Monday, February 22, 2021

Sovereign immunity shields Texas power overseer from liability for now: not so privatized after all

NASA satellite image of Houston with area blackouts, Feb. 16
The cold-induced electric-power disaster in Texas is raising questions about the accountability of "ERCOT," the Electric Reliability Council of Texas.

ERCOT is responsible for about 90% of the Texas electricity market.  During the storm and record cold of last week, Texans experienced rolling outages and some prolonged blackouts.  Deaths and injuries, from hypothermia and carbon monoxide poisoning, are attributed to the cold and blackouts, as well as billions of dollars in property damage.  Governor Greg Abbott has blamed ERCOT for failure to prepare the state's electrical system for a foreseeable winter weather event and promised an investigation.

National Weather Service Tower Cam, Midland, Feb. 20
Naturally, many Texans are wondering about legal liability for ERCOT.  I noticed a tweet from Houston Chronicle business reporter Gwendolyn Wu, who said that ERCOT has "sovereign immunity."  I found that hard to believe.  Wu cited a Chronicle story (subscription), from the bygone innocent age of fall 2019, in which business writer L.M. Sixel said just that.  As it turns out, the problem of ERCOT immunity is sitting, undecided, in the Texas Supreme Court at this very moment.

Legally, ERCOT is a nonprofit corporation formed in 1970 to oversee electric power distribution in Texas.  Because Texas has its own grid that doesn't cross state lines, the power system is not regulated by the federal government.  ERCOT has been at the heart of Texas's love affair with deregulation and privatization, a push that began in earnest in 1999 and found no bounds at the threshold of critical infrastructure.  State legislation in 1999 called on the Texas Public Utility Commission (PUC) to designate an exclusive "independent system operator" to oversee the Texas power grid, and ERCOT easily got the job that it more or less already had.

Yet ERCOT is neither wholly private nor a success story.  Its near monopoly control of Texas power comes with PUC oversight.  Despite that oversight, ERCOT has posted a remarkable record of abuse and failure.  As Sixel recounted in the Chronicle, executives went to prison in the 20-aughts for a financial fraud aggravated by lack of transparency and exposed by whistleblowers.  About the same time, Texans saw rolling blackouts, even while their deregulated electricity prices shot 30% over the national average.  Then, in 2011, a winter storm with single-digit temperatures caused blackouts across Texas.  It was that event that led federal regulators to recommend that ERCOT and the PUC winterize the system, a recommendation that was never heeded.

Frmr. Gov. Rick Perry tours ERCOT on March 14, 2012.
Apparently, an embarrassing record has not dampened the mood at ERCOT.  The "nonprofit," which is run by a board majority comprising power industry heavyweights, brought in $232m in revenue in 2018, Sixel reported in 2019, and chief executive Bill Magness took home $750,000 in 2017.  Sixel described ERCOT HQ (pictured below) near real-estate-red-hot Austin: "Its sprawling, modern glass and metal building has plush interiors with on-site fitness facilities that include a gym and sport court for volleyball, basketball and pickleball."  In contrast, the PUC "operates from two floors of crammed cubicles in ... a dilapidated structure close to the campus of the University of Texas at Austin.  DeAnn Walker, the commission chairman, earns $189,500 a year."

It was also in 2011 that ERCOT set out toward the immunity question now pending.  After the rolling outages of the 20-aughts, ERCOT wanted to see new sources of power added to the system.  Enter Panda Power, which invested $2.2bn to construct three power plants.  Alas, Panda later alleged in court, ERCOT had deliberately inflated market projections to incentivize investments; the power plants delivered only a fraction of the anticipated returns.  Panda sued ERCOT for $2.7bn in damages on theories including fraud and breach of fiduciary duty.

After almost a year of defending the case, ERCOT devised a new theory of sovereign immunity in Texas common law.  ERCOT performs exclusively governmental, not private, functions, it alleged, and works wholly under the control of the PUC.  Despite its statutory role as an "independent system operator," ERCOT insisted that it is not an independent contractor.  Rather, ERCOT styled itself as "a quasi-governmental regulator, performing an essential public service."  Panda argued that ERCOT is not entitled to sovereign immunity because it is "a non-governmental, non-profit corporation that receives no taxpayer dollars and retains discretion," particularly, Panda exhorted, when it furnishes false market data to power providers. 

In April 2018, reversing the district court, the Texas Court of Appeals agreed with ERCOT.  In a functionalist analysis, the intermediate appellate court grounded its decision in the legislative delegation of ultimate fiscal authority over ERCOT in the PUC.  The court wrote (citations omitted):

[A]s to separation-of-powers principles, [the statute] shows the legislature intended that determinations respecting system administration fees and ERCOT's fiscal matters, as well as any potential disciplinary matters or decertification, should be made by the PUC rather than the courts. Further, as the certified [independent service operator] provided for in [the statute], ERCOT is a necessary component of the legislature's electric utility industry regulatory scheme. A substantial judgment in this case could necessitate a potentially disruptive diversion of ERCOT's resources or a decertification of ERCOT not otherwise intended by the PUC.

According to Sixel, that decision rendered ERCOT "the only grid manager in the nation with sovereign immunity."

Pixabay image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images
Panda appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, which heard oral argument (MP3, PDF) on September 15, 2020, but has not ruled.

Meanwhile, a curious procedural imbroglio arose in the lower courts to gum up the works.  While Panda was busy lodging its appeal with the Texas Supreme Court, it didn't head off the intermediate appellate court's mandamus order to the district court to dismiss the case, which it did.  Panda then appealed that dismissal on a separate track, and the intermediate appellate court stayed oral argument on that second appeal, waiting to see what the Supreme Court would do with the first appeal.

One month after the Supreme Court heard oral argument, it ordered the parties to file supplemental briefs, which they did in November 2020 (ERCOT, Panda), to answer whether the district court's dismissal mooted the case in the Supreme Court.  Panda insisted that there is a live controversy still before the court.  ERCOT wrote that Panda should have asked for a stay of dismissal in the lower court, and it didn't.  Bad Panda.

House chamber in the Texas Capitol (picryl)
It looks to my outsider eyes like the Supreme Court badly wants not to decide the case.  And that was before the winter storm of 2021.  If the court does kick the case, the intermediate appellate court's ruling for sovereign immunity will stand, and any 2021 complainants will be out of luck.  ERCOT's supplemental brief read anyway with a good deal of confidence about how things would go in the Supreme Court, so maybe it's only a question of which appellate court will bear the people's ire.  While the courts dithered, Panda Energy, a division of Panda Power Funds, folded, and Texas froze.

The best answer to the people's woes lies in their state legislature.  Maybe Texas legislators can be made to understand that privatization is not really privatization when the reins, along with sovereign immunity and a market monopoly, are simply handed over to a nominally independent and hardly nonprofit oligarchy.

Or maybe legislators are on their way to Cancún and points warmer.

The case is In re Panda Power Infrastructure Fund, LLC, No. 18-0792 (now pending), appealing Panda Power Generation Infrastructure Fund, LLC v. Electric Reliability Council of Texas, Inc., No. 05-17-00872-CV (Tex. Ct. App. 5th Dist. Dallas Apr. 16, 2018), reversing No. CV-16-0401 (Tex. Dist. Ct. 15th Grayson County 2017).  The latter appeal is Electric Reliability Council of Texas v. Panda Power Generation Infrastructure Fund, LLC, No. 05-18-00611-CV (oral argument stayed Aug. 20, 2019).

[UPDATE, April 3, 2021.] The Texas Supreme Court ducked the immunity issue in ERCOT v. Panda with a "hotly contested" "non-decision."  DLA Piper has the story (Mar. 29, 2021).

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Covid court backlog, solved: 'Night Court' returns

I've been reading about how courts are struggling to overcome coronavirus backlogs in their caseload.  To me, the answer is obvious.  I saw it on TV.

Anderson, 1987
(Alan Light CC BY 2.0)
Created by writer Reinhold Weege after his Barney Miller wrapped up, Night Court (wiki) ran for 193 episodes over nine seasons on NBC, from 1984 to 1992, a hit by any measure.  Harry Anderson, who passed away in 2018, managed the underbelly of New York criminal process as Judge Harry T. Stone.

Night Court launched many ships.  If already 10 years into his acting career, John Larroquette became a household name as deadpan prosecutor Dan Fielding.  Selma Diamond is unforgettable as gruff bailiff Selma Hacker, even though she appeared only in the first two seasons, passing away in 1985 at age 64.  (Read more about her at the Encyclopedia of Jewish Women.)  A parade of guest stars passed through Judge Stone's Manhattan courtroom, including some who went on to greater notoriety, such as Michael Richards, Seinfeld's Kramer, and Brent Spiner, Star Trek's Data.

"Night court" is a real thing, here and there, in the United States, not just in Manhattan.  Like in the TV show, night courts specialize in preliminary criminal proceedings, namely arraignment.  The courts don't run through the night, but after hours, Manhattan's wrapping up around 1 a.m.  Many jurisdictions have found night courts efficient to handle arraignments on drug charges or to settle minor matters, such as outstanding misdemeanor warrants, for people whose life challenges will be compounded if they're forced to get to court during the usual workday hours.  How many times have I complained that the retail counter of the post office should be open at night, when people have time to wait in line?  Though for obvious reasons, night court doesn't work as well for American jury trials. 

Rauch, 2013
(Dominick D CC BY-SA 2.0)
Night Court should be one of those sitcoms that doesn't stand the test of time.  Its humor seems to me pretty specific to the cultural moment of the 1980s.  Nevertheless, Night Court stuck around over the years in cable reruns, and, lately, with retro content pouring into streaming services and being discovered by new audiences, the show has earned its own little niche as a cult classic.  The real Manhattan night court has been a real thing since 1907, according to the New York Post, but in recent years, in part thanks to a listing in the Lonely Planet, the Manhattan night court has become a tourist attraction, appealing to visitors from around the world.

Whether real night court might help unjam our covid court backlog, I don't really know.  But TV Night Court might be getting a new lease on life.  According to a Deadline exclusive in December 2020, Melissa Rauch, The Big Bang Theory's Bernadette Rostenkowski, was a fan of the original in her New Jersey childhood and pitched a reboot to NBC.  Rauch is now set to executive produce the new show, which will feature "unapologetic optimist" Judge Abby Stone, daughter of the late Harry.  John Larroquette is lined up to return as an older and wiser Dan Fielding.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

CFP: Journal explores digital journalism, media literacy


My friend and colleague Dr. Manish Verma will be special editor of an upcoming edition of the Journal of Content, Community and Communication at Amity University at Madhya Pradesh, India.  Papers are invited from academics and industry experts on these themes:

  • Digital media as public sphere
  • Citizen and participatory journalism through digital Media
  • Digital media economy
  • Digital media and political communication
  • Future of journalism in the digital age
  • Social media as source of news
  • Digital media laws and censorship
  • Digital media literacy
  • Journalistic ethics in digital media
  • Data journalism
  • Mobile and multimedia journalism
  • Artificial intelligence in journalism 

Author guidelines and the official CFP are at the journal website.  Manuscripts, preferred length of 3,000 to 5,000 words, are sought no later than April 30, 2021, and will be peer reviewed.

Dr. Manish Verma
Dr. Verma recently published his own work in the journal, co-authored with Dr. Nithin Kalorth and Dr. Malvika Sagar: Information and User: Social Media Literacy in Digital Societies, 12 J. Content, Cmty. & Commc'n 263 (2020), doi:10.31620/JCCC.12.20/24.  Here is the abstract.

The information flow in digital societies has been discussed and analysed for more than a decade with close watch on social media networks. The shift from traditional forms of communication to social media enables users to gratify their daily needs of information digitally. The current paper builds on narrative analysis of selected social media active users and their digital social engagement to understand how a user and a network of users engage with information. To understand the role of social media literacy, the current paper interviews the users and correlates the findings with contemporary literature on social media. The results show that social media literacy becomes a pillar of information system, but it works in micro-level of societies at crossroads of online and offline spaces.

The authors survey digital media users to analyze the efficacy of efforts by social media platforms to enhance digital literacy to combat misinformation.  The paper concludes that the efforts are less than efficacious because they derive from a holistic vision of society and politics rather than an understanding of the literacy deficiencies of individual users.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Alien tort animates U.S. lawsuit in abduction of 'Hotel Rwanda' hero, threatens immunity of social media

Paul Rusesabagina at the University of Michigan in 2014
The alien tort statute has turned up more than usual lately in my newsfeed.  In two compelling appearances, the law is implicated in the criminal prosecution now underway in Kigali of "'Hotel Rwanda' hero" Paul Resesabagina, and it has a cameo in the section-230-reform show now playing on Capitol Hill.

Last week, Professor Haim Abraham, of the University of Essex School of Law, spoke to the Obligations Discussion Group, organized by the University of Oxford Faculty of Law, on his current working paper, "Holding Foreign States Liable in Tort."  Working at the intersection of torts and human rights, Professor Abraham is passionate about the problem of accountability for wrongs perpetrated by state actors.  His present work means to outline a policy framework to support state liability, and he made a reference in passing to the American alien tort statute (ATS).

Dating to 1789, the ATS, complemented by the Torture Victims Protection Act of 1991 (TVPA), is a principal legal avenue to liability for torts committed abroad.  ATS liability, though, runs up against serious hurdles, namely, the law's own vague scope, and foreign sovereign immunity.  On its own terms, the ATS only pertains when a wrong rises to a violation of international law or treaty, often imprecise benchmarks.

The enigmatic 18th-century enactment says little else.  Especially in recent decades, the U.S. Supreme Court has grown fastidious in its interpretation of the law, rejecting claims without sufficient nexus to the United States.  Meanwhile, ATS plaintiffs must take care to pursue wrongdoers as rogues, lest defendants present as state actors entitled to foreign sovereign immunity.  The TVPA was a mitigation of that latter limitation.

Sharing Professor Abraham's appetite for accountability, not to mention my self-interest in full employment for torts professors, my attention is captured anytime the ATS turns up in a way that might yield fresh fruits.  And so it has.

Graves of genocide victims in Rwanda in 1995
(photo by Gil Serpereau CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
The New York Times, among others, has reported on the shady chain of events that led to the presently ongoing criminal trial in Kigali of Paul Resesabagina, the man who saved some 1,200 lives during the Rwandan genocide in 1994 and whose story was turned into a major motion picture starring Don Cheadle.  Living outside Rwanda first in Belgium and then in the United States, Resesabagina has been an outspoken critic of Rwandan authorities, both as to the genocide and as to subsequent Rwandan foreign policy, including alleged involvement in war crimes in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  He knew better than to return to Rwanda, but, reports state, Resesabagina thought he was on a plane to Burundi for a speaking engagement when the plane landed in Kigali, and he was placed under arrest on terrorism charges.

There's plenty to debate about the criminal matter in Rwanda, but my focus here is on events back home.  Rusesabagina's family in San Antonio, Texas, in December 2020, sued GainJet and Constantin Niyomwungere in federal district court under the ATS and TVPA, and in Texas tort law on counts of fraud, false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and civil conspiracy.  GainJet is the company that conveyed Rusesabagina from his Dubai layover to Kigali, and the family alleges that Niyomwungere, a purported pastor who invited Rusesabagina to to speak in Burundi, was in fact a secret operative of the Rwandan government.

The pleadings mean to represent the abduction as a violation of international law, besides common law torts, and to bring the case within the scope of the TVPA, too.  The complaint characterizes the abduction of Rusesabagina as "extraordinary rendition" and charges the defendants with torture of Rusesabagina upon or after his landing in Kigali, stating that he was kept bound, blindfolded, and gagged for days and "physically and psychologically tortured" in interrogation.

GainJet B757 ascending from Coventry, England, in 2015
Niyomwungere is characterized alternatively as a state actor or a free agent working with the state, to deal with immunity on that front.  Either he was a state actor, in which case the state would have to concede its role in the abduction, or he was a rogue, subject to tort liability (if he can be brought within U.S. jurisdiction).  The complaint furthermore alleges that GainJet, a private charter company based in Athens, Greece, was a knowing co-conspirator with the Rwandan government, so the GainJet pilot and co-pilot, knowing what was afoot, failed to signal an emergency in the air.  The complaint catalogs GainJet commercial outreach to Rwanda and speculates that the firm was anxious for work amid the Greek economic debacle.

The complaint asserts that the matter in sum sufficiently "touches and concerns the United States" to satisfy Supreme Court requirements, because the defendant-conspirators reached out to Rusesabagina at his Texas residence to lure him abroad.  That by itself is a thin reed, but the U.S. residency of the plaintiffs bolsters the nexus.

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., Senate Democrats are circulating a proposed bill that would carve out some slices of Internet service providers' infamous tort immunity under section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996.  Section 230 reform has become a bipartisan cause since both Democrats and Republicans, often for different reasons, have sought to blame social media companies for our present national discontent, whether for not censoring enough or for censoring too much.

The proposal does not represent a wholesale repeal and reinstatement of conventional publisher liability in tort, as some congresspersons called for.  Among proposed new immunity exceptions are actions in civil rights law, antitrust law, "stalking, harassment, or intimidation laws," wrongful death, and, lo and behold, "international human rights law," specifically, the ATS.

The theory behind the proposal as to the ATS is that social media companies over which the United States has jurisdiction could be held liable for having facilitated human rights violations abroad.  As Lauren Feiner observed for CNBC, this measure

could be particularly risky for Facebook, which acknowledged in 2018 that it was “too slow to prevent misinformation and hate” on the platform as Myanmar military officials sought to weaponize it in what became characterized as a genocide against the minority Rohingya Muslims. The SAFE TECH Act would clarify that Section 230 immunity should not bar suits under the [ATS], which could allow survivors of the genocide in Myanmar to bring cases against the platform in the U.S.

People displaced by violence in Myanmar in 2012
(photo by UK Department for International Development CC BY-SA 2.0)
Myanmar would be only a starting point, as social media, including Facebook's WhatsApp, have been blamed for eruptions of violence around the world, notably including mob violence in India (which I talked about at a Dubai event in 2019 sponsored by India-based Amity University).  Plaintiffs would face the usual high hurdles of the ATS, including the international law requirement and the requisite U.S. nexus, as well as hurdles in conventional tort law, such as duty and proximate causation.  But it's not hard to imagine plaintiffs surviving dismissal to see discovery.  Even without further process, discovery would be a boon to human rights advocates.

Over its centuries of life on the books, the alien tort statute has been counted out as a dead relic, resurrected as a reputed redeemer, and wrangled as a menacing mischief-maker.  What seems certain now, whether under the ATS, TVPA, or instruments yet to be devised, is that in our smaller world, the challenges of legal accountability for both states and corporations for transnational misconduct cannot be written off easily as beyond the scope of national concern or domestic jurisdiction.

The case in Texas is Rusesabagina v. GainJet Aviation, S.A., No. 5:20-cv-01422 (W.D. Tex. filed Dec. 14, 2020).  At the time of this writing, PACER shows no activity since filing.

The section 230 reform bill was introduced in the Senate, 117th Congress (2021-2022), on February 8, 2021, as S.299.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Courts extend European accountability laws to private actors: Italian soccer federation, Irish wind farm

Two recent court decisions in Europe construed European directives on public accountability to reach ostensibly private actors, the Italian soccer federation and an Irish wind-power producer.

Stocksnap by Michal Jarmoluk CC0
The problem of accountability for private actors performing public functions is as old as the corporate form.  Burgeoning corporatocracy in the electronic era has rendered new challenges to the classical public-private dichotomy, in recent years, especially, in the area of social media regulation (e.g., pro and con).  I have written about rethinking this problem in the context of access to information, regarding reform in both the United States and Europe, and I continue to research emerging models in the developing world.  As a general matter, Europe has been much less reticent than the United States to breach the public-private line with accountability mechanisms such as transparency laws.

In early February, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) in Luxembourg ruled that the Italian Football Federation, or Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio (FIGC), an ostensibly private entity, is sometimes a public body for purposes of the 2014 European directive on public procurement.  The directive defines public bodies within its purview:

(a) they are established for the specific purpose of meeting needs in the general interest, not having an industrial or commercial character;

(b) they have legal personality; and

(c) they are financed, for the most part, by the State, regional or local authorities, or by other bodies governed by public law; or are subject to management supervision by those authorities or bodies; or have an administrative, managerial or supervisory board, more than half of whose members are appointed by the State, regional or local authorities, or by other bodies governed by public law.

The definition is not unlike formulations in state freedom of information acts in the United States, which tend to press harder against the public-private line than the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) does.  A classic example of disparate approaches in the states concerns access to the wealthy private foundations that lurk behind public universities.  My colleague Professor Robert Steinbuch has been bearing the transparency standard on this front in Arkansas and is supporting a bill there now.

At issue in the Italian case was a contract for porter services when foreign squads visit Italy.  A disappointed contractor challenged the process and won a round in Italy's high administrative court, and the appellate Council of State in Italy referred the interpretation question to the CJEU.  Both in the United States and globally, governing bodies in sport, often set up as private or quasi-public entities, have posed aggravating challenges in public accountability like the university-foundation problem.  Inapplicability of the FOIA to the US Olympic Committee has been cited as a contributing factor in sexual-assault cover-ups, and last summer, I took in no fewer than three books and a TV series on the intractable corruption in world soccer.

The CJEU opinion determined that the FIGC, constituted under private law, can act as a private body when it has autonomy to form private contracts.  However, the Italian National Olympic Committee (NOC) is a public body and has supervisory power, sometimes with a controlling stake, over some FIGC functions.  Insofar as the NOC is calling the shots on contracts, the FIGC is a public body, subject to public procurement rules.  The CJEU opinion now goes back to the Italian courts to parse the specifics. 

Cronelea Wind Farm in County Wicklow, 2008
Meanwhile, in late January, the High Court of Ireland ruled that electric company Raheenleagh Power DAC (RP) is a "public authority" for purposes of the Irish enactment of the European directive on public access to environmental information.  The law and directive define public authorities:

(a) government or other public administration, including public advisory bodies, at national, regional or local level;

(b) any natural or legal person performing public administrative functions under national law, including specific duties, activities or services in relation to the environment; and

(c) any natural or legal person having public responsibilities or functions, or providing public services, relating to the environment under the control of a body or person falling within (a) or (b).

Reversing the Irish Commissioner for Environmental Information, the High Court determined that RP came within the definition's latter terms.  The court explained, "RP is a joint-venture company which operates a wind farm in a forest in the Wicklow Mountains. The wind farm supplies electricity to the national grid."  Complicating the analysis, the RP venture includes a one-half stake by the national-monopoly Electricity Supply Board (ESB), which the court described as "an independent semi-State company."

Like in the Italian case, the court reasoned that ESB control and management of RP brought it within the purview of public accountability law.  The ruling is important for the example it sets amid the wide range of public-private hybrids providing critical utility and infrastructure across Europe and the world.

Even so, I would like to have seen the court hang its hat more firmly on the functional analysis of the cited paragraph (b), rather than resorting to the paradigm of state control.  The urgent communal interests at stake in environmental protection have been a salient inducement to the extension of transparency law in Europe and Africa.  Western social democracies have been keen to ameliorate the effects of climate change, and many African regimes have awakened to lasting environmental damage inflicted by colonial enterprises.

The Italian case is FIGC v. De Vellis Servizi Globali Srl, nos. C‑155/19 and C‑156/19, ECLI:EU:C:2021:88 (CJEU Feb. 3, 2021).  Cain Burdeau has coverage for Courthouse NewsSven Demeulemeester, William Timmermans, and Matthias Ballieu have commentary for Altius in Belgium.

The Irish case is Right to Know CLG v. Commissioner for Environmental Information, [2021] IEHC 46 (High Ct. Jan. 25, 2021) (Ireland).  Mr. Justice Alexander Owens delivered the judgment.  Right to Know is a transparency advocacy organization headed by activist, blogger, and entrepreneur Gavin Sheridan and former and working journalists.  Jonathan Moore and Patrick Reilly have commentary for Field Fisher in Dublin.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Comedy of Roy Wood Jr. surfaces under-appreciated contributions of real historical black figures

Roy Wood Jr.
(photo by Lisa Gansky CC BY-SA 2.0)

I'm a big fan of Roy Wood Jr., and every installment of his "CP Time" bit on The Daily Show is an instant classic.  They're always funny, but often, also, are educational.

Last year during African American History Month, Wood talked about little recognized black explorers, such as Matthew Henson, an American who journeyed to the North Pole, and Abubakari II, a Malian royal said to have set sail for the New World more than a century before Columbus.

This year, on Wednesday night, he highlighted African American spies who contributed importantly in the history of war and civil rights, including Josephine Baker and Harriet Tubman.

Baker on a German poster in 1929
The piece reminded me of two memorable experiences learning about these women.  I first learned about Josephine Baker, an American-born French resistance agent in World War II, only recently, in a seemingly unlikely place, a 2019 exhibit at the Musée d'Orsay titled Black Models: from Géricault to Matisse.  In the brilliant, wide-ranging exhibit on the intersection of black culture and French history, Baker was featured among entertainers whose work was fused into a new French cultural identity in the 20th century.

Tubman NHP in 2018 (photo by RJ Peltz-Steele CC BY-SA 4.0)
In 2018, my family first visited the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park, which opened in Maryland in 2013.  Situated amid the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay, the museum is not on the beaten path, but it's worth every extra mile to visit.  Impassionedly curated, the exhibits comprise an encyclopedic history of civil rights of which I knew precious little, even having gone to grade school in Maryland and being schooled in constitutional law.  Tubman's vital contributions as a Union spy, as well as the real story of her military leadership, portrayed by an eponymous 2019 film, is featured among narratives every American should know about the future face of our $20 note.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Glued hair precipitates lawsuit talk, problem of liability exposure when products are misused

Trevor Noah and Dulcé Sloan had some fun on The Daily Show this week with TikToker Tessica Brown, who is considering suit against Gorilla Glue after using it on her hair sent her to the hospital.

I have some Gorilla Glue right on my desk.  I love the stuff, except how it hardens in the bottle before I can use it all, an apparently intractable malady of super glues.  I got out my reading glasses, and the tiny print on mine says:

WARNING: BONDS SKIN INSTANTLY.  EYE AND SKIN IRRITANT.  MAY PRODUCE ALLERGIC REACTION BY SKIN CONTACT.  Do not swallow.  Do not get in eyes.  Do not get on skin or clothing.  Do not breathe in fumes.  KEEP OUT OF REACH OF CHILDREN.  Wear safety glasses and chemical resistant gloves.  Contains ethyl cyanoacrylate.  FIRST AID TREATMENT: If swallowed, call a Poison Control Center or doctor immediately.  Eyelid bonding: see a doctor.  Skin binding: soak skin in water and call a Poison Control Center.  Do not force apart. For medical emergencies only, call 800-....

 Image by RJ Peltz-Steele CC BY-SA 4.0
with no claim to underlying content
No mention of hair, so I guess the warning label will have to be longer now.  The hair incident prompted a Twitter response from Gorilla Glue, lamenting the misuse and wishing Brown well.

Whether and when to acknowledge an unapproved use of a product always has been an intriguing problem in the practice of product liability defense.  Foreseeability is a key part of the product liability test in many states, so a maker with actual knowledge of an off-label use is sometimes wrangled into having to warn against the absurd.  That leads to some funny results, as evidenced by the label collection that my friend Prof. Andrew McClurg has maintained since before the internet was a thing, now a feature on his legal humor website.

In the analog days, a sharply worded letter might have been an adequate response to the customer who wrote in with helpful intention to suggest how effective oven cleaner might be for mole removal.  Woe be to the product maker whose goods turned up in a book such as Uncommon Uses for Common Household Products, which taught people how to MacGyver products to exceed their design intentions.  (And there's a small but fascinating sub-genre of publisher-defense cases at the intersection of product liability and First Amendment law.)  At that point, it was time to update the warning label, if not issue an affirmative press release, because it would no longer be plausible to argue lack of foreseeability to a jury.  The anticipatory defense would have to shift focus to other theories, such as unavoidable dangerousness and consumer responsibility.

The democratization of mass communication through the internet and social media has accelerated the timeline.  So now we see quick responses to individual incidents, such as Gorilla Glue's on Twitter.

The instant case is not firmly in the genre of unintended uses, because Brown intended at least to use the glue for its adhesive property.  Still, I'll go out on a reasonably secure limb and say that any lawsuit arising from the instant incident, at least upon the facts as reported so far, would be frivolous.  More likely, the TikToker in question has accomplished her mission by being the talk of the electronic town.

UPDATE, Feb. 13, 2021: Princess Weekes at The Mary Sue cautions us not to be manipulated by defense tort reformers into too readily siding against Brown, like in the Hot Coffee case.  I don't think I've been so co-opted, but such an admonition is always well advised.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Copyright? I gotchyer Bernie mittens right here, Getty

CC mine, mine, mine
Is any blog complete without a Bernie mittens meme?  

The source photo for the now world-famous Bernie mittens meme is hardly in the public domain, despite what one sees in social media.  The photo was taken by D.C.-based Agence France-Presse photojournalist Brendan Smialowski.  As The New York Times reported in January, Smialowski also took one of the well circulated photos (via N.Y. Times) of a cyclist flipping off the Trump motorcade in 2017.  He's had a good attitude about his latest claim to fame, the Times tells:

"I genuinely enjoy the fact that people are having a lighthearted moment from a political photo," he said. "Things have been pretty tough for the last year and politics can be pretty nasty, and here are people just having fun."

But AFP licenses its photos through Getty Images, where Bernie Mittens (pop-up) can be yours for from $175 for a 0.2 megapixel small to $499 for a 12.6 megapixel large.  Are AFP and Getty as chill about meme culture as Smialowski?  As François Larose and Naomi Zener write for Bereskin & Parr, "It’s all Good Fun Until a Copyright Lawyer Gets Involved."

Analyzing the case under Canadian law, Larose and Zener concluded that non-commercial memes are safe from infringement liability, but mittens merch makers had better watch out.  I'm lookin' at you, Etsy.  I am not so sanguine about U.S. fair use analysis, and I think the hypothetical case spotlights the too often yawning gulf between IP law and the reasonable expectations of real people, especially in the internet age.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Death case against Robinhood tests common law disfavor for liability upon negligence leading to suicide

U.S. CFPB images

The family of a 20-year-old college student who committed suicide has sued the lately notorious Robinhood financial services company.

Filed yesterday in California, the suit has been reported widely (e.g., Fortune), as was the death in the lockdown summer of 2020 (e.g., Financial Times, Forbes).  I feel compelled to mention the case here because, in tragic coincidence, my Torts II class covered suicide in causation just last night.  Hat tip to law student Paul McAlarney, who spied the story at CNBC.  Courthouse News has the complaint

In the instant case, decedent Alex Kearns, a sophomore at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, ran in front of a train while believing mistakenly that he had lost about $730,000 in investments through Robinhood.  The service emailed him to demand a deposit of $178,000 to rectify his negative balance, Fortune explained, without clarifying that he had options in his account that could more than cover the deposit.

I am no investment wiz, but McAlarney said that a representation of negative balance like this is normal in margin trading, and that understanding one's actual position can be "tricky" and "super confusing" for beginners.  Kearns tried three times to reach Robinhood customer service, to no avail; we all know how that goes.

Historically, common law was not friendly to claims of tort liability against actors whose negligence was alleged to have precipitated suicide.  The abrupt and powerfully intentional act of suicide was, and usually still is, regarded as a supervening cause of loss, breaking the chain of legal causation between injury and the conduct of actors earlier in time, and freeing them of legal responsibility.  The rule arose naturally from the social stigma that attached to suicide historically, and, relatedly, the criminalization of the act.

In recent decades, however, the historic common law approach softened.  Understanding of mental health issues diminished the stigmatization of suicide and pushed a wave of decriminalization.  Insofar as suicide remains criminalized or regulated as a civil offense, the rationale today is more often to facilitate mental health intervention than to deter or punish.  Accordingly, courts have evidenced increased willingness to see negligence as a legally cognizable cause in the aggravation of mental illness.

I wrote here on the blog about two cases in the last three years arising in higher education in Massachusetts.  In a case against MIT, in 2018, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) held that the defendant university could not be held liable in the suicide of a student, Nguyen, for failure of duty.  However, the Court wrote that it was not rejecting wholesale a university-to-student duty to prevent suicide; rather, on the facts, MIT could not have foreseen the tragedy.  Then in a case against Harvard, in 2019, the Superior Court followed the SJC's lead and refused to dismiss a liability claim in the suicide of a student, Luke Tang (documentary film).  That case is now in discovery (search Middlesex County case no. 1881CV02603).

The civil iteration of the Michelle Carter case, in which Carter, by text message, exhorted teen peer Roy Conrad to commit suicide, would have marked a profound test of the old common law rule, but was settled in 2019.  Pending in the Massachusetts legislature is a bill, "Conrad's Law," that would explicitly criminalize the facilitation of suicide.  Carter was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, and the SJC upheld the conviction as against a First Amendment challenge.  The U.S. Supreme Court denied certioari.

At the end of December, the Sixth Circuit affirmed denial of a Cincinnati school board's motion to dismiss a suit over a third grader's suicide precipitated by bullying.  Professor Alberto Bernabe wrote about the case for his Torts Blog and observed, as to proximate causation, "the court found that the boy’s suicide was plainly foreseeable, especially considering [that] the school’s guidelines on bullying include suicide as a risk."

Tragedy arising from investment losses is not new.  My torts casebook with Professor Marshall Shapo, in the chapter on attenuated duty and causation, noted a mass shooting and suicide by a day trader in 1999.  The Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment for the shooter's former employers as against claims by victims.  The court wrote that "the issue of proximate cause is so plain, palpable, and indisputable as to demand summary judgment for the defendants."  The Kearns case relocates the risk to the private home and compounds the matter with investor inexpertise, changes wrought, for better and worse, by the electronic democratization of access to financial markets.

The case is Kearns v. Robinhood Financial LLC, No. 21CV375872 (Cal. Super. Ct. Santa Clara Cty. filed Feb. 8, 2021).

Netflix's 'Enola Holmes' tangles with family copyright

Brown (image by Gage Skidmore 2017 CC BY-SA 2.0)
I quite enjoyed the film Enola Holmes, released on Netflix in 2020, a welcome respite from #QuarantineLife.  Stranger Things sensation Millie Bobby Brown was delightful as the lesser known teen sister of the super-sleuth Sherlock, played with rich arrogance by Henry Cavill.  I did not know then that the movie was based on a YA book series, by fantasy writer Nancy Springer, dating to 2006. 

The Arthur Conan Doyle estate seemed content to let Springer go about the quiet business of spin-off fan fiction, but got its hackles up when Netflix got into the game.  The copyright picture behind Sherlock Holmes is complicated: one might say, a puzzle to be solved.  Some of the works have fallen into the public domain and some have not, and the matter is further complicated by a U.S. copyright regime that protects copyright a full generation longer than British law.

The Doyle estate sued Springer and Netflix in federal court in New Mexico in June for copyright and trademark infringement.  The estate's U.S. licensing representative lives in Santa Fe, an attorney explained to the Las Cruces Sun News.  The case, Conan Doyle Estate Ltd. v. Springer (D.N.M.), was dismissed in December upon stipulation, suggesting the parties reached a settlement.

Claims of copyright in fictional characters are always dicey, because they press the limits of the doctrinal dichotomy in copyright law that only fixed representations, and not ideas, may be protected by copyright.  A character has one foot fixed in a tangible medium of expression, as the law requires, and, at the same time, has one foot in the wind of idea.  In the instant case, the plaintiff advanced one remarkable theory to bolster its position.

The plaintiff suggested that Arthur Conan Doyle in fact authored two distinct versions of the Sherlock Holmes character, and that the fictional Holmes universe created by Springer and Netflix employed specifically the latter incarnation—which, suitably for the plaintiff's case, remains copyrighted.  The complaint explained that before WWI, Holmes was famously "aloof and unemotional," quoting Watson from "The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter" on Holmes's "deficien[cy] in human sympathy," "aversion to women," and "disinclination to form new friendships."  Then:

All of this changed. After the stories that are now in the public domain, and before the Copyrighted Stories, the Great War happened. In World War I Conan Doyle lost his eldest son, Arthur Alleyne Kingsley. Four months later he lost his brother, Brigadier-general Innes Doyle. When Conan Doyle came back to Holmes in the Copyrighted Stories between 1923 and 1927, it was no longer enough that the Holmes character was the most brilliant rational and analytical mind. Holmes needed to be human. The character needed to develop human connection and empathy.

Conan Doyle made the surprising artistic decision to have his most famous character—known around the world as a brain without a heart—develop into a character with a heart. Holmes became warmer. He became capable of friendship. He could express emotion. He began to respect women.

Thus, the complaint posits, Enola Holmes, the story of Sherlock's sister, a figure long marginalized but now primed for redemption, is derivative specifically of post-WWI Sherlock Holmes—©.

Despite the dismissal, you still can enjoy untangling the skein of intellectual property claims in Conan Doyle Estate v. Springer with Alice Chaplin, writing on February 4 for A&L Goodbody's Ireland IP and Technology Law Blog.  Then solve a mystery with Enola Holmes on Netflix.