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

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Consultant panning contractor was not 'improper' interference with lucrative reno deal, court holds

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An architect whom homeowners hired to review their bills in multimillion-dollar renovation did not tortiously interfere with the reno contract when he advised them to terminate and hire another contractor, the Massachusetts Appeals Court held yesterday.

The devil in the details here is the element "improper" in the tort of interference. The same element, or the same concept, lives at the heart of many a business tort, and it's a difficult line to find. Indeed, the Appeals Court wrote that "improper" "has proved difficult to capture in a universal standard."

Interference with contract in Massachusetts law requires a contract or prospective business relation, knowing inducement to break the contract, interference by "improper motive or means," and harm to the plaintiff as a proximate result. Here, the architect told the homeowners they were being overbilled and urged them to terminate the renovation contract and hire a contractor the architect recommended. They did, and the terminated contractor sued the architect for interference with contract.

The fact pattern is common for generating interference claims, as the very job of the defendant is, in a sense, interference, that is, to run interference between consulting client and its contractor. Only "improper" was in dispute, and the plaintiff-contractor could not show evidence that measured up.

The plaintiff disputed the veracity and quality of the defendant's consultation and advice. But worst case, the court reasoned, the plaintiff might persuade a jury to find negligence or gross negligence. That can't be the basis of an interference claim, because then the interference tort would make actionable every negligent infliction of economic loss. 

The negligence tort usually requires a physical infliction of loss or harm. Business torts are exceptional in this regard, but they are predicated on a strong duty relationship, such as contract or fiduciary obligation. The plaintiff-architect and defendant-contractor here were not in privity of contract.

The court looked to an earlier case in which the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court had allowed interference predicated on deceit or intentional misrepresentation. That can suffice to support interference. But there was no evidence here of deceit. So the court pondered what improper means short of that standard.

The court leaned heavily on the Second Restatement of Torts, which suggested, besides deceit, threats, defamation, or other conduct "innately wrongful, [and] predatory in character." Inversely, the Second Restatement advises that no interference liability can arise from "truthful information" or "honest advice within the scope of a request for advice."

The latter standard fit, the court opined. And the Restatement comments elaborated, "[N]o more than good faith is required," regardless of competence. "The rule as to honest advice applies to protect the public and private interests in freedom of communication and friendly intercourse," affording latitude especially to "the lawyer, the doctor, the clergyman, the banker, the investment, marriage or other counselor, and the efficiency expert."

The court affirmed the superior court award of summary judgment to the defendant.

There's unfortunately one point of confusion reiterated in the court's opinion. The court correctly pointed to a line of Massachusetts cases approving of "actual malice" as supporting interference claims in the context of employment, when a disgruntled terminated worker claims interference against a supervisor or corporate officer for interfering with the worker's employment contract. In this context, the courts defined "actual malice" as "spiteful, malignant purpose unrelated to a legitimate corporate interest."

Common law malice
That's not what "actual malice" means, at least in the civil context. "Actual malice" generally is a stand-in for reckless indifference and is distinguishable from "common law malice," which represents spite, ill will, or hatred. It's been observed many times that "actual malice" is unfortunately named, and it would be better had there been a different term from the start. Common law malice can be evidence of actual malice, but certainly is not required. The difference can be confusing to jurors.

The Massachusetts precedents on interference in the employment context seem to have misused the term "actual malice" to refer to common law malice. OK, I guess, as long as we all know that malevolence is the one that can evidences tortious interference.

I have some doubts, by the way, about the correctness of the Massachusetts cases that apply the interference tort in fact patterns involving a fellow worker as defendant. A basic rule of interference is that one cannot be said to have interfered tortiously with a contract to which one is a party. If the defendant was clearly acting within the scope of employment, that is, as an agent of the employer, then I don't see that a tortious interference claim can arise, and there's no need to analyze impropriety. But then, I guess, the threshold requirement overlaps with the "unrelated to a corporate legitimate interest" piece of the impropriety test.

The case is Cutting Edge Homes, Inc. v. Mayer, No. 23-P-388 (Mass. App. Ct. Feb. 27, 2024) (temp. slip op. posted). Justice John C. Englander wrote the opinion of a unanimous panel that also comprised Justices Ditkoff and Walsh.

Friday, February 9, 2024

Mass. high court nominee brings tort law experience

Justice Wolohojian
Mass.gov

Massachusetts Governor Maura Healey Wednesday announced the nomination of Massachusetts Appeals Court Justice Gabrielle R. Wolohojian to the Supreme Judicial Court

UPDATE, Feb. 29: The justice was confirmed

Justice Wolohojian practiced with Big Law on "product liability cases, consumer class actions, false advertising claims, and other business and consumer transactions," according to her official bio. Governor Deval Patrick appointed her to the Appeals Court in 2008. She has a Ph.D. from Oxford and a J.D. from Columbia.

For Law360 (subscription), Julie Manganis reported as well:

Outside her legal work, Justice Wolohojian is ... a violinist who has performed with the Boston Civic Symphony for 35 years, and has served as president of the organization's board. She also serves as an overseer of a radio program called "From the Top," which features children performing classical music.

Justice Wolohojian has authored several Appeals Court opinions that I've featured here on The Savory Tort, all sound.

There's been a fuss in the media over Justice Wolohojian once having been in a long-term relationship with the Governor. The relationship ended before the Governor was elected, and she is now with another partner. Governor Healey said nothing about the issue in the nomination announcement. Law360 and other media have reported that the bar and executive officials are "shrug[ging] off" the personal relationship as immaterial. I concur; Justice Wolohojian's bona fides are unimpeachable.

UPDATE, Feb. 29: 

Yesterday the justice was confirmed 6-1 by the Governor's Council. For Law360, Julie Manganis reported of the dissenting vote:

The lone member who voted against Justice Wolohojian, District 8 Councilor Tara Jacobs, said she still has "some concerns around the recusal situation," but said she was also troubled by the selection process, calling it "insular."

From an inclusion standpoint, it just felt very exclusionary in that you couldn't have a more insider nominee," said Jacobs, "and so I have concerns about that in terms of how it might dissuade people from applying who are not inside a network like that."

Jacobs also said she had another concern after meeting with Justice Wolohojian.

"My perception is she has breathed rarefied air from the time she was young, [in] her education and through her career, and my perception from that is she intellectualizes the marginalized community's struggle in a way that feels very much like a bubble of privilege and detached from the struggle itself, so I do have a concern whether justice is best represented through that lens," Jacobs said.

Mass. High Court Nominee Who Dated Gov. Confirmed 6-1 (Feb. 28, 2024) (subscription).

Friday, January 26, 2024

Law immunizes school social worker in teen's suicide

PickPik
A public school social worker is immune from liability in the suicide of a 16-year-old boy, the Massachusetts Appeals Court ruled in the fall in a case at the border of the common law "suicide rule" and the law of sovereign immunity.

A student at Acton-Boxborough Regional High School, the troubled teen committed suicide at his home while on summer break in 2018. The teen had been under the care of a licensed clinical social worker on contract with the school district.

Six weeks before the teen's death, his girlfriend, another student at the high school, had told the social worker that the boy was drinking and weeping, exhibiting suicidal behavior, and in crisis. According to the plaintiff's allegations, the social worker assured the girlfriend that the teen would get the care he needed and that the social worker would inform the boy's parents.

The social worker met with the boy subsequently, but did not contact his parents. The girlfriend alleged that she would have contacted the parents had she not been assured that the social worker would, and that the social worker's failure appropriately to respond legally caused the teen to take his own life.

The "suicide rule."  It is sometimes said that American common law has a "suicide rule," which is expressed variably as a rule of duty, causation, or scope of liability. Under the rule, a person does not have a legal duty to prevent the suicide of another. In causal terms, an actor's failure to prevent the suicide of another cannot be deemed the legal cause of the suicide, because the intentional, in some jurisdictions criminal, suicidal act is a superseding proximate cause.

It is widely understood, however, that the suicide rule is not really a rule. That is, it's not an absolute. Rather the rule simply recognizes that non-liability is the result that courts most often reach in analyses of duty, causation, or scope of liability on the fact pattern of a decedent's family claiming wrongful death against someone who knew of the decedent's suicidal potential and failed to prevent the death. (Read more in Death case against Robinhood tests common law disfavor for liability upon negligence leading to suicide (Feb. 9, 2021).)

Massachusetts courts have demonstrated especial receptivity to liability arguments contrary to the suicide rule. In 2018, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) ruled "no duty" in a student-suicide case against MIT, but proffered an analysis that signaled leniency to the plaintiff's theory. Then in 2019, the SJC let a student-suicide case proceed against Harvard University. Reading the map of this forking road, the Appeals Court rejected liability for an innkeeper in the suicide of a guest in 2022.

Massachusetts also was home to the infamous case of Michelle Carter and Conrad Roy, which was never litigated in its civil dimension. Roy's family alleged that Carter actively encouraged Roy to commit suicide. The case demonstrates that the line between failure to prevent a suicide and assistance in committing suicide is sometimes uncomfortably fine.

Sovereign immunity.  The three cases from 2018, 2019, and 2022 all bore on the instant matter from Acton. But the Acton case also added a new wrinkle: the peculiar causation rule of the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act.

Sovereign immunity usually protects a governmental defendant, such as a public school, from liability in a case that otherwise would test the suicide rule. State and federal tort claims acts waive sovereign immunity in many personal injury lawsuits. But the waiver comes with big exceptions.

Suicide cases typically fail for either one of two exceptions. First, tort claims acts, including the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), disallow liability predicated on an affirmative duty, that is, a failure to act affirmatively, rather than on an allegedly tortious action. Wrongful death complainants in suicide cases often allege the defendant's failure to intervene, and that allegation doesn't make the cut. FTCA liability can arise from an unreasonable "omission" of action. The line between such an omission and a failure to act affirmatively is fine and not material here, so I will conflate the two as immunized inaction.

Second, sovereign immunity waivers, including the FTCA, disallow liability for officials insofar as they exercise the discretion that it is their job to exercise. This exception for "discretionary function immunity" can be challenging to navigate, but is critical to prevent every governmental decision from collapsing into a tort case. If a government official makes a poor policy choice, the remedy should be in civil service accountability or at the ballot box, not in the courtroom. The tort system should be reserved for actions that effect injury by contravening social and legal norms. (Learn more with Thacker v. Tennessee Valley Authority, SCOTUSbrief (Jan. 13, 2019).)

These exceptions ordinarily would preclude liability on the facts of the Acton case, insofar as the plaintiffs claimed that the social worker failed to prevent the teen's suicide or committed a kind of malpractice in the the provision of counseling, leading to the suicide. The former theory would fail as inaction, and the latter theory would fail as disagreement over the social worker's discretionary choices.

However, Massachusetts statutes are rarely ordinary, and the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act (MTCA) is not co-extensive with the FTCA.

Under its section 10(b), The MTCA provides for discretionary function immunity similarly to the FTCA. Another section, 10(j), provides a potent state immunity not found in the FTCA and characterized as a rule of causation. (Read more in Court denies police immunity under state tort claims act in death of intoxicated man in protective custody (July 22, 2022).) The court in the Acton case did not reach the section 10(b) issue and dismissed the claims against the social-worker defendant under section 10(j).

Section 10(j) on its face recognizes the possibility of a claim "based on an act or failure to act to prevent or diminish the harmful consequences of a condition or situation, including the violent or tortious conduct of a third person" (my emphasis). But the section disclaims liability when the third-party conduct "is not originally caused by the public employer or any other person acting on behalf of the public employer."

The magic happens in the phrase "originally caused." And if you're expecting that that phrase has a well honed technical meaning, prepare to be disappointed.

Historically, common law courts sometimes tried to distinguish mere (pre-)"conditions" from "causes." The famous tort scholar William Prosser wrote in the 20th century on the futility of that semantic wrangling. He opined, and American common law tort in the 20th century recognized, that the salient distinction the courts had been chasing is between scientific causes and legal causes. Even if we can determine scientifically that a butterfly flapping its wings caused a tsunami, we do not necessarily conclude that the butterfly is responsible for the tsunami to a degree that would satisfy legal standards. (Read more in State supreme court upends causation in tort law, promising plenty post-pandemic work for lawyers (Feb. 28, 2021).)

Not every actor who exerts causal force along the chain of events that ends with personal injury is thereby legally responsible for that injury. Tort law employs the term "proximate cause" in an effort to parse the timeline and trace back legal responsibility only so far. Of course, once we acknowledge that ours is a problem of degree, we always will have to wrestle with "how much is too much?"

Like common law courts historically, the legislators who drafted MTCA section 10(j) likely were after this same distinction, even if they might have drawn the line in a different place from the courts. And it's likely they would have drawn the line closer to the injury, that is, more stringently against plaintiff claims. So in a suicide case, a Massachusetts court is likelier than otherwise to find the suicide rule alive and well when the intentional violent act of taking one's own life intervenes between state actor and death.

Thus was the outcome in the Acton case. And fairly so. Whatever the social worker failed to do when the decedent teen was still in school, it strains credulity to assert an intact causal chain leading from her response to the girlfriend's alarm all the way to the boy's suicide on summer break six weeks later. It's plausible that the social worker's response was a cause, and that the suicide might have been averted in a counterfactual world in which the social worker reacted more aggressively. But the social worker's response looks like a small sail on the sea of complex causal forces that resulted in the tragedy of a suicide.

Accordingly, the court concluded that, legally, for the purpose of section 10(j), "[the boy's] suicide was the result of his own state of mind and not the failures of [the social worker]."

In its own text, section 10(j) enumerates some exceptions, but the court held that none applied. The plaintiff argued for the applicability of an exception when a state defendant makes "explicit and specific assurances of safety or assistance, beyond general representations that investigation or assistance will be or has been undertaken, ... to the direct victim or a member of his family or household." Regardless of whether the social worker's assurances to the decedent's girlfriend qualified as sufficiently specific, the girlfriend was not a member of the boy's family or household, the court observed.

The plaintiff argued also for the applicability of an exception "for negligent medical or other therapeutic treatment received by the patient [decedent] from [the state defendant]." Regardless whether the counseling relationship qualified the boy as a "patient" under this provision, the court opined that the plaintiff's theory comprised wholly a claim of failure to inform the parents, and not, as the plaintiff expressly alleged, a theory of negligent medical treatment that would qualify for the 10(j) exception.

To my mind, the court might have gotten it wrong on this latter score. In the final pages of the decision, the court dealt separately with the plaintiff's claim of negligent treatment. Briefly discussing the MIT and innkeeper cases, the court recognized that the plaintiff's argument for a duty relationship between social worker and student that would contravene the suicide rule "has some force." Then, summarily, the court declined to resolve the issue, finding the negligent treatment claim subsumed by the 10(j) analysis.

The court could have reached the same conclusion by finding an insufficient factual basis for the plaintiff's claim of negligent treatment. Or by blocking the negligent treatment claim with discretionary function immunity under section 10(b). Or the court could have allowed the plaintiff to attempt to develop the factual record to support the complaint on the negligence theory. It's likely the plaintiff could not and would have succumbed to a later defense motion for summary judgment.

In applying section 10(j), the court wrote that "the amended complaint does not allege that [the social worker] was negligent in ... 'treatment.'" Yet in discussing the negligence claim just two paragraphs later, the court wrote that the plaintiff "contends that '[the social worker's] negligence, carelessness and/or unskillful interactions with and/or failure to provide [the boy] with the degree of care of the average qualified practitioner ... were direct and proximate causes of ... death.'"

Then the court referred back to its 10(j) analysis to reject the latter contention. I have not read the pleadings or arguments in the case, so I might be missing something. The plaintiff's clumsy use of "and/or" legal-ese doesn't scream expert drafting. But in the court's opinion, the logic looks circular and iffy.

The case is Paradis v. Frost (Mass. App. Ct. Sept. 22, 2023). Justice Maureen E. Walsh wrote the unanimous opinion of the panel that also comprised Justices Blake and Hershfang.

Postscript. Regarding the death in this case and the family's decision to litigate in wrongful death: The family wrote on GoFundMe in 2018 that their life insurance would not cover their funerary costs, I suspect because the policy excluded coverage for suicide. The fundraising yielded $15,450 for the family.

The case raised awareness and spurred discussion of teen suicide and suicide prevention (e.g., Boston Globe (Dec. 16, 2018) (subscription), NPR Morning Edition (Dec. 15, 2019)). At the same time, sadly, the alarm raised by the decedent's girlfriend, then a high school sophomore, was informed already by the experience of four prior student deaths by suicide in the preceding two years at the same school, WGBH reported

Advice on teen suicide warning signs and prevention can be found at, inter alia, Johns Hopkins Medicine, Northwestern Medicine, and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Thursday, October 19, 2023

'Sudden emergency' doesn't spare driver from jury trial

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A medical emergency did not necessarily let a driver off the hook for an injury-accident, the Massachusetts Appeals Court ruled yesterday, in a rare appellate appearance of "the sudden emergency doctrine."

The sudden emergency, or "inevitable accident," doctrine is less doctrine and more self-evident application of negligence law. The simple rule is that if a driver has a medical emergency and thus unavoidably causes an accident, that's not negligence. The doctrine requires that the medical emergency be confirmed by expert testimony.

You can get to that conclusion readily enough through the usual negligence analysis. A reasonable person having a heart attack could not have averted the same accident, so there was no negligence. "Sudden emergency" is just a shortcut that sanctions the conclusion and perhaps enhances a judge's confidence in awarding the defense summary judgment without a jury trial.

By the same token, however, the usual rules of negligence still apply. Saliently, the doctrine relieves the defendant of liability only insofar as the emergency is alleged to have been the proximate cause of the accident. If the plaintiff points somewhere else on the timeline, to a different alleged misconduct as proximate cause, then the defendant is not necessarily off the hook.

That's where the lower court erred in the instant cases, according to the Appeals Court. The plaintiff alleged that the defendant should have known of the risk of his medical condition and should not have been driving. That's a negligence allegation, and driving despite risk is not an emergency.

The medical evidence, even if weakly contested, supported the defendant's theory that he lost consciousness because of undiagnosed sleep apnea. As a result, his truck ran into the back of the unmoving bus ahead, which the plaintiff was driving. The loss of consciousness was a proximate cause of the accident. But not necessarily the only proximate cause.

The plaintiff's experts proffered evidence that sleep apnea is not something that attacks acutely out of the blue. Though the defendant denied chronic drowsiness, he had a medical history of difficulty sleeping at night and heavy snoring. He also suffered from comorbid conditions, such as obesity.

A reasonable person in the plaintiff's circumstances would have been on notice of the risk of driving, the plaintiff argued. And the evidence was sufficiently in dispute that the plaintiff was entitled to a jury trial on the question, the court agreed.

The court also reversed and remanded the summary judgment for the defendant's employer, as the employer would be vicariously liable for its employee's on-the-job conduct. But the court affirmed summary judgment for the employer on the direct negligence theories the plaintiff had leveled against it.

The evidence developed pretrial did not bear out plaintiff's allegations that the employer had any knowledge of a medical condition that could have impaired driving. So the jury may not hear theories of negligent hiring or supervision.

The case is Cottrell v. Laidley, No. 21-P-740 (Mass. App. Ct. Oct. 18, 2023). Justice Joseph M. Ditkoff wrote the opinion of the unanimous panel, which also comprised Chief Justice Green and Justice Hodgens.

Thursday, September 28, 2023

Injured contractor finds no award in ruling spanning worker comp, premises liability, conflict of law

Roof collapsed by snow (illustrative; not this case).
Richard Allaway via Flickr CC BY 2.0
A worker hired to remedy a dangerous property condition could not rely on the known danger to recover against the landowner, the Massachusetts Appeals Court held in mid-September.

On that distinctive fact pattern, the court's thorough opinion gave textbook treatment to issues in worker compensation, conflict of law, and premises liability.

The defendant Massachusetts landowner hired a Rhode Island home improvement company to raze a garage collapsed by snow. Hired in turn by the company, the plaintiff found the garage in its dilapidated state and expressed reservations about safety. As the plaintiff inspected the structure, it further collapsed and pinned him, inflicting bilateral fractures to both legs.

The plaintiff ultimately recovered $19,000 from R.I. worker comp. For further recovery, he sued the company, the company principal, and the landowner. The Appeals Court affirmed dismissal for all defendants.

Worker compensation scope: Worker comp covers employees, not independent contractors. R.I. worker comp initially rejected plaintiff's claim on the grounds that he was an independent contractor rather than an employee. Later evidence indicated that the plaintiff might have signed a document acknowledging status as an independent contractor. Nevertheless, the plaintiff sued over the question. The worker comp system settled for $19,000.

The exclusion of independent contractors from worker comp renders a significant gap in the American social safety net. Highly regulated industries might require that independent contractors self-insure. But a legion of workers, especially in the gig economy, works in a gray area with no contingency for catastrophic loss. The situation is worsened by industry's increased reliance on, and sometimes exploitation of, independent contractors, facilitated in part by the post-pandemic upswing in remote work.

America's runaway healthcare costs and lack of universal medical insurance compound the independent contractor's woes when injury does occur. I imagine that $19,000 did not come close to covering the plaintiff's bills for such serious injury. Plaintiff's attorney fees must be accounted for as well. The plaintiff here might have acknowledged contractor status and aimed for a better settlement against an insurer, if available, for the company or homeowner. That would have been a gamble. The top takeaway for contractors or their attorneys is that self-insurance is a necessary cost of doing business.

Worker compensation bar: One who recovers in worker comp surrenders tort claims against the employer and its agents. The fundamental premise of worker comp is that it supersedes, so bars, tort claims. The plaintiff tried to augment the worker comp recovery by suing the company principal and the landowner. The plaintiff also sued the company itself upon a theory that did not pan out on the facts, that misrepresentation of the condition of the property vitiated the worker comp bar.

The plaintiff's claim necessarily failed against the company principal. The worker comp bar naturally extends to the agents of the employer, besides the company. Employers usually—though not necessarily; caution by an employee entering into the contract of employment always is advisable—indemnify their employees for negligence in the scope of employment. Plaintiffs outside the workplace usually are more interested in pursuing employers than employees, because the employer has more money and an insurer. If a plaintiff could pursue an employer's agents, the worker comp bar would be undermined.

The worker comp bar also undoes the largely historical common law "fellow servant" rule, which released an employer from responsibility for an injury inflicted on one employee by another, but thereby cleared the way for an employee to sue a co-worker. Relieving workers of the harsh consequences of that rule in the age of industry was in fact a key reason the worker comp system came about in America.

Why America has a worker comp system, why it remains narrow in scope, and how it's been diminished by reforms in recent decades are all fascinating stories in their own rights. New Zealand's unusually broad accident compensation system, which substantially supersedes tort litigation over accidents, grew out of worker comp reform in the 1970s. Suffice to say here and now, in its core scope of application, worker comp is a "grand bargain" in which employers fund the system proactively in exchange for workers' surrender of tort claims. That's good for workers in theory, but raises, again, the problem that worker compensation schedules have not kept up with the skyrocketing costs of living and healthcare.

Conflict of laws: the worker comp bar is practically universal vis-à-vis employers and their agents. The plaintiff tried as well to circumnavigate the worker comp bar upon the theory that worker compensation was paid by the company's R.I. worker comp insurer, and that the R.I. worker comp bar does not necessarily preclude tort claims in Massachusetts.

The plaintiff was right that Massachusetts law applied to the case.  Upon conflict-of-law analysis to ascertain the state with predominant interest in the matter, the court agreed that an injury in Massachusetts arising from the condition of a premises in Massachusetts drew Massachusetts substantive law to the problem.

Nevertheless, the court recognized the applicability of the R.I. worker comp bar. The Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws opines that a worker comp bar should apply to action in any state. And both Rhode Island and Massachusetts observe both the worker comp bar and its application to companies and their agents. Thus, Massachusetts public policy bore no hostility to importation of the R.I. rule, even to prelude tort claims under Massachusetts substantive law.

Premises liability: A landowner cannot be liable to an invitee for a known dangerous condition when the invitee was invited for the very purpose of abating the dangerous condition.  The worker comp bar does not preclude claims against third parties to the employment relationship. The third party is not part of the grand bargain. Indeed, under state law, typically, an employee or a worker comp system in subrogation may allege a third party's responsibility for loss. An employee successful in litigation might owe reimbursement to the worker comp system. Correspondingly, a worker comp system might owe excess recovery to the employee. Here, then, the worker comp bar did not preclude the plaintiff's suit against the landowner in negligence.

The defendant landowner asserted that the dangerous state of the collapsed garage was "open and obvious," thus invoking a historical common law doctrine.  The fuzzy doctrine has been said to mean many things in many scenarios. In the instant case, the defendant invoked the doctrine to say that the obvious risks of the dilapidated garage should relieve the landowner of the usual responsibility owed to a commercial invitee.

Massachusetts no longer recognizes the common law framework that applies different liability rules depending whether a plaintiff's purpose is commercial (invitee) or social (licensee). The contemporary approach is to charge the jury to consider "reasonableness under the circumstances." There might not be a stark practical difference between the old and new approaches, because the common law framework was grounded in the proposition that as a matter of ordinary practice, "reasonable" people conduct themselves differently relative to invitees and social guests, respectively.

Similarly, the contemporary approach is to reject "open and obvious" as any kind of magical incantation. Rather, the openness and obviousness of the risk also is part of what a court and jury can be expected to consider in the reasonableness analysis. Here, the court ruled accordingly that "open and obvious" is not a rule per se.

However, "open and obvious" remains important as a matter of fact. And on these facts, the openness and obviousness of the risk of the collapsed garage proved dispositive—not because of a blanket rule favoring defendants, but because of the specific reason the plaintiff was invited to the property: to abate the very same risk. The court reasoned:

The [cited] authorities encompass the commonsense recognition that a landowner who has a hazardous condition on his or her property may need to invite onto the property another person or persons to remedy that condition. The law, of course, wishes to encourage behavior that remedies hazardous conditions.... And the person engaged to remedy such a hazardous condition differs markedly from an ordinary invitee. For one thing, there usually will be little question that such a person is aware of the danger, and thus there should be no need for warning. Furthermore, such a person will have held him- or herself out as capable of remedying the condition. Under those circumstances, it is reasonable for the law to reallocate the risk of harm from the property owner to the person who has sought to take on, and to alleviate, the hazard.

The case is Ward v. Schnurr, No. 22-P-372 (Mass. App. Ct. Sept. 13, 2023). Justice John Englander wrote the unanimous opinion of a panel that also comprised Justices Henry and Desmond.

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Anti-SLAPP protects doctor for reporting patient-doctor's opioid use to physician treatment authority

Cindy Shebley CC BY 2.0 via Flickr
A doctor who prescribed opioids for a fellow doctor and ultimately reported the patient-doctor for possible impairment by addiction was protected by anti-SLAPP law when the patient-doctor sued, the Massachusetts Appeals Court held in June.

The two doctors' relationships started when the defendant, a primary care physician, prescribed the plaintiff, an ophthalmologist, Percocet, which contains oxycodone, to manage migraines. In time, the defendant became concerned about the plaintiff's ongoing use of opioids. After unsatisfactory back-and-forth with the plaintiff, the defendant reported his concerns to Physician Health Services (PHS), a nonprofit corporation created by the Massachusetts Medical Society, which in turn is a creation of the legislature. The plaintiff ultimately accepted addiction counseling upon PHS recommendation.

The plaintiff sued the defendant for negligence, tortious interference, civil rights violation, and invasion of privacy. The defendant invoked the Massachusetts anti-SLAPP law, and the court dismissed. The Appeals Court affirmed.

I'm on record as an anti-SLAPP skeptic, while acknowledging that anti-SLAPP laws sometimes facilitate a sound outcome. To my satisfaction, the Massachusetts law is narrow in some key regards, including the requirement that a defendant's conduct must be substantially related to a petitioning to governmental officials. In June 2021, I wrote about the failure of an anti-SLAPP defense when the Appeals Court opined that defendants' alleged extortive expression was not sufficiently closely related to the zoning disposition with which the defendant was alleged to have sought to interfere.

In the instant case, the Appeals Court had little trouble determining that the defendant's reports to PHS were substantially related to government petitioning. Physician peer reporting is required by law upon reasonable belief in a violation of regulation. And it was understood, the court reasoned, that reporting to PHS, which specializes in treatment for drug and alcohol impairment, was an intermediate step that would result in reporting to the state licensing authority if the matter could not be resolved.

"It follows, therefore, that the defendant's communication to PHS regarding his concern about the plaintiff is protected," the court wrote, "unless the plaintiff can show either that the defendant failed to act in good faith or that he had no reasonable belief that the communication furthered the purpose of PHS."

The case is Berk v. Kronlund, No. 22-P-4 (Mass. App. Ct. June 14, 2023) (FindLaw). Justice Kenneth V. Desmond Jr. wrote the opinion of the unanimous panel that also comprised Justices Wolohojian and Blake.

Friday, September 1, 2023

Acuerdo en inglés para arbitrar vincula al firmante de habla hispana aunque no lo entendió, tribunal concluye

(English translation by Google: Agreement in English to arbitrate binds Spanish-speaking signatory even though he did not understand it, court rules.)

Un hombre de habla hispana se comprometió a un acuerdo de arbitraje en inglés incluso si no lo entendía, dictaminó ayer el Tribunal de Apelaciones de Massachusetts.

El día de su cirugía para corregir la visión con Lasik, el demandante Lopez firmó cuatro formularios en inglés, incluido el consentimiento y el acuerdo para arbitrar cualquier disputa. Más tarde, insatisfecho con la cirugía, Lopez presentó una demanda, alegando negligencia médica.

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Revocando la decisión del Tribunal Superior, el Tribunal de Apelaciones ordenó la desestimación tras la moción del demandado de obligar al arbitraje.

Las cláusulas de arbitraje obligatorio han sido un punto de dolor para los defensores de consumidores durante décadas. Son una parte del problema de los términos de servicio densos y no negociables que son omnipresentes en las transacciones de consumo contemporáneas, tema de libros como Wrap Contracts (2013), por Nancy Kim, y Boilerplate (2012), por Margaret Jane Radin.

Los defensores de consumidores como Ralph Nader lamentan la eliminación masiva de disputas del sistema de justicia civil, un impacto en la Séptima Enmienda y una propagación democráticamente problemática de la justicia secreta. Y detrás de las puertas cerradas del arbitraje, las probabilidades favorecen a los negocios de manera tan abrumadora que alimentan dudas sobre la justicia. Los árbitros que no dictaminan la forma en que los demandados recurrentes corren el riesgo de quedarse sin trabajo.

A pesar de estos potentes motivos de preocupación, los legisladores y los tribunales se han puesto del lado de las empresas para proteger y hacer cumplir el arbitraje obligatorio, supuestamente para proteger al comercio de los intolerables costos de transacción de los litigios.

En el ley común de daños, el consentimiento y la asunción expresa del riesgo niegan la responsabilidad, porque se debe permitir que dos personas establezcan los términos de su propia relación. Podrán apartarse del contrato social siempre que los términos que fijen no violen el orden público; es posible que, por ejemplo, no acepten cometer una herida. En teoría, ambas defensas se basan en el acuerdo voluntario y consciente del demandante.

El demandante que firma un contrato sin leerlo cuestiona esta teoría. La firma evidencia el acuerdo subjetivo del demandante. De hecho, no existe ningún acuerdo subjetivo; el conocimiento y la comprensión de los términos acordados no se pueden encontrar en la mente del demandante.

La regla general es que la firma vincula de todos modos. Y en gran medida, esta regla es necesaria, incluso si significa que las personas están obligadas a cumplir términos que no habrían aceptado si los hubieran entendido. El comercio depende de la fiabilidad de los contratos. Si una parte del contrato  siempre pudiera impugnar la aplicabilidad basándose en testimonios interesados de malentendidos, entonces el litigio sería tan gravoso que paralizaría los negocios.

Un malentendido subjetivo puede causar un incumplimiento del contrato en el derecho de daños si mitiga la evidencia de la aquiescencia del demandante. Así, por ejemplo, las empresas a veces buscan establecer la asunción expresa del riesgo por parte de los clientes con un cartel que diga que "cualquiera que proceda más allá de este punto asume el riesgo de sufrir daños por negligencia." (A veces, tales carteles son exigibles por ley.) En tal caso, el demandante puede al menos argumentar que no vio el cartel, o, mejor, no lo entendió debido al lenguaje.

Desafortunadamente para Lopez, no conocía esos datos. El tribunal relató: "Lopez testificó que había vivido en Massachusetts durante doce años en el momento de su cirugía y había aprendido 'un poco' de inglés 'en las calles.'" (Las opiniones de los tribunales y el testimonio citado están en inglés; todas las traducciones aquí son mias.) El Tribunal Superior había determinado que "Lopez no tenía un comprensión suficiente del inglés para permitirle leer el Acuerdo de Arbitraje." Al mismo tiempo, la oficina de cirugía tenía un traductor de español disponible; Lopez no pidió ayuda. El hecho de su firma era inequívoco.

El tribunal razonó:

"Los contratos escritos tienen como objetivo preservar los términos exactos de las obligaciones asumidas, de modo que no estén sujetos a la posibilidad de una falta de recuerdo o una declaración errónea intencionada." [Grace v. Adams (Mass. 1868).] Esta regla de larga data 'se basa en la necesidad fundamental de seguridad en las transacciones comerciales." [Williston on Contracts (4a ed. 2022).] Estos principios legales subrayan que existe una "solemnidad [para] firmar físicamente un contrato escrito" que hace que una firma sea algo más que un simple adorno elegante en un documento. [Kauders v. Uber Techs., Inc. (Mass. 2021).]

Lopez testificó que no habría firmado el acuerdo de arbitraje si hubiera podido entenderlo. El mayor problema político para la protección del consumidor en Estados Unidos es que esta afirmación probablemente sea falsa, sin el beneficio de la retrospectiva. Es prácticamente imposible vivir en el mundo moderno—tarjetas de crédito, teléfonos móviles, sitios web, servicios públicos, viajes—sin aceptar un arbitraje obligatorio todos los días.

El caso es Lopez Rivera v. Stetson, No. 22-P-904 (Mass. App. Ct. Aug. 31, 2023). El juez Christopher P. Hodgens redactó la opinión del panel unánime, en el que también estaban los jueces Wolohojian y Shin.

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Mass., EU courts wrestle with requisite harm in defamation, data protection cases

The vexing problem of proof of damages in defamation and privacy has turned up recently in the Massachusetts Court of Appeals and the Court of Justice of the European Union. Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission borrowed European privacy principles for new data security rules.

Tiny turkey. Stéphanie Kilgast via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
'Stolen' Turkey Money in Massachusetts

The Appeals Court in April vacated dismissal in a business dispute over turkeys. Nonprofit and business collaborators fell out over spending on variably sized turkeys for a charitable food event. The defendant wrote on social media that the plaintiff "stole" money intended for charitable purposes.

The complaint, which was filed by a Massachusetts lawyer, was messy—narrative in excess, numbering in disarray, and allegations jumbled between liability theories—so it was difficult for the trial court to parse the pleadings. With the aid of oral argument on appeal, the court teased out the defamation count and determined that it had been dismissed for want of pleaded loss.

However, Massachusetts is among jurisdictions that continue to recognize the historical doctrines of libel per se and slander per se. Those doctrines allow some pleadings to proceed without allegation of loss, and for good reason. Reputational harm is exceedingly difficult to prove, even when it seems self-evident. After all, whom should a plaintiff call to testify to prove her damaged reputation, people who now think an awful falsity about her? Witnesses will be less than eager. Even in case of a business plaintiff that suffers economic loss, it can be exceedingly difficult to tie specific losses to specific assertions of falsity.

The historical approach allows a plaintiff to demand presumed damages. That's a messy solution, because the jury is entrusted with broad discretion to assess the damages. On the plaintiff side, perhaps that's OK; we just juries to measure intangible losses all the time, as in the case of general damages for injuries, or pain and suffering. The defense bar and allied tort reformers have rebelled against presumed damages, though, arguing that they afford juries a blank check. That unpredictability makes it difficult for defendants and insurers to assess their liability exposure. Defense-oriented tort reformers have been successful in extinguishing per se defamation actions in many U.S. states.

Massachusetts splits the difference, I think in a healthy way. Per se actions are preserved, but the plaintiff is entitled to nominal damages, plus proved actual losses, but not presumed damages. I mentioned recently that the E. Jean Carroll case has spurred overblown commentary about the potential of defamation law to redress our misinformation problem. The unavailability of per se actions in many states is one reason that defamation is not up to the job. A defamation action for nominal damages helps, though, coming about as close as U.S. jurisdictional doctrine allows to a declaration of truth—which is what defamation plaintiffs usually most want.

Allegation of a crime, such as theft or misappropriation of charitable funds, fits the class of cases that qualify for per se doctrine, whether libel or slander. There is some room debate about whether social media better fits the historical mold of libel or slander, but that's immaterial here. The allegation of "stolen" money fit the bill.

The Appeals Court thus vacated dismissal and remanded the claim for defamation and related statutory tort. The court clerk entered the Memorandum and Order for Judges Mary Thomas Sullivan, Peter Sacks, and Joseph M. Ditkoff in Depena v. Valdez, No. 22-P-659 (Mass. App. Ct. Apr. 28, 2023).

Austrian post box.
High Contrast via Wikimedia Commons CC BY 3.0 DE

Non-Consensual Political Analysis in Austria

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) also recently tussled with a problem of proof of damages. The court held early in May that a claimant under the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) must claim harm for a personal data processing violation, but need not meet any threshold of seriousness.

The court's press release summarized the facts in the case:

From 2017, Österreichische Post collected information on the political affinities of the Austrian population. Using an algorithm, it defined "target group addresses" according to socio-demographic criteria. The data thus collected enabled Österreichische Post to establish that a given citizen had a high degree of affinity with a certain Austrian political party. However, that data processed were not communicated to third parties.

The citizen in question, who had not consented to the processing of his personal data, claimed that he felt great upset, a loss of confidence and a feeling of exposure due to the fact that a particular affinity had been established between him and the party in question. It is in the context of compensation for the non-material damage which he claims to have suffered that he is seeking before the Austrian courts payment of the sum of €1,000.

The plaintiff endeavored to quantify his emotional upset, but in the absence of communication of the conclusions about the plaintiff to to any third party, the claim of harm was thin. Emotional suffering resulting from the mere processing of personal data in contravention of one's advance permissions seems minimal. Accordingly, the Austrian courts, following the example of neighboring Germany, were inclined to disallow the plaintiff's action for failure to demonstrate harm.

Harm has been a sticking point in privacy law in the United States, too. Privacy torts are a relatively modern development in common law, and they don't import the per se notion of historical defamation doctrine. Tort law balances culpability with harm to patrol the borders of social contract. Thus, intentional battery is actionable upon mere unwanted touching, while merely accidental infliction of harm requires some degree of significance of injury. Defamation law arguably defies that dynamic, especially in per se doctrine, in part for the reasons I explained above, and in part because, for much of human history, personal integrity has been as essential for survival as physical security.

Not having inherited the paradigm-defying dynamic, privacy law has posed a puzzle. Scholars disagree whether damages in privacy should follow the example of business torts, requiring at least economic loss; the example of emotional distress torts, requiring at some threshold of severity; or defamation per se torts, recognizing some sui generis harm in the disruption of personal integrity. As personal data protection has grown into its own human right independent of privacy, the problem has been amplified, because, exactly as in the Austrian case, a right against the non-consensual processing of data that are personal, but not intimately personal, is even more difficult to generalize and quantify.

The problem is not only a European one. In the United States, courts and scholars have disagreed over when claims in the burgeoning wave of state data protection laws, such as the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act, can satisfy the "case or controversy" constitutional requirement of jurisdiction. Failure to see a sui generis harm in privacy violations means, arguably, that there is no "case or controversy" over which courts, particularly federal courts, have competence.

The CJEU balked at Austrian courts' unwillingness to see any wrong upon a claim of only intangible loss. But the court agreed that the plaintiff must demonstrate harm. Hewing to the text of the GDPR, the court reasoned that a plaintiff must show a violation of the regulation, a resulting harm, and a causal connection between the two. Thus, harm is required, but there is no requirement that the harm meet some threshold of seriousness or economic measure.

The CJEU decision was touted in headlines as "clarifying" the law of damages under the GDPR, while the stories beneath the headlines tended to do anything but. Some writers said that the court raised the bar for GDPR claims, and others said the court lowered it. Confusion stems from the fact that the court's decision spawns subsequent many questions. Conventionally, the GDPR leaves the quantum of damages to national courts. So how must a claim of de minimis harm be measured on remand? Are nominal damages sufficient compensation, or must the data protection right be quantified?

Moreover, Sara Khalil, an attorney with Schönherr in Vienna, observed that the court left out a component of tort liability that national courts sometimes require: culpability. Is there a minimal fault standard associated with recovery for mere data processing? Because tort law ties together the elements of harm and fault, at least in some jurisdictions, the one question necessarily begets the other.

RW v. Österreichische Post AG, No. C-154/21 (May 4, 2023), was decided in the First Chamber of the CJEU.

Data Security in Gambling in Massachusetts

Policymakers and courts on both sides of the Atlantic are wrestling with the problems of contemporary personal data protection. And while the gap between the GDPR and patchwork state and federal regulation in the United States has stressed international relations and commerce, it's no wonder that we see convergence in systems trying to solve the same problems.

To wit, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission has employed recognizably European privacy principles in new data security rules. For Israeli law firm Herzog Fox & Neeman, attorneys Ariel Yosefi, Ido Manor, and Kevin David Gampel described the overlap. The commission adopted the regulations for emergency effect in December 2022; final rules were published in April.

The attorneys detailed the requirements of gambling operators:

  • to establish and plainly disclose to players comprehensive data privacy policies, including measures regarding data collection, storage, processing, security, and disclosure, the latter including the specific identities of third-party recipients; 
  • to guarantee player rights including access, correction, objection, withdrawal of consent, portability, and complaint;
  • to eschew purely automated decision-making; and
  • to implement physical, technical, and organization security practices.

The regulations are 205 CMR 138 and 205 CMR 248 (eff. Mar. 9, 2023, publ. Apr. 28, 2023).

Friday, October 7, 2022

Reversal in eldercare case highlights limits of qualified immunity, low injury threshold of intentional torts

Boston police officer assists an elderly pedestrian in 2014.
(Alex Klavens CC BY 2.0 via Flickr)
A dispute over elder care occasioned treatment of qualified immunity and a range of tort theories by the Massachusetts Appeals Court yesterday.

Gallagher v. South Shore Hospital arose from an apparently mismanaged effort to investigate and redress a report of elder abuse; the report proved unfounded. The plaintiff caretaker and elder man alleged that a police officer and state agent entered their home without sufficient suspicion or warrant and removed the man from the home, and that a hospital then held and tested the man for five days against her and his will.

Most of the court's opinion comprised blow-by-blow facts and the Fourth Amendment analysis. However, the court opined as well on a range of common law tort claims against the defendants: a police officer, a state-contracted elder service agent, and South Shore Hospital, Inc., for trespass, false imprisonment, and battery. The police officer defended on grounds of qualified immunity, inter alia.

In proceedings on various motions, two trial court judges awarded summary judgment to all defendants. The trial courts held the state actors protected by qualified immunity and the tort claims flawed.

In the estimation of the Appeals Court, the trial courts erred. The Appeals Court reversed and remanded as to all defendants, finding that live questions of fact precluded the summary judgments. In my estimation, the error on qualified immunity was informative, and the errors on tort theories were egregious.

In articulating the qualified immunity theory, the police defendant and eldercare agent pointed to a concurrence by Justice Kavanaugh in a 2020 U.S. Supreme Court case, Caniglia v. Strom, in which the Court held unanimously that a warrantless home entry and firearm seizure violated the Fourth Amendment. The Appeals Court explained:

[Officer] Pompeo argues that the facts at bar are similar to the example of an elder welfare check that Justice Kavanaugh described in his concurring opinion in Caniglia. In his example, "an elderly man is uncharacteristically absent from Sunday church services and repeatedly fails to answer his phone throughout the day and night. A concerned relative calls the police and asks the officers to perform a wellness check." Justice Kavanaugh stated that "[o]f course," in those circumstances, the officers may enter the home. Pompeo argues that she reasonably thought [elder plaintiff] LaPlante was injured or in imminent danger on June 25 because no one responded to the doorbell, knocks, or telephone call, and because [caretaker] Gallagher had left LaPlante in the car with strangers two days earlier.

The trial court found these facts to constitute the requisite exigency to enter the home. The Appeals Court disagreed.

The facts in this case are nothing like the hypothetical Justice Kavanaugh described. The implication of the hypothetical is that the elderly man lives alone. LaPlante did not. Moreover, Gallagher and LaPlante were not out of touch or nonresponsive, as was the elder in Justice Kavanaugh's hypothetical. Pompeo and another elder care worker had seen LaPlante two days earlier ... and his appearance was not a cause for concern....

Further, even if Pompeo could see LaPlante on the couch [through a window], neither he nor Gallagher had any obligation to answer the door or respond to the knock. "When law enforcement officers who are not armed with a warrant knock on a door, they do no more than any private citizen might do. And whether the person who knocks on the door and requests the opportunity to speak is a police officer or a private citizen, the occupant has no obligation to open the door or to speak." Kentucky v. King (U.S. 2011). A jury could find that Gallagher's lack of response to a knock on the door when she was not expecting visitors, and her absence from the room in which LaPlante was sleeping, did not give rise to a reasonable belief by Pompeo that LaPlante was unattended and suffering an emergency.

In an age in which the public is increasingly skeptical of police qualified immunity, the analysis is refreshing for taking seriously the doctrine's objective check on police perception. The likely failure of qualified immunity here leaves the state defendants vulnerable to the civil rights and tort claims on remand.

On the tort claims, the trial courts erred egregiously in dismissing for perceived want of injury. My first-semester, 1L Torts students can tell you that none of trespass, false imprisonment, nor battery requires physical injury, in the sense of impact. These intentional torts all balance a higher culpability state with a lower injury threshold. The lower threshold rests upon the theory that tort objectives such as preserving the peace and averting vigilantism justify recognition of insults to personal integrity or honor, even in the absence of physical or pecuniary loss. The notion is as old as the Roman law of iniuria.

As to trespass, the Appeals Court opined, quoting Massachusetts high court precedents, "It has long been the 'general rule' in this Commonwealth that 'possession of real estate is sufficient to enable the parties in possession to maintain an action against a stranger for interfering with that possession.' Proof of injury is not required; 'the action is founded merely on the possession.'"

Similarly, false imprisonment is accomplished by the plaintiff's awareness of confinement, and battery by an "offensive," that is, non-consensual nor justified-by-social-contract, touching of the plaintiff. In false imprisonment, "[i]t is enough if a person's personal liberty is restrained," the Appeals Court opined. And even if the elder man, not legally competent at the time, "was not aware of his confinement, Gallagher, his proxy, was." The court further relied on, while expressly not adopting, similar sentiments in the Second Restatement of Torts.

On each theory, the plaintiff is permitted to prove compensable loss above and beyond the minimal, prerequisite condition of injury. The caretaker alleged that the elder man in fact deteriorated physically while in hospital care, evidenced by an enlarged bedsore and diminished mobility. And the facts established to date indicate that the elder man had been subject to blood and urine testing in the hospital without the consent of the caretaker, his only proxy: a more-than-de-minimis, physical insult.

The same reasoning that unwound qualified immunity negated any defense of emergency on which the trial courts relied to dismiss the tort claims as a matter of law. And the hospital claimed no emergency over the elder man's five-day residency, such as would have justified failing to seek the caretaker's consent.

Finally, I was struck by a footnote the court dropped that speaks not only to the sad facts of this case, but to the broader context of our present, vigorous public policy discussion about the role of police in society and our infrastructure for social services, such as physical and mental healthcare. The court lamented:

[The eldercare agent who precipitated investigation and police involvement,] Bessette[,] and Gallagher were strangers to one another. Perhaps if Bessette had agreed to assist Gallagher by sitting with LaPlante for an hour while Gallagher did grocery shopping, she could have accomplished her investigatory purpose—allowing her to speak with LaPlante alone— and we might not have a case at all. Pasqualone v. Gately (Mass. 1996) (if officer had asked gun owner to voluntarily turn over his weapons after his license was revoked rather than demand them with considerable show of force, we might have a different case).

Recently, my wife and I read in the New York Times Magazine about the "viral nightmare" that exploded at Arizona State University from students' feud over the "multicultural safe space," fueled in no small part by the university's hyper-formalist response.

"If only someone had sat them down and made them listen to each other ... ," my wife sighed.

The instant case is Gallagher v. South Shore Hospital, Inc., No. 21-P-207 (Mass. App. Ct. Oct. 6, 2022) (temporary posting). Justice Vickie L. Henry wrote the opinion for a unanimous panel that also comprised Chief Justice Green and Justice Sullivan.

Thursday, September 15, 2022

Land dispute implicates 'second element of second path of second stage' of anti-SLAPP analysis, and we're all supposed to pretend the world's better for it

The Supreme Judicial Court studies its anti-SLAPP framework.
Argonne National Laboratory CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr

Anti-SLAPP analysis in Massachusetts has become a Rube Goldberg machine disguising little more than an "I know it when I see it" test—

—so I contend, and I offer a Massachusetts Appeals Court case decided Tuesday as evidence.

I've written many times about anti-SLAPP, including my contention that the device can be used meritoriously, but is as often deployed to contrary ends, a sword for Goliath to strike down David; the legion dysfunctions of tort law that anti-SLAPP amplifies; and the possible better solution to be found in process torts and similar related mechanisms of accountability in law practice and procedure.

As Massachusetts courts have struggled to differentiate meritorious actions from SLAPPs under the Commonwealth's characteristically convoluted statute, I ultimately gave up trying to keep up with the ever more complicated thicket of rules and procedures leaching out from appellate decisions. So The Savory Tort should not be your first stop if you're trying to get a granular grip on the current landscape here.

Yet I can't help but write about this most recent appellate opinion. To my reading, the court poorly disguised its doubts about burgeoning and burdensome anti-SLAPP process, and whether time, money, and justice can all be saved at the same time.

The underlying dispute was a land matter. The plaintiff, seeking quiet title and adverse possession, was partially successful in a somewhat protracted litigation. Later, if before the expiry of a three-year limitations period, the respondent from the land action filed the present case, alleging abuse of process and intentional infliction of emotional distress by way of the earlier case. The land plaintiff from the earlier case, now the process and IIED defendant, raised the Massachusetts anti-SLAPP statute in defense.

First, I take the occurrence here of abuse of process as evidence in support of my position that anti-SLAPP is often really about process wrongs. Though here the anti-SLAPP movant is the one accused of abuse of process, it is typical in process tort cases for accusations of misconduct to fly simultaneously in both directions. Regardless of whether a jurisdiction recognizes abuse of process as a cause of action per se, courts have the power to manage process objections with a range of existing tools. I wrote about abuse of process appearing as a defensive mechanism, essentially a better tailored anti-SLAPP device, in South Africa. And my 1L torts class just yesterday read Lee Tat Development, a well reasoned 2018 opinion, included in my casebook, in which the Singapore Court of Appeals both rejected the abuse of process as a tort action and thoroughly discussed alternatives.

The Massachusetts Appeals court devoted a dense 10 pages to the blow by blow between the parties in the instant case. I won't retell it here. What's compelling is what the court had to say about its job in reviewing the Superior Court's anti-SLAPP ruling. Quoting the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) in the Exxon case, which I reported recently, the Appeals Court's opening line oozes disrelish:

"This case involves yet another example of the 'ever-increasing complexity of the anti-SLAPP case law,' and the 'difficult and time consuming' resolution of special motions to dismiss pursuant to the 'anti-SLAPP' statute."

The partial quotes read like the court is feigning innocent pleading to the Supremes, "These are your words. We're just repeating them."

In analyzing the instant case according to the painstaking legal framework that the SJC has eked out of case experience, the Appeals Court located the present dispute in "the second element of the second path of the second stage."

What is the second element of the second path of the second stage, you ask?

Well, it's that the "judge must 'assess the "totality of the circumstances pertinent to the nonmoving party's asserted primary purpose in bringing its claim," and ... determine whether the nonmoving party's claim constitutes a SLAPP suit.'"

Isn't that the whole game?

I humbly propose that the good ship Commonsense has already sailed when we start talking about a second element of a second path of a second stage.

The Appeals Court divulged a tone somewhere between surprise and pride when it concluded "that the [Superior Court] judge followed the augmented framework sequentially, assiduously, and judiciously." Adjectives "comprehensive" and "thoughtful" followed.

Then, around page 27, the court hints at deeper problems.

The [landowners'] arguments demonstrate some of the difficulties associated with the application of the augmented framework. On one hand, the present action presents as a typical SLAPP case in that a supposedly wealthy developer sued abutters of supposedly modest means for petitioning in court to challenge a development project.... On the other hand, the [landowners] averred that far from being wealthy and powerful developers, they were a real estate broker and part-time bookkeeper attempting to develop a single-family residential property, while the [anti-SLAPP movants] were not the "individual citizens of modest means" contemplated by the anti-SLAPP law. The parties contested each other's motivations and representations. There is an inherent difficulty and, in some cases, prematurity in requiring a judge to make credibility determinations and discern a party's primary motivation predicated on affidavits, pleadings, and proffers, and not on a more complete evidentiary record scrutinized through cross-examination.

Some pages later, the court returned more directly but cautiously to the question of anti-SLAPP efficacy:

In this regard, as we have noted, the [landowners] insist that the present action cries out for a jury trial as the only appropriate way to resolve critical credibility disputes and determine the parties' true motivations. This argument has some force in that there are obvious difficulties in ... requiring judges to be fairly assured that the challenged claim is not a SLAPP suit, absent full discovery and testimony tested through cross-examination. Yet, the special motion to dismiss remedy exists, in large part, to avoid costly litigation and trial.... In any event, it is for the Supreme Judicial Court or the Legislature to address and resolve these concerns should they so choose.

At the tail end of a 34-page appellate opinion on meta-litigation over a small land matter and a lot of bad blood, one might wonder how much "costly litigation" was avoided.

The problem is with anti-SLAPP itself. The court is being asked to adjudge the motives of a litigant in the absence of evidence for the very purpose of avoiding the cost of collecting evidence.

We don't have a SLAPP problem. We have a transaction costs problem. Slapping a bandage on it with anti-SLAPP only invites perverse results. And the harder one tries to get right a call about evidence without the evidence, the more costly and perverse the results will be.

The case is Nyberg v. Wheltle, No. 21-P-791 (Mass. App. Ct. Sept. 13, 2022) (temporary court posting). Judge Eric Neyman wrote the opinion for a unanimous panel.

UPDATE, Sept. 16: Notwithstanding the ill wisdom of anti-SLAPP, the fad flourishes. Europe and the UK continue their headlong advances toward legislation, and a new bill in the U.S. Congress seeks to bring anti-SLAPP to U.S. federal courts. Enjoy, judges! I don't expect that the extinction of the defamation cause of action will do much to remedy our problems with misinformation and vitriolic divisiveness, but that seems to be the experiment we're determined to carry out.

Friday, September 2, 2022

Motel not liable for guest's suicide, court rules, despite family warning of risk, asking for room number

CC0 1.0 via Wikimedia Commons
The Massachusetts Appeals Court yesterday rejected Motel 6 liability for the suicide of a guest.

The September 1 decision broke no new ground, but reiterated the interrelationship of duty doctrines in negligence and Massachusetts repudiation of the common law "suicide rule."

Decedent Michael C. Bonafini took his own life in a room of the Motel 6 in Chicopee, Massachusetts, just north of Springfield in 2015. The mother and wife of the decedent blamed the motel because they went there in the night and morning trying to reach him, and motel staff would not reveal his room number. In the morning, the mother told the motel clerk that the decedent was at risk of suicide. The clerk called the room, but the decedent answered and immediately hung up. He was found dead when the motel manager entered the room at noon checkout time.

The case implicates potentially conflicting duty relationships in the common law of negligence. The reputed "suicide rule" of historical common law held that there can be no liability for a suicide. At the same time, common law recognizes an affirmative duty of an innkeeper to a guest, and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has recognized a duty to prevent suicide in some circumstances.

Historically, courts were loath to impose accident liability for an intentional act of self-harm on an earlier-in-time actor, especially when the intentional act was an attempt to commit suicide. The conclusion could be reached either by ruling that there was no duty to prevent another from intentional self-harm, which usually was criminalized, or by reasoning that the abrupt, violent, and intentional act of suicide dispositively interrupted the requisite chain of proximate causation.

It's arguable that there never was a "suicide rule," per se, rather a doctrine of duty and causation that was informed by social norms. Norms change. Suicide is less often today regarded as a matter for criminal justice, even if criminal laws remain on the books to justify the intervention of authorities. The trend in tort law is to employ the usual doctrines of duty and causation to analyze the facts of each case. That said, the "suicide rule" still holds sway, because the doctrines of duty and causation still disfavor the imposition of an affirmative duty to prevent injury and disfavor negligence liability for causal actors earlier in time than intentional injurers (this blog, Feb. 9, 2021).

On the question of duty, the instant case is complicated in two respects, one on the law and one on the facts. First, an innkeeper-guest relationship is one in which common law historically does impose an affirmative duty, on the innkeeper for the protection of the guest. Second, insofar as an affirmative duty might exist, it can be predicated on knowledge of risk, which the decedent's mother gave to the motel clerk.

The innkeeper-guest relationship did not get the plaintiffs to the finish line. The purpose of the common law duty is to oblige an innkeeper, like a landlord, to protect the guest from risks the innkeeper might know about, and the guest does not, in the vein of premises liability; or, at the extreme, risks of any nature that an innkeeper might be better positioned to mitigate than a guest can.

The court summarized past cases in which Massachusetts courts recognized an innkeeper-to-guest duty: failure to prevent stabbing by intruder for want of an adequate security system; failure to protect guest from fire set by arsonist; and failure to prevent battery by another guest. All three examples implicate an intermediate intentional, and tortious or criminal actor. But in the first two cases, the causal risks relate to the premises: a security system and fire response. There is no intermediately causal premises risk in the instant case.

The battery case seems more on point, and the court here did not make the distinction plain. But on the facts of that case, the plaintiff was stabbed at an event for which the defendant innkeeper had hired security guards. The case is best understood as a duty voluntarily undertaken by the defendant, and then executed negligently. In one count based on innkeeper-guest duty and one count based on ordinary negligence, the plaintiff complained that the security guards had negligently failed to restrain a drunken patron. The jury returned a generalized plaintiff's verdict that the court concluded was supported by the evidence.

So the problem for the plaintiff-representative in the instant case is that the decedent was not injured by the premises, and the defendant motel voluntarily undertook no duty to protect the decedent beyond the usual duties of an innkeeper. In fact, the innkeeper-guest duty arguably cuts against the plaintiff's position. Were a clerk to violate a guest's privacy by revealing the room number to a requester concealing ill intentions, the motel could be held liable for injury inflicted on the guest by the requester-intruder.

That said, the decedent's mother and wife were understandably frustrated with the clerk's stubbornness, under the circumstances, and their fears were vindicated tragically. The plaintiff's best strategy was to tie the alleged misconduct of the defendant to the responsibilities of an innkeeper, moving the causal focus away from the decedent's intentional act and changing the conversation from negligent failure to act to negligent action. In this vein, the plaintiff alleged not that the clerk necessarily should have revealed the room number, but that, instead of telephoning and giving up, the clerk should have summoned police to conduct a wellness check.

The court did not indulge the plaintiff's theory long enough to parse the details. But the basic problem even with the plaintiff's best gloss on the case is that the mother and wife could have called the police, too, and did not. Indeed, the court, fairly or not, faulted the family for being coy in characterizing the risk: "Indeed, all that is alleged is that [the] mother and wife informed motel employees that [decedent] was at risk of suicide, and asked for his room number so they could assist him. They did not tell the employees that [he] had stated an intention or plan to commit suicide or that he had recently attempted suicide." Perhaps the family feared negative repercussions of police intervention.

The plaintiff's case was buoyed modestly if insufficiently by Massachusetts high court holdings that a university may be held liable for a student's suicide. In 2018, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that MIT did not owe a duty to a student who committed suicide on the facts of the case (this blog, May 7, 2018). But the court left the door open to a different analysis on different facts, and, the next year, the court allowed a case to go forward against Harvard (this blog, Sept. 30, 2019).

The Appeals Court distinguished the instant case from the Harvard case because the motel did not have enough information to ground an affirmative duty. In the Harvard case, the court looked to "stated plans or intentions to commit suicide." Here, again, the mother and daughter were coy as to the severity of the risk. And, the court added, there was no evidence that anything the decedent said or did suggested suicidal intentions to motel staff. Indeed, while a university knows a lot about its students, sometimes even affirmatively providing mental healthcare, innkeepers, the court opined, "usually are unlikely to know much—if anything—about their guests."

Incidentally, criminal liability for another person's suicide is a different problem. I mention it only because Massachusetts is the state in which Michelle Carter was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the suicide death of Conrad Roy. A civil case was settled in 2019. Just a couple of weeks ago, I watched The Girl from Plainville (2022), a serial dramatization, and I don't recommend it. Maybe too soon to be reminded that the matter was a tragedy for everyone involved.

The instant case in the Appeals Court is Bonafini v. G6 Hospitality, LLC, No. 20-P-1409 (Sept. 1, 2022) (temporary court posting). Justice Gabrielle R. Wolohojian wrote the opinion of the unanimous panel.