Showing posts with label equity. Show all posts
Showing posts with label equity. Show all posts

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Court: Family of elder-care resident may use rare 'bill for discovery' to investigate how broken foot occurred

In an unusual case last week, the Massachusetts Appeals Court allowed a "bill for discovery" to proceed despite its arguable incompatibility with rules of civil procedure.

Mary T. Atchue, an elderly resident in an assisted living facility in Worcester, Massachusetts, sustained a broken foot while being moved.  In an action maintained by her family since her death, Atchue filed a "complaint for discovery," based in equity.

The court held that the complaint could proceed, despite objection from defendant Benchmark Senior Living, LLC, that the claim would not be allowed by the state rule of civil procedure for pre-litigation discovery.  Discovery processes specified by statute and rule supersede the historic bill for discovery in equity insofar as they pertain, the court reasoned, but the bill remains available to supplement modern practice where it does not pertain.

The viability of a bill for discovery is dependent on the viability of the underlying potential claim in litigation, the court further held.  Atchue has a viable theory on tolling the statute of limitations, and her claims survive her death under the state survival statute.  So a bill for discovery remains available.

I don't usually dig into civil procedure cases, but this one caught my eye because of the unusual disposition in pre-litigation discovery.  I've written with approval about the use of the access to information law, or freedom of information act, in South Africa having been used as a pre-litigation discovery device, specifically, in fact, for a potential plaintiff to investigate the possibility of negligence in healthcare services.

Shaped by the experience of apartheid, the South African law, and comparable laws elsewhere in Africa modeled on it, allow access to information in the private sector when the complainant can demonstrate sufficient need grounded in civil rights.

The court vacated dismissal and remanded.

The case is Atchue v. Benchmark Senior Living LLC, No. 19-P-125 (Mass. App. Ct. Oct. 5, 2020).  Justice Vickie L. Henry wrote the opinion for a panel that also comprised Justices Rubin and Wolohojian.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

U.S. female footballers suffer slide tackle in equal pay match: Understanding the summary judgment decision

U.S. co-captain Alex Morgan is the first named plaintiff.
(Photo by Jamie Smed CC BY 2.0.)
The women of U.S. Soccer suffered a major setback Friday with an adverse court decision (e.g., N.Y. Times).

The U.S. District Court in Los Angeles awarded partial summary judgment to defendant U.S. Soccer, rejecting the plaintiffs' core claim in the case, pay discrimination against the U.S. women's national team (USWNT) relative to the men's national team (USMNT).   In the complaint filed in March 2019, USWNT players claimed violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, as amended by the Equal Pay Act of 1963, and of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended.

The USWNT always faced an uphill battle on the numbers.  To generalize, the women could not deny, they were paid more than the men, dollar to dollar.  The devil lies in what "more" is.

The USWNT has been fantastically successful.  The team has won the World Cup of women's soccer four times, most recently in 2019 in France (I saw a match from a Paris Fan Zone, and my daughter went to one) and won the Olympic gold four times.  The squad has been a global force to be reckoned with since its inception in the 1980s.  Moreover, many a football fan, such as myself, will tell you that the women's talent is a marvel to behold on the pitch, the United States having substantially defined the women's game for the world.

We were in France for World Cup 2019. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.)
Direct comparison between women's and men's play is inevitably uneven, because the style of play in the women's game is different from in the men's, apples and oranges.  And worldwide, many soccer-power nations have failed to invest in developing female talent, so any given head-to-head is not necessarily taking place on a level playing field.  Nevertheless, by many a worthwhile measure, including technical proficiency, the women indisputably are better than the men—who failed even to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

The women's superiority was exactly their problem in the equal-pay litigation.  A plaintiff bears the burden of making out a prime facie case of pay disparity.  Compensation in professional soccer in the United States is mostly based on the principle of pay for performance.  The women played more than the men and achieved more than the men, so they were paid more.  Their burden, then, was to show, in essence, that their pay rate was relatively lower than the men's.

We win, 2019.  (Photo by Howcheng CC BY-SA 4.0.)
U.S. civil rights law is, thankfully, sufficiently sophisticated to account for disparity based on pay rate.  As U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner explained in the instant case, quoting precedent, it can't be that "an employer who pays a woman $10 per hour and a man $20 per hour would not violate the EPA ... as long as the woman negated the obvious disparity by working twice as many hours."  However, the parties disagreed about how to calculate rate so as to compare apples to apples.

Hardening defenses on their polar positions, each side posited a favorable calculation.  Plaintiffs urged the court to look at women's compensation through the lens of the men's contract.  If the women had won the World Cup, etc., under the men's contract, they would have been far more richly rewarded.  Defendant U.S. Soccer urged the court to look at the numbers in gross.  The women simply make more than the men, and even though the women play more matches, they make more than the men on a per match basis, too.

Both positions are counterarguable.  The women's and men's contracts are both the result of collective bargaining, and a lot goes into a bargaining contract besides its raw numbers.  Simply pumping the women's performance statistics through the men's contract formula ignores the broader context of each contract, or collective bargaining agreement (CBA), and the inter-dependency of its compensation formula with other bargained-for terms: like squeezing an apple with an orange juicer.

New York ticker-tape parade for the USWNT, 2015
At the same time, the women's argument in converse challenges the defendant's attempt to aggregate numbers.  Maybe the women are paid more per match because they are better soccer players, which the evidence supports.  That doesn't mean that they are paid so much more per match relative to the disparity in talent and achievement between the women and the men.  To analogize, oranges might cost more than apples because oranges taste twice as good.  But an orange for $1.20 is still a bargain relative to an apple for a dollar.

The court's recitation of the women's collective bargaining process is painstaking, packing in plenty of detail for those who want it.  In sum, considering that the plaintiffs bear the burden to make out a prima facie case of discrimination, the court found the defendant's position more persuasive.  The contractual context was really the clincher.  Judge Klausner wrote (footnotes omitted):
This history of negotiations between the parties demonstrates that the WNT rejected an offer to be paid under the same pay-to-play structure as the MNT, and that the WNT was willing to forgo higher bonuses for other benefits, such as greater base compensation and the guarantee of a higher number of contracted players. Accordingly, Plaintiffs cannot now retroactively deem their CBA worse than the MNT CBA by reference to what they would have made had they been paid under the MNT's pay-to-play structure when they themselves rejected such a structure. This method of comparison not only fails to account for the choices made during collective bargaining, it also ignores the economic value of the "insurance" that WNT players receive under their CBA. 
[¶] One of the defining features of the WNT CBA is its guarantee that players will be compensated regardless of whether they play a match or not. This stands in stark contrast to the MNT CBA, under which players are only compensated if they are called into camp to play and then participate in a match. ... [T]here is indisputably economic value to this type of "fixed pay" contract, as compared to a "performance pay" contract.  Merely comparing what WNT players received under their own CBA with what they would have received under the MNT CBA discounts the value that the team placed on the guaranteed benefits they receive under their agreement, which they opted for at the expense of higher performance-based bonuses.
There are problems with the court's approach, including prominently that there are systemically discriminatory reasons that the women elected for the terms they did.  Many male players are able to make a living as athletes, so playing for the national team is a bonus.  Women's soccer meanwhile has faltered as a nationwide business model, for arguable reasons that must include the ingrained underdevelopment of women's athletics.  That makes it harder for a woman than for a man to play at the national level, even if the two squads have the same number of seats.

USWNT selfie with the President, 2015 (White House photo)
Consider that a man who plays professional soccer is incidentally training for the U.S. national team while he's at work.  And his day job gives him time off, sometimes months, to play for the national team.  A woman with a collateral occupation that is not professional soccer cannot invest the time and energy in the physical training and playing time required to be a globally competitive athlete.  Of course, some women do find work in professional soccer, but far fewer than men who do.  Characteristically, the USWNT's star players bargained for better job security not just for themselves, but to support their teammates.  And that's not all selflessness; their investment in part explains the ongoing developmental success of the USWNT over athletic generations.

That doesn't mean Klausner is wrong on the law.  The facts of the case show something we already know, which is that historically rooted discrimination can persist well beyond demonstrable intention, is exceptionally resistant to eradication, and is more susceptible to redress socially and politically than judicially.  There are good reasons why the standard to establish a civil rights violation of federal law is high.  Failure to surmount that bar in court does not establish that the plaintiff is right or wrong as a social or moral matter.

Federal courthouse in Los Angeles (Photo by Los Angeles CC BY-SA 3.0)
There were other claims in the case, and the plaintiffs' cause is not formally over, even notwithstanding appeal.  The court's treatment of the plaintiffs' claim of discrimination in turf is a worthwhile read.  Female footballers often play on artificial and unstable surfaces, resulting in physical injury and career wear and tear, while the USMNT always plays on grass.  Despite the disparity in fact, the plaintiffs were unable to prove the discriminatory motive, or intent, that civil rights law requires.

The women's case persists upon some ancillary claims related to fringe benefits, such as better hotels and more frequent charter flights for the men's team than for the women's.  There might not be enough there for the women to want to keep the litigation going.  Plaintiffs probably will ask Judge Klausner to allow interlocutory appeal to the Ninth Circuit directly from this partial summary judgment, and I expect he will.

The case is Morgan v. U.S. Soccer Federation, No. 2:19-cv-01717 (C.D. Cal. May 1, 2020).  Court Listener has the key documents.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Amid pandemic, ballot access restrictions yield to right to run for office, state supreme court rules

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, political candidates will have to produce only half the usual number of voter signatures to see their names on the state primary ballot, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled Friday.  One justice in concurrence chastised the Massachusetts government for dropping the ball in technology to respond to the crisis.

Massachusetts primary ballots in 2016 (GPA Photo Archive CC BY-SA 2.0)
A primary election in the United States occurs at the state level before the nationwide Election Day in early November.  Voters in a primary election choose which candidates from each party will qualify for the final ballot on Election Day.  The Commonwealth of Massachusetts held its primary election for the U.S. Presidency on March 3; the primary election for state candidates to state and federal offices is set for September 1.  Candidates will vie for a U.S. Senate seat, nine U.S. House seats, 40 state senate seats, and 160 state house seats.  Some states with earlier scheduled elections postponed their primaries.  For example, Rhode Island postponed its same-day presidential and state primary election from April 28 to June 2.  The later timetable in Massachusetts leaves no room for postponement if officials are to prepare ballots timely for Election Day.

Declared on March 10, a state of emergency arose in Massachusetts at a crucial time for political candidates to collect signatures to qualify for ballots in the state primary election.  Party candidates were expected to submit signatures to state officials by April 28, for state offices, and by May 5, for federal offices.  The requisite number of signatures ranges from 150, for a state house seat, to 10,000, for a U.S. Senate seat.  Procured signatures in Massachusetts must be “wet,” that is, given live, in ink; there is not yet a legal process to collect, nor a technical capacity to certify, electronic signatures.

Customers line up at social distance to enter my local grocery store.
Photo in Barrington, R.I., Apr. 5, 2020, by RJ Peltz-Steele CC BY-SA 4.0.
Naturally the coronavirus lockdown has complicated the collection of wet signatures.  Candidates and their supporters ordinarily canvass voters door to door and at places where people congregate, such as shopping malls.  Social distancing restrictions came into effect just after the halfway point in the time window for collecting signatures.  Candidates sought relief from the executive and legislative branches of Massachusetts government.  Executive election officials said they were powerless to change statutory deadlines, and bills to relax signature requirements stalled in the legislature.  I note, it’s hardly in the interest of incumbents and their well-oiled politicking machines to facilitate the raising up of rivals.

Written or not, the right to seek representative office must be, to some degree, a civil, or human, right in a democracy.  In Massachusetts, the right is written.  Article 9 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights states, “All elections ought to be free; and all the inhabitants of this commonwealth, having such qualifications as they shall establish by their frame of government, have an equal right to elect officers, and to be elected, for public employments.”

Article 9 of the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution
(Massachusetts Historical Society Collection)
The provision dates, unaltered, to the original 1780 Massachusetts Constitution (Papers of John Adams, vol. 8) and gave candidates now seeking access to the Massachusetts primary a plain hook to plead for judicial intervention.  On April 8, three representative plaintiffs, including two Democrats and one Republican, two seeking federal office and one seeking state office, filed an emergency petition for declaratory relief.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has long recognized that the state constitutional right to run for office may confer judicial protection against overreaching legislative or executive restrictions on access to the ballot.  The provision was used to support women’s suffrage in 1922, if only after the 19th Amendment (1920).  The Court rejected a ballot access challenge to statute by Libertarian candidates in 2012; however, in dictum the Court reiterated its competence to adjudicate an article 9 claim and even cited article 9 in tandem with the inherent judicial power, as articulated in the landmark same-sex marriage decision in 2003, to extend Massachusetts civil rights beyond the scope of the U.S. Constitution.  Notwithstanding the power of judicial review, the Court’s experience in examining ballot access law under article 9 has before now resulted entirely in the approval of “reasonable” or “legitimate” qualifications for office.

Structurally, the Massachusetts Constitution, like the U.S. Constitution, disfavors judicial intervention in the electoral process.  “As a general matter, the principle of separation of powers … prevents the ‘judiciary [from] substituting its notions of correct policy for that of a popularly elected Legislature,’” the Court wrote in the instant case, quoting precedent.  The plaintiffs’ challenge here called for “policy judgments that, in ordinary times would be best left to the Legislature.”

"Signing a Petition" by Elizabeth Jenkins CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Yet, the Court wrote, “[n]o fair-minded person can dispute that the fundamental right to run for elective office has been unconstitutionally burdened or interfered with by the need to obtain the required ‘wet’ signatures in the midst of this pandemic.”  Had the legislature passed a law similarly burdening ballot access in the absence of the pandemic, the Court reasoned, surely it would be ripe for judicial review under article 9.  Thus, “where fundamental constitutional rights are violated, and where the Legislature fails to remedy the constitutional deficiencies after having had the opportunity to do so, and where an aggrieved litigant files suit seeking remedial relief for the constitutional violation, the judiciary must provide such a remedy.”

The Court struggled with the appropriate level of judicial scrutiny, an issue that similarly has confounded the U.S. Supreme Court in its case law over free speech and campaign finance regulation.  U.S. constitutional law tends to approach civil rights problems from a formalist framework of tiered judicial scrutiny, its intensity ranging from zero, or minimal “rational basis” analysis, to presumptive unconstitutionality and stringent “strict scrutiny.”  This framework at first glance contrasts with the much more flexible European approach that functionalizes construction of “necessary in a democratic society,” though critics fairly allege that the U.S. Supreme Court’s tiered scrutiny has flexed functionally in application.

"Magnifying Glass" by Tall Chris CC BY 2.0
Like the U.S. Supreme Court, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has employed the language of both strict scrutiny and rational, or “legitimate” basis, in article 9 jurisprudence.  The Court explained: “When we evaluate the constitutionality of a restriction on access to the ballot, we apply a ‘sliding scale approach, … through which [we] weigh the character and magnitude of the burden the State’s rule imposes on the plaintiffs’ rights against the interests the State contends justify that burden, and consider the extent to which the State’s concerns make the burden necessary.’”  In other words, the degree of scrutiny is elevated as a function of the degree of burden.  Critics such as me contend that setting the appropriate degree of scrutiny only after purporting to observe the degree of burden invites the tail to wag the dog.  But that’s not important just now.  The Court found the burden here to be high enough, whatever language might be used to describe it, to demand strict scrutiny.

Though signature requirements might be modest and legitimate burdens on ballot access in the best of times, the Court opined that the signature requirements are excessively burdensome amid the present pandemic.  To reach that conclusion, the Court equated evolving social context with emergency electoral context:
[A]s we have recognized, statutory requirements that were once considered constitutionally permissible may later be found to interfere significantly with a fundamental right as societal conditions and technology change [indirectly citing the aforementioned same-sex marriage case]…. And similarly, statutory requirements that in ordinary times impose only modest burdens on prospective candidates for public office may significantly interfere with the fundamental right to run for political office in a time of pandemic.
Observers may opine whether, or when, that equation holds.  Though maybe not surprising when articulated by a progressive state court, the declaration simultaneously authorizes judicial aggrandizement in the expansion of human rights relative to time and in the constriction of human rights relative to exigency.  Potential implications abound, for example, in reconciling personal privacy with free speech, or climate change mitigation with free markets. For present purposes, the Court concluded that the signature requirements as applied could not withstand strict scrutiny.

By the time it reached remedy, the Court had painted itself into a corner.  The existing signature regime could not stand, yet the executive and the legislature refuse to solve the problem.  Plaintiffs invited the Court to simply void the signature requirement on this go-around.  But the state cried caution, fairly fearing that throwing open the doors of ballot access would result in incomprehensible ballot chaos for voters.  I would be inclined to find the state’s position paternalistic, but I remember hanging chads.

By Maklay62 at Pixabay
Admittedly loath to parse numbers, the Court invoked a Solomonic solution.  Observing that the emergency arose at about the halfway point of signature collection, the Court cut signature requirements by 50%.  The state had suggested that the requirement be cut only for offices requiring 1,000 or more signatures, presumably because of the chaos-will-reign concern, not the incumbency-will-be-threatened concern.  The bills stalled in the legislature would have taken that approach, too, reducing signatures from whatever number over 1,000 by half or two-thirds.  But the Court found itself without a sufficient basis to adopt the 1,000-signature cut-off, so applied the 50% rule across the board.

The Court issued two further declarations of equitable relief.  It extended the deadlines for candidates to submit signatures for state certification from April 28 to May 5, for state offices, and from May 5 to June 2, for federal offices, taking into account the pleadings of the state as to the minimal time needed to prepare ballots.  Second, the Court ordered state election officials to find a way to accept and certify electronic rather than wet signatures.  These additional measures the Court calculated in recognition of the difficulty, but not impossibility, of continuing to collect voter signatures during the lockdown.

Justice Kafker (Mass.gov)
Only one judge wrote a separate opinion.  In concurrence, Associate Justice Scott L. Kafker chastised the state for falling behind the curve in electoral technology:
In this “high tech” era, and in the midst of a global pandemic that severely restricts close personal contact, the failure to be able to solve manageable technological problems on the eve of an election is confounding and distressing. At a time when we need to be fundamentally rethinking what must be done in person and what can instead be done electronically, our electoral process seems dangerously unequipped to adapt to a new paradigm.
Justice Kafker pointed with approval to the electronic voter registration system adopted in Arizona.  The Court opinion in a footnote had pointed to Arizona similarly, as well as to technological adaptations in electoral process in New Jersey and Florida in response to the pandemic.

Justice Kafker concluded:
I feel compelled to emphasize that those responsible for our election process must have the necessary tools to quickly adapt to the current pandemic and the future crises to follow. Absent such technological adaptability, our elections will be imperiled and our election laws may themselves have to be rewritten in the midst of a crisis, as was done here. That is an invitation to conflict and confusion that must be avoided.
Voters line up in Boxborough, Mass., in the 2016 primary.
To read between those lines an entreaty to the legislature for funding would not, I think, be too speculative.  Lawyers and judges especially are aware of how badly Massachusetts has lagged behind other states in digitizing legal practice and public access to court records.

It would not be a stretch moreover to suppose that Justice Kafker was especially pained to meddle with the specific numeric qualifications for ballot access.  He was appointed to the Supreme Judicial Court in 2017 by Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican.  In the course of his career, Justice Kafker served as deputy legal counsel to Governor Bill Weld.  A past Libertarian candidate for Vice President and outsider Republican candidate for President, Weld was challenging President Donald Trump for the 2020 Republican nomination until Weld suspended his campaign on March 18. Republicans identify with formalism in constitutional interpretation, and Libertarians identify with judicial restraint in rule making, if also, practically, with relaxation of ballot access restrictions.

At the same time, Justice Kafker’s conclusion might readily be understood to voice widespread American anxiety over electoral integrity in general, especially in the crosscurrents of equivocal Washington reaction to Russian tampering.

The case is Goldstein v. Secretary of the Commonwealth, No. SJC-12931 (Mass. Apr. 17, 2020).  Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants authored the unanimous opinion.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Claim to Facebook fortune dismissed in Mass. appeal

The Massachusetts Court of Appeals Wednesday affirmed dismissal in tort, contract, and equity claims by a software developer against principals behind Facebook-predecessor company ConnectU.

The Winklevosses (CC BY-SA 2.0 cellanr)
Wayne Chang (commencement address at UMass Amherst in 2016) alleged that he was entitled to a some portion of the $65m in cash and stock received by ConnectU's twin brothers and "bitcoin billionaires" Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss in settlement with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.  That mediated settlement ended litigation in California and Massachusetts in 2008; Chang initiated the instant action in 2009.  Bringing the case to a close at last, the Massachusetts Appeals Court agreed with the lower court that Chang had severed business ties with the Winklevosses before they entered settlement negotiations with Zuckerberg.  The court also affirmed award to the Winklevosses of $30,000 in costs.

The case is Chang v. Winklevoss, No. AC 18-P-329 (Mass. Ct. App. Apr. 24, 2019).