Grand Manor: Extending the Claims Period for Environmental Property Damage

fraywitzerby Dylan Sanders

Case Focus

In a significant development under the Commonwealth’s hazardous waste cleanup law, Chapter 21E, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the statute of limitations for a claim of property damage under § 5 of Chapter 21E begins to run when a party learns that the property damage caused by contamination cannot be reasonably remediated. Grand Manor Condominium Association v. City of Lowell, 478 Mass. 682 (2018). This marks an extremely expansive limitations period during which such a claim can be brought. Before Grand Manor, most believed the limitations period began to run when the property owner learned of contamination and the identity of those responsible for it. Now, the running of the limitations period is only triggered when the property owner learns that the contamination will not be fully remediated.

Chapter 21E and its Statutes of Limitation

Chapter 21E permits a private party injured by a release of oil or hazardous materials to bring two types of claims. First, under §§ 4 and 4A, a party who has incurred costs from responding to a release may sue other statutorily responsible parties for reimbursement, contribution, or an equitable share of the response costs.

Second, under § 5(a)(iii), a party may recover economic damages to property interests beyond the party’s response costs. Property damages recoverable under §5 may be permanent damages, such as the diminished market value of property that will not be fully remediated by a cleanup, or they may be temporary damages, such as the rent lost while the property underwent assessment and/or remediation.

Although it was well-established that § 5 property damages were recoverable separate and apart from response costs, it was not clear what statute of limitations applied.  Chapter 21E initially had no independent statute of limitations; limitations periods were added in 1992 during a comprehensive overhaul of the law. Those periods require a private party seeking to recover response costs under §§ 4 and 4A to sue within three years of the latest of four events, the most generous of which typically is the date by which the party has incurred all of its response costs. See c. 21E, § 11A.

A private party seeking to recover damages under §5 must sue “within three years after the date that the person seeking recovery first suffers the damage,” or within three years of learning the identity of the party responsible for the damage, whichever is later.  See c. 21E, § 11A(4) (emphasis added).

But what does “first suffers the damage” mean?  Before Grand Manor, many practitioners counseled their clients not to wait to understand the full extent of the property damage before bringing a § 5 claim. They based that advice cautiously applying the plain meaning of “first suffers the damage.” Grand Manor may now cause many to change that advice.

The Grand Manor Condominium

At issue in Grand Manor was a condominium built on the site of a former landfill that had been owned and operated by the City of Lowell. In 1983, a developer purchased the site and later constructed the condominium.

In late 2008, the condominium association made underground repairs and encountered discolored soil. By early 2009, the association understood that at least a portion of the property was contaminated with hazardous materials from the site’s prior use as a landfill. The City, assuming responsibility for the response action, further assessed the site and concluded in June 2012 that the entire site was contaminated and that full remediation would not be feasible.

In October 2012, the condominium association and 36 current and former unit owners filed suit against the City. Pursuant to § 5, the unit owners sought property damages measured by their units’ diminished market value due to the contamination.

The City asserted that those claims were barred by the three-year statute of limitations. The unit owners moved for summary judgment, which the trial court denied. At trial, the jury was asked to decide whether the § 5 claims for property damage were time-barred, and, specifically, whether the claims were “brought within three years of the date they discovered, or should have discovered, both that they had suffered property damage and that the City of Lowell was legally responsible for the release of hazardous materials that caused the damage.”

The jury found that the unit owners’ property damage claims under § 5 were time-barred. The SJC accepted direct appellate review.

The Decision

On appeal, the unit owners argued that the trial court never should have submitted the statute of limitations issue to the jury. The owners contended that, since the SJC had previously held that § 5 property damages were damages for losses that a response action did not address, the response action had to be sufficiently advanced to put the owners on notice that they would, in fact, suffer such losses. The City, in turn, chiefly relied on the general principle that statutes of limitation ordinarily begin to run when a party has reason to know that they may have been harmed, not when a party knows the harm’s full extent.

The SJC declined to apply that common law rule to property damage claims under Chapter 21E and instead adopted the owners’ argument that, at least insofar as a property damage claim is one for permanent damage, the clock is not triggered until “the plaintiff learns whether or not remediation and response costs will fully compensate the plaintiff for the harm he or she has suffered. “478 Mass. at 683. Wrote the court, “This will not ordinarily occur until the plaintiff learns that the damage to his or her property is not reasonably curable by the remediation process.”

The SJC’s reasoning was threefold. First, the SJC concluded, the word “damage” in §11(4) does not mean contamination of the property, but rather only what the SJC characterized as “residual damage,” i.e., economic damage to property that cannot or will not be addressed by remediating the contamination, such as diminished property value.

Second, the SJC sought a bright-line rule to align the statute of limitations for a property damage claim with the Massachusetts Contingency Plan’s Phase III stage, the point in the assessment process at which it is often determined whether remediating the contamination is feasible. Although not all Phase III reports provide such a clear conclusion, the SJC apparently believed that aligning the claims’ timing with MCP reporting obligations would add some predictability.

Third, the SJC said that requiring a party to bring § 5 claims for permanent property damage before it was clear that the damage could not be cured by remediation would be “wasteful for both the parties and the court system.” 478 Mass. at 695. In so holding, the SJC implicitly rejected the common-law discovery rule’s balance between the competing interests of plaintiffs who might not know the basis of their claims and of defendants who might be disadvantaged with the passing of time.

The decision also implicitly reflects the SJC’s preference for a standard that furthers and arguably maximizes one of Chapter 21E’s core statutory purposes, which is “to ensure that costs and damages are borne by the appropriate responsible parties.” 478 Mass. at 684 (quoting Taygeta Corp. v. Varian Assocs., Inc., 436 Mass. 217, 223 (2002)).

Finally, the SJC addressed the statute of limitations for claims of temporary property damage under Chapter 21E, § 5(a)(iii), such as loss of rent. In an important if cryptic footnote, the SJC said that temporary damage claims are also “dependent on the remediation process” and “that the Phase II and Phase III reports required pursuant to the MCP therefore lend necessary clarity to such claims as well.” 478 Mass. at 694 n.15.

For this reason, and to avoid splitting claims under § 5, the statute of limitations for claims under § 5 should be uniformly defined.”  Id.

But it is not entirely clear what this means. Grand Manor’s central holding is that the limitations period for permanent property damage claims under § 5 does not start “until the plaintiff learns that the damage to his or her property is not reasonably curable by the remediation process.” 468 Mass. at 683. By definition, temporary property damage is temporary and ends through the remediation process. How then could the statute of limitations for both permanent and temporary property damages claims be “uniformly defined?” The answer to this riddle will need to be flushed out in future cases.

Dylan Sanders is a partner at Sugarman, Rogers, where he concentrates in disputes involving environmental issues, real estate, land use, and administrative law.

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Education Reform: Doe v. Secretary of Education

fraywitzerby Ryan P. McManus

Case Focus

On April 24, 2018, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) upheld the constitutionality of a Massachusetts law regulating the number of Commonwealth charter schools that can been established in each school district.  The case, Doe v. Secretary of Education, 479 Mass. 375 (2018), marks the SJC’s latest foray into the complex and often controversial subject of education reform.

Education Reform in Massachusetts and the Establishment of Charter Schools

Understanding the Court’s decision in Doe requires some context on prior education reform litigation, legislative responses, and the current statutory limitations on charter schools.  In McDuffy v. Secretary of the Executive Office of Education, 415 Mass. 545 (1993), the SJC held that the Education Clause of the Massachusetts Constitution imposes an enforceable obligation on the Commonwealth to provide all students with a public education, and that individual students denied that right can sue to enforce it.  McDuffy addressed the constitutionality of the public school financing system, which was then primarily dependent on local funding (and local property taxes).

In the wake of McDuffy, the Legislature enacted the sweeping Massachusetts Education Reform Act (MERA).  MERA introduced a number of reforms, among them the establishment and funding of a “foundation budget” for each district, state oversight of school performance, examination-based assessments and data collection (the “MCAS” tests), and, for the first time, the authorization of charter schools.  (This article uses the term “charter school” to refer to Commonwealth Charter Schools, which were primarily at issue in Doe.  State law also authorizes the establishment of Horace Mann Charter Schools, which, unlike Commonwealth Charter Schools, require the approval of the local school district.)

From the beginning, charter schools have been subject to limitations.  The current statutory framework (at issue in Doe) limits charter schools in two ways.  First, the total number of charter schools that may operate in the state is capped at 120.  Second, no more than 9% of total public-school spending in each district may be spent on charter schools.  For school systems performing in the lowest decile statewide, that spending cap is increased to 18%.

The SJC’s Decision in Doe

In Doe, five students in Boston public schools alleged, on behalf of themselves and a class, that the spending cap applicable to charter schools violates the Education and Equal Protection Clauses of the Massachusetts Constitution.  Each of the students alleged that he or she was enrolled in a level three or level four school, meaning that under the Commonwealth’s system of classification, their schools were performing in the bottom fifth of all schools in Massachusetts.  Each of the students had applied to a charter school, but failed to secure a seat through the lottery used to determine admission.  The students alleged that additional charter schools capable of providing a constitutionally sufficient education to them and other Boston students were prevented from being established solely because Boston had reached its statutory spending cap for charter schools.

The Superior Court dismissed the students’ Education Clause claims, holding that they do not have a constitutional “right to choose a particular flavor of education.”  The Superior Court likewise rejected the students’ Equal Protection claim, holding that the cap on charter schools is rationally related to the Commonwealth’s interest in allocating funding between charter schools and district schools.  The students sought and obtained direct appellate review of the Superior Court’s decision by the SJC.  After affirming that the students had standing to bring their claims, the SJC addressed the merits under the Education Clause and Equal Protection Clause.

With respect to the Education Clause, the SJC agreed with the students that “the education clause imposes an affirmative duty on the Commonwealth to provide a level of education in the public schools for the children there enrolled that qualifies as constitutionally adequate.”  Doe, 479 Mass. at 387.  The Court further agreed that the students had pled sufficiently that “they have been deprived of an adequate education” and that their “complaint supports the claim that the education provided in their schools is, at the moment, inadequate.”  Id. at 388–89.  Nevertheless, the Court reasoned that the students failed to plead a violation of the Education Clause because they had not alleged facts suggesting that the “defendants have failed to fulfil their constitutionally prescribed duty to educate.”  Id. at 388.  In particular, the students had “not alleged any facts to support a claim that the Commonwealth’s public education plan does not provide reasonable assurance of improvements for their schools’ performance over a reasonable period of time.”  Id. at 389.  Put differently, because the Legislature had enacted measures aimed at remedying failing schools (including those contained in MERA), and because the students had not adequately alleged that those measures were ineffective, the SJC suggested that temporary deficiencies in the quality of a particular school or district, or in a particular student’s educational opportunities, do not amount to a violation of the Commonwealth’s constitutional duty to provide an education.

In affirming the dismissal of the students’ Education Clause claim, the SJC also faulted the students’ exclusive focus on the charter school cap, where charter schools are not “the Commonwealth’s only plan for ensuring that the education provided in the plaintiffs’ schools will be adequate.”  Id. at 390.  Even if a violation of the Education Clause had been properly alleged, the Court emphasized that the “specific relief [plaintiffs] seek”—striking the statutory cap on charter schools—“would not be available” because “‘[t]he education clause leaves the details of education policymaking to the Governor and the Legislature.’”  Id. (quoting Hancock v. Comm’r of Educ., 443 Mass 428, 454 (2005) (Marshall, C.J., concurring)).

With respect to the students’ Equal Protection claim, the SJC first concluded that the charter school spending cap was not subject to heightened scrutiny because it does not “significantly interfere” with any fundamental right to education.  Id. at 392.  The Court reasoned that charter schools were originally intended to serve as laboratories for the development of innovative approaches to public education, and as such there was no fundamental right to attend charter schools that that the cap could be deemed to interfere with.  Id. at 392–93.  The Court thus applied rational basis scrutiny to the charter school spending cap, concluding that it is rationally related to (among other things) the Commonwealth’s legitimate “attempt to allocate resources among all the Commonwealth’s students” – both those who attend charter schools and those who do not.  Id. at 394.

Implications of the Doe Decision for Education Reform Litigation

Although the SJC’s decision in Doe surely was a disappointment to charter school advocates, its implications for further school reform litigation is less than clear.

Doe does clarify that, to state a claim under the Education Clause, it is not enough to allege that certain students are not currently receiving a constitutionally adequate education.  Instead, a student must successfully plead, with supporting factual allegations, both (i) that he or she is not receiving a constitutionally required education and (ii) that state law “does not provide reasonable assurance of improvements for their schools’ performance over a reasonable period of time.”  Doe, 479 Mass. at 389.

Doe also demonstrates the SJC’s reluctance to mandate any particular policy reform to remedy a violation of the Education Clause.  Plaintiffs pursuing Education Clause claims should therefore expect that Massachusetts courts will not order any particular policy reform as a remedy.  Rather, the courts will at most – at least in the first instance – enter declaratory relief regarding the Commonwealth’s fulfillment of its constitutional duty to educate, and leave the choice of policy reform to the political branches.  Only if the political branches fail to respond might a court consider ordering specific reforms.

Ryan P. McManus is a partner at Hemenway & Barnes in Boston, where he concentrates his practice in the areas of appellate, fiduciary, and business litigation.  Ryan authored an amicus brief in Doe v. Secretary of Education on behalf of the Pioneer Institute, Inc., Cheryl Brown Henderson, and the Black Alliance for Educational Options.


SCVNGR, Inc. v. Punchh, Inc.: The SJC Instructs Trial Courts and Litigants on Analyzing Challenges to Personal Jurisdiction

fraywitzerby Evan Fray-Witzer

Case Focus

In SCVNGR, Inc. v. Punchh, Inc., 478 Mass. 324 (2017), the Supreme Judicial Court reversed a Superior Court Business Litigation Session decision that had dismissed the plaintiff’s complaint for lack of personal jurisdiction.  Notably, the SJC’s opinion prohibits the trial courts, when deciding a challenge to personal jurisdiction, from engaging in the frequently employed practice of skipping the analysis under the long-arm statute and jumping directly to the analysis under the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution.  In reaching this conclusion, the SJC “clarif[ied]” that “the long-arm statute’s reach is not coextensive with what due process allows.” Id. at 330 n.9.

Background

SCVNGR, Inc., a Massachusetts-based company doing business as LevelUp, sued Punchh, Inc., a California-based competitor, for defamation.   Punchh moved to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction. Id. at 325. After allowing some limited jurisdictional discovery, Judge Kaplan of the Business Litigation Section allowed Punchh’s motion to dismiss, finding that Punchh lacked the minimum contacts with Massachusetts necessary for an exercise of personal jurisdiction to comport with the Due Process requirements of the U. S. Constitution. Id.  Although Judge Kaplan recognized that “typically a Superior Court judge presented with a Rule 12(b)(2) argument begins with an analysis of whether the requirements of the long-arm statute have been met,” he nevertheless proceeded directly to the federal Due Process considerations, noting that this was where “both parties ha[d] focused their arguments.”  Id.

LevelUp appealed the dismissal to the Appeals Court.  The SJC, of its own accord, took direct appellate review.  Id.

Analysis

“Prior to exercising personal jurisdiction over a nonresident defendant, a judge must determine that doing so comports with both the forum’s long-arm statute and the requirements of the United States Constitution.”  Id. at 325 (citing World-Wide Volkswagen Corp. v. Woodson, 444 U.S. 286, 290 (1980)).  Massachusetts’s long-arm statute, G.L. c. 223A, § 3, provides eight enumerated categories of actions which can give rise to personal jurisdiction over a foreign defendant.  Two of those categories address claims arising out of domestic relationships (marriage, divorce, child custody, and the like); one from the ownership of real estate within Massachusetts; and one from offering insurance within the Commonwealth.  The remaining four categories address claims that arise out of a defendant’s: (a) transacting business within Massachusetts; (b) contracting for goods or services within Massachusetts; (c) committing a tort within Massachusetts; and (d) committing a tort outside of Massachusetts that causes injury within Massachusetts if the Defendant also does or solicits business within Massachusetts or derives substantial revenues from goods or services provided in Massachusetts.

Unlike a number of other states, Massachusetts’s long-arm statute does not explicitly extend personal jurisdiction to the limits of the U. S. Constitution.  Nevertheless, two seminal SJC cases had seemed to interpret the statute to have the same broad scope.  In “Automatic” Sprinkler Corp. v. Seneca Foods Corp., 361 Mass. 441, 443 (1972), the SJC held: “We see the function of the long arm statute as an assertion of jurisdiction over the person to the limits allowed by the Constitution of the United States.”  Likewise, in Good Hope Indus., Inc. v. Ryder Scott Co., 378 Mass. 1, 5-6 (1979), the SJC held: “Since we have stated that our long arm statute, G. L. c. 223A, functions as ‘an assertion of jurisdiction over the person to the limits allowed by the Constitution of the United States,’ …the two questions tend to converge” (quoting “Automatic” Sprinkler). Good Hope also, however, contained the seeds of SCVNGR’s “clarif[ication],” stating that the long-arm statute “asserts jurisdiction over the person to the constitutional limit only when some basis for jurisdiction enumerated in the statute has been established.”  Good Hope, 378 Mass. at 1 (emphasis added).

Prior to SCVNGR, state and federal cases applying Massachusetts law frequently cited “Automatic” Sprinkler and/or Good Hope in support of the proposition that Massachusetts’s long-arm statute extended to the outer reaches of the Due Process Clause and that, as a result, the two-step inquiry could be addressed in a single inquiry.  See, e.g., OpenRisk, LLC v. Roston, 90 Mass. App. Ct. 1107 (2016) (Rule 1:28) (“The Massachusetts long-arm statute, G. L. c. 223A, § 3, however, allows for an assertion of jurisdiction over the person to the limits allowed by the Constitution of the United States. …It is appropriate, therefore, for the court to sidestep the statutory inquiry and proceed directly to the constitutional analysis”) (citations omitted); FTI, LLC v. Duffy, 2017 Mass. Super. LEXIS 93, at *8 (Suffolk Super. Ct. 2017); Let’s Adopt! Glob., Inc. v. Macey, 32 Mass. L. Rep. 573 (Worcester Super. Ct. 2015); Daynard v. Ness, Motley, Loadholt, Richardson & Poole, P.A., 290 F.3d 42, 52 (1st Cir. 2002).

In light of this precedent, the SCVNGR parties’ decision to focus exclusively on the question of whether the Court could exercise jurisdiction consistent with Due Process made perfect sense.  In baseball terms (this is, after all, summer in New England): since the runner cannot advance to third without touching both first and second bases, if the runner missed second, the question of whether he touched first is moot.  Indeed, in at least two cases pre-dating SCVNGR the First Circuit noted that even if Massachusetts’ long-arm statute might not extend to the limits of Due Process, examining the long-arm statute was not necessary if the claims clearly failed to meet the requirements of Due Process.  See A Corp. v. All Am. Plumbing, Inc., 812 F.3d 54, 58-59 (1st Cir. 2016); Copia Communs., LLC v. AMResorts, L.P., 812 F.3d 1, 3-4 (1st Cir. 2016).

In SCVNGR, though, the SJC was having none of it. It first clarified that “Automatic” Sprinkler’s sweeping language was more limited than might first appear:

To the extent that “Automatic” Sprinkler …identifies “the function of the long arm statute as an assertion of jurisdiction over the person to the limits allowed by the Constitution of the United States,” we take this opportunity to clarify that, in accordance with Good Hope. . . the long-arm statute’s reach is not coextensive with what due process allows.

SCVNGR, 478 Mass. at 330 n.9.

The SJC then stated that the order in which a lower court examines the two prongs of personal jurisdiction does indeed matter:

Our jurisprudence since Good Hope also makes clear that courts should consider the long-arm statute first, before approaching the constitutional question. …In this regard, it is canonical that courts should, where possible, avoid unnecessary constitutional decisions. … Determining first whether the long-arm statute’s requirements are satisfied is consonant with the “duty to avoid unnecessary decisions of serious constitutional issues. … [W]e cannot let the actions of private litigants force us to decide unnecessarily a serious question of constitutional law.”

Id. at 330 (citations omitted).

As a result, the SJC remanded the case to the Superior Court for a determination, first, as to whether the long-arm statute’s requirements were met and only then for a determination as to whether an exercise of jurisdiction comports with the requirements of Due Process.  In doing so, the SJC noted that the subsequent re-examination of the constitutional due process question would likely take place “on a presumably fuller record,” apparently assuming that the trial court would allow the parties some additional jurisdictional discovery before ruling on the remanded motion (id. at 330).

Another recent SJC opinion drives home the point that neither the parties nor the court can leapfrog over the long-arm statute and proceed directly to the constitutional question.  In Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Attorney General, 479 Mass. 312, 317 n.3 (2018), citing SCVNGR, the SJC noted that although the parties’ argument on the jurisdictional issues focused exclusively on the due process question, the Court would first analyze them under the long-arm statute, which it proceeded to do.

Takeaways

Two practical takeaways are clear:

  1. Notwithstanding any suggestion to the contrary in prior precedent, “the long-arm statute’s reach is not coextensive with what due process allows.”
  2. Neither practitioners nor the Court should address whether an assertion of personal jurisdiction comports with the requirements of the Due Process Clause without first addressing whether the plaintiff’s claims assert a cause of action that brings the case within the parameters of the Massachusetts long-arm statute.  In short, although the plaintiff may still get tagged-out for failing to touch second base, we will not know until a call is made at first.

Evan Fray-Witzer is a founding partner of Ciampa Fray-Witzer. He maintains an active employment litigation, counseling, and defense practice; a sophisticated litigation and counseling practice, representing businesses in a wide range of commercial disputes; and a thriving appellate practice in both the state and Federal Courts.


Trustees of Cambridge Point Condominium Trust v. Cambridge Point, LLC – SJC Proscribes “Poison Pill” and Prescribes an Uncertain Way Forward

saccardi

by Samuel B. Moskowitz

Case Focus

On January 19, 2018, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that a condominium bylaw that, “for all practical purposes, makes it extraordinarily difficult or even impossible” for condominium trustees to sue the developer for defects in the common areas and facilities, is void as contravening public policy. Trustees of Cambridge Point Condo. Trust. v. Cambridge Point, LLC (“Trustees”), 478 Mass. 697, 709 (2018). Condominium boards celebrated the demise of this “poison pill” that developers increasingly insert in condominium documents to shield themselves from liability. Yet that celebration was premature, because the decision has limited reach and the “poison pill” continues to limit condominium trustees’ ability to initiate litigation in almost all other contexts.

Background

When the trustees of the seven-year-old Cambridge Point Condominium decided to sue the developer for $2 million in alleged common area defects, a condominium bylaw severely restricted their ability to initiate litigation. Under that bylaw, before suing anyone other than a unit owner, the trustees had to obtain the written consent of at least 80% of the unit owners. To do so, they first had to circulate their proposed complaint, specify a limit on legal fees and costs to be paid, and institute a special assessment to collect that sum. To prevent the owners from easing these requirements, the bylaw required that at least 80% of the owners must consent to its amendment. Making matters worse, the developer owned at least 20% of the units.

The trustees sued without first obtaining the requisite consent, seeking damages and a declaration voiding the bylaw. The superior court dismissed their suit, concluding that the bylaw was not prohibited by the condominium statute, G.L. c. 183A (the “Act”), and its use by developers did not constitute “overreaching” in contravention of public policy.” Trustees, supra at 691-701. The SJC granted direct appellate review.

No Violation of Condominium Act

Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Gants first addressed whether a “bylaw provision requiring unit owner consent to initiate litigation is … per se void because it is ‘inconsistent’ with the [A]ct.” Trustees, supra at 703. The Court rejected the trustees’ argument that the Act’s grant, in § 10(b)(4), to trustees of the exclusive authority to litigate common area claims proscribes any bylaw restricting that authority, reiterating the Court’s view that the Act is “essentially an enabling statute” that lays out minimum requirements for establishing condominiums and otherwise provides developers and unit owners with “planning flexibility” to work out in condominium bylaws matters not specifically addressed by the statute. Id.  at 701-02 (citing Scully v. Tillery, 456 Mass. 758, 770 (2010)). The Court also declined to apply the maxim of negative implication to invalidate a bylaw requiring unit owners’ consent for trustee litigation simply because such consent is statutorily required for some other trustee actions.

Invalid as Against Public Policy

The Court next determined whether developers’ use of the bylaw to shield themselves from common area defect claims contravenes public policy. Recognizing that the bylaw’s cumulative requirements “make it extraordinarily difficult for the trustees to sue the developer for defective construction,” the Court ruled that the “well-established public policy in favor of the safety and habitability of homes” outweighs the “public interest in freedom of contract.” Trustees, supra at 705-708. The Court noted that the right to obtain legal redress for homes that fail to meet minimum standards of safety and habitability are so vital they cannot be waived, and that “[t]his clear expression of public policy” required that the bylaw “be carefully scrutinized to determine whether it contravenes that … policy.” Id. at 708. Doing so, the Court found the bylaw more sweeping and unfair than a broad, express waiver, and it struck its use as overreaching by the developer, citing a long-standing exception to freedom of contract in condominium developments first laid out in Barclay v. DeVeau, 384 Mass. 676, 682 (1981) (“Absent overreaching or fraud by a developer, [courts] find no strong public policy against interpreting [the Act] to permit the developer and unit owners to agree on the details of administration and management of the condominium…”). Trustees, supra at 709.  In Trustees, the SJC determined that “it is overreaching for a developer to impose a condition precedent that, for all practical purposes, makes it extraordinarily difficult or even impossible for the trustees to initiate any litigation against the developers regarding the common areas and facilities of a condominium.” Id (emphasis in original)

Where Does That Leave Us?

Trustees continues the Court’s expansion of the rights of residential property owners to sue builders for defective construction, which the Court initiated in Albrecht v. Clifford, 436 Mass. 706, 710-11 (2002) (applying warranty of habitability to new home sales). It also continues the expansion of the rights of condominium trustees to sue developers for common area defects, following Berish v. Bornstein, 437 Mass. 252, 265 (2002) (organization of unit owners may sue for breach of the implied warranty of habitability over latent common area defects that implicate the habitability of individual units) and Wyman v. Ayer Properties, LLC, 469 Mass. 64 (2014) (economic loss rule does not apply to damage caused to common areas by builder’s negligence).

Yet, for condominiums, the decision is also quite narrow, because it invalidates the use of the bylaw only for building defect claims against developers. Even here, the Court provided little guidance on whether a modified bylaw might be acceptable. Would, for example, a bylaw requiring the same 75% owner consent that is statutorily required for improvements and casualty repairs be acceptable, especially if developer units cannot vote? Trustees does not say.

Moreover, the Court’s refusal to strike the provision universally presents far-reaching consequences for condominium boards. Outside of common area defect claims against developers, the provision continues to apply to all litigation by condominium trustees except suits against unit owners. Other litigation must be preapproved and specially assessed in condominiums where the bylaw exists. Is this a useful check on board power or an overly restrictive set of handcuffs that make condominium management more difficult? Those boards who celebrate the demise of the “poison pill” may come to realize that their indigestion is a long way from being over.

Samuel B. Moskowitz is shareholder at Davis Malm & D’Agostine, P.C. His practice focuses on real estate and condominium law. He is a former Chair of the Boston Bar Association Real Estate Section, the editor and a contributing author of Massachusetts Condominium Law (MCLE, May 2017). He gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Nour E. Sulaiman, a law student at Northeastern University School of Law, who contributed invaluably in the preparation of this article.


Director Liability Under the Massachusetts Wage Act: The Supreme Judicial Court Clarifies the Law but Traps May Remain for the Unwary

finsterwald

by Mark D. Finsterwald

Case Focus

In Segal v. Genitrix, 478 Mass. 551 (2017), the Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) addressed whether members of a company’s board of directors may be personally liable under the Massachusetts Wage Act, G.L. c. 149, §§ 148, 150, for the company’s failure to pay wages to employees. In Segal, the SJC interpreted, for the first time, language in the Wage Act defining “employer” in the context of directors. The SJC held that the Wage Act does not impose liability on directors acting only in their capacity as directors. Even so, the Court did not fully insulate directors from Wage Act liability. There remains a possibility that directors could, perhaps unwittingly, become subject to personal liability in the event a company fails to pay wages.

The Wage Act

The Wage Act enables employees to sue employers who do not pay earned wages, with mandatory awards of treble damages and attorney’s fees for successful claims. Liability is not limited to the business entity, as the Wage Act defines “employer” to include “the president and treasurer of a corporation and any officers or agents having the management of such corporation.” This definition does not mention directors. Nor does it explain how to assess whether a person is an “agent[] having the management of such corporation.” G.L. c. 149, § 148.

Facts and Procedural History

Plaintiff Andrew Segal was the president of Genitrix, LLC, a biotechnology startup that he cofounded with defendant H. Fisk Johnson, III. Johnson was also an investor in Genitrix, and he appointed his representative, defendant Stephen Rose, to the company’s board of directors. Johnson funded Genitrix through a company called Fisk, which Johnson and Rose co-owned. Segal, as president, managed all of Genitrix’s day-to-day operations, including payroll.

In 2006, Genitrix began to have difficulty making payroll. Starting in 2007, Segal stopped taking salary to enable the company to meet its other financial commitments. Rose later declined to direct Fisk to invest enough money in Genitrix to pay Segal. In early 2009, Segal initiated Wage Act litigation against Johnson and Rose.

At trial, the judge instructed the jury that “a person qualifies as an ‘agent having the management of such corporation’ if he … controls, directs, and participates to a substantial degree in formulating and determining policy of the corporation or LLC.” The judge did not instruct the jury that the defendants needed to have been appointed as agents. Nor did the judge instruct the jury that defendants needed to have assumed responsibilities functionally equivalent to those of a president or treasurer. The jury found both defendants liable for Segal’s unpaid salary. Johnson and Rose moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, the trial court denied the motion, and Johnson and Rose appealed.

The SJC’s Analysis

At the outset, the Court stated that it viewed as significant the Legislature’s omission of directors from the Wage Act’s definition of “employer.” Segal, 478 Mass. at 558. Parsing the statutory language, the SJC dismissed the possibility that either defendant could be liable as president, treasurer, or any other officer, because neither of them held an office at Genitrix. Johnson and Rose could be liable only if they were “agents having the management” of the company. The Court explained that this language establishes “two important requirements: the defendant must both be an agent and have the management of the company.” Id. at 559. The Court differentiated between having some management responsibility and “having the management” of the company. “Having the management” means assuming responsibility similar to that performed by a corporation’s president or treasurer, the Court reasoned, “particularly in regard to the control of finances or payment of wages.”

As to agency, common law agency principles—set forth in the Restatement (Second) of Agency—counsel that directors are not typically considered agents. Restatement (Second) of Agency § 14C (1958). The SJC observed that “[a] board generally acts collectively, not individually.” Segal, 478 Mass. at 561. Such collective action does not confer individual agency authority on directors. Nevertheless, the Court explained that individual directors still could be “considered agents of the corporation if they are empowered to act as such, but any agency relationship stems from their appointment as an agent, not from their position as a director….” Id. at 563. An agency appointment could result from a board resolution, but also could “arise from either express or implied consent.” The Court gave as an example a scenario in which “a particular board member had been empowered to act individually as the functional equivalent of the president or treasurer of the corporation.” Genitrix, however, made no such appointment with respect to either defendant, instead delegating executive management authority (including dominion over wages) to Segal. Segal signed the checks, oversaw the payroll, and suspended the payment of his salary. Defendants had no such authority.

Moreover, just as a board’s collective authority over a corporation does not confer agency authority on an individual director, a board’s collective “oversight and control over management, finances, and policy is not oversight and control by individual board members.” Id. at 565. The Court noted that, since corporate statutes vest all management responsibility in a corporation’s board, if board members were to be considered agents and normal board oversight were considered “management,” then all directors would be personally liable under the Wage Act. That result would be inconsistent with the plain wording of the statute.

The Segal defendants’ participation in difficult board decisions that affected the company’s finances were not the acts of individual agents, did not involve the type of ordinary decisions left to individual managers, and did not confer Wage Act liability. Accordingly, the SJC determined that the trial court should have allowed defendants’ motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict.

In addition to adjudicating the claim against Johnson and Rose, the SJC also provided guidance for instructing future juries. The Court explained that judges should instruct juries that there are two requirements for a defendant to qualify as an employer under the Wage Act: (1) the defendant must be an officer or agent; and (2) the defendant must have the management of the company. The Court cautioned that juries should be instructed that directors are not agents simply by being directors, and the collective powers of the board are distinct from the powers of individual directors. As to “having the management,” courts should instruct juries that the Wage Act imposes liability on the president, the treasurer, and other officers or agents who perform management responsibilities similar to a president or treasurer, “particularly in regard to the control of finances or the payment of wages.” Id. at 570.

Lessons for Directors and Corporate Advisors

After Segal, it is difficult, but not impossible, to establish Wage Act liability on the part of individual directors. Directors should be aware that they still may face personal liability (with attendant mandatory treble damages and fee shifting) if they are found to be agents of the corporation who performed responsibilities similar to that of a president or treasurer. Consequently, boards and their advisors should take precautionary measures to reduce the risk to directors.

Corporate counsel would be wise to include in companies’ governing documents language stating that individual directors are not authorized to speak or act on behalf of the company. Counsel should then advise boards to abide by such language in practice. While it is common for boards to delegate tasks and authority to particular directors or committees, counsel should screen such delegations carefully to ensure that they cannot reasonably be construed as conferring management or agency authority. Counsel also would be wise to monitor initiatives that might not expressly delegate agency authority but could be deemed to do so by implication.

To the extent a board bestows management or agency authority on individual directors or committees of directors, that authority should be limited to discrete issues. More importantly, that authority should not encroach on officer control over finances and wages. For example, individual directors should not have check-writing authority, control over payroll, or authority to approve or deny wage payments.

Overall, counsel should be vigilant in ensuring that boards and board committees, including compensation committees, exercise their oversight function collectively, with such collective action formally recorded. These steps would help directors perform their fiduciary responsibilities with less risk of personal liability under the Wage Act.

Mark D. Finsterwald is an associate at Foley Hoag LLP and a member of the firm’s litigation department. He focuses his practice in the area of complex business litigation.


The Internet and the Afterlife

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by Colin Korzec and Mary H. Schmidt

Case Focus

On October 16, 2017, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued Ajemian v. Yahoo!, Inc., 478 Mass 169 (2017), which holds that federal law, specifically the Stored Communications Act, does not prohibit an email service provider from disclosing email content to a decedent’s personal representative. This ruling is significant to the fiduciary community in Massachusetts because it helps define post mortem ownership of digital assets.

Background

The issue in Ajemian v. Yahoo arose after John Ajemian died from a cycling accident. His brother and sister were appointed personal representatives of his estate. The personal representatives knew that their brother had a personal Yahoo email account, which they wanted to access as part of the estate settlement process. Yahoo refused their request for access and refused to disclose the account’s contents, citing what Yahoo considered to be a prohibition on disclosure imposed by the federal law known as the Stored Communications Act (18 U.S.C. §2701 et seq.)(the “Act”).

The Act was enacted in 1986 to create Fourth Amendment-like privacy protection for email and other digital communications stored on the internet. It limits the ability of the government to compel information from internet service providers. In addition, it restricts internet service providers’ ability to reveal information to nongovernment entities. Both civil and criminal penalties are provided for violations of the Act. The Act protects the privacy of users of electronic communications by making unauthorized access to electronic communications a criminal offense.

Yahoo claimed that the Act prohibited it from disclosing private emails to the personal representatives unless a specific statutory exception applied. According to Yahoo, no such exception applied in this instance. In addition, Yahoo maintained that the terms of service agreement that the decedent had agreed to when he created the email account gave Yahoo the discretion to refuse the personal representatives’ request. As a result, Yahoo was concerned with potential liability if it turned over the contents of the decedent’s email account to personal representatives absent specific authority in the the Act.

Yahoo prevailed in the probate court, which held that the requested disclosure was prohibited by the Act. The court also concluded that although the estate had a common-law property right in the account’s contents, disputed issues of material fact concerning the application of the terms of service agreement precluded summary judgment.

The SJC Decision

The SJC held that the Act did not prohibit Yahoo from voluntarily disclosing the contents of the account’s email communications to the personal representatives because the Act contains an exception that allows disclosure based on lawful consent (citing Section 2702 of the Act). The personal representatives argued that they could consent to release of the account’s contents because the account was property of the estate and therefore receiving the account’s contents would effectively allow them to take possession of estate property in their normal capacity as personal representatives. In contrast, Yahoo argued that under the Act lawful consent could come only from the account’s actual, original user.

The SJC disagreed with Yahoo and held that Yahoo’s interpretation of lawful consent would preempt state probate and common law, specifically state law allowing a personal representative to provide consent on behalf of the decedent, without any clear congressional intent to do so. The SJC, however, held that while Yahoo may divulge the content of the decedent’s communications, Yahoo is not required to do so if its terms of service agreement provided otherwise.

On the issue of whether Yahoo could the use the terms of service agreement with the decedent to limit access to the account by the decedent’s personal representative, the SJC divided. Yahoo argued that the terms of service agreement granted Yahoo the right to deny access to, and even delete the contents of, the account at its sole discretion, thereby permitting it to refuse the personal representatives’ request. Over Chief Justice Gants’ objection, the Court remanded that issue to the probate court for further proceedings on whether the terms of service agreement is an enforceable contract.

Justice Gants assumed for purposes of the opinion that the terms of service agreement is enforceable against the estate. Justice Gants further noted that the terms of service agreement grants Yahoo the right to terminate the agreement and the user’s access and to remove and discard any content within the service’s possession. Yahoo, however, could not contend that the termination provision gave Yahoo an ownership interest in the user’s content. Therefore, even if the terms of service agreement limits the estate’s property rights, Yahoo cannot claim ownership over the content still retained by Yahoo. Nor could the termination provision be reasonably interpreted to allow Yahoo to destroy emails after the personal representatives initiated a court action to obtain the messages. Justice Gants noted it was unfair to put the estate through the expense of another court proceeding and dissented from the majority’s decision to remand the case for further proceedings regarding the terms of service agreement.

Key Takeaways and Possible Future Developments

Given that this case has been remanded, it is far from concluded. However, even though the decision does not order Yahoo to disclose the emails to the personal representatives, the decision negates the email industry’s position that the Act prohibits disclosure. In and of itself, that is significant for personal representatives who seek access to internet communications of the deceased individual’s estate that they are administering.

Presumably, the Massachusetts probate court, on remand, will simply issue an order mandating disclosure, now that the SJC has confirmed that the personal representative may provide lawful consent under the Act. But what if the probate court, on remand, does not order the disclosure, and instead agrees with Yahoo that its terms of service agreement allows the company to destroy or withhold the emails? Chief Justice Gants indicates that if the trial court were to hold that Yahoo’s terms of service agreement were binding on the parties and permitted Yahoo to destroy the decedent’s email messages, the SJC “would surely reverse that ruling.”

Practitioners have begun to include specific authorizing language in their estate planning documents that addresses a fiduciary’s rights relative to an individual’s digital assets. These explicit directions should squarely address the lawful consent exception raised by the Act.

The SJC also suggested, in a footnote, that nothing precludes the Legislature from regulating the inheritability of digital assets. A majority of states have addressed the issues presented by Ajemian by enacting the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (“RUFADAA”).  RUFADAA was drafted through a collaborative effort between fiduciary professionals and internet service providers. RUFADAA extends the traditional power of a fiduciary to manage tangible property to include management of a person’s digital assets. As a compromise between the drafting parties’ interests, RUFADAA allows fiduciaries to manage digital property, but restricts a fiduciary’s access to electronic communications such as email, text messages, and social media accounts unless the original user consented to this access in a will, trust, power of attorney, or other record. There are currently several bills pending before the Massachusetts Legislature relating to varying forms of access by fiduciaries to digital assets. A Massachusetts Study Committee has recommended the adoption of RUFADAA in Massachusetts, but as of yet, RUFADAA has not been formally filed as a bill in the Commonwealth.

Mary H. Schmidt, Esq. is a partner at Schmidt & Federico and is a member of the Massachusetts Ad Hoc RUFADAA Study Committee.  Colin Korzec is a National Estate Settlement Executive at U.S. Trust, Bank of America Private Wealth Management and Chair of the Massachusetts Ad Hoc RUFADAA Study Committee.


Care and Protection of Walt: Breathing New Life into the Decades-Old Policy of Foster Care as the Last Resort.

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by Ann Balmelli O’Connor

Case Focus

To many, the Supreme Judicial Court’s holdings in Care and Protection of Walt, 478 Mass. 212 (2017)—that the Department of Children and Families (“DCF”) must comply with the law, that courts must ensure that DCF complies with the law, and that where parents or children are harmed by DCF’s breach of its legal obligations, a court may enter orders to remediate the harm —must seem unremarkable. But to attorneys who represent parents and children in state-intervention child custody cases, the decision is a welcome step towards realizing the law’s expectation that removing a child from his parents will be DCF’s “last resort.” Walt at 219.

Since 1954, the commonwealth’s policy has been to remove a child from his parents “only when the family itself or the resources available to the family are unable to provide the necessary care and protection[.]” Id. at 219, citing G.L. c. 119, § 1. When a court awards custody of a child to DCF, the court must determine whether or not DCF made reasonable efforts to “prevent or eliminate the need” to remove the child from his parent(s). G.L. c. 119, § 29C. There are four exceptions to DCF’s reasonable efforts obligation; unless an exception applies, DCF must make reasonable efforts before removing a child. Id. But for many years, juvenile courts routinely have excused DCF’s failure to make reasonable efforts for reasons beyond the statutory exceptions. Walt was one of those cases.

In Walt, DCF made no effort to avoid removing a three-year-old child from his parents because the investigating social worker believed Walt was at immediate risk of harm in the home. A trial judge, citing that risk, excused DCF’s failure to make reasonable efforts to avoid removing Walt. An Appeals Court single justice deemed that ruling error and, because DCF’s breach of its duty to make reasonable efforts had harmed Walt and his father by hindering their reunification, the single justice entered orders for visits and services in order to facilitate Walt’s return to his father’s custody. The single justice reported the issues to a panel of the Appeals Court, and the SJC transferred the case on its own motion.

On appeal, DCF argued that the trial judge only needed to determine whether DCF made reasonable efforts at an initial (usually ex parte) hearing on DCF’s request for emergency custody, not at a later 72-hour hearing. And at the ex parte hearing in Walt, the judge had determined that DCF did make the required efforts. The SJC rejected DCF’s argument and held that G.L. c. 119, § 24 plainly requires that the determination be made at both hearings. Walt at 223-224. The Court noted that the wisdom of requiring that the matter be revisited at the later (adversarial) hearing was illustrated in Walt, where the social worker’s ex parte claims regarding reasonable efforts were shown at the 72-hour hearing to have been “simply not true.” Id. at 225.

DCF next urged that the Court create an “exigent circumstances” exception to § 29C, which would excuse DCF from its duty to make reasonable efforts to avoid removing a child where a parent subjected the child “to serious abuse or neglect or an immediate danger of serious abuse or neglect.” Id. at 226. The Court declined to read that exception into § 29C, since the Legislature did not include it. The Court noted that “a judge must determine what is reasonable in light of the particular circumstances in each case, that the health and safety of the child must be the paramount concern, and that”—regardless of whether or not DCF made reasonable efforts—“no child should remain in the custody of the parents if his or her immediate removal is necessary to protect the child from serious abuse or neglect.” Id. at 225, 228.

DCF also claimed that the single justice exceeded his authority in ordering DCF to provide multiple father-son visits each week, permit Walt’s father to participate in special education meetings, and explore housing options for the family. The SJC disagreed; because DCF had violated its legal obligation to make reasonable efforts to avoid removing Walt, the single justice properly exercised his equitable authority in ordering DCF “to take reasonable remedial steps to diminish the adverse consequences of its breach of duty.” Id. at 228. Because the single justice acted long after Walt had been removed from his parents, he correctly entered orders designed to facilitate reunification. The Court observed that a juvenile court judge has the same authority. Id. at 228, 231.

As to the order for visitation, or “parenting time,” the Court stated that DCF’s schedule of one-hour visits every other week “imperil[ed] the father-son bond that was essential” to reunification Id. at 230. Accordingly, the single justice properly ordered a schedule “that would enable that bond to remain intact.” Id. (citations omitted). Equity likewise warranted the order that Walt’s father be permitted to remain involved in his education. Finally, because the parents would likely have difficulty obtaining housing benefits because Walt was in DCF’s custody—and housing “was likely a prerequisite to family reunification”—the single justice properly ordered DCF to explore housing options for the family. Id. at 230.

DCF has been removing children from their homes at higher rates over the past several years, and the foster care system is overwhelmed. Too often, DCF has removed these children without offering, let alone providing, any services or other assistance to their families. With this decision, the SJC has helped to ensure that DCF will follow the law, so that separating families and placing children in an overburdened foster care system truly will be the agency’s last resort.

Ann Balmelli O’Connor is the Attorney-in-Charge of the Appellate Unit of CPCS’s Children and Family Law Division. Attorney O’Connor, a former Assistant General Counsel for DCF, represented the child’s father in Care and Protection of Walt.