Showing posts with label appeals court. Show all posts
Showing posts with label appeals court. Show all posts

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

'Error in judgment' jury instruction properly cuts room for doctor to escape liability for delay of surgery

Ischemic bowel in CT scan
(image by James Heilman, MD, CC BY-SA 3.0)
A doctor did not commit malpractice by awaiting test results before committing a patient to surgery for an ischemic bowel, even if permanent disability resulted from delay, the Massachusetts Appeals Court ruled before Memorial Day weekend.  The jury was properly instructed to allow leeway for error in judgment.

The plaintiff-patient presented at the emergency room at 1 a.m. in severe abdominal pain and with a history of gastric bypass surgery and hernia repair.  The defendant-doctor correctly suspected ischemic bowel, a blood blockage, and, at 3 a.m., sent the patient for a CT scan.  Based on the scan results, the doctor, at 4:23 a.m., ordered the patient to surgery, which commenced by 6:30 a.m.

The court summarized, "The main dispute at trial was whether [the doctor] acted within the standard of care by ordering the CT scan and waiting for the results, or whether he instead should have contacted a surgeon earlier."  On appeal from judgment entered for the doctor, the plaintiff charged that the jury was erroneously instructed to allow for error in the doctor's professional judgment.

Tracking model jury instructions (p. 5), the trial judge had instructed, inter alia:

"If, in retrospect, the physician's judgment was incorrect, it is not, in and of itself, enough to prove medical malpractice or negligence.

"Doctors are allowed a range in the reasonable exercise of professional judgment and they are not liable for mere errors of judgment so long as that judgment does not represent a departure from the standard of care resulting in a failure to do something that the standard of care requires or in doing something that should not be done under the standard of care.

"In other words, a doctor is liable for errors of judgment only if those errors represent a departure from the standard of care."

In affirming for the doctor, the court upheld the instruction.  The court reviewed a range of approaches in other states to "error of judgment" instruction in medical malpractice cases.  Hawaii and Oregon, for example, reject the instruction as posing too great a risk of confusion for the jury.  California accords with the Massachusetts position.  Other states, such as New York, use the instruction "only where there is evidence at trial that the physician chose from one of several medically acceptable alternatives."  In defense of the Massachusetts position, the court reasoned:

If properly formulated, such an instruction focuses the jury's attention on the standard of care, rather than the particular results in a case.  The instruction also recognizes the reality that, like all professionals, medical professionals need to make judgment calls between various acceptable courses of actions and they should not be found liable unless those judgment calls fall outside the standard of care.

The range of approaches demonstrates civil courts' long struggle with hindsight bias, especially in medical malpractice.  Hindsight bias is a natural human tendency to overestimate one's ability to make a decision correctly when viewing the decision as if in the past, ignorant of consequences, but from a perspective in the present, informed, in fact, by subsequently acquired information.  Shankar Vedantam talked about the problem on The Hidden Brain podcast in 2020.

Hindsight bias is not unique to medical malpractice, nor even to tort law.  Psychologists have documented hindsight bias in "accounting and auditing decisions, athletic competition, and political strategy," besides medicine.  As I wrote in a book on legal pedagogy in 2019, the cartoon South Park even invented a character, Captain Hindsight, to make fun of the human foible.  Hindsight bias inevitably contaminates every tort case, and countering it often is an appropriate strategy in legal argument and jury instruction.  For a juror, like any decision maker, it is difficult to reconstruct a past decision to the complete exclusion of undesired consequences.

The problem is exaggerated in the medical context because of the simplicity of the doctor-patient relationship.  A patient sees a doctor for one purpose, exclusively: to get better.  A doctor has one and only one job: to heal.  When healing is not the result that a patient experiences, and the jury has knowledge of that consequence, it is deceptively easy for jurors to confuse the doctor's failure to heal with a departure from the standard of care.  The Massachusetts instruction is designed to clarify the distinction for jurors.

The case is Paiva v. Kaplan, No. 19-P-1789 (Mass. App. Ct. May 28, 2021).  Justice Joseph M. Ditkoff authored the opinion of the unanimous panel that also comprised Justices Vuono and Milkey.  In a former post as general counsel of the District Court, Justice Ditkoff's responsibilities included drafting standardized jury instructions.

Monday, June 7, 2021

Extortion claim survives anti-SLAPP motion because defendants could not show petitioning connection

Haverhill, Mass., on the Merrimack River, 2008
(photo by Fletcher6 CC BY-SA 3.0)
Defendants could not raise an anti-SLAPP law against allegations of extortion, the Massachusetts Appeals court ruled before the Memorial Day weekend, because extortion did not relate plausibly to the defendants' constitutionally protected petitioning.

Plaintiffs Stem Haverhill and owner Caroline Pineau were applicants for zoning ordinance changes to permit a marijuana dispensary, since opened, in the downtown riverfront district of Haverhill, Massachusetts, a city 35 miles north of Boston, on the New Hampshire border.  Defendants Brad Brooks and Lloyd Jennings leased nearby residential and restaurant space and opposed the zoning changes.

Brooks and Jennings had had a scrap over property boundary with the previous owner of the Stem lot and had paid $30,000 to resolve the matter.  According to the complaint, Brooks and Jennings, apparently bitter over the former matter, demanded more than $30,000 from Pineau as the price of their acquiescence to zoning changes, no matter what the proposed use.

Stem and Pineau sued under the broad Massachusetts tort-and-consumer-protection statute, chapter 93A, as well as state civil rights law and common law defamation.  As often occurs in anti-SLAPP suits, both parties claimed the exercise of constitutional rights.  The plaintiffs were petitioning the government for zoning changes.  The defendants invoked anti-SLAPP upon the theory that the plaintiffs' civil charges of extortion were calculated to interfere with defendants' petition of government in opposition to the zoning changes.  (Read more about anti-SLAPP on this blog.)

The Massachusetts anti-SLAPP statute facilitates dismissal in favor of the defense by special motion upon the theory that litigation is being weaponized to chill the defendant's (or counter-defendant's) free exercise of the right to petition.  As construed by the Supreme Judicial Court, and quoted in part in the instant case, "a defendant seeking dismissal must show, at the threshold, that the claims against it 'are based solely on [its] exercise of its [constitutional] right to petition.'"

The extortion allegations did not fit the anti-SLAPP pattern, the court concluded, affirming the trial court on de novo review.  "Here, some of the defendants' statements to the Pineaus cannot reasonably be viewed as relating to the defendants' petitioning activities. As discussed, the defendants' focus was to obtain money from Pineau that the defendants knew Pineau did not owe to them."  Litigation in the Land Court could not produce a financial award, the court observed, thus undermining the defendants' position.  The court further reasoned:

Here the defendants did not merely oppose Pineau's proposed business, nor did they merely seek to negotiate their price.  Rather, the complaint describes a concerted and extended effort to coerce Pineau to pay, "or else"—complete with thinly veiled threats such as that Pineau "doesn't know who she is dealing with." The complaint thus adequately describes extortion—coercion by improper means that is designed to reap an economic reward. Such actions, in the business context, can be actionable under c[hapter] 93A, and given the facts alleged here, the suit is not based solely on petitioning activity as required by the anti-SLAPP cases.

Though the "solely" limitation is not found in the anti-SLAPP statute, the rule appropriately narrows the doctrine to its roots in protecting the right to petition.  Had the case proceeded in the Massachusetts anti-SLAPP process, the plaintiff would have been afforded an opportunity in rebuttal, also, to articulate a purpose apart from chilling the right to petition.  As the Appeals Court observed, "The Supreme Judicial Court has construed the statute several times, and has provided a framework, which has evolved over time, for analyzing whether an anti-SLAPP motion to dismiss should be allowed."

The case is Haverhill Stem LLC v. Jennings, No. 20-P-537 (Mass. App. Ct. May 26, 2021).  Justice John Englander authored the opinion for a unanimous panel that also comprised Chief Justice Green and Justice Kinder.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Sovereign immunity shields Texas power overseer from liability for now: not so privatized after all

NASA satellite image of Houston with area blackouts, Feb. 16
The cold-induced electric-power disaster in Texas is raising questions about the accountability of "ERCOT," the Electric Reliability Council of Texas.

ERCOT is responsible for about 90% of the Texas electricity market.  During the storm and record cold of last week, Texans experienced rolling outages and some prolonged blackouts.  Deaths and injuries, from hypothermia and carbon monoxide poisoning, are attributed to the cold and blackouts, as well as billions of dollars in property damage.  Governor Greg Abbott has blamed ERCOT for failure to prepare the state's electrical system for a foreseeable winter weather event and promised an investigation.

National Weather Service Tower Cam, Midland, Feb. 20
Naturally, many Texans are wondering about legal liability for ERCOT.  I noticed a tweet from Houston Chronicle business reporter Gwendolyn Wu, who said that ERCOT has "sovereign immunity."  I found that hard to believe.  Wu cited a Chronicle story (subscription), from the bygone innocent age of fall 2019, in which business writer L.M. Sixel said just that.  As it turns out, the problem of ERCOT immunity is sitting, undecided, in the Texas Supreme Court at this very moment.

Legally, ERCOT is a nonprofit corporation formed in 1970 to oversee electric power distribution in Texas.  Because Texas has its own grid that doesn't cross state lines, the power system is not regulated by the federal government.  ERCOT has been at the heart of Texas's love affair with deregulation and privatization, a push that began in earnest in 1999 and found no bounds at the threshold of critical infrastructure.  State legislation in 1999 called on the Texas Public Utility Commission (PUC) to designate an exclusive "independent system operator" to oversee the Texas power grid, and ERCOT easily got the job that it more or less already had.

Yet ERCOT is neither wholly private nor a success story.  Its near monopoly control of Texas power comes with PUC oversight.  Despite that oversight, ERCOT has posted a remarkable record of abuse and failure.  As Sixel recounted in the Chronicle, executives went to prison in the 20-aughts for a financial fraud aggravated by lack of transparency and exposed by whistleblowers.  About the same time, Texans saw rolling blackouts, even while their deregulated electricity prices shot 30% over the national average.  Then, in 2011, a winter storm with single-digit temperatures caused blackouts across Texas.  It was that event that led federal regulators to recommend that ERCOT and the PUC winterize the system, a recommendation that was never heeded.

Frmr. Gov. Rick Perry tours ERCOT on March 14, 2012.
Apparently, an embarrassing record has not dampened the mood at ERCOT.  The "nonprofit," which is run by a board majority comprising power industry heavyweights, brought in $232m in revenue in 2018, Sixel reported in 2019, and chief executive Bill Magness took home $750,000 in 2017.  Sixel described ERCOT HQ (pictured below) near real-estate-red-hot Austin: "Its sprawling, modern glass and metal building has plush interiors with on-site fitness facilities that include a gym and sport court for volleyball, basketball and pickleball."  In contrast, the PUC "operates from two floors of crammed cubicles in ... a dilapidated structure close to the campus of the University of Texas at Austin.  DeAnn Walker, the commission chairman, earns $189,500 a year."

It was also in 2011 that ERCOT set out toward the immunity question now pending.  After the rolling outages of the 20-aughts, ERCOT wanted to see new sources of power added to the system.  Enter Panda Power, which invested $2.2bn to construct three power plants.  Alas, Panda later alleged in court, ERCOT had deliberately inflated market projections to incentivize investments; the power plants delivered only a fraction of the anticipated returns.  Panda sued ERCOT for $2.7bn in damages on theories including fraud and breach of fiduciary duty.

After almost a year of defending the case, ERCOT devised a new theory of sovereign immunity in Texas common law.  ERCOT performs exclusively governmental, not private, functions, it alleged, and works wholly under the control of the PUC.  Despite its statutory role as an "independent system operator," ERCOT insisted that it is not an independent contractor.  Rather, ERCOT styled itself as "a quasi-governmental regulator, performing an essential public service."  Panda argued that ERCOT is not entitled to sovereign immunity because it is "a non-governmental, non-profit corporation that receives no taxpayer dollars and retains discretion," particularly, Panda exhorted, when it furnishes false market data to power providers. 

In April 2018, reversing the district court, the Texas Court of Appeals agreed with ERCOT.  In a functionalist analysis, the intermediate appellate court grounded its decision in the legislative delegation of ultimate fiscal authority over ERCOT in the PUC.  The court wrote (citations omitted):

[A]s to separation-of-powers principles, [the statute] shows the legislature intended that determinations respecting system administration fees and ERCOT's fiscal matters, as well as any potential disciplinary matters or decertification, should be made by the PUC rather than the courts. Further, as the certified [independent service operator] provided for in [the statute], ERCOT is a necessary component of the legislature's electric utility industry regulatory scheme. A substantial judgment in this case could necessitate a potentially disruptive diversion of ERCOT's resources or a decertification of ERCOT not otherwise intended by the PUC.

According to Sixel, that decision rendered ERCOT "the only grid manager in the nation with sovereign immunity."

Pixabay image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images
Panda appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, which heard oral argument (MP3, PDF) on September 15, 2020, but has not ruled.

Meanwhile, a curious procedural imbroglio arose in the lower courts to gum up the works.  While Panda was busy lodging its appeal with the Texas Supreme Court, it didn't head off the intermediate appellate court's mandamus order to the district court to dismiss the case, which it did.  Panda then appealed that dismissal on a separate track, and the intermediate appellate court stayed oral argument on that second appeal, waiting to see what the Supreme Court would do with the first appeal.

One month after the Supreme Court heard oral argument, it ordered the parties to file supplemental briefs, which they did in November 2020 (ERCOT, Panda), to answer whether the district court's dismissal mooted the case in the Supreme Court.  Panda insisted that there is a live controversy still before the court.  ERCOT wrote that Panda should have asked for a stay of dismissal in the lower court, and it didn't.  Bad Panda.

House chamber in the Texas Capitol (picryl)
It looks to my outsider eyes like the Supreme Court badly wants not to decide the case.  And that was before the winter storm of 2021.  If the court does kick the case, the intermediate appellate court's ruling for sovereign immunity will stand, and any 2021 complainants will be out of luck.  ERCOT's supplemental brief read anyway with a good deal of confidence about how things would go in the Supreme Court, so maybe it's only a question of which appellate court will bear the people's ire.  While the courts dithered, Panda Energy, a division of Panda Power Funds, folded, and Texas froze.

The best answer to the people's woes lies in their state legislature.  Maybe Texas legislators can be made to understand that privatization is not really privatization when the reins, along with sovereign immunity and a market monopoly, are simply handed over to a nominally independent and hardly nonprofit oligarchy.

Or maybe legislators are on their way to Cancún and points warmer.

The case is In re Panda Power Infrastructure Fund, LLC, No. 18-0792 (now pending), appealing Panda Power Generation Infrastructure Fund, LLC v. Electric Reliability Council of Texas, Inc., No. 05-17-00872-CV (Tex. Ct. App. 5th Dist. Dallas Apr. 16, 2018), reversing No. CV-16-0401 (Tex. Dist. Ct. 15th Grayson County 2017).  The latter appeal is Electric Reliability Council of Texas v. Panda Power Generation Infrastructure Fund, LLC, No. 05-18-00611-CV (oral argument stayed Aug. 20, 2019).

[UPDATE, April 3, 2021.] The Texas Supreme Court ducked the immunity issue in ERCOT v. Panda with a "hotly contested" "non-decision."  DLA Piper has the story (Mar. 29, 2021).

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Court: Employer has no free speech right to republish worker healthcare data that state provides conditionally

Confidential (Nick Youngson Alpha Stock Images CC BY-SA 3.0)
An employer has no First Amendment right to republish the identity of workers who relied on publicly subsidized healthcare when the state provides the names conditionally, for restricted use, the Massachusetts Appeals Court held yesterday.

A state program imposed assessments on employers whose employees relied on publicly subsidized healthcare.  The state offered to tell the employer which employees triggered assessment, so that the employer could review, and if appropriate challenge, the assessment. But the names came with strings attached: employers were required to promise that they will use the names in the administrative process only and not republish them.

Emerald Home Care, Inc., challenged the assessment program and conditional disclosures as violative of procedural due process and the First Amendment.

Affirming the Superior Court, the Appeals Court rejected both arguments.  As to due process, the state provided employers ample notice and opportunity to be heard in resisting the assessments.  As to the First Amendment, the state may attach conditions to access to confidential information.

In the First Amendment analysis, the court cited two U.S. Supreme Court oldies but goodies: LAPD v. United Reporting (1999) and Seattle Times v. Rhinehart (1984).  In LAPD, the Court allowed a statute to condition access to criminal histories on non-commercial use.  In Seattle Times, the Court allowed a protective order on discovery disclosures in a defamation-and-privacy case in which a newspaper was the defendant.

Justice Desmond
The Appeals Court applied intermediate scrutiny, drawn from Seattle Times.  The court reasoned that confidentiality in healthcare insurance information is an important state interest, and the restrictions on disclosure were closely tailored to the purpose of maintaining confidentiality while allowing the employer limited access for the purpose of administrative review.

The case is not remarkable for its holding, but it marks an ongoing tension between U.S. and foreign law over free speech, privacy, and data protection.  In the United States, the First Amendment often is a wrench in the works of government efforts to regulate information downstream from its disclosure to a third party.  Legal systems elsewhere in the world are more comfortable with the notion that a person's privacy rights may tag along with information in its downstream transfer from hand to hand, outweighing the free speech right to republish.

I noted some years ago that in some areas of U.S. law, including freedom of information (FOI), or access to information, we can see examples of American privacy expectations that accord with, not diverge from, European norms.  Downstream control by contract has been a key advancement in making some jurisdictions willing to furnish court records to information brokers.  Binding a broker to adjust records later as a condition of receipt helps to solve problems such as expungement, the American judiciary's equivalent to the right to be forgotten.

The case is Emerald Home Care, Inc. v. Department of Unemployment Assistance, No. AC 20-P-188 (Mass. App. Ct. Feb. 2, 2021).  Justice Kenneth V. Desmond Jr. authored the opinion for a unanimous panel that also comprised Chief Justice Green and Justice Lemire.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Landlord owes no duty to cyclist attacked by tenant's dog, court rules, citing breed discrimination ban

A "dog law" decision in the Massachusetts Appeals Court today recognized the state's ban on breed-specific legislation and refused to recognize a landlord duty to protect a passing bicyclist from a tenant's pit bull.

Pixy.org CC0
In affirming the defendant's motion for summary judgment, the court recited the plaintiff's facts.  Plaintiff-bicyclist Creatini had his dog on a leash as he passed the unfenced yard of tenant Mills, owned by defendant-landlord McHugh.  Mills's pit bull terrier left the yard, gave chase, and attacked the plaintiff's dog.  The plaintiff fell from his bike and was injured—in the fall, not directly by the pit, though no word on how the plaintiff's dog fared.  McHugh knew that Mills kept the pit bull and had told him to get rid of the dog.

The court rejected plaintiff's effort to charge the landlord with a landowner duty of care in negligence.  Massachusetts approaches landowner liability through the "reasonableness under all the circumstances" approach, rather than the formalist common law framework of invitees and licensees.  Under either approach, landowner liability exposure can project beyond the property line along with a "condition of property," such as a dog.  But here, McHugh's knowledge was limited to the presence of a dog, not a foreseeable danger.  "Nothing in the summary judgment record indicate[d] that McHugh was aware that Mills's dog was aggressive or prone to attack passers-by," the court wrote.

The short case decision is instructive on duty in tort law, generally, and on animal law, in particular.  As to duty, the court briefly recited the conventional approach.  While it may be said that all persons owe a duty to all others to avert harm through the exercise of reasonable care, it is simultaneously true in American tort law, in general, that persons do not owe a duty to strangers with whom they have no interaction.  A "special relationship" recognized in common law also can give rise to duty, as for an innkeeper to a guest, but no such theory pertained here.

Photo by Airman 1st Class Jeremy Wentworth, 97 AMW/PA
Landowner liability grounds duty in the particular relationship between the premises owner (or controller) and one who comes on (or here, very near) the land.  To test here whether landlord and stranger-passerby were connected by strong enough a thread to support duty, the court quoted precedent, which in turn quoted 20th-century tort scholars Prosser and Keeton, recognizing the weight of public policy and common sense in the analysis (quotation marks and ellipses omitted):

The concept of duty is not sacrosanct in itself, but is only an expression of the sum total of considerations of policy which lead the law to say that the plaintiff is entitled to protection.  No better general statement can be made than that the courts will find a duty where, in general, reasonable persons would recognize it and agree that it exists.

The plaintiff pointed to precedent in which the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) recognized a duty owed by a keeper of firearms to a policeman shot by a man who had access to the keeper's home, whom the keeper knew to be under psychiatric observation, and who stole one of the weapons.  Foreseeability in that case was stronger on the facts, and, critically, the SJC had relied on a common law duty, echoed in statute, to manage a dangerous instrumentality, the gun, with the utmost care.

In animal law, in contrast, Massachusetts statute charges a dog owner, but the dog's owner only, with strict liability for injury inflicted by the dog.  Moreover, the court declined the plaintiff's entreaty to treat pit bulls (not actually a breed) specially as a "dangerous instrumentality," like a gun, volatile chemicals, or explosives.  (The defendant disputed the dog's breed, a question of fact, the court recognized, but not one that needed to be resolved for summary judgment.)  The court cited a line in a 2008 SJC opinion stating that a pit bull is "commonly known to be aggressive."  But subsequently enacted legislation dictates a contrary policy inclination.  The court recognized in footnote:

[D]ogs cannot be regulated based on their breed. In 2012, Massachusetts amended G. L. c. 140, § 157, to provide in part: "No order shall be issued directing that a dog deemed dangerous shall be removed from the town or city in which the owner of the dog resides. No city or town shall regulate dogs in a manner that is specific to breed."

Indeed, the 2012 Massachusetts law against breed-specific regulation was a victory for animal protection advocates.  The SJC's 2008 observation was correct as a statement of public perception, and perhaps reality.  But insofar as aggressiveness is a pit trait, it is a function of human selection.  Breed-discriminatory legislation leads to excessive euthanasia of animals that are not dangerous.  (Not for the faint of heart, be warned, Wikimedia Commons has a moving graphic image of euthanized pits, and I could not stomach using it here.)  Read more at "Stop BSL."

Pit bull advocates include Patrick Stewart, Star Trek's Captain Picard.  He was recently coronavirus-vaccinated and is soon to start shooting Picard season 2, a show on which he wanted to be sure that his character's dog is a pit.  Advocates also include one of my sisters, who today brings a new (human) baby home to live with her pits, Mia and (the original) Baby, the sweetest dogs I've ever known.  And combating breed discrimination has been a cause of the Animal Law Committee of the Tort Trial Insurance Practice Section of the American Bar Association, with which I've volunteered in the past.

[UPDATE, Jan. 28:] See CBS Sunday Morning correspondent Martha Teichner with her bull terrier, Girlie, featured in The New York Times on January 22 (subscription).  [Jan. 31:] See her talk about her new book, a dog romance, on CBS Sunday Morning, embedded below

© ASPCA
Among many groups, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) tracks anti-breed discrimination legislation and counted 21 state bans on breed-specific legislation (BSL) as of April 1, 2020.  "There is no evidence that breed-specific laws make communities safer for people or companion animals," the ASPCA writes, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), having studied dog bites and human fatalities, also opposes BSL.  In my home state of Rhode Island, local breed-specific legislation seems to persist, despite abrogation by state law in 2013.

The case is Creatini v. McHugh, No. 19-P-1159 (Mass. App. Ct. Jan. 27, 2021).  Justice C. Jeffrey Kinder authored the opinion of a unanimous panel that also comprised Justices Massing and Grant.

One must admit, duty in dog law is a succulent subject.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Divided court allows employee firing for exercising statutory right to supplement personnel record

Pixy.org CC BY-NC-ND 4.0
An at-will employee may be fired for rebutting an adverse employment action, the Massachusetts Appeals Court held today, despite a state law that specifically empowers employees to add rebuttals to their personnel records.  The decision drew a vigorous dissent from two of the five justices on the rehearing panel.

As my 1L students tire of hearing, we read cases in law school (in the common law tradition) for one of a number of purposes.  For any given lesson, it's important to know which our purpose is, especially when it is to demonstrate the rule by counterexample.  To teach wrongful termination, I have used a federal case, applying Massachusetts law, in which the court is much more generous to the at-will claimant than a state high court typically is.  But today's case proved only the norm.

The instant plaintiff found no relief from the usual rule that, as the Appeals Court quoted precedent, "employment at will can be terminated for any reason or for no reason."  Massachusetts admits of narrow exception to the rule for "well-defined public policy," "preferably embodied in a textual law source."  Think firing a model for taking maternity leave, a claim that resonates with dimensions of both statutory entitlement and civil rights.  Yet even while the plaintiff here pointed to a specific statutory entitlement, the Appeals Court rejected his claim.

Plaintiff Terence Meehan, an employee discharged by defendant Medical Information Technology, Inc. (Meditech), availed of a Massachusetts statute that generously empowers an employee to rebut in writing negative information placed into the employee's personnel file.  The purpose behind the statute is to build a record so that a public authority, such as the state anti-discrimination commission, can better investigate any later legal claim of improper adverse action.  But the procedural mechanism of the statute, merely allowing the employee to rebut the record, does not itself articulate a basis in public policy to resist termination, the court held.

Meehan's rebuttal was not in the appellate record, the court wrote in a footnote.  From its absence, one might infer that it was not predicated on what the court would regard as worthy public policy.  An employer's "internal administration, policy, functioning, and other matters of an organization cannot be the basis for a public policy exception," the Supreme Judicial Court held previously.  "If it were otherwise, our courts would become super personnel departments," the Appeals Court reasoned.

Justice Meade
Mass.gov
It would be hard to conclude that the court's ruling is other than consistent with common law norms.  Many a state court has never seen a wrongful termination claim it liked, at least in the context of at-will employment.  And the notion of utterly "at will" conforms to the American norm of freedom to contract.

At the same time, the ruling seems to undermine the statute.  As a practical matter, an employer asserts many reasons for an adverse personnel action, and an employee's rebuttal answers in kind.  The rebuttal itself is then a viable predicate for termination—"not a team player"—even when the employee alleges, inter alia, an actionable wrong, such as discrimination.  The employee may then complain of discrimination vis-à-vis the precipitating adverse action.  But the employee had that option anyway.  There is nothing to be gained, and everything to be lost, by using the rebuttal statute as a resolution procedure.

Justice Henry
Mass.gov

That was the thrust of the dissent.  "Only the credulous and fools would exercise this right henceforth," Justice Henry wrote of the rebuttal statute.

Meditech admitted that it terminated Meehan solely for writing the rebuttal, something he had a statutory right to do.  Dispute resolution is among the purposes of the statute, Justice Henry reasoned, possibly sparing the Commonwealth an unemployment insurance claim.  At minimum, the personnel record, which might be reviewed by a prospective second employer, is complete with both sides of the story.  Meditech has no apparent, legitimate interest, Justice Henry observed, merely in disallowing rebuttal under the statute.

The dissent concluded:

The result the majority reaches renders the statutory right useless and illusory, and empowers employers to punish employees for doing exactly what the Legislature authorized them to do. Countenancing such a result is wholly inconsistent with a just—or even a sane—employment policy. The majority essentially casts the Legislature as a trickster, creating a trap for unwitting employees that employers now may spring.

The case is Meehan v. Medical Information Technology, Inc., No. 19-P-1412 (Jan. 20, 2021).  Justice William J. Meade wrote the majority opinion, which Chief Justice Green and Justice Vuono joined.  Justice Meade was an appellate attorney in the attorney general's office in the 1990s and deputy chief legal counsel to Governor Mitt Romney in the 20-aughts before going on the bench, and he teaches appellate practice at Suffolk Law School.  

Justice Vickie L. Henry wrote the dissent, which Justice Rubin joined.  Justice Henry was a commercial litigator in intellectual property, product liability, and other matters for more than a decade, and then a senior staff attorney for Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders before her appointment to the bench.  The case was reheard after the initial panel divided 2-1.  The addition of two judges apparently only added a vote for each corner.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Class labor action fails on appeal, but highlights persistent failure to afford living wage for U.S. workers

Boston, Mass. (from Pixabay by StockSnap, licensed)
Notwithstanding its failure, a class labor action dismissed by the Massachusetts Appeals Court highlights the persistent legal norms that keep U.S. workers under compensated.

Siew-Mey Tam worked as a property manager for Federal Management Co. (FMC) in Boston, managing Mason Place, a 127-unit, subsidized-housing community in the heart of the city.  Dissatisfied with her terms of employment, Tam became the lead plaintiff in a class action accusing FMC of violating wage-and-hour laws.  The class was certified in 2015.

Among the issues in the case was FMC's classification of Tam and others as exempt administrative employees.  A company's ability to exploit so-called "salaried" workers with responsibilities that defy the number of work hours in the week facilitates subversion of already paltry U.S. minimum wages and evasion of overtime pay.  This is another in a genus of "misclassification" problems that form our bleak landscape of employment rights and was part of the back-and-forth tug of regulatory might in the Obama and Trump administrations.

In 2016, the threshold for overtime exemption under Department of Labor regulations pursuant to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) was $455 per week, or $23,660 per year.  For comparison, the intransigent federal minimum wage is, and has been since 2009, $7.25 per hour, or up to $15,080 per year.  The Massachusetts minimum wage in 2016 was $10 per hour, or up to $20,800 per year.  Having been unable to push a federal minimum-wage hike through Congress, the Obama Administration announced a doubling of the exemption threshold, to be effective December 1, 2016, from $455 per week, to $913 per week, or $47,476 per year, with automatic upward adjustments to follow beginning in 2020.

From the Economic Policy Institute
But that increase never happened.  A Texas judge blocked the regulations in November 2016 (N.Y. Times), and the Trump Administration in 2017 junked the upgrade.  The threshold remained at $455 for three more years, until the Trump Administration promulgated a more modest increase to $684 per week, or $35,568 per year, which took effect in 2020.  While the federal minimum wage remains at $7.25, the Massachusetts minimum wage has crept upward, in 2021 to $14.00 per hour, or up to $29,120, on its way to a living wage.

In the instant case, according to the court, "[i]t was uncontested that Tam worked more than 40 hours per week but generally was not paid overtime. Instead, the dispute was whether the nature of Tam's job meant that she was an exempt administrative employee to whom overtime pay was not due."  FMC maintained that in addition to a base salary in excess of the $455 threshold, Tam's "primary duty include[d] the exercise of discretion and independent judgment with respect to matters of significance," which regulations also require for "administrative" exemption.

Most of the appellate decision in Tam v. FMC concerns a deposition in 2016, in which, it seems from the court's description, the plaintiffs' case self-destructed.  Tam's answers supported the FMC position that she exercised considerable authority over the property.  Moreover, "Tam gave other answers that raised serious concerns about how the case and a related discrimination case against [FMC] were being litigated," pointing to inconsistencies in discovery responses.

"For example," the court observed, "confronted with a factual misstatement in her interrogatory answers filed in the [related] discrimination case, Tam attempted to address the misstatement by explaining that she had signed the answers without actually reading them, because she 'trust[ed her] lawyer.'"  The deposition was especially damaging because Tam was the lead plaintiff for the class.

The Appeals Court affirmed summary judgment and an award of pretrial costs against Tam and a co-plainitff, Raymond.  A collateral action against FMC remains pending.

Included in the affirmance was the dismissal of a separate retaliation claim by Raymond.

A former property manager for FMC, Raymond alleged that she was fired for her wage-and-hour complaints, a retaliation that would violate Massachusetts law.  The courts ruled that Raymond's claim came up short because she did not sufficiently notify FMC of the legal basis of her discontent.  An employee need not necessarily invoke a specific statute, the Appeals Court held, but the court characterized Raymond's objections as closer to "abstract grumblings" (quoting precedent) than to a reasonably understandable assertion of statutory rights.  That's a cautionary tale for low-wage employees who might not understand the legal nuances of classification and take as true an employer's declaration of what the law is.

The real shame of the case is what it reveals about the deplorable state of U.S. labor rights.  According to MIT, a living wage for a Boston worker is $670 per week, or $34,819 per year.  That's well more than the exemption threshold before 2020 and just about equivalent to the threshold now.  An exempt employee can be expected to work more than 40 hours per week, so can't hold down a second job—even assuming that it would be civilized to expect that, which it's not.

So the present regime sets an expectation that a worker earning a minimum living wage will work longer than a 40-hour week.  One might expect that administrative employees working more than 40 hours per week would do a little better than a living wage.  Meanwhile, hourly workers still fall far short.  And the per annum numbers I've used here assume 2,080 working hours per year: no break.  Federal law requires no paid vacation time.

The FLSA has been around since 1938.  It's at least arguable that the proceeds of industrialization and technology should be that people don't have to work as hard to survive.  Even by the time the FLSA turns 100, will employees working full time in the shining city on a hill be able to meet basic needs?

The case is Tam v. Federal Management Co., No. 19-P-1332 (Mass. App. Ct. Jan. 6, 2021).  Justice James R. Milkey authored the opinion of a unanimous panel that also comprised Justices Blake and Henry.