Learn more about Peltz-Steele v. UMass Faculty Federation at Court Listener (complaint) and the Liberty Justice Center. The case is now on appeal in the First Circuit as no. 22-1466 (PACER paywall). Please direct media inquiries to Kristen Williamson.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Public-domain materials take legal education by storm; law librarians trace history from casebooks to 'OERs'

OER Is Sharing by Giulia Forsythe (CC0 1.0)
Law librarians Emma Wood and Misty Peltz-Steele, my brilliant colleagues (and 50% my spouse), have published Open Your Casebooks Please: Identifying Alternatives to Langdell's Legacy.

The work discusses the revolutionary contemporary movement of open-educational resources (OERs), a term, I learned, coined by UNESCO in 2002, particularly in legal education.  Here is the abstract:

Nonprofits, academic institutions, and educators have collaborated, at all academic levels, to create quality Open Educational Resources (OERs) since that term was defined by UNESCO in 2002. These open-source educational materials are in the public domain and published under an open license, meaning that they can be freely copied, used, adapted, and re-shared with the public. They include not only textbooks but supplemental educational materials in various media formats. Their value is such that even federal and state legislatures are taking note and passing laws to incentivize the creation and use of OER in both secondary and higher education. Despite the momentum in academics toward the adoption of open textbooks and supplemental materials, legal academia has been slower to embrace open casebooks. By design, OER offers a great deal of flexibility for educators and the promise of cost savings for academic institutions and students. This paper examines the modern history of casebooks and the OER movement, as well as the various OER platforms ideally suited to create open content for law courses. The authors posit that a greater understanding of OER will give law professors and students a wider range of choice and ownership in course materials.

When I joined my first casebook, published in 2006, it was still important to attach one's project to a prominent publisher, for the purpose of enhancing one's CV and bolstering the tenure-and-promotion application.  Thankfully, legal academia has started to recognize the needlessness of conventional publishing as a gatekeeper for legal educational materials.  The analysis was hastened by student sticker shock at textbook prices, which, I can attest, do not relieve authors of our day jobs.  I myself am, mercifully, no longer at a point in my career at which I need to impress anyone.  So I'm teaching Torts this year with "Tortz," my own OER in progress, at no additional charge to students.

The Wood & Peltz-Steele article will appear in 43 Western New England Law Review (2021).

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Scholar in torts, comparative law publishes book on Chinese law, article on slow WHO pandemic response

Professor Chenglin Liu has completed two new and exciting projects of interest to lawyers and legal educators.

A torts professor on the faculty of St. Mary's University School of Law in San Antonio, Texas, Professor Liu kindly joined my Comparative Law class via Zoom in the spring to talk about coronavirus legal issues and public health regulation in the People's Republic of China.  His visit generated more discussion and questions than we had time for.

Professor Liu has now completed a landmark book, Chinese Law in Context (CAP 2021) (Amazon).  The publisher's précis reports:

Chinese Law in Context provides a unique perspective on the Chinese legal system. It first offers insight into Chinese legal history and the impact of Confucianism. Then, by examining significant scandals and corruption during the past two decades, the book analyzes constitutional law, property law, and tort law from a comparative perspective. It also covers food and drug safety laws and regulations, which are rarely addressed in other works but are increasingly critical in the context of U.S.-China bilateral trade relations.

Prof. Liu
A teacher's manual is forthcoming.

Professor Liu also has published a new article relevant to the pandemic, The World Health Organization: A Weak Defender Against Pandemics.  Consistently with Professor Liu's expertise in tort law, the article contemplates causation as between WHO management of the coronavirus and responsibility for its impact.  Here is the abstract:

Why did the World Health Organization (WHO) not act in a timely fashion to declare the coronavirus outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC)? If it had done so, could the United States have heeded the warning and controlled the spread of the virus? Is the WHO’s delay a factual cause of the calamities that the United States has suffered? This article addresses these questions. Part I examines the development of the WHO and its governance mechanism, major powers and limits, and past achievements and failures. It also explores how the WHO responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and what could have been done—but was not done—in the early stages. Part II analyzes why the United States failed to effectively respond to the COVID-19 public health crisis. Part III concludes that the WHO did not, and in the future will not, have the power and courage to make a prompt PHEIC declaration because of institutional constraints. However, the WHO’s delay in acting was not a factual cause of the harm suffered in the United States because the Trump Administration would not have acted differently even if the WHO issued the PHEIC warning swiftly.

The article appears in 28:2 Virginia Journal of Social Policy and Law (2021).

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Student comment calls on police unions to do their part for accountability reform, revelation of truth

Michelle M.K. Hatfield, an alum of my Torts I-II classes, has published a comment, Can Police Unions Help Change American Policing?  

This comment nicely links the need for police accountability with the right to truth, a theme better known in post-apartheid South Africa than in American policing, and suggests that police unions could do more to stimulate socially constructive reform.  Here is the abstract:

Police unions are part of the problem in American policing. Could police unions also be part of the solution? This Comment begins by putting into practice the dialectic we must achieve at a societal level by detailing the ways in which police and Black Americans have been positioned to be in conflict from the seventeenth century to the present, and by discussing the formation of police unions. American society needs truth-telling about the history and present context that drives police officers into deadly conflict with Black Americans to heal, trust, and effectuate a more perfect system for public safety. This Comment wrestles with the need to understand several truths at once: that police organized into unions in part to protect the rank-and-file from managerial abuse; that the American policing system is in many ways designed and implemented against Black Americans; that police unions organized in the Civil Rights Era to protect police officers from discipline for following orders; and that deep, structural change should include police unions. Less fundamental changes that leave in place the core of American policing, without examining its racist foundations and incentives toward brutality and lethal force, will not serve to bring about lasting reconciliation. This Comment reviews several ways to improve the management of police departments put forth by labor and policing scholars and suggests that the promise of such reforms could motivate participation in a truth process. The conversation about policing reform in the United States has expanded and deepened tremendously in the past year, and it continues to evolve and take on new dimensions. This Comment urges policymakers to create a truth process as part of police reform and suggests that the process be implemented via the police unions because the voices of police organizations that represent rank-and-file officers are a critical ingredient for meaningful change.

Needless to say, police accountability has become a recurring theme and point of student interest in my courses, including Torts and Freedom of Information Law.  Ms. Hatfield gave me and my law-librarian-extraordinaire spouse Misty Peltz-Steele the privilege of feeding back on this article prior to submission for publication, but that's me riding coattails.  Ms. Hatfield prepared this superb paper principally upon her own impressive initiative and in ample fulfillment of the paper requirement of a popular course in labor law taught by my colleague in public policy, Professor Mark Paige.

The comment appears in the UCLA Criminal Justice Law Review, 2021:211.

Skillman offers free intro skills class for law students

All law students are invited to a free presentation, How to Excel in Law School, Professor Nerissa Shklov Skillman, a graduate of Berkeley Law School and the founder of The Skillman Method.

The Zoom presentation on October 2, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., will cover time management, case reading and briefing, note-taking, outlining, and feeling comfortable learning the law.  The presentation is co-sponsored by the Association of Black Women Attorneys.

I have known Professor Skillman for more than 15 years.  She is an expert on access to legal education.  I have seen her methods work wonders for students struggling to adjust to the competitive environment of American law school, in which many essential skills are injudiciously taken for granted in new students.

The presentation is free, but pre-registration at Eventbrite is required.  The Skillman Method is a for-profit enterprise; The Savory Tort and I offer our endorsement for no compensation.

Monday, September 27, 2021

FOIA requesters need protection against retaliation; in egregious case, court allows First Amendment theory

Intersection of state highways 42 & 61 in Conyngham Town, Pa.
(2019 photo by Mr. Matté CC BY-SA 3.0)
A bizarre FOIA case decided by the Third Circuit suggests that use of an open records act in the public interest triggers constitutional protection against retaliation under the First Amendment.

A businessperson and landlord in Conyngham, Pennsylvania, John McGee used the state freedom of information act (FOIA), called the Right to Know Act, to investigate his suspicions of financial malfeasance in town government.  A town supervisor then sent to McGee, you read that correctly, a demand for private business information, purportedly issued in the name of the town and under the authority of the FOIA.

McGee asked the board of supervisors for an explanation, and they refused to give any.  In a lawsuit, McGee alleged violation of substantive due process rights and the First Amendment.  He alleged that he did not know that the town's demand was unlawful and unenforceable.

The district court dismissed both counts; the Third Circuit reversed and remanded on the First Amendment claim.  The court explained:

In order to prevail on a retaliation claim under the First Amendment, “a plaintiff must … [prove]: (1) constitutionally protected conduct, (2) retaliatory action sufficient to deter a person of ordinary firmness from exercising his constitutional rights, and (3) a causal link between the constitutionally protected conduct and the retaliatory action.” Thomas v. Indep. Twp.... (3d Cir. 2006). There does not appear to be any dispute that McGee engaged in constitutionally protected speech, nor that there was evidence of a causal link between his speech and the Right-to-Know request [supervisor Linda] Tarlecki gave him.

Only the middle prong was at issue on appeal, and the court found sufficient evidence for McGee to fend off summary judgment.  The test for deterrence is objective, the Third Circuit emphasized, so it doesn't really matter whether McGee was deterred as a matter of fact.

What intrigues me about the case is the apparently non-controverted question of element (1).  The Third Circuit opinion is ambiguous on what serves so self-evidently as McGee's constitutionally protected conduct.  McGee previously had been critical, in public testimony, of the board of supervisors for how it managed the housing code, but that doesn't seem to be the impetus for retaliation here.  His FOIA request may be construed as a petition of government or as a precursor to further public criticism.  The court did not specify.

In the law of the United States, at the federal level and in most states, requesting access to information is a statutory privilege, not a constitutional right per se.  There is a strong argument that the distinction is immaterial to attachment of the First Amendment right to petition to a FOIA request.  But de facto, in my work in FOIA advocacy, retaliation against FOIA requesters is a real and serious risk.  When asked for counsel by persons contemplating use of FOIA to investigate government, I warn would-be requesters of the possibility of retaliation.

If the First Amendment affords protection against retaliation, it's not an easily won theory.  First, there are practical problems.  Finding an attorney willing to bring a First Amendment claim against government is neither easy nor cheap.  Civil rights litigation and First Amendment law are both complicated.  Attorneys who practice in civil rights prefer the familiar patterns of discrimination and harassment based on race or gender.  In small legal communities such as Arkansas's, attorneys are loath to sue sugar-daddy government.  The thin possibility of winning attorney fees, even with a multiplier, upon a convincing legal victory is not enough to incentivize counsel.

Second, legal problems loom on the merits.  Usually problematic is the third element, causation.  The conduct here in McGee is unusual in its blatant motive.  Ordinarily, when local officials deny zoning variances, liquor licenses, or other privileges to applicants who happen to be accountability mavens, the causal connection cannot be shown to a constitutionally satisfactory certainty.

Element (1) is often a problem, too, because would-be requesters are also often would-be whistleblowers.  Under the muddled constitutional jurisprudence of the rights of public employees, the First Amendment does not preclude being fired for blowing the whistle on malfeasance in one's government workplace, much less the act of filing a state FOIA request to the same end.

There's a cruel irony of inefficiency in our First Amendment jurisprudence in that public employees are least protected when they speak of what they know best.  The jurisprudence rather favors being a team player in government.  Defectors, however righteous, must seek protection in statute, where there might be none.

When I worked on FOIA advocacy issues in Arkansas, before I moved to Rhode Island in 2011, I aided Reps. Dan Greenberg and Andrea Lea with 2009 H.B. 1052, which amended the state whistleblower protection statute with express protection for the use of FOIA.  Opponents of the bill argued that it was unnecessary, because existing law protected state employees in communicating concerns to elected officials.  My experience suggested that an elected official carelessly chosen was as likely to burn a whistleblower as to facilitate accountability.

More aggressive protection of FOIA requesters should be the norm throughout the United States.  Retaliation should not have to be as overtly wrongful as in McGee to trigger protection, whether statutory or constitutional.

The case is McGee v. Township of Conyngham, No. 20-3229 (3d Cir. Sept. 23, 2021).  U.S. Circuit Judge Kent A. Jordan wrote the opinion of a unanimous panel that also comprised Judges Marjorie Rendell and David J. Porter.  HT @ Prof. Rob Steinbuch and Prof. Eugene Volokh (Volokh Conspiracy).

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Legislative privilege shields Raimondo records against trucker subpoena in dormant Commerce Clause case

Toll gantry on a bridge in Washington
(Flickr by Wash. State DOT CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
The First Circuit has quashed a subpoena against Rhode Island state officials, including now-U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, in a dormant Commerce Clause lawsuit over highway tolls supporting infrastructure.

Back in the 2010s, under the leadership of then-Governor Gina Raimondo (I'm a fan), my home state of Rhode Island was looking for cash to help with infrastructure needs.  The smallest state and an essential throughway for road and rail traffic in the vital I-95 corridor of America's Atlantic coast, "Ocean State" Rhode Island bears a burden in maintaining highway and bridge infrastructure that is disproportionately larger than the state's tax base.  The Raimondo administration installed a network of electronic truck tolls to beef up coffers.

My family travels often up and down the east coast to visit relatives, and the parade of tolls through the Atlantic states adds up to a significant expense.  But there are no passenger-car tolls in Rhode Island.  States that wish to impose tolls on federal highways had to strike a sort of deal with the devil, the devil being Uncle Sam, and Rhode Island, exemplifying founder Roger Williams's independent streak, opted out.  We held ourselves clear of Uncle Sam's sticky fingers, but then we found ourselves undermined by potholes and overrun with decaying bridges.

So when I heard about the Raimondo truck-toll plan, I admit, it sounded great to me.  The possible dormant Commerce Clause issue did gather in the dark recesses of my mind.  Anyone who tells you that we Rhode Islanders were not keen to have through-trucks pay their fair share for wear and tear on our roads and nerves as we circulate on our congested connectors is lying.  If the boon could be had without adding to my family's toll bills, I was willing to suppress any nagging concern I might have otherwise about a made-up constitutional rule.

Lawyers for the trade industry in trucking were not so generous of mind or pocket, and, after the tolls went live in 2018, they sued.  The plaintiffs argue violation of the dormant Commerce Clause, the constitutional theory that implies a federal prohibition on state action that excessively burdens interstate commerce even when Congress has not legislated a prohibition under its Article I power.

The First Circuit explained, "the Supreme Court has recently reiterated that the dormant Commerce Clause 'reflect[s] a "central concern of the Framers that was an immediate reason for calling the Constitutional Convention: the conviction that in order to succeed, the new Union would have to avoid the tendencies toward economic Balkanization that had plagued relations among the Colonies and later among the States under the Articles of Confederation"'" (quoting 2005 and 2019 precedents).

Flickr by Taber Andrew Bain CC BY 2.0
If the truckers can show that Rhode Island officials calculated the tolling program to burden out-of-state payers while sparing Rhode Islanders, the showing will strengthen—but significantly, not dispositively prove—the plaintiff position in the dormant Commerce Clause analysis.  I've kind of already admitted that burdening through-traffic was my reason for liking the toll program, but I'm just a taxpayer.  Unfortunately, there are some public statements by state officials indicating that they viewed the tolls the same way.

The plaintiff-truckers understandably want to dig deeper.  So they sent subpoenas to state officials, including the Office of the Governer and legislators, and to CDM Smith, a key private consultant to the state in the toll program, "RhodeWorks."  The First Circuit enumerated:

Specifically, the subpoenas sought materials relating to: (1) any efforts to mitigate the economic impact on Rhode Island citizens; (2) the expected or actual impact of the toll caps on in-state vs. out-of-state truckers; (3) the expected or actual impact of tolling only certain classes of trucks on in-state vs. out-of-state truckers; (4) the potential impact on interstate commerce; (5) alternative methods for raising funds; (6) drafts of RhodeWorks and related, failed bills, including mark-ups, comments, red-lines, revisions, etc.; (7) communications between the former Governor and legislators regarding RhodeWorks or other methods of raising funds; and (8) the public statements made by the movants and others.

State officials argued that legislative privilege required quashing of the subpoenas.  The district court was willing to override the privileges, ruling that the discovery interest outweighed officials' need of confidentiality in deliberative process.  On interlocutory appeal, the First Circuit disagreed and reversed.

The First Circuit began its discussion with the Speech or Debate Clause of the federal Constitution.  That's interesting, because the D.C. Circuit just recently applied the clause to thwart the efforts of Judicial Watch to probe the congressional investigation of the Trump Administration.  That decision made waves in the FOI community not so much for the result, but for a passionate concurrence in which U.S. Circuit Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson thoughtfully indulged the potential scope of common law access to the legislature.

However, the First Circuit opined:

Assertions of legislative immunity and privilege by state lawmakers stand on different footing. For starters, they are governed by federal common law rather than the Speech or Debate Clause, which by its terms applies only to federal legislators.... And the common-law legislative immunity and privilege are less protective than their constitutional counterparts....  That is because the separation-of-powers rationale underpinning the Speech or Debate Clause does not apply when it is a state lawmaker claiming legislative immunity or privilege.

In other words, the court recognized a constitutional constraint in horizontal separation of powers, but not, here, in vertical separation of powers, or federalism.  Nevertheless, the court reasoned that "federal common law" was constrained by the principle of comity, "[a]nd the interests in legislative independence served by the Speech or Debate Clause remain relevant."

The court was not impressed with the truckers' assertion that a federal interest in dormant Commerce Clause enforcement bolstered the private cause of action.

[Plaintiff's] argument suggests a broad exception overriding the important comity considerations that undergird the assertion of a legislative privilege by state lawmakers. Many cases in federal courts assert violations of federal law by state legislators who are not joined as parties to the litigation. Were we to find the mere assertion of a federal claim sufficient, even one that addresses a central concern of the Framers, the privilege would be pretty much unavailable largely whenever it is needed.

Here it mattered that the Governor's and lawmakers' alleged discriminatory intentions would not be dispositive of the constitutional question.  Rather, the court opined, the Supreme Court has emphasized the primacy of discriminatory effect over discriminatory purpose in dormant Commerce Clause analysis.  Intentions would prove only the latter and not necessarily amount to a constitutional offense.  Moreover, the court recited a familiar conundrum in the construction of legislative intent, that individual motives do not necessarily reveal the purpose of "the legislature as a whole."

In sum, even assuming that a state's legislative privilege might yield in a civil suit brought by a private party in the face of an important federal interest, the need for the discovery requested here is simply too little to justify such a breach of comity. At base, this is a case in which the proof is very likely in the eating, and not in the cook's intentions.

The court refused, however, to quash the subpoena against the private consultant, CDM Smith, even if state records might be revealed.  The provision of state records to a third party diminished the claim of privilege, the court reasoned, and thus rendered the question unripe for interlocutory appeal.

The case is American Trucking Associations, Inc. v. Alviti, No. 20-2120 (1st Cir. Sept. 21, 2021).  U.S. Circuit Judge William Kayatta wrote the opinion for a unanimous panel that also comprised U.S. Circuit Judge O. Rogeriee Thompson, a Rhode Islander, and, sitting by designation, U.S. District of Massachusetts Judge Douglas P. Woodlock.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Latest installment of Trump family litigation saga includes tortious interference claim against media

A leaked Trump 1040 from 2005
Former President Donald Trump has sued his niece, Mary Trump, and The New York Times Co. in the latest installment of intrafamilial litigation related to Mary's 2020 book, Too Much and Never Enough.

Filed yesterday in Dutchess County, New York, this latest lawsuit (complaint at CNS; Times's own coverage) mainly alleges breach of contract in the earlier settlement of litigation by Mary against Donald over the handling of the estate of Donald's father, Fred, who died in 1999.  I wrote on the course blog for my Trump Litigation Seminar in 2020 about another lawsuit, which is ongoing, by Mary against Donald over the estate of her father, Fred, Jr.; and about a suit by Donald's brother Robert, who died in 2020, which failed to enjoin publication of Mary's book.

The instant complaint alleges that Mary Trump was the source of Trump tax records published by The New York Times in its 2020 exposé.  The bits that interest me are counts of tortious interference with contract and of "aiding and abetting" tortious interference—or the civil equivalent of aiding and abetting, more accurately described as "providing substantial assistance or encouragement"—against the Times.  The complaint alleges that the Times "relentlessly" encouraged Mary to leak the tax records while knowing full well that doing so would breach her confidentiality agreement.

An intentional tort, tortious interference is not confined to business or media, though it's often classified as a "business tort," its usual injury being economic loss.  And it's often included in mass comm law treatments as a "media tort," because it's sometimes deployed against news media.

The paradigmatic case of an interference tort leveled against news media is the threat of Brown & Williamson Tobacco to sue CBS for its 1995 60 Minutes interview with whistleblower-scientist Jeffrey Wigand in violation of Wigand's non-disclosure agreement.  There is a classic scene in the feature film about the matter, The Insider, in which CBS producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) loses his marbles upon admonition by CBS counsel Helen Caperelli (Gina Gershon) that truth is not a defense to interference, rather is an aggravating factor.  "What is this, Alice in Wonderland?" Bergman wonders aloud.  The instant Trump case is compelling for its similarity to the Insider facts.  

Interference as a media tort in the public imagination, or at least the lawyer-public imagination, surfaces periodically.  I wrote about the issue in 2011 when Wikileaks for a while threatened to spill the secrets of big banks.  (That fizzled.)  The high incidence of non-disclosure agreements in settlements of Me Too matters, and the former President's enthusiasm for NDAs combined to fuel another spurtive engagement with the issue in recent years. 

The issue prompts sky-is-falling missives from media because the role of, or any role for, the First Amendment as a defense to tortious interference is fuzzy.  In reality, the problem rarely gets that far.  Without unpacking the nitty gritty, it suffices to say that tortious interference has public policy built into its rigorous heuristic.  It is prohibitively difficult to press the tort against a publisher operating with at least a gloss of public interest.

The Trump complaint tries to circumnavigate that problem by accusing the Times of profit motive in its pursuit and publication of the tax records.  But the history of tort litigation against mass media is littered with failed attempts to drive the stake of profit-making through the heart of the journalistic mission.  Whatever degradations have afflicted mass media in our age of misinformation, no court is going to buy the argument against the Times on that score, at least not on these facts—cf. Palin v. N.Y. Times (N.Y. Times), in which the alleged editorial misconduct is substantially more egregious.

The case is Trump v. Trump, Index No. 2021-53963 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. filed Sept. 21, 2021).

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Court sentences 'Hotel Rwanda' activist to 25 years; U.S. plaintiffs serve Greek airline in civil action

Paul Rusesabagina
(NDLA: Creator: Erik Mårtensson/TT | Credit: TT Nyhetsbyrån CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
Real-life "Hotel Rwanda" protagonist Paul Rusesabagina was sentenced in Kigali to 25 years' imprisonment on terrorism and related charges.

PRI The World's Marco Werman has an interview with journalist and author Michela Wrong about the latest in the case.  I wrote about the case in February.

Besides the concerning criminal proceeding in Kigali, the luring in 2020 of Rusesabagina, a Belgian citizen and U.S. resident, from his San Antonio, Texas, home to his abduction on a Dubai flight purportedly bound for Burundi spawned a lawsuit in the United States.  Claiming under the alien tort statute (ATS) and Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA), Rusesabagina's family sued GainJet, the Athens-based airline that conveyed Rusesabagina in his abduction to Kigali, and Constantin Niyomwungere, who the complaint alleges was a Rwandan agent pretending to be a pastor conveying Rusesabagina to speak in Burundi.

Upon news of the criminal conviction, I thought it time to check the docket in Rusesabagina v. GainJet Aviation S.A. (Court Listener; see also family statement on conviction and more at Rusesabagina Foundation).  Regrettably, there is little of substance to report.  As one might expect, the plaintiffs have struggled with service of process.

The complaint was filed in the Western District of Texas in December 2020.  In May, plaintiffs reported to the court their intention to drop Niyomwungere from the lawsuit.  Plaintiffs wrote that Niyomungere "gave statements to the Rwanda Investigation Bureau in February and August of 2020 admitting that he had helped to kidnap Mr. Rusesabagina."  However, plaintiffs wrote, Niyomwungere is believed to reside in Burundi, and Burundi is not a signatory to the Hague Service Convention.

Meanwhile, plaintiffs had had service on alleged "co-conspirator" GainJet translated into Greek and delivered to Greek authorities under the Hague convention.  In the latest docket entries, in late August, GainJet returned a waiver of service of summons without waiving any defense of jurisdiction or venue.

Plaintiffs re-alleged in the May report that GainJet told Rusesabagina he was aboard a flight to Burundi.  Then "Gainjet’s pilot and flight crew stood idly by and watched as Mr. Rusesabagina was tied up by the hands and legs, his eyes covered, and his mouth gagged," plaintiffs further alleged, and GainJet accepted payment from the Rwandan government.

A private charter service, GainJet does fly to the United States.  In 2019, the U.S. Soccer Women's National Team flew home from the World Cup in France on a GainJet 757 to New York.  But I've not been able to identify any GainJet office or assets in the United States.  That bodes ill for having a federal district court in Texas exercise jurisdiction.

At the same time, GainJet holds itself out worldwide, and in English, as a luxury charter service.  Ongoing association with the Rusesabagina case can't be good for business amid the jet set.

A defense response in the case is due in late October.

Friday, September 17, 2021

Can 'inclusive capitalism' pull us back from the brink?

1957 U.S. propaganda poster (NARA)
"Welcome to late-stage capitalism!," DeepKarma tweeted @me earlier this month.

The exclamation was a response to my tweeted complaint that Hertz rental car quoted me a higher price when logged in as a "Gold Plus Rewards Member" than when I compared rates in an anonymous browser.  Dynamic pricing is a known feature of online retailing that rubs people the wrong way yet pours through America's dysfunctional consumer protection sieve.  I did not expect it to be a feature of Hertz's so-called "loyalty program."

Pushing the button of my angst over corporatocracy, DeepKarma's term intrigued me. My subconscience might have remembered Annie Lowrey's "Why the Phrase 'Late Capitalism' Is Suddenly Everywhere" in The Atlantic in 2017, subtitle: "An investigation into a term that seems to perfectly capture the indignities and absurdities of the modern economy."

The term dates to early 20th-century German economist Werner Sombart. Twentieth-century socialists mispredicting the demise of capitalism were fond of the term, which in turn made it unwelcome in polite democratic company.  Now our feverish commitment to deregulation, dismantling of social safety net, and bottom-line-driven abuse of human capital, etc., resulting in, inter alia, an enormous wealth gap and aforementioned charade of consumer protection regulation, have brought the term back into fashion.  I'm an economic conservative, by the way, but there is no free market if people are not free to enter into it and make free choices once they're there.

Coincidentally, I recently mentioned the work (and kind support for my work) of Syracuse law professor Robert Ashford.  It happens that Ashford is a leader of a community of scholars who have for decades been advocating, often screaming into the wind, for economic policy solutions to come from economics itself.

More often than not, the field of economics posits only descriptive research or resorts to classical norms such as laissez-faire regulatory policy without critical introspection.  Ashford is the founder of interdisciplinary "socio-economics," which strives for "inclusive capitalism": in my words, to use economic science to actually make life better for everyone, rather than for some at the expense of others.

A short but steep learning curve is required before one digs into the potential of socio-economics, in the vision of Ashford and colleagues.  Here is an introductory kit:

As these titles indicate, the interdisciplinary nature of socio-economics and inclusive capitalism make the sub-field accessible to scholars, for both understanding and participation, in a range of disciplines, both soft and hard sciences, besides law and economics, and also understandable to anyone.  Professor Ashford is always willing to invest time and energy to help potential believers come up to speed, and he is a captivating speaker for conferences and classes.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Court affirms widow's $21m verdict vs. Big Tobacco, upholds punitive damages despite '98 settlement

Marlboro Red Open Box by Sarah Johnson (CC BY 2.0)
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today affirmed a $21m verdict against Philip Morris USA in favor of the widow of a smoker who died of lung cancer in 2016.

Fred R. Laramie started smoking in 1970, at age 13, when a store clerk gave him a free sample pack of Marlboros, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) recounted.  He became a pack-a-day smoker and remained loyal to the brand, unable to quit despite trying, until his diagnosis and death in 2016.

Laramie's wife, Pamela, sued under the Massachusetts wrongful death statute.  She alleged that Marlboros were dangerously defective for their engineered addictive properties, an excess of the risk of smoking known to consumers and indicated on cigarette labels since 1969.  The jury in the Superior Court awarded Pamela Laramie $11m in compensatory damages and $10m in punitive damages.

The bulk of the high court's 37-page, unanimous opinion analyzes the inventive defense argument that the large punitive award is precluded by the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) of state claims against Big Tobacco.  As the court recalled in a footnote:

The [Big Tobacco] defendants agreed to pay approximately $240 billion to the settling States over twenty-five years, and to pay approximately $9 billion per year thereafter in perpetuity, subject to various adjustments. The agreement allocated approximately four percent of those payments to the Commonwealth. The defendants also agreed to restrict cigarette advertising and lobbying efforts, to permit public access to certain internal documents, and to fund youth education programs.

Punitive damages are not awarded in Massachusetts common law; they must be authorized by statute.  The wrongful death statute authorizes punitive damages when the defendant caused injury "by ... malicious, willful, wanton or reckless conduct ... or by ... gross negligence."

The plaintiff successfully relied on internal documents of Big Tobacco that demonstrate the artificial manipulation of the nicotine content in cigarettes.  In the 1990s, the revelation of such records marked the plaintiff breakthrough that precipitated the collapse of Big Tobacco's long-successful wall of defenses in product liability litigation.  The revelation represented, more or less, the information at issue in the case of whistleblower-scientist Jeffrey Wigand, reported in 1996 by Vanity Fair and 60 Minutes and subject of the 1999 feature film, The Insider.

The SJC rejected the defense argument of claim preclusion.  The court recognized a qualitative difference between the claims of the Attorney General that resulted in the MSA and the claim of Laramie that persuaded a jury.

The "wrong" the plaintiff sought to remedy was the loss she and her daughter sustained due to Laramie's death, caused by Philip Morris's malicious, willful, wanton, reckless, or grossly negligent conduct, see [wrongful death statute,] G. L. c. 229, § 2. The "wrong" the Attorney General sought to remedy, by contrast, was the Commonwealth's increased medical expenditures caused by Philip Morris's commission of unfair or deceptive acts or practices in violation of [consumer protection law,] G. L. c. 93A, § 2.

Product liability, like punitive damages, is not a function of common law in Massachusetts, at least formally.  The commonwealth imposes strict product liability through a wide-ranging consumer protection statute, "chapter 93A."  Product liability is effectuated formally as a warranty obligation by eliminating the requirement of contractual privity between plaintiff and defendant.  But from that point, functionally, the courts breathe life into the system with multistate common law norms.

Probably Philip Morris's best argument for claim preclusion arose in the theory that chapter 93A affords treble damages, which were incorporated, in theory, into the MSA, and therefore overlaps with chapter 229 in wrongful death.  But the court distinguished the two statutes.  While both afford punitive recovery, the tests and purposes differ.  Damages under 93A were predicated on commercial practices that caused injury to state interests, while 229 damages, which are not capped, arise from culpability in inflicting personal injury on a decedent in a wrongful death action, here, Fred Laramie.

The court rejected a range of other asserted errors, whether because not error or harmless error, in relation to evidentiary admissions, jury instructions, and closing arguments.  Philip Morris had prevailed in the trial court on plaintiff claims of negligence and civil conspiracy.

With regard to jury instructions, the SJC distinguished product liability in warning defect, which was not plaintiff's theory of liability, from the design defect the plaintiff did claim.  The jury was properly instructed, the court held, that 

congressionally mandated warnings were adequate as a matter of law to warn Mr. Laramie and other members of the public of the hazards associated with smoking. The law, however, does not permit a cigarette manufacturer through its statements or actions to mislead consumers or make misrepresentations about the risks or hazards associated with smoking.

Philip Morris complained that the jury was thereby misled to test for liability in misrepresentation or warning defect.  The excerpted bit strikes me, too, as problematic.  Nevertheless, the SJC wrote that the jury was correctly instructed on the elements, so the instructions were "clear" when "viewed as a whole."

Interesting for torts pedagogy in product liability is the court's recitation of defense theories that were rejected at trial.

In its defense, Philip Morris introduced evidence that there was no adequate, safer alternative design for Marlboro cigarettes. An expert for Philip Morris testified that all cigarettes are dangerous, and that any proposed alternative design was not safer, not acceptable to consumers, or not technologically feasible. Philip Morris maintained that Marlboro cigarettes were not unreasonably dangerous to Laramie because Laramie understood the risks of smoking.

Reports linking smoking to cancer had been published in the 1950s and 1960s, and people had recognized that tobacco was addictive "going back almost [one hundred] years."  Moreover, there was testimony that every pack of Marlboro cigarettes sold between 1970 and 1984 contained a warning label from the Surgeon General that "cigarette smoking is dangerous to your health," and that every pack sold thereafter contained one of four warning labels that are still in use. Cigarette advertisements also were banned from television and radio beginning in January 1971, when Laramie was thirteen or fourteen years old. In addition, since January 1972, every print advertisement for cigarettes has been required to include a warning label similar to those on cigarette packs.

In sum, based on this evidence, Philip Morris argued that Laramie caused his own death because, despite being adequately informed of the health risks of smoking, Laramie chose to smoke, and then chose not to quit smoking.

(Paragraph breaks added.)  The plaintiff overcame the no-alternative-design defense by hypothesizing that Fred Laramie might not have become addicted to a low-nicotine cigarette.  Defense theories in assumption of risk, personal choice, and sufficiency of warning all fell short against the showing of nicotine manipulation.

The case is Laramie v. Philip Morris USA, Inc., No. SJC-13070 (Mass. Sept. 15, 2021) (oral argument at Suffolk Law).  Justice Dalila Argaez Wendlandt authored the opinion for the unanimous panel of six justices.  Disclosure: As an attorney in private practice, I worked on the Philip Morris defense team on tobacco litigation in the 1990s.

Monday, September 13, 2021

'Don't panic,' lawyers say, as Oz High Court clears way for website liability over defamatory user comments


The High Court of Australia last week greenlit defamation claims against website operators for user comments, the latest evidence of crumbling global immunity doctrine represented in the United States by the ever more controversial section 230.

There is plenty news online about the Aussie case, and I did not intend to comment.  For the academically inclined, social media regulation was the spotlight issue of the premiere Journal of Free Speech Law.

Yet I thought it worthwhile to share commentary from Clayton Utz, in which lawyers Douglas Bishop, Ian Bloemendal, and Kym Fraser evinced a mercifully less alarmist tone when they wrote, "don't panic just yet."

The Australian apex court extended the well known and usual rule of common law defamation, when not statutorily suspended: that the tale bearer is as responsible as the tale maker.  In the tech context, in other words, "[b]y 'facilitating, encouraging and thereby assisting the posting of comments' by the public," the defendants, notwithstanding their actual knowledge or lack thereof, "became the publishers," Bishop, Bloemendal, and Fraser wrote.

But it's a touch more complicated than purely strict liability.  "What is relevant is an intentional participation in the process by which a posted comment may become available to be accessed by other Facebook users," Bishop, et al., opined.  "So does that mean you should take down your corporate social media pages? That would be an over-reaction to this decision."

The lawyers emphasized that this appeal was interlocutory.  On remand in New South Wales, the media defendants may assert defenses, including innocent dissemination, justification, and truth.  Bishop, et al., advise:

In the meantime, if your organisation maintains a social media page which allows comments on your posts, you should review your monitoring of third-party comments and the training of your social media team in flagging and (if necessary) escalating problems to ensure you can have respectful, non-defamatory conversation with stakeholders.

Funny they should say so.  Coincidentally, I gave "feedback" to Google Blogger just Friday that a new option should be added for comment moderation, something like "archive," or "decline to publish for now."  The only options Google offers are spam, trash, and publish.

I have two comments posted to this blog in recent years that I hold in "Awaiting Moderation" purgatory, because they fit none of my three options.  Every time I go to comment moderation, I have to see these two at the top.  The comments express possible defamation: allegations of criminality or otherwise ill character about third parties referenced on the blog.  I don't want to republish these comments, because I do not know whether they are true.  But I don't want to trash them, because they are not necessarily valueless.  Moreover, they might later be evidence in someone else's defamation suit.

I moderate comments for this blog, so I don't think it's too much to ask the same of anyone else who publishes comments, whether individual, small business, or the transnational information empires that peer over my shoulder.  

I do worry, though, about how that works out for the democratizing potential of the internet.  I'm trained to recognize potentially defamatory or privacy invasive content; I've done it for a living.  Are we prepared to punish the blogger who contributes valuably to the information sphere, but lacks the professional training to catch a legal nuance?  Or to pay the democratic price of disallowing dialog on that writer's blog?  As a rule, ignorance of the law is no excuse, in defamation law no less than in any other area.  But understanding media torts asks a lot more of the average netizen than knowing not to jaywalk.

I don't profess answers, at least not today.  But I can tell that the sentiment of my law students, especially those a generation or more younger than I, is unreticent willingness to hold corporations strictly liable for injurious speech on their platforms.  So if I were counsel to Google or Facebook, I would be planning for a radically changed legal future.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

FOIA committee ponders access amid privatization

I had the great privilege last week to speak to the U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Advisory Committee, working under the aegis of the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) in the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) on the subject of access to the private sector in the public interest.

The OPEN the Government Act of 2007 augmented FOIA to follow public records into the hands of government contractors.  But the federal FOIA's reach into the private sector remains extremely limited relative to other access-to-information (ATI) systems in the United States and the world.  U.S. states vary widely in approach; the vast majority of state open records acts reaches into the private sector upon some test of state delegation, whether public funding, function, or power.  The same approach predominates in Europe.

The lack of such a mechanism at the federal level in the United States has resulted in a marked deficit of accountability in privatization.  The problem is especially pronounced in areas in which civil rights are prone to abuse, such as privatized prison services, over which the FOIA Advisory Committee and Congress have expressed concern.  By executive order, President Biden is ending the federal outsourcing of incarceration.  But access policy questions remain in questions about the past, in waning contracts, and in persistent privatization in some states.

As I have written in recent years, and examined relative to ATI in the United States, Europe, and India, an emerging model of ATI in Africa advances a novel theory of private-sector access in the interest of human-rights accountability.  I was privileged to share this model, and the theory behind it, with the committee.  I thank the committee for its indulgence, especially OGIS Director Alina Semo for her leadership and Villanova Law Professor Tuan Samahon for his interest in my work now and in the past.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Lawyer-artist offers savory tort slogan

I just discovered this line of products from "LawPhrases: Wearable Law."

Creator and Texas "lawyer-slash-artist" Charles Fincher also possesses the mind and pen behind LawComix.

No official connection to The Savory Tort, but I like his style.

Thursday, September 9, 2021

So now you care about academic mobbing

Angry Mob by Robert Couse-Baker, CC BY 2.0
Princeton politics professor Keith E. Whittington (on the blog) has a wisely worded op-ed, on The Volokh Conspiracy at Reason, on the too often abdicated responsibility of university administrators to push back against viewpoint-based campus mobbing of faculty.

"It is now a familiar pattern," he writes: attack, petition, social media campaign, demand for termination.  Of the university's duty, he writes:

University presidents have a responsibility in such a situation. It should go without saying, but unfortunately it does not, that they have a responsibility to actually live up to their constitutional and contractual responsibilities and refrain from sanctioning the faculty member for saying something that someone finds controversial. They should insist that harassment and threats directed against members of the faculty will not be tolerated. Professors should at least be confident that when the mobs arrive, pitchforks in hand, that university leaders will not flinch and give in to the demands of the mob.

I hope the piece hits the desk of every university president in the land with a thunderclap of j'accuse.

Yet it is fascinating to me to see described today as cliché what was once fringe.  Canadian sociologist Kenneth Westhues, professor emeritus at the University of Waterloo, published his Workplace Mobbing in Academe (2004) seventeen years ago, and that book was built on his earlier Eliminating Professors (1998).

By the time I met Ken in 2009, he was already the world's leading expert on academic mobbing.  He still is.  Westhues's website is still the online clearinghouse on mobbing as a sociological phenomenon. But he's almost never cited, at least in the legal lit.  I find eight references to Westhues on Westlaw's JLR database, and none in the last dozen years.

At a program at the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) in 2010, I accepted the invitation of Westhues and Syracuse University law professor Robert Ashford to speak of my experience.  Ashford perceived a worthwhile connection to his inventive work in socio-economics, and Westhues flattered me with my name as a participle

The splash we made at AALS and in legal academics eleven years ago might be described well as mostly indifferent curiosity.  Mostly modifies indifferent, not curiosity.  

I wrote in the Journal of College and University Law in 2009 about the need for broader academic freedom, beyond published research and into the professorial "penumbra."  I presented at AAUP, besides AALS.  The article was cited once in a 2011 bibliography and once in 2013.  (Thanks, Profs. Benson and Jones.)  And that was that.

Not until cancel culture reached the well known coastal scholars of academia's elite institutions did mobbing hit the mainstream.  Now a lot of important people are wringing their hands over academic freedom and waning tenure.

Too bad they don't seem able to find my article.  Or Westhues's work.  Is there really a wheel until it's invented at a "top" school?

It's nice to see serious people having serious thoughts about academic freedom, at last.  But it's too late to give solace to a generation of victim-scholars.  And it's probably too late to resuscitate intellectual liberty on campus, for at least a generation yet.

Friday, September 3, 2021

With Keaton as Ken Feinberg for 9/11 20th, 'Worth' challenges tort norms with study of victim comp

Worth, a dramatization of Kenneth Feinberg's special mastership of the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund, dropped on Netflix today in select markets.

I frame my 1L Torts class with exploration of tort alternatives, and I periodically infuse our study with comparative law.  Typically, I begin Torts I in August with a study of the New Zealand accident compensation system.

I ask the class whether Americans might similarly embrace social compensation.  Notwithstanding their personal predilections, students readily identify objections based in deterrence dynamics, the American ethos of personal responsibility, and our cultural priority of "day in court" entitlement.

In the spring semester, I round out Torts II with a return to tort alternatives in America's exceptions to the rule, easing our study from worker compensation to compensation funds, such as 9/11 and BP.  Students are then challenged to consider: if Americans find the notion of New Zealand-style social compensation system so repellent, why do we embrace it when the stakes are especially high?

For two years now, I have used the German-made Playing God (2017), a documentary about Brockton, Mass.-native Feinberg, as a springboard for class discussion of the necessary parameters of social compensation systems, including valuations.  Previously, I used recorded lectures by Feinberg.  A good, recent, and more-concise-than-usual item is his talk at Chicago Ideas Week on the theme of his 2005 book, What is Life Worth?—the original title of the movie, Worth, according to IMDb.

Even if a torts professor does not wish to cover alternative compensation systems, these are useful audiovisual catalysts for discussion of the valuation of life and loss, as part of the study of damages.  Other worthy tools, in the podcast vein, include "Worth" on Radiolab (2014) and Feinberg's appearance on Freakonomics Radio (2018).

Starring Michael Keaton as Feinberg, Worth is necessarily a Hollywood conflation of events and issues, focusing on 9/11 upon its upcoming 20th anniversary.  Still, plenty of effort is exerted to remain faithful to history.  Feinberg is pictured enduring the heat of an angry and frustrated assembly of families, after which he has informative if discordant exchanges with individuals.  There are also discrete scenes of victim testimonies that might seem interruptive of flow in an ordinary drama, but can't help but captivate in the haunting context of 9/11.

These interactions and the orbiting characters who emerge in the story are clearly modeled on, or amalgams of, real events and persons, many of whom were recorded in videos from the time, and clips of which can be seen in Playing God.  Exemplifying his skills as a character actor, refined in landmark roles from Beetlejuice to Birdman to Ray Kroc, Keaton offers a compelling portrayal of Feinberg as the peculiar human protagonist whose likeness has become inextricable from American mass compensation systems, for better and for worse.

Worth is a superb ride and offers endless starting points for serious academic discourse on the subject of compensation models, not to mention the role of the legal profession and the complex sociology of death.  The film is a welcome addition to the audiovisual arsenal for classroom teaching to stimulate deep thinking on the wisdom of tort law.


Thursday, September 2, 2021

SDNY rules against Locast, knifes beleaguered free TV

[UPDATE: At 9:47 a.m. today, Thursday, Sept. 2, I received word that Locast is suspending operations, effective immediately.]  

Locast, an online retransmitter of broadcast television, and the American public together suffered a major blow on August 31, as the federal district court in New York handed partial summary judgment to ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC in the networks' copyright infringement lawsuit.

Locast has irritated me, but only for not expanding fast enough.  Where I live, near Providence, R.I., the service is not available.  It is available in New York to the south and Boston to the north, but access is strictly geo-fenced.  As a result, my family cannot see free broadcast TV without springing for an expensive subscription to a cable service or streaming-channel consolidator.

That's not really Locast's fault.  Broadcasters have reduced their power over the years, making free TV incrementally more difficult to access.  I live just nine miles from the broadcast towers that serve the Rhode Island state capital, but I cannot receive any signal with an interior or window-mounted antenna.

Indeed, the networks seem to want out of the broadcast game altogether.  Kickbacks from online consolidators such as Hulu Live and YouTube TV, and the networks' profits from their own services, such as Paramount+ (and Hulu Live, in part), are more lucrative than broadcasting and come with no FCC regulatory strings attached.  Local affiliates, including vital broadcast news outlets, fall through the cracks, wreaking further havoc in our information market, but that's no matter to the bottom line.  Locast threatened to breathe life back into the corpse of free TV, so the networks pursued the service with a vengeance. 

Locast is a non-profit, and its "business" model is simple.  It sets up a technology hub in a place such as Boston and converts local broadcast signals to online streams.  Home cord-cutters thus have their access to free TV restored through the internet service they already have, no antenna needed.

On the face of it, of course, this business model would constitute copyright infringement for copying and redistributing the broadcast signals.  But Congress, in a rare showing of commitment to the public interest rather than to the profit margins of our corporate overlords, built an exemption into the Copyright Act.  Governmental or nonprofit organizations are permitted to retransmit "without any purpose of direct or indirect commercial advantage, and without charge to the recipients of the secondary transmission other than assessments necessary to defray the actual and reasonable costs of maintaining and operating the secondary transmission service."

Locast is freely available and supported only by voluntary donations.  But streaming is interrupted at 15-minute intervals by 15-second pleas for donations.  Like the ad-free versions of pay-TV services, Locast offers absolution from these interruptions in exchange for a minimum "donation" of $5 per month.  The $5-donation model proved sufficiently successful that Locast was able to cover its operating costs and use the excess to expand to new markets.

And that, expansion, was Locast's sin, in the eyes of the district court.  Judge Louis L. Stanton opined that Congress could have written "maintaining and operating and expanding" into the statutory exemption, but did not.  So Locast's dedication of additional accounts received to expansion was fatal to its claim of copyright exemption.

I find the court's reading of the statute exceedingly cramped.  Locast plainly is spending money to do precisely what Congress intended: making free TV available to people who cannot receive it without hiring a contractor to install an antenna tower.  That the books must balance within each micro-market rather than across live markets, in the utter absence of evidence that a dime has been diverted to any other objective, absurdly splits hairs.

Locast lawyers, joined by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, say they are examining the ruling.  Locast announced yesterday that it is for now ceasing streaming interruptions requesting donations. 

There are ways that Locast can work around its current predicament, I reason. Locast has been supported by some major corporate donors who are not old-school TV insiders, such as AT&T, which contributed $500,000.  Internet service providers such as AT&T benefit from Locast, because retransmissions are streamed into homes, rather than broadcast.  With more careful balancing of the books, it should be possible, if cumbersome, to parse operations between discrete markets and to raise capital to support expansion directly.

It's a shame that such gamesmanship should be required for what is clearly a public service.  And a bigger problem might remain for American information and entertainment consumers in the ongoing, if prolonged, death throes of free TV.  We might hope that Congress would obviate the fray with bold measures that would reinvigorate the landscape of electronic expression by enhancing public-interest limitations on digital intellectual property and guaranteeing access to the internet for all Americans.

We also might hope to see pigs take flight.

The case is American Broadcasting Cos. v. Goodfriend, No. 1:19-cv-07136 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 31, 2021). I bet Judge Stanton is one of those people who has both cable and Fubo and can't use either one unless someone helps him with the remote.