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Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Collateral to drug-testing race discrimination suit, Boston wins chance to demand indemnity by lab

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Is hair-follicle drug testing racially discriminatory?

That was not the question before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Friday, but the Court's decision ancillary to that disparate-impact civil rights question is instructive on indemnity.

The civil rights claim in this case was filed in 2005 and still is in litigation in federal court.  Plaintiffs in that suit are eight police officers, a police cadet, and an applicant for a 911-operator job who suffered adverse action after testing positive in hair-follicle drug tests administered by the City of Boston.  Seven of the officers were fired for cocaine-positive results.

The plaintiffs, all African American, deny drug use.  They assert that the test is inaccurate and "disproportionately yielded false positives for people of color, resulting in disparate impact by race," the SJC wrote Friday.  "During the eight years for which the plaintiffs present data, black officers and cadets tested positive for cocaine approximately 1.3% of the time, while white officers and cadets tested positive just under 0.3% of the time," the First Circuit wrote in 2014.

The city won summary judgment twice in the trial court, yet the First Circuit twice found error, in 2014 and in 2016, and remanded for further proceedings.  The case, Jones v. City of Boston, remains in the district court, though the docket shows no activity on the merits since the latter remand, suggesting a resolution might have been reached.

The instant case is a dispute in state court between the city and the test provider, Psychemedics Corp.  In the city's contract with Psychemedics, the company promised "to 'assume the defense of' the city, and to 'hold [it] harmless' from all suits and claims arising from 'wrongful or negligent' acts by Psychemedics."  After suit was filed against the city, it went to Psychemedics to talk defense.  It's not clear that the two ever got on the same page.  Psychemedics seemed to regard the suit as outside the scope of the indemnity and regarded its obligations fulfilled by offering the city technical assistance on the science.

Then, as the SJC recounted flatly, "Ten years passed."  In 2017, the city started looking around for help with its long mounting legal expenses and set its sights on Psychemedics.  "What?!" Psychemedics said.  I paraphrase.  Psychemedics sued for declaratory relief, and the city counterclaimed for breach of contract and related theories.

The case boils down to an indemnitee's duty to notify an indemnitor of the need to defend.  An indemnitee, the Court held, "must give the indemnitor 'notice and an opportunity to defend.'  The indemnitee then must allow the indemnitor to take over the defense (if it attempts to do so), and must not later block the indemnitor from doing so."  Parties are free to contract specifics, but in the absence of other specification, "'no particular form of words is necessary' to present notice and the opportunity to assume the defense."  (Citations omitted throughout.)

Justice Lenk
The SJC vacated the trial court summary judgment for Psychemedics and remanded.  The trial judge had improperly decided questions of fact, inadvertently burdening the city with having to refute the company's assertions of fact.  The SJC rejected as unproved, as yet, a number of Psychemedics theories, such as that the city had declined the company's defense or had not litigated Jones in good faith as to protect Psychemedics from liability.

To my novice reading—I am no expert on insurance or indemnity—the city fairly invoked the company's duty to defend many times, and Psychemedics tried to weasel out.  Anyway, the SJC concluded that that was how the trial court should have looked at the case on summary judgment motion, because that was the position of the city, which was the non-moving party.

The case is Psychemedics Corp. v. City of Boston, No. SJC-12903 (Mass. Jan. 29, 2021).  Justice Barbara A. Lenk, since retired, authored the opinion of the unanimous Court.

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