Showing posts with label privilege. Show all posts
Showing posts with label privilege. Show all posts

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Legislative privilege shields Raimondo records against trucker subpoena in dormant Commerce Clause case

Toll gantry on a bridge in Washington
(Flickr by Wash. State DOT CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
The First Circuit has quashed a subpoena against Rhode Island state officials, including now-U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, in a dormant Commerce Clause lawsuit over highway tolls supporting infrastructure.

Back in the 2010s, under the leadership of then-Governor Gina Raimondo (I'm a fan), my home state of Rhode Island was looking for cash to help with infrastructure needs.  The smallest state and an essential throughway for road and rail traffic in the vital I-95 corridor of America's Atlantic coast, "Ocean State" Rhode Island bears a burden in maintaining highway and bridge infrastructure that is disproportionately larger than the state's tax base.  The Raimondo administration installed a network of electronic truck tolls to beef up coffers.

My family travels often up and down the east coast to visit relatives, and the parade of tolls through the Atlantic states adds up to a significant expense.  But there are no passenger-car tolls in Rhode Island.  States that wish to impose tolls on federal highways had to strike a sort of deal with the devil, the devil being Uncle Sam, and Rhode Island, exemplifying founder Roger Williams's independent streak, opted out.  We held ourselves clear of Uncle Sam's sticky fingers, but then we found ourselves undermined by potholes and overrun with decaying bridges.

So when I heard about the Raimondo truck-toll plan, I admit, it sounded great to me.  The possible dormant Commerce Clause issue did gather in the dark recesses of my mind.  Anyone who tells you that we Rhode Islanders were not keen to have through-trucks pay their fair share for wear and tear on our roads and nerves as we circulate on our congested connectors is lying.  If the boon could be had without adding to my family's toll bills, I was willing to suppress any nagging concern I might have otherwise about a made-up constitutional rule.

Lawyers for the trade industry in trucking were not so generous of mind or pocket, and, after the tolls went live in 2018, they sued.  The plaintiffs argue violation of the dormant Commerce Clause, the constitutional theory that implies a federal prohibition on state action that excessively burdens interstate commerce even when Congress has not legislated a prohibition under its Article I power.

The First Circuit explained, "the Supreme Court has recently reiterated that the dormant Commerce Clause 'reflect[s] a "central concern of the Framers that was an immediate reason for calling the Constitutional Convention: the conviction that in order to succeed, the new Union would have to avoid the tendencies toward economic Balkanization that had plagued relations among the Colonies and later among the States under the Articles of Confederation"'" (quoting 2005 and 2019 precedents).

Flickr by Taber Andrew Bain CC BY 2.0
If the truckers can show that Rhode Island officials calculated the tolling program to burden out-of-state payers while sparing Rhode Islanders, the showing will strengthen—but significantly, not dispositively prove—the plaintiff position in the dormant Commerce Clause analysis.  I've kind of already admitted that burdening through-traffic was my reason for liking the toll program, but I'm just a taxpayer.  Unfortunately, there are some public statements by state officials indicating that they viewed the tolls the same way.

The plaintiff-truckers understandably want to dig deeper.  So they sent subpoenas to state officials, including the Office of the Governer and legislators, and to CDM Smith, a key private consultant to the state in the toll program, "RhodeWorks."  The First Circuit enumerated:

Specifically, the subpoenas sought materials relating to: (1) any efforts to mitigate the economic impact on Rhode Island citizens; (2) the expected or actual impact of the toll caps on in-state vs. out-of-state truckers; (3) the expected or actual impact of tolling only certain classes of trucks on in-state vs. out-of-state truckers; (4) the potential impact on interstate commerce; (5) alternative methods for raising funds; (6) drafts of RhodeWorks and related, failed bills, including mark-ups, comments, red-lines, revisions, etc.; (7) communications between the former Governor and legislators regarding RhodeWorks or other methods of raising funds; and (8) the public statements made by the movants and others.

State officials argued that legislative privilege required quashing of the subpoenas.  The district court was willing to override the privileges, ruling that the discovery interest outweighed officials' need of confidentiality in deliberative process.  On interlocutory appeal, the First Circuit disagreed and reversed.

The First Circuit began its discussion with the Speech or Debate Clause of the federal Constitution.  That's interesting, because the D.C. Circuit just recently applied the clause to thwart the efforts of Judicial Watch to probe the congressional investigation of the Trump Administration.  That decision made waves in the FOI community not so much for the result, but for a passionate concurrence in which U.S. Circuit Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson thoughtfully indulged the potential scope of common law access to the legislature.

However, the First Circuit opined:

Assertions of legislative immunity and privilege by state lawmakers stand on different footing. For starters, they are governed by federal common law rather than the Speech or Debate Clause, which by its terms applies only to federal legislators.... And the common-law legislative immunity and privilege are less protective than their constitutional counterparts....  That is because the separation-of-powers rationale underpinning the Speech or Debate Clause does not apply when it is a state lawmaker claiming legislative immunity or privilege.

In other words, the court recognized a constitutional constraint in horizontal separation of powers, but not, here, in vertical separation of powers, or federalism.  Nevertheless, the court reasoned that "federal common law" was constrained by the principle of comity, "[a]nd the interests in legislative independence served by the Speech or Debate Clause remain relevant."

The court was not impressed with the truckers' assertion that a federal interest in dormant Commerce Clause enforcement bolstered the private cause of action.

[Plaintiff's] argument suggests a broad exception overriding the important comity considerations that undergird the assertion of a legislative privilege by state lawmakers. Many cases in federal courts assert violations of federal law by state legislators who are not joined as parties to the litigation. Were we to find the mere assertion of a federal claim sufficient, even one that addresses a central concern of the Framers, the privilege would be pretty much unavailable largely whenever it is needed.

Here it mattered that the Governor's and lawmakers' alleged discriminatory intentions would not be dispositive of the constitutional question.  Rather, the court opined, the Supreme Court has emphasized the primacy of discriminatory effect over discriminatory purpose in dormant Commerce Clause analysis.  Intentions would prove only the latter and not necessarily amount to a constitutional offense.  Moreover, the court recited a familiar conundrum in the construction of legislative intent, that individual motives do not necessarily reveal the purpose of "the legislature as a whole."

In sum, even assuming that a state's legislative privilege might yield in a civil suit brought by a private party in the face of an important federal interest, the need for the discovery requested here is simply too little to justify such a breach of comity. At base, this is a case in which the proof is very likely in the eating, and not in the cook's intentions.

The court refused, however, to quash the subpoena against the private consultant, CDM Smith, even if state records might be revealed.  The provision of state records to a third party diminished the claim of privilege, the court reasoned, and thus rendered the question unripe for interlocutory appeal.

The case is American Trucking Associations, Inc. v. Alviti, No. 20-2120 (1st Cir. Sept. 21, 2021).  U.S. Circuit Judge William Kayatta wrote the opinion for a unanimous panel that also comprised U.S. Circuit Judge O. Rogeriee Thompson, a Rhode Islander, and, sitting by designation, U.S. District of Massachusetts Judge Douglas P. Woodlock.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Litigation privilege doesn't protect whistleblower counsel, court holds in defamation suit against attorney

The Massachusetts Appeals Court Wednesday affirmed the absolute litigation privilege as a defense to defamation, but rejected its application to a lawyer purporting to represent a whistleblower.

The case arose from a development dispute.  The essence of the alleged defamation concerned a letter from attorney-defendant Edmands accusing defamation plaintiff Patriot of tax fraud and retaliation against the attorney's client for his whistleblowing to the IRS and SEC.  Patriot alleged that Edmands moreover widely republished the accusations on internet platforms, including a whistleblower blog.  The court accepted Patriot's contention that the accusations against it were false.

The litigation privilege is an absolute privilege, so cannot be vitiated by a speaker's common law malice (ill will) or actual malice (knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard of truth or falsity).  The litigation protects an attorney acting as an attorney, even before litigation is initiated, but does not protect attorneys "'in counselling and assisting their clients in business matters generally,'" the court quoted precedent.

Edmands failed to establish the basis for the privilege as an evidentiary matter.  No whistleblowing complaints were filed with federal regulators, and the purported client denied representation by Edmands to that end.

Even had whistleblowing occurred, the court was skeptical that the litigation privilege would attach, given that whistleblowing does not necessarily precipitate any administrative or judicial process.  That point is important for attorneys representing whistleblowers.  Attorneys who help client-whistleblowers amplify their accusations in mass media, in even the most up-and-up of circumstances, might expect to find themselves targeted by retaliatory corporate ire.  The attorney should therefore take extra care to interrogate the truth of the whistleblower's claims.

The court remanded to the Superior Court for further proceedings. The case is The Patriot Group, LLC v. Edmands, No. 17-P-1397 (Mass. App. Ct. Nov. 13, 2019).  Blake, Wendlandt,and McDonough, JJ., were on the unanimous panel, Justice McDonough writing.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Teachable torts: Court succinctly dismisses 'outing' case collateral to terrorism prosecution

Attendees dance during the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender mixer
hosted by Joint Task Force Guantanamo Equal Opportunity Leaders for JTF
Troopers and Naval Station Guantanamo Bay Residents to honor LGBT
Pride Month in 2018. Photo by JTF GTMO PAO Trooper.
A short decision upon compelling facts in a civil case collateral to the criminal prosecution of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, accused of being a September 11 architect, offers a worthwhile exercise in the study of tort law.

Semmerling, a lawyer on the defense team of Guantánamo-held Mohammed, accused the head of the defense team of outing Semmerling to Mohammed as gay.  The revelation of Semmerling's sexual orientation resulted in his removal from the team, because Mohammed would not work with a gay (or Jewish) lawyer.

Typical outing cases present some interesting problems in privacy law for several reasons.  First, they emphasize the distinction between the disclosure privacy tort and the defamation tort, because the revelation in an outing case is true.  First Amendment absolutism challenges the disclosure tort for its threat of liability upon a truthful statement, though there is little doubt that the disclosure tort would survive a direct Supreme Court challenge today.

Second, a plaintiff's homosexual (or other non-heterosexual) identity is rarely an absolute secret, disclosed to no one, but more often—and healthily—a personal datum that the plaintiff has disclosed with thought and care to different persons—parents, friends, public—at different times.  But "the secrecy paradigm" that dominates American privacy law disallows tort recovery unless intimate information remains intimately safeguarded.  (This is a critical point of difference between U.S. and European privacy law.)

Third, outing cases are complicated as a matter of social policy, for fear that a liability award might validate the view that homosexual orientation should be a source of shame, so either a truth properly kept secret (privacy tort), or a falsehood injuriously uttered (defamation tort).

This case is not typical—Semmerling's sexual orientation was only a secret to Mohammed—but its unusual facts, assuming the allegations as true for sake of argument on the motion to dismiss, left Semmerling with only less prospect of a tort remedy than usual.

Invoking the common law litigation privilege, the U.S. District Court, per Judge Robert W. Gettleman, rejected claims against the defense team leader herself. The absolute privilege ensures that an attorney has unfettered discretion in communicating with a client on matters pertaining to litigation.  The court also dismissed claims of negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED) against the United States as defense counsel's employer.

Tim Jon Semmerling is a Chicago criminal-
defense attorney. In addition to his private
practice, he has worked pro bono for the
Center for Justice in Capital Cases at DePaul
University.
The negligence and IIED claims against the United States did survive dismissal under the Federal Tort Claims Act.  The FTCA on its terms disallows libel and slander claims against the United States, and the court opined that even a defamation claim disguised as IIED (or general negligence) would not survive that disallowance.  For the very fact that Semmerling complained about a truthful disclosure, his claim cannot be equated with libel or slander, and so was not a disguised defamation claim.

On tort law merits, though, Semmerling failed to state a claim, the court ruled.  He tried to predicate negligence on the defendant's one-time assurance to him that she would allow him to work on the case without disclosing his sexual orientation to Mohammed.  That was not basis enough, the court opined, to establish a duty of the United States to Semmerling for the purpose of proving negligence. The court did not wade in more deeply, but I expect that the duty requirement was especially elevated given Semmerling's lack of physical injury.

As to IIED, Semmerling sufficiently pleaded neither intent nor outrageousness.  Semmerling found out about the dislcosure only by way of hearsay and only some time after being fired.  So, the court reasoned, evidence was lacking that the disclosure was calculated to cause him emotional distress.  Also the disclosure was at worst "offensive," the court opined, and not "utterly intolerable in a civilized community," as Illinois law requires.

I wonder whether the facts would have supported a tortious interference claim; alas, that cause is expressly disallowed by the FTCA.

The case is Semmerling v. Bormann, No. 18-CV-6640 (N.D. Ill. Sept. 11, 2019).  HT@ ABA Journal.

[NOTE, Sept. 25, 2019: A generous colleague brought to my attention that the complaint in the case also pleaded defamation.  The claim failed on the litigation privilege as against lead counsel and was precluded by the FTCA as against the United States.  I ought to have marked the point that Semmerling was unable to claim disclosure in part because he guarded no intimately held secret.  The defamation claim was grounded in the allegation that lead counsel falsely suggested to the client a particular sexual interest in him.  That's an intriguing hypothetical when one considers the consequent analyses on the merits, including "capable of defamatory meaning."]

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Mass. SJC refuses worker-union privilege in civil discovery



The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court refused to find a worker-union evidentiary privilege in a civil lawsuit by an educator against her school, affirming the Superior Court.

Nancy Chadwick, a Massachusetts teacher at Duxbury High School and former president of the Duxbury Teachers Association, alleged bullying and harassment by a direct supervisor, leading to her dismissal.  She sued for discrimination and retaliation in December 2014.  At issue in discovery were 92 emails sought by the defendant and alleged by the plaintiff to be protected by a union-union member privilege.

The SJC, per Justice Hines, refused to recognize the privilege under Massachusetts labor law or in common law.  The Court recognized that labor statutes at both the state and federal level, the latter per National Labor Relations Board precedent, can privilege communication by union members.  But looking to the apparent intent of the legislature in Mass. Gen. L. ch. 150E, the Court reasoned that the scope of that privilege is the protection of collective bargaining rights, not the furtherance of a civil lawsuit.

In the common law analysis, the Court admonished that its power to recognize privilege under Evidence Rule 501 to be “exercised sparingly.”  The Court observed that the Supreme Court of Alaska recognized a broad privilege under state statute in 2012.  But that is the minority position.  New Hampshire declined to find a privilege in grand jury proceedings in 2007.  And a California appellate court opined in 2003 that the authority to create such a privilege should rest with the legislature.

The SJC agreed that “the Legislature may be in a better position to decide whether to create a privilege and, if so, to weigh the considerations involved in defining its contours.”  McCormick on Evidence (3d ed. 1984) was quoted in a parenthetical: “It may be argued that legitimate claims to confidentiality are more equitably received by a branch of government not preeminently concerned with the factual results obtained in litigation, and that the legislatures provide an appropriate forum for the balancing of the competing social values necessary to sound decisions concerning privilege.”  Moreover, the SJC found “speculative” any harm that might result to the plaintiff for the court’s refusal to recognize the privilege.

In a footnote, the SJC clarified that its decision did not diminish inherent judicial powers to award protective order, as under civil procedure rule 26(c).

The decision is significant in part because Massachusetts is regarded as a state (or commonwealth) friendly to organized labor.  The SJC decision asserts a conservative view of separated powers such as to interpret statute and to evolve the common law under rule 501.  The latter especially has implications for other potential common law privileges, such as the journalist’s privilege.  Also, because the decision arises in the context of public employment, the lack of union privilege may have implications for construction of sunshine laws that incorporate common law and “other law” confidentiality by reference.

The case is Chadwick v. Duxbury Public Schools, no. SJC-12054 (Oct. 4, 2016) (PDF).