about consumers already are being relocated without subject sign-off.  The Coalition for Safe and Secure Data is not the sheep of consumer privacy advocacy it pretends to be, but a wolf of a trade group, funded to the tune of $25m by the motor vehicle industry to shut down Question 1, according to Commonwealth Magazine.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Shop Shatner and don't ask too many questions

William Shatner, 2016 (Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 2.0)
I'm a pretty big William Shatner fan.  James T. Kirk was my favorite TV captain in the 1970s.  TJ Hooker was my favorite TV cop in the 1980s.  And Denny Crane might have been one of my favorite TV lawyers in the 20aughts, except that Alan Shore already was, and you can't have two from the same show.

The occasional troubling this or that surfaced about Shatner's personal life.  There were stories about how nobody liked him.  But I persevered.  A lot of people don't like me, either.  And I'm perfectly delightful.

It's especially disconcerting, then, to have come across the bizarre bazaar called "the William Shatner Store."  An odd array of items is on offer, from Shatner's science fiction books, naturally, to a Star Trek The Original Series Mood Rock Light, reduced to half off at $40, to "Mr. Shatner's Broadcasting and Cable Hall of Fame Award," only $1,899.00.  

Items are nicely cross-referenced by various variables, including show, so I eagerly looked up Boston Legal.  There are only four items there, all props from the show, wall-hanging-like awards and certificates, such as "Judge Leslie Bishop Judicial Performance Review Certificate": framed and now marked down from $169.95 to a tantalizing $99.95.

I couldn't abolish from my mind the image of Denny Crane relieving a Hollywood law-office set of its miscellaneous detritus on the last day of filming, much like my kindergarten teacher let us take home the leftover Play-Doh at the end of the school year.

It would make me more comfortable to think that Shatner has no involvement in the management of the Shatner Store.  Maybe it's run by his grandkids, to make a buck, a contemporary Hollywood equivalent of a lemonade stand.  Or maybe it's a distressed plea, in the manner of a GoFundMe page, to raise money for the eldercare of an aging legend.  

Alas, those scenarios seem not to be the case.  The odd Sky headline that led me to the Shatner Store evidenced hands-on management by none other than the main man.

You would think we would learn to separate our favorite fictional characters from the people who play them.

My first-ever favorite TV lawyer, and maybe still my overall no. 1, was Samuel T. Cogley, who represented James T. Kirk and was played by the prolific Elisha Cook Jr. (1903-1995).  If you know anything about him that I would not want to know, please keep it to yourself.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Canadian privacy advocate deploys anti-SLAPP law in suit by electronic exam proctoring company

John Oliver's Big Coal SLAPP nemesis, Bob Murray, retires

Pixabay by Aksa2011
An IT specialist at a Canadian university is defending a lawsuit against a U.S. tech company over its allegations of copyright infringement and his allegations of infringement of student privacy.

Proctorio is an Arizona-based company offering online testing to academic institutions.  It's similar to ExamSoft, which is used by my law school, the Massachusetts Bar, and other academic and licensing organizations.

Needless to say, businesses in the mold of Proctorio and ExamSoft have taken off since the pandemic.  But these businesses are not without their problems, and their widespread use has brought unwanted scrutiny to their terms of service.

For example, the Electronic Frontier Foundation raised a red flag over ExamSoft in anticipation of its adoption to administer the California bar exam.  Examsoft's terms of service afford the company overbroad reach into the computers of users and, worse, collection of biometric data from studying their faces on screen.  My students have raised legitimate concerns about ExamSoft, and I will not be administering a "closed-book" final exam because I share those concerns.

UBC (GoToVan CC BY 2.0)

Related privacy worries motivated University of British Columbia learning technology specialist Ian Linkletter, MLIS, to tweet out the URLs of unlisted Proctorio instructional videos located at YouTube, meaning to make his case that the company is excessively intrusive of student privacy.  In response, the company sued Linkletter in British Columbia for copyright infringement and breach of confidence.

Now Linkletter has filed for dismissal under British Columbia's anti-SLAPP law.  Linkletter told the Vancouver Sun that fighting the lawsuit for just "more than a month has cost him and his wife tens out thousands of dollars."  Read more in Linkletter's public statement of October 16.

B.C.'s anti-SLAPP law was enacted unanimously by lawmakers in March 2019.  Oddly enough, B.C. lawmakers passed one of Canada's first anti-SLAPP laws in 2001, but quickly repealed it over doubts about its efficacy.  I wrote recently about the dark side of anti-SLAPP laws.  Never have I denied that they are sometimes deployed consistently with their laudable aims; rather, my concerns derive from their ready abuse when deployed against meritorious defamation and privacy causes.   

The case is Proctorio, Inc. v. Linkletter, Vancouver Reg. No. S-208730 (filed B.C. Sup. Ct. Sept. 20, 2020) (civil claim).

Bye, bye, Bob

[UPDATE, Oct. 27, 2020. To be clear, I wrote that sub-headline before this happened: "Coal giant Robert Murray passes away just days after announcing retirement" (Stephanie Grindley, WBOY, Oct. 25, 2020).]

In other, if distantly related, anti-SLAPP news, Bob Murray is resigning and retiring as board chairman of American Consolidated Natural Resource Holdings Inc., successor of Big Coal's Murray Energy.  It was a tangle with Murray that turned HBO comedian John Oliver into an anti-SLAPP champion.  And, I admit again, HBO's use of anti-SLAPP law was textbook and laudable after Murray brought a groundless suit against the network.

While I disagree with Oliver over anti-SLAPP, he's one of my favorite comedians and social activists, and definitely was the mic-drop-best live act I've ever seen.  Here are his key Murray Energy treatments from Last Week Tonight.

The first, June 18, 2017, drew Murray's lawsuit.

The second, November 10, 2019, followed up with a paean to anti-SLAPP, wrapping up with a musical tribute to Murray.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Opioids, coronavirus add up to dangerous interaction

pxfuel.com
Purdue Pharma will plead guilty to criminal charges in the marketing of OxyContin, the Justice Department (DOJ) announced yesterday.  Meanwhile, addiction and coronavirus are dangerously interrelated, Dr. Joseph Grillo warns.

DOJ settled with Purdue Pharma in civil and criminal investigations, and with Sackler family shareholders in civil investigation.  Purdue will admit that it conspired to defraud the United States by misleading and impeding enforcement by the Drug Enforcement Administration for almost 10 years.  Purdue also will admit to conspiring to violate the Federal Anti-Kickback Statute with inducements to doctors to prescribe opioids for almost eight years.  (Purdue Plea.)

On the civil side, Purdue will settle, without admission, allegations of false claims to federal healthcare programs, of improper inducements to prescribing doctors, and of improper contracts with fulfilling pharmacies.  The government will have an unsecured claim on $2.8bn in Purdue's bankruptcy.  (Purdue Settlement Agreement.)  Purdue shareholders in the Sackler family will pay $225m in settlement of allegations that they approved an intensified opioid marketing program.  (Sackler Settlement Agreement.)

The settlements do not resolve state claims.

Opioids have taken more than 450,000 American lives since 1999, The New York Times reported yesterday, citing CDC research.  COVID-19 deaths now exceed 220,000, according to the CDC.

In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic nudged the opioid epidemic out of the number one spot for enemy of public health.  But the two are hardly mutually exclusive.  Addiction, of all types, interacts with the threat of coronavirus in a mutually exacerbating feedback loop.  Joseph Grillo, M.D., J.D., and an alum of my torts class, raised a warning flag on his blog yesterday.

"Two great epidemics of our generation are intersecting in ways that are additively deadly, and which highlight the urgent ways we must respond to some of the underlying fault lines in our society that are worsening both crises," Dr. Grillo wrote.

Read more about substance use disorders (SUD) and coronavirus at A Pandemic Within a Pandemic, Joseph Grillo, M.D. Medical Legal Consulting, Oct. 21, 2020.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Plaintiff verdict upheld for IIED, hostile environment upon shocking attorney maltreatment of employee

The Massachusetts Appeals Court today upheld a verdict against a lawyer for shocking maltreatment of an employee.

mohamed_hassan (pixabay.com)
The employee, a Hispanic woman, was a clerical worker with responsibilities well into the paralegal vein.  She had worked in the attorney's office for about three years when she quit and sued for intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED), hostile-work-environment sexual harassment, and constructive discharge.  Finding the defendant attorney liable, the jury awarded $20,000 on the IIED claim, $20,000 on the sexual harassment claim, and $150,000 in punitive damages.

Collaterally, plaintiff's husband was found liable in assault, for which defendant was awarded $1,000, and was held responsible for illegal wiretapping.

The Appeals Court affirmed plaintiff's verdict.  Application of law in the case was routine.  The court upheld the verdict as against defendant's erroneous assertions (1) that worker's compensation superseded IIED; (2) that the jury had doubled up on its calculation of damages; (3) that the jury was misinstructed on punitive damages; (4) that evidence of defendant's losses was improperly excluded; (5) that the evidence failed to support the jury's findings of causation and damages; and (6) that plaintiff evidence not produced in discovery was admitted at trial without sufficient remediation.

None of that is why I comment on the case here.  Rather, I want to republish the court's recitation of the facts, because they constitute a shocking portrait of a workplace that no person should have to endure for one day, much less three years.  Please keep in mind that the defendant here is a member of the bar.  And be warned that this text is not suitable for kids. 

Viewing the evidence with respect to the counts of the plaintiff's complaint for which the defendant was found liable, in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the jury could have found as follows. The plaintiff was employed as a legal assistant at the law office of defendant, an attorney with a solo practice in Essex County. When she began working there in 2012, the plaintiff was the defendant's sole employee, but the defendant expanded his staff after hiring her.

The plaintiff's duties evolved over her years of working in the office, from answering the office telephones, handling the mail, and scheduling meetings, to working on interrogatories, doing legal research, and discussing client settlements. The plaintiff's desk was in the reception area of the office, across from the defendant's office. When the defendant was in the office, he worked directly with the plaintiff as her direct supervisor.

The plaintiff's complaint alleged, and the jury could have found, that over the course of several years the defendant made numerous comments and engaged in repeated behaviors that constituted tortious misconduct. This conduct occurred at the defendant's office, in the course of the plaintiff's employment. The defendant verbally attacked the plaintiff, calling her stupid and a moron. The plaintiff's coworkers testified that the defendant often belittled the plaintiff in the office, shouting uncontrollably at her and screaming in her face. When she tried to defend herself, he would yell at her to shut up and continue to scream at her. The defendant's screams could be heard even in offices on the floor above the defendant's office. When she was not present, and the defendant was angry with her, he would describe the plaintiff as a bitch, a slut, or a whore. He would also say she was crazy. There was a jar kept in the office into which the defendant would place money each time he called the plaintiff stupid.

Much of this misconduct related to the plaintiff's gender and race. The defendant told the plaintiff that men were intelligent while women were stupid; men were "superior" to women. He instructed the plaintiff to clean up after him in the office, including the mess left behind after his meals, because "that was women's work." The defendant also made comments about the plaintiff's and other female employees' appearances at work. He referred to one female employee as "Miss Dominican Republic." The defendant, at times without prior permission, photographed the plaintiff and her female coworker for the purpose of showing his friends "that I have nice girls here at the office." The plaintiff and another employee testified that the defendant would stand close behind the plaintiff while she was at her desk and look at her cleavage.  When she asked him to stop staring at her breasts, he responded that he could not help it and that she should wear other clothes to work. The plaintiff was also instructed to pick up condoms and lubricant for the defendant when she ran errands for him. The defendant would have the plaintiff go through his e-mails in the office, including pornographic advertisements; he once sent a pornographic e-mail to the plaintiff's daughter.

In explicit detail, the defendant would describe his sexual encounters to the plaintiff at the office.  The defendant described himself to the plaintiff as "always horny," asked her to comment on his girlfriend's breasts, and repeatedly described sex with his girlfriend to the plaintiff. He recounted a trip to the Dominican Republic in which he said his hotel room "came with [a] girl" and that "for $20 he got full service. Blow job and everything."  He described women in the Dominican Republic as "a bargain." He frequently bragged to the plaintiff of a trip to the Philippines in which he claimed he had sex with "cheap" young girls. When she asked him to stop, he ignored her or told her that she had to listen to this commentary because he paid her.

In speaking to the plaintiff, a Hispanic woman, the defendant made numerous racist remarks to her about African-American and Hispanic people. He would refer to his Hispanic clients as "drug dealers" and say that African-Americans were "stupid" and white people were superior. She testified that he used a number of racial slurs, referring to his Hispanic clients as "F-ing Spic[s]" and "calling [black] people n[word*]." When she asked him to stop making such comments, he disregarded her or told her to shut up and listen to him because he was her boss. The plaintiff testified that the defendant also made her sit with him and read his e-mails consisting of racist comments and "jokes" about black and Hispanic people. He often made fun of her accent and told her that her brown eyes were "dirty" compared to his "superior" blue eyes, which were "beautiful."

The plaintiff ultimately left the defendant's employ on October 22, 2015, after an incident with the defendant in the office. The defendant had been yelling at the plaintiff for failing to follow his instructions, and when she tried to explain what she had done, he repeatedly screamed at her to shut up. She informed the defendant that she was not feeling well and needed to go home, and the defendant told her, "Get the hell out of my office. Don't ever come back if you don't say sorry to me." The plaintiff left without the intention of returning, and her employment with the defendant ended.

....

After the plaintiff left the defendant's office, her husband went to the office himself to confront the defendant about his treatment of the plaintiff. After turning on his cell phone camera to record this encounter and placing the cell phone in his shirt pocket, the husband entered the office and moved toward the defendant, who was sitting at the front conference table talking on his cell phone. The husband sat down at the conference table near the defendant and told the defendant repeatedly to put his cell phone away.  The defendant and the plaintiff's husband began to argue at increasing volume about whether the defendant would put the cell phone away, and the husband told the defendant to listen to him. The defendant, feeling threatened, retreated to his office and closed the door, repeatedly telling the husband to leave. The husband opened the defendant's office door, and the defendant slammed it shut and called the police.

*All redactions in court opinion, except this one, which is mine.

These frightening facts embody the IIED rule of "utterly intolerable in a civilized society."  In our cancel culture, so replete with persons eager to be offended and to castigate their offenders with the force of law, we would be well advised to remember people who are truly and terribly victimized.  Watering down our civil rights law by giving eggshell plaintiffs ready access to administrative remedies, in disregard of the rights of respondents, is likely to result in over-corrective reforms that allow perpetrators of this despicable magnitude to escape accountability.

The case is Spagnuolo v. Holzberg, No. 19-P-778 (Mass. App. Ct. Oct. 21, 2020).  The opinion was authored by Justice Peter J. Rubin for a panel also comprising Justices Milkey and Massing.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Jarosiński to talk cloud law, from Europe to Zoom, in free transnational legal webinar series

Jarosiński
Wojciech Jarosiński, a friend and colleague, will speak in November on "The Cloud: A New Legal Frontier."  The talk is part of a free webinar series of the American Law Program (ALP) of the Columbus School of Law at The Catholic University of America (CUA) in Washington, D.C., and the law school, foreign program office, and American law student society at Jagiellonian University (UJ) in Kraków, Poland.

In just under a decade, armed with master's-in-law-degrees from UJ and CUA, attorney Jarosiński has risen to prominence as an accomplished attorney in transnational business.  Now a partner at the Maruta Wachta law firm in Warsaw, he heads the dispute resolution practice group, leading or supervising a portfolio of more than 200 technology cases valued at more than US$2bn.  At the same time, I know Wojtek to be a gifted and globally minded person.  In his spare time, he is a co-founder, expedition planner, and skipper for Vertical Shot Expeditions, a wilderness adventure company offering photography expeditions in remote locations from pole to pole.

Here is the description of the talk, which will be in English.

Until recently, the cloud was mainly storage for surplus holiday photos. Today, the cloud plays a vital role in commerce: allowing businesses to thrive in geographically distant markets, limiting operational costs, and enabling workplace flexibility for employees. These applications, though, bring sleepless nights for judges who try to apply existing law to a new reality.

This webinar will begin with a brief introduction to the cloud’s basics: where the cloud is located, what is stored there, and whether it is even possible to avoid the cloud in today’s business world. Then, the session will move to opportunities for lawyers to guide their clients through cloud regulations—highlighting the importance of legal education in cross-border legal concepts. Finally, the webinar will consider dispute resolution regarding cloud-based services. The webinar will consider Zoom, Apple Mail, Amazon Web Services, Oracle, and many other popular services, as well as the Court of Justice of the European Union Schrems II decision and the U.S. Cloud Act. 

The talk is scheduled for Tuesday, November 24, at 1 p.m. U.S. EST (6 p.m. GMT, 7 p.m. CET).  All of the talks in the series are free, but advance registration is required.  

Here is the full schedule.  [UPDATED, Oct. 22: All fall dates are now open for registration.]

  • OCTOBER 21 – Marc Liebscher, "Wirecard, Europe’s Enron? – Auditor Liability to Investors in Corporate Fraud"
  • OCTOBER 28 – Sarah H. Duggin, "Why Compliance Matters – The Increasing Significance of the Compliance and Ethics Function in Global Corporations"
  • NOVEMBER 19 – Roger Colinvaux, "Nonprofits in Crisis: Changes to Giving Rules and Politicization"
  • NOVEMBER 24 – Wojciech Jarosiński, "The Cloud – A New Legal Frontier"
  • DECEMBER 2 – Justyna Regan, "Data Privacy in the US: Where We Stand Today and Predictions for the Future"
  • DECEMBER 9 – Megan M. La Belle, "Artificial Intelligence and Intellectual Property"

I'm proud to claim Wojtek as an alum of one of my classes in 15 years' teaching in the CUA-UJ ALP, though I doubtless have naught to do with his success.  Regrettably, the ALP is not running live this year, because of the pandemic.  Lemonade from lemons, though, is the fascinating work being produced by the Law Against Pandemic project (CFP, CFP en español).  I was privileged meanwhile, in May, to offer an item on American tort law to the pilot iteration of the ALP webinar series.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Court: Irish officials must justify non-disclosure under FOIA exemption for commercial information

Ireland Supreme Court chamber (Michael Foley CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)
In two judgments in late September, the Supreme Court of Ireland ruled that Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) of 2014 exemption for confidential commercial information is not mandatory and that public entities relying on the exemption "must explain why the public interest does not justify release."

In both cases, public entities responding to record requests had been permitted to rely on the prima facie application of the exemption.  That approach fell short of the Irish FOIA's legislative command, the Supreme Court reasoned, because the record requesters were given no information with which to test the validity of the exemption.  The Supreme Court reversed and remanded.

Federal and state FOIAs in the United States also exempt from disclosure confidential information that private entities supply to government when disclosure would jeopardize the private entity's competitive position.  The exemptions operate also to shield public information from disclosure that would jeopardize the government's own competitive position as an actor in the private marketplace.

The U.S. FOIA does not, and state FOIAs typically do not, require that a public agency independently test confidential-information exemption against the public interest in disclosure, essentially second-guessing private owners' confidentiality designations.  To the contrary, legislative exemptions in some states are mandatory, and not, as U.S. FOIA exemptions are, committed to administrative discretion.  Current federal policy permits the disclosure of some statutorily exempt records, but the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) counsels agencies to engage in "full and deliberate" analysis of competing interests.  As to federal exemption 4, for confidential information, the DOJ has opined that such information "would not ordinarily be the subject of discretionary FOIA disclosure."

University College Cork, 2019 (Michael O'Sheil CC BY-SA 4.0)
However, unlike U.S. FOIA exemption 4 ("trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person and privileged or confidential," 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(4)), the Irish exemption for confidential information is limited by a "public interest override."  According to the Irish law, the exemption does not apply when according to the agency "head concerned, the public interest would, on balance, be better served by granting than by refusing to grant the FOI request."  Public interest overrides favoring disclosure are uncommon in U.S. access-to-information law, except in balancing analyses involving personnel records.

Journalist Gavin Sheridan, 2014 (Markus ›fin‹ Hametner CC BY 2.0)
Decided on September 25, 2020, both cases in Ireland involved journalistic investigations.  In Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources v. Information Commissioner, [2020] IESC 57, journalist, FOI advocate, and founding CEO of Vizlegal, a legal information service provider, Gavin Sheridan (recent profile at The Attic) sought access to a state contract with service wholesaler E-Nasc Éireann Teoranta (eNet) to provide public access to fibre-optic-cable infrastructure.  In University College Cork v. Information Commissioner, [2020] IESC 58, news broadcaster RTÉ sought information about a €100m loan by the European Investment Bank to the National University of Ireland, Cork.  Both court opinions were authored by Justice Marie Baker, herself a U. Cork alumna, with four other justices concurring.

More details and further analysis of the cases are available from Andrew McKeown BL at Irish Legal News (Sept. 28, 2020), and from Bébhinn Bollard, Doug McMahon, and Brendan Slattery at McCann FitzGerald (Oct. 12, 2020).

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Grand jury secrecy is important, but not sacred

pixy.org (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

[UPDATE: As I was writing this piece on Friday, the Kentucky court released audio of the grand jury proceedings.  Read more at your preferred news outlet.]

A fight is under way in Kentucky over a grand juror's bid to speak out about what happened in the room in September when the grand jury rejected indictment for the killing of Breonna Taylor.  The attorney for "Anonymous Grand Juror #1" accuses the Kentucky AG of not telling the public the whole story.

Most of the news coverage, and some of the scholarly commentary, follows up report of the meta-litigation with a declaration about the hallowed secrecy of the grand jury and the extraordinary nature of a bid to compromise that secrecy.

That characterization slightly misses the mark.  What is extraordinary, but not unprecedented, about the case is that the bid to speak is coming from a participating grand juror, rather than an outside petitioner, such as an indicted defendant, a victim, or a media intervenor.

We should be protective of grand jury secrecy.  The grand jury is one of the few areas of American law in which our absolutist-tending free speech doctrine makes some concession to the protection of reputation, mostly to the benefit of the unindicted.  

At the same time, we should refrain from heralding grand jury secrecy as incontestable and absolute.  The tradition of grand jury secrecy inverts the presumption underlying the common law right of access to the courts.  Ample common law precedent demonstrates that grand jury secrecy is only a presumption—rebuttable, by definition. 

In 1951, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania wrote ably on the issue while rejecting a defense bid to investigate the grand jury process that resulted in indictments for bribery.

In view of the large amount of literature that has been written concerning the origin and history of the Grand Jury as one of the administrative agencies of the criminal law employed for centuries throughout the Anglo-Saxon world it is wholly unnecessary to attempt to elaborate upon those themes. Likewise there is no need to stress the vital importance of the maintenance of secrecy in regard to the deliberations and proceedings of Grand Juries, for the policy of the law in that respect has been so long established that it is familiar to every student of the law. The form of the oath of secrecy to be exacted of grand jurors was prescribed in our own Commonwealth as early as the Frame of Government enacted by the Provincial Assembly in 1696, substantially the same as it had been set forth in 1681 .... Generally speaking, the rule is that grand jurors cannot be sworn and examined to impeach the validity and correctness of their finding if an indictment has been regularly returned.

[¶] It is true that some inroads have been made upon the rule of secrecy, with a resulting number of established exceptions. Thus a grand juror has been held to be a competent witness to prove who the prosecutor was .... Or to contradict the testimony of a witness as to what she testified to before the Grand Jury .... Or to testify that the indictment was based solely upon testimony heard by the Grand Jury in another case against another person .... 

As to whether the mandate of secrecy nevertheless permits disclosure by a grand juror concerning alleged improper acts or misconduct on the part of the prosecuting officer in the Grand Jury room there is considerable contrariety of opinion in the various jurisdictions, ... which naturally results from the fact that there are obviously valid reasons to support either view. 

[¶] On the one hand, to close the doors of the Grand Jury room so tightly that the actions of the prosecuting officer therein cannot be disclosed, however flagrant and unlawful his conduct may have been and however much it may have been responsible for the finding of a wholly unauthorized bill of indictment, would be unfair to the defendant thus indicted even though, if innocent, he could subsequently vindicate himself in a trial upon the merits; it would also permit an over-zealous official to use the power of his office and his influence with the grand jury as an instrument of oppression, with immunity from investigation. On the other hand, to allow such an investigation lightly to be had would afford an opportunity to every defendant to institute dilatory proceedings and divert the course of justice from himself to an attack upon the public officials charged with administering the law and thereby seek to make them the defendants in the proceedings instead of himself.

Commonwealth v. Judge Smart, 368 Pa. 630 (1951).

I don't know enough about the merits in the Kentucky case to opine on what the outcome should be.  The AG's memo is in circulation online, but I can't find the juror's initial petition.  I expect the court to make an informed decision that balances the just cause of secrecy with the also-just cause of accountability.  

If grand jury secrecy gives way, the sky isn't falling.

The case is Anonymous Grand Juror #1 v. Commonwealth of Kentucky, No. 20-CI-5721 (Jefferson, Mo., Cir. Ct. II Div. filed Sept. 2020).

[UPDATE, Oct. 21.]  Yesterday the court ruled that grand jurors may speak publicly.  This is the statement of Anonymous Grand Juror #1.


Saturday, October 17, 2020

Multi-ethnic kid crew fights bloodsucking gentrification

Are you in need of a Stranger Things fix? Season 4 resumed filming a couple of weeks ago.

In the meantime, Netflix's Vampires vs. the Bronx offers delightful diversion.

There have been black vampires and black horror films, but not so much vampire films with human protagonists of color.  Or many colors.  Enter Vampires vs. the Bronx, a welcome addition in the open vein of comedy-horror.

In Vampires, a quartet of talented youthful stars (Jaden Michael, Gerald Jones III, Gregory Diaz IV, and Coco Jones) are residents of a Bronx neighborhood resisting a clandestine vampire invasion.  The characters casually comprise kids of African-American, Haitian, Puerto Rican, and Dominican descent.  Their cultures are not conflated as we get glimpses of their home lives.

The film collects stars and boasts a few subtle send-ups to classic comedy and horror.  An opening cameo by Zoe Saldana is especially apt, as her heritage includes all of Dominican, Haitian, and Puerto Rican roots.  Cliff "Method Man" Smith plays the local priest, who doles out the Eucharist with a steely glare to his troublesome young congregants.  Bronx-native, Dominican-American comedian, Joel "The Kid Mero" Martinez drives the narrative as beloved bodega owner-operator Tony.   

Saturday Night Live actor-comedian Chris Redd and another Bronx-native, Dominican-American comedian, Vladimir Caamaño, get a few of the film's top comic lines as observers of the action in the tradition of Statler and Waldorf, or Jay and Silent Bob. Director Oz Rodriguez also directs Saturday Night Live and is a native of the Dominican Republic.

Vampires vs. The Bronx is built not so subtly on a storyline of urban gentrification.  The Scandinavian-blonde vampire brood seeks to seize local businesses and convert the likes of Tony's bodega to high-end retail and craft coffee.  The vampires are aided by their human familiar, Frank Polidori (Shea Wigham), who brings Italian-mob-style tough tactics to persuade property owners to sell.  Acquiring a building has the spooky side effect of allowing the vampires to enter without asking permission.  

The theme carries through as vampire leader Vivian (Sarah Gadon) stops by the bodega to peruse Tony's growing inventory of new-age super-foods and settles on a purchase of hummus.  If you can't have a sense of humor about cultural stereotypes, this isn't the film for you.

At the same time, don't expect pedantic messaging on race and gentrification to run too deep.  PG-13 Vampires vs. The Bronx means mainly to make fun.  At that, it succeeds.

Here is the trailer.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Time travel would warp tort law, attorney imagines

Austin Beast AB (Pixabay)
Tired of earthbound law constrained by the arrow of time?  Attorney, comedian, and comic book fan Adam J. Adler writes an enjoyable column on law for the aptly named Escapist online magazine.  Recently he tackled the implications of time travel in tort law.  Back in August, he considered transporter accident liability.


Time travel in a Groundhog Day-like scenario, Adler observes, would change the moral expectations of the objective reasonable person as he or she acquires additional knowledge about cause and effect through multiple iterations of the timeline.  In the end, Adler offers a theory on why we haven't yet met time travelers.  Check it out, and remember to suspend your disbelief and enjoy.

The article is Adam J. Adler, Time Travel Torts: How Law Gets Dicey When Dealing with Groundhog Day, The Escapist, Oct. 4, 2020.  

And speaking of time travel, Star Trek: Discovery season 3 premiered last night.  Here's the season trailer, if you can stand the excitement!


Thursday, October 15, 2020

Court: Family of elder-care resident may use rare 'bill for discovery' to investigate how broken foot occurred

In an unusual case last week, the Massachusetts Appeals Court allowed a "bill for discovery" to proceed despite its arguable incompatibility with rules of civil procedure.

Mary T. Atchue, an elderly resident in an assisted living facility in Worcester, Massachusetts, sustained a broken foot while being moved.  In an action maintained by her family since her death, Atchue filed a "complaint for discovery," based in equity.

The court held that the complaint could proceed, despite objection from defendant Benchmark Senior Living, LLC, that the claim would not be allowed by the state rule of civil procedure for pre-litigation discovery.  Discovery processes specified by statute and rule supersede the historic bill for discovery in equity insofar as they pertain, the court reasoned, but the bill remains available to supplement modern practice where it does not pertain.

The viability of a bill for discovery is dependent on the viability of the underlying potential claim in litigation, the court further held.  Atchue has a viable theory on tolling the statute of limitations, and her claims survive her death under the state survival statute.  So a bill for discovery remains available.

I don't usually dig into civil procedure cases, but this one caught my eye because of the unusual disposition in pre-litigation discovery.  I've written with approval about the use of the access to information law, or freedom of information act, in South Africa having been used as a pre-litigation discovery device, specifically, in fact, for a potential plaintiff to investigate the possibility of negligence in healthcare services.

Shaped by the experience of apartheid, the South African law, and comparable laws elsewhere in Africa modeled on it, allow access to information in the private sector when the complainant can demonstrate sufficient need grounded in civil rights.

The court vacated dismissal and remanded.

The case is Atchue v. Benchmark Senior Living LLC, No. 19-P-125 (Mass. App. Ct. Oct. 5, 2020).  Justice Vickie L. Henry wrote the opinion for a panel that also comprised Justices Rubin and Wolohojian.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Trump supporter vs. MSNBC's Joy Reid heats up for round 2, following reversal on free speech issues

It looks like the two-year-old defamation case by Trump supporter Roslyn La Liberte against MSNBC personality Joy Reid is about to heat up.

Racial Slurs and Other Not-So-Pleasantries

Eponymous host of MSNBC's ReidOut and "one of the few Black women to anchor a major American evening news program," Joy Reid has stirred up her share of schismatic controversy (e.g., "series of homophobic blog posts" (Glenn Greenwald), "casual Islamophobia" (Erik Wemple (pay wall))).  In June and July, on Twitter and Instagram, Reid called out MAGA-hat-bearing Roslyn La Liberte at a Simi Valley, California, City Council meeting (La Liberte at 4:17:45 to 4:19:57) for, as alleged in La Liberte's complaint, "yelling racial slurs at a minor," including that he would "'be the first deported ... dirty Mexican!,'" and "making ... racist statements and ... being racist."

A well circulated image of La Liberte and the 14-year-old boy at the council meeting, showing La Liberte mocking being choked but not actually talking to the boy, lent credence to Reid's characterization and its viral duplication.  Trolling responses came fast and furious in the Twittersphere and via email to La Liberte, the latter along the lines, "'You are a dirty white woman b***h,'" and "'I’m glad everyone in the entire world knows what a racist piece of s**t you are f**k you a*****e'" (asterisks in complaint).

However, La Liberte denied yelling racial slurs, and her story is backed up by the youth himself.  He described their exchange as "civil."  At least once during the meeting, a racial slur was directed at the boy, his mother said, but it wasn't uttered by La Liberte.  Cited in the complaint, Fox 11 L.A. untangled the story (June 29, 2018).

 

'Racist,' as a Matter of Fact

La Liberte sued Reid in the Eastern District of New York on a single count of defamation.  Alleging defamation per se, La Liberte in the complaint asserted, "Accusations of racist conduct are libelous on their face without resort to additional facts, and, as proven by this case, subject the accused to ridicule, hate, and embarrassment."

That point alone, on the merits, is interesting.  When I made a similar claim many years ago, colleagues and observers told me that an accusation of racism is opinion only, devoid of fact and incapable of defamatory meaning, even if one were asked to resign one's job as a result of the accusation.  Other colleagues, whose counsel I favor, disagreed and asserted that accusing an academic of racism is akin to accusing a youth coach of a child sex offense, in that the claim will persist indefinitely if one does not powerfully contest it.  Distinction between an individual's "racism," and "institutional" or "systemic" racism might complicate the legal analysis, but popular culture has pondered that distinction only recently.

Anti-SLAPP as the Sword of Goliath

A second compelling issue in the La Liberte case is the operation of anti-SLAPP law.  Anti-SLAPP laws, which vary in their particulars across the states, typically allow a defendant to attain fast dismissal of a lawsuit that is a "strategic lawsuit against public participation," that is, a lawsuit through which the plaintiff means to use tort law to suppress the defendant's exercise of civil rights, such as the freedoms of speech, assembly, and petition.  

That sounds good, but problems with anti-SLAPP law are legion.  One big problem is that American defamation law already tilts wildly in favor of defendants, a First Amendment prophylaxis gone corybantic, such that plaintiffs cannot usually get anywhere near the requisite burden of proof without the benefit of discovery.  Anti-SLAPP procedure allows the defendant to terminate the case before discovery can even happen.  

Joy Reid (Luke Harold CC0 1.0)
Designed in principle to protect, for paradigmatic example, a grassroots environmental campaign against the might of an unscrupulous real estate developer, anti-SLAPP in reality is more often deployed by the Goliaths of the latter ilk against Davidic pursuers.  Anti-SLAPP (ab)users include President Trump, Bill Cosby, and Big Media.  No wonder anti-SLAPP is the darling of the media defense bar.  The sad thing is that it's convinced the nonprofit media advocacy crowd to play along.

The proliferation of anti-SLAPP laws at the state level has generated a circuit split over what to do with them when a defamation case lands in federal court on diversity jurisdiction.  The analysis boils down to whether anti-SLAPP law is procedural, in which case it may not override federal rules, or substantive, in which case the federal court must apply the law of the state that governs the case.  The last couple of years have seen the emergence of a circuit split on the question, though the most recent precedents (2d, 5th, 11th, D.C. Circuits, contra 1st, 9th Circuits) point to the procedural conclusion, with which I agree.  

As a result, defamation cases that would have been smothered at birth in state court are given a chance to gasp for air in federal court.  Meanwhile, media advocates, including John Oliver—with whom I am loath to disagree, but he just doesn't get it—have been pushing hard for federal anti-SLAPP legislation.  A bill is pending in Congress, and with left-wing media advocates and right-wing mega-corporations on the same side, David's death blow might be but weeks away.

La Liberte arose amid this anti-SLAPP circuit split and was, in fact, the occasion on which the Second Circuit joined the recent majority trend.  The court reasoned that the California anti-SLAPP procedure, the defamation having occurred in California, is incompatible with Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12 and 56, governing motions to dismiss and for summary judgment.

Limited-Purpose Public Figures and the Involuntarily Infamous

La Liberte at the
City Council meeting
Also while the case rested with the Second Circuit, the court reversed the trial court on one more issue, the erroneous classification of La Liberte as a limited-purpose public figure.  That classification would compel La Liberte to prove the often fatal-in-fact fault standard "actual malice," that Reid knew her statements were false or was reckless with regard to their truth or falsity.  

La Liberte had not pleaded actual malice.  And, according to the court, her activism in speaking at city council meetings did not convert her from a private figure to a public figure.  La Liberte was never singled out in news coverage, the court observed, until after the alleged defamation catapulted her to public attention.  A defendant who is responsible for making a plaintiff infamous cannot thereafter escape liability by characterizing the plaintiff as a public figure.  

Incidentally, it's typically ironic that the media defendant here, Reid, purported to defend her free speech with the anti-SLAPP law while seeking to use the First Amendment-protected petitioning of the city council of the plaintiff, La Liberte, to defeat her effort to protect her reputation.

Enter 'the Lawyer for the Damned'

After remand to the Eastern District of New York, La Liberte terminated her representation by Wade, Grunberg & Wilson.  WG&W is a self-described "boutique firm" in Atlanta that boasts of a plaintiff's defamation practice, not a common thing, but maybe a growth area in our polarized post-truth society.  "The law of defamation is nuanced, peppered with landmines under the First Amendment, Anti-SLAPP Statutes, absolute immunities, and qualified privileges," WG&W writes on its website. "We know where those landmines are and, more importantly, how to navigate successfully around them."  WG&W notified the court of its withdrawal on September 28, 2020.

Wood, 2011 (Gage
Skidmore CC BY-SA 3.0)
The reason I suspect the case might now heat up, or at least jump on the express train to settlement town, is that on October 5, 2020, L. Lin Wood entered his appearance for the plaintiff.  Wood already had signed on some of the court papers, but he seems now to be stepping front and center.  Wood's breakthrough claim to fame was representing Richard Jewell, the man wrongly accused of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing against The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (there's a 2019 movie directed by Clint Eastwood).  His subsequent client list includes JonBenét Ramsey's parents, Gary Condit, Herman Cain, Elon Musk, and the Catholic high school student in the 2019 Lincoln Memorial confrontation, Nick Sandmann, as against The Washington Post.  Wood boasts that CBS news personality Dan Rather tagged him, "the lawyer for the damned."

The case is La Liberte v. Reid, No. 1:18-cv-05398 (E.D.N.Y. Sept. 30, 2019), reversed and remanded by No. 19-3574 (2d Cir. July 15, 2020).  I've not mentioned an ISP immunity issue in the case, on which the Second Circuit affirmed in favor of the plaintiff; read more by Eric Goldman (July 30, 2020).