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.

Sunday, July 31, 2022

Oh brings dispute resolution skills to UCLA

Dean Oh selfie in his virtual office
(© Hyun C. Oh, licensed exclusively)
Hyun Cheol Oh, my friend and former student, has joined the higher ed ranks as an assistant dean of students at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), I am immensely proud to report.

Dean Oh is a 2010 alumnus of UCLA, where he earned a bachelor's in international development studies, and of the law school where I work, where he was the founding president of the campus chapter of the Asian Pacific American Law Student Association (APALSA). He also holds a master's in education, culture, and society from the University of Pennsylvania. In his 2014 master's thesis, Multiculturalism in the Republic of Korea, Oh examined approaches to multiculturalism in South Korean civic education.

At UCLA, Oh is putting his legal training to work, specializing in dispute resolution within the offices of the dean of students and of student conduct. Oh lives in Los Angeles with his family, which includes his better half, the profoundly gifted pianist Inhyun Lee.

The Bruins are lucky to have Dean Oh on their team.

Saturday, July 30, 2022

Rats reveal human history, sometimes set its course

RJ Peltz-Steele CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
A rat extermination program is well signed on the islands of the Azores.

As a tort lawyer, I can be a little obsessed with signs, especially warnings. So I was struck by the abundance of these signs on the islands of the Azores, specifically São Miguel, Terceira, and Pico, where I spent some time this month. The signs warn not to remove bait traps loaded with lethal rodenticide and not to litter, such as might provide food for rats.

Being a key port in the European age of discovery, the Azores are inextricably bound up with the history of human exploration and expansion. A remarkably successful species, rats are a part of that history, because they go where we go. The Azorean bat is the only native land mammal of the Azores. But people long ago brought more, including hedgehogs, rabbits, cats, and the islands' iconic cows, all besides, of course, rats.

The Azorean bat is found in dry forests. In contrast,
I am found here in the much wetter Reserva Florestal
Natural Parcial do Biscoito da Ferraria, on Terceira.
(Photo © Emma Falk, licensed exclusively.)
Unfortunately, the rats are now spreading a potentially fatal pathogen, leptospira, which threatens people and animals in the Azores. So officials have set about efforts to reduce the rat population.

There's been an abundance of research sequencing rat DNA to study the history of human exploration. For example, Gabriel, Mathias, & Searle (2014) studied rats in the Azores specifically. There are books on the history that rats and people share: Anthony Barnett's The Story of Rats (2002) and the New York City-focused Rats (2005) by New Yorker contributor Robert Sullivan. As the latter book suggests, rat research also informs contemporary urban development. Canadian "rat detective" Kaylee Byers wrote a fun first-person narrative for The Conversation (2019) on the value of "23andme" for rats.

Rats have a fan club.

The signs in the Azores reminded me in particular of a superb episode of the Throughline podcast in the spring, "Of Rats and Men," which well summarized the subject.

Friday, July 29, 2022

Charitable immunity does not protect diocese from claims of sexual assault in 1960s, high court rules

St. Michael's Cathedral, Springfield, Mass.
(John Phelan via Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0)
Charitable immunity does not protect Catholic Church leaders in Springfield, Mass., from civil allegations of sexual assault, but it does shield them against liability for negligent supervision, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled yesterday.

Pseudonymous plaintiff John Doe alleged sexual abuse, including a "'brutal[] rape'" while being held down by fellow altar boys and priests in the 1960s. Doe alleged that he first recovered memory of the abuse in 2013; he first complained to the church in 2014.

After investigations, the church offered the plaintiff an apology in 2019, and in 2021, he sued over both the abuse in the 1960s and the handling of the complaint since 2014. The Superior Court denied the defendants common law charitable immunity and ecclesiastical abstention under the First Amendment, prompting interlocutory appeal. The Supreme Judicial Court declined any First Amendment question as premature in advance of final judgment.

By statute, Massachusetts curbed charitable immunity to a $20,000 quantitative limit ($100,000 in medmal) in 1971. But the statute is not retroactive to Doe's 1960s claims.

The purpose of common law charitable immunity, the court reasoned, is to protect charitable actors "from the burden of litigation and trial." But in the context of sexual assault allegations, the defendants cannot be said to have been performing a charitable function. In contrast, "negligent supervision ... is exactly the sort of allegation against which common-law charitable immunity was meant to protect," for it implicates managerial functions in the selection of subordinates.

The case arises in the home state of the Boston Globe Spotlight team, whose 2002-04 investigation surfacing church abuse became the subject of a 2015 feature film. The bishop named in the instant suit as a perpetrator, who died in 1982, was implicated in the Spotlight investigation.

The case is Doe v. Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield, No. SJC-13219 (posted temporarily). Justice David A. Lowy wrote the unanimous opinion.

Scholars seek to stimulate socio-legal studies in Africa

At the global meeting of the Law and Society Association (LSA) in Lisbon earlier this month, scholars in the collaborative research network dedicated to Africa ("CRN 13") agreed to move forward with an independent Africa Law & Society Network.

Working alongside but apart from CRN 13, the "Africa Law & Society Network" has a web page and for the time being claims a mailing address at the Centre for Law and Society at the University of Cape Town (UCT). The aim, in time, is to build a vibrant organization that is representative of scholars throughout the continent. 

The network thus hopes to stimulate the coordination of socio-legal studies by African scholars in two respects in which previous efforts have floundered: to have African scholars charting their own direction for research, rather than being coordinated by Western-dominated organizations; and to decentralize and diversify leadership, overcoming the tendency to lean exclusively on South African institutions.

CRN 13 leaders at the meeting sported the slogan "#CiteAfricanScholars" on T-shirts. Citation to African scholars often is limited by structural constraints that Western researchers might not even be conscious of, such as the simple availability of the work. With limited institutional resources, African academics cannot always enter their works into the subscription databases on which researchers often over-rely. And academic writers not backed by well known institutions are disproportionately unable to negotiate copyright and access terms with publishers that favor long-term pay walls over open source.

Professor Dee Smythe (LSA, UCT, LinkedIn) addresses the CRN 13 meeting in Lisbon.
(RJ Peltz-Steele CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

 

Lawsuit alleges excessive force against federal immigration detainees held near public law school

Warning: indecent language.

Latino detainees of the Bristol County House of Corrections, which is located just three-quarters of a mile from the University of Massachusetts Law School, sued the county sheriff and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, alleging serious physical abuses.

Filed in April, the complaint, stating Bivens and § 1983 claims for excessive force, is available from the federal district court docket at Court Listener. The factual allegations detail incidents of violence and some not so flattering quotations of officers, such as: "Shut the fuck up. You bitches are a bunch of immigrants without papers. You have no rights."

Sheriff Hodgson shakes hands with former President Trump
at a White House event recognizing sheriffs in 2019.

(Official White House photo by Joyce N. Boghosian via Flickr.)
Named in the lawsuit is Bristol County, Mass., four-term "tough on crime" Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson. This lawsuit is not his first tangle with unsavory allegations.

A 2020 report by the office of Attorney General Maura Healey determined that authorities employed excessive force in violation of the civil rights of federal immigration detainees (press release). New Bedford, Mass., tort lawyer Betty I. Ussach has written letters to local media complaining of the high cost of defending Hodgson's style of criminal justice (EastBayRI, Dartmouth Week Today).

But in past years, Hodgson's name recognition has seemed to work a no-publicity-is-bad-publicity magic in his reelection bids. Hodgson faces a slate of challengers this year.

I wonder whether the geographic juxtaposition of the Bristol prison and the Immigration Clinic at the state's only public law school is not telling of state conflict-of-interest policy, which would complicate if not prohibit clinic litigation against state and local actors. 

Clinic director Professor Emerita Irene Scharf retired just one one month ago. She exited amid some turbulence over how and even whether the law school would take responsibility for existing clients. It remains to be seen what the clinic will look like under new management. Scharf and sociology and anthropology Professor Lisa Maya Knauer have labored diligently for decades on behalf of the immigrant Latino community in south coast Massachusetts. But university personnel at Dartmouth, Mass., far from the aegis of the "flagship campus" at Amherst, must tread lightly in politically sensitive matters, lest they jeopardize the very existence of the system's less favored locations.

The present lawsuit, Morocho v. Bristol County Sheriff's Office (D. Mass. filed Apr. 29, 2022), was filed by Washington, D.C.-based NGO Rights Behind Bars and signed by its Boston-based litigation director, attorney Oren Nimni. Nimni is a graduate of Northeastern Law and an adjunct professor at Suffolk Law. So let the record reflect that monied Boston private law schools can make grief for public officials, too.

Thursday, July 28, 2022

While Pope apologizes in Canada, U.S. reckons with legacy of federal Indian boarding schools

Children at Rehoboth Mission School, New Mexico
(from DOI report p. 39, credited: Hartog, C. (1910).
Rehoboth School [Photograph]. Indian mission sketches:
Descriptions and views of Navajo life, the Rehoboth Mission School
and the Stations Tohatchi and Zuni, 22. Gallup, N.M.: The Author.
Hathi Trust Digital Library)
The Pope's visit to Canada to ask forgiveness for the role of the Church has brought the tragedy of Indian boarding schools to light, but coverage has been thin on the U.S. legacy.

In the United States, Indian boarding schools were government policy and attempted a cultural genocide no less shamefully than the Church effort in Canada. This U.S. angle on the story hasn't been mentioned in my evening news the last few nights. But it was explicated by an Interior Department (DOI) report in May just this year and is being addressed in some media outlets (e.g., NPR).

The DOI report is just volume 1 in the ongoing investigation of the Federal Boarding School Initiative, "a comprehensive review of the troubled legacy of federal boarding school policies," launched in June 2021. A transmittal letter at the front of the report explained:

This report shows for the first time that between 1819 and 1969, the United States operated or supported 408 boarding schools across 37 states (or then-territories), including 21 schools in Alaska and 7 schools in Hawaii. This report identifies each of those schools by name and location, some of which operated across multiple sites.

This report confirms that the United States directly targeted American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children in the pursuit of a policy of cultural assimilation that coincided with Indian territorial dispossession. It identifies the Federal Indian boarding schools that were used as a means for these ends, along with at least 53 burial sites for children across this system-with more site discoveries and data expected as we continue our research.

When I say "attempted cultural genocide," or "ethnocide," this isn't just me throwing around woke words. The DOI report detailed official policy dating to President Washington to "subdue[] the Indians" by assimilation, "helping the whites acquire desirable land." An 1803 memo by President Jefferson outlined a plan to relocate native Americans and push them into farming with the express aim that they would thereby fall into debt and have to cede their land. (And, I note, today still our corporate overlords are pushing all of us into asset ownership—homes, cars, cell phones—on the debt model rather than the capital model. You don't have to be native American for the strategy to make the rich richer and you poorer.)

Hundreds of thousands of children were taken from their families and sent to boarding schools often distant from their home communities. That generations of people were so traumatized explains a lot about the fragile social and economic state of reservation communities today.

In military school fashion, the children's every 24 hours in the boarding schools were regimented. Using quotes from contemporary accounts (notes and sources omitted here), the report recounted:

"The children are improved rather in their habits than in what they learn from books." For example, to teach them "obedience and cleanliness, and give[] them a better carriage," Department records detail examples of organizing Indian male children "into companies as soldiers, and the best material selected for sergeants and corporals." "They have been uniformed and drilled in many of the movements of army tactics."

The report explained the means and ends of the boarding schools with revealing perspective:

Systematic identity-alteration methodologies employed by Federal Indian boarding schools included renaming Indian children from Indian names to different English names; cutting the hair of Indian children; requiring the use of military or other standard uniforms as clothes; and discouraging or forbidding ... Indian languages, ... cultural practices, and ... religions. "When first brought in they are a hard-looking set. Their long tangled hair is shorn close, and then they are stripped of their Indian garb thoroughly washed, and clad, in civilized clothing. The metamorphosis is wonderful, and the little savage seems quite proud of his appearance."

"No Indian is spoken[:]" "There is not an Indian pupil whose tuition and maintenance is paid for by the United States Government who is permitted to study any other language than our own vernacular—the language of the greatest, most powerful, and enterprising nationalities beneath the sun."

Then there was enforcement for violating the rules, including the prohibitions on language and religious practice. Whipping was the preferred punishment for attempted runaways.

Indian boarding school rules were often enforced through punishment, including corporal punishment, such as solitary confinement, "flogging, withholding food, ... whipping[,]" and "slapping, or cuffing." At times, rule enforcement was a group experience: "for the first offense, unless a serious one, a reprimand before the school is far better than a dozen whippings, because one can teach the whole school that the offender has done something that is wrong, and they all know it and will remember it, while it is humiliating to the offender and answers better than whipping."

Conditions for even compliant children were less than optimal. Citing prior DOI investigations in 1928 and 1969, the 2022 report stated:

The Department has acknowledged "frankly and unequivocally that the provisions for the care of the Indian children in boarding schools are grossly inadequate." Rampant physical, sexual, and emotional abuse; disease; malnourishment; overcrowding; and lack of health care in Indian boarding schools are well-documented.

Moreover, the children's labor was used to operate the schools, for example, the children's clothes were made by female students as part of their vocational training.

Lest the severity of these conditions be confused with mere norms of less gentle times, we might consider that schools, even in the 19th century, rarely had their own graveyards. DOI found 53 burial sites at Indian boarding schools, at least six unmarked.

U.S. Indian boarding schools have been examined thoughtfully in media outlets: The Atlantic, National Geographic (limited free), NPR, N.Y. Times, and Time (paywall).

There are books, too, of course: Ward Churchill's well regarded Kill the Indian, Save the Man (2004); the first-person Pipestone (2010) by Adam Fortunate Eagle; and the documentary compilation Boarding School Seasons (2000) by Brenda J. Child.

There are online resource collections at The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition and the Library of Congress.

My favorite media treatment in this area is a 2015 Radiolab segment, rebroadcast in 2018, "Ghosts of Football Past." Follow it up with a compelling reflection by Professor Justin De Leon.

EEOC withholds records in arbitration matters; corporate frustration with secret justice is ironic

Janet Dhillon
According to employers' lawyers, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is denying public access to investigation files in matters committed to arbitration, even while conceding that files in litigation matters must be disclosed under the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Yesterday the Labor and Employment Law Practice Group of the Federalist Society held a teleforum with the provocative title, "Is the EEOC misusing the Freedom of Information Act to penalize employers that adopt mandatory employment arbitration programs?" Here is the description:

The EEOC is denying employers' FOIA requests for the EEOC's charge investigation files when resulting employment claims are proceeding in arbitration rather than litigation. Our panel will discuss whether the EEOC's justifications for denying such FOIA requests are consistent with FOIA and other governing federal statutes. We will consider a number of related issues. What is the EEOC's basis for treating litigation and arbitration differently in responding to employers' FOIA requests?  How long has the EEOC been making this distinction between litigation and arbitration? In light of the increasing prevalence of employment arbitration, should employers challenge the EEOC's FOIA practices and, if so, how?

Speakers included EEOC Commissioner Janet Dhillon and Jones Day attorney Eric Dreiband.

I regret, I didn't make it. My guess is that the EEOC is denying access on basis of the various exemptions for law enforcement investigation records, besides deliberative process. Without having heard either side of the debate, my inclination, probably like Dreiband's, is to doubt seriously the viability of any asserted distinction between arbitration and litigation.

What I find compelling about the case, though, is less the effort at FOIA exemption and more the irony of corporations being stymied on transparency and accountability when mandatory arbitration is a choice of their own design.

I wrote just yesterday about the problem of arbitration superseding litigation as our principal means of dispute resolution. And the fact that arbitration happens in secrecy is a big part of that problem. In litigation, the tort system achieves the important objectives of norm-setting and deterrence, besides the anti-vigilantism I mentioned yesterday. Norm-setting and deterrence, in turn, avert tortious conduct by the same respondent and other actors in the future. Secret justice undermines these objectives. Even the same bad actor can persist in its misconduct without risk of punitive consequences.

I don't approve of selective opacity by EEOC. But there's a scrumptious hypocrisy in companies wanting transparency and accountability in public enforcement mechanisms while they jealously secret their own dirty laundry against the public functions of the courts.

Lisbon graffiti writer seeks internet access

I passed this graffiti in the Entrecampos area of Lisbon while attending the annual meeting of the Law and Society Association earlier this month (photo by RJ Peltz-Steele CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

The text struck me as a curious coupling of "free expression" to excess and an unrealized "right to receive," or right of access to information and the internet.

It looks like someone tried to obliterate the middle section of the text, but as best as I can read it, it says, in whole: "I am a local artist in need of internet connection without any restriction. If you have a network that works and you [are] up for sharing, please text me the [user?] name, password and your approximate address to 969 158 614. In exchange, you(r) might get a poem."

I might have been better persuaded if the writer had asked in rhyme.

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Grubhub drivers signed away right to sue, court rules

Haydn Blackey via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0
Grubhub drivers signed away their right to sue on unfair wage claims, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled today.

Plaintiff Grubhub drivers complained that the company is stiffing them on minimum wages and tips under state law and, worse, retaliating against drivers who complain.

I have no knowledge of the validity of these claims, but I worry a lot about the exploitation of gig workers in our economy. This exploitation is a big slice of the broader problem of employers' over-classification of personnel as independent contractors to avoid having to provide fair wages and benefits. Sometimes employers cross the legal line and sometimes they don't; regardless, the effect of even the lawful leeway contributes to our glut of working people who cannot make ends meet, put us all at risk with insufficient insurance for healthcare and accidents, and spend so much on necessities as to have paralyzed American socioeconomic mobility. Our woefully outdated measures of employment fail to reflect this problem, which is why media pundits and Washington pointy-heads scrunch their faces in confusion over how we can have favorable job numbers and an "it's the economy, stupid" political crisis happening at the same time.

Collateral to labor exploitation, we have long had the problem of our court system being subverted by the supposed freedom to contract. At this point, we all know without even having to read the fine print that every terms-and-condition box we check, just like every product we liberate from shrinkwrap, binds us to arbitrate any disgruntlement and frees our adversaries from ever having to answer to us in the courts, which were designed for that very purpose. Many of us know furthermore that the terms of arbitration profoundly favor the respondent companies, both substantively, evidenced empirically by companies' overwhelming win rates, and, often, procedurally, by way of inconvenient venues, arcane procedures in contrast with small claims courts, and the burdens of transaction costs.  I've cited the definitive books on this subject by Nancy Kim and Margaret Jane Radin so many times, that, frankly, I just don't have the energy today to look up their URLs again.  Let's instead invoke the tireless Ralph Nader and his persistent admonition that we have undermined the Seventh Amendment, to which point I add humbly that anti-vigilantism is an important function of our civil dispute resolution system, and maybe we ought remember that in a society in which the least mentally stable among us apparently have ready access to firearms.

So it's the confluence of these two socio-legal problems that interests me in the present case, more than the merits. On the merits, the Grubhub complainants tried to work around their 2017 clickwrap agreement to arbitrate by characterizing themselves as a kind of interstate transportation worker that is exempt from the Federal Arbitration Act. But Grubhub drivers are not long-haul truckers. A for creativity, F for achievement. The court held that the drivers indeed signed away their right to sue.

F is likely to be the final disposition of the complaints in arbitration after remand, too.

You can read more in Archer v. Grubhub, Inc., No. SJC-13228 (July 27, 2022). Justice Dalila Argaez Wendlandt wrote the unanimous opinion (temporarily posted).  The case in Suffolk County Superior Court is no. 1984CV03277 (class action complaint filed Oct. 21, 2019).

The U.S. Chamber, dependable opponent of transparency and accountability, was among the amici on the prevailing side.  The Harvard Cyberlaw Clinic was among the amici for the workers. The office of Commonwealth Attorney General Maura Healey entered an appearance as amicus, but filed no brief. Healey's office sued Grubhub one year ago, alleging the company overcharged Massachusetts restaurants during the pandemic (complaint, press release). That case, no. 2184CV01719 in Suffolk County Superior Court, is pending currently on cross motions for summary judgment.

Publishers crush state effort to ensure that public libraries have reasonable access to e-books

Cartridge People CC BY 2.0 via Flickr
A Maryland law requiring the licensing of electronic books to public libraries on reasonable terms is preempted by federal copyright law, a federal court ruled in June.

A Maryland statute enacted in 2021 provided that e-book publishers "shall offer to license the electronic literary product to public libraries in the State on reasonable terms that would enable public libraries to provide library users with access to the electronic literary product."

The law meant to answer publishers who have been employing oppressive tactics to milk money from public libraries trying to meet patron demand for electronic books. I wrote some about this problem in April 2021.

Alas, the federal court ruled that federal copyright law occupies the field to the exclusion of Maryland legislators' worthy intentions. The court found it unnecessary, therefore, to consider publisher complainants' further claims, such as dormant Commerce Clause.

I'll add this to my list of lost causes in a corporate-captured Congress.

The case is Association of American Publishers, Inc. v. Frosh (D. Md. June 13, 2022), Judge Deborah L. Boardman presiding.

Chicago Transit Authority seeks to hire tort lawyers

The Chicago Transit Authority is looking for lawyers specifically to handle tort claims.

This job is unusually specific to tort work. Here is the position summary for "Senior Attorney," listing a salary of $95,544:

Under general supervision, performs a broad variety of legal duties in support of the Authority’s General Counsel. Works on the defense of personal injury lawsuits filed against the Authority, from minor to catastrophic injuries and subrogation and property damage defense and performs all litigation for assigned caseload.

And here is the position summary for "Associate Attorney," listing a salary of $83,372:

Under general supervision, functions as a junior level attorney responsible for litigating personal injury cases brought against the authority.  Works with senior attorneys on complex personal injury, subrogation, and property damage defense cases.

Both positions were posted July 22.

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

To channel cases into ordinary negligence or medmal, look to implications for medmal insurance, court says

Paul Brennan via PublicDomainPictures.net
A Massachusetts court sometimes might have difficulty distinguishing between claims of ordinary negligence and claims of medical malpractice, only the latter of which must be filed first with a special tribunal. If a case implicates medmal insurance, it's more likely the latter, a court reasoned in May.

The Appeals Court had little difficulty, though, finding that a complaint over life-threatening allergic reaction to a drug administered in the emergency room sounds in medical malpractice. The plaintiff therefore erred by failing to file with the commonwealth medmal tribunal and post the necessary bond before proceeding in the Superior Court.

The court demarcated the boundary between ordinary negligence and medmal claims with reference to the legislative purpose in creating the tribunal: "to guarantee the continued availability of medical malpractice insurance." A court may be guided also by factors derived from case law: "(1) whether medical or professional judgment or competence was exercised, ...  (2) whether the claim is 'treatment-related,' even if not a traditional malpractice claim, ... and (3) whether 'the same set of facts supports both' the medical malpractice and allegedly non-medical claims...."

The instant plaintiff's "claims centered on her arriving at the emergency room suffering from an asthma attack, and the hospital's failure to provide a proper medication to her, which resulted in a severe allergic reaction. More specifically, the hospital was alleged to have deviated from the 'standard of care' by administering a medication containing lactose to [plaintiff,] who had a lactose allergy known to the hospital." The implication of medical judgment plainly positioned the case in medmal.

The case is Lane v. Winchester Hospital, No. 21-P-476 (Mass. App. Ct. May 17, 2022). Justice William J. Meade wrote the opinion of the unanimous panel.

Monday, July 25, 2022

Families retain common law rights over loved ones' remains when a church sells a graveyard, court holds

Principles of common law trust give families a say over the disposition of their loved ones' remains when a church closes and sells its burial ground, the Massachusetts Appeals Court held in May.

The chronic closure of churches and sale of their buildings has spun off a collateral issue of what happens to human remains and who gets to decide.

The 2015 closure of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit of Wayland, Mass., generated such a problem. The diocese decided to close the church and agreed to sell the property to the Coptic Church.

The Coptic Church was not keen, though, to take over and maintain the churchyard burial grounds as they were. The Coptics were interested in developing the property, and they have a religious objection to cremation, which was the state of some of the deceased.

The Episcopal Church explored disinterment and relocation options with families of the deceased. The last burial there was in 2006. Not all families were willing to get on board; some wanted their loved ones to stay put. The Episcopal Church therefore endeavored to move the remains without consent, to see the sale to the Coptic Church go through, and litigation ensued.

The court reviewed the potentially applicable law of property and contract. Both parties made good arguments, and none persuaded the court dispositively. In essence, the church claimed conventional property ownership, and the families pointed to a contractual promise of "perpetual care."

The court instead decided to hang its hat on the amorphous but persuasive notion of common law trust. Some kind of right clearly persists in family over members over the disposition of loved ones' remains, the court reasoned, because we don't think twice in entertaining disputes between family members when there is a question about where a loved one should be laid to rest. Something more than mere property must be going on; the court quoted a New York court's "eloquent" reasoning in an 1844 case:

"When these graves shall have worn away; when they who now weep over them shall have found kindred resting places for themselves; when nothing shall remain to distinguish this spot from the common earth around, and it shall be wholly unknown as a grave-yard; it may be that some one who can establish a 'paper title,' will have a right to its possession; for it will then have lost its identity as a burial-ground, and with that, all right founded on the dedication must necessarily become extinct."

The instant case is hardly akin to that distant day, the court countered; rather, the complainants here are first-degree survivors. "For these reasons," the court concluded, "we now hold that in the absence of a governing statute, common law trust principles apply to the disinterment of human remains from a dedicated burial ground until the families of the deceased have abandoned the remains or the burial ground is no longer recognizable as such."

The court made short work of the Coptic Church's claim that its freedom of religious exercise would be violated by the presence of cremated remains. Essentially, the court reasoned, the bodies are already there. And the family's religious rights might as well be implicated were the court to countenance disinterment.

The court acknowledged that many questions would arise from this decision, for example, regarding the family's right to visit their loved ones' graves under new ownership. But those are questions for another day.

The unusual case is Church of the Holy Spirit of Wayland v. Heinrich, Nos. 21-P-7 & 21-P-8 (Mass. App. Ct. May 5, 2022). Justice James R. Milkey wrote the opinion of a unanimous panel.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

N.J. limits mode-of-operation doctrine in classic slip-and-fall claim over grocery store grapes

Open Food Facts CC BY-SA 3.0
A grocery-story-grape, slip-and-fall case in New Jersey prompted the state high court to limit the mode-of-operation doctrine in premises liability.

I don't usually take interest in the nuances of New Jersey tort law, but the mode-of-operation doctrine is a significant player in Massachusetts, where I teach. Also, slipping on grocery-store grapes is so prototypical a case in the doctrine that it's a cliché, so I could not resist.

"Mode of operation" enjoys wide but not universal support in U.S. tort law. As well explained by Wilson Elser attorney Jennifer L. Moran in commenting on the New Jersey case:

[The] doctrine relieves a plaintiff of the burden of proving actual or constructive notice of a dangerous condition in a situation in which a dangerous condition is likely to occur as a result of the nature of the business, the property’s condition or a demonstrable pattern of conduct or incidents. The rule has been applied where food is sold or served in open containers or bins, such as food courts, supermarkets or fast food restaurants. In many cases, a plaintiff’s failure to provide any evidence that the defendant had actual or constructive knowledge of the alleged dangerous condition is the defendant’s sole opportunity to obtain summary judgment to dismiss the claim. 

The doctrine is highly correlated with self-service business, and, as I said, grab-and-go grocery-story grapes count. 

A friend of mine is a grocery store manager in Australia, and you don't want to get him started on grape-related customer slip-and-falls. The aggravation is multiplied by customers' insistence on eating the merchandise, which one might think should bring some kind of assumption-of-risk theory into play. The store once tried to sell grapes in sealed bags, my mate said, but did away with them because customers were outraged to see their nicking snackery curtailed. The store had to tolerate losses and risk as a cost of customer satisfaction. My mate was elated at the advent of no-slip flooring in the produce department.

Anyway, you can see why innovation in the presentation of grape inventory has been a big deal in the grocery biz. And Sam's Club no doubt thought it was onto something big when it started selling grapes in clamshell containers.

In the New Jersey case, the court held 4-2 that the clamshell packaging moved grapes out of the mode-of-operation doctrine. Moran explained:

The court therefore found there was no foreseeable risk that grapes would fall on the ground in the process of ordinary handling by customers. The court held the mode of operation doctrine did not apply and the plaintiff had to establish the defendants knew or should have known that the grapes were on the floor for a period of time prior to the accident and failed to take reasonable remedial action. In this recent decision, the court limits the application of the mode of operation doctrine because the merchandise was in a sealed container, finding the pre-packaged merchandise did not create a foreseeable risk of spillage and there was no nexus between the plaintiff’s fall on grapes and the self-service sale of grapes in containers.

Sam's Club accomplished something that had eluded a defendant in 2003, Moran further recounted, when the court refused to suspend mode of operation for "grapes that were sold in open-top, vented plastic bags that permitted spillage."

If shoppers remain true to form, the dissent might have the better argument in the end. Dissenting justices opined that Sam's Club knows that its customers still open the clam shells in the store, setting grapes loose.

The case is Jeter v. Sam's Club, No. A-2-21 (085880) (N.J. Mar. 17, 2022). Justice Lee A. Solomon wrote the majority opinion.

Saturday, July 23, 2022

Lengthier U.S. limitations period allows claim over accidental deaths of medical students in Nevis

The Massachusetts three-year statute of limitations rather than a foreign one-year statute of limitations permitted wrongful death suits in the tragic case of two medical students killed while studying abroad, a trial court ruled in March.

Plaintiffs' decedents were students from New Jersey and California studying at the Medical University of the Americas (MUA) on the island of Nevis, in the Federation of St. Christopher (Kitts) and Nevis, in the West Indies. MUA is a nonprofit based in Devens, Massachusetts.

MUA campus, Nevis
(Bazi014 CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

The women suffered fatal burns in their MUA dormitory when a gas cooking stove connected to an external propane tank exploded. Plaintiffs sued MUA two years later in negligence, alleging failure to inspect and maintain the stove and gas piping.

The defendant sought dismissal under the one-year statute of limitation in Nevis law. The plaintiffs contended that the more generous three-year limitations period in Massachusetts pertained.

The Superior Court in Worcester, Mass., explained the choice-of-law analysis, relying on Commonwealth high court precedent and the Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws:

Massachusetts applies a functional approach in determining the statute of limitations when a choice of law question arises.... Generally, Massachusetts "will apply its own statute of limitations permitting the claim unless: (a) maintenance of the claim would serve no substantial interest of the forum; and (b) the claim would be barred under the statute of limitations of a state having a more significant relationship to the parties and the occurrence." .... "Stated in affirmative terms, a forum should apply its own statute of limitations permitting the claim if it would advance a substantial forum interest and would not seriously impinge upon the interests of other states." .... The focus of this choice of law analysis is on the timeliness of the action, rather than the underlying claim.

The court reasoned that oversight of the dorm was a function of the defendant's management in and directives from Massachusetts. And Nevis's interest was less than Massachusetts's when it is a Massachusetts defendant that faces liability.

The defendant also sought dismissal for forum non conveniens, and the court decided that the question is premature.

The case is Balasanyan v. R3 Education Inc., No. 2085CV01052 (Mass. Super. Ct. Mar. 29, 2022), Justice David M. Hodge presiding.

Friday, July 22, 2022

Court denies police immunity under state tort claims act in death of intoxicated man in protective custody

Michael Coghlan CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
In a lawsuit over the death of an intoxicated man in police protective custody, the defendants were not entitled to immunity under exceptions to the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act (MTCA), the Commonwealth Appeals Court held in April.

Police in New Bedford, Mass., took the plaintiff's decedent into protective custody upon finding him in a state of heavy intoxication and disturbing the peace. Police put the man in a county jail cell, where he got into an altercation with another detainee. The other detainee pushed the man to the ground, where he hit his head. The man died from complications of the injury.

Defendant officials sought immunity from the plaintiff's negligence lawsuit under the discretionary function exception to the MTCA, section 10(b), and under the causation limitation of MTCA section 10(j).

Section 10(b) is similar to the discretionary function exception of the Federal Tort Claims Act. It disallows tort claims when public defendants exercise policy-making discretion, even when discretion is abused. The theory behind this exception is that public officials require latitude to make decisions, good and bad, and not every government decision should be second-guessed in litigation. The tort claims act reserves for litigation cases in which standards of conduct are set or clear, and the plaintiff alleges negligence relative to that standard.

The court denied defendants discretionary function immunity, because state law provides that persons in protective custody should be held at police stations, referred to appropriate care facilities, or returned home. The plaintiff alleged that the decedent's commitment to the county jail was improper and proximately caused the injury and death. Police had no discretion under the law to detain the decedent in the county jail.

MTCA section 10(j) is a creature specially of commonwealth law and articulates a potent liability limitation arising in causation. Section 10(j) disallows liability for 

any claim based on an act or failure to act to prevent or diminish the harmful consequences of a condition or situation, including the violent or tortious conduct of a third person, which is not originally caused by the public employer or any other person acting on behalf of the public employer.

Thus, state defendants disavow liability under section 10(j) when the plaintiff's liability theory is in the nature of a failure to supervise or intervene, and the more proximate cause of the injury is the conduct of a third party. Here, the defense pointed to the push to the ground by the decedent's fellow detainee, if not the decedent's own provocation.

The court also denied the defendants 10(j) immunity. The official act relevant to the plaintiff's claim was the decision to place the decedent in a county jail cell with potentially dangerous detainees, the court opined, not the precise mechanism of injury that ensued.

The case is Baptista v. Bristol County Sheriff's Department, Nos. 20-P-731 & 20-P-778 (Mass. App. Ct. Apr. 15, 2022). Justice Peter J. Rubin wrote the opinion of the unanimous panel.

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Attorneys spell out False Claims Act elements

Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Pix4free.org via The Blue Diamond Gallery
Two attorneys in April endeavored to articulate the elements of claims under the False Claims Act.

The False Claims Act (FCA) (DOJ, LII) facilitates lawsuits against persons who defraud the government. An important aspect of the statutory scheme is the authorization of qui tam actions, by which individual litigants may apply for government permission to sue on the public's behalf. Qui tam representatives can be entitled to a percentage of the recovery, which can mean a substantial sum of money. (Consider a case I wrote about in May 2021.)

With government subsidies characterizing recovery from the 2008 financial crisis and then, more recently, the pandemic, I added a sliver of False Claims Act content to my survey of tort-like statutory actions in my 1L Torts II class. I feel obliged to give students at least one exposure to the FCA, because I fear that they will otherwise never see a hint of it in law school. And I don't mind fantasizing that one of my alums one day will win a big qui tam award and think to throw a little love my way. Hey, that's more likely than a meaningful pay raise from my employer.

Accordingly, it's my intention to add the FCA to my Tortz textbook as I develop its second-semester coverage. I might be onto something, because, in April, two attorneys wrote articles articulating FCA fundamentals: A.J. Bolan, healthcare litigation associate at Barnes & Thornburg, wrote a piece for JD Supra, and Molly K. Ruberg, litigation partner at Bass, Berry & Sims, wrote a piece (login wall) for Lexology.

Both writers laid out these elements:

1. A false claim.
2. The false claim was made with the requisite scienter (or knowledge that it was false).
3. The false claim is material to payment.
4. The false claim caused the government to pay money.

Falsity may be express or implied, both writers explained, and most courts require objectively verifiable falsity. Scienter may be accomplished by (1) actual knowledge, (2) deliberate ignorance, or (3) reckless disregard, both writers said.

Under the statute, materiality means “having a natural tendency to influence, or be capable of influencing, the payment or receipt of property,” both writers quoted. Courts disagree over whether causation must be but-for or proximate, they agreed.

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Flawed instruction on 'reasonable alternative design' requires vacatur of tobacco defense judgment

Plaintiff's decedent started smoking in the early 1960s,
at age 13 or 14, with free samples of Kents.

(David Shay CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons)
An error in jury instruction was small but crucial in a Massachusetts tobacco liability case, resulting in partial vacatur in the Appeals Court.

The plaintiff, decedent's representative, alleged design defect as cause of terminal lung cancer. The jury was instructed that the plaintiff had to prove the availability of a reasonable alternative design by the time the plaintiff was addicted.

That instruction described too tight a time frame, the court held. "[T]he jury should have been told to assess whether a reasonable alternative design existed at the time of distribution or sale."

The court explained:

If a manufacturer continues to make and sell a harmful and addictive product even though a safer alternative is available, the fact that the consumer is addicted to the product makes it more—not less—important for the manufacturer to adopt the available safer alternative. The purpose of anchoring liability to the point in time when the defective product is sold or distributed is to give manufacturers an incentive to create safer products [citing, inter alia, the Third Restatement of Torts].... Were we to adopt the defendants' view that liability should attach only up until the point in time a smoker becomes addicted to cigarettes, that incentive would be severely diminished, or even eliminated. Such a rule would in essence immunize cigarette manufacturers from liability to addicted persons even though they continue to sell or distribute defective products despite the availability of reasonable alternative designs. We see no reason to limit liability in this way, especially given the addictive nature of cigarettes, the speed with which smokers can become addicted to them, and the years—if not decades—thereafter during which a person continues to smoke and thus remains exposed to the dangers of cigarettes. In this regard, we note further that, as the expert testimony bore out, ... the degree or point of addiction to tobacco may be viewed as a continuum rather than a bright line. For this reason, it is all the more important that manufacturers be encouraged to produce safer, less addictive products at all points in time so as to increase the possibility that an addicted smoker be able to quit.

The court vacated the judgment in favor of defendants insofar as it arose from the erroneous instruction.

The case is Main v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., No. 20-P-459 (Mass. App. Ct. Apr. 8, 2022). Justice Gabrielle R. Wolohojian wrote the opinion for a unanimous panel.

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Habeas petition for woolly monkey was valid, Ecuadorian court rules, recognizing right of nature

A silvery woolly monkey at the Louisville Zoo
(Ltshears CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)
The Constitutional Court of Ecuador entered a landmark ruling on the rights of nature in January when it recognized the legitimacy of a habeas petition on behalf of a woolly monkey named Estrellita.

Estrellita was removed from the wild illegally almost two decades ago. Fortunately she came to be in the care of a librarian and effectively became part of the family for 18 years. But when Estrellita suffered a respiratory emergency, and the family sought medical treatment, authorities seized her for commitment to a zoo. Fearful of the profound distress that must have afflicted Estrellita, besides her ailment, the family filed a habeas petition. Estrellita died, but the petition persisted in the courts.

I wrote in December about the Ecuadorian court's landmark ruling on indigenous rights. As I wrote then, the decision implicitly recognized the right of nature in tandem with indigenous peoples' conservation of natural resources. The Estrellita case makes explicit the judicial recognition of Ecuador's constitutional right of nature, independent of human rights.

Elizabeth Gamillo wrote about the case for Smithsonian in April. Her story linked to a certified translation of the final judgment in the case, "Estrellita Monkey," No. 253-20-JH/22 (Rights of Nature and animals as subjects of rights) (Ct. Const. Ecuador Jan. 27, 2022).

Gamillo added: "Other countries, like Canada and New Zealand as well as several cities in the United States, have treaties or local laws that give wild animals some protection. In November 2021, the United Kingdom recognized several invertebrates, including lobsters, octopuses and crabs, as sentient beings. However, these rights have not been applied at the constitutional level, Science Alert reports."

Monday, July 18, 2022

Police negligence suit against BLM organizer goes ahead after La. Supreme Court greenlights duty

BLM protest in Baton Rouge in 2015
(Alisdare Hickson CC BY-NC 2.0 via Flickr)
A lawsuit against Black Lives Matter organizer DeRay Mckesson lives on since the Louisiana Supreme Court opined in March that state law allows imposition of a duty in tort law and does not preclude liability to police under the firefighter rule.

I wrote about the Mckesson case in April and November 2020. In the case's winding appellate disposition, the U.S. Supreme Court faulted the Fifth Circuit for jumping the gun on Mckesson's First Amendment defense and entreated the court to certify questions of state tort law to Louisiana.

It is not alleged that Mckesson himself threw any projectile at police, so the defense asserted that the intentional criminal action of a third party supervened in the chain of causation between Mckesson's organizing and police officer injury. But the Louisiana Supreme Court was unsympathetic, characterizing the pleadings as alleging related criminal conduct by Mckesson. The court reasoned:

Under the allegations of fact set forth in the plaintiff’s federal district court petition, it could be found that Mr. Mckesson’s actions, in provoking a confrontation with Baton Rouge police officers through the commission of a crime (the blocking of a heavily traveled highway, thereby posing a hazard to public safety), directly in front of police headquarters, with full knowledge that the result of similar actions taken by BLM in other parts of the country resulted in violence and injury not only to citizens but to police, would render Mr. Mckesson liable for damages for injuries, resulting from these activities, to a police officer compelled to attempt to clear the highway of the obstruction.

The court also rejected Mckesson's the firefighter-rule defense. The common law rule (in Louisiana, "the professional rescuer's doctrine"), not universally recognized, ordinarily disallows recovery by emergency responders for injury incurred in the course of the job, upon the theory that the job is what the responder is compensated for, and responsible parties should not be deterred from summoning emergency response.

The court took the occasion of the Mckesson case to ponder whether the firefighter rule survived the statutory adoption of comparative fault in Louisiana. The rule embodies a form of implied assumption of risk, the court reasoned. Louisiana is not a pure civil law jurisdiction, but the courts rely heavily on statute in accordance with the civil law tradition. Though the legislature left the details of comparative-fault adoption to the courts to work out, the high court acknowledged, the lack of any explicit recognition of the firefighter rule left it displaced.

The case in Louisiana is Doe v. Mckesson, No. 2021-CQ-00929 (La. Mar. 25, 2022). The case in the Fifth Circuit is No. 17-30864.

In law symposium, Enríquez follows up genetics book

CRISPR-Cas9 editing of the genome
(NIH Image Gallery CC BY-NC 2.0 via Flickr)
My friend and once-upon-a-time law student Paul Enríquez, J.D., LL.M., Ph.D. (LinkedIn, SSRN), in the spring published The Law, Science, and Policy of Genome Editing in the Boston University Law Review Online (2022).

Dr. Enríquez published the remarkable book Rewriting Nature: The Future of Genome Editing and How to Bridge the Gap Between Law and Science with Cambridge University Press last year. The BU Law Review then invited him to discuss his work as the centerpiece of a Zoom symposium, which I was privileged to attend, in the fall.

In the present article, Enríquez engages with and responds to the dialog of the symposium. Other contributors are Dana Carroll, Katherine Drabiak, Henry T. Greely, Jacob S. Sherkow, Sonia M. Suter, Naomi R. Cahn, Allison M. Whelan, and Michele Goodwin.

Here is the introduction.

Genome editing is the most significant breakthrough of our generation. Rewriting Nature explores the intersection of science, law, and policy as it relates to this powerful technology. Since the manuscript went to press, genome-editing developments have continued apace. Researchers have reported encouraging results from the first clinical trials to treat β-thalassemia and Sickle-Cell Disease, the first wheat-crop variety that is resistant to a crippling fungal disease and features no growth or yield deficits, and proof-of-concept data establishing the therapeutic effects of the first clinical trial involving the injection of a therapy directly into the bloodstream of patients suffering from a genetic, neurological disease. Chinese regulators promulgated rules to approve gene-edited crops. These and other developments are testament to the expansive reach and promise of genome editing. Rewriting Nature showcases the technology’s power to transform what we eat, how we provide healthcare, how we confront the challenges of global climate change, who we are as human beings, and more.

One of my goals in writing the book was to help spur robust dialogue and debate about the future of genome editing and the synergistic roles that law, science and public policy can play in promoting or hindering specific uses of the technology. I am grateful to the Boston University Law Review for organizing this symposium on Rewriting Nature and bringing together an extraordinary group of gifted scholars, academics, entrepreneurs, and thinkers, including several members of the National Academy of Sciences, as well as scientists and lawyers to engage in diverse discussions of my book.... I am encouraged by the consonance on a vast range of ideas among participants but even more so by the disagreement, as it presents opportunities for engagement and progress. My Essay, thus, focuses on the hard questions and challenges that spring from our disagreements, which allowed me to clarify, refine, and expand on ideas presented in Rewriting Nature and to articulate new ones that point towards future work.

Sunday, July 17, 2022

Chair collapse provides textbook 'res ipsa' facts

plastic chair by Chris CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr
A textbook res ipsa loquitur case is headed back to the trial court since the Massachusetts Appeals Court in March reversed dismissal.

Res ipsa loquitur is a beautiful doctrine for all kinds of reasons. I like that it's a mouthful of high-dollar words, because that keeps lawyers' hourly rates high and justifies the high cost of law school, translating into more money for professors like me. It's also fun to teach, because of its odd position at the intersection of fundamental tort elements—is it a rule of causation? duty? breach?; its location in negligence law while bearing a striking resemblance to strict liability; and its double-life in doctrines of tort and evidence law render it theoretically instructive.

At the same time, res ipsa is a straightforward and commonsense rule, and this case before the Appeals Court demonstrates its utility. "The plaintiff ... was having lunch on the outdoor deck of Sundancers restaurant in Dennis when his plastic chair collapsed beneath him," the court recounted the facts. The trial court dismissed for want of evidence of negligence by the defendant restaurant owners.

Res ipsa says simply, plastic chairs fairly may be depended on not to collapse. So when they do, it might be someone's fault. And of everyone who might be at fault, it's not the plaintiff's fault. So even if the plaintiff can't show by evidence the precise mechanism of the accident, the plaintiff still deserves a chance to persuade a jury to infer the defendant's responsibility. 

You can find my more formal discussion of the rule in the no-longer-updated Straightforward Torts, to be incorporated into Tortz: A Study of American Tort Law in the coming year.

My 2006 torts casebook with Professor Marshall Shapo uses a case with a similar fact pattern to teach res ipsa loquitur. In O'Connor v. Chandris Lines, Inc. (D. Mass. 1983), the plaintiff was injured when the bunk-beds in which she slept on a cruise ship collapsed. Like Step Brothers (2008) if someone else had put the beds together, and not as funny.

The plaintiff from Sundancers sued years later, if within the statutory limitations period, so both he and the restaurant struggled to locate relevant evidence. There might yet be insufficient implication of negligence on the part of the restaurant to persuade the jury to make the res ipsa inference. But plaintiff deserves better than summary dismissal, the court decided.

Because the record presents a number of material, disputed factual issues—including whether Sundancers provided the plaintiff with a defective and unsafe chair, whether the defect could have been detected with reasonable inspection, whether reasonable inspection was made, and whether factors other than the defendants' negligence more likely caused the accident—summary judgment should not have entered. Were this case to go to trial on the record before us, the jury would be permitted, but not required, to infer that Sundancers was negligent under the principles of res ipsa loquitur.

The case is Kennedy v. Abramson, No. 21-P-224 (Mass. App. Ct. Mar. 17, 2022). Justice Gregory I. Massing wrote the opinion of the unanimous panel.