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.
Showing posts with label Ralph Nader. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ralph Nader. Show all posts

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Whitehouse laments mandatory arbitration, civil jury woes; SCOTUS-nominated Jackson does not engage

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I., one of my state senators) just questioned U.S. Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson on the importance of the civil jury.

(I wrote recently about Judge Jackson's trial court record, here and here.)

Tort law does not usually figure much into U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings, so when it does, it's worth paying attention. While tort law can be implicated directly in the work of the U.S. Supreme Court, for example, in the application of federal common law in admiralty, tort law is more likely to make an appearance ancillarily to constitutional law, the area of senators' greatest interest in the confirmation process.  

Those appearances of tort law usually are indicative of the interests of the day.  When gun control and the Second Amendment were hot topics in the 20-aughts, tort law made cameos in questioning about the defenses of self and property.  Senators have been interested periodically in the scope of civil rights law to combat gender discrimination.  Dialog on that point has imported principles of causation, because civil rights law, especially in private remedies, borrows both procedural and substantive machinery, including limiting principles, from common law tort.

At about quarter to one in the extended morning of today's confirmation hearings, Senator Whitehouse sought Judge Jackson's endorsement, which she gave, of statements on the importance of the civil jury.  The Seventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees a right, if qualifiedly, to a civil jury, and the mechanism was famously admired by Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America (1835).  Yet the institution has been a waning feature of American civil justice, largely as an incidental function of the dramatic decline in civil trials during the 20th century, but also as a deliberate effect of corporate America's embrace of mandatory arbitration.

Mandatory arbitration, removing cases from the courts upon the purported consent of consumers and victims of tortious wrongdoing and breach of contract, has been a preoccupation of consumer protection advocates and anti-tort reformers (or plaintiff-side "tort reformers"), such as Ralph Nader.  (The issue was among those addressed by the documentary Hot Coffee in 2011, particularly in the painful context of purported consent to dispute resolution in event of criminal sexual assault.  Unfortunately, because the point hardly diminishes the problem on the merits, the story highlighted in the film was later challenged as a possible fabrication.)  Among the many shortcomings of arbitration as a mechanism in the service of justice that rub me the wrong way, besides its overwhelming favoritism for corporate respondents, is the lack of transparency, which allows wrongdoers to persist in misconduct in defiance of public accountability.

Senator Whitehouse has been focused lately on what he perceives to be politicization of the judiciary through the use of "dark money," that is, money of unknown or vague origin, to influence the appointment (and in some states, election) of judges, typically to further the interests of big business.  Whitehouse wrote about the problem in the Yale Law Forum in 2021, and I recently wrote about Whitehouse writing about the problem.  He talked about that issue both in his opening remarks on the Judiciary Committee yesterday and at the start of his questioning today.  This focus is a natural extension, and broadening, of his concern over civil juries, about which he wrote also, in a law review article for William & Mary in 2014.

I created a C-SPAN clip from today's hearing.  C-SPAN has a transcript below it, but be warned, the automated system made some egregious errors, e.g., reading "civil juries" as "simple majorities."


Frankly, I didn't care for Judge Jackson's response.  Her initial reflection about citizens sitting in judgment over one another seemed to speak to the criminal trial.  She failed to acknowledge the separate, separately important and separately threatened, civil dimension on which Whitehouse was focused.  When he pressed her again on the question, in relation to the risk of jury tampering, her response, again, was painfully generic and indicated no recognition of the particular problem of the vitality of the civil jury.  On a third go, Whitehouse explicitly cited mandatory arbitration, the Seventh Amendment, the employment context, and corporate power.  Judge Jackson had no opportunity to respond.

I simply can't tell whether Judge Jackson was unclear on what it is Whitehouse is worried about, or she was simply trying, presumably upon handlers' instructions, to remain utterly bland and uncontroversial in any declaration.  Whitehouse thanked Jackson for answering his questions with clarity and expressly recognizing the importance of the civil jury.  But she had not. 

After the exchange, Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) noted pending legislation that would override purported consent to mandatory arbitration in sexual assault matters.  The Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Act of 2021 was signed by the President on March 3: a welcome change, a long time coming (since Hot Coffee; #MeToo revived the appetite), though redressing only a sliver of the mandatory arbitration problem.  Durbin was talking about, I assume, the Forced Arbitration Injustice Repeal (FAIR) Act, which, as H.R. 963, narrowly passed in the House, 222-209, just last week.  Its companion S.505 has been long pending in the Judiciary Committee.  The FAIR Act would apply to employment and consumer disputes.

Incidentally, just before the jury discussion, Senator Whitehouse asked Judge Jackson whether it is ever appropriate for an appellate court to do fact-finding outside the record.  She said that she knew of no such occasion.  Neither of them referred to, nor, doubtless, even thought about, the latitude afforded appellate courts to research the law of foreign jurisdictions, which is treated for most purposes as a question of fact.  I note the issue only because American appellate courts' unwillingness to investigate foreign law in cases in which it is implicated often impedes the attainment of justice in the jurisdictionally transnational cases increasingly generated by globalization, not only in corporate matters such as business contract disputes, but in family law and civil rights.

The Sullivan question has come up today, too, this afternoon by Senator Klobuchar (D-Minn.).  She seemed to suggest that journalists' lives will be put at risk without the "actual malice" standard.  Never mind the reputations and careers that have been ruined in the name of protecting press negligence and blissful ignorance.  I don't have the stomach today to tackle such uninformed melodrama.  As one might expect, Judge Jackson stuck close to tried-and-true principles of stare decisis.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Whistleblowers call foul, Play the Game

Marcus Carmichael
(Chris Turner CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Whistleblowers are basking in an adoring limelight in the United States right now. They better enjoy it while it lasts, because the American taste for whistleblowing is fickle.

All the attention being paid to whistleblowing in Washington, you would think that whistleblowers are heroes of democratic liberty, Paul Reveres on midnight rides of revelation. Now there’s a second whistleblower, and maybe a third, and, why, people just can’t get in line fast enough to become whistleblowers.

I have to roll my eyes when I hear people waxing poetic over the great tradition of the American whistleblower. Catch those same people on a different day, different issue, or different side of the fence, and they’ll be lashing the whistleblower to the stake and setting their torches to the kindling like it’s the Spanish Inquisition. For much of American history, whistleblowing has been synonymous with disloyalty and treachery.

The Washington whistleblower caused WNYC’s On the Media to replay a 2015 segment in which Brooke Gladstone interviewed language writer Ben Zimmer and consumer protection advocate and civil rights crusader Ralph Nader. The early-20th-century word whistleblowing, Zimmer explained, comes from what it sounds like: a referee blowing the whistle to stop play in event of a penalty. (See Transparency International for the word’s translations, born of other cultural contexts.) No sooner did the word come about that it acquired a dark connotation. It meant, Gladstone said, “to snitch, to rat, to steal.” You can hear that usage, Zimmer pointed out, in the classic film On the Waterfront (1954), in reference to the enemies of organized labor. In this sense, Trump’s “spy” notion is not so far off the mark.



Nader was responsible for turning the word around in the 1970s. He pleaded for insiders to break ranks in his public safety crusade against Big Auto, and he repurposed the term whistleblowing with the positive spin of serving the greater good, despite disloyalty in the short term. So the word is not the thing. Gladstone nailed the salient distinction, which is whether the whistleblowing accords with one’s value judgments. Trump’s traitor is Pelosi’s star witness. Ed Snowden deserves either a presidential medal or an espionage prosecution. Even Upton Sinclair was a duplicitous meatpacking worker.

Blow the Whistle


Our ambivalence about whistleblowers finds expression in law. When we protect whistleblowers at law—common law usually does not—it’s usually a legislative reaction to something awful that happened, when we wonder why no one in the know said anything. While whistleblower protection statutes are prevalent in the United States at state and federal levels, they are often controversial, hardly comprehensive, and likely to pertain only to the public sector. Protection tends to be narrow and sectoral in scope; to depend upon abundant and variable technical prerequisites; and to offer scant shield from the full range of consequences, formal and informal, that the whistleblower faces. Woe to the would-be whistleblower who fails to hire a lawyer in advance to navigate the legal process. The Washington whistleblower was meticulous. The person either is a lawyer or consulted one.

Far from the glamorous escapades of the Hollywood Insider, the real-life whistleblower’s lot in life is lousy. More whistleblowers become infamous than famous, and most become no one significant at all. Typically whistleblowers find themselves, through no fault of their own, in a catch-22. Behind door number one, go with the flow, stay with the pack, look the other way, and sell out your principles. Behind door number two, stand on principle, and probably lose your job, your livelihood, your home, and your friends, alienate your family, and maybe put your life at risk.

To be fair, not all whistleblowers are motivated by altruism, and not all whistleblower motives are altruistic. Sometimes whistleblowers themselves are victims of the misconduct they are reporting. Sometimes they are grinding an unrelated ax against a perpetrator—which doesn’t make the perpetrator less an offender. Whistleblowers’ motives can be complicated. People are complicated. Altruism is a factor. Courage is a constant.

Play the Game


Last week, I had the extraordinary experience of meeting some whistleblowers in world sport. For me, it was the highlight of Play the Game, an initiative and biennial conference of the Danish Institute for Sports Studies, its first meeting outside Europe.  Play the Game aims to raise ethical standards and to promote democracy, transparency, and freedom of expression in world sport.

Whistleblowing in sport might not sound like a big deal, but it is. Consider that transnational sport governors such as the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) are among the most powerful non-governmental organizations in the world. Technically they are “nonprofits,” but no one says that with a straight face. Until recently, FIFA and IOC execs sashayed into the offices of presidents, prime ministers, governors, and mayors like they were Regina George’s mean girls on a tear at North Shore High. There were real costs to their shameless greed: global contrails of worthless constructions, impoverished populations, and broken dreams.

That started to change when FIFA and IOC were exposed as corrupt at their cores. Their corruption was exposed by whistleblowers.

Bonita Mersiades (Play the Game CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Bonita Mersiades was a top exec with the Australian Football Federation from 2007 to 2010, when she worked on Australia’s failed bids for the 2018 and 2022 FIFA World Cup tournaments. She blew the whistle on the extraordinary demands that FIFA placed on would-be hosts and her own country’s willingness to bend the public interest to conform. Those tournaments we know now were awarded to Russia and Qatar upon such rank corruption as resulted in a 2015 raid by U.S. and Swiss law enforcement and dozens of criminal indictments. Mersiades herself was outed when the investigative report of Assistant U.S. Attorney (now N.Y. Judge) Michael Garcia was made public.

At Play the Game, Mersiades described social ostracism in her community, loss of her career in sport administration, burglary of her home, and hacking and online harassment. She wrote about FIFA corruption and her experience in a 2018 book, Whatever It Takes: The Inside Story of the FIFA Way.

Yuliya and Vitaly Stepanov (Play the Game CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Also on the whistleblower panel (below in full) were Yuliya Stepanova and Vitaly Stepanov. Yuliya was a Russian Olympic runner, and Vitaly worked for the Russian anti-doping agency. Together they blew the whistle on Russian doping, breaking open a massive scandal that rocked Russia and the world, exposing not just systematic Russian doping but reckless, if not criminal, indifference in the World Anti-Doping Agency. With good reason, the Stepanovs feared for their lives.  They applied for Canadian asylum and now live in the United States (with their adorable little boy, also in attendance).


Vitaly told a spellbound audience that the stress of the couple’s situation had them on the verge of divorce when, at last, they took the leap into whistleblowing history together. They would have to leave homeland and family behind, and their lives would never be the same. But it was OK, he said, because “after that, … we were united.”

My dinner companions: Mersiades and Dr. Joel Carmichael,
chiropractor to U.S. Olympic athletes
When, over dinner, I lamented the state of patchwork American whistleblower protection law, Mersiades was quick to correct me. It’s much better than Australia, she said. [See UPDATE below.]  In the United States, we do have a somewhat vigorous qui tam field. (Read more at Troxel, Krauss, & Chapman.)  And the federal whistleblower law now at the heart of the impeachment inquiry is better than the yawning void of jeopardy into which FBI Special Agent Coleen Rowley stepped when she testified in the Senate on 9/11 failures in 2002. She retired from the FBI two and a half years later.

Mersiades book
Still, it seems to me that as a society, we should be able to do better. When the dust settles around the peculiarly technically adept Washington whistleblower, we might ought wonder why whistleblowers aren’t all around us—at every level of government, and in the private sector. Did no one at Purdue Pharma know about aggressive opioid peddling? We should wonder why, in the land of the First Amendment, there are so many disincentives—legal, social, economic—for anyone to speak out as a citizen on a matter of urgent public interest.

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it,” Sinclair said in 1934. That’s why the rule of law must support the apostate who speaks the truth.

The documentary Icarus tells the Russian doping story.
Director Bryan Fogel also spoke on the whistleblowing panel (above) at Play the Game 2019.


For more from Play the Game 2019, see the conference website and the #ptg2019 Twitter feed.

[UPDATE, Oct. 21, at 10:50 a.m. U.S. EDT: A testament to Mersiades's lament that Australian whistleblower protection lags behind democratic demands, witness today's remarkable protest action by Australian newspapers.] 

Friday, October 14, 2016

'Goliath' bursts onto Amazon scene


Tonight marks the premiere of Goliath on Amazon TV/Video.  Billy Bob Thornton, a native of Bill-Clinton-"Boyhood Home" Hot Springs, Arkansas, stars as a tort lawyer, presumably our David, in the saga of a wrongful death lawsuit against big-money interests.

The story line is far from unprecedented, but my expectations are high.  This show comes to us from producers David E. Kelley and Jonathan Shapiro.  We have Kelley to thank for a pantheon of my most beloved TV lawyers, including Arnie Becker, Douglas Wambaugh, Ally McBeal, Alan Shore, and Denny Crane.  Jonathan Shapiro has been a key writer behind some of those characters, having worked on James Spader projects from The Practice to The Blacklist.

Goliath comes at a good time, as the election cycle has heightened American angst about dysfunctional institutions.  With the Supreme Court opening its new term with only eight justices, Citizens United and the role of wealth in politics looms large over the weird dynamics playing out in all three branches of government right now.  When Kelley and Shapiro appeared at the American Bar Association Annual Meeting in August to talk about Goliath, they said that dysfunction in the civil litigation system would be a central theme in the new show.  The trial, figurative and literal, of protagonist Billy McBride (Thornton) would expose the impact on our justice system of dramatic resource disparities between individual plaintiffs and "Goliath" corporate defendants, as well as the related, gradual extinction of our jury system.  I'll paste below my tweets from that event, which convey a flavor of the presentation.

Reviews of the show so far are positive, if guarded.  The consensus seems to be that the haggard lawyer fighting for justice and thereby his own redemption is a tired cliché.  Yet the Kelley/Shapiro-led execution of the show and the small-screen mastery of Thornton--whose understated lead as Malvo in TV's Fargo s1 was a morbid joy--make Goliath irresistible viewing nonetheless.

I'm tied up this weekend with a couple of projects and might not be able to binge Goliath off the bat.  So no spoilers!

--
Kelley & Shapiro at ABA (Aug. 2016)



My tweets from ABA Annual, Aug. 5:

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Guest post: Where is tort (anti)reform in politics now?

Alex Nee, a student in my Torts I class, posted to the class website links to Ralph Nader in Harper's (April 2016) and Michael Shammas's reaction at The Huffington Post (May 2016), reflecting on the latter in the context of our study of American tort law.  Alex's opinions are of course his own.  I think his revival of these pieces and his comments speak to something of the voter's frustration in this election cycle, as linked to questions about dysfunction in tort law.

When our class watched the special on New Zealand's lack of fault-based tort law [excerpt from Adrenalin Nation], I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, it would be nice to have a more efficient system in place to ensure damages were looked after in a timely manner and without the need for costly trials. On the other hand, lawsuits and trials serve as a deterrent to negligence and malpractice. So how can America balance the two?

Tort reform is something that is always being tossed around in political and legal circles. What is needed to accomplish efficiency, advocacy, and deterrence is something that can be debated. What Shammas, the author of The Huffington Post article, suggested, however, is that there is no debate that the tort system in America is broken.

Shammas suggested that the demand for reform comes from a number of factors including lobbyists, political polarization, the lack of a functioning jury system, and a number of "deforms" ranging all the way back to the 1960s. I am of the opinion, coming from a political science major, that a lot of these problems stem from a broken political system. Few people will debate that something is wrong with American politics; just look at whom we nominated for President.

The constant polarization of the parties and the greed for power and re-election (over the need for advocacy of constituents) forces politicians to act unreasonably. Rather than advocate, they want money and power. Jury trials take too long and are not viewed favorably by Big Money. If I ran a company that could be sued for negligence, I would want the "system" rigged (or at least very lenient) against plaintiffs so I would not have to pay damages easily. To that end I would donate and support candidates who oppose trials, juries, and reforms that might favor them. Like Nader, Shammas concluded that this position is not in the best interest of the American people.

Shammas cited Ralph Nader's article in Harper's about the lack of a functioning jury system in American tort law.  Juries were designed to democratize courts. Rather than a few elites deciding the fates of the laymen, the laymen themselves would decide the facts. The verdict would be skewed toward Big Money and elites if the jury were not present. This is why our Founders framed the jury right in the Seventh Amendment.

Shammas ended on a note that common law is lagging even farther behind than it should. In today's day and age, technology and information is changing on a daily basis. New tech comes out faster and faster. Last year's model is obsolete, time to upgrade. The common law cannot keep up with our fast-paced society looking for modern answers to law. This is another weakness perpetuated by the broken political system.

The Legislature is supposed to step in and assist where common law lags behind. But the inefficiency of Congress and the constant bickering of States results in a sub-par system of balancing common law. It seems that a majority of politicians would rather talk about how amazing they are and the sins of the other party than talk about how we can fix broken systems or update the laws to reflect society's standards for right and wrong.

Alex Nee has a B.A. in political science from Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, and is a J.D. candidate at UMass Law School. He has worked most recently as a service associate for Mid-Cape Home Centers, a communications officer for the American Red Cross, a legal clerk for Cape Cod Media Group, and a parking enforcement officer for the Town of Barnstable, Massachusetts.