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

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

'What is truth?': 8th Circuit wrangles over ag gag

The Eighth Circuit reached mixed outcomes yesterday in First Amendment review of the Iowa "ag gag" law, upholding a criminal prohibition on entering agricultural production facilities under false pretenses.

Sausage packing in Chicago, 1893
"Ag gag" refers to laws designed to deter undercover investigative reporting on the agricultural industry, especially by criminalization. On the one side, journalists, public health advocates, and animal rights activists point to a tradition of undercover reporting dating to the Upton Sinclair muckraking classic The Jungle (1906), which exposed labor exploitation in the meat industry.

Journalist and professor Brooke Kroeger—who filed an amicus with the Eighth Circuit in the instant case—in her book Undercover Reporting: The Truth About Deception (2012), actually traces the tradition farther back, to reporting on slavery and human trafficking in the 19th century.  For a more recent entry in the genre, check out Michael Holtz's fascinating pandemic-era report, in last month's Atlantic, from inside a Kansas slaughterhouse.

On the other side, private business and advocates for private property rights point to the simple proposition that falsehood is impermissible in commerce and should not be permitted to facilitate trespass and undermine (markedly unidirectional) employee loyalty.

Insofar as the problem boils down to the criminalization of falsity, a fuzziness surfaces in First Amendment fundamentals.  The U.S. Supreme Court has long recited competing mantras on the permissibility of state regulation of falsity.  For example, commercial speech doctrine cuts a wide berth for the regulation of false and misleading expression, allowing free speech and consumer protection law to coexist upon the premise that falsity has no social value.  At the same time, First Amendment doctrine in areas such as defamation law, animated by the Miltonian-Millian philosophy of liberty, tells us that a free marketplace of ideas must allow for the expression of falsity so that truth can be tested and revealed.

The Court tackled this dichotomy in United States v. Alvarez in 2012, striking down part of the Stolen Valor Act of 2005, which criminalized misrepresentation of military honors.  But the Court fractured on rationale.  The plurality applied First Amendment strict scrutiny, and a concurrence would have applied intermediate scrutiny.  No one challenged the negligible scrutiny that abides criminalization of falsity in perjury, for example.  The distinction that upped the ante in Alvarez was the statute's "sweeping, quite unprecedented reach," regardless of context, regardless of motive.  Whereas a perjury prohibition plainly protects the integrity of the judicial process, the Stolen Valor Act pertained "to a false statement made at any time, in any place, to any person," for any reason.

And it was on that distinction that the Eighth Circuit perceived a difference in two provisions of the Iowa ag gag law.  One provision the court, affirming the district court, struck down, concerning the criminalization of false statements on an employment application.  The Iowa legislature, like Congress in Alvarez, overreached.

The proscription of the Employment Provision does not require that false statements made as part of an employment application be material to the employment decision.... [The statute] allows for prosecution of those who make false statements that are not capable of influencing an offer of employment. Plausible scenarios abound: the applicant falsely professes to maintain a wardrobe like the interviewer’s, exaggerates her exercise routine, or inflates his past attendance at the hometown football stadium.

The court reached a different conclusion on the provision prohibiting access to agricultural production facilities upon false pretenses.  That implication of falsity was sufficiently linked to "a legally cognizable harm—namely, trespass to private property"—that the court placed the provision beyond First Amendment review, distinguishing the ag gag law from the Stolen Valor Act.  "The better rule in light of Alvarez is that intentionally false speech undertaken to accomplish a legally cognizable harm may be proscribed without violating the First Amendment."

The opinion has a bit of candy for tortheads, too, in reasoning that even trespass warranting only nominal damages is "a legally cognizable harm."  "Trespass is an ancient cause of action that is long recognized in this country. See United States v. Jones [U.S. 2012]; 3 William Blackstone, Commentaries  ... ," the court began.

[The district] court’s own citation to Black’s Law Dictionary acknowledged that nominal damages are "awarded when a legal injury is suffered but there is no substantial loss or injury to be compensated." Damages, Black’s Law Dictionary (10th ed. 2014) (emphasis added). Nominal damages are not "purely symbolic, a mere judicial token that provides no actual benefit to the plaintiff." Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski [U.S. 2021]. They are, rather, damages paid to a plaintiff that provide redress for an injury. Id.... Even without physical damage to property arising from a trespass, these damages may compensate a property owner for a diminution of privacy and a violation of the right to exclude—legally cognizable harms. See ALDF v. Wasden ... (9th Cir. 2018) (Bea, J., dissenting in part and concurring in part); see also Cedar Point Nursery v. Hassid [U.S. 2021] ("The right to exclude is one of the most treasured rights of property ownership.")....

The complainant in the Iowa case is the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), which has litigated and is litigating ag gag challenges throughout the country.  (I'm faculty adviser for the Student Animal Legal Defense Fund at UMass Law.)

The first time I testified in a legislative hearing, in my first year of teaching in 1998, I spoke, at the invitation of the Society of Professional Journalists, against an Arkansas ag gag bill.  The bill died in committee.  In the 1990s, an earlier generation of ag gag laws targeted speech about Big Ag as a form of civil or criminal defamation.  That approach was especially vulnerable to First Amendment challenge.

Food Lion Kings Mountain, N.C.
(Mike Kalasnik CC BY-SA 2.0)
At the same time, in the 1990s, the Food Lion case against ABC News, over undercover reporting on food mishandling, was playing out in the courts.  By decade's end, Food Lion prevailed against the ABC defendants for trespass and breach of the employee duty of loyalty, but not for defamation or fraud.  Big Ag learned to reframe ag gag to focus on conduct, rather than speech.  The next generation of ag gag laws aimed to protect private property against trespass, feigning ignorance of First Amendment implications.

Presently, the ALDF is fighting a broad Arkansas ag gag law, in the property-protective vein, enacted in 2017.  On Monday, the day before the Iowa opinion was announced, the Eighth Circuit revived and remanded the ALDF suit in Arkansas.  The district court had dismissed upon an erroneous understanding of First Amendment standing.  The Arkansas law is a model of special interest legislation enacted at the behest of Big Ag power-player Vaught Farms.

The Eighth Circuit opinions in both the Iowa case and the Arkansas case were authored by Judge Steven Colloton, an Iowan.  Judge Colloton had different co-panelists in each case, and both panels generated a dissent.  In the Iowa case, Judge Raymond Gruender, a Missourian reportedly short-listed by President Trump for the Supreme Court, would have upheld the Iowa law in both provisions.  In the Arkansas case, Judge Bobby Shepherd, an Arkansan criticized for upholding Missouri anti-abortion laws to set up a challenge to Roe v. Wade, tracked the erroneous reasoning of the district court on standing.

I find worth quoting a short concurrence in the Iowa case.  Judge L. Steven Grasz, a Nebraskan, hints at the relationship between ag gag and the bigger First Amendment picture of our contemporary misinformation crisis.

This nation was founded on the concept of objective truth ("We hold these truths to be self-evident...."). And some of our nation's oldest institutions were founded as instrumentalities of the search for truth (Veritas). The quest for truth has not, of course, ended; nor has the clash between the free flow of ideas and the desire to punish untruthful speech that is perceived as harmful. The law has long provided for legal consequences for false speech constituting fraud, perjury, and defamation. The present case, however, presents a new category of deceit which the State of Iowa seeks to penalize. Some see it as investigative journalism. Others see it as lying to further an agenda at the expense of private property rights. In either sense, its punishment presents a legal dilemma between protecting property and protecting speech. While some have always questioned whether truth can be known ("What is truth?"), our task is not to answer that question but simply to determine whether the constitution allows the government to criminally punish falsity in the specific context of the statute before us.

I join the court's opinion in full because I believe it is consistent with current law, as best we can determine it from limited and sometimes hazy precedent. Still, I do so hesitantly as to the Access Provision. The court's opinion today represents the first time any circuit court has upheld such a provision. At a time in history when a cloud of censorship appears to be descending, along with palpable public fear of being "cancelled" for holding "incorrect" views, it concerns me to see a new category of speech which the government can punish through criminal prosecution. Ultimately, the Supreme Court will have to determine whether such laws can be sustained, or whether they infringe on the "breathing room" necessary to effectuate the promise of the First Amendment.

Going forward, a key question will be whether access-by-deceit statutes will be applied to punish speech that has instrumental value or which is tied to political or ideological messages....

In general, public interest constitutional litigation against state ag gag has fared very, very well in the courts.  So the Eighth Circuit distinction on the Iowa access provision bucks the trend, which is not to say the court was mistaken.  To my mind, most of the victories against ag gag, as in the Iowa case, have derived from legislative overreach.  As I told the Arkansas committee in 1998, it is possible to draft an "ag gag" bill that would pass constitutional muster.  But such a statute would substantially duplicate the existing tort law of trespass, fraud, and product disparagement.  And while common law tort accommodates constitutional norms by design, rigid statutes are more prone to invite expensive legal challenge in the application.

The real problem, politically for Big Ag, is that it wants more than tort law gives, or than constitutional law permits.  And for public interest advocates, the problem ultimately is one of policy, not constitutional law.  Legislators must be motivated to choose accountability over campaign donations, and the public must be motivated to care about labor conditions and animal welfare, even when opacity precludes investigation.

These cases also resonate in the vein of transparency and access in the private sector.  As I have written previously, contemporary social and economic woes increasingly arise from private-sector abuse of public trust, and our cramped notion of state action is critically diminishing democratic accountability.

The Iowa case is Animal Legal Defense Fund v. Reynolds, No. 19-1364 (8th Cir. Aug. 10, 2021).  The Arkansas case is Animal Legal Defense Fund v. Vaught, No. 20-1538 (8th Cir. Aug. 9, 2021).

Monday, May 17, 2021

Posh Londoners poo poo peekaboo performance art

"Rear Window" by Anthony O'Neil, CC BY-SA 2.0
Residents who live opposite the Tate Modern, an art museum in London on the south bank of the Thames, sued the Tate for private nuisance and will have their appeal heard by the U.K. Supreme Court.  Residents of the swank NEO Bankside apartment building grew discontent two years ago when a new 360-degree viewing platform at the Tate afforded hundreds of thousands of visitors annually a generous vantage point on private quarters as close as 34 meters away.  Some Tate tourists took pictures and shared to social media insights into the private lives of London apartment dwellers.  The problem in legal terms is whether "overlooking" is a private nuisance, and the general rule, at least in an urban environment, is that it is not.  Accordingly, the residents lost in the High Court in 2019 and in the Court of Appeal in 2020.  Not to be deterred, the resident-plaintiffs will press on in the Supreme Court this year.  The case is Fearn v. Tate, [2020] EWCA Civ 104, and Fearn v. Board of Trustees, [2019] EWHC 246 (Ch).  Hat tip to Art Law & More from Boodle Hatfield.

Statute of repose fells tort claim dressed in contract

A farm house in Glocester, R.I.

Immersed in grading perdition in recent weeks, I fell behind in my usually steady diet of popular culture.  Better late than never, I offer, here and in two subsequent posts, for your amazement and amusement, an overdue eclectic assortment of three savory news pickins.

Back in January, remember January? Capitol Riot, Inauguration, that one, the Rhode Island Supreme Court held that the state's 10-year statute of repose and three-year statute of limitations on tort actions for latent defects in real property apply to homeowners who purchased from the builder.  The plaintiff-homeowners purchased their lakefront home in northwestern Rhode Island from the builder in 1997, and they discovered extensive water damage to the lake-facing wall of the house in 2012.  They attributed the damage to improper workmanship and materials.  Because they purchased from the builder, the plaintiffs tried to escape the statute of repose by characterizing their action for breach of implied warranty of habitability as sounding in contract law rather than tort law.  The court disagreed, deciding that the design of the law was to limit builder liability, regardless of whether the plaintiff was an original or subsequent purchaser.  The case is Mondoux v. Vanghel, No. 2018-219-Appeal (R.I. Jan. 27, 2021).  Hat tip to Nicole Benjamin and Crystal Peralta of Adler Pollock & Sheehan, via the Appellate Law Blog at JD Supra.

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Covid-era eviction elicits ancient injunction plea

Clameur de Haro was invoked to block the burial of William the Conqueror in 1087.
Image from Amable Tastu, La Normandie Historique (1858).
We've all seen the strain of the pandemic on our socioeconomic fabric and the rule of law.

Last week came the alarming news that a federal district judge in Texas ruled unconstitutional the eviction moratorium issued by the Centers for Disease Control.  Judge Campbell Barker held in Terkel v. CDC that the moratorium exceeded the federal power that the CDC could exercise on behalf of Congress under the Article I Commerce Clause and Necessary and Proper Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

A friend and colleague on Jersey, a Crown dependency close to France, sent along this fascinating item from the Jersey Evening Post.  A Jersey resident who was served with eviction papers after being unable to pay the mortgage invoked "an ancient legal right" called "the Clameur de Haro."  The Post explained:

To enact the Clameur the aggrieved party must go down on one knee in the location of the offence and then, with hands in the air and in the presence at least two witnesses, must call out: "Haro! Haro! Haro! A l'aide, mon Prince, on me fait tort." This translates as: "Hear me! Hear me! Hear me! Come to my aid, my Prince, for someone does me wrong." The offending activity must cease. The individual then needs to put the grievance down in writing and lodge it with the Judicial Greffe within 24 hours.

Jersey
(image of ESA Copernicus Sentinel-2 CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
Jersey is a fascinating study in comparative law.  One might expect the island to be legally indistinguishable from the UK, but that is not the case at all.  Jersey has its own parliament and legal system.  Unlike the UK, Jersey is not a member of the Hague Convention on the enforcement of foreign civil and commercial judgments, so a foreign entity wishing to enforce there must seek to register the judgment through a domestic legal process.

Collas Crill, "an offshore law firm that never stands still," wrote an explainer in 2018 on the Clameur de Haro in neighboring Channel Island Guernsey, where the process seems to be the same.  The explainer added, "After the cry, both the Lord's prayer and a Grace must be recited by the complainant in French."

Quartz reported how a woman in Guernsey stopped construction on a road improvement project in 2018 by invoking the Clameur de Haro.  According to Quartz, "[t]he clameur was first recorded in Norman law in the 13th century. Its use is believed to have originated in the 10th century as an appeal to Rollo, Viking founder of the Norman dynasty, according to a 2008 article in the Jersey and Guernsey Law Review by lawyer and legal historian Andrew Bridgeford."

Collas Crill lawyers further explained, "Arguably the main reason for the continued use of the Clameur is the immediacy of its effect, although in modern times an additional perceived benefit is the publicity it can draw to your cause."

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Falmouth takings case affords opportunity to plan for sea-level rise, if officials take notice, scholars write

In September, I wrote about a Massachusetts takings case pending petition for review to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court denied review, so the Massachusetts Appeals Court decision that vacated a jury award to the takings claimant stands. My colleagues Professors Chad McGuire and Michael Goodman have written for CommonWealth Magazine about the case's potential implications for climate change in combating sea-level rise.

McGuire and Goodman described the case:

In December the U.S. Supreme Court denied a petition for review by Janice Smyth of Falmouth on the question of whether the Falmouth Conservation Commission, when denying a permit to develop her coastal property in Falmouth, exacted a de facto “taking” (often referred to as a regulatory taking, or inverse condemnation). Smyth inherited the coastal property from her parents but, by the time she took action to exercise her right to develop that land in 2012, she ran afoul of the no-development zone enacted locally to mitigate erosion and coastal land loss experienced over recent decades.

They conclude that government leaders should use the latitude afforded them by this precedent to plan for the coastline impact of climate change while "manag[ing] the consequences for coastal land values, local real estate markets, and the tax base of our coastal municipalities."  Read more.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Takings are out of control; whither went democracy?

My colleague Prof. Ralph Clifford is cited and quoted in this item from the Pacific Legal Foundation. The PLF opined with disapproval upon takings problems in which the government essentially exploits the takings power after discounting property value by tax liability, a one-two punch, kicking the owner to the street.

The abuse is compounded by the continuing latitude of governments to line the pockets of private investment with the proceeds of takings, upheld in Kelo v. New London (2005).  See also the award-winning documentary Little Pink House (2017), and a mouth-watering Kelo epilog.

This on the heels of discussion at UMass Law last week of a U.S. Supreme Court cert. petition filed in Smyth v. Conservation Commission of Falmouth (Mass. App. Ct. Feb. 19, 2019), now No. 19-223 (pet. filed U.S. Sept. 19, 2019), in which the Massachusetts Court of Appeals rejected a takings claim upon denial of a building permit.  (HT@ Dean Eric Mitnick.  The court heard arguments in the case at UMass Law last year.)

One doesn't have to look far nowadays for abuses of governmental power that are bipartisanly objectionable yet persist to the shameless aim of making the rich richer.  I'm presently reading Amor Towles's A Gentleman in Moscow, a fiction about the aftermath of the Russian revolution; when you're a libertarian and you start thinking "those Bolsheviks weren't all bad," something has gone awfully wrong in America.

Here is an excerpt of the PLF item:
Uri is a retired 83-year-old Michigan engineer, and in 2014 he accidentally underpaid, by $8.41, the property taxes on a home he rented out. But instead of notifying him of the issue and helping him, his county government seized the home and sold it at auction for $24,500. The county then kept all the proceeds—leaving Rafaeli with nothing.
All for an 8 buck mistake.
That may sound like an extreme and unusual case. But in fact, this type of tax forfeiture abuse, called home equity theft, is completely legal in 13 states.
In Alabama, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, and Wisconsin, governments not only keep the value of unpaid property taxes and interest from the sale of a seized home—they also keep the surplus value rather than returning it to the property owner. In Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts, and Nebraska, private investors often reap the gains of home equity theft.
Here is the abstract of Prof. Clifford's 2018 study:
Prof. Clifford
The predominant method for collecting delinquent real estate taxes in Massachusetts is the use of the “tax deed” as authorized by Chapter 60, Sections 53-54. Under the authorized procedures, each municipality’s tax collector can execute and record a deed that transfers fee simple title to the real estate to the municipality subject to the taxpayer’s statutorily created redemption right. If the redemption right is or cannot be exercised, all of the taxpayer’s rights in the property, as well as other’s rights created by encumbrances such as mortgages, are terminated by the foreclosure process provided for in the statute. Importantly, the municipality does not obtain title to the taxpayer’s land by foreclosure; instead, it merely frees itself of any remaining claim by the taxpayer.
The problem with the tax deed procedure is that it fails to provide both procedural and substantive due process to the taxpayer. Procedurally, although adequate notice is given, title to the taxpayer’s real estate is taken by the government without a hearing. Based on an unreviewed decision by a municipal tax collector, the taxpayer immediately loses title to the land. Substantively, by using a tax deed, the municipality engages in the taking of property without providing reasonable compensation. The value of the land taken for payment of the tax debt is not evaluated in the context of the debt owed. Empirical evidence shows that the property’s value significantly exceeds the debt owed, giving the municipality the ability to collect almost fifty dollars for every dollar of delinquent real estate tax owed, on average. Each year, approximately $56,000,000 is unconstitutionally appropriated from taxpayers. This article explores these problems. 
And here are the questions presented in the Smyth petition:
In Penn Central Transp. Co. v. N.Y., 438 U.S. 104 (1978), this Court held that Fifth Amendment “regulatory takings” claims are governed by three factors: the “economic impact” of the challenged regulatory action, the extent of interference with a property owner’s “distinct investment-backed expectations” and the “character of the governmental action.” Id.
Falmouth, Mass., property, posted by Frank Haggerty to Patch.
The Massachusetts Appeals Court applied the Penn Central factors to hold that Respondent Town of Falmouth (Town) did not unconstitutionally take Petitioner Janice Smyth’s (Mrs. Smyth) property by denying a permit to build a home. Mrs. Smyth’s parents purchased the lot in 1975 for $49,000 ($216,000 in today’s dollars), but did not develop it. In the meantime, the entire subdivision was developed. When Mrs. Smyth inherited the lot and sought to build, the Town refused to grant a permit based on regulation post-dating her interest. The denial left Mrs. Smyth’s lot without any possible use except as a “playground” or “park,” and stripped it of 91.5% of its value. Yet, the court below held that none of the Penn Central factors weighed in favor of a taking under these circumstances.
The questions presented are:
1. Whether the loss of all developmental use of property and a 91.5% decline in its value is a sufficient “economic impact” to support a regulatory takings claim under Penn Central.
2. Whether a person who acquires land in a developed area, prior to regulation, has a legitimate “expectation” of building and, if so, whether that interest can be defeated by a lack of investment in construction?
3. Whether the Court should excise the “character” factor from Penn Central regulatory taking analysis.
My Comparative Law class is reading about democratic deficit in Europe.  It's a good time to remember that the study of comparative law can be as much about similarities as differences.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Nuisance rule for trees rooted in history, reaffirmed by Mass. high court


In an opinion suitable for textbooks, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court reaffirmed the rule of nuisance that neighbor may not sue neighbor over property damage from a healthy, overhanging tree.

A resident of Randolph, Massachusetts, complained that a neighbor's overhanging tree, a 100-foot sugar oak, had caused property damage by promoting algae on the complainant's roof.  The high court reiterated the historic rule that a property owner cannot be held liable in nuisance for damage caused by a neighbor's healthy tree, whether unruly roots that damage a foundation, or the natural shedding of leaves, branches, and sap.  A neighbor is entitled to trim back offending incursions, the court observed.

The court reaffirmed the historic rule despite the complainant's entreaty to consider alternative approaches from other states.  The rule emerged from a time of lower population density, when it would have been excessively burdensome for property owners to monitor all trees near property lines, the court explained.  "We invite challenge to antiquated laws," the court wrote.  Nevertheless, the court declined to "uproot precedent."  The historic rule continues to have relevance by minimizing litigation, the court reasoned, especially when the law is clear that a neighbor may cut back overhanging branches.

Affirming the lower court, the case is Shiel v. Rowell, No. SJC-12432 (Mass. July 16, 2018) (Cypher, J.).