Learn more about Peltz-Steele v. UMass Faculty Federation at Court Listener (complaint) and the Liberty Justice Center. The case is now on appeal in the First Circuit as no. 22-1466 (PACER paywall). Please direct media inquiries to Kristen Williamson.
Showing posts with label appeals court. Show all posts
Showing posts with label appeals court. Show all posts

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.

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

To channel cases into ordinary negligence or medmal, look to implications for medmal insurance, court says

Paul Brennan via PublicDomainPictures.net
A Massachusetts court sometimes might have difficulty distinguishing between claims of ordinary negligence and claims of medical malpractice, only the latter of which must be filed first with a special tribunal. If a case implicates medmal insurance, it's more likely the latter, a court reasoned in May.

The Appeals Court had little difficulty, though, finding that a complaint over life-threatening allergic reaction to a drug administered in the emergency room sounds in medical malpractice. The plaintiff therefore erred by failing to file with the commonwealth medmal tribunal and post the necessary bond before proceeding in the Superior Court.

The court demarcated the boundary between ordinary negligence and medmal claims with reference to the legislative purpose in creating the tribunal: "to guarantee the continued availability of medical malpractice insurance." A court may be guided also by factors derived from case law: "(1) whether medical or professional judgment or competence was exercised, ...  (2) whether the claim is 'treatment-related,' even if not a traditional malpractice claim, ... and (3) whether 'the same set of facts supports both' the medical malpractice and allegedly non-medical claims...."

The instant plaintiff's "claims centered on her arriving at the emergency room suffering from an asthma attack, and the hospital's failure to provide a proper medication to her, which resulted in a severe allergic reaction. More specifically, the hospital was alleged to have deviated from the 'standard of care' by administering a medication containing lactose to [plaintiff,] who had a lactose allergy known to the hospital." The implication of medical judgment plainly positioned the case in medmal.

The case is Lane v. Winchester Hospital, No. 21-P-476 (Mass. App. Ct. May 17, 2022). Justice William J. Meade wrote the opinion of the unanimous panel.

Sunday, July 17, 2022

Chair collapse provides textbook 'res ipsa' facts

plastic chair by Chris CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr
A textbook res ipsa loquitur case is headed back to the trial court since the Massachusetts Appeals Court in March reversed dismissal.

Res ipsa loquitur is a beautiful doctrine for all kinds of reasons. I like that it's a mouthful of high-dollar words, because that keeps lawyers' hourly rates high and justifies the high cost of law school, translating into more money for professors like me. It's also fun to teach, because of its odd position at the intersection of fundamental tort elements—is it a rule of causation? duty? breach?; its location in negligence law while bearing a striking resemblance to strict liability; and its double-life in doctrines of tort and evidence law render it theoretically instructive.

At the same time, res ipsa is a straightforward and commonsense rule, and this case before the Appeals Court demonstrates its utility. "The plaintiff ... was having lunch on the outdoor deck of Sundancers restaurant in Dennis when his plastic chair collapsed beneath him," the court recounted the facts. The trial court dismissed for want of evidence of negligence by the defendant restaurant owners.

Res ipsa says simply, plastic chairs fairly may be depended on not to collapse. So when they do, it might be someone's fault. And of everyone who might be at fault, it's not the plaintiff's fault. So even if the plaintiff can't show by evidence the precise mechanism of the accident, the plaintiff still deserves a chance to persuade a jury to infer the defendant's responsibility. 

You can find my more formal discussion of the rule in the no-longer-updated Straightforward Torts, to be incorporated into Tortz: A Study of American Tort Law in the coming year.

My 2006 torts casebook with Professor Marshall Shapo uses a case with a similar fact pattern to teach res ipsa loquitur. In O'Connor v. Chandris Lines, Inc. (D. Mass. 1983), the plaintiff was injured when the bunk-beds in which she slept on a cruise ship collapsed. Like Step Brothers (2008) if someone else had put the beds together, and not as funny.

The plaintiff from Sundancers sued years later, if within the statutory limitations period, so both he and the restaurant struggled to locate relevant evidence. There might yet be insufficient implication of negligence on the part of the restaurant to persuade the jury to make the res ipsa inference. But plaintiff deserves better than summary dismissal, the court decided.

Because the record presents a number of material, disputed factual issues—including whether Sundancers provided the plaintiff with a defective and unsafe chair, whether the defect could have been detected with reasonable inspection, whether reasonable inspection was made, and whether factors other than the defendants' negligence more likely caused the accident—summary judgment should not have entered. Were this case to go to trial on the record before us, the jury would be permitted, but not required, to infer that Sundancers was negligent under the principles of res ipsa loquitur.

The case is Kennedy v. Abramson, No. 21-P-224 (Mass. App. Ct. Mar. 17, 2022). Justice Gregory I. Massing wrote the opinion of the unanimous panel.

Monday, December 27, 2021

After dog bites postman, $375k jury award fits between floor and ceiling of high-low settlement agreement

Pxhere CC0
In a dog-bites-postman case in Massachusetts, the Appeals Court in late October held that the parties' "high-low" settlement agreement was a "contract like any other" and did not bar the defendants' appeal.

The plaintiff-postman in the case was covering an unfamiliar route when he was bit in the wrist and thigh by German shepherd-golden retriever mix "Chewbacca." At trial, the jury awarded the plaintiff $375,000 in damages. The defendants asked for a new trial, arguing that the jury was tainted by improper admission of information about the plaintiff's federal worker compensation benefits, in violation of the collateral source rule.

Before the jury verdict, on the last day of trial, the parties had struck a handwritten "high-low" settlement agreement.  They set a floor recovery of $150,000, if the jury verdict were anything less, and a ceiling of $1,000,000, if the jury verdict were anything more.

The plaintiff argued that the settlement agreement precluded appeal.  But it didn't say that.  Holding that the settlement agreement was to be construed as a "contract like any other," the Appeals Court found no language convincingly demonstrating defendants' waiver of appeals.  At the same time, the court held that the evidentiary admission in violation of the collateral source rule was harmless error, affirming the denial of new trial.

Regarding the high-low agreement, the court found "little law in Massachusetts."  More than 20 years ago, two New York attorneys described the agreements as "[a]n often underutilized and misunderstood litigation technique." At NYU in 2014, a research fellow examined the agreements' potential and limits in New York, Maryland, and Virginia; see also the ABA Journal in 2005.  An Illinois attorney wrote favorably about the "misunderstood" agreements in 2019, after a medmal plaintiff-baby's verdict was halved by a high-low from $101 million.  Virginia attorneys advised on drafting the agreements in 2007.

In a harder scholarly vein, research published in The Journal of Law & Economics in 2014 reported empirical research on high-low conditions and posited optimal conditions for their appearance.  Published soon thereafter, a Michigan law student argued that high-low agreements should be disclosed to juries.

The Massachusetts case is David v. Kelly, No. 20-P-706 (Mass. App. Ct. Oct. 25, 2021). Justice Mary Thomas Sullivan wrote the opinion of the court, which Justice Kenneth V. Desmond Jr. joined.  Justice Sabita Singh dissented as to the court's conclusion that the error on the collateral source rule was harmless rather than prejudicial.

Monday, October 25, 2021

Incarcerated persons have access to information in Massachusetts law, court confirms, but not in all states

Image by Ichigo121212 from Pixabay
A man imprisoned for murder has a right of access to public records no less than anyone else, the Massachusetts Appeals Court held in the summer.

Nine years ago, Adam Bradley was co-perpetrator of a home invasion in Billerica, Massachusetts, northwest of Boston, in which 22-year-old resident Quintin Koehler was shot and killed.  The crime was tied to the Bloods gang, according to The Boston Globe.  In 2017, at age 32, Bradley was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to a life term.

Lately, Bradley has used the Massachusetts Public Records Law (PRL, or FOIA) to investigate his conviction by requesting police records.  He alleged in a lawsuit that the State Police records access officer (RAO) failed to respond to multiple PRL requests.

In court, the RAO resisted production under the PRL on two grounds, (1) the ongoing investigation exemption of the PRL and (2) the parallel availability of records to Bradley in criminal discovery.

The Appeals Court soundly rejected both state arguments.  On the first ground, RAO overreached by declaring the entirety of the case file within the investigation exemption.  On the second ground, the PRL operates independently of parallel access in criminal process, the court held.  The RAO anyway owed Bradley a response asserting grounds for non-production.  The state public record supervisor twice ordered the RAO to respond.

The court holding accords with state freedom-of-information norms; the most noteworthy point of the case is that an appeal was required.  As in other states' FOIA exemptions for ongoing investigations, the Massachusetts PRL requires record-by-record review, redaction for partial production when possible, and, if necessary, in camera inspection by the trial court in a legal challenge.

The problem of parallel access is somewhat more vexing, though still should not have confounded the RAO.  Some states expressly exclude active litigants from FOIA uses that might subvert judicial procedure.  But such exclusions, which are far from universal, typically do not bar post-conviction access in criminal matters, even with ongoing appeals.  The RAO in the instant case relied on regulatory language that faintly suggested discovery exclusivity, and the court properly dispelled that theory.

Parallel access questions are thornier when there are state regulatory mechanisms in play that arguably supersede state FOIA as a matter of legislative intent, especially in the area of business regulation.  For example, a statutory framework for state contracting might regulate disclosure and non-disclosure of records maintained by the contractor or submitted to the state, arguably superseding FOIA access.  Even then, the rule of statutory construction that FOIA access is to be construed liberally and FOIA exemptions to be construed narrowly usually makes FOIA a trump card.  Bradley's case presented no such wrinkle.

The case is noteworthy also for a rule that is not at play.  Massachusetts is not one of the states that has limited or simply disallowed FOIA use by prisoners.

The Arkansas Department of Corrections (DOC) lobbied successfully for an amendment to the Arkansas FOIA in 2003 to exclude incarcerated felons from the state definition of "citizen."  Access advocates, including me, managed at that time to negotiate the exclusion down to only DOC records and pro se requests, allowing attorney-representatives to make requests.  Eight years later, the exemption was amended to eliminate the DOC limitation.

It was difficult to advocate for prisoner access.  Incarcerated felons are not a popular constituency and don't vote.  And to be fair to state officials, many dilatory and hardly comprehensible requests emanate from prisons and tie up public resources with no clear public benefit.  At the same time, of course, persons deprived of liberty are susceptible to human rights abuses for which accountability is notoriously elusive.  Michigan public radio in 2016 explored the problem of prisoner civil rights in the absence of access to information in that state's law.

The Massachusetts case is Bradley v. Records Access Officer, No. 20-P-419 (Mass. App. Ct. 2021).  Justice Gregory I. Massing authored the opinion for a unanimous panel also comprising Justices Henry and Ditkoff.  Before appointment to the bench in 2014, Justice Massing served as executive director of the Rappaport Center for Law and Public Service, and previously as general counsel for the state's Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.

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 CancĂșn 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.