Learn more about Peltz-Steele v. UMass Faculty Federation at Court Listener and the Liberty Justice Center. Please direct media inquiries to Kristen Williamson.
Showing posts with label Ralph Gants. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ralph Gants. Show all posts

Monday, September 21, 2020

Man may sue police in tort, civil rights for violent beating, despite his conviction for resisting arrest

"Defund the police" has been a rallying cry in recent protests. (Photo at BLM
encampment, New York City, June 26, 2020, by Felton Davis CC BY 2.0.)
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court last week vacated and remanded the trial court's judgment for police in a civil suit with racial overtones.

Authoring the unanimous opinion, Justice David A. Lowy characterized the case as "disturbing."  The court recited the facts as most favorable to the plaintiff, Mark S. Tinsley, the non-moving party.  According to that recitation, Tinsley, who is African American, was stopped by Framingham, Massachusetts, police for speeding in 2012.  Suspecting Tinsley of hiding something, police ordered Tinsley from the car, and he refused.  The traffic stop by two police officers became a physical struggle with five to pull Tinsley from the car.  Once he was out of the car, on the ground,

several police officers began beating him.  Tinsley did not resist. He tried to put his hands behind his back so that the police officers would handcuff him and thus, he thought, stop hitting him. The police officers did not stop. [One officer] struck Tinsley's collarbone and upper shoulder, and stomped on Tinsley's left hand. [A second officer] sprayed Tinsley with pepper spray. [A third officer] called Tinsley a "fucking n[word]" [footnote: "At trial, [the third officer] denied that he or any other police officer swore at Tinsley or called him 'any names.'"] and kicked Tinsley in the head. While Tinsley was on the ground, an officer handcuffed him [footnote omitted quoting Tinsley's trial testimony]. Tinsley suffered a broken nose, a broken finger, and a wound on the side of his head that required stitches.

Tinsley was convicted on counts including assault and battery (criminal), carrying a dangerous weapon ("a spring assisted knife"), and resisting arrest.  While criminal charges were pending, Tinsley sued for civil rights violation and tort claims including assault, battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and false arrest.  Upon two motions, the latter decided after the conclusion of the criminal proceeding, the trial court entered judgment for defendants police and town on all counts.

The question on appeal was whether the trial court properly recognized in the civil proceeding the collateral estoppel effect of Tinsley's criminal conviction.  The doctrine of collateral estoppel precludes a later civil court from re-trying facts and conclusions of law that were determined by jury and court in an earlier criminal proceeding.  Thus, after conviction, a defendant may not argue his innocence in a later case.

However, the facts deemed determined in the earlier criminal proceeding are limited to the facts that supported conviction.  Tinsley argued, and the Court agreed, that the jury's conviction was not inconsistent with Tinsley's claim of excessive force for the beating he endured on the ground, outside the car, after his arrest.  The Court reasoned that Tinsley was placed under arrest when he was seized inside the car.  Insofar as Tinsley was resisting arrest inside the car, then, collateral estoppel pertains, precluding suit on the tort of false arrest.  But the jury may have based its conviction on a fact pattern that ended before Tinsley was on the ground. So the facts of the beating, occurring after arrest, remain arguable in the civil case.

The Court explained,

Even where the use of force to effect an arrest is reasonable in response to an individual's resistance, the continued use of force may well be unreasonable, as an individual's conduct prior to arrest or during an arrest does not authorize a violation of his or her constitutional rights....  To hold differently would implicitly permit police officers, in response to a resisting individual, to exert as much force as they so choose "and be shielded from accountability under civil law," so long as the prosecutor could successfully convict the individual of resisting arrest.

Accordingly, the Court vacated judgment for defendants on the civil rights claim and the assault, battery, and IIED counts, and remanded the civil case to proceed.  The false arrest claim was properly barred.

The case is Tinsley v. Town of Framingham, No. SJC-12826 (Mass. Sept. 17, 2020).  Chief Justice Gants participated in deliberations before his death.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Mass. Chief Justice Ralph Gants dies


Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants has died.

Read more:
NECN
Boston Globe
Boston Herald

Also:
Ralph Gants on this blog

Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants was a graduate of Harvard undergrad and law, one-time AUSA, and recipient of an honorary law degree from UMass Law at 2016 Commencement (pictured and below).

Also:
On criminal justice reform with Jim Braude at WGBH News
On access to justice at Harvard Law School

HT @ Prof. Cleary.

Monday, October 1, 2018

The Mystery of the Student Loan Fraud, or Of In Pari Delicto, Respondeat Superior, et Cetera


A still mysterious financial fraud perpetrated on students of Merrimack College resulted in a high court ruling last week on agency law with important implications for tort liability and the equitable doctrine of in pari delicto.

Students at Merrimack College Orientation in 2015.
By Merrimack College (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Merrimack is located in North Andover, Massachusetts (where the recent gas explosions occurred).  Merrimack is a small liberal arts college founded in the Roman Catholic tradition after World War II especially to serve returning vets.  Despite the depressed market in higher education, Merrimack this fall reported a record-size freshman class and plans to join Division I athletics.

In 2014, Merrimack financial aid director Christine Mordach pleaded guilty to federal criminal fraud charges, and in 2015, she was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment and ordered to pay $1.5 million in restitution.  She had been accused of perpetrating a scheme that replaced college scholarship awards with federal loan money on the college books.  The scheme came to light when a new accounting system started to inform students of federal Perkins debts they did not know they had.

Why Mordach did what she did is the mystery.  The scheme shored up the college’s bottom line through lean times, because money paid out of college coffers in grants was replaced with borrowed dollars that students would be on the hook to pay back.  But there was no evidence that Mordach was ordered to execute the scheme.  To the contrary, she seems to have taken steps to conceal it, which she did so well that Merrimack auditor KPMG gave the college a clean bill of health while the fraud was ongoing.

That brings us to the instant civil case.  Merrimack seeks to recover against KPMG on a range of theories, including breach of contract, professional malpractice, and negligent misrepresentation, for KPMG’s failure to detect the fraud.  KPMG won dismissal in the superior court upon the doctrine of in pari delicto.  Literally Latin for “in equal fault,” in pari delicto translates as the clean hands doctrine of equity.  In tort, the doctrine prevents a tortfeasor from recovering against a co-tortfeasor or innocent party—such as a bank robber who blames a co-conspirator for his bullet wound, or the burned arsonist who would blame firefighters for too slow a rescue.  Merrimack appealed the dismissal to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC).

Being a doctrine in equity, rather than a rule, in pari delicto calls for a fact-sensitive application, operating as a function of the parties’ relative moral blameworthiness.  Thus in a 1985 case discussed in the instant opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed would-be beneficiaries of insider trading to sue their tipsters for losses resulting from misinformation, even if both plaintiffs and defendants were wrongdoers.  The plaintiffs’ trading upon a failure to disclose was not “substantially equal” in moral culpability to the tipsters’ illegal insider disclosures, the Court decided, and public policy favored holding the tipsters to civil account.

KPMG Boston (Google Maps Aug. 2017)
KPMG argues more than just Merrimack’s benefit derived from a favorable financial picture.  KPMG argued successfully in the superior court that Mordach’s actions must be imputed strictly to Merrimack upon the tort-and-agency doctrine of respondeat superior, because Mordach was an employee of Merrimack and acted within the scope of her employment.  So if intentional fraud is imputed to Merrimack, then in pari delicto precludes recovery against KPMG for the diminished culpability state of mere negligence.

On the one hand, the SJC reasoned, look at the problem from the perspective of Merrimack students:  Were they to have sued Merrimack—not actually necessary, as the college spent $6 million to square its affairs with students—there is little doubt that Mordach’s intentional tort would have imputed strictly, even to an otherwise innocent Merrimack, through respondeat superior.  From where the student sits, the fraud was perpetrated by Merrimack’s financial aid office: Mordach and college, one and the same.  Merrimack might have sought indemnity from employee Mordach, but that’s always true in respondeat superior cases (notwithstanding employment contract).

On the other hand, the SJC reasoned, look at the problem from the perspective of Merrimack College:  Strict liability through the action of respondeat superior imputes liability irrespective of fault and certainly says nothing about moral blameworthiness.  Merrimack as liable to students is never adjudicated as bearing fault.  From a moral standpoint, Merrimack is at worst guilty of neglect, or failure to act, such as by negligent supervision of its financial-aid director.  So notwithstanding strict legal liability, Merrimack’s negligence would implicate moral blameworthiness of a magnitude less than what the college alleges of KPMG.

When co-tortfeasors both commit an intentional tort, in pari delicto precludes liability of one to the other.  But that’s not necessarily so when merely negligent co-tortfeasors A and B unwittingly combine efforts to cause loss to C, incidentally causing loss also to B.  In the subsequent action B v. A, the old contributory negligence rule, as a complete defense, would have effectuated the clean-hands doctrine.  But contemporary tort law commits negligent co-tortfeasors to comparative-fault analysis.  In a modified-comparative-fault jurisdiction such as Massachusetts, B may recover from A if A bore more fault than B, and B’s recovery is reduced in proportion to B’s own share of fault. 

The SJC decided that moral blameworthiness, not legal liability exposure, must be the guiding principle for an equitable doctrine.  Merrimack might be on the hook hypothetically for respondeat superior liability, and even negligent supervision.  But neither of those rules suggests moral blameworthiness greater than KPMG’s.  The case might be different if Mordach has been a senior executive of Merrimack; she was not.  And there is no evidence that Merrimack knew what Mordach was up to, much less directed her actions.

So in the absence of an intentional tortfeasor between Merrimack and KPMG, in pari delicto does not apply.  If Merrimack’s negligence contributed to its own losses, that will come out in the comparative-fault wash.  That conclusion is bolstered by a comparative-fault-like mechanism in Massachusetts statute that applies specifically to client-versus-auditor malpractice claims.  Accordingly, the SJC reversed and remanded.

Chief Justice Gants at UMass Law (2016)
The SJC received amicus briefs from the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, the Massachusetts Academy of Trial Attorneys (MATA), and the Chelsea Housing Authority.  For the MATA, attorney Jeffrey Nolan argued, like in the U.S. Supreme Court insider trading case, that liability exposure is needed to hold KPMG accountable, especially in a market dominated by the Big Four accounting firms.  The housing authority also backed Merrimack, attorney Susan Whalen recounting her client’s victimization by internal misconduct that went undetected by accountants.  She asserted that in pari delicto has “the perverse result of de facto immunity for gross levels of negligence” by auditors (Law360, subscription required).

All of that is not to say that KPMG will be held liable.  Besides fault yet to be proved, the SJC affirmed the superior court’s leave for KPMG to amend its answer, adding a defense of release.  Ut victoriam tyranne?

The case is Merrimack College v. KPMG LLP, No. SJC-12434 (Mass. Sept. 27, 2018).  The opinion was authored by Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants, a graduate of Harvard undergrad and law, one-time AUSA, and 2016 recipient of an honorary law degree from UMass Law School.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Mass. high court allows generic-drug consumer to sue Big Pharma for reckless labeling


Just more than a week ago, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) issued an adroit and important decision on drug manufacturer liability.  In a decision worthy of other states’ attention, the SJC allowed a common law recklessness claim for failure to warn, unobstructed by federal preemption.  The case is Rafferty v. Merck & Co., No. SJC-12347 (Mar. 16, 2018) (PDF), per Chief Justice Ralph Gants.

It was in the last season of Boston Legal in 2008 (s5e02) that Alan Shore (James Spader), maybe my favorite TV lawyer, took on Big Pharma, right on the heels of victory over Big Tobacco.  In real life, Big Pharma has long been about the business of avoiding tort liability.  When labeling defects have been alleged, the Big Pharma defense has found traction in federal preemption, owing to the FDA’s close supervision of labeling under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, 21 U.S.C. §§ 301, et seq.

One thread of this debate involves the relative responsibilities of brand-name and generic manufacturers.  In 2011, in PLIVA, Inc. v. Mensing, 564 U.S. 604, the U.S. Supreme Court, 5-4, rejected liability for a generic drug maker accused of failure to warn of side effects when the label matched that of the brand-name equivalent.

In the SJC last week, the plaintiff also was injured taking a generic drug, but sought to hold the brand-name maker accountable in negligence and consumer protection, accusing the maker of failure to warn on the label that the generic provider copied.  The plaintiff took the generic drug finasteride, in lieu of defendant Merck’s brand-name drug Proscar, to treat an enlarged prostate.  The label warned of sexual dysfunction as a temporary side effect, but the plaintiff experienced persistent dysfunction.  The plaintiff alleged that Merck was aware of the risk from several studies and had changed the warning label accordingly in some foreign markets, including Italy, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.

Significantly, then, the plaintiff admittedly complained against a defendant whose drug he did not take.  But the plaintiff traced causation to Merck, because FDA regulation of generic drugs compelled the generic maker to copy the Merck label, and PLIVA precluded liability for the generic maker.  The trial court dismissed, holding that brand-name-maker liability to a patient who did not take the maker’s drug also would “disturb the balance struck” by statute and regulation for the approval of generic drugs.

The SJC regarded the problem as one of duty.  Typically, the court explained, a manufacturer owes a duty of care only to consumers of the manufacturer’s own products.  The First Circuit upheld that logic in a 1983 case under Massachusetts law, Carrier v. Riddell, Inc., 721 F.2d 867.  The court, per then-Circuit Judge Stephen Breyer, denied recovery to a high school football player who blamed a helmet defect for his severe spinal injury.  He had not used the defendant-manufacturer’s helmet, but teammates had.  He alleged that had the defendant properly labeled its helmets, he would have been informed properly about his own.  The SJC further analogized the problem to the effort to hold responsible for a shooting an earlier-in-time actor accused of failing to secure the firearm.  The key to this duty analysis, the court explained, is the foreseeability of a plaintiff-victim—reminiscent of Judge Cardozo’s classic “orbit of duty” analysis in Palsgraf.

Duty in the drug liability problem, the SJC reasoned, is not the same as the product liability analysis in Carrier.  Rather, consistently with the federal regulatory scheme, Merck knows that generic manufacturers will be compelled to rely on its labeling.  Merck therefore has control over the generic label, and duty follows control.  One might say that the consumers of the generic drug are therefore foreseeable victims, for duty purposes, or that the chain of proximate causation runs intact through the intermediary generic maker, because the intermediary lacks control over the label.  Like Palsgraf itself, the case demonstrates the fluid interchangeability of duty and causation.

However, the court further reasoned, negligence, like strict liability, might be too low a liability threshold.  Shifting the liability of generic consumers on to brand-name makers adds to the cost of drug research and development in a way that might interfere with the legislative-regulatory scheme.  Under PLIVA, the brand-name maker could not share joint liability with the generic maker.  At the same time, allowing the brand-name maker wholly to escape liability would allow an injured plaintiff no recovery under any circumstances.  A balance may be struck, the court concluded, when the plaintiff can prove recklessness, or more, intent, on the part of the brand-name maker.

The court wrote: “We have nevertheless consistently recognized that there is a certain core duty—a certain irreducible minimum duty of care, owed to all persons—that as a matter of public policy cannot be abrogated: that is, the duty not to intentionally or recklessly cause harm to others.”  The court analogized to the duty of care owed by defendants in other exceptional areas of Massachusetts tort law: landowner to trespasser, defamation defendant to public figure, bailee to bailor, and athletes and coaches to competitors.

Otherwise put, the court maintained the essential balance of tort law upon its four fundamental elements, duty, breach, proximate cause, and injury.  The extension of liability to a defendant-manufacturer who did not actually make the injurious product depressed the thresholds for duty and causation.  To maintain balance, the requisite standard of breach is amplified to recklessness or intent.  Physical injury remains constant. 

Chief Justice Gants’s opinion in Rafferty is insightful and masterful.  It takes account of the greater endeavor of tort law to define civil wrongs, while balancing the corrective role of the judiciary with the policy-making role of the legislative and executive branches, and also striking a balance in federalism between tort accountability in the states and market regulation under the Commerce Clause.  At the same time, the decision recognizes how these balances are struck across the body of tort law in areas that usually seem only distantly related, from premises liability to reputational harm to sports.  This would be one for the casebooks, if casebooks were still a thing.