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 misrepresentation. Show all posts
Showing posts with label misrepresentation. Show all posts

Thursday, January 27, 2022

Mass. high court affirms 'component parts doctrine' in HVAC spat, unless maker was culpable in defect

Historical interior of the William Bliss House, 25 Exeter, Back Bay in Boston,
constructed 1882-1884: today the private home of the Nemirovsky family.
Source: Historic New England. 
In a December decision, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) reaffirmed the defense-friendly "component parts doctrine" in product liability.

The case arose from a faulty HVAC system installed in plaintiff's 22,000-square-foot Boston home. Evaporator coils in the system repeatedly failed and required replacement, costing the plaintiff hundreds of thousands of dollars, and then substantially more to replace the system in its entirety.  The coils themselves were not defective, but a defect in the system's Styrofoam drain pan caused the coils to fail prematurely.  The statute of limitations precluded plaintiffs' claims based on sale of the HVAC system, but not claims based on the later sale of replacement coils.

Sensibly, the widely accepted "component parts doctrine" ordinarily relieves from liability the manufacturer of non-defective component parts.  However, the SJC explained, citing the Third Restatement, "a component manufacturer may be liable, even if the component itself is not defective, if the component manufacturer is 'substantially involved' in the integration of the component into the design of the integrated product, the integration of the component causes the integrated product to be defective, and the defect in the integrated product causes the harm."

The Superior Court erred, the SJC concluded, in not applying the general rule of the component parts doctrine.  The Superior Court had reasoned that the coil manufacturer could be liable because the coils were made specifically for integration into the defective HVAC system and had no standalone functionality.  In other words, the product failure was foreseeable to the coil manufacturer.  But there are no such exceptions to the component parts doctrine, the SJC held.  Intended integration is not the same as the "substantial involvement" contemplated by the Restatement rule.  And standalone functionality is not the test to shield a component maker from liability.

The component parts doctrine is widely accepted in the states.  There was some hand-wringing over the vitality of the doctrine in 2016 when the California Supreme Court held the doctrine inapplicable when "injury was allegedly caused directly by the [defendant's] materials themselves when used in a manner intended by the suppliers."  In that case, a metal foundry worker had developed lung disease, he alleged, as a result of fumes and dust generated by the foundry's use of the defendant's materials in manufacturing.  But it was the defendant's materials that caused the disease, even if they had been physically transformed by the foundry.  And the specific intentionality attached to the use of the materials closely resembled substantial involvement, tightening the lasso of foreseeability.  The decision hardly unsettled the component parts doctrine.

Law students should take care not to confuse the component parts doctrine with "the single integrated product rule."  That rule determines when damage to an integrated product can be said to satisfy the injury requirement of product liability.  Standalone functionality is relevant to the analysis, but not necessarily dispositive.  If a component part is intended for integration into a larger product, and a defect in the component causes damage to the larger product, but no damage beyond the larger product, then the buyer of the defective component cannot meet the injury requirement to sue in product liability.  The theory of the rule is that the buyer, anticipating the integration, should protect itself in contract and warranty, rather than depending on tort law.  The component parts doctrine rather precludes component manufacturer liability for a non-defective integrated component upon the theory that the component buyer, responsible for the integration, is in the better position to ensure the safety of the integrated product.

In the Massachusetts case, the SJC's decision vacated a $10.6m award.  The jury had awarded just under $3.4m in its verdict.  Massachusetts does not allow punitive damages at common law, but an expansive statute protecting consumers against misrepresentation, "chapter 93A," subsumes much of what would be separate product liability claims in other jurisdictions and can hit defendants with punishing awards of damage multipliers and attorney fees.  Under 93A, the trial court had awarded double damages and attorney fees against defendant Daikin North American for its "willful and knowing" misrepresentation.  Daikin NA might not be off the hook entirely, as the SJC ordered a reexamination of its culpability on remand, to disentangle product liability based on defect from product liability based on culpable misrepresentation.

The case is Nemirovsky v. Daikin North America, LLC, No. SJC-13108 (Dec. 16, 2021).  Justice Dalila Wendlandt wrote the unanimous opinion.

 Ahh, rich people problems....

Monday, October 1, 2018

The Mystery of the Student Loan Fraud, or Of In Pari Delicto, Respondeat Superior, et Cetera


A still mysterious financial fraud perpetrated on students of Merrimack College resulted in a high court ruling last week on agency law with important implications for tort liability and the equitable doctrine of in pari delicto.

Students at Merrimack College Orientation in 2015.
By Merrimack College (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Merrimack is located in North Andover, Massachusetts (where the recent gas explosions occurred).  Merrimack is a small liberal arts college founded in the Roman Catholic tradition after World War II especially to serve returning vets.  Despite the depressed market in higher education, Merrimack this fall reported a record-size freshman class and plans to join Division I athletics.

In 2014, Merrimack financial aid director Christine Mordach pleaded guilty to federal criminal fraud charges, and in 2015, she was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment and ordered to pay $1.5 million in restitution.  She had been accused of perpetrating a scheme that replaced college scholarship awards with federal loan money on the college books.  The scheme came to light when a new accounting system started to inform students of federal Perkins debts they did not know they had.

Why Mordach did what she did is the mystery.  The scheme shored up the college’s bottom line through lean times, because money paid out of college coffers in grants was replaced with borrowed dollars that students would be on the hook to pay back.  But there was no evidence that Mordach was ordered to execute the scheme.  To the contrary, she seems to have taken steps to conceal it, which she did so well that Merrimack auditor KPMG gave the college a clean bill of health while the fraud was ongoing.

That brings us to the instant civil case.  Merrimack seeks to recover against KPMG on a range of theories, including breach of contract, professional malpractice, and negligent misrepresentation, for KPMG’s failure to detect the fraud.  KPMG won dismissal in the superior court upon the doctrine of in pari delicto.  Literally Latin for “in equal fault,” in pari delicto translates as the clean hands doctrine of equity.  In tort, the doctrine prevents a tortfeasor from recovering against a co-tortfeasor or innocent party—such as a bank robber who blames a co-conspirator for his bullet wound, or the burned arsonist who would blame firefighters for too slow a rescue.  Merrimack appealed the dismissal to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC).

Being a doctrine in equity, rather than a rule, in pari delicto calls for a fact-sensitive application, operating as a function of the parties’ relative moral blameworthiness.  Thus in a 1985 case discussed in the instant opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed would-be beneficiaries of insider trading to sue their tipsters for losses resulting from misinformation, even if both plaintiffs and defendants were wrongdoers.  The plaintiffs’ trading upon a failure to disclose was not “substantially equal” in moral culpability to the tipsters’ illegal insider disclosures, the Court decided, and public policy favored holding the tipsters to civil account.

KPMG Boston (Google Maps Aug. 2017)
KPMG argues more than just Merrimack’s benefit derived from a favorable financial picture.  KPMG argued successfully in the superior court that Mordach’s actions must be imputed strictly to Merrimack upon the tort-and-agency doctrine of respondeat superior, because Mordach was an employee of Merrimack and acted within the scope of her employment.  So if intentional fraud is imputed to Merrimack, then in pari delicto precludes recovery against KPMG for the diminished culpability state of mere negligence.

On the one hand, the SJC reasoned, look at the problem from the perspective of Merrimack students:  Were they to have sued Merrimack—not actually necessary, as the college spent $6 million to square its affairs with students—there is little doubt that Mordach’s intentional tort would have imputed strictly, even to an otherwise innocent Merrimack, through respondeat superior.  From where the student sits, the fraud was perpetrated by Merrimack’s financial aid office: Mordach and college, one and the same.  Merrimack might have sought indemnity from employee Mordach, but that’s always true in respondeat superior cases (notwithstanding employment contract).

On the other hand, the SJC reasoned, look at the problem from the perspective of Merrimack College:  Strict liability through the action of respondeat superior imputes liability irrespective of fault and certainly says nothing about moral blameworthiness.  Merrimack as liable to students is never adjudicated as bearing fault.  From a moral standpoint, Merrimack is at worst guilty of neglect, or failure to act, such as by negligent supervision of its financial-aid director.  So notwithstanding strict legal liability, Merrimack’s negligence would implicate moral blameworthiness of a magnitude less than what the college alleges of KPMG.

When co-tortfeasors both commit an intentional tort, in pari delicto precludes liability of one to the other.  But that’s not necessarily so when merely negligent co-tortfeasors A and B unwittingly combine efforts to cause loss to C, incidentally causing loss also to B.  In the subsequent action B v. A, the old contributory negligence rule, as a complete defense, would have effectuated the clean-hands doctrine.  But contemporary tort law commits negligent co-tortfeasors to comparative-fault analysis.  In a modified-comparative-fault jurisdiction such as Massachusetts, B may recover from A if A bore more fault than B, and B’s recovery is reduced in proportion to B’s own share of fault. 

The SJC decided that moral blameworthiness, not legal liability exposure, must be the guiding principle for an equitable doctrine.  Merrimack might be on the hook hypothetically for respondeat superior liability, and even negligent supervision.  But neither of those rules suggests moral blameworthiness greater than KPMG’s.  The case might be different if Mordach has been a senior executive of Merrimack; she was not.  And there is no evidence that Merrimack knew what Mordach was up to, much less directed her actions.

So in the absence of an intentional tortfeasor between Merrimack and KPMG, in pari delicto does not apply.  If Merrimack’s negligence contributed to its own losses, that will come out in the comparative-fault wash.  That conclusion is bolstered by a comparative-fault-like mechanism in Massachusetts statute that applies specifically to client-versus-auditor malpractice claims.  Accordingly, the SJC reversed and remanded.

Chief Justice Gants at UMass Law (2016)
The SJC received amicus briefs from the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, the Massachusetts Academy of Trial Attorneys (MATA), and the Chelsea Housing Authority.  For the MATA, attorney Jeffrey Nolan argued, like in the U.S. Supreme Court insider trading case, that liability exposure is needed to hold KPMG accountable, especially in a market dominated by the Big Four accounting firms.  The housing authority also backed Merrimack, attorney Susan Whalen recounting her client’s victimization by internal misconduct that went undetected by accountants.  She asserted that in pari delicto has “the perverse result of de facto immunity for gross levels of negligence” by auditors (Law360, subscription required).

All of that is not to say that KPMG will be held liable.  Besides fault yet to be proved, the SJC affirmed the superior court’s leave for KPMG to amend its answer, adding a defense of release.  Ut victoriam tyranne?

The case is Merrimack College v. KPMG LLP, No. SJC-12434 (Mass. Sept. 27, 2018).  The opinion was authored by Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants, a graduate of Harvard undergrad and law, one-time AUSA, and 2016 recipient of an honorary law degree from UMass Law School.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

'False claims of love': Mass. App. speaks from the heart for Valentine's Day

Just in time for Valentine's Day, the Massachusetts Court of Appeals rejected a divorcee's lawsuit for "false claims of love."

The plaintiff's eight claims were aptly characterized by the court as sounding in fraud, battery (i.e., contact upon improperly procured consent), infliction of emotional distress, and unjust enrichment.  All of these claims turned on misleading inducement to marry as a common, operative allegation.

Massachusetts by statute "abolished the common law actions for alienation of affection," "reflect[ing] the Legislature's public policy decision to no longer consider judicial remedy appropriate for what is only 'an ordinary broken heart.'"  Christopher Robinette wrote succinctly about the "heart balm torts"—alienation of affections, criminal conversation, seduction, and breach of promise to marry—in November at Tortsprof Blog.  Reading between the lines of the law, the court explained that legislators meant to preclude any cause of action that would require "'explor[ing] the minds of' consenting partners" (quoting precedent).

This case was not about failure to marry, but about marriage under allegedly false pretenses.  Same difference, the court held, with respect to claims of fraud or misrepresentation: plaintiff's "artful pleadings fail to hide the fact that these claims, based on events that occurred prior to the marriage, are precluded ...."  The same result controlled battery, as the consent analysis plainly would defy the inferred legislative intent.

As to IIED, the plaintiff could not meet the threshold of "extreme and outrageous," neither through allegation of an adulterous affair, even if calculated to inflict emotional injury, nor through failure to disclose "concealment of past sexual or romantic history."  Massachusetts courts at least in theory recognize a cause of action for negligent infliction of emotional distress (NIED)--the truly pure case of it is far rarer than recitation of the theory--but found the record "bereft of physical harm manifested by objective symptomatology."  On both points, one must recall Jones v. Clinton, 990 F. Supp. 657 (E.D. Ark. 1998), per the Hon. Susan Weber Wright.  This case also well exemplifies why NIED is not sound doctrine, a point the Supreme Judicial Court might ought revisit one day.

On unjust enrichment and related theories, the court concluded that any unjustness was predicated on the earlier rejected fraud, and otherwise, the plaintiff was in no way of feeble mind.

The court summed up: "[N]ot all human actions in the context of the dissolution of a marriage have an avenue for legal recourse, no matter how much anger, sorrow, or anxiety they cause." Broadened to all affairs of the heart, the conclusion well restates essential tort policy, lest we become the caricature of the litigious society.

The case is Shea v. Cameron, No. 16-P-1479 (Mass. Ct. App. Feb. 9, 2018), per Agnes, Sacks, and Lemire, JJ.