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 personal property. Show all posts
Showing posts with label personal property. Show all posts

Monday, July 25, 2022

Families retain common law rights over loved ones' remains when a church sells a graveyard, court holds

Principles of common law trust give families a say over the disposition of their loved ones' remains when a church closes and sells its burial ground, the Massachusetts Appeals Court held in May.

The chronic closure of churches and sale of their buildings has spun off a collateral issue of what happens to human remains and who gets to decide.

The 2015 closure of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit of Wayland, Mass., generated such a problem. The diocese decided to close the church and agreed to sell the property to the Coptic Church.

The Coptic Church was not keen, though, to take over and maintain the churchyard burial grounds as they were. The Coptics were interested in developing the property, and they have a religious objection to cremation, which was the state of some of the deceased.

The Episcopal Church explored disinterment and relocation options with families of the deceased. The last burial there was in 2006. Not all families were willing to get on board; some wanted their loved ones to stay put. The Episcopal Church therefore endeavored to move the remains without consent, to see the sale to the Coptic Church go through, and litigation ensued.

The court reviewed the potentially applicable law of property and contract. Both parties made good arguments, and none persuaded the court dispositively. In essence, the church claimed conventional property ownership, and the families pointed to a contractual promise of "perpetual care."

The court instead decided to hang its hat on the amorphous but persuasive notion of common law trust. Some kind of right clearly persists in family over members over the disposition of loved ones' remains, the court reasoned, because we don't think twice in entertaining disputes between family members when there is a question about where a loved one should be laid to rest. Something more than mere property must be going on; the court quoted a New York court's "eloquent" reasoning in an 1844 case:

"When these graves shall have worn away; when they who now weep over them shall have found kindred resting places for themselves; when nothing shall remain to distinguish this spot from the common earth around, and it shall be wholly unknown as a grave-yard; it may be that some one who can establish a 'paper title,' will have a right to its possession; for it will then have lost its identity as a burial-ground, and with that, all right founded on the dedication must necessarily become extinct."

The instant case is hardly akin to that distant day, the court countered; rather, the complainants here are first-degree survivors. "For these reasons," the court concluded, "we now hold that in the absence of a governing statute, common law trust principles apply to the disinterment of human remains from a dedicated burial ground until the families of the deceased have abandoned the remains or the burial ground is no longer recognizable as such."

The court made short work of the Coptic Church's claim that its freedom of religious exercise would be violated by the presence of cremated remains. Essentially, the court reasoned, the bodies are already there. And the family's religious rights might as well be implicated were the court to countenance disinterment.

The court acknowledged that many questions would arise from this decision, for example, regarding the family's right to visit their loved ones' graves under new ownership. But those are questions for another day.

The unusual case is Church of the Holy Spirit of Wayland v. Heinrich, Nos. 21-P-7 & 21-P-8 (Mass. App. Ct. May 5, 2022). Justice James R. Milkey wrote the opinion of a unanimous panel.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

News reports heroicize resistance to robbery, but storeowner's murder counsels common law wisdom

Mahaseth and his wife
(posted to Twitter by Sam Smink, WHDH 7 News)
A man was charged in early November for fatally shooting a Fall River, Mass., convenience store owner.

The murder of Stop N Save owner Lal Kishor Mahaseth in October shocked the Fall River community, near where I live in eastern Rhode Island.  But the circumstances that gave rise to it are all too familiar in Massachusetts south coast cities.

To help my Torts I class wrestle with the interrelated defenses of self, other, and property, I sometimes show a video of a local convenience store owner who fought back against would-be robbers.  When the viewer knows that no one was seriously hurt in the end, the video can be funny, while stirring serious conversation on matters such as tort doctrine, "stand your ground" laws, and the expectations of the social contract in the unique American culture of guns and personal responsibility.

Sadly and oddly, there are many videos from which to choose for this exercise, even limiting the search to nearby New Bedford, Mass.  My favorite video dates to 2012, when owner-operator Nicholas Dawoud turned the tables on assailants at the St. Elias Mini Market.  This story from WJAR has it all: robbery turned to personal threat; the frustrated defender, informed by past offenses, erupted; and other local customers joined the fray.

The tragedy in Fall River layers the problem with an added complexity.  Do news stories that glamorize defending locals incentivize a wrong choice?  Surveillance video in the Fall River case reportedly shows that 54-year-old Mahaseth resisted his armed assailants, at one point throwing a chair at them.  Does citizen frustration with failed policing in stressed economic times justify a different response to the problems of privileging defense?

Historic common law norms favor life over property in all circumstances.  The result is a familiar law school hypothetical with which students often struggle: the rightful owner of property has no privilege to commit personal attack to defend against threatened violence to dispossess, as long as the threat is merely contingent (albeit often unprovably so in real life) on the owner's refusal to surrender.  The theory is that no one will be hurt, and the wronged property owner can resort to assistance by proper authorities.

However, owing to the powerful American ethos of property and personal responsibility, the historic common law result is as likely to be excepted as applied, in practice.  The glamorization of physical defenses of property such as Dawoud's reinforces the incompatibility of the common law logic with many Americans' thinking.

Mahaseth, who was born in Nepal and earned a degree there in education, is survived by his wife and three children, The Herald News reported in October.  Prosecutors charged 37-year-old Nelson F. Coelho with murder, attempted armed and masked robbery, and carrying an illegal firearm, Mass Live reported in November.

[I acknowledge a kind note of Prof. Volokh, who aptly observes that non-deadly force in defense of property is permitted by common law.  I admittedly conflated defense by force at all, as I suggest, or fear, that the nuance is lost on the aggressor who responds violently, and potentially fatally.]