Showing posts with label Elspeth Cypher. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Elspeth Cypher. Show all posts

Monday, December 14, 2020

Emergency orders survive constitutional scrutiny; Mass. Court cites Korean War, smallpox cases

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) ruled Thursday that pandemic emergency orders of the Commonwealth Governor were valid under the Massachusetts Civil Defense Act and public health law, rejecting challenges based in state and federal civil rights, including due process and the freedom of assembly.

Defunct Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co., 2006 (stu_spivack CC BY-SA 2.0)
The Court borrowed doctrine from U.S. constitutional law on separation of powers, Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer (U.S. 1952), a case about President Truman's seizure and operation of steel mills during the Korean War.  The SJC used Youngstown and the concurring opinion of Justice Robert H. Jackson to reason that Governor Charlie Baker acted at the zenith of executive power, because he acted within broad statutory authority.

Official portrait of Justice Jackson,
by John C. Johnsen, Collection of the
Supreme Court of the United States, via Oyez
In Youngstown, Justice Jackson set out a three-part rubric to test the strength of executive power, whether bolstered by congressional authorization, occurring amid legislative silence, or arising in defiance of legislative imprimatur.  Though not without controversy attaching to the communitarian result in the context of government seizure of private enterprise, Justice Jackson's famous test has been committed to memory by law students studying for the bar exam for generations.  Justice Jackson was Attorney General to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, so loyal to the New Deal.  Roosevelt appointed Jackson to the Court in 1941.  While a Supreme Court Justice, Jackson also served as chief U.S. prosecutor in Nuremberg after World War II.

Ruling the pandemic within the scope of "other natural causes" of emergency under the Civil Defense Act (CDA), the Court indicated also that it was not shirking its oversight role:

[W]e emphasize that not all matters that have an impact on the public health will qualify as "other natural causes" under the CDA, even though they may be naturally caused. The distinguishing characteristic of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it has created a situation that cannot be addressed solely at the local level. Only those public health crises that exceed the resources and capacities of local governments and boards of health, and therefore require the coordination and resources available under the CDA, are contemplated for coverage under the CDA. Therefore, although we hold that the COVID-19 pandemic falls within the CDA, we do not hold that all public health emergencies necessarily will fall within the CDA, nor do we hold that when the public health data regarding COVID-19 demonstrates stable improvement, the threshold will not be crossed where it no longer constitutes an emergency under the CDA.

Mass. Gov. Baker (Charlie Baker CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Relative to civil rights, the Court recognized the Governor's argument under Jacobson v. Massachusetts (U.S. 1905).  A federal Supreme Court case that arose in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the turn of the century before last, Jacobson has been cited widely lately, amid the coronavirus pandemic, because in Jacobson, the Court upheld an ordinance requiring vaccination for smallpox as a valid exercise of state police power.

Critics fairly argue that Jacobson is read too broadly as a constitutional authorization of mandatory vaccination.  Among points of distinction, the upheld ordinance merely subjected an objector to a five-dollar fine—about $150 today, much less than the individual-healthcare-mandate penalty before Congress zeroed it out.  More importantly, Jacobson predates the complex system of multi-tiered constitutional scrutiny that the U.S. Supreme Court devised under the due process clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments in the 20th century. 

Justice Cypher
The SJC quoted Jacobson's logic in some detail "as an initial matter," but declined to give the Governor carte blanche, instead applying 20th-century due-process scrutiny.  The Court rejected procedural due process arguments because the emergency orders occasioned no individual adjudication, and rejected substantive due process because the generally applicable orders satisfied rational-basis review.  The selection of "essential" businesses was non-arbitrary and did not treat disparately any protected class, such as religious institutions.

Similarly with regard to the freedom of assembly, the Court regarded the emergency orders as valid time, place, and manner restrictions, appropriately narrowly tailored to a significant government interest in intermediate scrutiny, leaving open ample alternative channels of communication.

The case is Desrosiers v. Governor, No. SJC-12983 (Mass. Dec. 10, 2020).  Justice Elspeth B. Cypher authored the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Monday, May 13, 2019

UMass Law grads honor service tradition, will maintain top-3 Mass. bar pass rate with Harvard, BU

Photos and tweets from today's Commencement at UMass Law.

Photo of stage by UMassD_Alumni. Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Associate Justice Elspeth Cypher (read more), honorary degree recipient, at right, first row, second from left.  I'm three rows behind her.
Professor and former Dean Phil Cleary (who can count Mass. tort law among his many talents), respected faculty senior, hoods the youngest member of the class.  Thurgood Marshall-award-winning dad Jesse Purvis looks on.  Photo by UMassLaw.
My tweets in time sequence:



Now it's off to a faculty committee meeting. The busy work is never done! 🐝

Friday, March 1, 2019

Statute of repose bars asbestos claim, despite long latency of illness, Mass. high court rules

Pilgrim Nuclear Station, Plymouth, Mass. (by NRCgov, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
Answering a certified question from the federal district court, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) held unanimously today that a state statute of repose for personal injury claims bars a mesothelioma negligence suit against General Electric (GE) in the case of a former nuclear-plant construction worker exposed to asbestos.  The case is Stearns v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., No. SJC-12544 (Mass. Mar. 1, 2019) (PDF), certified by No. 1:15-cv-13490-RWZ (D. Mass. May 14, 2018).

Whereas the time limit of a statute of limitations runs from the time a would-be plaintiff becomes or should become aware that he or she has suffered an injury, a statute of repose sets a hard deadline contingent on an objectively verifiable event, irrespective of the plaintiff's experience.  Massachusetts law has a statute of repose, Mass. Gen. L. ch. 260, § 2B, that is generous to the construction industry, relative to other states' laws.  When personal injury arises from improvement to real property, tort claims are barred six years after the improvement is opened to use.

Wayne Oliver
Brockton, Mass., native Wayne F. Oliver worked as a pipe inspector for a contractor of GE on the installation of turbine generators at the Pilgrim Nuclear Station at Plymouth, Massachusetts, and at the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant in Maryland in the 1970s.  Installation specifications called for the use of asbestos insulation, to which Oliver was exposed over the course of years.  In April 2015, Oliver was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a known health consequence of asbestos exposure, and in July 2016, at age 67, he died.

Plaintiffs in some toxin claims have trouble navigating statutes of limitations, because litigants dispute when an ill plaintiff should have realized that the illness was consequent to exposure.  Suing and non-natural causation are not necessarily the first thoughts of a patient diagnosed with cancer.  But mesothelioma victims often surmount statutes of limitations hurdles, because the disease has a long latency period, and then, as in Oliver's case, manifests onset and death in short order.  Statutes of repose then become problematic in cases arising from construction exposures.

Piping in turbine building at Russian nuclear power plant, 1986
(RIA Novosti archive, image #447414, by Petrouhyn, CC-BY-SA 3.0).

The SJC in Stearns recognized the well accepted proposition that statutes of repose may work a corrective injustice against injured plaintiffs, especially in case of diseases with long latency periods.  But the greater policy aim of statutes of repose is to time-limit liability for commercial actors, lest productive development become unaffordable for fear of perpetual liability exposure.

Contingent on objectively verifiable events, statutes of repose tend to be unforgiving of lapses in time.  The SJC observed that various statutes of repose in Massachusetts have not yielded in prior cases, even upon a defendant's intentional wrongdoing or fraudulent concealment of danger, or a victim's mental illness or ongoing medical treatment.  The statute of repose for medical malpractice contains an exception in the event of a foreign object left in a person's body, so, the SJC reasoned, the legislature knows how to make an exception when it wants to.  The statute of repose in construction is "ironclad."
Associate Justice Cypher

In a footnote, the court added:
The plaintiffs point out that a number of other State Legislatures have effectively exempted asbestos-related illnesses from their respective statutes of repose concerning improvements to real property. We encourage our Legislature to consider doing the same should it determine that such an exception is consonant with the Commonwealth's public policy.

The opinion in Stearns was authored by SJC Associate Justice Elspeth B. Cypher, a Pittsburgh native.  In the fall 2019 semester at UMass Law School, Justice Cypher is scheduled tentatively to co-teach, with former dean Robert V. Ward, Jr., Race, Women’s Rights, Gender Identity and the Law.

Upon Oliver's death in 2016, the family asked for donations to the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation, in lieu of flowers.