Showing posts with label professionalism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label professionalism. Show all posts

Thursday, February 15, 2024

Sherman speaks on lawyering, Spotlight investigation

Ambassador Robert Sherman
RJ Peltz-Steele CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
Attorney Robert A. Sherman, U.S. ambassador to Portugal from 2014 to 2017, spoke to students, staff, and faculty at the University of Massachusetts Law School today about his experience as a lawyer and diplomat.

Sherman's work experience spans criminal and civil practice, as well as politics and diplomacy. In a tort vein, from 2002 to 2004, Sherman was lead counsel for plaintiffs in sex abuse claims against the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. Those were among the cases investigated by the Boston Globe "Spotlight" team, whose work was dramatized in the 2015 feature film, Spotlight.

Early in the wave of sex-abuse litigation against the church, Sherman said, plaintiff attorneys faced daunting hurdles, such as statutes of limitations and charitable immunity for the church in state law. Another problem was simply identifying victims. Many victims self-blamed, and a powerful stigma attached to the first persons who came forward. 

As is problematically common in American tort litigation, secrecy in negotiated dispute resolution and non-disclosure agreements in settlements prevented the public from knowing who the perpetrators were and from understanding the scope of the wrongs. The same conditions impeded the Spotlight investigation.

Sherman said that he's spoken publicly only recently about his connection to Globe editor Walter V. Robinson and the Spotlight team. Because of his work on the cases, Sherman said, he knew more than the public, and more than the Spotlight team, about the magnitude of the problem. And he knew who the perpetrators were. Yet bound by attorney-client confidentiality, Sherman said, he could not speak freely. He wrestled with his ethical responsibilities, he said.

Occasionally, Sherman met Robinson on a park bench—like in a spy thriller. Robinson wanted names. Sherman couldn't give them. But Robinson might say, for example, "Our sources tell us to look into Father Shanley." Sherman would respond, "I've heard of Father Shanley." That was all Robinson needed to hear to know that his lead was good.

Sherman and his law firm resolved 385 of 525 victim claims against the church in arbitration, he said.

Law school and working as an attorney well prepared Sherman to be an ambassador, he said, because the job of ambassador boils down to resolving conflicts, if between nations rather than between people.

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Lawyers on social media delight, inform, raise ethics questions about attorney-client relationships

An attorney panel earlier this month shared the joys and hazards of lawyers addressing the general public through social media.

A hat tip to Mississippi attorney Kye C. Handy, Balch & Bingham, for introducing me to California attorney and influencer Reb Masel on TikTok, the J.D. genius behind Reading Iconic Court Transcripts and other legal commentary.

@rebmasel i dedicate this one to Kohl’s cash #transcripts ♬ original sound - reb for the rebrand
Reb Masel's Rebuttal
(Spotify, Apple, YouTube)
Reb Masel hosts the Rebuttal podcast at Spotify, Apple, and YouTube. Read more about her at Tubefilter, where she said in fall 2023 that she practices in defense-side civil litigation "for now." If you must know more about Pepperdine Law alumna Reb Masel in the muggle world, the Daily Mail wrote about her in 2022.

Handy served on an ethics panel at the Next Generation and the Future of Business Litigation program of the Tort Trial & Insurance Practice Section (TIPS) of the American Bar Association (ABA) at the 2024 ABA Midyear meeting in Louisville, Ky., earlier this month.

A key takeaway of the panel for attorneys: be careful you don't create an attorney-client relationship through social media posts. If giving legal advice, disclaim, disclaim, disclaim.

Florida attorney Richard Rivera said that ethical obligations may arise merely from a viewer's subjective belief that an attorney-client relationship exists. I presume there is a reasonableness check on that, but the objective measure would be lay perception, not the knowledge and experience of the attorney. Thus, a social media post can trigger an attorney's duties of confidentiality and timely response to questions.

Accordingly, Washington attorney Matthew Albrecht warned attorneys to keep up with their inboxes in all media. If a viewer or listener reaches out through a web form, social media direct messaging, etc., asking a question in response to a post, failure to respond promptly can be an ethics violation.

Moreover, an attorney must be wary of questioners who overshare, Albrecht said. They might post comments on a public website that compromise their cases, and the attorney may be obliged to delete the comments to protect the prospective client. A questioner also might provide information that puts the attorney in conflict with prior or existing clients. So an attorney with any online presence should have and adhere to a careful policy for receiving and processing incoming communications.

I wish I could count on a response from a doctor's office when I ask a question. Clearly, the bar for attorneys is higher.

Probably needless to say, some attorneys give advice in mass media that might be accurate in context and not run afoul of ethics rules, but might at the same time invite trouble in problematic misunderstanding. For example, many online videos present Texas lawyers schooling viewers on the use of force in defense of property under the state's generous castle laws. Handy shared one video by a lawyer who described a property owner vs. trespasser confrontation in which the property owner might lawfully "beat her ass."

To inform professionalism, Handy recommended to law students and new lawyers the podcast Young Lawyer Rising from the Legal Talk Network, an ABA partner.

The ABA TIPS panel comprised Albrecht, Handy, Rivera, and D.C. attorney Josephine M. Bahn.

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

AI can make law better and more accessible; it won't

Gencraft AI image
Artificial intelligence is changing the legal profession, and the supply of legal services is growing even more disconnected from demand.

The latter proposition is my assessment, but experts agreed at a national bar conference last week that AI will change the face of legal practice for attorneys and clients, as well as law students and professors.

Lexis and Westlaw each recently launched a generative AI product, Lexis+ AI Legal Assistant and AI-Assisted Research on Westlaw Precision. One might fairly expect that these tools will make legal work faster and more efficient, which in turn would make legal services accessible to more people. I fear the opposite will happen.

The endangered first-year associate. The problem boils down to the elimination of entry-level jobs in legal practice. Panelists at The Next Generation and the Future of Business Litigation conference of the Tort Trial Insurance Practice Section (TIPS) of the American Bar Association (ABA) at the ABA Midyear Meeting in Louisville, Kentucky, last week told audience members that AI now performs the work of first- and second-year associates in legal practice.

The change might or might not be revolutionary. Popular wisdom routinely describes generative AI as a turning point on the evolutionary scale. But panelists pointed out that legal research has seen sea change before, and the sky did not fall. Indeed, doomsayers once predicted the end of responsible legal practice upon the very advent of Lexis and Westlaw in displacement of books and paper—a transformation contemporary with my career. Law practice adapted, if not for the better in every respect.

It's in the work of junior attorneys that AI is having the greatest impact now. It can do the background legal research that a senior lawyer might assign to a junior lawyer upon acquisition of a new client or case. AI also can do the grunt work on which new lawyers cut their teeth, such as pleadings, motions, and discovery.

According to (aptly named) Oregon attorney Justice J. Brooks, lawyers are under huge pressure from clients and insurers to use AI, regardless of the opportunity cost in bringing up new attorneys. Fortune 500 companies are demanding that AI be part of a lawyer's services as a condition of retention. The corporate client will not pay for the five hours it takes an associate to draft discovery requests when AI can do it in 1.5.

Observers of law and technology, as well as the courts, have wrung their hands recently amid high-profile reports of AI-using lawyers behaving badly, for example, filing briefs citing sources that do not exist. Brooks said that a lawyer must review with a "critical eye" the research memorandum that AI produces. Insofar as there have been ethical lapses, "we've always had the problem of lawyers not reading cases," Illinois lawyer Jayne R. Reardon observed.

Faster and cheaper, but not always better, AI. There's the rub for newly minted associates: senior lawyers must bring the same scrutiny to bear on AI work that they bring to the toddling memo of the first-year associate. And AI works faster and cheaper.

Meanwhile, AI performs some mundane tasks better than a human lawyer. More than cutting corners, AI sometimes sees a new angle for interrogatories in discovery, Brooks said. Sometimes AI comes up with an inventive compromise for a problem in mediation, Kentucky attorney Stephen Embry said. AI can analyze dialogs to trace points of agreements and disagreement in negotiation, Illinois lawyer Svetlana Gitman reported.

AI does a quick and superb job on the odd request for boilerplate, North Carolina attorney Victoria Alvarez said. For example, "I need a North Carolina contract venue clause." And AI can organize quickly large data sets, she said, generating spreadsheets, tables, and graphics.

What AI cannot yet do well is good jobs news for senior lawyers and professors such as me: AI cannot make complex arguments, Brooks said. In fact, he likes to receive AI-drafted memoranda from legal opponents. They're easily recognizable, he said, and it's easy to pick apart their arguments, which are on par with the sophistication of a college freshman.

Similarly, Brooks said, AI is especially bad at working out solutions to problems in unsettled areas of law. It is confused when its training materials—all of the law and most of the commentary on it—point in different directions. 

In a way, AI is hampered by its own sweeping knowledge. It has so much information that it cannot readily discern what is important and what is not. A lawyer might readily understand, for example, that a trending theory in Ninth Circuit jurisprudence is the peculiar result of concurring philosophical leanings among involved judges and likely will be rejected when the issue arises in the Fifth Circuit, where philosophical leanings tend to the contrary. AI doesn't see that. That's where human insight still marks a peculiar distinction—for now, at least, and until I retire, I hope.

It's that lack of discernment that has caused AI to make up sources, Brandeis Law Professor Susan Tanner said. AI wants to please its user, Oregon lawyer Laura Caldera Loera explained. So if a lawyer queries AI, "Give me a case that says X," AI does what was asked. The questioner presumes the case exists, and the AI follows that lead. If it can't find the case, it extrapolates from known sources. And weirdly, as Tanner explained it, "[AI] wants to convince you that it's right" and is good at doing so.

Client confidences. The panelists discussed other issue with AI in legal practice, such as the importance of protecting client confidences. Information fed into an open AI in asking a question becomes part of the AI's knowledge base. A careless lawyer might reveal confidential information that the AI later discloses in response to someone else's different query.

Some law firms and commercial services are using closed AIs to manage the confidentiality problem. For example, a firm might train a closed AI system on an internal bank of previously drafted transactional documents. Lexis and Westlaw AIs are trained similarly on the full data sets of those proprietary databases, but not, like ChatGPT, on the open internet—Pornhub included, clinical psychologist Dan Jolivet said.

But any limited or closed AI system is then limited correspondingly in its ability to formulate responses. And closed systems still might compromise confidentiality around ethical walls within a firm. Tanner said that a questioner cannot instruct AI simply to disregard some information; such an instruction is fundamentally contrary to how generative AI works.

Law schools in the lurch.  Every panelist who addressed the problem of employment and training for new lawyers insisted that the profession must take responsibility for the gap that AI will create at the entry level. Brooks said he pushes back, if sometimes futilely, on client demands to eliminate people from the service chain. Some panelists echoed the tantalean promise of billing models that will replace the billable hour. But no one could map a path forward in which there would be other than idealistic incentives for law firms to hire and train new lawyers.

And that's a merry-go-round I've been on for decades. For the entirety of my academic career, the bar has bemoaned the lack of "practice ready" lawyers. And where have practitioners placed blame? Not on their bottom-line-driven, profit-making business models, but on law schools and law professors.

And law schools, under the yoke of ABA accreditation, have yielded. The law curriculum today is loaded with practice course requirements, bar prep requirements, field placement requirements, and pro bono requirements. We have as well, of course, dedicated faculty and administrative positions to meet these needs.

That's not bad in of itself, of course. The problem arises, though, in that the curriculum and staffing are zero-sum games. When law students load up on practice-oriented hours, they're not doing things that law students used to do. When finite employment lines are dedicated to practice roles, there are other kinds of teachers absent who used to be there.

No one pauses to ask what we're missing.

My friend and mentor Professor Andrew McClurg, retired from the University of Memphis, famously told students that they should make the most of law school, because for most of them, it would be the last time in their careers that they would be able to think about the law.

Take the elective in the thing that stimulates your mind, McClurg advised students (and I have followed suit as an academic adviser). Explore law with a not-nuts-and-bolts seminar, such as law and literature or international human rights. Embrace the theory and philosophy of law—even in, say, your 1L torts class.

When, like my wife once was, you're a legal services attorney struggling to pay on your educational debt and have a home and a family while trying to maintain some semblance of professional responsibility in managing an impossible load of 70 cases and clients pulling 24/7 in every direction, you're not going to have the luxury of thinking about the law.

Profit machines. What I learned from law's last great leap forward was that the "profession" will not take responsibility for training new lawyers. Lawyer salaries at the top will reach ever more for the heavens, while those same lawyers demand ever more of legal education, and of vastly less well compensated legal educators, to transform and give of themselves to be more trade school and less graduate education.

Tanner put words to what the powers-that-be in practice want for law schools to do with law students today: "Train them so that they're profitable."  In other words, make billing machines, not professionals.

Insofar as that has already happened, the result has been a widening, not narrowing, of the gap between supply and demand for legal services. Wealthy persons and corporations have the resources to secure bespoke legal services. They always will. In an AI world, bespoke legal services means humans capable of discernment and complex argument, "critical eyes." 

Ordinary people have ever less access to legal services. What law schools have to do is expensive, and debt-burdened students cannot afford to work for what ordinary people are able to pay.

A lack of in-practice training and failure of inculcation to law as historic profession rather than workaday trade will mean more lawyers who are minimally, but not more, competent; lawyers who can fill out forms, but not conceive new theories; lawyers who have been trained on simulations and pro bono hours, but were never taught or afforded an opportunity to think about the law

These new generations of lawyers will lack discernment. They will not be able to make complex arguments or to pioneer understanding in unsettled areas of law. They will be little different from and no more capable than the AIs that clients pay them to access, little better than a human equivalent to a Staples legal form pack.

These lawyers will be hopelessly outmatched by their bespoke brethren. The ordinary person's lawyer will be employed only because the economically protectionist bar will forbid direct lay access to AI for legal services.

The bar will comprise two tribes: a sparsely populated sect of elite lawyer-professionals, and a mass of lawyer-tradespeople who keep the factory drums of legal education churning out form wills and contracts to keep the rabble at bay.

The haves and the have nots. 

It's a brave new world, and there is nothing new under the sun.

The first ABA TIPS panel comprised Victoria Alvarez, Troutman Pepper, Charlotte, N.C., moderator; Laura Caldera Loera and Amanda Bryan, Bullivant Houser Bailey, Portland, Ore.; Professor Susan Tanner, Louis D. Brandeis School of Law, Louisville, Ky.; and Justice J. Brooks, Foster Garvey, Portland, Ore. The second ABA TIPS panel referenced here comprised Svetlana Gitman, American Arbitration Association-International Center for Dispute Resolution, Chicago, Ill., moderator; Stephen Embry, EmbryLaw LLC and TechLaw Crossroads, Louisville, Ky.; Reginald A. Holmes, arbitrator, mediator, tech entrepreneur, and engineer, Los Angeles, Cal.; and Jayne R. Reardon, Fisher Broyles, Chicago, Ill.

Thursday, February 1, 2024

Naming rape suspects may draw criminal charges for journalists under Northern Ireland privacy law

Bernard Goldbach via Flickr CC BY 2.0
In Northern Ireland, it's a crime for a journalist to identify a rape suspect.

The relevant provision of the country's Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Act 2022. Attorney Fergal McGoldrick of Carson McDowell in Belfast detailed the law for The International Forum for Responsible Media Blog in October 2023, just after the law took effect.

The law applies to a range of sexual offenses including rape. The prohibition expires upon an arrest warrant, criminal charge, or indictment. If prosecution does not expire the prohibition on identification, it remains in force until 25 years after the death of the suspect. The act amended preexisting privacy law to afford comparable anonymity to victims.

I have deep experience with this issue, and it is fraught. Despite my strong preference for transparency in government, especially in policing, the law has merit.

I was a university newspaper editor back in ye olden days of paper and ink. My newspaper reported vigorously on accusations of sexual assault against a student at our university by a student at a nearby university. The accusations and ensuing criminal investigation gripped the campus.

We learned the identity of both suspect and accuser. We reported the former and concealed the latter. Discussing the matter as an editorial board, we were uncomfortable with this disparity. Having the suspect be a member of our own community and the accuser an outsider amplified our sensitivity to a seeming inequity. We did take measures to minimize use of the suspect's name in the reporting.

These were the journalistic norms of our time. Naming the accuser was unthinkable. This was the era of "the blue dot woman," later identified as Patricia Bowman (e.g., Seattle Times). The nation was enthralled by her allegation of rape against American royalty, William Kennedy Smith. In the 1991 televised trial, Bowman, a witness in court, was clumsily concealed by a floating blue dot, the anonymizing technology of the time.

Smith was acquitted. The case was a blockbuster not only for TV news, but for journalism, raising a goldmine of legal and ethical issues around criminal justice reporting and cameras in the courtroom.

There was no anonymity for Smith. I went to a Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) conference around this time, and the issues were discussed in a huge plenary session in a ballroom. The crowd exuded self-loathing for the trauma journalism itself had piled on Bowman. Objectivity be damned, many speakers beat the drums for the pillorying of the acquitted Smith.

The calculation in journalism ethics with regard to Smith, and thus to my editorial board, was that police accountability, knowing whom is being investigated, charged, or detained, and public security, alerting the public to a possible threat, or eliciting from the public exonerating evidence, all outweighed the risk of reputational harm that reporting might cause to the accused. Moreover, ethicists of the time reasoned, it would be paternalistic to assume that the public doesn't understand the difference between a person accused and a person convicted.

Then, in my campus case, the grand jury refused to indict. Our reporting uncovered evidence that the accusation might have been exaggerated or fabricated.

Our editorial hearts sank. Had we protected the wrong person?

My co-editor and I discussed the case countless times in the years that followed. We agonized. It pains me still today. Thirty years later, I find myself still retracing the problem, second-guessing my choices. It's like a choose-your-own-adventure where you feel like you're making the right choice each time you turn the pages, yet your steps lead you inevitably to doom.

Idealistically committed as we were at that age to freedom-of-information absolutism, we were inclined to the anti-paternalistic argument and reasoned that probably we should have named everyone from the start and let the public sort it out.

In our defense, a prior and more absolutist generation of norms in journalism ethics prevailed at the time. I was there at SPJ in the following years as leading scholars worked out a new set of norms, still around today, that accepts the reality of competing priorities and evinces more flexible guidance, such as, "minimize harm." Absolutism yielded to nuance. Meanwhile, the internet became a part of our lives, and both publication and privacy were revolutionized.

So in our present age, maybe the better rule is the Northern Ireland rule: anonymize both sides from the start. 

I recognize that there is a difference in a free society between an ethical norm, by which persons decide not to publish, and a legal norm, which institutes a prior restraint. I do find the Northern Ireland rule troublesomely draconian. The law would run headlong into the First Amendment in the United States. Certainly, I am not prepared to lend my support to the imprisonment of journalists.

Yet the problem with the leave-it-to-ethics approach is that we no longer live in a world in which mass media equate to responsible journalism. From where we sit in the internet era, immersed in the streaming media of our echo chambers, the SPJ Code of Ethics looks ever more a relic hallowed by a moribund belief system.

In Europe, the sophisticated privacy-protective regime of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is more supportive than the U.S. First Amendment of the Northern Ireland approach. The UK continues to adhere to the GDPR regime since Brexit. The GDPR reflects the recognition in European law of privacy and data protection as human rights, to be held in balance with the freedoms of speech and press. Precisely this balance was at issue in 2022, in Bloomberg LP v. ZXC, in which the UK Supreme Court concluded that Bloomberg media were obligated to consider a suspect's privacy rights before publishing even an official record naming him in a criminal investigation.

McGoldrick wrote "that since Bloomberg most media organisations have, save in exceptional circumstances, elected not to identify suspects pre-charge, thus affording editors the discretion to identify a suspect, if such identification is in the public interest."

Maybe the world isn't the worse for it.

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Taxpayers help to fatten Big Law in prosecution that Chinese community chalks up to racial profiling

Rawpixel CC0
The American trend to embrace attorney fee-shifting is a cash cow for the corporate defense bar. A pending case speaks to the problem, as the Government seeks more than $600,000 in fees on behalf of white-shoe law firms from a man whom civil rights advocates say was racially profiled.

Waning of "the American Rule."  The American legal system is unusual in the world for its default rule that every party pays its own way in litigation. This "American rule" contrasts with "the English rule," adopted in most of the world's jurisdictions, by which "loser pays."

But in part in acknowledgement of the abnormally high transaction costs, especially attorney fees, of litigation in the United States, some statutory systems have adopted the English rule. In civil rights, for example, key federal statutes require fee-shifting to victorious plaintiffs. The concern is that the victims of civil rights violations will not otherwise be able to incentivize lawyers to take their cases.

That logic has leached out of civil rights, though, into ever more adjacent areas of legal practice. Most civil claims are filed against corporations, and most civil claims are unsuccessful. So corporations and their lawyers have been keen to think of new ways to be paid for their trouble, if not to deter lawsuits to begin with. 

A key such area is anti-SLAPP, that is, legal measures against "strategic lawsuits against public participation." Anti-SLAPP, about which I have written many times, is wildly popular with lawmakers: now the law in a majority of states, perennially proposed in Congress, and presently being drafted into EU law.

Anti-SLAPP began as a modest and rational means to deter corporations from weaponizing frivolous litigation against protestors, silencing them with legal fees. Thus, many anti-SLAPP laws penalize unsuccessful civil plaintiffs by charging them for the defendant's attorney fees. But the corporate media defense bar fell in love with anti-SLAPP. It's now a potent weapon for corporations to silence persons who dare say they've been defamed, or had their privacy invaded, in mass publication. 

It's important to remember that just because a plaintiff is unsuccessful in civil litigation does not mean that the plaintiff was not wronged. Defamation and privacy law is rife with defendant-friendly mechanisms designed to over-protect media defendants from even meritorious claims, from evidentiary privileges, to limitations on discovery, to daunting burdens such as the New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (U.S. 1964) "actual malice" standard. Anti-SLAPP piles on another prophylactic defense, one that works so fast, a defendant need not even answer the complaint.

I've been consistent in my opposition to anti-SLAPP's poisonous growth, especially its fee-shifting penalty. Frequent litigant Donald Trump, by the way, has been on both sides of anti-SLAPP fees, having been awarded nearly $300,000 in attorney fees against Stormy Daniels in response to her claim of defamation. It sometimes amuses me and sometimes saddens me to see civil rights advocates, journalists, and media law professors align themselves with mega-corporations in publishing, eager to line the pockets of Big Law.

United States v. Yu. The instant case is criminal, not civil. But the case involves a civil restitution statute that allows for a criminal defendant to be charged with the legal fees incurred by a "victim." 

Haoyang Yu, a naturalized U.S. citizen of Chinese descent, was a Boston-area engineer charged with 21 crimes in connection with his work developing chip technology for Analog Devices, Inc. (ADI). The court dismissed one charge and acquitted Yu of another before submitting 19 charges to the jury. The jury acquitted Yu of 18 charges and convicted him of one only: illegal possession of trade secrets. 

More or less, Yu took his work home with him, and his work included a proprietary chip design. The government had accused Yu of much worse: intention to steal ADI tech either to start his own company or to pass research to the Chinese government. Yu was caught up in a government crackdown amid fear of foreign espionage in the American tech industry. The evidence did not bear out the suspicion.

Critics point to Yu's Chinese origin and ancestry to allege that he was a victim of racial profiling. The trial judge in the case even acknowledged, "It's hard to say that Mr. Yu’s race or ethnicity was not a factor here" (Lexington Observer, June 2, 2023). APA (Asian Pacific American) Justice has tracked Yu's case. The Intercept covered the case in 2022. Critics pointed out that allegations such as those in Yu typically are resolved in mere civil litigation over theft of trade secrets. Yu was sentenced to six months' imprisonment and a fine, and then was sued by ADI.

The part of the case pertinent here is the Government's motion in federal district court that Yu be ordered to pay $606,879 to ADI attorneys at high-end firms WilmerHale and Quinn Emanuel. The Government invoked the Mandatory Restitution to Victims Act (MRVA).

The MRVA was enacted in 1996. A U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) summary of the law doesn't much conjure a corporation as the kind of "victim" the law was meant to help. DOJ imagined "[v]ictims of crimes such as telemarketing, child exploitation, interstate domestic violence and sexual assault." The summary contemplates victims' "lost income and necessary child care, transportation, and other expenses related to participation in the investigation or prosecution of the offense."

In contrast, the fat legal bills in Yu include, according to, e.g., Brian Dowling at Law360 (subscription), $1,865 per hour for a Quinn Emanuel partner to watch the trial from the gallery. Other hourly rates at Quinn range from $320 for a paralegal, $880 for a second-year associate, and $1,095 for a fourth-year associate, to $1,440 for "counsel."

When I was in practice in the mid-1990s, as a first- and second-year associate, my billing rate with Big Law in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., was in the neighborhood of $120 per hour. I made about $25 per hour. Today, in academics, I make about $115 per hour (unrealistically assuming I work only 40 hours per week for nine months). According to public data, my students graduating UMass Law today will make about what I did in 1995, public or private sector. No adjustment for inflation.

Multiplying out the Quinn counsel rate yields $2.88m per year. Even if only 20% is paid out in salary, that's $576,000 per year. Not bad. I bet, though, that the $1,865/hr. attorney, a former Acting U.S. Attorney, takes home better than 20%. I guess the difference between the 1990s and now is that back then, shame was still a thing. 

Meanwhile, the bar is eager to tell law schools that it no longer can afford to mentor and train lawyers on the job, and that we should purge from the curriculum the esoteria of legal theory and public policy in favor of producing "practice ready" billing machines.

Quinn Emanuel has an entertainment and media litigation group that defends defamation and privacy claims for mass-market publishers. If I find myself defamed or otherwise wronged by a Quinn Emanuel media client, I shudder to think what the tab might be if I sue, but can't prove actual malice. Thanks to anti-SLAPP fee-shifting, Quinn Emanuel can be very well compensated even if one of its clients is negligent in decimating a person's reputation.

Next time a purported champion of the First Amendment or Fourth Estate tells you what a good idea anti-SLAPP is, think about the mahogany furniture and extravagant lifestyle of the Big Law Boston lawyer.

In an MRVA case, Big Law even gets the benefit of taxpayer-funded litigation to get paid, as the Government carries on the demand on behalf of the "victim."

The parties in Yu are now wrangling over the fee demand. The court asked the Government to break down the ask in a spreadsheet. The Government filed a data disc in December.

The case is United States v. Yu (D. Mass. indictment filed 2019), Judge William G. Young presiding.

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

'Fisk' is the civil-practice lawyer you've been looking for

If you're looking to fill that Netflix queue as the writers' strike drags on, check out the Australian sitcom, Fisk.

When I put together a church message on ethics recently, I was looking to fill out a line about civil practice attorneys and coming up short. I wanted to make the point that when someone says "personal injury lawyer," we are quick to think of iconic unethical characters, and it's harder to conjure up the ethical ones. I didn't at first realize how much harder.

I ran the thought experiment on myself first. Even for me, a torts prof, it's hard, first, to filter out criminal lawyers. When I work the problem chronologically, the first character lawyer I remember adoring in my youth is Star Trek's Samuel T. Cogley (Elisha Cook), who defended Captain Kirk in a court-martial: criminal. The first civil selection that comes to mind is Boston Legal's Alan Shore (James Spader). But even he first appeared on The Practice, a criminal-law show.

Solidly on the civil side, unethical characters do come to mind quickly. For the message, I settled on My Cousin Vinny's Vinny Gambini (Joe Pesci), who was a civil-practice attorney out of his depth in a criminal-law storyline, and, to cross generations, Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul's Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk). 

Then the ethical characters....  There are plenty in criminal, both prosecution and defense. Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) is most often cited as admired when I survey 1L students. Ben Matlock (Andy Griffith) and Atticus Finch are classics.

Civil? Alas, so few people remember Alan Shore. I briefly considered Victor Sifuentes (Jimmy Smits). But on close inspection, nobody on L.A. Law holds up well as memorable and consistently ethically. There was Ally McBeal (Calista Flockhart), but she had a lot of balls (and dancing babies) in the air besides law practice. I interrogated the staff of The West Wing; none of the leads was a lawyer. I'm fond of Madam Secretary's Mike B. (Kevin Rahm), but he was as often as not a devil's advocate to test Elizabeth McCord's righteousness. Erin Brockvich? Real-life hero, but, to be technical, paralegal and consultant, not lawyer. Maybe Ralph Nader, though then it gets political.

John Calvin (1509-1564)
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
For the church message, I settled on the real-life John Calvin, the 16th-century French theologian. He trained as a lawyer before he got caught up in the Reformation. It's a reach, I know.  But the bench is not deep, and Calvin was a stalwart for his faith.

So I come back around to Fisk, the title character of which is lawyer Helen Tudor-Fisk, created and played by comedian Kitty Flanagan. Tudor-Fisk was a high-powered corporate lawyer in Sydney until a bitter divorce and a workplace meltdown prompted her to upend her career and move to Melbourne. There she struggled to find a bed and a job, landing as a temporary fill-in for a suspended trusts-and-estates lawyer at a scrappy two-partner shop.

Fisk is not about law or legal ethics. The show, and its comedy, derive from Flanagan's delightfully dry-witted character as she navigates the ups and downs of her shattered life. The law practice is setting and background. But then—I don't think it's a big spoiler to say—her quiet diligence in her new job suddenly and gratifyingly comes to the fore in the finale of the six-episode season 1.

When I finished Fisk s1 last week, my own biases were laid bare. I had tried to think of what an ethical civil-practice attorney looks like. I pictured a renowned, tough-as-nails civil litigator, a silver-haired Matlock analog, dazzling jurors in the courtroom in "ripped from the headlines" cases.

Forget all that. Helen is the real deal.

I fell for Fisk.

Season 1 of Fisk is streaming now on Netflix. Season 2 ran on Australian Broadcasting last year; to my knowledge, it has not yet been licensed to stream in America.

UPDATE Oct. 22, 2023: Fisk s2 is now available to purchase in America from services including Amazon Prime.

Friday, March 24, 2023

In wake of Stanford free speech fiasco, Duncan models civility, and dean surprises with powerful letter

Abortion rights rally at Stanford Law in 2022.
(Suiren2022 via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)
After the brouhaha at Stanford Law School in which protestors disrupted a lecture by Trump-appointed U.S. Circuit Judge Kyle Duncan, Stanford Dean Jenny S. Martinez this week stood up for free speech on campus.

There are video and audio recordings aplenty on the internet if you want to learn more about what happened March 9. Here's David Lat with the play by play. For my money, the take-away is that a guest federal judge was treated disrespectfully—dare I say uncvilly?—in an effort to silence him, and even a school administrator joined in the effort. That must have been the dean's take, too, when she issued an apology to Duncan, which drew a disruptive protest of her office in turn.

Martinez's letter is masterful and worth a read for the First Amendment refresher and expression of commitment to academic freedom at even a private school. She put the protesting administrator on leave and pledged mandatory educational programming for the student body on free speech and legal professionalism. 

Frankly, I was shocked. I do not expect deans in today's legal academy to stake out clear and strong positions on, well, anything other than which way the wind is blowing.

Today Duncan appeared at Notre Dame Law School and talked about the incident. His remarks and the Q&A livestreamed and are available on YouTube. To be fair, many renditions of what went down at Stanford report rudeness from both sides, whoever struck the first blow. However so, there was none of that at Notre Dame. Duncan's remarks were unremarkable, but that struck the right tone. The thrust of his assessment was that zealous disagreement is laudable, but shouting down one's opponent or merely vituperating one's ideological adversary does nothing to enrich the marketplace of ideas. Like me here, he lauded Martinez's letter.

In a curious coincidence, and really the only reason I throw my two-cent hat into this ring, I today (at last) finished legendary lawyer Robert Corn-Revere's superb 2021 book, Mind of the Censor and Eye of the Beholder: The First Amendment and the Censor's Dilemma.  The book could not be more on point in the Duncan matter.

Mind of the Censor is chock full of engaging prose and a paean to the freedom of expression in our troubled times. But it's the final chapter that delivers the biggest bang for the buck with a delightful Jeff Foxworthy-esque list of 10 reasons to suspect "you might be a censor."  And apropos of Duncan's comments today, Corn-Revere's number 8 reads, "You Might Be a Censor if You Believe that Silencing Speech You Dislike Is the Exercise of Your Rights."

I wrote just this week about "civility" being deployed as a new, conveniently vague code word to suppress academic freedom. To be clear, I wasn't speaking against civility. The problem arises in the misuse of the word to differentiate speech one wants to hear from speech one does not want to hear.

It's OK to disagree with Duncan, indeed, to disagree vehemently. He spoke today of the challenge all judges face in remaining open to the possibility that they are wrong in their preconceptions. Civility is about respecting other people regardless of agreement or disagreement, and acting ethically, accordingly. Thus, willingness to hear challenges to our thinking is part and parcel of civility and goes hand in hand with an expectation that others will hear our challenges, too.

I'm really not wrong about this.

Monday, February 27, 2023

Judge chides attorney for not wearing coat

An Arkansas Supreme Court justice earlier this month called out a professor-attorney for not wearing a coat in a Zoom argument.

Associate Justice Courtney Rae Hudson took to task attorney and Professor Robert Steinbuch, Arkansas Little Rock, my colleague and past co-author on freedom-of-information works (book, essay), first, for not wearing a coat over his button-down shirt in the Zoom argument on February 2, and then for not having asked advance permission to use a demonstrative exhibit. She had the court and counsel wait painfully while Steinbuch and his attorney-client fetched coats.

Steinbuch probably should've worn a coat. He told Justice Hudson he had not because it interfered with his handling of the exhibit, a statutory text, within the small space of the camera view. Good excuse, bad excuse; either way, Justice Hudson's handling of the matter was condescending and, coming as it did after Steinbuch's argument, felt more personal than professional. My impression as a viewer was that Hudson was the one who came off looking worse for the exchange.

Being an aggressive advocate for transparency and accountability in Arkansas, Steinbuch has many allies in mass media, and they were not as gentlemanly about what went down as Steinbuch was. The aptly named Snarky Media Report made a YouTube video highlighting the exchange.  As Snarky told it, "Justice Hudson pulled out her Karen Card." Snarky also observed, with captured image in evidence, that "[s]everal times during the hearing Hudson appeared to be spitting into a cup."

More seriously, Snarky took the occasion to highlight past instances in which Hudson's ethics were called into question. Hudson (formerly Goodson), who was elected to the court in 2010, and her now ex-husband, a class action attorney, took two vacations abroad, valued together at $62,000, at the expense of Arkansas litigator W.H. Taylor (Legal Newsline). Hudson did report the gifts, and she said she would recuse from any case in which Taylor was involved.

Very well, but my suspicions of bias run a bit deeper. Hudson's vacation-mate ex, John Goodson, is chairman of the board of the University of Arkansas. (Correction, May 9, 2023: I'm told that Goodson ended his service on the board a year or so ago; I've not been able to ascertain the date.) One of Steinbuch's tireless transparency causes has been for Arkansas Freedom of Information Act access to the foundation funding of the university system in Arkansas, especially the flagship University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. Indeed, Steinbuch wrote just last week (and on January 29), in his weekly column for The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, about that very issue in connection with secret spending at Arkansas State University. University System counsel have fought ferociously and successfully for decades to stop any lawsuit or legislative bill that would open foundation books to public scrutiny.

Goodson also has what the Democrat-Gazette characterized in 2019 as "deep political and legal connections around the state" with disgraced former state Senator Jeremy Hutchinson. Hutchinson is a nemesis of former Arkansas politician Dan Greenberg (a longtime friend of mine). After Greenberg lost the senate race to Hutchinson in 2010, Greenberg sued a local newspaper, alleging a deliberate campaign of misinformation. Steinbuch supported Greenberg in the suit. Though Greenberg was unable to demonstrate actual malice to the satisfaction of the courts, discovery in the suit revealed a problematically cozy relationship between the newspaper editor and Hutchinson.

The day after the oral argument in Steinbuch's case, Hutchinson was sentenced to 46 months in prison on federal charges of bribery and tax fraud—ironic, given that a false report of ethical misconduct was a rumor that Hutchinson had sewn about Greenberg in 2010. 

I don't know; maybe Justice Hudson just gets really hung up on men's attire.  She does hail from a conservative corner of Arkansas.

But a wise friend once told me, "Nothing in Arkansas happens for the reason you think it happens."

The case is Corbitt v. Pulaski County Jail, No. CV-22-204 (Ark. oral arg. Feb. 2, 2023).

Monday, February 20, 2023

Judge teaches, supports professional development by encouraging appearance of junior attorneys

In multi-district civil antitrust litigation over turkey prices, a federal magistrate judge in Illinois in the fall issued an unusual order, calling on litigating firms to designate only junior attorneys to argue motions.

Pending before the court at the time were three pretrial matters, a discussion of expert testimony, a motion to preclude a deposition, and a motion to amend a scheduling order. On October 20, 2022, Magistrate Judge Gabriel A. Fuentes wrote:

[T]he Court would like to offer junior counsel an opportunity to speak to the expert discovery issue and to argue the two motions. The Court strikes the [planned telephonic] hearing and resets it to [Nov. 1,] when there will be ample time to address all three issues. If the parties do not indicate that they will permit junior associates to argue the motions, the Court will hold the hearing telephonically on the expert discovery issue only and will decide the two motions on the paper submissions.

The Court kindly requests that the parties confer and notify the courtroom deputy ... whether counsel with less than four years of experience after law school will be permitted to speak and argue; ideally, different counsel would argue the two different motions for the arguing parties. Also, multiple junior counsel could divide a party's arguments on a single motion if it makes logical sense to do so. Senior counsel of course may and should attend in a supervisory role and will be permitted to add or clarify as they see fit.

No inferences should be drawn about the importance of any motion to the Court based on the Court's attempt to create professional development opportunities for junior counsel. Additionally, the status hearing on the expert discovery issue strikes the Court as one that could be addressed by junior counsel.

(Paragraph breaks added.)

Judge Fuentes has served on the bench for almost four years, since May 2019. Before his appointment to the bench, Fuentes was an accomplished lawyer, and before law school, an accomplished journalist.

Fuentes wrote news and sports for local papers as a secondary-school student, and he worked his way up to managing editor of the Daily Northwestern while at the Medill Journalism School. He worked for four years as a reporter for The Los Angeles Times before going back to the Northwestern Pritzker Law School. After six years as an attorney associate, Fuentes made partner at Jenner and Block; left to serve about five years as an assistant U.S. attorney; then returned to Jenner and Block for 13 more years.

While practicing as a litigator in white collar defense, antitrust, and media law, Fuentes maintained a heavy docket of pro bono practice. In 2015, the Chicago Bar Foundation recognized his work "on indigent criminal defense, prisoner rights, the protection of voting rights for minorities, and First Amendment issues." In particular, Fuentes never stayed true to his journalistic roots, for example, once negotiating with counsel for Western University Illinois University on behalf of a student investigative journalist.

Being also a product of journalism and law schools, and likewise having represented student journalists pro bono, I identify with Judge Fuentes's experience. More importantly, as a law professor, I appreciate Fuentes's initiative to help new attorneys in big-law practice to get real forensic experience. 

Much of what is wrong with legal education today can be traced to the bean-counter orientation of administrators, universities, and the American Bar Association as accreditor, all of which are more concerned with bar pass statistics, superficial diversity, and, above all else, revenues, than with whether students actually learn anything worthwhile or grow as moral actors. Yes, law schools do care about making students "practice ready," but that only because the bar, unlike the medical fraternity, has shirked its historic responsibility to teach. The responsibility has devolved wholly on law schools, where practical skills training has all but supplanted the policy, theory, and moral deliberation that are supposed to make law a profession rather than mere occupation.

Fuentes has counseled students at Medill and taught adjunct at Pritzker, so he's kept a hand in the classroom, too. I don't know Fuentes. But to me, his apparent ability to synthesize his career experiences into simultaneous roles of servant and mentor represents the very model of professional identity. His minute order entry of October 20 should be the norm, not a headline.

Judge Fuentes ruled on the motions on November 9, and entered into the record: "The Court extends its thanks to the parties and counsel for allowing junior associates to argue and address these matters, and the associates are commended for an excellent performance."

The underlying case is In re Turkey Antitrust Litigation, No. 1:19-cv-08318 (N.D. Ill. filed Dec. 19, 2019). HT @ Adrian Cruz, Law360.

Thursday, January 26, 2023

Ukraine Bar Association soldiers on

Lawyers have never stopped work in Ukraine, and the bar has been a catalyst in the development of democracy there, I learned today at a presentation of the Federalist Society.

Gvozdiy via Zoom from Kyiv today.
Via Zoom from Kyiv, Dr. Valentyn Gvozdiy, vice president of the Ukraine Bar Association, joined the Federalist Society International and National Security Practice Group to talk about the evolution of the profession in Ukraine and the role of lawyers in the present war. Dr. George Bogden interviewed Gvozdiy.

The talk came on the heels of news of the firing of a slate of top Ukrainian government officials in a corruption scandal. Gvozdiy addressed that developing story, too, in response to questions.

After the independence of Ukraine from the Soviet Union in 1991, the legislature adopted a "Law on the Bar," in 1992, Gvozdiy recounted. The enactment liberated the bar from "complete state control," but instituted only "quasi self-governance."

Ukraine had long looked to join the European community of nations, and work began promptly after independence to move the country in that direction. A key plank in the platform of European standards, Gvozdiy explained, is the existence of an independent bar. A 1995 resolution in the Council of Europe provided an incentive, recommending the organization of Ukrainian lawyers. The recommendation later became a precondition of the landmark Ukraine-EU association agreement in 2014.

Formal progress was long stalled by the very conflict that animates the present war. The fledgling Ukrainian state was weak, and political leaders were susceptible to corruption by easterly interests. Like popular opinion and the commercial sector, the developing bar leaned westward. By the time Donetsk Oblast-born Viktor Yanukovych claimed the presidency in 2010, to the dismay of the United States, the Russian-leaning leader was walking a tightrope that could not hold. Katya Gorchinskaya explained for Eurasianet:

The catalyst for the Yanukovych administration’s downfall was Ukraine’s stop-and-start efforts to sign an association agreement with the European Union. By late 2013, a majority of the population backed a draft agreement. But the pact to draw Ukraine closer to the EU placed Yanukovych in a tough situation. The treaty would open the way for substantial EU economic assistance and other perks, such as visa-free travel to Europe for Ukrainian citizens. But it would also mandate compliance with transparency and accountability provisions that gave Yanukovych and his associates reason to pause. In addition, Russia, the Ukrainian president’s main foreign patron, was steadfastly against seeing Ukraine take even the tiniest step toward Europe.

Amid the push and pull, Parliament coughed up landmark legislation in 2012 that established the Ukraine Bar Association as fully self-governing. Two years later, the Maidan Revolution deposed Yanukovych, Ukraine and the EU concluded the association agreement, and Russia invaded Crimea.

"'An obstacle is often a stepping stone,'" Gvozdiy said of Yanukovych, invoking a maxim usually attributed to U.S. Revolutionary War Colonel William Prescott. "The former president is not only not popular in Ukraine, he is the worst person we can imagine in our recent political history."

The recent ouster of top Ukrainian officials amid a corruption scandal has unsettled supporters of Ukraine with fear that the Zelensky Administration looks unstable. The news broke at a sensitive time, as the Biden Administration is navigating German reluctance to provide advanced tanks to Ukraine and skepticism over military investment in Ukraine from House Republicans. Meanwhile, Joanna Kakissis explained for NPR, Putin will seize on the news to bolster his characterization of Ukraine as a western puppet and threat to Russian security, incompetent in purported independence without Russian intervention.

In fact, the ouster is a good sign for Ukraine and should bolster western support, Gvozdiy said. Zelensky is signaling to Ukrainians and the world that contemporary Ukraine has "complete intolerance to the corruption."

Formerly, politicians robbed public coffers, and any court order to halt corruption was unenforceable, he said. The ouster now demonstrates Ukraine's remarkable progress in only a few years.

Yet in the present war, the bar is among democratic institutions fighting for survival, Gvozdiy said. The bar "would wither and absolutely disappear under Russian law."

Ukrainian advocates have "never stopped practicing law during the war," Gvozdiy said. Their work has included the defense of prisoners of war, if often to the chagrin of Ukrainians. (Other members of the legal community, such as prosecutors and judges, are busy too, for example, collecting evidence of war crimes. They are law-educated, but, unlike advocates, not members of the bar, as Ukraine follows a bar model in the European civil law tradition.)

Upholding the rule of law is the lawyer's constitutional obligation, Gvozdiy said. "We're not defending their crimes," he said of the POWs. "We defend their human rights."

One program attendee asked what American lawyers can do to help. Relayed by Bogden, the questioner expressed frustration that we don't have on-the-ground skills with obvious application, like other professionals have. 

I often have shared this frustration. We can't charge to the rescue like healthcare workers, nor mission like clergy. Even for pro bono projects at ABA conferences in the United States, I've picked up litter and organized dogs for vaccination, but I've never been asked to use my skills as a lawyer.

Gvozdiy's response was revealing, but not gratifying. Ukrainian lawyers need not just financial support, he said, but mental health support.

"We need professionals who can help us in a professional way to understand better how we need to behave and work and combine war with the practice of law," he explained. "We need training ... which will teach us how to react and how to reflect, how to communicate, how to live in peace with yourself and with all this pressure as a professional."

I'm not sure we're well stocked in the United States with experts in practicing law in a war zone. But when the conflict finally comes to an end in Ukraine, I know where we can find some.

Saturday, January 1, 2022

Code might inevitably regulate journalism in digital age

The U.K. Information Commissioner's Office is working on a "journalism code of practice" to legislate against defamation and invasion of privacy by mass media.

Principally and ostensibly, the code is intended to bring media law into conformity with U.K. data protection law, essentially the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), including the stories "right to be forgotten," or right to erasure (RTBF). On the ground, the picture is more complicated. The British phone hacking scandal and following Leveson Inquiry constitute a strong causal thread in public receptiveness to media regulation.

Cambridge legal scholar David Erdos analyzed the draft code for the INFORRM public in part one and part two postings in October.  The code incorporates media torts such as defamation of privacy and misuse of private information (MOPI), the latter a common law innovation of British courts to facilitate enforcement of data protection rights. I have posited in other venues that common law tort similarly might provide a way forward to fill gaps in information privacy law in the United States.

Journalism and data protection rights have been on a collision course for a quarter century, like a slow-motion car wreck, and the draft journalism code is a harbinger of the long anticipated impact.  Back in 1995, when the EU GDPR-predecessor Data Protection Directive was brand new, the renowned media law scholar Jane Kirtley published an article in the Iowa Law Review, "The EU Data Protection Directive and the First Amendment: Why a 'Press Exemption' Won't Work."  Kirtley foresaw data protection and the First Amendment's arguably irreconcilable differences before most U.S. scholars had even heard of data protection.

In those innocent days, journalism ethics was reshaping itself to preserve professionalism in the newly realized and anxiety-inducing 24/7 news cycle.  A key plank in the new-ethics platform was its essentiality to resist regulation.  In 2000, media law attorney Bruce Sanford published the book Don't Shoot the Messenger: How Our Growing Hatred of the Media Threatens Free Speech for All of Us.  Then in 2001, everything changed, and mass media and their consumers became engrossed by new concerns over government accountability.

In a way, the consolidation of media regulation in a generation of code could be a relief for journalism, especially on the European continent.  In an age of ever more complex regulatory mechanisms, codification can offer bright lines and safe harbors to guard against legal jeopardy.  Information service providers from local newspapers to transnationals such as Google are struggling to comply with new legal norms such as the RTBF, and there is as yet little evidence of uniformity of norms, much less convergence. Yet even if industry ultimately embraces the security of code, what's good for business is not necessarily good for wide-ranging freedom of expression. 

Courts, too, are struggling with novel problems.  For example, in late November, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in Biancardi v. Italy that RTBF de-indexing orders extend beyond search engines and bind original news publishers.  Writing for Italian Tech and INFORRM, attorney Andrea Monti fairly fretted that the decision effectively compels journalistic organizations to expend resources in constant review of their archives, else face liability in data protection law.  The result, Monti reasoned, will be to discourage preservation, manifesting a threat to the very existence of historical record.

On the one hand, it's foolish to wring one's hands for fear that journalism is being newly subordinated to legal regulation.  Tort itself is a regulatory mechanism, and defamation has been around for a long time, notwithstanding the seeming absolutism of the First Amendment.  On the other hand, media regulation by law looks nothing like the punctilious supervision of regulated industries, including the practice of law.

In my own education, I found the contrast in approaches to ethics perplexing.  In journalism school, my ethics class had been taught aptly by a religion scholar who led impassioned discussions about handout hypotheticals.  In law school, the textbook in legal profession hit the desk with a thud for what was as much a study of model or uniform code as was crim or sales.

With no "First Amendment" per se, media regulation by code is not the novelty in the U.K. that it would be in the United States.  Still, with privacy and digital rights sweeping the globe, law is poised to regulate journalism in new ways everywhere, whether through the subtlety of common law or the coercive power of civil regulation.  American courts will not be able to escape their role in reshaping fundamental rights for the digital world, as European courts are at work doing now.  Kirtley foresaw the issues in 1995, and the chickens are slowly but surely turning up at the roost.

The present ICO consultation closes on January 10, 2022.

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Disputed allegations in malicious prosecution suits against Apple raise data protection issues

Apple Store Osaka (S├ębastien Bertrand CC BY 2.0)
A case of identity theft, now the subject of lawsuits against Apple and a security contractor, SIS, in three jurisdictions, seems to have raised an alarm about data protection.  But the case might be more complicated, as the defendants have accused the plaintiff of false pleadings.

Plaintiff Ousmane Bah was a 17-year-old Bronx honors student and permanent resident alien applying for citizenship at times relevant to the complaints.  An acquaintance of Bah's acquired Bah's temporary New York driving learner's permit (ID); it is disputed what Bah knew about the acquisition.

The ID did not have a photo, and the biographical data did not match the acquaintance's in all particulars, such as height.  Nevertheless, when the acquaintance was, according to the complaints, apprehended trying to shoplift from Apple stores in New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, he was misidentified as Bah.  Bah was criminally charged, subject to arrest warrants, and repeatedly compelled to defend himself.  The case does not directly implicate the known risk of race discrimination in facial recognition algorithms.  But in Bah’s version of events, Apple's use of facial recognition technology to identify the perpetrator in subsequent incidents gave police a false confidence that the suspect was Bah.

Apple and SIS have filed for Rule 11 sanctions in New Jersey and characterize the complaint in that jurisdiction as fiction.  They rely on discovered communication between Bah and the acquaintance to allege that Bah knew well that he was being impersonated, and that misidentification resulted from the acquaintance’s deliberate deception, not from error on the part of Apple or SIS. 

Media have been quick to seize on the allegations in the initial complaint, which does resonate with extant privacy issues in public policy.  If the plaintiff’s allegations are complete and accurate, then the case speaks to Americans’ lack of comprehensive data protection law.  A data protection regulation like Europe’s, generally speaking, would shift the burdens of fair and accurate identification to the defendants, rather than a victim of identity theft, time and again.

Moreover, if the plaintiff’s allegations are complete and accurate, the case has unpleasant overtones in race and socioeconomic equality.  A mismatch of data between the false ID and the acquaintance's appearance prompts concern that “black” was all the retailer needed to see, and one must worry whether persons of limited means can afford to defend themselves against false charges and wrongful arrest, not to mention the collateral effects of publication of misidentification to third parties, such as employers and creditors.

Bah claims defamation and malicious prosecution.  The complaints at least allege evidence in support of actual malice, which Apple and SIS deny.  Malicious prosecution is usually a claim made against public officials in tandem with civil rights violations, but the tort is viable against private parties who initiate criminal proceedings on false pretenses.  Whether the plaintiff’s allegations hold up, I do not know.  The counter-allegations of Apple and SIS in seeking sanctions in the New Jersey case are biting.

The cases are:

  • Bah v. Apple Inc., No. 1:19-cv-03539-PKC (S.D.N.Y. filed Apr. 22, 2019) (Court Listener);
  • Bah v. Apple Inc., No. 2:20-cv-15018-MCA-MAH (D.N.J. filed Oct. 27, 2020) (Court Listener); and
  • Bah v. Apple Inc., No. 1:21-cv-10897-RGS (D. Mass. filed May 28, 2021) (Court Listener).
Bah is represented in the New York case by UMass Law alumnus Subhan Tariq, '13.  My thanks to Steven Zoni, '13, for bringing this case to my attention.