Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Oil, uranium motivated Trump to slash Bears Ears; litigation, land use questions now sit on Biden's desk

President Biden is likely to undo the Trump Administration's dramatic reduction of protected land in southern Utah, including the Bears Ears National Monument.  If he does, the restoration will end litigation over the permissibility of rescission under the Antiquities Act and extinguish ambitions of the natural resource extraction industry.

Traveling in Utah in recent weeks (drought, torts), I spent time crossing the south of the state from the Navajo Nation in the east to the Dixie National Forest in the west.  In the Escalante region in between, a whopping 1.88 million acres of south-central Utah is set aside as protected land under the Antiquities Act of 1906, an enactment of the Teddy Roosevelt Administration and genesis of the American park system, as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM).

A famous feature of GSENM is Grosvenor Arch, named for Gilbert H. Grosvenor,
the first full-time editor of National Geographic.


GSENM (U.S. BLM)
Immediately east of GSENM, the narrow Glen Canyon National Recreation Area tracks the Colorado River from Canyonlands National Park to Lake Powell.  And just east of there, couched within an L of the north-south Glen Canyon and the east-west Navajo Nation is the 1.35 million acres that President Obama designated, or proclaimed, in December 2016, as Bears Ears National Monument.

You might have heard of Bears Ears, because it was at the heart of the controversy ignited when President Trump attempted to substantially rescind the Obama proclamation and vastly reduce the size of public lands in southern Utah.  By proclamation in December 2017, President Trump shrank the Bears Ears designation from 1.35 million acres to just under 230,000 acres, and he cut GSENM almost in half, from 1.88 million acres to just about one million acres (L.A. Times graphics).

Bears Ears NM (U.S. BLM) (red border)
The power of a President to undo a designation under the Antiquities Act is an open legal question.  In the 1970s, Congress undid a perceived overreach by the Carter Administration in protecting land in Alaska.  But the executive power to roll back designations is untested, and Trump's rollbacks were, like so many things about the Trump Administration, unprecedented.  Lawsuits followed from environmentalists and Native American tribes.

"Bears Ears" refers specifically to two buttes, and they are a universally and immediately recognizable landmark in southern Utah.  On a clear day, they can be seen from both Monument Valley Tribal Park in Arizona and Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado.  Driving the Trail of the Ancients from the Valley of the Gods, up the Moki Dugway from Mexican Hat, Utah, I recognized the Bears Ears right away when they popped up over the scrubby horizon.  They truly do give the unmistakable impression of first sighting a bear in the wilderness, ears poking up over shrubbery.

My first sighting of Bears Ears buttes
Bears Ears buttes in a National Park Service photograph
Bears Ears National Monument embraces the Trail of the Ancients and a vast range of sites that are archaeologically invaluable and culturally precious to multiple tribes, including the Navajo, Ute, Pueblo, Hopi, and Zuni.  Historic cliff dwellings, sacred burial grounds, petroglyphs, and pictographs abound in the region.  Headlong development plans and rampant looting of indigenous artifacts were key motivators of pleas for federal protection.  The buttes are at the center of it all geographically and symbolically, but it's the surrounding land that really matters.

Petroglyphs such as these at Capitol Reef National Park date between 300 and 1300.
So that was the frame in which I understood the controversy over Bears Ears before I went to Utah: a classic problem of conservationism versus economic development, collectivist versus objectivist land use, both sides with fair claims to the greater good.  The heuristic is a cost-benefit analysis, but different decision-makers variably assess intangibles such as environment, culture, and history.  And the whole calculation is awkwardly tinged with the shame of America's imperial legacy vis-√†-vis indigenous peoples.

That framing is accurate—but incomplete.

There is an angle that I was missing, and it became apparent on the ground, literally.  My back-country drive was the tip-off.  The Moki Dugway is a spectacular unpaved mountain pass, not for the vertigo-inclined.  The pass was carved out by private enterprise specifically to transport uranium mined in Fry Canyon to a processing facility in Mexican Hat.  Bears Ears is not just about conventional land use.  It's about what lies beneath: coal, oil, natural gas, and uranium.  The Trump reductions to Bears Ears and GSENM were mapped specifically to kowtow to the extractive industries.

Moki Dugway

Panorama from the Moki Dugway, looking south toward Monument Valley

Valley of the Gods from the Moki Dugway
This is a FOIA story.  Extraction is rarely mentioned in news reports about Bears Ears.  But a media lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act yielded some 5,000 pages of records from the Department of Interior that show, The New York Times headlined in 2018, that "oil was central."

Bears Ears proposed boundary revision,
attached to Hatch office email,
to "resolve all known mineral conflicts"

In March 2017, the office of Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) transmitted to the Trump Interior Department maps of mineral deposits in the Bears Ears National Monument with email messages, such as, "Please see attached for a shapefile and pdf of a map depicting boundary change for the southeast portion of Bears Ears monument." As the Times reported, a map recommending monument reduction "was incorporated almost exactly into the much larger reductions President Trump announced in December, shrinking Bears Ears by 85 percent."

Publicly, Trump Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke downplayed the role of extraction in the decision-making, for example, once declaring, according to the Times, "We also have a pretty good idea of, certainly, the oil and gas potential—not much! .... So Bears Ears isn't really about oil and gas."

Meanwhile, the Times reported, "internal Interior Department emails and memos also show the central role that concerns over gaining access to coal reserves played in the decision by the Trump administration to shrink the size of the [GSENM] by about 47 percent ...."  According to the Times, "Mr. Zinke's staff developed a series of estimates on the value of coal that could potentially be mined from a section of Grand Staircase called the Kaiparowits plateau.  As a result of Mr. Trump's action, major parts of the area are no longer part of the national monument.

"'The Kaiparowits plateau, located within the monument, contains one of the largest coal deposits in the United States,' an Interior Department memo, issued in spring 2017, said.  About 11.36 billion tons are 'technologically recoverable,' it projected."

In contrast, the Times reported, 20,000 pages of Interior records accessed in the FOIA lawsuit "detail the yearslong effort during the Obama administration to create new monuments, including input from environmental groups, Indian tribes, state officials and members of Congress."

Another Hatch office email attachment:
USGS-mapped uranium deposits
in and around Bears Ears

Earlier, in January 2018, Times reporting based on public records obtained from the Utah Bureau of Land Management revealed the centrality of uranium extraction in public policy on Bears Ears.  As controversial uranium mining operations were set to resume near the Grand Canyon, the Times reported, and "even as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke declared last month that 'there is no mine within Bears Ears,' there were more than 300 uranium mining claims inside the monument.

"The vast majority of those claims fall neatly outside the new boundaries of Bears Ears set by the administration. And ... about a third of the claims are linked to Energy Fuels, a Canadian uranium producer. Energy Fuels also owns the Grand Canyon mine, where groundwater has already flooded the main shaft.

"Energy Fuels, together with other mining groups, lobbied extensively for a reduction of Bears Ears, preparing maps that marked the areas it wanted removed from the monument and distributing them during a visit to the monument by Mr. Zinke in May."

Straight line of uranium "road scar" at Capitol Reef,
visible from upper left to lower right

Not just on the Moki Dugway, the legacy of uranium mining is evident on the landscape in southern Utah.  For example, in the stunning vista of Grand Overlook at Canyonlands National Park, some unusually straight lines in the earth stand out in contrast with the curving tracks along the hilly contours.  The straight lines, a ranger told me, are "road scars" from truck routes, transporting the yield of uranium mines before the national park was established in 1964. 

At Capitol Reef National Park, on the eastern edge of GSENM north of Glen Canyon, one can see the fence-wood-sealed holes of old uranium mines on hillsides and cliff faces, always tracking a pale yellow stratum in the rock.  According to a National Park Service signboard, "[t]he thin band of yellow-gray" is "a layer of ancient, river-deposited sandstone containing trace amounts of uranium....

"Exploration and milling of uranium was encouraged by the US Atomic Energy Commission in the 1950s during the Cold War.  Prospectors flocked to the Colorado Plateau.  Even protected National Park Service lands were opened to mining.  Despite strong opposition from park managers, companies were allowed to build roads, dig mines, and construct camps in previously undisturbed lands."

Fenced uranium mine openings in yellow stratum at Capitol Reef National Park

Part of NPS signboard at Capitol Reef National Park

I do not here want to ignore the public good that flows from natural resource extraction.  I drive a car and heat a home with fossil fuels.  The Hatch memos to the Interior Department said that state taxes and fees on natural resource extraction would be used to fund public schools, libraries, and infrastructure.  Extraction provides jobs and drives economic development, which betters social conditions.  And as the Capitol Reef signboard intimated, domestic uranium yield was, and still is, vital to the national defense and can be supportive, or in other hands disruptive, of global security.

I don't here subscribe mindlessly to collectivist dogma.  My complaint is against opacity and deception.  The electorate can calculate the public good only with a complete and accurate accounting of the variables.

Three federal lawsuits over the Bear Ears/GSENM reductions were consolidated in Hopi Tribe v. Trump, No. 1:17-cv-02590-TSC (D.D.C. filed Dec. 4, 2017) (Court Listener).  By executive order on Inauguration Day in January 2021, President Biden instructed the Interior Department to review the Trump proclamations on Bears Ears and GSENM, as well as a marine national monument off the New England seaboard.  In March, the court granted a stay in Hopi Tribe, waiting to see what the Biden Administration would do.

Earlier this month, the Interior Department delivered its report to the White House.  The report has not been made public, but media outlets, including the Times, reported that Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, member of the Laguna Pueblo and the nation's first Native American cabinet secretary, recommended restoration of the national monuments to their pre-Trump proportions.  In a joint status report filed with the Hopi Tribe court on June 3, the parties asked the court to extend the stay, pending the President's reaction to the report from Interior.

Your humble blogger at Cedar Break National Monument in the Dixie National Forest
 (All photos not otherwise attributed: by RJ Peltz-Steele, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.)

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

UMass Lowell stands with First Amendment, for now, in row over student tied to neo-Nazi hate group

Weed Hall at UMass Lowell
(photo by Ktr101 CC BY-SA 3.0)
UMass Lowell seems, so far, to be taking a principled position in a controversy over a student tied to a neo-Nazi group.

According to Patch, the University of Massachusetts Lowell sent a letter to students and faculty last week saying that it could not suspend a student tied to a neo-Nazi, hate group simply because of the association.  At the same time, the university pledged to investigate specific threats, alleged crimes, or incidents of hate speech, and to enforce the Student Code of Conduct.

The student in question appeared on a live-stream posted on Telegram, and re-posted to Twitter by a watch group, with the founder of "NSC-131," an organization founded in opposition to Black Lives Matter and identified as a hate group by the Anti-Defamation League, Patch reported earlier this month.

A Change.org petition, with more than 11,000 signatures at the time of this writing, accuses UMass Lowell of being "blatantly permissive of not only racism and hate speech (which they state is protected under Freedom of Speech) but outright criminal activity and Neo-Nazism" in protecting the student.  The petition accuses the student, by name, of having violated already the Student Code of Conduct and, through alleged participation in the January 6 Capitol riot, the state vandalism lawPatch reported the appearance of NSC-131 at the Capitol riot, but no personal involvement by the student.

I appreciate the university's principled free speech stance—so far.  I hope the university does not cave to pressure and remains cognizant of the First Amendment's vital anti-majoritarian and "safety valve" functions.  It is crucial, especially in combating hate, that we refrain from prosecuting thoughtcrime, or its mere expression, else we are no better than the haters.

The problem with instruments such as the Student Code of Conduct is that they're easily applied unconstitutionally, regardless of whether they're facially constitutional.  The code in question, for example, calls on students to show "respect and protection for persons and property," and respect is defined as "acting to enhance the safety, well-being and freedom to allow all persons to pursue their legitimate aims," including all persons, i.e., "non-community members," 

The code stops short of defining a specific offense for lack of respect.  Rather, "interpersonal misconduct" includes

creat[ion of] an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working or academic environment. A single, unusually severe incident may constitute intimidation, threats, or bullying.  Any pattern of unwelcome conduct directed specifically at another person that threatens or endangers the physical or mental safety or property of that person (or a member of that person’s family or household) or creates a reasonable fear or intimidation of such a threat or action.

The code adds, "The University has special concern for incidents in which persons are subject to such conduct because of membership or perceived membership in a racial, ethnic, religious, gender, or sexual orientation group."

That definition comports with First Amendment restriction on anti-harassment law, as long as the definition is observed in its particulars.  The terms refer appropriately and essentially to a "specific[] ... []other person" and to a "reasonable" response.  Administrators do not always parse so finely.  The Change.org petition encourages all readers to "file a report with student conduct," offering a link, regardless, it seems, of whether the filer has had any contact at all with the student of concern.

I have personal experience with administrators' loose understanding of academic freedom.  The "Principles of Employee Conduct" for the UMass System call on UMass employees "to conduct themselves in ways that accord respect to themselves and others."  That might sound merely aspirational.  But I was once adjudged guilty of violating the policy for accusing staff of misfeasance.  There was no contention that I was wrong on the facts.  But I was threatened with firing, despite my tenure.  No punishment was imposed after I pledged to sue in my defense—not a bluff.

In 2017-18, I served as a faculty delegate on an ad hoc campus committee formed at the behest of the campus chancellor to create an "anti-bullying" policy.  We faculty delegates agreed that workplace bullying was already impermissible under existing policies and state law.  The university seemed interested in having specifically an "anti-bullying" policy principally just to say that it does.  So we drafted a proposal that was substantively duplicative of existing norms, mindful of the First Amendment and academic freedom, and added a detailed procedure that would protect faculty in the event of ill founded and opportunistic accusation by administrators.

That, apparently, was not the right answer, because our proposal was buried in the bureaucratic bog.  Now I've been asked to serve on a committee again, in the next academic year, to do the work over, for a new chancellor.  Maybe we'll get it "right" this time.

'1,000 Places to Fall to Your Death,' Utah edition, means American tort law hasn't undermined pioneer spirit

I can't help but check out the tortscape when I travel.  As mentioned last week, I have been traveling recently in Utah.  The sights are breathtaking.  And as an indicator of the health of the American tort system, I am pleased to report, Utah has many places where one can fall to one's death.

If your foreign friends are like mine, then you too are tired of being teased about fencing at the Grand Canyon, supposedly erected by the National Park Service to protect itself from lawsuits.

It's nonsense, of course.  There are a very few railings and barriers installed at the most popular viewing areas at the Grand Canyon.  Given the often present throng, the limited installations are only sensible, to protect the canyon as well as the people.  Plenty of visitors still manage to fall and die.  And if anything about such deaths speaks powerfully to "the American way," it's the sovereign immunity that usually dispatches any subsequent lawsuits.

(In all seriousness, for a tragic and compelling problem in this vein, and an excellent case for torts profs to introduce the Federal Tort Claims Act, see the recent and pending claim against the National Park Service by the family of Esther Nakajjigo, a human rights activist and tourist who was decapitated by a swinging traffic control gate at Arches National Park in Utah in 2020.  Read more from Moab Sun News, NBC News, Fox13 Salt Lake City, and Yahoo News Australia.  The case is Michaud v. United States, No. 1:21-cv-01547-KLM (filed D. Colo. June 8, 2021) (Court Listener).)

Railings such as these represent a reasonable exercise of discretion by any global measure:
surrounding a viewing platform at Sipapu Bridge at Natural Bridges National Monument.



My friends' teasing persists because it capitalizes on two stereotypes of Americans: first, as camera-happy tourists who don't know how to handle themselves when voyaging giddily away from home on their precious ten days of unguaranteed vacation; and second, as lawsuit-addicted complainants eager to forsake personal responsibility for a pay day.  Corporate America's tort-deform messaging has saturated the globe.

I should know better.  But, I admit, my insecurities are allayed whenever I discover a new place one can fall to death amid the sublime splendor of an American natural wonder.  And I found many such places in Utah.  I'm thinking about writing a book in the vein of Patricia Schultz's 1,000 Places to See Before You Die.  Mine will be "1,000 Places to Fall to Your Death in America."  It's simultaneous travel literature and tort-reform opposition.

This is my favorite new candidate for the book: Kodachrome Basin State Park in Utah.  It's oddly appropriate because the park is in fact named after a corporation.  National Geographic featured the land in color photography in 1949 and, with permission of the Eastman Kodak company, named the area after the company's pioneering color film, which had been introduced in 1935 (and was discontinued in 2009).  The park is a worthwhile stop, or destination unto itself, on Utah's famed Scenic Byway 12, near Cannonville.

Kodachrome Basin boasts some 67 "sedimentary pipes," columns of rock rising from the basin floor.  According to park literature, the pipes are the result of erosion, but geologists are not sure whether historical earthquakes or ancient springs explain the erosion-resistant columns.  There are more than 14 miles of trails in the park from which one can see the pipes and take in the park's chromatic appeal.

I did one of the shorter hikes. The 1.5-mile Angel's Palace Trail rises 150 feet from the basin floor to afford views from Kodachrome to nearby Bryce Canyon.  Angel's Palace offers many short side tracks to scenic viewpoints, like this one:

Here's a 360-degree panoramic:
The trail drops off on both sides:
If you meander down this pathway, it narrows to a small rocky point, maybe 10 square inches of a rounded top of crumbly rock, where, I suppose, someone with a death wish could make a killer TikTok hopping on one foot.  I got only far enough along to take this photo:

In further furtherance of the pioneer spirit, there's one other unmitigated way to die in Utah, and that's in an agricultural encounter.  At the American West Heritage Center in Wellsville, Utah, I was surprised to see this sign:

In 1L Torts, I always include some coverage of sector-specific statutory liability limitations, usually adopted to protect domestic businesses especially from suit by out-of-state tourists.  In my first year as a legal writing instructor in the 1990s, colleagues and I used a problem involving the Colorado skier responsibility law.  Utah has one, too.  This was the first time, though, that I've learned of a sector-specific liability limitation in "agritourism."  Actually, this was the first time I ever heard of agritourism (also "agrotourism").

The cited section of the Utah Code indeed defines agritourism as "the travel or visit by the general public to a working farm, ranch, or other commercial agricultural, aquacultural, horticultural, or forestry operation for the enjoyment of, education about, or participation in the activities of the farm, ranch, or other commercial agricultural, aquacultural, horticultural, or forestry operation."

The statute doesn't depart radically from the negligence standard, but, like the sign says, affords service providers an assumption-of-risk defense when signs are posted.  The statute specifies risks inherent in agritourism:

a danger, hazard, or condition which is an integral part of an agricultural tourism activity and that cannot be eliminated by the exercise of reasonable care, including:
     (i) natural surface and subsurface conditions of land, vegetation, and water on the property;
     (ii) unpredictable behavior of domesticated or farm animals on the property; or
     (iii) reasonable dangers of structures or equipment ordinarily used where agricultural or horticultural crops are grown or farm animals or farmed fish are raised.

I didn't run into any of those problems.  I must be a pioneer at heart.

Me holding up a natural bridge on the Hickman Bridge Trail, Capitol Reef National Park
(All photos by RJ Peltz-Steele, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.)

Monday, June 28, 2021

'Clinton' honorific draws fire at Arkansas law school

"The Clinton Law School"
was not to be.
An op-ed in The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette by Mike Masterson on Saturday reported a mess at the "William H. Bowen" law school at the University of Arkansas, Little Rock, since a professor there started calling himself the "William J. Clinton Professor."  The ADG quoted an email from my friend and colleague, Distinguished Professor J. Thomas Sullivan, obtained under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act (FOIA):

I don't recall when the Law and Public Policy Professorship was re-named for President Clinton.... I first noticed this reference in the signature block on an email sent by ["Dean Emeritus and William J. Clinton Professor of Constitutional Law and Public Service"] John DiPippa in March.

This professorship was originally designated as the Law and Public Policy professorship and was created, as I recall, after we moved into the current building. There was discussion that the Law School itself would be named for Clinton, but that was scuttled because there was serious concern that he would be subjected to some adverse legal action ... for giving false testimony in the civil action brought by Paula Corbin Jones....

I couldn't find any reference to the professorship as the "William J. Clinton Professor of Constitutional Law and Public Service" on the Bowen web site. In fact, John's faculty page describes him as: Dean Emeritus and Distinguished Professor of Law and Public Policy.

It may be that I missed an announcement ... but I am not aware of the re-designation of the professorship in the name of William J. Clinton or the reference to "Constitutional Law and Public Service." Had this been brought to the faculty for discussion ... I would have opposed the change in designation for a number of reasons:

First, President Clinton was disbarred from practice before the United States Supreme Court and the Arkansas courts following the impeachment trial, in 2000 or 2001. I believe that John took the opportunity to defend him against disbarment at the time, but conceded that some form of censure was appropriate, being quoted at the time by The Washington Post: ... "But DiPippa also said Clinton should be punished more severely because of his position. He suggested a suspension of his license for some period of time. Disbarment ought to be reserved for what I've called incorrigible lawyers—lawyers who are just going to repeat their offenses and continue to harm clients, he said." ....

I simply do not think it appropriate for a law school to honor a disbarred lawyer—it strikes me as hardly sending a deterrent message to law students or practitioners. But beyond the disbarment, I have grave concerns about Bowen being aligned with significant policy decisions taken by Clinton that have [caused] irreparable damage to our legal system.

The mass incarceration of Americans, particularly affecting the poor and African American communities, was accelerated during the Clinton administration in an effort to deflect potential Republican claims that Democrats were/are soft on crime....

Second, the 1994 law shaped Democratic Party politics for years. Under the leadership of Bill Clinton, Democrats wanted to wrest control of crime issues from Republicans, so the two parties began a bidding war to increase penalties for crime. The 1994 crime bill was a key part of the Democratic strategy to show it can be tougher-on-crime than Republicans.

Of particular importance, Clinton signed the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 which effectively eliminated federal habeas corpus as a protection against state court criminal convictions tainted by procedural irregularities and failure of state courts to correctly apply U.S. Supreme Court precedent in disposition of claimed violations of federal constitutional protections.

Sullivan is right about the naming of the law school; I was there then, too.  The money was coming from Bowen, an Arkansas banker—over faculty objections that UALR was selling itself to a donor for less money than any law school had ever taken for the honor—and Bowen's name was substituted when Clinton's became politically problematic.  In the op-ed, Professor Rob Steinbuch, a colleague of Sullivan's and co-author of mine on transparency research, confirmed Sullivan's take on the unilateral impropriety of the name change.

Sullivan wrote further:

Of general importance is the usurpation of faculty governance by the law school administration. At a minimum, the question of re-designating a named professorship should be announced to the faculty for purposes of eliciting legitimate concerns. The faculty originally adopted the rule regarding named professorships that was altered to give the dean sole authority for designation—apart from specific directions given by a donor.

I don't recall whether there was faculty input in altering terms of the original rule, but I do recall the faculty were generally notified of the current rule, as published. In either event, the legitimate authority of the faculty to advise and consent, if not promulgate, a policy that may have significant consequences for the law school in terms of our mission and reputation, shouldn't be dismissed by expediency or political interests of a dean, advisers or supporters answering only to the dean.

Sullivan has his own history with named professorships at UALR.  He was stripped of his in the past for the sin of dissent.  The professorships are better measures of academic-political compliance than of merit.  They're awarded only for five-year terms so as to incentivize continuing obedience to the dean among tenured faculty who otherwise might be hard to wrangle.

Such is academics.  My school, too, punishes anyone who dares not be a "team player," or fails to dumb down her or his own performance to the median.  The problem of "workplace mobbing" to enforce group-think and tame high achievers is so severe in academics that sociologist Kenneth Westhues wrote books about it.

No duty: Court clears homeowner of liability in fatal shooting that sparked town ban on Airbnb

Not where the party was: historic Henfield House in Lynnfield, Mass.
(photo by John Phelan CC BY 3.0)

A homeowner is not liable in the shooting death of a party guest in a case that sparked a town ban on Airbnb, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled on June 7.

A 33-year-old father of two, Keivan B. Heath was shot and killed at a house party in Lynnfield, in northeastern Massachusetts, in the early-morning Sunday hours of Memorial Day weekend in 2016.  The plaintiff in wrongful death sued party organizers and the homeowner, who had rented out the house.

According to the court opinion, drawing facts from the complaint with reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff, defendant Victor had "informed the [homeowner] that he planned to hold a college reunion party. However, he advertised a Saturday event on social media as the 'Splash Mansion Pool Party,' open to 'Special Invitation & Girls Only,' with three named disc jockeys to provide the music."  More than 100 persons attended.  

The property was the home of the Styller family.  The property comprised "a 5,000 square foot home, a three-car garage, a 2,000 square foot patio, an in-ground heated pool, and a pool house with a fireplace and a bar on a three-acre lot in Lynnfield."  Defendant Styller

rented out the premises for short periods of time using a variety of Internet platforms [including Airbnb and HomeAway (now Vrbo), according to Boston magazine]. During each rental, the [Styller family] would leave the property and stay elsewhere. In the listings, the defendant touted the property's secluded location, fenced-in yard, and electronically operated gates. He also described the property as being in one of the safest areas in Massachusetts. Renters used the house for, among other things, business retreats, conferences, "photo shoots," and reunions.

The court described the tragedy:

At approximately 3 a.m., police received two 911 calls reporting that someone at the party had been shot; one caller said that the decedent was "dying," and the other reported that people were attempting cardiopulmonary resuscitation and then said, "he's gone." Police arrived to find many vehicles leaving and people fleeing on foot. The decedent was lying alone, face up and unresponsive, near the pool. He was transported to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead in the emergency room. The cause of death was two gunshot wounds to the chest.

The murder remains unsolved.

Affirming dismissal in favor of Styller, the SJC opinion is a straightforward analysis of duty in negligence.  The duty of a property owner reasonably to maintain property in a safe condition does not extend generally to protect an injured from the "dangerous or unlawful acts" of third parties.

The plaintiff attempted to predicate liability on "special relationship" exceptions for foreseeable harms and for common-carrier defendants.  The court rejected both theories.  On foreseeability, courts have drawn exceptions in cases in which property owners knew of violent crimes on premises in the past.  But plaintiffs could not sustain the allegation here.  "Although the complaint cites a finding made by a Land Court judge in a related case that short-term rentals have 'significant external effects on the neighboring community and community at large,' it does not allege that short-term rentals are correlated with an increase in violent crime" (footnotes omitted).

Significantly for the short-term rental market, the court refused to analogize an Airbnb, Vrbo, etc., host to a common carrier or place of public accommodation, such as a transport provider, restaurant, or hotel, which would enhance the defendant's duty.  "This comparison missed the mark," the court wrote.

Aside from the fact that there is no allegation of any relationship between the defendant and the decedent other than the fact that the decedent was shot and killed on property owned by the defendant, perhaps the biggest difference between the relationship between a business establishment and its customers and the defendant's relationship to the decedent is that the defendant had no control over the premises during the rental period.

Styller's duty as a property owner stopped with the condition of the property at the time he turned over the keys.

In a related case decided the same day, the SJC ruled against Styller in a dispute in Land Court with the town of Lynnfield.

After the Heath murder, Lynnfield amended town law expressly to ban short-term property rentals, such as Airbnbs.  Lynnfield asserted that short-term rentals such as Styller's already violated the law.  But ordinances, such as a prohibition on operating a "lodging or rooming house," were ambiguous on the contemporary home rental question.

The SJC disagreed with the Land Court's ruling that the short-term rental of a whole home violated the law as to rooming houses, before amendment.  However, Styller wanted a ruling that his prior use was permissible, and the SJC would not go that far.  In the sum of various provisions, the court held, town law "clearly and unambiguously excluded, in pertinent part, purely transient uses of property in [a residential zoning district]."

Of interest from a procedural perspective, the court ruled on the zoning case despite alleged mootness arising from Styller's sale of the property.   "Unlike standing, 'mootness [is] a factor affecting [the court's] discretion, not its power,' to decide a case," the court explained.

[W]e view the viability of short-term rental use of property in the context of existing zoning regulations as one of public importance, in the sense that it raises "an important public question whose resolution will affect more persons than the parties to the case" and that "is primarily a matter of statutory [or, in this case, zoning bylaw] interpretation, not dependent on the facts of the particular case."

As well, Styller argued that the permissibility of the rental before the town amended the law remained a live issue in collateral matters of insurance coverage.

The wrongful death case is Heath-Latson v. Styller, No. SJC-12917 (June 7, 2021) (Justia).  The zoning case is Styller v. Zoning Board of Appeals, No. SJC-12901 (June 7, 2021) (Justia).  Chief Justice Kimberly S. Budd wrote both opinions for a unanimous court, excluding the two most recently appointed justices.

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Disputed allegations in malicious prosecution suits against Apple raise data protection issues

Apple Store Osaka (Sébastien Bertrand CC BY 2.0)
A case of identity theft, now the subject of lawsuits against Apple and a security contractor, SIS, in three jurisdictions, seems to have raised an alarm about data protection.  But the case might be more complicated, as the defendants have accused the plaintiff of false pleadings.

Plaintiff Ousmane Bah was a 17-year-old Bronx honors student and permanent resident alien applying for citizenship at times relevant to the complaints.  An acquaintance of Bah's acquired Bah's temporary New York driving learner's permit (ID); it is disputed what Bah knew about the acquisition.

The ID did not have a photo, and the biographical data did not match the acquaintance's in all particulars, such as height.  Nevertheless, when the acquaintance was, according to the complaints, apprehended trying to shoplift from Apple stores in New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, he was misidentified as Bah.  Bah was criminally charged, subject to arrest warrants, and repeatedly compelled to defend himself.  The case does not directly implicate the known risk of race discrimination in facial recognition algorithms.  But in Bah’s version of events, Apple's use of facial recognition technology to identify the perpetrator in subsequent incidents gave police a false confidence that the suspect was Bah.

Apple and SIS have filed for Rule 11 sanctions in New Jersey and characterize the complaint in that jurisdiction as fiction.  They rely on discovered communication between Bah and the acquaintance to allege that Bah knew well that he was being impersonated, and that misidentification resulted from the acquaintance’s deliberate deception, not from error on the part of Apple or SIS. 

Media have been quick to seize on the allegations in the initial complaint, which does resonate with extant privacy issues in public policy.  If the plaintiff’s allegations are complete and accurate, then the case speaks to Americans’ lack of comprehensive data protection law.  A data protection regulation like Europe’s, generally speaking, would shift the burdens of fair and accurate identification to the defendants, rather than a victim of identity theft, time and again.

Moreover, if the plaintiff’s allegations are complete and accurate, the case has unpleasant overtones in race and socioeconomic equality.  A mismatch of data between the false ID and the acquaintance's appearance prompts concern that “black” was all the retailer needed to see, and one must worry whether persons of limited means can afford to defend themselves against false charges and wrongful arrest, not to mention the collateral effects of publication of misidentification to third parties, such as employers and creditors.

Bah claims defamation and malicious prosecution.  The complaints at least allege evidence in support of actual malice, which Apple and SIS deny.  Malicious prosecution is usually a claim made against public officials in tandem with civil rights violations, but the tort is viable against private parties who initiate criminal proceedings on false pretenses.  Whether the plaintiff’s allegations hold up, I do not know.  The counter-allegations of Apple and SIS in seeking sanctions in the New Jersey case are biting.

The cases are:

  • Bah v. Apple Inc., No. 1:19-cv-03539-PKC (S.D.N.Y. filed Apr. 22, 2019) (Court Listener);
  • Bah v. Apple Inc., No. 2:20-cv-15018-MCA-MAH (D.N.J. filed Oct. 27, 2020) (Court Listener); and
  • Bah v. Apple Inc., No. 1:21-cv-10897-RGS (D. Mass. filed May 28, 2021) (Court Listener).
Bah is represented in the New York case by UMass Law alumnus Subhan Tariq, '13.  My thanks to Steven Zoni, '13, for bringing this case to my attention.