At the closing of many business transactions, counsel for the company delivers to the other party – e.g., the investor, lender or acquirer – a letter, commonly referred to as a “closing opinion,” in which counsel provides that other party (the opinion recipient) legal opinions on various matters it has asked counsel to address. Though each closing opinion must be tailored to the specific transaction, closing opinions in general tend to address many of the same matters in similar ways from transaction to transaction.
The meaning of opinions and the work required to support them are based on the customary practice of lawyers who regularly give and who regularly advise opinion recipients regarding opinions of the type being given in the transaction. Customary practice allows opinions to be expressed in only a few words and permits the lawyers preparing them to rely on many unstated assumptions and limitations. By amplifying the meaning of abbreviated opinion language, customary practice provides the framework for preparing and interpreting opinions, thus facilitating the opinion process.
As recognized in the Restatement (Third) of the Law Governing Lawyers, Section 95 (Reporter’s Note to Comment c), customary practice is described and discussed in bar association reports and scholarly writings. In 1998, the Boston Bar Association’s (“BBA”) Legal Opinions Committee of the Business Law Section issued a statement in which it characterized the then new TriBar Opinion Committee’s report, “Third-Party ‘Closing’ Opinions,” 53 Bus. Law. 591 (1998), and the “Legal Opinion Principles,” 53 Bus. Law. 831 (1998), published by the American Bar Association’s (“ABA”) Legal Opinions Committee of the Business Law Section as providing a helpful description of the customary practice followed by Massachusetts lawyers in the preparation and interpretation of closing opinions. In 2002, the ABA’s Legal Opinions Committee issued revised “Guidelines for the Preparation of Closing Opinions,” 57 Bus. Law. 875 (2002) (the “Guidelines”), and, following its 1998 report, the TriBar Opinion Committee supplemented that report with several additional reports. In 2008, the “Statement on the Role of Customary Practice in the Preparation and Understanding of Third-Party Legal Opinions,” 63 Bus. Law. 1277 (2008) (the “Customary Practice Statement”), was published. The Customary Practice Statement was approved by many bar associations and other lawyer groups, including the Boston Bar Association, and described the principal elements of customary practice that form the basis for legal opinion practice.
In its 1998 statement, the BBA had noted the desirability of a “more streamlined opinion letter” that omitted disclaimers, qualifications and assumptions which the Legal Opinion Principles made clear are understood to apply, as a matter of customary practice, whether or not stated expressly. Subsequently, the BBA Legal Opinions Committee prepared a streamlined form of closing opinion that could be used by both opinion givers and opinion recipients. That streamlined form, prepared under the supervision of this article’s authors and representing the work of lawyers in many Boston-area firms, was endorsed by the BBA as a useful document to facilitate the closing opinion process and enhance the efficiency of business transactions and was published in the January/February 2006 issue of the Boston Bar Journal.
Subsequently, effort was undertaken to develop a statement of opinion practices that could be endorsed by many bar associations and other lawyer groups as expressing a national consensus on key aspects of opinion practice based upon customary practice. That effort produced the current “Statement of Opinion Practices” and related “Core Opinion Principles” which updates the Legal Opinion Principles in their entirety and selected provisions of the Guidelines. The Statement and the Core Opinion Principles have been approved by many bar associations and other lawyer groups, including the BBA Council on March 19, 2019. The Core Opinion Principles are derived from the Statement and can be incorporated by reference in or attached to a closing opinion by those who desire to do so.
The authors of this article have updated the BBA streamlined form of closing opinion to refer to the Core Opinion Principles and to reflect developments in legal opinion practice since 2006 (as updated, the “Streamlined Form”).
The Streamlined Form is not intended to be prescriptive. Rather, reflecting a broad consensus on acceptable opinion practices, the Streamlined Form is designed to serve as a helpful starting point for lawyers in drafting closing opinions and as guidance on the opinions lawyers can advise clients to accept. The Streamlined Form addresses an unsecured bank loan. Attachment A to the Streamlined Form includes opinions that would typically be given on the issuance of stock. The explanatory notes to the Streamlined Form, while intended to provide helpful information, cannot substitute for the extensive literature that exists on closing opinions.
The Streamlined Form seeks to address opinion issues in a balanced way. Some noteworthy features are:
- The language used to incorporate deﬁnitions from the underlying agreement is more precise than language often used in closing opinions.
- The form avoids the use of the phrase “to our knowledge,” which courts have not consistently interpreted as a limitation. Note 23 suggests a formulation that makes clear that this phrase, if used, is intended as a limitation.
- The introductory paragraphs sharpen the description of the factual investigation undertaken, thus avoiding the suggestion that the opinion preparers conducted a broader investigation than actually performed. The description also makes clear that the opinion preparers may have relied on certiﬁcates of public ofﬁcials for legal matters.
- The corporate status opinion does not use the terms “duly incorporated” or “duly organized,” both of which require a more detailed investigation than many transactions require. The elimination of these terms has been widely accepted for many transactions.
- Paragraph 5 contains a more precise formulation of the no violation of law and no breach or default opinions than appeared in the original form.
- Note 18 provides an analysis of the Restatement approach, which has been adopted in Massachusetts and many other states, for determining when the governing law provision in an agreement should be given effect.
- Note 19 addresses opinions on the enforceability of forum selection provisions that are sometimes requested in cross-border transactions.
- The form proposes a formulation of the no-litigation “opinion” that is narrower than the one often used in the past. (The “opinion” is a factual conﬁrmation and therefore more accurately referred to as a no-litigation conﬁrmation). The narrower formulation is offered as an alternative to declining to cover litigation at all, although the omission of any statement regarding litigation in closing opinions has gained increased acceptance.
- The form includes a provision, often referred to as the “Wachovia provision,” that makes clear limitations on the right of assignees of notes to rely on a closing opinion.
- Attachment A addresses opinions on a corporation’s outstanding capital stock and rights to acquire stock. It also includes a form of opinion that the issuance of the stock does not require registration under the Securities Act of 1933.
- The form leaves space for exceptions rather than identifying particular exceptions that are commonly taken.
No form can accommodate every factual situation or eliminate the need for lawyers to exercise care in preparing closing opinions. Nevertheless, attorneys who have treated the streamlined form of closing opinion as a starting point in drafting their closing opinions have found that it improves the efﬁciency of the opinion process. We are hopeful that its approach will continue to gain acceptance to the mutual beneﬁt of both opinion givers and opinion recipients.
Donald W. Glazer is Advisory Counsel to Goodwin Procter LLP and co-author of the treatise, Glazer and FitzGibbon on Legal Opinions. Stanley Keller is a Senior Partner in the Boston office of Locke Lord LLP.
by Elizabeth Sillin and Colin Korzec
On January 8, 2019, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued Ciani v. MacGrath, 481 Mass. 174 (2019), which clarified certain provisions of the Massachusetts spousal elective share statute, G.L. c. 191, § 15. Specifically, Ciani held that the surviving spouse’s elective share of the deceased spouse’s real estate is a life estate in possession, not simply an income interest for life. A right to partition (and sell) the real property is now borne – a right that may severely disrupt the estate plan of the testator. Additionally, the SJC again urged the Legislature to update the elective share statute due principally to the fact that the statute is “woefully inadequate to satisfy modern notions of a decedent spouse’s obligation to support the surviving spouse or modern notions of marital property,” Bongaards v. Millen, 440 Mass. 10, 21 (2003).
Raymond Ciani died testate in 2015 survived by his wife, Susan, and his four adult children from a prior marriage. Raymond did not make any provisions in his will for Susan. Susan timely filed for her elective share of Raymond’s estate in accordance with G.L. c. 191, § 15.
Raymond died with personal property valued at just under $40,000 and with multiple parcels of real estate valued at just under $638,000. Susan brought partition actions seeking to force the sale of real estate in order to monetize her interest therein. Raymond’s children claimed she did not have a right to force the sale, and that she had the right only to receive income produced by the real estate.
The Massachusetts elective share provisions are found in G.L. c. 191, §§ 15 and 16 (the Elective Share statute). The Elective Share statute was enacted to prevent spousal disinheritance, either by inadvertence or design. It provides a mechanism by which a surviving spouse can waive the provisions of a deceased spouse’s will and take instead a statutorily prescribed share of the decedent’s estate.
The Elective Share statute provides a formulaic approach to determining the amount of the surviving spouse’s claim. The formula depends on whether the deceased had issue and/or kindred, as well as on the dollar amount of the deceased’s estate. The Elective Share statue provides, in part:
[I]f the deceased left issue, [the surviving spouse] shall thereupon take one third of the personal and one third of the real property . . . ; except that . . . . if [the surviving spouse] would thus take real and personal property to an amount exceeding twenty-five thousand dollars in value, he or she shall receive, in addition to that amount, only the income during his or her life of the excess of his or her share of such estate above that amount, the personal property to be held in trust and the real property vested in him or her for life, from the death of the deceased. G.L. c. 191, § 15.
The dispute in this case centered on the nature of a Susan’s interest in a Raymont’s real property where the income-only limitation applies, i.e., where Susan’s share of Raymond’s personal and real property, taken together, exceeds $25,000 in value. Susan contended that she held a life estate in an undivided one-third of each parcel of real property and that Raymond’s children were tenants in common subject to her life estate. Raymond’s children contended that Susan’s interest in real estate is limited to an income interest for life, not a life estate. The issue was one of first impression. The judge in the Superior Court reported the ruling to the Appeals Court and the SJC granted direct appellate review.
The Ciani Decision
The SJC construed the Elective Share statute by first looking at its plain language and then whether the legislative history supported the Court’s interpretation. The SJC declared:
[W]e read the statute this way: the first clause (“only the income during his or her life”) limits the surviving spouse to an interest in the “income only,” and the second clause (“the personal property to be held in trust and the real property vested in him or her for life”) describes how that limitation is to be achieved for each type of property — the personal property is to be held in trust and the real property is to be vested in the surviving spouse for life.
Ciani, 481 Mass. at 180-81.
Next, the SJC considered the legislative history of the elective share concept to test its statutory interpretation. Id. at 183-85. The first iteration of the Elective Share statute simply provided for a widow’s right to waive the provisions made for her in her husband’s will and afforded her a life estate in a prescribed portion of her husband’s real property. In 1833, the statute was revised to afford the widow a limited claim to a deceased husband’s personal property. The statute was reworked in 1854 to allow the spouse to take instead an intestate share of his estate, along with a $10,000 limitation on the personal property. Around 1861, the concept of the income-only interest in the personal property was introduced. Subsequent revisions around 1900 brought the statute to what it largely looks like today, including the expansion of the statute to include surviving husbands. An additional revision in 1964 adjusted the $10,000 figure to the current $25,000. Id.
The SJC found that the history of the statute demonstrated that the Legislature consistently and intentionally treated personal and real property differently from the outset. Id. The income-only limitation initially applied only to the decedent’s personal property. It was not until 1900 that the real property limitation was enacted. And even then, the SJC held, the real property limitation was characterized as “vested” and not as an “income only” limitation. Id. at 186. The fact that the Legislature did not enact an analogous provision for the management of the real property, but instead instructed that the excess of the surviving spouse’s share thereof would be “vested,” supported the Court’s conclusion that the Legislature intended for the surviving spouse to take an ownership interest in the excess. Id. The fact that the Legislature simultaneously anticipated that the surviving spouse’s share would be “set off” for the duration of his or her life also supported the conclusion that the Legislature intended to convey a life estate. Id.
Ultimately, the SJC found that (i) Susan holds an estate in possession, for life, in her share of the real property, and (ii) Raymond’s children hold an estate in possession, absolutely, in the remaining property, as well as an estate in remainder in Susan’s share. As a result, the parties are tenants in common as to their estates in possession and each has a right to a partition. Instead of simply having the right to live in the house, Susan has the right to force a sale of the property and realize a monetary sum upon the sale. Indeed, Raymond;s children also now have the right to partition as well – possibly forcing Susan out of the house in which she wishes to continue to live. This right has the potential to disrupt a well-intended estate plan by allowing the forced sale of the family residence over the objections of certain members of the family.
Postmortem – My Kingdom for a Postnuptial
The Court noted parenthetically that the Elective Share statute, which has been around in some form since 1783, is “unwieldy and perplexing to apply” and “decidedly gendered” and “in desperate need of an update” by the Legislature to conform with modern notions of spousal support obligations and marital property. Ciani, 481 Mass. at 187 n.12. Indeed, as the Court noted, a similar appeal to the Legislature was made in 1984 in Sullivan v. Burkin, 390 Mass. 864 (1984), some 35 years ago. Id. Several attempts have been made over the years by various bar association committees to address the spousal elective share. To date, no consensus has emerged in Massachusetts about modernizing the elective share law. Until such time as it does, estate planners must continue to take advise clients as to the pitfalls of the current law and to give further consideration to prenuptials or postnuptials as part of the estate planning process.
Elizabeth Sillin, Esq. is a partner at Bulkley, Richardson and Gelinas and is a member of the Massachusetts Ad Hoc Elective Share Study Committee. Colin Korzec is a National Estate Settlement Executive at U.S. Trust, Bank of America Private Wealth Management and was also a member of the Massachusetts Ad Hoc Elective Share Study Committee.
Calling it Quits or Moving in Together? Considerations for Small Liberal Arts Colleges in the Wake of Mount IdaPosted: March 18, 2019
by Laurie R. Bishop
Last year’s abrupt closure of Mount Ida College in Newton—and its rapid acquisition by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst—highlights a new and frightening reality for many small, private colleges in the Commonwealth and nationwide. Advancing the legacy and mission of many such institutions, while simultaneously navigating between the desire to retain independence and the importance of avoiding sudden closure, now seems to require a new level of ingenuity and appetite for organizational change. Nor is this challenge unique: in Massachusetts alone, over the past few months Newbury College announced its impending closure, while Hampshire College is exploring a merger.
Faced with mounting debt, shrinking enrollment, and a failed attempt at merging with a sister school, Mount Ida appeared left with few options. The resulting transaction left students, staff, faculty, politicians, regulators, and lawyers with more questions than answers. Students, staff, and faculty felt betrayed; the Massachusetts Senate launched an inquiry into the speedy purchase by UMass Amherst with state funds; the Attorney General opened an investigation into whether top officials at Mount Ida College violated fiduciary obligations; even Governor Charlie Baker called for new Board of Higher Education regulations requiring institutions to provide notice of “any known liabilities or risks which may result in imminent closure.” Overall, it seemed an ignoble ending for an institution that had survived for over a century.
Yet this need not have been the outcome. Colleges and their counsel facing similar circumstances can take key concrete steps to help avoid the Mount Ida pitfalls. Early and ongoing institutional consideration of key warning signs, understanding the array of options short of outright closure, remaining cognizant of legal requirements and deadlines, and deploying effective public relations are all critical in guiding institutions through such existential challenges.
Recognize Early Warning Signs
Small, private institutions like Mount Ida usually exhibit early warning signs well before closure is imminent. Senior administrators and board members should be aware of their institution’s financial conditions and demand frequent updates on comparative market data with objective gauges. Warning signs include excessive deferred maintenance (sometimes paired with incongruous investment in new facilities meant to jump start growth), low endowment levels, and falling enrollment numbers with corresponding deep tuition discounts to increase yield.
When warning signs surface, institutions need to be realistic rather than idealistic about what improvements or corrections can be made, and how long they may take. “Giving it the old college try” for too long—instead of seriously exploring other options—can prove fatal.
If a merger or acquisition is a possibility, acting when time is still on your side—before the major repercussions of those early warning signs have begun to emerge, such as staff layoffs and cuts to programs—will pay dividends. Combining institutions is a lengthy process, and doing it well, with a view towards respecting and maintaining the individuality of each, takes even longer. Merger counsel and other advisors, including public relations support, should be retained early. Working with merger counsel is critical not only because they are experts in the field, but also because as the merger begins to develop and grow, in-house counsel for the institution will be engrossed in tasks such as managing board, presidential, and cabinet questions, along with the continued day-to-day operations of the College.
Assess Your Options
Distressed small colleges should be aware that their options are not limited to closing entirely (like Mount Ida) or to traditional acquisition by a larger institution (that may or may not care about maintaining some semblance of the smaller college’s identity). Legal counsel has a key role in assisting institutions in evaluating the viability of the wide range of options that are available.
One alternative is to solidify an existing long-term partnership to provide enhanced offerings for students and a deeper reserve of resources—financial and otherwise—to draw upon. Depending on the existing depth of the relationship, this may also lessen the distraction and upheaval often caused by mergers and acquisition. The School of the Museum of Fine Arts recently adopted this approach with Tufts University, with which it has partnered since 1945. The result is the innovative “SMFA at Tufts,” where students have the option of pursuing a BFA or 5-year combined BFA + BA/BS degree in conjunction with Tufts.
Another option is to capitalize on natural and mutually beneficial geographic or program synergies. For instance, the 2016 merger between Berklee College of Music and The Boston Conservatory, the oldest music conservatory in the United States, presented such opportunities. With directly adjacent campuses in Boston’s Back Bay and similar commitments to the arts, the institutions were able to capitalize on and maintain their different areas of strength while providing additional and related opportunities to students of each. Similarly, Wheelock College’s merger into Boston University leveraged a natural geographic relationship to combine Wheelock’s unique focus on early childhood and education studies with Boston University’s significant resources.
Even when the fit seems natural to outsiders careful attention must be paid to the individual “identities” and missions of the merging institutions. Current students retain expectations of the pre-merged entity, and incoming students will expect an institution that reflects the one to which they applied. Donors may also remain loyal to the pre-merged entity, and expect future donations to support continuation of some of the pre-merged entity’s programs. In other words, the success is often based not only on synergies, but also (in part) on the preservation and respect of both institutions’ missions. Choosing a partner that complements your institution — as opposed to one that competes for the same students in the same area —can help in continuation of the missions of both.
Understand the Legal Requirements
If closure or a merger is imminent, counsel must ensure that key legal obligations are not overlooked or postponed by the institution’s administration. Under current regulations, institutions of higher education must notify the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education (DHE) of their intention to close “as far in advance as possible.” 610 C.M.R. § 2.07(3)(f)(2). The president of the institution must provide DHE with a signed Notice of Intent to Close, sent to the Commissioner of Higher Education. Per DHE guidelines, the written notice should include:
- A statement of intent to close and the general rationale;
- An estimated timeline for the closure, the anticipated final termination date, and the approximate number of students currently enrolled; and
- Disclosure of any preliminary discussions or plans with other institutions that may offer the potential for articulation.
The school must then complete the Independent Institution Notice of Closure and keep in direct communication with DHE during the closure process. This includes, but is not limited to, forwarding copies of all communications to students, former students, alumni, and the media regarding the closure.
Similarly, notice must be given to, and approval obtained from, the Attorney General’s Office when a public charity (such as a college or university) sells “all or substantially all” of its assets, or where there will be a material change in the nature of the activities conducted by the public charity. G.L. c. 180 § 8A(c). In practice, the Attorney General expects to receive an 8A(c) notice if more than 75 % of the organization’s assets are being disposed of. While this notice must be provided no later than 30 days before the closing of the transaction, the Attorney General’s office should be notified as soon as possible after the details of the transaction have been agreed, to avoid delay in closure. If an institution of higher education dissolves completely, it must file a dissolution complaint with the single justice of the Supreme Judicial Court for Suffolk County. G.L. c. 180, § 11A.
In the wake of Mount Ida and the growing number of closures, institutions in the Commonwealth may soon be held to earlier disclosure requirements and increased oversight. In early January 2019, the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education proposed a new process to screen, monitor, and potentially intervene when a private college or university exhibits symptoms of financial distress. The Board’s Final Report and Recommendations, which remains subject to discussion and debate, proposes that (1) the Department of Higher Education screen all private colleges using a metric designed to estimate whether the college has the resources “to fully teach out its current students”; (2) schools identified in the screening process be subject to an active monitoring protocol; and (3) if a school could not, in the Department’s judgement, ensure by December 1 that it has the financial means to complete the current and subsequent academic year, the institution would be required to notify students and complete a full contingency plan approved by the state. Schools that fail or refuse to take part in the process would be subject to potential sanctions.
When to Tell Your Students and What to Tell the Press
While certain merger/closure notice requirements are mandated by law, a far more difficult strategic question is when to tell students, parents, faculty and employees — and how to handle the press that will inevitably follow.
One of the key criticisms following the Mount Ida closure was the lack of transparency by the administration and the Board in announcing the closure. Not until March of 2018 — two months before the end of the school year — did Mount Ida officials reveal that they were in merger talks with Lasell College. Just two weeks after this announcement, the sale to UMass Amherst was announced, giving students, faculty, and staff minimal warning.
Given the significant disruption that closures and mergers can cause, critical to any successful merger is the early involvement and coordination of outside counsel with public relations professionals. Together, they can tailor a sound strategy for senior administrators that balances the critical importance of transparency with the need to maintain confidentiality for some period of time (to identify potential options, merger partners, and/or contingency plans). Wheelock College gave its faculty nearly two years’ notice that closure was imminent, and sent out over 60 requests for proposals to potential merger partners before their ultimate merger with Boston University. This allowed faculty, students, and staff time to evaluate their options, and allowed Wheelock to proceed with the best deal possible for the school and its constituents.
More School Closures Are On the Horizon
According to recent reports from the Chronicle of Higher Education, U.S. colleges expect to see a steady decline in enrollment, and more schools are likely to close or merge in the coming years. In Massachusetts, the decline in enrollment among all categories of colleges has been between 1.3 – 1.7% annually from 2013 through 2016. The result is that colleges and universities without large endowments rely disproportionately on enrollment numbers and tuition to stay afloat from year to year, and the amount they disburse in student aid determines their bottom line.
Indeed, Moody’s reported in July of 2018 that approximately 25 percent of private nonprofit colleges and universities spent more than they earned in the 2017 fiscal year. The July 2018 Moody’s report expanded on its close-to-accurate 2015 prediction that closure activity would as much as triple and mergers would double by 2017, observed that a future increase in closures toward the range of 15 per year, and reported that one in five small private colleges nationwide is under fundamental stress.
In light of these general trends and the Mount Ida debacle, counsel has a particularly important and valuable role to play at all stages: (1) Identifying risks early by reminding administrators to remain vigilant for financial red flags; (2) Keeping DHE and the Attorney General on notice when required if closure is possible; and, possibly most importantly; (3) Advising administrators on how to stay honest and transparent with your students, faculty, and staff while still meeting their fiduciary responsibilities.
Laurie R. Bishop is a partner at Hirsch Roberts Weinstein LLP, where her practice focuses on advising colleges, universities, and non-profit organizations on policies, procedures, and risk-management decisions. She serves as acting general counsel to Berklee College of Music, and assisted in their successful merger with Boston Conservatory of Music. Laurie is a member of the Planning Committee for the annual BBA Higher Education Legal Conference.
 The report does not specify which entity would be responsible for annually screening colleges’ financial condition, what score on the metric would trigger closer state monitoring and how, specifically, the 18-month warning would be triggered.
by Mark V. Green
Voice of the Judiciary
A few months past my first anniversary as Chief Justice of the Appeals Court, I am pleased to have been invited to offer a few reflections about the Court, and my initial experience as Chief.
I am fortunate to have taken on my new duties at a time of great transition at the Court. A number of long term senior managers and other employees have recently retired. In addition, half of the Justices on the Court have been appointed within the last 3 1/2 years. With those changes in personnel, along with the adoption of new technology, have come both the need and the opportunity to reexamine many of our operations, and in many ways to reimagine the Court itself. More directly and immediately, the changes have provided me with the opportunity to assemble a terrific senior management team with the hiring of our new Court Administrator Gina DeRossi and the promotion of Mary Bowe to the position of Chief Staff Attorney, who join our Clerk Joe Stanton, our Law Clerk Manager Maggi Farrell and my incomparable assistant Monique Duarte.
We are very pleased with the success of our movement to a digital platform. By rule, all nonimpounded and non pro se briefs and other materials are now filed electronically, and we take in no paper at all in those cases (which comprise well over 90% of our filings). The Justices have for several years – even before e-filing began – worked with case materials largely without resort to hard copy, preparing for, and participating at, oral argument with iPads. Justices circulate draft opinions to the other members of the panel – and in the case of published opinions, to the entire court – for review by email, and the entire editorial process thereafter is fully electronic. Besides saving trees, the digital platform offers more convenient access to the information, and saves time as the content is transferred from the Clerk’s Office to the Justices, and then among panel members and support staff as opinions are processed toward release; by contrast, when I arrived as part of the Court’s expansion in 2001 all opinions were circulated in hard copy by interoffice mail, and all comments returned in the same matter, often taking days or week for communication of comments that now are often completed in an afternoon.
The increase in convenience and efficiency has translated to an acceleration of our speed. We are reaching cases for argument, and deciding them after argument, as quickly as ever in the Court’s history. Most cases are argued between four and four and a half months after they are briefed and ready; by way of comparison, when I joined the Court, it took fourteen months to reach criminal cases after they were briefed and ready, and twenty-two months to reach civil cases. And over the past twelve months, the median time for release of a decision after argument was fifty-four days. On a somewhat related note, I am also pleased to report that we are hearing argument in an increasing share of our cases – more than 75% now, compared to around 60% just eight or nine years ago, and around 50% in the more distant past. Breaking with tradition, we held panel hearing sessions in July 2018, to positive response, and hope to repeat that pilot program this coming summer.
We are also able to make more information easily available to our stakeholders. Except for impounded cases, our hearing lists and docket sheets are available on our website, as are briefs in cases scheduled for argument. Since January, audio recordings of oral arguments are also now made available on the website within a few days. We recently compiled a manual of our internal operating procedures, and expect to make it available on our website in the near future.
We are expanding our outreach in other ways as well. We regularly conduct panel hearings away from the John Adams Courthouse, at various law schools and other venues in all corners of the Commonwealth. Thanks to the sponsorship of the Flaschner Judicial Institute, and jointly with the Supreme Judicial Court, we held a terrific bench-bar conference in December, and we are currently assessing what we learned from our bar colleagues, and how best to respond to their suggestions. And we are working to improve the frequency and content of our communication with the bar and the public, through the Listserv maintained by Clerk Stanton and the quarterly Review produced by Court Administrator DeRossi.
I previously mentioned the significant number of newly appointed Justices on the Court. They have brought energy, intellect and fresh perspective to an already strong Court. I consider among my most important responsibilities as Chief the duty to instill in our new arrivals a sense of the culture and traditions of the Court. And in that regard, it is a particular priority to preserve and enhance the Court’s culture of collegiality, mutual respect and effective communication, while pursuing the highest level of excellence in our decisional work that we can attain. So far, at least, and with the assistance of my other more seasoned colleagues (and, of course, the talent and dedication of the new recruits), it seems to be working. I am also indebted to many of those who welcomed me when I arrived on the Court, and in particular former Chief Justice Armstrong and Justices Brown, Dreben and Kass, who each came back last spring for a series of “Lunches with the Legends.”
In a little more than three years, on October 6, 2022, the Appeals Court will mark its 50th anniversary. Compared to the Supreme Judicial Court (which celebrated its 325th last year), the Superior Court (which celebrated its 150th a few years before that), or even the Land Court (which is coming up on its 125th in a few years), we are still young. And, as I have mentioned, we are in an exciting time of transition and opportunity. I consider it a unique privilege to be entrusted with stewardship of the Court at this exciting time.
The Honorable Mark V. Green was appointed Chief Justice of the Appeals Court by Governor Charles D. Baker on December 6, 2017, having served on the Court as an Associate Justice since his appointment by Governor Jane M. Swift on November 1, 2001. He holds a bachelor of arts degree in philosophy from Cornell University, with distinction in all subjects, and is a 1982 cum laude graduate of Harvard Law School.
CPCS v. AG – The SJC Establishes an Unprecedented, Global Remedy for the Victims of the Amherst Drug Lab Scandal to Address Extraordinary Lab Misconduct that Was Compounded by Intentional Prosecutorial MisconductPosted: March 18, 2019
by Daniel Marx
In Committee for Public Counsel Services v. Attorney General, 480 Mass. 700 (2018), the Supreme Judicial Court provided an unprecedented remedy for the victims of the Amherst lab scandal, thousands of people who were wrongfully convicted based on evidence tainted by former state chemist Sonja Farak. Although the SJC recently established a protocol for the Hinton lab scandal to vacate the wrongful convictions that resulted from Annie Dookhan’s misconduct,[i] the Amherst case was different—and worse. Not only did Farak engage in extraordinary lab misconduct with far-reaching consequences, but her misdeeds were compounded by the prosecutorial misconduct of Assistant Attorneys General Anne Kaczmarek and Kris Foster, who minimized the scope of the scandal by withholding evidence about Farak’s drug abuse and misleading defense attorneys, the courts, and the public. As the SJC concluded in CPCS v. AG, “the government misconduct by Farak and the assistant attorneys general was ‘so intentional and so egregious,’” that “harsher sanctions than the Bridgeman II protocol [were] warranted.”[ii] Therefore, the SJC ordered the wrongful convictions of all “Farak Defendants” to be dismissed with prejudice, and the implementation of that remedy is now underway.
Sonja Farak worked as a state chemist for 10 years, beginning at the William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute in Jamaica Plain (“Hinton lab”) in 2003. Farak transferred to the satellite facility in Amherst (“Amherst lab”) in 2004, and she worked there until her arrest in January 2013. The Amherst lab was smaller, employed fewer chemists, and had “basically … no oversight.”[iii] Throughout her decade-long tenure there, Farak engaged in shocking misconduct.
As a chemistry graduate student, Farak smoked marijuana and also experimented with cocaine, ecstasy, and heroin. Shortly after joining the Amherst lab in 2004, Farak began to consume the “standards,” illegal substances used to test evidentiary samples. Over several years, she nearly exhausted the methamphetamine oil, and by 2009, she had stolen ketamine, cocaine, and ecstasy. Then, Farak turned to evidentiary samples submitted by police departments. During the worst periods of her addiction, through 2013, Farak abused drugs on a daily basis.
Farak’s misconduct also undermined the reliability of her colleague’s work. Farak had “unfettered access” to the entire lab, and in later years, she tampered with samples assigned to other chemists, violated security protocols, and manipulated inventory information. As the SJC recognized, her “extensive and indeterminable” misconduct, over many years, “diminishe[d] the reliability and integrity of forensic testing at the Amherst lab.”[iv]
Unlike the Hinton case, the Amherst lab scandal also involved prosecutorial misconduct that the SJC characterized as “egregious, deliberate, and intentional.”[v] This troubling confluence of lab and prosecutorial misconduct prompted the SJC to impose “the very strong medicine of dismissal with prejudice” for all tainted convictions.[vi]
After Farak’s arrest in January 2013, investigators searched her car and collected drugs, paraphernalia, and counseling records that revealed Farak struggled with addiction and abused drugs in 2011. But neither the victims of the Amherst scandal nor the public learned about this critical evidence until almost one year later. Despite their legal and ethical obligations, AAG Kaczmarek (who prosecuted Farak) and AAG Foster (who handled to discovery requests about the Amherst lab) intentionally hid the documents, stonewalled defense attorneys, and misled the courts.
The improper efforts to minimize Farak’s misconduct were nearly as extensive as the lab misconduct itself. The AAGs mischaracterized exculpatory evidence as “assorted lab paperwork,” including the counseling records investigators forwarded under the subject line: “FARAK admissions.” They falsely insisted such documents were “irrelevant” and baselessly asserted “privilege” claims. They denied discovery requests, moved to quash subpoenas, and misled then-Superior Court Justice Jeffrey Kinder to believe that all evidence had been disclosed.
This prosecutorial misconduct severely undermined the judicial process. Relying on the “misleading evidentiary record,” Judge Kinder ruled Farak’s misconduct began in July 2012 and only affected her work. As a result, thousands of Farak Defendants received no post-conviction relief. In Commonwealth v. Cotto, 471 Mass. 85 (2015), and Commonwealth v. Ware, 471 Mass. 97 (2015), the SJC concluded “the scope of Farak’s misconduct [did] not appear to be . . . comparable to the enormity of Dookhan’s misconduct” and, for that reason, refused to extend to Farak Defendants the conclusive presumption of egregious government misconduct that, in Commonwealth v. Scott, 467 Mass. 336 (2014), it granted to Dookhan Defendants.[vii]
CPCS v. AG
More than two years after Cotto and Ware, the victims of the Amherst scandal still had not been identified, much less notified of their tainted drug convictions and afforded any meaningful relief. Thus, in September 2017, Petitioners in CPCS v. AG filed an action pursuant to G.L. c. 211, § 3, to address: (i) the scope of the scandal; (ii) the appropriate remedy for the victims; and (iii) specific policy proposals to prevent (and, if necessary, respond to) future crises.
Petitioners contended “all convictions based on drug samples tested at the Amherst lab during Farak’s tenure should be vacated and dismissed with prejudice, regardless of whether Farak signed the drug certificate,” because Farak’s lab misconduct, compounded by Kaczmarek and Foster’s prosecutorial misconduct, tainted the evidence in those cases.[viii] The AG conceded Farak undermined the reliability of samples that other chemists analyzed. Yet, based on Farak’s uncorroborated claim that she did not tamper with her colleagues’ work until June 2012, the AG argued any “whole lab” remedy should start at that later time.[ix] Taking a narrower view, the DAs insisted only defendants for whom Farak signed drug certificates were entitled to relief.[x]
Regarding the remedy to which “Farak Defendants” would be entitled, Petitioners asked the SJC to vacate all tainted convictions and dismiss the underlying charges with prejudice. The AG concurred, but only for the more limited class whom it considered Farak’s victims. Meanwhile, the DAs argued the Bridgeman II protocol was sufficient and no further remedy was required.
Finally, as a “prophylactic remedy” to avoid the need for protracted litigation to address any future scandal, Petitioners proposed the SJC issue: (i) a “Brady order” “requiring specific disclosures” by the Commonwealth in all criminal cases and, further, “setting forth specific disclosure deadlines”; (ii) a “Bridgeman II order” to “require a prosecutor that knew, or had reason to know, that misconduct had occurred in a particular case” to notify the Trial Court and CPCS within 90 days and to provide a list of affected defendants; and (iii) a Cotto order to “require a government attorney who knows that attorney misconduct affected a criminal case to notify” the Trial Court, CPCS, and the Office of Bar Counsel within 30 days.[xi] Recognizing the need for real reform, the AG endorsed the proposed orders. The DAs, however, disagreed, arguing the existing discovery rules are adequate and the SJC should not fashion a “one size fits all” solution for future problems.
The SJC defined the “Farak Defendants” to be narrower than “all Amherst lab cases” but broader than “only Farak cases.” It held that, in addition to persons for whom Farak signed drug certificates, “Farak Defendants” include all defendants whose cases were analyzed by any Amherst chemist on or after January 1, 2009, and all defendants convicted of methamphetamine offenses whose cases were handled by the Amherst lab during Farak’s tenure.[xii] For all those defendants, the SJC held their tainted convictions must be vacated and the underlying charges dismissed with prejudice.
The SJC explained its expanded definition of “Farak Defendants” reflected the “extensive and indeterminate nature” of Farak’s misconduct, which involved methamphetamine since 2004 and “spiraled out of control at the beginning of 2009,” when Farak began to manipulate lab systems, steal from police-submitted samples, and tamper with samples assigned to other chemists.[xiii] Such misconduct, the SJC held, “diminishe[d] the reliability and integrity of the forensic testing at the Amherst lab” and “reduce[d] public confidence in the drug certifications from other labs.”[xiv]
In addressing the proposed Brady order, the SJC affirmed the basic principle that, to fulfill his or her “core duty . . . to administer justice fairly,” a prosecutor must provide all material, exculpatory evidence to a defendant “without regard to its impact on the case.”[xv] This “Brady obligation” has long been recognized under the due process guarantees of Massachusetts Declaration of Rights and the U.S. Constitution; procedural rules, such as Mass. R. Crim. P. 14(a), the “automatic discovery” rule for criminal cases; and ethical rules, such as Mass. R. Prof. C. 3.8(d), (i), and (g), which prohibit prosecutors from avoiding the discovery of exculpatory evidence and require prosecutors to make timely disclosures. Nevertheless, rather than issue a standing Brady order, the SJC asked the Advisory Committee “to draft a proposed Brady checklist to clarify the definitions of exculpatory evidence.”[xvi] The ABA has promoted such checklists, and several federal courts have implemented them.[xvii]
As the SJC acknowledged, however, “no checklist can exhaust all potential sources of exculpatory evidence.”[xviii] Ironically, a detailed list of discoverable materials may obscure the more basic commitment to fundamental fairness. It is not hard to foresee disputes in which prosecutors elevate form over substance by arguing that evidence is not Brady material because it does not correspond to any category on a Brady checklist. Moreover, no checklist could have prevented the intentional misconduct that exacerbated the Amherst scandal. AAGs knowingly possessed exculpatory evidence about Farak’s misconduct, but they intentionally refused to turn it over to defendants.
Even for law-abiding, ethical prosecutors, there remains a deeper problem. CPCS v. AG demonstrates how evidence, such as Farak’s counseling records, appears from the conflicting prosecution and defense perspectives. Although prosecutors dismissed these materials as “irrelevant,” Attorney Luke Ryan, who represented several Farak Defendants, immediately realized their exculpatory importance and notified the AG’s Office: “‘[I]t would be difficult to overstate the significance of these documents.’”[xix] In our adversarial system, prosecutors tend to see evidence in the context of proving a defendant’s guilt, and defense counsel must examine evidence to establish a defendant’s innocence. Put simply, prosecutors are not trained, experienced, or motivated to consider evidence in that way.
The SJC cited two reasons for declining to issue the proposed Bridgman II and Cotto orders. First, the remedies in those cases reflected the alarming magnitude of the Hinton and Amherst scandals.[xx] Second, in the event of “similar, widespread abuse” in the future, the remedy must “correspond to the scope of the misconduct.”[xxi] The SJC suggested “the balance of equities” may not always justify a “global remedy” rather than a case-by-case response.[xxii]
All agree the recent scandals were unprecedented, and remedies for such government misconduct should be tailored to the harms. A key lesson, however, has been that “existing professional and ethical obligations,” which the DAs consider sufficient, are not self-executing. Affirmative litigation by advocacy groups and defense attorneys as well as repeated judicial intervention by the SJC was needed to reveal the full scope of the misconduct and to provide meaningful remedies.
At first, the AG assumed that Farak’s misconduct began only six months before her arrest. But as Superior Court Justice Richard Carey found, that “assumption was at odds with the evidence uncovered even at that early juncture.”[xxiii] Then, after Cotto and Ware, the AG appointed former Superior Court Justice Peter Velis and AAG Thomas Caldwell to investigate, and it also convened grand juries in Hampshire and Suffolk, calling Farak and many others from the Amherst lab to testify. These efforts erroneously concluded Farak’s misconduct neither affected the work of other chemists nor involved misconduct by prosecutors.
Meanwhile, on remand from Cotto and Ware, Judge Carey conducted an extensive evidentiary hearing at which Kaczmarek, Foster, and others were subjected to cross-examination under oath in open court. That adversarial proceeding revealed more misconduct. Judge Carey found that, by their “intentional and deceptive actions,” the AAGs “ensured that justice would certainly be delayed, if not outright denied.”[xxiv] Both prosecutors “perpetrated a ‘fraud upon the court’” and “‘violated their oaths as assistant attorneys general.’”[xxv] Even then, however, Judge Carey mistakenly concluded Farak’s misconduct impacted only her cases.
Finally, when the SJC took up the issue again in CPCS v. AG, three years after Cotto and Ware, the record established far more extensive lab misconduct and the outrageous prosecutorial misconduct that further prejudiced the victims of the Amherst scandal. Affirming Judge Carey’s view, the SJC held Farak, Kaczmarek, and Foster had all engaged in egregious misconduct. But departing from Judge Carey’s more limited ruling, the SJC also decided the remedy could not be confined to those defendants whose drug certificates Farak signed.
In retrospect, the problem has not only been the slow pace of justice but also the need to litigate with the AG and DAs, for many years, to secure relief from the SJC. Shortly after Farak’s arrest, the ACLU of Massachusetts and CPCS reached out to prosecutors and proposed that both sides work collaboratively to ensure a swift, meaningful response. Those overtures were ineffective, and another G.L. c. 211, § 3 petition to the SJC was required. When confronted with a “lapse of systemic magnitude,”[xxvi] the criminal justice system should not depend on defendants to bring lawsuits, like CPCS v. AG, to vacate wrongful convictions.
Farak was arrested in January 2013, and CPCS v. AG was decided in October 2018, nearly six years later. As of this writing, it is estimated that more than 10,000 individuals were wrongfully convicted as a result of the Amherst lab scandal, and the total number could prove to be significantly higher. Most of these “Farak Defendants” have only recently been notified of their vacated convictions, and many still have not been identified or had their records cleared.
CPCS v. AG was an important effort by the SJC to remedy the harm from unprecedented lab and prosecutorial misconduct. It is also a crucial reminder that further reforms are needed to prevent such malfeasance and, in the event of a future scandal, to ensure that all stakeholders in the criminal justice system—most importantly, prosecutors—will immediately, effectively, and cooperatively investigate the full extent of the problem and, if necessary, proactively implement an appropriate remedy to see that justice is done.
Daniel Marx is a founding partner of Fick & Marx LLP, a boutique firm in Boston, Massachusetts, focused on representing diverse clients in criminal prosecutions, complex civil litigation, and appeals. Along with attorneys from the ACLU of Massachusetts, Mr. Marx served as pro bono counsel for Petitioners Hampden County Lawyers of Justice, Herschelle Reaves, and Nicole Westcott in CPCS v. AG. In addition, Mr. Marx previously served as pro bono counsel for the petitioners in Bridgeman v. District Attorney for Suffolk County.
[i] Bridgeman v. District Attorney for the Suffolk District, 476 Mass. 298 (2017) (“Bridgeman II”).
[ii] CPCS v. AG, 480 Mass. at 725 (emphasis added); see id. at 704 (recognizing the prosecutorial misconduct by AAGs Kaczmarek and Foster “compounded” the lab misconduct by Farak).
[iii] Id. at 706.
[iv] Id. at 727, 729.
[v] Id. at 705 (quoting Bridgeman II, 476 Mass. at 316).
[vi] Id. at 725.
[vii] Id. at 717 (quoting Cotto, 471 Mass. at 111).
[viii] Id. at 725.
[x] See id. at 726.
[xi] Id. at 730, 733-734.
[xiv] Id. at 727.
[xv] Id. at 730 (quoting Commonwealth v. Tucceri, 412 Mass. 401, 408 (1992), and citing Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 87 (1963)).
[xvi] Id. at 732.
[xxvi] Bridgeman II, 476 Mass. at 335 (quoting Scott, 467 Mass. at 352).
by Jeffrey Fortgang, Ph.D.
When I joined the clinical staff of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers over 20 years ago, I expected that the focal problem among our clients would be alcoholism and other addictions. After all, the genesis of LCL, before any funding or staff, was a group of lawyers in recovery who sought to help save the careers and lives of their alcoholic peers. And, make no mistake, problems with alcohol (and to a lesser extent, drugs) continue to abound.But the number one presenting complaint at LCL for years has been either anxiety, stress or depression, which often go together. Similar findings appeared in a large-scale survey of lawyers published in 2016, which also found that alcohol problems and depression often co-occur in the same lawyers. In this article I seek to provide an overview of depression as it appears in lawyers, some of the obstacles that can stand in the way of their getting appropriate help, and how these obstacles can be surmounted – drawing upon my clinical experience and a recent survey that I conducted.
Nature of Depression
Depression is among the more treatable mental health conditions. It develops as the result of multiple converging factors, including biological (affected by neurochemical phenomena), hereditary (particularly for bipolar depression), individual psychology and resiliency (e.g., self-esteem, degree of characteristic optimism, experience of healthy loving and supportive relationships), and environmental (both past, such as upbringing and trauma, and present, such as home and work environment). A depressed person may find temporary relief in alcohol or addictive drugs, but over time heavy or frequent use of such substances actually tends to worsen the depression.
More lasting improvement in mood may be derived from psychotherapy/counseling, antidepressant medication, or a combination of the two. Antidepressant medication does not lend itself to abuse, since its action is cumulative rather than immediate, but some trial and error may be involved in finding the most beneficial medication for the individual. Novel treatments—like the use of ketamine and procedures like transcranial magnetic stimulation—have not yet been fully examined.
There are also a number of lifestyle factors that can ameliorate and prevent depressions. These include exercise, meditation and relaxation, a balance between work and personal life, connections with community, and more. Unfortunately, the benefits of these factors are more difficult for a person in the midst of a depressive episode to grasp or pursue.
Obstacles to Getting Help
The legal profession, unfortunately but understandably, is imbued with a culture that tends both to contribute to the development of depression (under the “environment” category mentioned above) and to stand in the way of recognizing the problem and getting help for it. Much of the work of lawyers is inherently adversarial; in lawsuits or criminal trials, for example, there will be winners and losers, in about equal proportions. (Prominent psychologist Martin Seligman has discussed this issue in detail.) What’s more, attorneys may view other professional peers more as competitors than as comrades.
A skilled attorney possesses the ability to scan a document, argument, etc., for any errors or weaknesses – but this work mode, when transferred to life in general, is almost a prescription for how to lower one’s mood. Those who maintain better moods may be more likely to “see the glass as half-full,” and yet also recognize and accept their vulnerabilities. They allow themselves to express feelings in an authentic way to trusted others, and to ask for and accept help when needed. Lawyers, however, are acculturated to a role of problem-solver, in control; too many of them lose the distinction between professional role and true self. Having developed a professionally useful veneer of toughness, they may ignore their actual feelings and needs, in a counterproductive reach for self-sufficiency. And by design or practice, those practicing law are often less able to pursue the positive lifestyle choices that could serve as protective factors, often sacrificing the time necessary to pursue self-care, healthy relationships, or work-life balance to meet intense timing and workload demands while needing to appear both calm and competent.
These are generalization, of course, that certainly don’t apply to all lawyers and law students, and I have been encouraged by seemingly greater openness to these topics in new lawyers. But all too frequently clinicians at LCL are accustomed to encountering lawyers whose problems have been building for years, and who never sought any kind of assistance until they reached a point of major crisis.
Perspectives Gleaned from Survey
My LCL colleague Shawn Healy and I wrote a book about depression in lawyers, and I also conducted an anonymous survey of over 250 lawyers who identified themselves as having experienced clinical depression. The response rate seemed indicative of a pent-up wish to communicate about a problem that is widely prevalent among lawyers (at a rate that appears to be at least 3 times that of the general population) yet not often acknowledged. The anonymous nature of the survey seemed to provide a welcome means of sharing the experience of vulnerability in a profession in which that kind of openness might often be considered a liability.
Although most survey responders were over the age of thirty, the greatest number reported onset of depression during their twenties, an age that typically coincides with law school and the start of their careers. Other authors, in fact, have noted a surge in both depression and problem drinking during law school as the student is immersed in a demanding academic system and inducted into “lawyer culture.”
Among the depressive symptoms that those surveyed had first noticed were intense emotion (e.g., crying, despair), diminished energy and motivation, and a downcast perspective ranging from pessimism to hopelessness. In many cases, a sense of self-doubt and paralysis characterized the experience of depression. While a common phenomenon, it can lead to devastating consequences when important deadlines and correspondence are ignored (such as leaving mail from the Board of Bar Overseers unopened).
The lawyers represented in my survey tended not to confide in colleagues. Many of them pointed to shame, stigma, image, and fear of being viewed as “weak” as barriers to reaching out. Imbued in lawyer culture, a number of responders expressed the sense that slogging through a stressful work life, keeping much of their authentic selves very private, and viewing peers more as competitors than as supports were inherent aspects of professional life.
Surmounting Obstacles to Getting Help
Not all those who took the survey reported they were able to access effective treatment or experience improvement. Of those who did, many first turned to family members before finding and receiving the greatest benefit from professional mental health providers. In describing what helped them get past obstacles to acknowledging their depression and getting help, many pointed to getting a push from professional peers who, in some cases, were willing to share their own similar struggles and how they had gotten back on track. But such attempts to help can admittedly be awkward and perhaps especially complicated among lawyers. One survey respondent wrote, “Our system is one of confrontation rather than truth finding, which tends to make weakness a tool for winning rather than a cause for alarm for the health of a colleague.” On the other hand, I’ve received numerous calls over the years from lawyers and judges who are sincerely concerned about other attorneys. When they can find a way to persuade a colleague to come in, talk with me or one of the other clinicians, and put together a constructive plan, the long-term impact of their action can be invaluable.
Once an attorney recognizes he or she may have a problem, it is still challenging to ask for help. Delay and avoidance are very understandable, but often allow problems to mushroom to crisis proportions. Finding a provider who accepts the right health insurance plan is another obstacle. Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers can be one very useful resource.
LCL, funded through a small portion of your annual professional license fee, offers a range of services too varied to catalog here (see our website, www.LCLMA.org), provided by both law practice advisers and clinical staff. Clinicians meet with lawyers (and their family members) upon request to assess problems, offer brief counseling when indicated, and make referrals to outside clinical professionals for longer-duration services as needed. Referrals are made mindful of both individual needs and health insurance plan acceptance. As with any licensed mental health practitioner, our relationship with clients is confidential, and LCL is exempt from any requirement to report lapses in professional conduct. LCL also coordinates discussion and support groups, either in person or online, for those dealing with particular stresses.
Whether through LCL or another avenue toward appropriate treatment of depression, as one of the responders to my survey wrote, “There is no down side to treating this illness; you will feel better and you will be a better family member, friend and lawyer.”
Dr. Fortgang, licensed in psychology and alcohol/drug counseling, has been on Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers staff for 20 years and in private practice (Newton, Boston).
by David Lyons
In a unanimous decision last September, the Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) upheld the Commonwealth’s latest climate change regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from electric generators, rejecting those generators’ arguments that the regulations violate the Massachusetts Global Warming Solutions Act (the “GWSA”). New England Power Generators Ass’n, Inc. v. Dep’t of Envtl. Prot. (“NEPGA”), 480 Mass. 398 (2018). With the Legislature and the Governor continuing to focus on this issue, the SJC likely will be called upon again to decide other climate change cases.
A Legacy of Policy Innovation
Massachusetts is one of a handful of states that have pressed the envelope in adopting climate change policy, from spearheading Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency, 549 U.S. 497 (2007) (compelling EPA to begin the process to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the federal Clean Air Act) to coordinating the formation of the country’s first multistate emissions trading market, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (“RGGI”). As the SJC noted, ever since the Legislature adopted the GWSA in 2008, Massachusetts has been “a national, and even international, leader in the efforts to reduce . . . climate change.” NEPGA, 480 Mass. at 399. Among other provisions, the GWSA mandated a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 80% below the 1990 level by 2050. M.G.L. c. 21N, § 3(b).
Industry has strenuously opposed these policies, especially the electric generators who have shouldered the most immediate compliance burdens. Regulating greenhouse gases at the state level both raises the costs for power plants and their customers, they argue, and fails to ameliorate the environmental problem, as emissions simply shift to neighboring, unregulated jurisdictions.
Kain v. Department of Environmental Protection, 474 Mass. 278 (2016), previously discussed in these pages, spurred more DEP action, including the regulations at issue in NEPGA. Kain addressed M.G.L. c. 21N, § 3(d), which requires DEP to develop aggregate limits for different sources of emitters. The SJC decided in Kain that the agency’s implementation of the RGGI program was insufficient to comply with the statutory mandate. Among other things, the Court ordered DEP to promulgate “regulations that address multiple sources or categories of sources of greenhouse gas emissions, impose a limit on emissions . . ., limit the aggregate emissions released from each group of regulated sources . . ., [and] set [declining] emission limits for each year. . . .” Id. at 300.
Kain thus laid the foundation for a series of climate-change policies. Shortly thereafter, Governor Baker issued Executive Order 569, initiating a rulemaking process that culminated in the two key regulations contested in NEPGA. The “Cap Regulation” was the focus of the plaintiffs’ challenge and imposes annual, declining limits for greenhouse gas emissions on in-state electric generators. 310 Code Mass. Regs. § 7.74. The Clean Energy Standard, 310 Code Mass. Regs. § 7.75, requires utilities to procure more of their power from non-emitting sources. Id.
The plaintiffs filed suit challenging the rulemaking on September 11, 2017. Befitting the policy stakes, a single justice of the SJC reserved and reported the case to the full Court before any substantive motions or briefing at the Superior Court. See M.G.L. c. 211, § 4A (empowering the SJC to transfer cases from the lower courts).
The SJC Upholds Sector-by-Sector Emissions Limits
The electric generators mounted a three-pronged attack on the regulations. First, they alleged that DEP and the Department of Energy Resources lacked the authority to issue the Cap Regulation. They argued that the GWSA provision directly regulating electric generators, G.L. c. 21N, § 3(c), forecloses other regulations under § 3(d), which generally authorizes sector-by-sector emission limits. 480 Mass. at 399. Second, they argued that the Cap Regulation will increase greenhouse gas emissions. Id. Finally, they claimed that a sunset clause in the statute barred § 3(d) regulations from being effective beyond 2020. Id.at 399-400. The SJC was unpersuaded.
First, the Court concluded that §§ 3(c) and 3(d) complement, rather than conflict with, each other. The electric sector is just one of several categories of emission sources within the scope of § 3(d). Id. at 404. The Court relied on conventional tools of statutory interpretation and an assessment of the Legislature’s overall policy objectives, noting that although § 3(c) aims specifically at electric generators, nothing in either § 3(c) or § 3(d) precludes electric sector regulations under § 3(d). Id. at 406-07. The SJC also rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that DEP’s interpretation was unreasonable. Because electric generators account for roughly 20% of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, the SJC reasoned that it would be anomalous to exclude electric generators from the declining sector-by-sector limits under § 3(d). Id. at 405.
Second, the SJC rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that the Cap Regulation is arbitrary and capricious, holding that the generators had not met their burden to show that the regulation lacked “any conceivable grounds upon which [it could] be upheld.” Id. at 410. The plaintiffs argued that if high-carbon, in-state electricity is replaced by high-carbon, out-of-state electricity, consumers will face higher costs with no environmental gains. The SJC characterized that concern as speculative and found “multiple conceivable bases to support the rule” in the administrative record. Id. at 408. Applied together, the SJC concluded that the Cap Regulation and the Clean Energy Standard will encourage the development of clean generation sources in Massachusetts and neighboring states. Id. at 409-10.
Last, the SJC disagreed with the plaintiffs’ interpretation of a provision in the GWSA stating that § 3(d) regulations “shall expire on December 31, 2020.” Rather than invalidating any emission limits effective beyond this date, the SJC concluded that the timing provision only requires DEP to issue new regulations by December 31, 2020, and likened the date to an “implementation deadline, not [a] termination” date. Id. at 411.
Although the state has made significant strides to reduce emissions—cutting them by more than 20% between 1990 and 2016—the formidable economic and technical obstacles that stand in the way of the GWSA-mandated 80% reduction by 2050 mean that NEPGA will not be the last climate change case to reach the courts.
Indeed, with the wave of policymaking launched by the GWSA and reinvigorated by Kain continuing to build, climate change may reach the SJC again sooner rather than later. On August 9, 2018, Governor Baker signed An Act to Advance Clean Energy, 2018 Mass. Acts c. 227. Though less aggressive than a Senate version promoted by environmental advocates, the Act made several important changes, including raising the targets for the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (which requires utilities to procure energy from renewable sources). The Act also directs the Department of Energy Resources to implement a Clean Peak Standard to promote clean energy sources to meet peak-period demands, which historically have been met by burning dirtier fuel sources. Governor Baker also signed An Act Promoting Climate Change Adaptation, Environmental and Natural Resource Protection and Investment in Recreational Assets and Opportunity, 2018 Mass. Acts c. 209, which authorizes $2.4 billion in bonds for environmental projects and codifies initiatives begun by E.O. 569, including the statewide Hazard Mitigation and Climate Adaption Plan. Most recently, the state expanded its regional leadership role, joining with nine other states and the District of Columbia to launch a regional strategy, analogous to RGGI, to reduce emissions from transportation. With the reach of climate change regulations expanding rapidly, the SJC surely will address climate change again soon.
David Lyons is an associate at Anderson & Kreiger LLP. He advises public- and private-sector clients in permitting and litigation matters, with a focus on environmental, energy, and municipal law.