Thursday, January 21, 2021

'Horace and Pete' captures American moment

In our fast-paced platinum age of TV, a show foregone is too often vanished in the void, maybe a gem to be unearthed by a future socio-archaeologist, maybe a treasure committed to eternity.  Subsisting with this embarrassing extravagance, I watch as much TV as humanly possible.  Last week, I wrestled a prize from the gravity of evanescence.

The Harvey Weinstein allegations splashed across the internet in 2017.  "Me Too" got a hashtag, and so many of our screen stars were plucked from reverence that it wasn't easy to keep track of who was on the outs and whom we still could watch.  Relative qualitative assessment of sin was not a lawful plea.  Hollywood was blanched in black and white, and the implicated were expeditiously expatriated.  Here, certainly, I'm not meaning to diminish #MeToo, nor to opine on the merits of any accused, but only to observe the outcome.

Comedian Louis CK was out.  He already had been grist for the rumor mill, and then ugly accusations surfaced.  King Louis was deposed before the curtain closed on 2017.  He had not been a favorite of mine anyway, so, to be honest, I barely noticed.

Edie Falco in 2009
So there were a lot of reasons why I, and a lot of people, missed Horace and Pete (short trailer below, from Hulu via YouTube).  CK created, wrote, directed, and starred in the series in 2016.  It was a 10-episode television drama, sort of.  Really it was an experimental web series.  It was experimental in how it was made, a budget crowd-sourcing operation that filmed, episode to episode, only as funding goals were reached.  CK sought both to pioneer a democratic model for making online TV and, with full transparency, to publish the model so that others could do it, too.  That business model didn't work out.  But A for aspiration.

The show also was experimental for what it was: a TV show, on a set, yes.  But through scene structure, stage direction, blocking, cuts (or lack thereof), and especially dialog, the show exudes the intimacy of a live stage play, and every viewer has the best seats.  Sometimes the actors make mistakes, let slip a sly smile, or trip over a line, but the camera carries on.  Longer episodes even have an "Intermission"—the word burns for a minute, white type on a black screen, suggesting that sets and costumes are changing behind the electronic curtain.  One is given the impression that crowd-sourcing doesn't swell the budget for endless takes and post-production wizardry.  The ultimate effect is to make the viewer feel like an insider in the conceit of the art.

And art it is.  CK stars as the eponymous Horace, owner of a rundown Brooklyn bar, Horace and Pete's, and its apartment above.  The bar survived the 20th century as the inheritance of generations of Horaces and Petes.  Now, a hundred years on, the bar, and the family, might have entered their coda.  The script bears ample evidence of CK's signature wit, droll style, and sardonic frown.  But the story is thoroughly a tragedy.  In the distinctively American tradition of Death of a Salesman, Horace and Pete is unrelenting with its occasions for despair, and yet, somehow, manages to illuminate the silver linings of family, loyalty, and love.

Alan Alda
CK the star might be the least compelling actor of the principal cast, and that seems to be exactly his plan.  The show is sumptuously star studded, and CK wrote for himself a central yet characteristically subdued role that serves to intensify others' shine.  As Horace's sister, Sylvia, Edie Falco does her most moving work since The Sopranos.  As present-generation Pete, the abundantly accomplished Steve Buscemi has done nothing else quite like this to date.

As the elder "Uncle Pete," the incomparable Alan Alda turns in a career-capstone performance, the omega to the broken-protagonist alpha of Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen, 33 years before.  Jessica Lange brings elegance to the dispirited surviving love interest of an elder Horace, and Aidy Bryant is incandescent as the aggravatingly unforgiving estranged daughter of CK's Horace.

The cast is rounded out with a stunning breadth of stand-up talents, often offering edgy and well-tuned comic relief, who take turns as bar flies.  The list is too long to give it its due, a who's who of contemporary American comedy.  So I'll mention only my favorites: Steven Wright and Kurt Metzger banter throughout the series.  Amy Sedaris, Michelle Wolf, and Colin Quinn get an episode each.  And there are cameos, too.  Mayor Bill de Blasio drops in the bar as himself, and magician David Blaine tries to trade a trick for a drink.

CK with a Peabody in 2013
(Photo by Anders Krusberg
/Peabody Awards CC BY 2.0)

Horace and Pete earned some critical acclaim before it dropped off the radar.  It won a Peabody Award in 2016 "[f]or a truly independent and groundbreaking demonstration of how quality television is expertly done in the new media environment, all the while building upon decades of artistry and craft."  And then there was 2017.

The show might be rising the recommendation ranks at Hulu now because CK spent 2020 at hard labor on the rehabilitation road.  Again, I'm not opining on the appropriate consequences for, or redemption eligibility of, a #MeToo offender.

The fact that I cannot escape is that too many people gave too much and worked too hard on Horace and Pete, and the sum of what they made is too valuable, to write it off.  Label it with whatever disclaimers one must, #MeToo and financial failure.  Amid our transition from broadcast frequencies to the electronic multiverse, Horace and Pete nevertheless represents a pivotal moment in cultural creation and a searing snapshot of the American condition.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Divided court allows employee firing for exercising statutory right to supplement personnel record

Pixy.org CC BY-NC-ND 4.0
An at-will employee may be fired for rebutting an adverse employment action, the Massachusetts Appeals Court held today, despite a state law that specifically empowers employees to add rebuttals to their personnel records.  The decision drew a vigorous dissent from two of the five justices on the rehearing panel.

As my 1L students tire of hearing, we read cases in law school (in the common law tradition) for one of a number of purposes.  For any given lesson, it's important to know which our purpose is, especially when it is demonstrate the rule by counterexample.  To teach wrongful termination, I have used a federal case, applying Massachusetts law, in which the court is much more generous to the at-will claimant than a state high court typically is.  But today's case proved only the norm.

The instant plaintiff found no relief from the usual rule that, as the Appeals Court quoted precedent, "employment at will can be terminated for any reason or for no reason."  Massachusetts admits of narrow exception to the rule for "well-defined public policy," "preferably embodied in a textual law source."  Think firing a model for taking maternity leave, a claim that resonates with dimensions of both statutory entitlement and civil rights.  Yet even while the plaintiff here pointed to a specific statutory entitlement, the Appeals Court rejected his claim.

Plaintiff Terence Meehan, an employee discharged by defendant Medical Information Technology, Inc. (Meditech), availed of a Massachusetts statute that generously empowers an employee to rebut in writing negative information placed into the employee's personnel file.  The purpose behind the statute is to build a record so that a public authority, such as the state anti-discrimination commission, can better investigate any later legal claim of improper adverse action.  But the procedural mechanism of the statute, merely allowing the employee to rebut the record, does not itself articulate a basis in public policy to resist termination, the court held.

Meehan's rebuttal was not in the appellate record, the court wrote in a footnote.  From its absence, one might infer that it was not predicated on a what the court would regard as worthy public policy.  An employer's "internal administration, policy, functioning, and other matters of an organization cannot be the basis for a public policy exception," the Supreme Judicial Court held previously.  "If it were otherwise, our courts would become super personnel departments," the Appeals Court reasoned.

Justice Meade
Mass.gov
It would be hard to conclude that the court's ruling is other than consistent with common law norms.  Many a state court has never seen a wrongful termination claim it liked, at least in the context of at-will employment.  And the notion of utterly "at will" conforms to the American norm of freedom to contract.

At the same time, the ruling seems to undermine the statute.  As a practical matter, an employer asserts many reasons for an adverse personnel action, and an employee's rebuttal answers in kind.  The rebuttal itself is then a viable predicate for termination—"not a team player"—even when the employee alleges, inter alia, an actionable wrong, such as discrimination.  The employee may then complain of discrimination vis-à-vis the precipitating adverse action.  But the employee had that option anyway.  There is nothing to be gained, and everything to be lost, by using the rebuttal statute as a resolution procedure.

Justice Henry
Mass.gov

That was the thrust of the dissent.  "Only the credulous and fools would exercise this right henceforth," Justice Henry wrote of the rebuttal statute.

Meditech admitted that it terminated Meehan solely for writing the rebuttal, something he had a statutory right to do.  Dispute resolution is among the purposes of the statute, Justice Henry reasoned, possibly sparing the Commonwealth an unemployment insurance claim.  At minimum, the personnel record, which might be reviewed by a prospective second employer, is complete with both sides of the story.  Meditech has no apparent, legitimate interest, Justice Henry observed, merely in disallowing rebuttal under the statute.

The dissent concluded:

The result the majority reaches renders the statutory right useless and illusory, and empowers employers to punish employees for doing exactly what the Legislature authorized them to do. Countenancing such a result is wholly inconsistent with a just—or even a sane—employment policy. The majority essentially casts the Legislature as a trickster, creating a trap for unwitting employees that employers now may spring.

The case is Meehan v. Medical Information Technology, Inc., No. 19-P-1412 (Jan. 20, 2021).  Justice William J. Meade wrote the majority opinion, which Chief Justice Green and Justice Vuono joined.  Justice Meade was an appellate attorney in the attorney general's office in the 1990s and deputy chief legal counsel to Governor Mitt Romney in the 20-aughts before going on the bench, and he teaches appellate practice at Suffolk Law School.  

Justice Vickie L. Henry wrote the dissent, which Justice Rubin joined.  Justice Henry was a commercial litigator in intellectual property, product liability, and other matters for more than a decade, and then a senior staff attorney for Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders before her appointment to the bench.  The case was reheard after the initial panel divided 2-1.  The addition of two judges apparently only added a vote for each corner.

Comparative law talks look to Biden Administration, covid-19 aftermath, EU market, juvenile justice

The winter-spring lecture series, "Contemporary Challenges in Global and American Law," from the Faculty of Law and Administration at Jagiellonian University (JU) in Kraków, Poland, and the Columbus School of Law at the Catholic University of America (CUA) in Washington, D.C., is free and already under way.

The series promises an exciting lineup, continuing from six lectures in fall 2020, all of which may be viewed online.  This semester's offerings kicked off last week, January 13, with London-Milan lawyer Vincenzo Senatore talking about covid-19 as force majeure in contract law, and comparing common law and civil law approaches.

One week from today, January 27, Professor Geoffrey P. Watson, director of the Comparative and International Law Institute at CUA, will talk on "International Law and the New Biden Administration."  Free registration is now open.

Stryjniak
Here's the line-up for February and March.  Watch the website for more in April and May.  Free registration is required for contemporaneous participation.

  • February 10 - Katarzyna Stryjniak, "EU and US Budget-Making: Process, Politics, and Policy in a COVID-Challenged World" 
  • February 24 - Heidi Mandanis Schooner, "How Well Did the Post-2008 Financial Crisis Regime Prepare the World for the COVID-19 Pandemic?"
  • March 2 - Cara H. Drinan, "The War on Kids: Progress and the Path Forward on Juvenile Justice"
  • March 24 - Gaspar Kot, "Sustainable Investment – The New Heart of EU Financial Market Regulation"

The lecture series grew out of a summer 2020 pilot program in which I was privileged to participate, and it's been a welcome way, during the pandemic, to connect with colleagues in Europe and take pride in former students.  Now a legal and policy officer with the European Commission, Kasia Stryjniak is a graduate of JU and CUA master's programs.  Gaspar Kot is near completion of the Ph.D. at JU, holds an LL.M. from CUA, coordinates the LL.M. program at JU, and was my co-author on a recent book chapter.

In memoriam: Cassandra M. Langtry, JD class of '23

I'm saddened to share news of the passing of Cassie Langtry, a law student in my fall 2019 Torts I class, on January 15.   

An obituary recounting a full and generous life is posted at the Luzerne, Pennsylvania, funeral home, along with tributes and memories from friends and loved ones, including her law school classmates.  I knew of Cassie's affection for dogs, and the obituary remembers her love for her Comet and Scout.  She also liked reading and kayaking, so our hobbies overlapped quite a bit.  I did not know of her devotion to faith, but I am not surprised to learn that she served with World Challenge in Ecuador and instructed youth at her church in West Harwich, Massachusetts.  

In lieu of flowers or gifts to honor and remember Cassie, donations are sought for the Best Friends Animal Society, an organization dedicated to the protection and rescue of animals.

Cassie passed on the same day as a death in my family, of Gloria Buzi.  Gloria was a generous soul who relished retirement on Maryland's eastern shore.  A great many years of age separated Gloria from 24-year-old Cassie.  The difference might tempt one to a bitterness over lost potential, but I think it rather an occasion to recognize the distinctive gift and ultimately unknowable reverberations of every life.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Class labor action fails on appeal, but highlights persistent failure to afford living wage for U.S. workers

Boston, Mass. (from Pixabay by StockSnap, licensed)
Notwithstanding its failure, a class labor action dismissed by the Massachusetts Appeals Court highlights the persistent legal norms that keep U.S. workers under compensated.

Siew-Mey Tam worked as a property manager for Federal Management Co. (FMC) in Boston, managing Mason Place, a 127-unit, subsidized-housing community in the heart of the city.  Dissatisfied with her terms of employment, Tam became the lead plaintiff in a class action accusing FMC of violating wage-and-hour laws.  The class was certified in 2015.

Among the issues in the case was FMC's classification of Tam and others as exempt administrative employees.  A company's ability to exploit so-called "salaried" workers with responsibilities that defy the number of work hours in the week facilitates subversion of already paltry U.S. minimum wages and evasion of overtime pay.  This is another in a genus of "misclassification" problems that form our bleak landscape of employment rights and was part of the back-and-forth tug of regulatory might in the Obama and Trump administrations.

In 2016, the threshold for overtime exemption under Department of Labor regulations pursuant to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) was $455 per week, or $23,660 per year.  For comparison, the intransigent federal minimum wage is, and has been since 2009, $7.25 per hour, or up to $15,080 per year.  The Massachusetts minimum wage in 2016 was $10 per hour, or up to $20,800 per year.  Having been unable to push a federal minimum-wage hike through Congress, the Obama Administration announced a doubling of the exemption threshold, to be effective December 1, 2016, from $455 per week, to $913 per week, or $47,476 per year, with automatic upward adjustments to follow beginning in 2020.

From the Economic Policy Institute
But that increase never happened.  A Texas judge blocked the regulations in November 2016 (N.Y. Times), and the Trump Administration in 2017 junked the upgrade.  The threshold remained at $455 for three more years, until the Trump Administration promulgated a more modest increase to $684 per week, or $35,568 per year, which took effect in 2020.  While the federal minimum wage remains at $7.25, the Massachusetts minimum wage has crept upward, in 2021 to $14.00 per hour, or up to $29,120, on its way to a living wage.

In the instant case, according to the court, "[i]t was uncontested that Tam worked more than 40 hours per week but generally was not paid overtime. Instead, the dispute was whether the nature of Tam's job meant that she was an exempt administrative employee to whom overtime pay was not due."  FMC maintained that in addition to a base salary in excess of the $455 threshold, Tam's "primary duty include[d] the exercise of discretion and independent judgment with respect to matters of significance," which regulations also require for "administrative" exemption.

Most of the appellate decision in Tam v. FMC concerns a deposition in 2016, in which, it seems from the court's description, the plaintiffs' case self-destructed.  Tam's answers supported the FMC position that she exercised considerable authority over the property.  Moreover, "Tam gave other answers that raised serious concerns about how the case and a related discrimination case against [FMC] were being litigated," pointing to inconsistencies in discovery responses.

"For example," the court observed, "confronted with a factual misstatement in her interrogatory answers filed in the [related] discrimination case, Tam attempted to address the misstatement by explaining that she had signed the answers without actually reading them, because she 'trust[ed her] lawyer.'"  The deposition was especially damaging because Tam was the lead plaintiff for the class.

The Appeals Court affirmed summary judgment and an award of pretrial costs against Tam and a co-plainitff, Raymond.  A collateral action against FMC remains pending.

Included in the affirmance was the dismissal of a separate retaliation claim by Raymond.

A former property manager for FMC, Raymond alleged that she was fired for her wage-and-hour complaints, a retaliation that would violate Massachusetts law.  The courts ruled that Raymond's claim came up short because she did not sufficiently notify FMC of the legal basis of her discontent.  An employee need not necessarily invoke a specific statute, the Appeals Court held, but the court characterized Raymond's objections as closer to "abstract grumblings" (quoting precedent) than to a reasonably understandable assertion of statutory rights.  That's a cautionary tale for low-wage employees who might not understand the legal nuances of classification and take as true an employer's declaration of what the law is.

The real shame of the case is what it reveals about the deplorable state of U.S. labor rights.  According to MIT, a living wage for a Boston worker is $670 per week, or $34,819 per year.  That's well more than the exemption threshold before 2020 and just about equivalent to the threshold now.  An exempt employee can be expected to work more than 40 hours per week, so can't hold down a second job—even assuming that it would be civilized to expect that, which it's not.

So the present regime sets an expectation that a worker earning a minimum living wage will work longer than a 40-hour week.  One might expect that administrative employees working more than 40 hours per week would do a little better than a living wage.  Meanwhile, hourly workers still fall far short.  And the per annum numbers I've used here assume 2,080 working hours per year: no break.  Federal law requires no paid vacation time.

The FLSA has been around since 1938.  It's at least arguable that the proceeds of industrialization and technology should be that people don't have to work as hard to survive.  Even by the time the FLSA turns 100, will employees working full time in the shining city on a hill be able to meet basic needs?

The case is Tam v. Federal Management Co., No. 19-P-1332 (Mass. App. Ct. Jan. 6, 2021).  Justice James R. Milkey authored the opinion of a unanimous panel that also comprised Justices Blake and Henry. 

Monday, January 18, 2021

State tort claims act disallows claim of 911 negligence

Plaintiffs in a fatal stabbing could not overcome sovereign immunity in alleging negligent delay of emergency response, the Massachusetts Appeals Court held last week.

A 28-year-old man with "psychiatric issues" went on a murderous "rampage" in Taunton, Mass., killing two people and injuring five more, before being shot and killed by an off-duty law enforcement officer, as reported by WBZ Boston in 2016.  In the course of the rampage, the perpetrator broke into the home of 80-year-old Patricia A. Slavin, where he stabbed her to death and also stabbed her daughter.

The perpetrator was shot and killed at the Galleria Mall in Taunton, Mass.,
after attacking patrons and fatally stabbing a diner who challenged him.
(Photo in 2020 by James Walsh CC BY-SA 4.0.)
It was more than 20 minutes after the daughter's desperate 911 call that a fire truck arrived on the scene, and more than 30 minutes for an ambulance, according to the court's recitation of the facts.  The Slavin plaintiffs alleged that negligence by a 911 dispatcher directed first responders to the wrong address and contributed to Slavin's death and her daughter's distress.

Negligence liability in American common law requires not mere causation, but proximate causation, which can be a slippery concept.  States waiving sovereign immunity in tort claims acts can use proximity of causation as a device to narrow permissible claims.

The Massachusetts Tort Claims Act does so through its section 10(j), which precludes liability for "any claim based on an act or failure to act to prevent or diminish the harmful consequences of a condition or situation, including the violent or tortious conduct of a third person, which is not originally caused by the public employer or any other person acting on behalf of the public employer" (my emphasis).

The legislature intended the provision for a case such as this one, the Appeals Court wrote in dismissing the claims. "It is true that a more prompt response by city personnel might have diminished the harmful consequences of the stabbings, but the lack of a prompt response was not the original cause of the harm" (footnote omitted).

A claim against the ambulance service, a private contractor, is unaffected by the dismissal.

The case is Slavin v. American Medical Response of Massachusetts, No. 19-P-1762 (Mass. App. Ct. Jan. 11, 2021).  Justice Peter Sacks authored the opinion for a unanimous panel that also comprised Justices Henry and Englander.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

'Seminal' South African defamation case instructs on limited remedial reach of American speech torts

A politician prevailed in defamation against a critic who accused him of nepotism in a South African Supreme Court of Appeal case that a media law expert called "seminal."

Julius Malema in 2011, then a member of the ANC Youth League

Economic Freedom Fighters, a self-described "radical and militant economic emancipation movement" (EFF, definitely not to be confused with the Electronic Frontier Foundation), criticized former South African Finance Minister Trevor Manuel of "patently nepotistic and corrupt process" in recommending to public appointment "a dodgy character called Edward Kieswetter, who is not only a relative of Trevor Manuel, but a close business associate and companion."  EFF published its statement on Twitter to 750,000 followers, and EFF leader Julius Malema retweeted the statement to his 2 million followers.

The Gauteng high court ruled the statement defamatory, and the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) affirmed in December 2020, though remanded for reconsideration of the award, 500,000 rand, about US$33,000, because of procedural error.

South African lawyer and scholar Dario Milo, also an English solicitor and expert with the Columbia University Global Freedom of Expression project, described the case as the most seminal in South African defamation law in two decades, writing about the case for his blog, Musings on the Media, the Daily Maverick, and The International Forum for Responsible Media (INFORRM) blog.  Important, Milo wrote, was that the court allowed recovery for a genuinely aggrieved plaintiff, even if a public figure, upon a dearth of evidence to support the defendant's defamatory allegation.

Trevor Manuel, when Finance Minister in 2008
Photo by Valter Campanato/ABr CC BY 3.0 BR
According to Milo, the law should not protect the likes of former South African President Jacob Zuma, who weaponized defamation in 15 suits against news media and political commentators, nor of Johnny Depp, whose suit against his ex-wife was recently bounced by English courts.  (Depp's suit resulted in an awkward factual determination that he had beat up his wife, a legal result Milo characterized as an "own goal."  I like that.)  But the genuinely aggrieved, public officials and figures such as Manuel included, deserve their day in court, he maintained.  And the SCA ruling ensures that "dignity" will not be sacrificed even on the altar of political speech.

From an American perspective, the case offers some thought-provoking points of divergence from First Amendment doctrine.  The South African common law of defamation, rooted in English common law, is not so different from the American.  But the American speech-protective doctrine of New York Times v. Sullivan (U.S. 1964), justly born of the civil rights era, but, I assert, run amuck since, marked an enduring point of divergence between America and the world.

An important if nuanced divergence arises in the problem of EFF's culpability.  As to the underlying truth of the alleged defamation, EFF was sunk; the defense could not refute Manuel's denial that he is "related" to Kieswetter.  Looking, then, to culpability, the South African court found EFF in utter dereliction of duty.  It had no facts to support the allegation of nepotism and made no effort to ascertain any.

In the United States, the Sullivan rule of "actual malice" would require a plaintiff to prove that the defendant published falsity knowingly or in reckless disregard of the truth.  At first blush, that approach might seem compatible with the South African ruling.  But in practice, instructed by a Supreme Court that places a heavy thumb on the scale to favor a defendant's political speech, the rule de facto for American journalists has been that ignorance is bliss.  However much journalism ethics might counsel a duty of investigation, courts have been unwilling to find actual malice without smoking-gun evidence that the defendant had contrary facts within reach and deliberately ignored them.

In recent years, there has been a modest uptick in litigation over alleged actual malice, and I suspect, indeed hope, that that might be a function of a correction.  Recognizing the folly of a de facto bar on defamation suits by persons in politics has undesirable collateral effects, inter alia, deterring political involvement and feeding divisive discourse.  I wonder that American judges, consciously or not, might be increasingly inclined to treat the actual malice standard more as the "recklessness" rule it purports to be.

2019 EFF campaign poster
Photo by DI Scott CC BY-SA 4.0

Another curious takeaway from the South African case is the remedy.  Though the SCA muddied the outcome with its remand on procedural grounds, the court had no substantive objection to high court orders that would raise First Amendment issues.  For in addition to the R500,000 monetary award, the high court ordered that EFF take down its statement and not repeat it subsequently, and that EFF apologize to Manuel.

American thinking about defamation has limited remedies to the reputational-loss proxy of pecuniary award.  First, to "interdict" subsequent speech, to use the South African legal term, goes too far in U.S. remedies, violating the rule against prior restraint—probably.*  There has been some case law lately suggesting that that rule might yield in exceptional circumstances, such as when a destitute or determined defendant cannot pay recompense but has the will and means, especially through readily accessible electronic media, to persist in the defamation.

(*Or probably not. I am kindly reminded that injunction is available now as a defamation remedy in two-thirds of U.S. states.  Professor Eugene Volokh's 2019 publication presently is the truly seminal work in the area; read more, especially the thorough appendices.  Injunctions are variable in kind, for example, preliminary versus post-trial, and the circumstances play into the constitutional analysis.  Regardless, a confluence of legal trends and a changing world seems likely to result in constitutional approval of the injunction remedy in appropriate circumstances. —CORRECTION added Jan. 13.)

Second, a compulsion of apology would unnecessarily abrogate a defendant's right not to speak.  And how genuine an apology might one expect, anyway?  Yet Milo ranked it as important that apology is on the table in South Africa.  For as he observed, a public apology, even if empty of sentiment, is often the symbolic gesture that a defamation plaintiff truly desires, even to the exclusion of financial compensation.

This empirical observation, well established in American legal culture, too, highlights a limitation of the First Amendment system.  Even friend-of-N.Y. Times v. Sullivan Anthony Lewis, in his seminal case biography, recognized criticism of the doctrine in that the Court's rigid constitutionalization of state defamation law foreclosed state experimentation with remedies that might prove more socially desirable and judicially efficient.

I'm not ready to abandon the First Amendment.  But we should accept the invitation of comparative law to be critical of American norms and willing to talk about change.  EFF awaits our RSVP.

The case is Economic Freedom Fighters v. Manuel (711/2019) [2020] ZASCA 172 (17 December 2020) (SAFLII).

Monday, January 11, 2021

Uber suffers high court loss, but binding arbitration, blanket disclaimers still devastate consumer rights

Image by Mike Lang CC BY-NC-SA 3.0
Signs of life were spotted on the dead planet of consumer rights in click-wrap agreements. But don't get too excited; the life is microbial and already has been exterminated by the corporatocracy.

A blind man who was refused Uber service because he had a guide dog was successful in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court last week in voiding loss of his disability discrimination claim because Uber failed to give him sufficient notice of its terms and conditions compelling defense-friendly arbitration.

Uber can easily correct its notice problem—and likely has already; this plaintiff signed up in 2014—so the rest of us are out of luck if we have an Uber problem.  But the plaintiff's rare win exposes the abject failure of federal and state law to protect consumer rights against gross overreach by online service providers.  And the case arises amid a deluge of reported ride-share sexual assaults, from which service providers have been widely successful in washing their hands of legal responsibility.

In the instant case, the Massachusetts high court followed 2018 precedent in the First Circuit, also applying Massachusetts law to the same Uber interface, to conclude that Uber's means of obtaining the plaintiff's consent to the app's terms and conditions (T&C) in 2014 fell short of the notice required to bind a consumer to a contract.

Uber required ride-share passengers to assent to the T&C by clicking "DONE" after entering payment information.  The court explained that the focus of the app's virtual page was on payment, and the language about the T&C, including the link to the terms themselves, was marginalized in page location and diminished in type size.  (The law gives the plaintiff no special treatment because of his blindness, and the case suggests no contrary argument.)  Uber knew how to do better, the Court reasoned, because drivers signing up with the app plainly must click "I AGREE" to their T&C: an easy fix for app makers.

The Court adopted for the Commonwealth what has become widely accepted as the two-part test for online T&C contract enforcement, "[1] reasonable notice of the terms[,] and [2] a reasonable manifestation of assent to those terms."  It is not necessary that a consumer actually read, or even see, the terms.  The Court acknowledged research (Ayres & Schwartz (2014); Conroy & Shope (2019)) showing that a vanishing number of consumers ever read, much less understand, T&C.  But the law requires only that the consumer be given the opportunity.

This approach to "click-wrap" agreements, kin to "browse-wrap" agreements, dates back to "shrink-wrap" agreements, by which a consumer could be bound to hard-copy license terms upon opening a product box, and earlier to the simple doctrine in analog contract law that a person's mark can bind the person to a contract that she or he has not read.

The rule works well to smooth commerce.  But the problem for consumer rights is that T&C have become unspeakably onerous.  British retailer GameStation made headlines in 2010 when it was reported that 7,500 online shoppers unwittingly(?) sold their "immortal soul[s]" as a term of purchase; that demonstration is not unique.  Legendary cartoonist Robert Sakoryak turned the infamously voluminous iTunes "terms and conditions" into a graphic novel (2017) years after South Park mocked Apple mercilessly (2011).  On a more serious note, the problem has generated ample scholarship, including at least two books (Kim (2013); Radin (2014)), and has been a flashpoint of controversy in European privacy law, which, unlike American law, requires a bit more than a token click-box to signify a person's consent to process personal data, especially when the person is a child.

The Massachusetts Court recognized the scope of Uber's T&C as a factor to be weighed in the sufficiency of notice.  "Indeed," the Court wrote, "certain of the terms and conditions may literally require an individual user to sign his or her life away, as Uber may not be liable if something happened to the user during one of the rides."  Uber's terms "indemnify Uber from all injuries that riders experience in the vehicle, subject riders' data to use by Uber for purposes besides transportation pick-up, establish conduct standards for riders and other users, and require arbitration."

Though arguably subject to a rare override in the interest of public policy, such terms still can prove prohibitive of legal action when a passenger becomes a crime victim.  And that's been happening a lot.  Uber itself reported in 2019 that over the preceding two years, the company had received about 3,000 claims of sexual assault each year (NPR).  The problem is so prevalent that ride-share sex assault has become a plaintiff's-attorney tagline.  Yet recovery is easier promised than won.  Even if a consumer somehow prevails in arbitration, a process hostile to consumer rights, T&C such as Uber's also limit liability awards.

Litigants have struggled to circumvent ride-share app providers' disavowal of responsibility.  In November, the federal district court in Massachusetts rejected Uber liability as an employer, because drivers are set up as independent contractors, a convenience that has summoned some heat on app service providers in the few states where legislators worry about employment rights in the gig economy.  Lyft won a case similarly in Illinois.  Meanwhile a Jane Doe sex-assault claim filed in New York in 2020 takes aim at Uber upon a direct-negligence theory for failure to train or supervise drivers (N.Y. Post).

In 2018, Uber and Lyft relaxed enforcement of compelled arbitration clauses in sex-assault claims (NPR)—if they hadn't, they might eventually have suffered a humiliating blow to their T&C, as unconscionability doctrine is not completely extinct in contract law—so hard-to-prove direct-negligence cases such as N.Y. Doe's are hobbling along elsewhere too.  Oh, Uber also relaxed its gag on sex-assault victims who settle, allowing them to speak publicly about their experiences (NPR).  How generous.

All of this is tragic and avoidable, if routine.  But in the Massachusetts case, I saw a troubling legal maneuver that goes beyond the pale: Uber counter-sued its passenger.

In a footnote, the Massachusetts Court wrote, "In arbitration, Uber brought a counterclaim for breach of contract against the plaintiffs, alleging that they committed a breach of the terms and conditions by commencing a lawsuit and pursuing litigation in court against Uber. Through this counterclaim, Uber sought to recover the 'substantial unnecessary costs and fees' it incurred litigating the plaintiffs' lawsuit."

So it's not enough that our warped American enslavement to corporatocracy allows Uber and its ilk to impose crushing, if industry-norm, T&C on customers, depriving them of rights from Seventh Amendment juries to Fourteenth Amendment life.  Uber moreover reads its own indemnity clause with the breathtaking audacity to assert that it is entitled to recover attorney's fees from a consumer who dares to make a claim—a claim of disability discrimination, no less. This reactionary strategy to chill litigation by weaponizing transaction costs exemplifies my objection to fee-shifting in anti-SLAPP laws.  Uber here shamelessly pushed the strategy to the next level.

Nader (2008)
Photo by Brett Weinstein CC BY-SA 2.5
Compelled consumer arbitration has stuck in the craw of consumer and Seventh Amendment advocates, such as Ralph Nader, for decades.  Nader is widely quoted: "Arbitration is private. It doesn't have the tools to dig into the corporate files. It's usually controlled by arbitrators who want repeat business from corporations not from the
injured person."  As the c
orporatocracy is wont to do, it pushes for more and more, ultimately beyond reason.  Industry pushing got a boost when the Trump Administration set about dismantling the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau.  Make no mistake that compelled arbitration is somehow about a free market; a free market depends on a level playing field, a fair opportunity to exercise bargaining power, and transparency of transactional information.  The unilateral imposition of an absolute liability disclaimer upon penalty of fee-shifting in a secret tribunal is none of that.

I'm tempted to say something like "enough is enough," but I would have said that 20 years ago, to no avail.  So I can only shake my head in amazement as we double down on the abandonment of civil justice in favor of secret hearings to rubber-stamp rampant venality.

Full disclosure: I use Uber, and I like it.  Taxis got carried away with their market monopolization, and a correction was needed.  Now that's feeling like a Catch-22.

The case is Kauders v. Uber Technologies, Inc., No. SJC-12883 (Jan. 4, 2021) (Justia).  Justice Scott Kafker wrote the opinion for a unanimous Court.  In amicus briefs, the ever vigilant U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the "free market"-advocating New England Legal Foundation squared off against plaintiffs' lawyers and "high impact lawsuit"-driving Public Justice.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

What goes around comes around: U.S. election cycle, Capitol riot draw 'banana republic' gibes

Seth Doane has an excellent piece out today (Facebook, YouTube, and embed below) on foreign perspectives on the Capitol riot, insurrection, whatever: rebellion to be named later.  The story mentions the Kenyan headline, "Who's the banana republic now?"  I wish only to add that it's not the first time for such cheekiness, recalling Colombia's Publimetro cover from November 6 (Guardian).  I've no doubt that there are plenty of "s***hole" gibes going on in Africa, too.

Publimetro, Nov. 6, 2020, via Pressreader (Colombia); Nation, Jan. 8, 2021, via Internet Archive (Kenya).



 

"What They See," CBS Sunday Morning, Jan. 10, 2021, via YouTube.

State DA cannot shield FBI records from public disclosure under federal FOIA exemption

The federal Freedom of Information Act cannot be used to block public access to FBI records in the hands of state law enforcement, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled on New Year's Eve.

Rahim in a yearbook photo obtained by CNN from the Brookline library.
In 2015, an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and a Boston police detective shot and killed Usaamah Rahim when he approached officers and refused to drop a 13-inch knife.  Rahim was under investigation by a Joint Terrorism Task Force for suspected ties to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or ISIS).  The officers were cleared in the shooting.

In 2017, under the Massachusetts public records law (PRL), the district attorney (DA) gave Rahim's mother access to more than 1,100 documents in the investigation.  However, she was denied access to documents that the FBI had loaned to the DA and designated as confidential.

That denial was in error, the Court ruled.  In conjunction with the federal district attorney and the FBI, the DA argued in court that the loaned records could not be disclosed under state law because the records are owned by the federal government, or, alternatively, that the incorporation of "other laws" as disclosure exemptions in the Massachusetts PRL required the operation of disclosure exemptions in the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and federal Privacy Act.

The Court rejected both arguments.  First, the Massachusetts PRL turns expressly on the receipt (or creation) of records by public officials, not ownership.  "If every public records request also required the requestor to conduct something akin to a title search," the Court reasoned, "then the public would necessarily be stymied in its quest for greater government transparency."

Second, the Court opined that the federal FOIA and Privacy Act both, on their own terms, apply to federal agencies, so are not compulsory on state officials.

Both holdings are consistent with nationwide norms in freedom of information law.  Ownership is sometimes invoked as a useful concept when a state court struggles to discern the difference between, for example, a family photo on the desk of a state employee from the employee's work product.  But as the Massachusetts Court recognized, that analysis breaks down quickly in practice; ownership of records as property is a red herring in access analysis.  The better analysis anchors application of public records law in the laudable statutory purposes of transparency and accountability.  There is no doubt that transparency in law enforcement investigatory records serves the interest of public accountability.

Likewise, the use of the federal law to bind state officials would have been a perversion of the accountability mechanisms in the federal FOIA and Privacy Act, and could be construed even as a violation of the Tenth Amendment.  States have recognized instances when federal laws, such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), arguably count as "other law" exemptions in state freedom of information law, insofar as the laws may preempt state disclosure requirements under the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution.  But binding state officials to federal law by way of the information at issue, rather than an enumerated governmental power, would be a bridge too far.

At the same time, the Court recognized that some of the FBI records, based on their index descriptions, qualified for exemption from disclosure under the state PRL as justifiably confidential law enforcement records, for example, records related to an ongoing investigation, confidential sources, or emergency response strategies.  The Court ordered the withholding of those records and remanded the case to the Superior Court to analyze application of the state exemption to other records.

The case is Rahim v. District Attorney, No. SJC-12884 (Mass. Dec. 31, 2020) (Justia).  Justice David Lowy wrote the unanimous opinion.

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Confessions of a Gina Raimondo fanboy

R.I. Gov. Gina Raimondo (2017)
Photo by Kenneth C. Zirkel CC BY-SA 4.0
Well maybe there's not much to confess.  Searching this blog, I've ill disguised my affection for the Governor of the smallest American state, Rhode Island, my home of nine and a half years.  So I was thrilled to see Raimondo named as President-Elect Joe Biden's nominee to be the Secretary of Commerce.

A lot of Rhode Islanders are irritated that Raimondo previously denied that she would take the job, issuing the usual politician's disclaimer that her only focus was on Rhode Island.  But I get it.  You have to play these things cool, so if Pop-pop Joe doesn't pick you, you act like you didn't really want it anyway.

The same libertarianism that unites most Americans at the corner of conservative economics and social liberalism, yet seems an intersection where no Democrat or Republican dares to tread, characterizes Rhode Islanders and explains Raimondo's two-term appeal.  She is a social liberal only as much as we need her to be.  Her "Knock It Off" missive during the lockdown (I mentioned at the time) garnered national attention and is said to be one of the reasons she caught the eye of the Biden campaign.  On the civil rights front, she vetoed the first draft of a state "revenge porn" bill that tread too heavily on free speech.

At the same time, she's a fiscal conservative.  A finance aficionado by trade, she founded a venture capital firm and then entered public service as Rhode Island's General Treasurer.  The powers-that-were saddled her with an unfunded pension liability of more than $7bn, no less in the wake of a recession.  That was probably supposed to be a scapegoating when the problem proved intractable; Raimondo turned it into a pathway to the Governorship.  In the aftermath of Rhode Island's massive squandering of economic development funds on a software development firm, Raimondo championed fiscal accountability in seeking public disclosure of the grand jury investigation.

Raimondo is super smart: high school valedictorian, top economics honors at Harvard, a Rhodes Scholarship and Oxford doctorate, and, why not, a Yale law degree for good measure.  Some of those qualifications might smack of lefty elitism, but they come also with solid working-class bona fides and an Italian-immigrant heritage that complements Rhode Island's Federal Hill—the best "little Italy" on the East Coast by quality, if not size, and I've seen, and tasted, them all.  According to Raimondo's official biography (link as long it's still there), her grandfather immigrated from Italy at age 14 with no English; her father, a U.S. Navy veteran and butcher's son, went to college on the GI Bill; and her family suffered loss of livelihood when Bulova outsourced factory jobs and the Rust Belt was born.

For my immediate family, it meant a lot to have had Raimondo leading Rhode Island while our daughter was in grade school.  From the perspective of a parent, desirable role models seemed harder and harder to come by in our dawning age of social-media stars and normalized divisiveness.  I don't know whether the Commerce Department will be where Raimondo makes the most difference.  Certainly I have grave reservations about what President Biden will achieve, even aims to achieve, as talk of bringing back union jobs resonates to my ear as tone deafness to our crisis in American education.  But wherever the chips fall, I'll be in Gina Raimondo's corner.

Bon voyage, Governor.