Learn more about Peltz-Steele v. UMass Faculty Federation at Court Listener (complaint) and the Liberty Justice Center. The case is now on appeal in the First Circuit as no. 22-1466 (PACER paywall). Please direct media inquiries to Kristen Williamson.
Showing posts with label statutory interpretation. Show all posts
Showing posts with label statutory interpretation. Show all posts

Friday, October 2, 2020

Scharf urges rational statutory construction to ease immigration plight of child victims of abuse, neglect

My colleague Irene Scharf published further research into easing immigration hardships for undocumented youth who have been victimized by abuse, abandonment, or neglect.  She explains (footnotes omitted):

In 1990, aiming to ease the difficult situation for undocumented child immigrants who were dependent on juvenile courts for their protection, Congress enacted the Special Immigrant Juvenile provision of the Immigration and Nationality Act, located at 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(27)(J) (the provision). In 2008, in an effort to further ease the plight of these young people, it amended the provision to relieve the proof requirement from proving abuse, abandonment, or neglect by both parents to that of one or both parents. Unfortunately, the provision maintains its “two-tier” citizenship system because one of its subsections denies Special Immigrant Juveniles (SIJ) who naturalize the same rights as other citizens possess to petition for their parents to immigrate [8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(27)(J)(iii)(II)]. In Second Class Citizenship? The Plight of Special Immigrant Juveniles [40 Cardozo L. Rev. 579 (2019)], I concluded that this limitation violates Due Process by creating this two-tier citizenship system. To address this inequity, courts should employ the doctrine of “rational legislating” to interpret this provision in a way that would place SIJs on an equal footing with other citizens. This would more accurately reflect the intent Congress had when it amended the provision in 2008, and permit naturalized SIJs to reunify with their parents.

Professor Scharf in the article further frames the problem in describing its impact on the lives of young people from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, relating experiences amalgamated from real clients of the immigration law clinic she has supervised for nearly two decades.

The article is Robbing Special Immigrant Juveniles of Their Rights as U.S. Citizens: The Legislative Error in the 2008 TVPRA Amendments, 30 Berkeley La Raza L.J. 41 (2020).

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Info reg round-up: French feud, global injunction, foreign discovery, and literal grains of paradise

I've lately been swamped by developments in global information regulation.  Here's a round-up of highlights with links to read more.

Google-France feud.  Fresh on the heels of Google v. CNIL (read more), tensions are heating up again between Google and France, as Google refuses to play ball with France's new copyright law.  The 2019 EU Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market aimed, inter alia, to protect publishers from the scraping of their news product for aggregators' clips and snippets without compensation.  France was the first country, and only so far, to transpose the directive's article 15 (né draft article 11) into national law.  Effective this month, the French law would compel an aggregator such as Google to pay news publishers for the content that appears in Google search results.  How much money Google makes from Google News is disputed, but it's a lot.  Google contends that news providers are well compensated by traffic driven to their websites.  The news industry doesn't feel that way and blames aggregators for killing the business model of news, public interest journalism along with it.  Now Google has said that search results in France will exclude content that would require payment under the new copyright law.  The News Media Alliance, a U.S. industry association, has called Google's move "extortion."

Eva Glawischnig-Piesczek, Austrian Green
EU: Global injunction of one country's "defamation."  The European Union (EU) continues to amp up internet service provider (ISP) accountability.  A chamber of the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) ruled that European law—including EU information market directive, the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU, and the freedom of expression—does not preclude a member state from issuing a global injunction to take down unlawful content.

The facts reveal the problematic scope of the state power implicated, as the case arose from a Facebook post disparaging, e.g., "traitor," an Austrian politician.  The disparagement was regarded as defamation in the Austrian courts, but would be protected as core political commentary or hyperbolic opinion in the United States and many other countries.  The prospect of a state order with global reach was raised by the recent CJEU decision in Google v. CNILSlate's take took no prisoners: "In so ruling, the court demonstrated a shocking ignorance of the technology involved and set the stage for the most censor-prone country to set global speech rules."

The case is Glawischnig-Piesczek v. Facebook Ireland Ltd., No. C-18/18 (Oct. 3, 2019).

US: Extraterritorial discovery.  The Second Circuit meanwhile published an opinion that pushes outward against the territorial bounds of U.S. law.  The court ruled that statutory civil procedure under 28 U.S.C. § 1782 may reach records held outside the United States and is co-extensive in scope with the maximum long-arm personal jurisdiction of constitutional due process.

The case arose from Banco Santander's acquisition of Banco Popular Español (BPE) after a criminal investigation and government-forced sale of the latter.  Mexican nationals and investors opposing the acquisition sought discovery in the U.S. District Court in New York against Santander and its New York-based affiliate, Santander Investment Securities (SIS), under § 1782.  The law compels discovery against a person or legal entity that "resides or is found" in the U.S. jurisdiction.

Santander New York (© Google Earth)
The court rejected Santander's contention, supported by academic opinion, that the language could not reach a mere "sojourner" in the jurisdiction.  The court furthermore held that the presumption against extraterritoriality of statutory interpretation does not apply to a jurisdictional statute, and even if it did, the design of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, with which the statute fits, plainly and expressly encompasses extraterritorial reach.

However, the court held, only SIS, not Santander, was within the reach of long-arm personal jurisdiction.  SIS was subject to general jurisdiction, but was not meaningfully involved in the BPE acquisition.  Santander had hired New York consultants to contemplate an acquisition of BPE, which could subject Santander to specific jurisdiction, but that was an entirely different transaction, prior to the government-forced sale of BPE.

Though the case deals with conventional discovery, it has important implications for transnational business in the age of e-discovery.  Expansive U.S. discovery practice is incompatible with more restrictive norms in much of the world, Europe included.  Section 1782 is a potentially powerful tool for savvy litigants to get their hands on opponents' materials when foreign courts won't allow it.  That's bound to rub transnational business and foreign regulators the wrong way.

The case is In re Del Valle Ruiz, No. 18-3226 (2d Cir. Oct. 7, 2019).  Hat tip to New York attorney Ken Rashbaum, at Barton LLP, who telephonically visited my Comparative Law class and referenced the case, and will be writing more about it soon. 

Gin labeling and grains of paradise.  OK, this is more about misinformation than information, and it is globally important.  Law and gin, two great international cultural forces and loves of my life, come together in a recently filed lawsuit over grains of paradise.  You can't make up stuff this dry yet thirst-quenching.

Bombay Sapphire Bottle (by @Justintoxicate)
In a class-action complaint removed to the U.S. Southern District of Florida in mid-September, plaintiffs accuse Bacardi USA, maker of Bombay Sapphire Gin, and Winn-Dixie supermarkets of selling "adulterated" product, because Bombay gin contains a botanical literally called "grains of paradise."  According to the complaint, grains of paradise, scientific name Aframomum melegueta, "is an herbaceous perennial plant native to swampy habitats along the West African coast."  Turns out, it's illegal under Florida law, section 562.455.

The ABA Journal explained: "The 150-year-old Florida law was passed when people thought grains of paradise was a poisonous drug. The misconception likely arose when home distillers added other, dangerous ingredients to gin to 'mask the awful distilling and make more money,' according to Olivier Ward, a British gin expert and consultant who spoke with the Miami Herald."  Bacardi is not hiding anything and maintains that its products comply with all health and safety regulations.  The complaint itself states that grains of paradise are listed in the ingredients and actually etched on the gin's blue bottle.

The case is Marrache v. Bacardi, U.S.A., Inc., No. 1:19-cv-23856 (S.D. Fla. docketed Sept. 16, 2019).

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Mass. tort opinion journeys down coal hole of history

A narrow decision from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) today is important for keeping alive plaintiff personal injury claims based on road defect injuries, especially amid the trending privatization of public services.  The opinion stops off in Boston history en route to its conclusion.  The case is Meyer v. Veolia Energy North America, No. SJC-12606 (Mass. May 8, 2019).

Reversing summary judgment for defendant Veolia Energy North America, the SJC concluded that the statutory requirement of notice within 30 days to a potential defendant alleged to be responsible for road conditions giving rise to injury applies to the governmental defendants, but not to private-sector defendants.

Sudbury Street, at Court Street, Boston, 1912. City of Boston Archives.
Plaintiff Meyer was injured when on his bicycle, on Sudbury Street in Boston, he "struck a circular utility cover one foot or less in diameter that was misaligned with the road surface."  He gave notice to the City of Boston of a potential tort claim within 30 days.  But the city denied his claim on day 31, referring Meyer to private-sector Veolia as the party responsible for the utility cover.  Upon purportedly late notice to Veolia under the statute, the lower court awarded summary judgment to the energy company.  The SJC reversed, holding the statute inapplicable.

Most of the 32-page decision concerns statutory interpretation and is worth a read if that's your jam.  A couple of points stood out for me, though, as a general observer of law American-style.  The relevant Massachusetts statutes are found in General Laws chapter 84.  The SJC observed that section 1 "reflects its origins in the preindustrial era."  Indeed, the section states, "Highways and town ways, including railroad crossings ... shall be kept in repair at the expense of the town ... so that they may be reasonably safe and convenient for travelers, with their horses, teams, vehicles and carriages at all seasons."

The SJC traced interpretation of the relevant statutes to an 1883 opinion by Justice Holmes.  Yes, that Justice Holmes, the Honorable Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., when he served on the Massachusetts high court.  Explained today's SJC, Justice Holmes for the Court, in in Fisher v. Cushing, 134 Mass. 374 (1883) (electronic page 376 of this free ebook), had

interpreted the road defect and notice statutes, and the meaning of the reference to "persons," in the course of reviewing the statutes' legislative and legal history.  As a noted scholar of legal history and the author of The Common Law (1881), Justice Holmes brought special knowledge and expertise to this interpretation. The defendant in Fisher was sued for negligently maintaining a coal hole on a Boston sidewalk.

Held the Court in Fisher, "The whole scope of that [statutory notice] scheme shows that it is directed to the general public duty [to keep the way in repair], and that it has no reference to the common
law liability for a nuisance."  Explained today's SJC,

The court therefore held that the defendants could be sued in tort for the nuisance they created with their coal hole.
The court also went on to explain the meaning of "persons": "The mention of 'persons' in the statute, alongside of counties and towns obliged to repair, is easily explained. The outline of our scheme was of ancient date and English origin. In England, while parishes were generally bound to repair highways and bridges, a person might be, ratione tenurae, or otherwise .... [W]e cannot say, and probably the Legislature of 1786 could not have said, that there were no cases in the Commonwealth where persons other than counties or towns were bound to keep highways in repair.... Even if there were not, it was a natural precaution to use the words.

Coal hole at Wakefield Town Hall in Great Britain, 2018.
(Stephen Craven CC BY-SA-2.0.)
Footnotes elucidated, "A coal hole was an underground vault covered by a hatch with a cover where coal used for heating purposes was kept for easy access" (citing S.P. Adams, Home Fires: How Americans Kept Warm in the Nineteenth Century 105-106 (2014)).  And "'[r]atione tenurae' is a Latin phrase meaning by reason of tenure," as in being an occupier of land (citing Black's Law Dictionary 1454 (10th ed. 2014)).

I'm assuming that when the Court wrote that the late, great Justice Holmes "brought special knowledge and expertise" to the case, that assertion was strictly a function of the preceding clause, "as a noted scholar of legal history and [common law]," and not, as my mind hastened to wonder, because Justice Holmes had some particular tenura with coal holes.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Statute of repose bars asbestos claim, despite long latency of illness, Mass. high court rules

Pilgrim Nuclear Station, Plymouth, Mass. (by NRCgov, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
Answering a certified question from the federal district court, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) held unanimously today that a state statute of repose for personal injury claims bars a mesothelioma negligence suit against General Electric (GE) in the case of a former nuclear-plant construction worker exposed to asbestos.  The case is Stearns v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., No. SJC-12544 (Mass. Mar. 1, 2019) (PDF), certified by No. 1:15-cv-13490-RWZ (D. Mass. May 14, 2018).

Whereas the time limit of a statute of limitations runs from the time a would-be plaintiff becomes or should become aware that he or she has suffered an injury, a statute of repose sets a hard deadline contingent on an objectively verifiable event, irrespective of the plaintiff's experience.  Massachusetts law has a statute of repose, Mass. Gen. L. ch. 260, § 2B, that is generous to the construction industry, relative to other states' laws.  When personal injury arises from improvement to real property, tort claims are barred six years after the improvement is opened to use.

Wayne Oliver
Brockton, Mass., native Wayne F. Oliver worked as a pipe inspector for a contractor of GE on the installation of turbine generators at the Pilgrim Nuclear Station at Plymouth, Massachusetts, and at the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant in Maryland in the 1970s.  Installation specifications called for the use of asbestos insulation, to which Oliver was exposed over the course of years.  In April 2015, Oliver was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a known health consequence of asbestos exposure, and in July 2016, at age 67, he died.

Plaintiffs in some toxin claims have trouble navigating statutes of limitations, because litigants dispute when an ill plaintiff should have realized that the illness was consequent to exposure.  Suing and non-natural causation are not necessarily the first thoughts of a patient diagnosed with cancer.  But mesothelioma victims often surmount statutes of limitations hurdles, because the disease has a long latency period, and then, as in Oliver's case, manifests onset and death in short order.  Statutes of repose then become problematic in cases arising from construction exposures.

Piping in turbine building at Russian nuclear power plant, 1986
(RIA Novosti archive, image #447414, by Petrouhyn, CC-BY-SA 3.0).

The SJC in Stearns recognized the well accepted proposition that statutes of repose may work a corrective injustice against injured plaintiffs, especially in case of diseases with long latency periods.  But the greater policy aim of statutes of repose is to time-limit liability for commercial actors, lest productive development become unaffordable for fear of perpetual liability exposure.

Contingent on objectively verifiable events, statutes of repose tend to be unforgiving of lapses in time.  The SJC observed that various statutes of repose in Massachusetts have not yielded in prior cases, even upon a defendant's intentional wrongdoing or fraudulent concealment of danger, or a victim's mental illness or ongoing medical treatment.  The statute of repose for medical malpractice contains an exception in the event of a foreign object left in a person's body, so, the SJC reasoned, the legislature knows how to make an exception when it wants to.  The statute of repose in construction is "ironclad."
Associate Justice Cypher

In a footnote, the court added:
The plaintiffs point out that a number of other State Legislatures have effectively exempted asbestos-related illnesses from their respective statutes of repose concerning improvements to real property. We encourage our Legislature to consider doing the same should it determine that such an exception is consonant with the Commonwealth's public policy.

The opinion in Stearns was authored by SJC Associate Justice Elspeth B. Cypher, a Pittsburgh native.  In the fall 2019 semester at UMass Law School, Justice Cypher is scheduled tentatively to co-teach, with former dean Robert V. Ward, Jr., Race, Women’s Rights, Gender Identity and the Law.

Upon Oliver's death in 2016, the family asked for donations to the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation, in lieu of flowers.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

City not liable for bullying that resulted in child's quadriplegia, Mass. supreme court holds (and note on infantilization of faculty in higher ed)


The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) affirmed application of the Massachusetts Torts Claims Act (MTCA) to protect the City of Lynn, north of Boston, from liability in a tragic bullying incident that resulted in the permanent paralysis of the victim, a fourth grader.  The case is Corimer v. Lynn, No. SJC-12323 (Feb. 27, 2018).

The boy's mother had reported bullying and harassment of her son on "multiple occasions" in the 2007-08 school year.  Ultimately bullies pushed the boy down stairs, resulting in damage to his spinal cord and in quadriplegia.

The 1978 MTCA waives sovereign immunity, but a public actor may be held liable for the tort or violence of a third party only if the public actor "originally caused" the "harmful consequences."  Mass. G. L. c. 258, § 10 (j).  The courts have struggled to interpret that language, but have, as the SJC restated the rule, looked for "an affirmative act that materially contributed to creating a condition or situation that resulted in [plaintiff's] injuries."  A failure to act is distinguished.

The school left the bullies in class in proximity to the plaintiff, and we may assume arguendo that the school was negligent in failing to protect the plaintiff.  Even so, those failures were "'too remote as a matter of law'" to represent material contribution to the plaintiff's injuries.  In essence, then the "originally caused" standard seems to effect a causation-at-law analysis heightened above even the stringent inquiry invoked upon an intervening criminal actor.  On the same basis, the court rejected ancillary plaintiff theories predicated on negligent hiring, supervision, and retention of school staff.

The SJC acknowledged "that bullying is a serious issue" comprising "the emotional pain of day-to-day harassment" and sometimes, as here, "horrific physical consequences."  "[T]he elementary school could have and should have done more to protect [the plaintiff]."  Nevertheless, the operation of the MTCA is textbook, furthering the "public policy [of] some reasonable limits to governmental liability in order for taxpayers to avoid a potentially catastrophic financial burden."

Allow me a tangential observation about bullying policy:  

Many workplace entities, private and public, and including my own, are busily about the business of formulating "anti-bullying" policies.  At least in the academic context, I find these efforts nothing less than an end-run of contract, tenure, and academic freedom, calculated to suppress dissent and vigorous debate.  This SJC case indirectly illustrates the problem.  

Bullying is a concept derived from the K12 environment.  In the adult workplaceespecially in the academic workplace, where the very job is the exercise of free expression—bullying is co-extensive with harassment, discrimination, tort, and crime.  All of those were present in Corimer, harassment even before the child was physically injured.  There is no need for a separate policy purportedly to enforce civility (as if such a thing even were possible) among adults.  Any effort to create such a policy is nothing more than an authoritarian perversion of modish terminology—on campus, the infantilization of the faculty—and a disservice to children who truly are bullied in school.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Mass. SJC remands internet jurisdiction, defamation case


The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) last week remanded an internet jurisdiction case because the lower court jumped to constitutional due process arguments without first applying the state long-arm jurisdiction statute.  The case, replete with fun Internet trade names, highlights the limits of Massachusetts long-arm jurisdiction relative to the global growth in jurisdictional reach in online commerce.

SCVNGR, Inc., doing business as "LevelUp," is a Delaware-incorporated, Boston-headquartered tech company that works with customers through an app to promote participating restaurants with deals and a special payment system.  Punchh is a Delaware-incorporated, California-headquartered company with a similar business model.  Punchh works with customers in Massachusetts and with restaurants with Massachusetts locations, but Punchh denies any physical tie to Massachusetts.

At one time, LevelUp and Punchh entered into an agreement to work together.  But according to LevelUp, Punchh then bad-mouthed LevelUp to LevelUp clients.  LevelUp terminated their agreement, but the allegations state, the bad-mouthing didn't stop.  LevelUp sued in Massachusetts superior court on theories including defamation, trade defamation, tortious interference, and statutory unfair competition.  Punchh disputed personal jurisdiction.

The trial court dismissed for want of personal jurisdiction on federal constitutional due process grounds.  The trial court declined to apply the state long-arm statute because, the court explained, the parties had only argued due process.  LevelUp appealed, and the SJC transferred the case from the appeals court sua sponte.  Notwithstanding the trial court's dispositive conclusion on due process, the SJC opined, it was reversible error not to analyze the state long-arm law first.  That is to say, it was reversible error not to have observed the doctrine of constitutional avoidance.

The Massachusetts long-arm statute is not the typical sort that U.S. law students read about in civil procedure, defining state personal jurisdiction as maximally co-extensive with the limits of constitutional due process.  Rather, Massachusetts constrains long-arm jurisdiction to eight scenarios:

  • (a) transacting any business in this commonwealth;
  • (b) contracting to supply services or things in this commonwealth;
  • (c) causing tortious injury by an act or omission in this commonwealth;
  • (d) causing tortious injury in this commonwealth by an act or omission outside this commonwealth if he regularly does or solicits business, or engages in any other persistent course of conduct, or derives substantial revenue from goods used or consumed or services rendered, in this commonwealth;
  • (e) having an interest in, using or possessing real property in this commonwealth;
  • (f) contracting to insure any person, property or risk located within this commonwealth at the time of contracting;
  • (g) maintaining a domicile in this commonwealth while a party to a personal or marital relationship out of which arises a claim for divorce, alimony, property settlement, parentage of a child, child support or child custody; or the commission of any act giving rise to such a claim; or
  • (h) having been subject to the exercise of personal jurisdiction of a court of the commonwealth which has resulted in an order of alimony, custody, child support or property settlement, [in certain modification or enforcement proceedings].

Certainly the statute affords plenty of room to argue still over the bounds of due process.  But the terms of a statute may be subject to limiting construction.

The SJC declined to hint at the appropriate outcome under the statute, bemoaning an incomplete record.  However, the Court observed that the first four provisions of the statute, paragraphs (a) to (d), might be in play.  In a footnote, the Court recalled Calder v. Jones, 465 U.S. 783 (1984) (Justia), in which the U.S. Supreme Court allowed California jurisdiction over a non-resident defamation defendant because the defendant was alleged to have calculated its libel to cause injury in California.  As the SJC moreover observed, the U.S. Supreme Court later limited Calder in Walden v. Fiore, 134 S. Ct. 1115 (2014) (Justia), finding "minimum contacts" wanting when a non-resident's "allegedly unlawful seizure of money elsewhere caused harm to plaintiffs living in Nevada."

The Calder-Walden dichotomy, played out in a defamation context such as SCVNGR v. Punchh, serves as reminder that the United States has rather a dearth of case law in the area of long-arm Internet jurisdiction.  After the earth-rattling assertion of jurisdiction by the High Court of Australia in Dow Jones v. Gutnick in 2002, observers such as me should be forgiven for expecting that we would have moved the ball forward a good bit more in 15 years.  Internet jurisdiction remains a turbulent battlefield in lower domestic courts both here and around the world.

The case is SCVNGR, Inc. v. Punchh, Inc., No. SJC-12297 (Mass. Nov. 8, 2017).

[UPDATE: The Superior Court denied jurisdiction under the long-arm statute in September 2018.  See coverage at Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly (MLW), by Eric T. Berkman (subscription required) (quoting yours truly).  Image at right from MLW.] 

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Exemplary court decision pries open 50-year-old murder investigation



Transparency (FOIA, open records, sunshine) advocates, public information officers, and judges hearing FOIA cases throughout the United States should heed a straightforward and concise decision this spring from the Arkansas Supreme Court, per Justice Rhonda K. Wood, concerning ongoing police investigations.  The case is Arkansas State Police v. Keech Law Firm, P.A., No. 16-545 (Ark. Apr. 20, 2017).  Bonus: the case comes with interesting, if tragic, facts.

In 1963, the murder of Harding College (now University) alumna and English Professor Ruby Lowery Stapleton shocked the community of Searcy, Arkansas.  According to the Harding College Bulletin, Stapleton was believed taken from a self-service laundry in Searcy, Arkansas.  Federal and state law enforcement officers and Harding volunteers searched for her for 11 days, and Harding offered a $1,000 reward for information leading to her detection.  Her body was found by a squirrel hunter in a dry creek bed 15 miles from the laundry.  Stapleton was survived by her husband and two children.
Professor Ruby Stapleton in the Harding College Bulletin, October 1963

Stapleton’s murder remains unsolved.  Fifty years later, in November 2013, family members sought access to the Arkansas State Police case file on the Stapleton murder.  The request spurred brief police re-engagement with the cold case, apparently to no avail.  Police refused access to the file under the ongoing investigation exemption of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.  After in camera review of the file, the Arkansas Circuit Court rejected the police theory and ordered the file disclosed.  The Arkansas Supreme Court affirmed.

Ongoing investigation exemptions are a FOIA universal across the state and federal sunshine statutes.  The public policy supporting them is hardly disputed: police investigations require secrecy, lest evidence be compromised or suspects tipped off.  At the same time, transparency is nowhere more urgent a policy priority than when counterpoised with the enormity of state police power to curtail liberty and even life.  This balance proves exceptionally difficult to achieve.  Cases vary broadly in their particulars, and judicial determinations are profoundly fact driven.

Therefore, though the language of ongoing investigation exemptions varies considerably, the question usually boils down to a court’s willingness to defer to, or to second-guess, police discretion.  The Arkansas statute provides a good example of the textual variability, because the statute actually protects only “undisclosed” police records against disclosure.  But that nonsensical oddity has long been construed by the state courts to mean “ongoing investigation,” in conformance with multistate FOIA norms.

In practice, on the whole across the states, courts tend to err on the side of secrecy.  To the frustration of journalists especially, no local judge wants to be responsible for obstructing or derailing a criminal investigation.  Thus law enforcement officials are frequently able to prolong the secrecy surrounding an investigation file well beyond arrest—to charge, to trial, even to exhaustion of appeals.  In fact, criminal investigation files might remain sealed indefinitely, while co-conspirators remain at large—or crimes remain unsolved.

Despite judicial patience that sometimes seems inexhaustible, the imperative of accountability for law enforcement weighs heavily against indefinite secrecy.  The Arkansas Supreme Court quoted a treatise on the Arkansas FOIA co-authored by John J. Watkins, Robert E. Steinbuch, and myself:

Police and prosecutors should not be permitted to apply this exemption as a matter of course until conviction or acquittal, or indefinitely until a charge is brought, if there is no genuine interest in enduring secrecy. To do so would excessively insulate the government against legitimate probes by the public and media into the performance of law-enforcement functions, even apart from the disadvantage to criminal defendants.

Long-cold cases such as the Stapleton murder squarely present this problem.  In reviewing the investigation file in camera in 2014, the Arkansas Circuit Court found “sparse activity” since 1965.  Police cited no documentary evidence of ongoing investigation from 1965 until the filing of the family’s FOIA request.  The Arkansas Supreme Court summed up the case simply: “This is a 54-year-old murder case. No charges have been brought or appear to be imminent.  The victim’s family and the public are entitled to know how the officials in this case, i.e., law enforcement, performed their duties.”

In the course of its concise analysis, the Court reiterated several points of best practices in FOIA compliance and dispute resolution.  These are multistate principles that warrant review.

  • A FOIA should be construed liberally to accomplish the objective of transparency.
  • Inversely, FOIA exemptions should be construed narrowly to accomplish the objective of transparency.
  • As usual in litigation, questions of law and interpretation of a FOIA are subject to de novo appellate review.
  • A trial court should conduct in camera review of disputed records to determine the applicability of a statutory exemption from disclosure.

The Arkansas Supreme Court stated moreover another solid practice point that had been lacking in state precedent:  Also as usual in litigation, questions of fact in a FOIA analysis are subject to the more deferential appellate standard of review, clear error.  As the Court observed, application of an ongoing investigation exemption is especially prone to generate a question of fact, as a qualitative, if not quantitative, assessment of purported police investigative activity is part and parcel of the analysis.  In the Stapleton FOIA case, the Court applied the clear error standard to defer to the circuit court’s assessment of the 1965-2014 police file.

As the Arkansas Court wrote, “A finding is clearly erroneous when the appellate court is left with a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.”  Or as the Seventh Circuit famously wrote in 1988: “To be clearly erroneous, a decision must strike us as more than just maybe or probably wrong; it must, as one member of this court recently stated during oral argument, strike us as wrong with the force of a five-week-old, unrefrigerated dead fish.”  A finding that is not clearly erroneous should be left undisturbed.

Finally, full disclosure and point of privilege:  Justice Wood, who authored this case for the Arkansas Supreme Court, was a law student, and then later a dean, when I taught at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Law School.  She has shined in her career as lawyer, academic, and judge, undoubtedly owing to her unyielding integrity, character, and intellect—and decidedly owing in no part to me.  Nevertheless, I assert pride by virtue of mere association.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Anti-SLAPP gone wild: Massachusetts tightens the reins



The anti-SLAPP cases kept coming from the Massachusetts appeals courts in May.  I posted previously on anti-SLAPP in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in February.  This posting describes three recent holdings, the middle of which substantially revised—and tightened—the anti-SLAPP qualification analysis.  The next two paragraphs recap some background on anti-SLAPP; skip right down to the cases if you like.  The Massachusetts anti-SLAPP statute is Mass. Gen. L. ch. 231, § 59H.

For a quick recap, “anti-SLAPP” refers to state statutes designed to forestall tort claims in “strategic lawsuits against public participation” (SLAPPs).  The prototypical SLAPP might be a land developer’s suit against environmental protestors for interference with the developer’s prospective economic relations.  The protestors are motivated by First Amendment right to speak and petition and are not acting wrongfully.  So, the logic goes, they should not be tied up in pricey and complex litigation having to assert the First Amendment as an affirmative defense.  Rather, they are entitled to a speedy dismissal.  In various forms and fashion across the states, anti-SLAPP statutes allow expedited process before the trial courts to dispense summarily with cases that ultimately would or should come out in defendants’ favor.

Furthermore for quick recap, I despise anti-SLAPP statutes.  They are yet another crutch for defense lawyers—complementing a broad array of defense privileges in common law and constitutional law—to cloak the perpetrators of defamation, privacy invasion, interference, and other torts in the false light (if you will) of constitutional holy writ.  Through unduly expedited process, anti-SLAPP deprives plaintiffs out of the gate of a fair chance to discover the damning evidence of defendants’ wrongful conduct—evidence often required by the aforementioned broad array of defenses, thus compounding the already ratcheted-up hurdles a plaintiff with meritorious cause must clear.

At ABA meetings, I have heard the defense lawyers of transnational mass media conglomerates speak of anti-SLAPP bills in the same tender timbre one employs to share photos of a newborn.  They are especially fond of anti-SLAPP laws that award attorneys’ fees to the prevailing defendant; imagine that Goliath bill arriving in David’s mailbox.  Such cooing should be evidence enough that the playing field has been unleveled.  And I was a defense lawyer, so I know of whom I speak.

That said, I would be foolish to assert that anti-SLAPP motions don’t often reach just results.  An unlevel playing field does not mean that the winning team is not the better.  I contend instead that anti-SLAPP gives a trial judge too much power to ballpark “right” and “wrong” in the absence of the fair evidentiary confrontation that our adversarial system requires.  These cases illustrate how the Massachusetts appellate courts are struggling to implement the state anti-SLAPP law fairly.

(1) The Case of the Ex-Spouse Who Won’t Let It Go

After what must have been an ugly divorce in the 1990s, Ms. St. Germain was left with a permanent protective order of no contact against her former husband, Mr. O’Gara.  In 2014, after receiving contact via post, St. Germain complained to police that O’Gara had violated the protective order.  Police arrested, charged, and then dismissed charges against O’Gara, who in turn sued St. Germain on various civil theories—breach of contract, abuse of process, malicious prosecution, tortious interference, and intentional infliction of emotional distress—for the police report that had precipitated his arrest.

Holding O’Gara’s civil suit “based entirely on [St. Germain’s] petitioning activity,” the court dismissed the civil suit upon St. Germain’s anti-SLAPP special motion, reversing the superior court.  The court reiterated that petitioning activity under the Massachusetts statute is to be construed broadly, “‘similar in purpose to the protections afforded public officials by the doctrine of governmental immunity’” (quoting precedent).  “Furthermore, § 59H covers petitioning activity regardless of whether it concerns a public or purely private matter.”

The statute first burdened defendant St. Germain, as special movant, with proving by preponderance that O’Gara’s lawsuit was based solely on her police report as petitioning activity, without other substantial basis.  Second, under the burden-shifting procedure of the statute, O’Gara would be compelled to prove by preponderance that St. Germain’s petition “‘(1) … was devoid of any reasonable factual support or any arguable basis in law and (2) … caused actual injury.’”

The trial judge had erred by skipping the first step of the inquiry and justifying discovery upon a “credible claim of injury caused by [St. Germain].”  Rather, first, St. Germain was correct in asserting that O’Gara’s suit concerned her police report solely as petitioning.  O’Gara had asserted that St. Germain was motivated by hostility, besides petitioning.  But the court concluded that whether or not she bore such motive was immaterial to the purely petitioning nature of the report.  Second, St. Germain was reasonable in believing her police report legally founded, despite the later dismissal of charges.  I.e., the police report was not a sham.

The case is O’Gara v. St. Germain, No. 15-P-1711 (Mass. App. Ct. May 11, 2017) (Justia).


Four incidents of alleged abuse or neglect of patients in a unit of the Steward Carney Hospital in Boston resulted in a mass dismissal of unit staff, including nurses.  Discussing the employment shake-up publicly in email to hospital staff and in statements to The Boston Globe, with a state investigation still underway, hospital administrators were vague on particulars.  The state later blamed three incidents on only one mental health counselor, and the fourth incident on staff, the latter conclusion the subject of ongoing legal contest.  Plaintiff nurses sued the hospital for defamation, and the hospital responded with an anti-SLAPP special motion. 

The Supreme Judicial Court, per Justice Barbara Lenk on May 23, reached a mixed result and remanded, furthermore finding occasion to tighten the requirements for an anti-SLAPP motion to succeed. 

Again illustrating the broad construction of petitioning activity, on the first step of the anti-SLAPP test, the hospital successfully asserted that the nurses’ lawsuit concerned statements to the press solely as protected petitioning, because the statements were “‘made to influence, inform, or at the very least, reach governmental bodies—either directly or indirectly’” (quoting precedent).  “The key requirement of this definition of petitioning is the establishment of a plausible nexus between the statement and the governmental proceeding.”  The Court held that statements to the Globe passed muster as indirectly aimed at state investigators  However, email to hospital staff, intended only for internal circulation, did not pass the test.

Here the Court steered off the road.  Initially the Court was flummoxed: what to do with a split outcome between allegedly defamatory statements?  Recall that the defendant must show that plaintiff’s suit concerned “solely” defendant’s petitioning activity.  What happens when some statements are petitioning and some are not?  Perhaps the anti-SLAPP motion must fail, because the defendants’ activity was not, then, purely petitioning.  Or perhaps the petitioning activity alone, here the Globe statements, advance to the second step of the test, burden shifting for the plaintiff to prove sham.  If plaintiff cannot prove sham petitioning, defamation might be dismissed in part.  The design of the complaint cannot be dispositive, for plaintiffs could evade anti-SLAPP by parsing counts.

That issue, however, proved to be only the crest of a hill concealing the drop off of a cliff.  For then the Court plunged into angst over the very enterprise of the anti-SLAPP analysis.  If a defendant cannot prove that the lawsuit is about solely petitioning activity, can the lawsuit not be a SLAPP?  Inversely, if a defendant proves that the lawsuit is about solely petitioning activity, and the petitioning was not a sham, does it follow necessarily that the lawsuit should be dismissed as a SLAPP?

Suppose, the Court proffered (quoting Illinois precedent), that defendant “‘spread malicious lies about an individual while in the course of genuinely petitioning the government for a favorable result.’”  The defendant passes muster under step one (if the statements are not parsed).  And the plaintiff cannot show sham under step two.  Case dismissed.  Yet “[i]f a plaintiff's complaint genuinely seeks redress for damages from defamation or other intentional torts and, thus, does not constitute a SLAPP, it is irrelevant whether the defendant[’s] actions were genuinely aimed at procuring favorable government action, result, or outcome.”

Thus the Court exposed a basic constitutional dilemma in anti-SLAPP: The plaintiff has a right to petition, too; plaintiff’s lawsuit is a constitutionally protected petition to the judiciary.  I would add, ignorance of this fact is why anti-SLAPP statutes, if not properly reined in by the courts, unfairly overcorrect in defendants’ favor.  One can argue that this operation of anti-SLAPP is a prophylactic protection for the petitioning rights of the defendant, thereby demanding that we tolerate dismissal of some meritorious causes of action—like the problematic “actual malice” rule of public-figure defamation.  But that argument fails to explain why the defendant’s petition right is superior to the plaintiff’s.

To solve this problem and mitigate its constitutional dilemma, the Supreme Judicial Court added a second way for the plaintiff to prove its way out of anti-SLAPP dismissal in step two of the test.  Recall that plaintiff bore the burden of prove sham petitioning by the defendant (and actual injury).  Well now the plaintiff may prove sham petitioning or plaintiff’s “suit was not ‘brought primarily to chill’ the [defendant]’s legitimate exercise of its right to petition.”  Thus, recalling the “malicious lies” example above, suppose furthermore that the plaintiff cared not one way or the other about the matter of defendant’s petition to the government.  Plaintiff rather was concerned with the malicious lies, however the matter was decided.  “A necessary but not sufficient factor in this analysis will be whether the [plaintiff]’s claim at issue is ‘colorable or … worthy of being presented to and considered by the court,’ … i.e., whether it ‘offers some reasonable possibility’ of a decision in the party’s favor.” 

On remand, then, the nurses would be able to avoid anti-SLAPP dismissal on the Globe statements, as well as the email, by showing the Globe statements a sham petition—unlikely—or by showing “that their defamation claim, viewed as a whole, is nonetheless not a ‘SLAPP’ suit.”  If they cannot meet their burden either way, then the hospital will be entitled to dismissal as to the Globe statements, the case over the email persisting.

The change is a dramatic one.  So modifying the plaintiff’s burden on step two of the test forces the trial court to confront head on the undisguised, central question of the anti-SLAPP inquiry.  Notwithstanding precedents that eschew focus on a plaintiff’s motives, the analysis inevitably steers the court back to ask whether the plaintiff is aggrieved by the hurtfulness of what the defendant did, or by the defendant’s aim to influence government.  For my money, one might as well ask that question at the start and be done with it.

The case is Blanchard v. Steward Carney Hospital, No. SJC-12141 (Mass. May 23, 2017) (Justia).


Justice Lenk issued a second opinion on anti-SLAPP for the Supreme Judicial Court the same day, May 23.  The case better fits the prototype anti-SLAPP mold in being a dispute over property development.  The Court remanded for application of its new Blanchard standard (case (2), immediately above).

In 2011, the plaintiff purchased a five-story brick building, 477 Harrison Avenue, Boston, to redevelop it for residential use.  Defendant JACE Boston owned neighboring 1234 Washington Street, which shared a wall with the Harrison property.  Defendant intended at some point to redevelop its property, too, and a competition ensued.  The parties disputed redevelopment plans in years of administrative process and litigation.  Finally in 2014, plaintiff sued defendant in superior court for abuse of process and for violation of Mass. Gen. L. ch. 93A, § 11, a broad state prohibition on unfair competition.

Upon defendant’s anti-SLAPP motion, the trial court determined that the defendant could not meet its step-one burden to show that the lawsuit was about solely petitioning activity, without other substantial basis.  The Court rather found that the abuse of process claim passed muster under step one, concerning solely defendant’s petitioning.  On step two, the plaintiff could not show that defendant’s petitioning, with respect to the abuse of process claim, was entirely a sham, that is devoid of factual and legal basis.  Nevertheless, under the newly announced Blanchard standard, the plaintiff on remand must be afforded the opportunity to resist dismissal by proving that its lawsuit is not a SLAPP—that is, “the motion judge may conclude with fair assurance,” “‘that [plaintiff’s] primary motivating goal in bringing its claim, viewed in its entirety, was “not to interfere with and burden defendants” … petition rights, but to seek damages for the personal harm to [the plaintiff] from [the] defendant[’s] alleged … [legally transgressive] acts.’”

Faced with “the novel issue as to whether all or only some of a [defendant’s] petitioning activities must be shown to be illegitimate in order to defeat a special motion to dismiss,” the Court decided that the plaintiff must “show that the entirety of its abuse of process claim is not a ‘SLAPP’ suit” to resist dismissal in full.  Otherwise, dismissal (and fees) are granted only for the “portion of the abuse of process claim arising out of the defendant[’s] protected petitioning activities.” 

The case is 477 Harrison Avenue v. JACE Boston, LLC, No. SJC-12150 (Mass. May 23, 2017) (Justia).

[UPDATE, Nov. 11, 2019: The SJC today issued another installment in 477 Harrison saga.  Remanding, the Court determined that abutters' counterclaims were retaliatory, not substantive, so should not be sustained against the developer.  I'll say again, anti-SLAPP was not designed to protect developers in land feuds, much less to generate multiple interlocutory dispositions, and this case speaks directly to the pathology of anti-SLAPP.]