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.

Friday, December 31, 2021

Atlantic's Applebaum adds to reminscences of academic, editorial freedom; mob justice rules now

In an article in the October Atlantic, Anne Applebaum examined the potentially devastating effect of cancel culture on academic and editorial freedom.

With her usual incisive writing, Applebaum compared contemporary cancellation with the summary imposition of the scarlet letter on Hester Prynne and described how today's mob justice is dangerously empowered by social media.

What's missing from Applebaum's tale is recognition that the threat to academic freedom is not new.  Workplace mobbing has been studied since the 1980s ("ganging up"), and, as I have written before, sociologist Kenneth Westhues wrote about the threat to academic freedom in a 2004 book. I know of what I speak (2005-10, 2017-19).

The following lines struck me as most salient in Applebaum's analysis.

A journalist told me that when he was summarily fired, his acquaintances sorted themselves into three groups.  First, the "heroes," very small in number, who "insist on due process before damaging another person's life and who stick by their friends." Second, the "villains," who think you should "immediately lose your livelihood as soon as the allegation is made." .... But the majority were in the third category: "good but useless.  They don't necessarily think the worst of you, and they would like you to get due process, but, you know, they haven't looked into it."

This observation is spot on.  My heroes once were two in number, another time zero.  One of my heroes paid a price for his chronic condition of character.  Villains are rewarded by employers.  But I respect honest villains more than I respect the "good but useless," who are the vast majority of academic colleagues, for their hypocrisy is galling.  That this group is the majority is precisely what makes "ganging up," or "mobbing," possible; the villains, otherwise, are too few in number to get away with it.  Especially in legal education, I have been horrified repeatedly by the selfish indifference to wrongs in their midst borne by people who hold themselves out as champions of civil rights.

Sometimes advocates of the new mob justice claim that these are minor punishments, that the loss of a job is not serious, that people should be able to accept their situation and move on.

Indeed, in my experience, I vividly remember one colleague acknowledging the wrongfulness of the persecution, but advising that I "just wait five years" for people to forget the false allegations.  Never mind the opportunity cost to career, nor providing for my family in the interim, nor the uncertainty that five years would be enough, nor the inference of guilt that would derive from acquiescence.

"I wake up every morning afraid to teach," one academic told me: The university campus that he once loved has become a hazardous jungle, full of traps.

Check.  My classroom students are both my greatest motivation and my greatest fear.  I think of both every single time a class is about to begin.  It is a difficult and stressful dissonance to manage. 

[T]he protagonists of most of these stories tend to be successful....  They were professors who liked to chat or drink with their students, ... people who blurred the lines between social life and institutional life....  [Yale Law Professor Amy Chua:] "I do extra work; I get to know them," she told me. "I write extra-good recommendations." ....

It's not just the hyper-social and the flirtatious who have found themselves victims of the New Puritanism....  Others are high achievers, who in turn set high standards for their colleagues or students.  When those standards are not met, these people say so, and that doesn't go over well.  Some of them like to push boundaries, especially intellectual boundaries, or to question orthodoxies.

First, yes.  Westhues long ago identified jealousy, revenge, and schadenfreude as mob motivators.  Hard work and success make one a target.  Second, also yes.  To be fair, early in my academic career, work probably was too much my life: too much overlap between co-workers and social life.  In my defense, that's not unusual for an ambitious young person, especially after relocating to a new city for a new career.  

I've been disabused of that ethic.  Co-workers willing to sacrifice you to save or glorify themselves are not your friends.  Workplaces and schools design social events with the intent to mislead, imbuing senses of belonging and community that only serve the master's interests.  At today's university, students and faculty rather should be forewarned explicitly that if they find themselves on the wrong side of the groupthink, they will be devoured by the mob.

Workplaces once considered demanding are now described as toxic.  The sort of open criticism, voiced in front of other people, that was once normal in newsrooms and academic seminars is now as unacceptable as chewing gum with your mouth open.

Just so.  The kind of hard-nosed, openly aired editorial critique that was a staple of my education as a journalism student, and which conditioned me to take heat and to be stronger for it, I wouldn't dare administer in today's classroom.  Some of my law students understand the new game and read between the lines, and they'll be OK.  Some will be shocked the first time they are across the table from an adversary or in front of a judge who wasn't schooled to coddle.

Students and professors ... all are aware of the kind of society they now inhabit.  That's why they censor themselves, why they steer clear of certain topics, why they avoid discussing anything too sensitive for fear of being mobbed or ostracized or fired without due process.

True.  I have resisted modestly on this front, refusing to purge sensitive content from class materials.  But I do prioritize-down the sensitive, choose materials strategically, and exert tighter control of student discussion.  As usual, this decades-old practice in the academic trenches became a point of public concern only when Yale and Harvard professors started talking about it, as if they discovered the problem. 

If nothing is done, Applebaum concluded,

[u]niversities will no longer be dedicated to the creation and dissemination of knowledge but to the promotion of student comfort and the avoidance of social media attacks.

"[W]ill"?

The article is Anne Applebaum, The New Puritans, The Atlantic, Oct. 2021, at 60.

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Uruguay busca idear carta de derechos digital

Palacio Legislativo en Montevideo
(foto por Tiana Gerfauo Gonzalez CC BY-SA 3.0)
Uruguay está redactando una carta de derechos digitales.

En agosto, escribí sobre la iniciativa pionera para constitucionalizar los derechos digitales en Chile. Ahora Uruguay está haciendo lo mismo.

Una comisión de expertos en Uruguay estará integrada por representantes del gobierno, de las ONG, y de la academia. En 2020, escribí con favor de la voluntad de Uruguay, de mentalidad anti-cártel, de transmitir al público los partidos de fútbol nacional. Los uruguayos tienen la mentalidad adecuada.

Considerando la adopción generalizada de sistemas de protección de datos en América del Sur, sobre  el ejemplo de la GDPR europeano, especialmente en Chile, y ahora prometidas innovaciones en derechos digitales, los Estados Unidos parece cada vez más alienado como una nación que no está dispuesta a obligar a la corporatocracia a ceder a las necesidades de las personas y los derechos humanos.

HT @ Observacom.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

News reports heroicize resistance to robbery, but storeowner's murder counsels common law wisdom

Mahaseth and his wife
(posted to Twitter by Sam Smink, WHDH 7 News)
A man was charged in early November for fatally shooting a Fall River, Mass., convenience store owner.

The murder of Stop N Save owner Lal Kishor Mahaseth in October shocked the Fall River community, near where I live in eastern Rhode Island.  But the circumstances that gave rise to it are all too familiar in Massachusetts south coast cities.

To help my Torts I class wrestle with the interrelated defenses of self, other, and property, I sometimes show a video of a local convenience store owner who fought back against would-be robbers.  When the viewer knows that no one was seriously hurt in the end, the video can be funny, while stirring serious conversation on matters such as tort doctrine, "stand your ground" laws, and the expectations of the social contract in the unique American culture of guns and personal responsibility.

Sadly and oddly, there are many videos from which to choose for this exercise, even limiting the search to nearby New Bedford, Mass.  My favorite video dates to 2012, when owner-operator Nicholas Dawoud turned the tables on assailants at the St. Elias Mini Market.  This story from WJAR has it all: robbery turned to personal threat; the frustrated defender, informed by past offenses, erupted; and other local customers joined the fray.

The tragedy in Fall River layers the problem with an added complexity.  Do news stories that glamorize defending locals incentivize a wrong choice?  Surveillance video in the Fall River case reportedly shows that 54-year-old Mahaseth resisted his armed assailants, at one point throwing a chair at them.  Does citizen frustration with failed policing in stressed economic times justify a different response to the problems of privileging defense?

Historic common law norms favor life over property in all circumstances.  The result is a familiar law school hypothetical with which students often struggle: the rightful owner of property has no privilege to commit personal attack to defend against threatened violence to dispossess, as long as the threat is merely contingent (albeit often unprovably so in real life) on the owner's refusal to surrender.  The theory is that no one will be hurt, and the wronged property owner can resort to assistance by proper authorities.

However, owing to the powerful American ethos of property and personal responsibility, the historic common law result is as likely to be excepted as applied, in practice.  The glamorization of physical defenses of property such as Dawoud's reinforces the incompatibility of the common law logic with many Americans' thinking.

Mahaseth, who was born in Nepal and earned a degree there in education, is survived by his wife and three children, The Herald News reported in October.  Prosecutors charged 37-year-old Nelson F. Coelho with murder, attempted armed and masked robbery, and carrying an illegal firearm, Mass Live reported in November.

[I acknowledge a kind note of Prof. Volokh, who aptly observes that non-deadly force in defense of property is permitted by common law.  I admittedly conflated defense by force at all, as I suggest, or fear, that the nuance is lost on the aggressor who responds violently, and potentially fatally.]

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Police officer delivering lunch was on the job for worker comp but not for statutory immunity, court rules

Pixabay by Ronald Plett (license)
A personal injury claim against a police officer's automobile insurer highlights the different scope of what it means to be "on the job" for purposes of statutory immunity and worker compensation.

In a case the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) decided in late October, Raynham, Mass., police officers on mandatory firearms training on public property in 2017 organized takeout for lunch for a paid break.  Returning to the training site in his personal truck with the takeout, one officer drove the gravel path "faster than [he] should have," braked, and slid into and injured another officer seated at a picnic table.

The plaintiff-officer was permitted to claim state worker compensation, because he was injured on the job.  The defendant-driver's insurer meanwhile claimed immunity under the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act, because the insured acted "within the scope of his ... employment."  The SJC denied the insurer of the defense.

The common law test for "vicarious liability, respondeat superior, and agency," the court explained, is "whether the act was in furtherance of the employer's work," and the same test informs the invocation of statutory immunity.  That analysis comprises three factors in Massachusetts law: "(1) 'whether the conduct in question is of the kind the employee is hired to perform'; (2) 'whether it occurs within authorized time and space limits'; and (3) 'whether it is motivated, at least in part, by a purpose to serve the employer.'"

Only the middle factor favored the insurer, the court opined, so the analysis on balance disfavored immunity.

Worker compensation and common law master-servant doctrine are indistinguishable as a practical matter in many cases, when an employee suffers injury doing the employer's bidding.  Doctrines in both veins rely on "scope" or "course of employment" tests.

But even when the language is the same, the tests differ, and in some cases, the difference matters.  Worker compensation tests only loosely for a causal connection between employment injury, thus famously allowing a traveling salesman to recover when his overnight motel was destroyed by a tornado.  Vicarious liability, and thus, Massachusetts immunity, requires a closer causal nexus between the employee's specific pursuit and the injury that results.

In this analysis, the defendant-driver's lunchtime carelessness, for which he was suspended for five days, was not a "frolic" as escapes worker compensation coverage, but, at the same time, was not in furtherance of the employer's work, so qualified for neither vicarious liability nor statutory immunity.

The case is Berry v. Commerce Insurance Co., No. SJC-13089 (Mass. Oct. 25, 2021).  Justice Dalila Wendlandt wrote the unanimous court opinion.

Monday, December 27, 2021

After dog bites postman, $375k jury award fits between floor and ceiling of high-low settlement agreement

Pxhere CC0
In a dog-bites-postman case in Massachusetts, the Appeals Court in late October held that the parties' "high-low" settlement agreement was a "contract like any other" and did not bar the defendants' appeal.

The plaintiff-postman in the case was covering an unfamiliar route when he was bit in the wrist and thigh by German shepherd-golden retriever mix "Chewbacca." At trial, the jury awarded the plaintiff $375,000 in damages. The defendants asked for a new trial, arguing that the jury was tainted by improper admission of information about the plaintiff's federal worker compensation benefits, in violation of the collateral source rule.

Before the jury verdict, on the last day of trial, the parties had struck a handwritten "high-low" settlement agreement.  They set a floor recovery of $150,000, if the jury verdict were anything less, and a ceiling of $1,000,000, if the jury verdict were anything more.

The plaintiff argued that the settlement agreement precluded appeal.  But it didn't say that.  Holding that the settlement agreement was to be construed as a "contract like any other," the Appeals Court found no language convincingly demonstrating defendants' waiver of appeals.  At the same time, the court held that the evidentiary admission in violation of the collateral source rule was harmless error, affirming the denial of new trial.

Regarding the high-low agreement, the court found "little law in Massachusetts."  More than 20 years ago, two New York attorneys described the agreements as "[a]n often underutilized and misunderstood litigation technique." At NYU in 2014, a research fellow examined the agreements' potential and limits in New York, Maryland, and Virginia; see also the ABA Journal in 2005.  An Illinois attorney wrote favorably about the "misunderstood" agreements in 2019, after a medmal plaintiff-baby's verdict was halved by a high-low from $101 million.  Virginia attorneys advised on drafting the agreements in 2007.

In a harder scholarly vein, research published in The Journal of Law & Economics in 2014 reported empirical research on high-low conditions and posited optimal conditions for their appearance.  Published soon thereafter, a Michigan law student argued that high-low agreements should be disclosed to juries.

The Massachusetts case is David v. Kelly, No. 20-P-706 (Mass. App. Ct. Oct. 25, 2021). Justice Mary Thomas Sullivan wrote the opinion of the court, which Justice Kenneth V. Desmond Jr. joined.  Justice Sabita Singh dissented as to the court's conclusion that the error on the collateral source rule was harmless rather than prejudicial.

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Missionaries kidnapped in Haiti reach freedom, but murky U.S. policy generally fails ransomed abductees

Haitian child in 2012 (photo by Feed My Starving Children CC BY 2.0).
News came last week that the last 12 of 17 Christian missionaries abducted for ransom in Haiti in October either escaped or were released, reports vary, and walked miles to freedom. The circumstances of their liberation raise questions about the ongoing apparent lack of any clear U.S. policy on abductions abroad.

Less well reported than the story of the missionaries, Haitian lawyer and university professor Patrice Dérénoncourt was shot and killed on October 31 by the kidnappers who abducted him in October.  Dérénoncourt taught crimonology and constitutional law in the Economic, Social and Political Sciences Department of the Université Notre-Dame d'Haiti.

Dérénoncourt and the missionaries are typical of the some 800 kidnappings in Haiti just this year. Economic desperation and political turmoil have resulted in flourishing gang violence, and kidnappers seeking ransom have targeted aid workers and the education sector, children included.  Struggling to maintain rule of law, the Haitian government has not been able to get a handle on the problem.  Foreign governments seem either habitually disinterested or similarly impotent.

In the Dérénoncourt case, some of the $900,000 ransom demanded had been paid.  It is unclear whether any ransom was paid for the missionaries.  Representatives of the families and, apparently, the U.S. government through the FBI, were involved in negotiation over kidnappers' outrageous demand for $1 million per person.  Whatever reports are accurate, and whether or not a ransom was paid or the pressure simply became untenable, I find it difficult to believe that the last 12 missionaries surmounted a concerted effort by the kidnappers to keep them.

The Biden Administration was understandably tight-lipped about how it was dealing with the kidnapping crisis while it was going on.  Now that the event is over, it's time for an open conversation about what U.S. policy should be, both with regard to kidnappings and to the social and economic catastrophe unfolding less than 700 miles from Miami.

In the broader picture, U.S. policy on abductions for ransom seems at best inconsistent and at worst incoherent.  In late October, families of Americans still detained abroad, in China, Egypt, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela, called on the Biden Administration to do better.  "When we do meet with ... officials," the families wrote, "we feel we are being kept in the dark about what the U.S. government intends to do to free our loved ones."

The murder of an educator such as Dérénoncourt sets back rule of law in Haiti not by just one mind, but by a generation of students he would have taught.  Persistent instability in Haiti meanwhile is contributing to a burgeoning refugee crisis in the Americas and threatens to destabilize democracy in the Caribbean.  Even an isolationist American administration can ignore Haiti for only so long.

Saturday, December 25, 2021

Law student's diligence helps abandoned child reach win in immigration court, pathway to U.S. residency

Belatedly, but aptly for the holiday, with permission of the UMass Law Immigration Clinic and the student, I am proud to share the news that Sebastian Garcia-Holguin contributed vitally to late October court holding allowing an abandoned child to remain in the United States and petition for legal residency.


The UMass Law Immigration Clinic has been overseen for two decades by my friend and colleague, Professor Irene Scharf.  Professor Scharf plans to retire in the upcoming year.  She surely deserves that reward, but the clinic will be the poorer for her absence.  I can scarcely imagine the number of lives in which she and her students have directly effected changed for the better.  Precious few of us in the business of legal education could compete with her record.

[Text of image:]

During Sebastian Garcia-Holguin's spring semester in the clinic, he spent countless hours on a dependency case for a neglected and abandoned immigrant child. He gathered information (interviewing our client) and completed affidavits and other required documents to file with the Probate and Family Court.

Based on his work, the court ruled last week in the child's favor, that she is dependent on the court and that it is in her best interest to remain in the United States.

These findings make our client eligible to file a petition for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service of the Department of Homeland Security that will lead to her legal residence!

This semester, the Clinic continues its work for our client, thanks to Allison Jacome, who has been working with our client to prepare for the next stage of this lengthy application process.

Friday, December 24, 2021

Indigenous people battle extractive industries, government in Constitutional Court of Ecuador

Kichwa representatives appear before the Inter-American Commission on
Human Rights (CIDH) in 2015. (CIDH photo CC BY 2.0.)
A case inching forward in Ecuador's constitutional court pits indigenous people against extractive industries and the government over the fate of the country's vast eastern jungles.

Among the many issues on which President Joe Biden and West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin disagree is the Keystone XL Pipeline Project.

The President blocked Keystone first thing in January 2021. Environmentalists and indigenous peoples' advocates long ardently opposed the project, though as fuel prices rose in recent months, Senator Manchin was among those renewing criticism of the termination.

Meanwhile, an environmental battle implicating extraction and with arguably more precious real estate in contention is playing out in the Constitutional Court of Ecuador.  In mid-November, the court heard the first in a series of oral arguments over a bid by the Kichwa indigenous people in the eastern Sarayaku region to reclaim control of the jungle and repel extractive industries working at the behest of the government.

There are many facets to the Kichwa's struggle.  The government has for decades promoted drilling, mining, and logging in eastern Ecuador, denigrating environment and inflicting injury with the introduction of explosives and toxic run-offs.   Emily Laber-Warren wrote a concise history for Sapiens in April.  The Kichwan spiritual angle is the focus of a short but more recent piece in Ñan. Indigenous people have won cases in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, as long ago as 2012, and in the the Ecuadorean courts, but not always to any avail with the government.

A compelling aspect of the present dispute in the Ecuadorean courts is that the issues overlap with the environmental disaster left behind at Lago Agrio by Big Oil actor Texaco, later Chevron, memorialized in the 2015 book by Paul Barrett, Law of the Jungle.  The Chevron-Ecuador saga and the related prosecution, critics say persecution, of American attorney Steven Donziger continue to make headlinesI'm still waiting for the Hollywood retellings.

Lago Agrio is 217 km north of Sarayaku; that distance says something about the scope of the slowly unfolding tragedy.  I've assigned Law of the Jungle yet again for my spring 2022 Comparative Law class.  I keep waiting for the story to take some major turn, ideally an environmentally sound one, that renders the Barrett book intolerably outdated.  Yet most of what Barrett wrote about the long jeopardy of eastern Ecuador, and the failure of rule of law within the country to respond, remains true today.

I've not been able to find a dispassionate assessment of the November hearings, but plaintiff-friendly Amazon Frontline (AF) covered the day's events.  As AF observed, the hearing followed just days after the Glasgow climate change agreement was concluded.

Implicated collaterally in the case is the emerging legal theory, "rights of nature."  My friend and colleague Dr. Piotr Szwedo, lead editor of Law and Development and a member of the law faculty at Jagiellonian University in Poland, visited Ecuador this year and is conducting ongoing research into the legal implications of the rights of nature.