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 assault. Show all posts
Showing posts with label assault. Show all posts

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Plaintiff verdict upheld for IIED, hostile environment upon shocking attorney maltreatment of employee

The Massachusetts Appeals Court today upheld a verdict against a lawyer for shocking maltreatment of an employee.

mohamed_hassan (pixabay.com)
The employee, a Hispanic woman, was a clerical worker with responsibilities well into the paralegal vein.  She had worked in the attorney's office for about three years when she quit and sued for intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED), hostile-work-environment sexual harassment, and constructive discharge.  Finding the defendant attorney liable, the jury awarded $20,000 on the IIED claim, $20,000 on the sexual harassment claim, and $150,000 in punitive damages.

Collaterally, plaintiff's husband was found liable in assault, for which defendant was awarded $1,000, and was held responsible for illegal wiretapping.

The Appeals Court affirmed plaintiff's verdict.  Application of law in the case was routine.  The court upheld the verdict as against defendant's erroneous assertions (1) that worker's compensation superseded IIED; (2) that the jury had doubled up on its calculation of damages; (3) that the jury was misinstructed on punitive damages; (4) that evidence of defendant's losses was improperly excluded; (5) that the evidence failed to support the jury's findings of causation and damages; and (6) that plaintiff evidence not produced in discovery was admitted at trial without sufficient remediation.

None of that is why I comment on the case here.  Rather, I want to republish the court's recitation of the facts, because they constitute a shocking portrait of a workplace that no person should have to endure for one day, much less three years.  Please keep in mind that the defendant here is a member of the bar.  And be warned that this text is not suitable for kids. 

Viewing the evidence with respect to the counts of the plaintiff's complaint for which the defendant was found liable, in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the jury could have found as follows. The plaintiff was employed as a legal assistant at the law office of defendant, an attorney with a solo practice in Essex County. When she began working there in 2012, the plaintiff was the defendant's sole employee, but the defendant expanded his staff after hiring her.

The plaintiff's duties evolved over her years of working in the office, from answering the office telephones, handling the mail, and scheduling meetings, to working on interrogatories, doing legal research, and discussing client settlements. The plaintiff's desk was in the reception area of the office, across from the defendant's office. When the defendant was in the office, he worked directly with the plaintiff as her direct supervisor.

The plaintiff's complaint alleged, and the jury could have found, that over the course of several years the defendant made numerous comments and engaged in repeated behaviors that constituted tortious misconduct. This conduct occurred at the defendant's office, in the course of the plaintiff's employment. The defendant verbally attacked the plaintiff, calling her stupid and a moron. The plaintiff's coworkers testified that the defendant often belittled the plaintiff in the office, shouting uncontrollably at her and screaming in her face. When she tried to defend herself, he would yell at her to shut up and continue to scream at her. The defendant's screams could be heard even in offices on the floor above the defendant's office. When she was not present, and the defendant was angry with her, he would describe the plaintiff as a bitch, a slut, or a whore. He would also say she was crazy. There was a jar kept in the office into which the defendant would place money each time he called the plaintiff stupid.

Much of this misconduct related to the plaintiff's gender and race. The defendant told the plaintiff that men were intelligent while women were stupid; men were "superior" to women. He instructed the plaintiff to clean up after him in the office, including the mess left behind after his meals, because "that was women's work." The defendant also made comments about the plaintiff's and other female employees' appearances at work. He referred to one female employee as "Miss Dominican Republic." The defendant, at times without prior permission, photographed the plaintiff and her female coworker for the purpose of showing his friends "that I have nice girls here at the office." The plaintiff and another employee testified that the defendant would stand close behind the plaintiff while she was at her desk and look at her cleavage.  When she asked him to stop staring at her breasts, he responded that he could not help it and that she should wear other clothes to work. The plaintiff was also instructed to pick up condoms and lubricant for the defendant when she ran errands for him. The defendant would have the plaintiff go through his e-mails in the office, including pornographic advertisements; he once sent a pornographic e-mail to the plaintiff's daughter.

In explicit detail, the defendant would describe his sexual encounters to the plaintiff at the office.  The defendant described himself to the plaintiff as "always horny," asked her to comment on his girlfriend's breasts, and repeatedly described sex with his girlfriend to the plaintiff. He recounted a trip to the Dominican Republic in which he said his hotel room "came with [a] girl" and that "for $20 he got full service. Blow job and everything."  He described women in the Dominican Republic as "a bargain." He frequently bragged to the plaintiff of a trip to the Philippines in which he claimed he had sex with "cheap" young girls. When she asked him to stop, he ignored her or told her that she had to listen to this commentary because he paid her.

In speaking to the plaintiff, a Hispanic woman, the defendant made numerous racist remarks to her about African-American and Hispanic people. He would refer to his Hispanic clients as "drug dealers" and say that African-Americans were "stupid" and white people were superior. She testified that he used a number of racial slurs, referring to his Hispanic clients as "F-ing Spic[s]" and "calling [black] people n[word*]." When she asked him to stop making such comments, he disregarded her or told her to shut up and listen to him because he was her boss. The plaintiff testified that the defendant also made her sit with him and read his e-mails consisting of racist comments and "jokes" about black and Hispanic people. He often made fun of her accent and told her that her brown eyes were "dirty" compared to his "superior" blue eyes, which were "beautiful."

The plaintiff ultimately left the defendant's employ on October 22, 2015, after an incident with the defendant in the office. The defendant had been yelling at the plaintiff for failing to follow his instructions, and when she tried to explain what she had done, he repeatedly screamed at her to shut up. She informed the defendant that she was not feeling well and needed to go home, and the defendant told her, "Get the hell out of my office. Don't ever come back if you don't say sorry to me." The plaintiff left without the intention of returning, and her employment with the defendant ended.

....

After the plaintiff left the defendant's office, her husband went to the office himself to confront the defendant about his treatment of the plaintiff. After turning on his cell phone camera to record this encounter and placing the cell phone in his shirt pocket, the husband entered the office and moved toward the defendant, who was sitting at the front conference table talking on his cell phone. The husband sat down at the conference table near the defendant and told the defendant repeatedly to put his cell phone away.  The defendant and the plaintiff's husband began to argue at increasing volume about whether the defendant would put the cell phone away, and the husband told the defendant to listen to him. The defendant, feeling threatened, retreated to his office and closed the door, repeatedly telling the husband to leave. The husband opened the defendant's office door, and the defendant slammed it shut and called the police.

*All redactions in court opinion, except this one, which is mine.

These frightening facts embody the IIED rule of "utterly intolerable in a civilized society."  In our cancel culture, so replete with persons eager to be offended and to castigate their offenders with the force of law, we would be well advised to remember people who are truly and terribly victimized.  Watering down our civil rights law by giving eggshell plaintiffs ready access to administrative remedies, in disregard of the rights of respondents, is likely to result in over-corrective reforms that allow perpetrators of this despicable magnitude to escape accountability.

The case is Spagnuolo v. Holzberg, No. 19-P-778 (Mass. App. Ct. Oct. 21, 2020).  The opinion was authored by Justice Peter J. Rubin for a panel also comprising Justices Milkey and Massing.

Monday, September 21, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Court explained,

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

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

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

Monday, August 31, 2020

Horrors at Oak Ridge Psychiatric amounted to assault, battery, but lacked intent for IIED, Ontario court rules

From 1963 to 1988, patients involuntarily committed to the maximum-security Oak Ridge Mental Health Centre at Penetanguishene, Ontario, were subject to barbaric experimentation.  (From CBC (2016), above.) Treatments included LSD, other mind-altering drugs, and corporeal maltreatment, such as "the Capsule":

a soundproof, windowless, and constantly lit 8’ x 10’ room, with no furniture and an exposed toilet, where groups of patients, had their interactions monitored through closed-circuit television and a one-way mirror by patient observers outside....

Patients ... were frequently restrained or strapped to each other, and were most often injected with DDT drugs to lower their inhibitions. They were often paired so that patients diagnosed with schizophrenia experiencing a chaotic range of emotions where placed together with patients with antisocial personality disorders....

So egregious were the methods employed at Oak Ridge that 28 former patients now suing the Crown could have made out a fair case for medical negligence.  But the Ontario court was willing to find intentional torts, assault and battery, instead.  Notwithstanding lawful involuntary commitment and seeming express consent to treatment procured from patients, the extreme nature of the medical experimentation rendered the patients' informed consent impossible, the Ontario Superior Court ruled in June.

At the same time, the patients could not prove intentional infliction of emotional distress, for want of "double-duty intent" (my words); that is, although medical staff inflicted emotional distress intentionally in the short term, and notwithstanding the lasting psychological trauma that resulted, the defendants, however misguided, acted with the greater goal, or intent, of making the patients well.

Hat tip to Private Law Theory, which reported an examination of the case against an historical analysis of battery in Canadian common law by Omar Ha-Redeye, executive director of the Durham Community Legal Clinic in Oshawa, Ontario.

The case is Barker v. Barker, 2020 ONSC 3746 (CanLII) (Ont. Super. Ct. June 25, 2020) (Canada).

Watch and read more about Oak Ridge with Canadian Broadcasting (2016) (above) and in other sources.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Conditions of criminal pretrial release shouldn't abate civil abuse prevention order, Mass. court rules

In a decision today, the Massachusetts Appeals Court reversed and remanded a trial judge's refusal to extend an abuse prevention order.

The order meant to protect a woman who had testified to physical abuse by her husband, who blamed her for the premature birth of their daughter.  According to testimony, "[a]s she tried to nurse the baby, the defendant painfully grabbed at her breast"; he shoved the woman; he threatened her and the baby; and he called the woman "'a horrible mother because [she] wasn't fat enough and wasn't eating enough.'"  The man was charged with (criminal) assault and battery.

The trial judge refused to extend the abuse prevention order because he improperly considered conditions of pretrial release and involvement of the Department of Children and Families as duplicative of the order.  The court explained:

Conditions of pretrial release are within a judge's broad discretion, and the civilian victim has no right to be heard on the matter. Furthermore, conditions of pretrial release are terminated automatically when the criminal case is disposed.

For these reasons, conditions of pretrial release, even if they encompass the same conditions as an abuse prevention order, are no substitute for an abuse prevention order. The same reasoning applies to DCF involvement. DCF has no power to incarcerate a person for engaging in abuse of a household or family member. At most, DCF can take custody of a child and refer the matter to law enforcement....

Rather than rely on these factors, a judge should simply determine whether the plaintiff has shown "a reasonable fear of imminent serious physical harm[,]" ... or whether the plaintiff has "suffered physical abuse" or "past sexual abuse" and "an order [i]s necessary to protect her from the impact of that abuse." [Citations omitted.]

The ruling thus marks the significant differences among civil, criminal, and administrative processes, each with its separate aims, even when all three are implicated in a case of domestic violence.

The case is Vera V. v. Seymour S., No. 19-P-1674 (Mass. App. Ct. Aug. 28, 2020).  Justice Joseph M. Ditkoff wrote the opinion for himself, Justice Gregory I. Massing, and Justice Sookyoung Shin.

(U.S. Air Force graphic by Staff Sgt. Michael Means.)

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Please Stand Behind the White Line: Harassment and free speech on the byway



A decision yesterday from the Massachusetts Appeals Court, V.J. v. N.J., 2017 Mass. App. LEXIS 6 (Mass. App. Ct. Jan. 30, 2017) (Mass.gov (temporary); Lexis with registration) pitted civil harassment against free speech in the case of a transit-service bus driver who felt threatened by a passenger’s unwanted advances and irate reaction to being rebuffed.  The court, per Justice William Meade, affirmed extension of a civil protection order.  Justice James Milkey dissented.  Meade is a former ADA and AAG.  Milkey is a former environmental lawyer who litigated on behalf of the Commonwealth to compel the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse gases.

The facts engender sympathy for the position of the plaintiff, a bus driver for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA).  The defendant passenger came on to her a number of times, and she rebuffed his advances.  She ultimately complained to her supervisor upon an incident when the defendant “approached her from behind and grabbed her across her chest in a ‘bear hug,’” while the plaintiff was in full MBTA uniform.  When plaintiff thereafter spurned a tendered apology and eschewed further communication, defendant became verbally abusive, hurling derogatory epithets, “‘fat bitch’” and “‘ghetto bitch.’”  He was removed by police. 

Plaintiff thereafter for a time denied defendant access to the bus.  In a subsequent encounter, defendant did board the bus and was again removed by police after he “went on a rant about the impropriety of his being denied access,” told plaintiff “he would be there every day to inconvenience her,” and refused to leave the bus unless plaintiff called police.

Civil harassment has a curious history in U.S. law and an unsettled relationship with the freedom of speech.  Statutes of various kinds are commonplace in the states.  They accord with popular wisdom about what’s acceptable and what’s not in ordinary social interaction.  

Considering that the United States is a common law jurisdiction, though, harassment stands out as an example of the common law’s sometimes failure to change with the times.  Statutory harassment as an intentional tort might incorporate separate instances of common law assault, battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED), or invasion of privacy, but does not have to.  In some models, harassment can occur without the imminence of contact that assault requires and without the physical contact that battery requires.  Harassment might be accomplished through invasion of privacy—disclosure, intrusion, even misappropriation—but might not be. 

Instead, harassment statutes usually articulate a unique theory of intentional tort, invariably characterized by repetition.  The common law’s notorious insensitivity to gender inequality, both historic and extant, probably has a lot to do with its failure to evolve a response to harassment as a social problem, considering that women are disproportionately victimized.

Especially when harassment is not also assault or battery, it usually is accomplished by expression, written or verbal, so the freedom of speech is implicated.  The facial constitutionality of criminal and civil prohibitions on harassment is usually taken for granted.  But why that should be so is not so plain.

Harassment didn’t make the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic list of “non-speech” or unprotected speech categories in First Amendment law, alongside the likes of obscenity, “fighting words,” threats, and incitements to violence.  A free speech absolutist might well argue that harassment prohibitions, however fashionable, are, or should be, unconstitutional.  The opposite position is to be permissive of new-category recognition and carve out a harassment exception, invoking the muse of “I know it when I see it.”  

A typical and nuanced approach tries to jam harassment into existing non-speech categories, especially fighting words or “true threat” doctrine.  The fighting-words fit requires a touch of re-engineering, as the category usually requires the same imminence that assault does.  True threat has some more flexibility to it, owing to its relatively modest accretion of definitive case law to date.  But the notion of “threat” still seems to say something about urgency that the no-less-offensive, persistent grating of harassment might not quite equal.

By statute, a Massachusetts civil protection order requires harassment to be expressed in three instances.  Indeed, repetition is usually the linchpin that eases a court’s conscience in letting harassment slide under the First Amendment radar.  Massachusetts courts look for three malicious acts, “‘characterized by cruelty, hostility or revenge,’” and producing in sum, “‘fear, intimidation, abuse or damage to property.’”  This approach is thought to thread the “true threat” needle to the First Amendment’s satisfaction.

Manifesting the court’s sensitivity to the wakefulness of the free speech watchdog, repetition became precisely the sticking point between majority and dissent in V.J. v. N.J.  Justice Milkey disputed the viability of the third encounter between plaintiff and defendant as sufficient to support the three encounters required to extend the protection order.  Recall that the defendant said he would not leave the bus unless plaintiff summoned police.  Acknowledging a close question, the majority reasoned its way from intransigence to physical threat:


Although he did not directly threaten the plaintiff with physical violence, he nonetheless threatened that he would continue confronting her in this same manner, i.e., ranting about being denied access, and that she would need continuous police intervention to remove him from the bus. It was his stated goal that on a daily basis he would inconvenience her as she had him. This suffices to demonstrate the defendant’s malicious intent, characterized by cruelty, hostility, or revenge, to intimidate the plaintiff and to place her in fear of physical harm.


Justice Milkey disagreed.  A police summons might have threatened a physical encounter with police, he reasoned, but not with plaintiff.  The pledge to return daily was a threat of annoyance, not violence.  Quoting the U.S. Supreme Court in Virginia v. Black (2003), Milkey defined a “true threat” as “a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual.”  Milkey found no physicality in the defendant’s expression vis-à-vis the plaintiff.  Moreover, Milkey indulged the defendant’s theory that his expression constituted protest of his exclusion from the bus by a public official, in essence, a form of political expression, not “motivated by ‘cruelty, hostility, or revenge.’”

At first blush, the dissent seems hyper-technical and cringeworthily insensitive to what this bus driver had to endure—doubtless amid the myriad daily struggles of the job.  But one must appreciate that Milkey was motivated by a defense of free speech.  He did not condone the defendant’s conduct, and he expressly disavowed opinion on the propriety of the defendant’s exclusion from the bus.  Myself, I am inclined to succumb to the overwhelming social appeal of the plaintiff’s position in this case.  But I think it fair to say that dissenting required a measure of intellectual courage.