Boston’s Way Forward on Housing

by City Councilor Lydia M. Edwards

Viewpoint

Boston’s economy is thriving. Why then are so many residents of the City and Commonwealth struggling to find and afford housing, remain in the communities they love, become homeowners and build wealth? A shortage of housing that serves the needs of all economic classes and family structures is certainly part of the problem. But simply building across the region will not solve our state’s persistent housing affordability crisis. To house our diverse, growing population, we will need a multi-pronged approach that balances growth and prosperity with protection of all residents during both recession and economic booms and addresses the widening wealth gap that plagues our City and the Commonwealth. As Boston City Council Chair of the Housing and Community Development and Government Operations Committees, my view is that Boston can lead through housing policies that raise revenue for affordable housing, shape new inclusive neighborhoods through planning and zoning that affirmatively furthers fair housing, and stabilize communities through protections against involuntary displacement and equitable opportunities for home ownership.

Revenue for Affordable Housing

With the decades-long decline in  federal funding, localities must look to other sources to finance the preservation and production of housing that is affordable to low- and moderate-income residents. Boston recently passed a home rule petition to collect a transfer fee of up to 2% on high-value real estate transactions that exceed $2 million dollars, subject to exemptions (“Transfer Fee Home Rule”). Enacted, the Transfer Fee Home Rule could generate as much as $169 million per year for affordable housing in Boston, vastly outstripping current  resources at the City’s disposal. Municipalities as different as Somerville, Concord and Nantucket have also  proposed transfer fees to fund their affordable housing, and 38 states and localities already have excise taxes on property sales.

Boston also has a pending home rule bill to authorize the City to update its existing Development Impact Program (“Linkage”) and Inclusionary Development Policy (“IDP”) which are each intended to mitigate the increased demands for affordable housing and job training attributable to large-scale developments. HB 4115. Enacted, HB 4115 would permit the City to make its own decisions to adjust the linkage fees to enable Boston to align more efficiently with changing market conditions and local needs without waiting for approval of the full General Court as currently required by statute; extend the IDP requirements (e.g., to create 13% of development as income-restricted units or contribute equivalent funds) which currently apply only to market-rate housing developments with 10 or more units and are in need of zoning relief, to all large projects regardless of whether zoning relief is needed; and codify the IDP into Boston’s Zoning Code.

Inclusive Zoning and Planning

Several “large projects” subject to Boston’s Article 80 Development Review and Approval process–including the former Suffolk Downs race tracks in East Boston, the Bunker Hill public housing in Charlestown, and the Mary Ellen McCormack public housing in South Boston–provide the City with unprecedented opportunities to shape entire new neighborhoods that provide an inclusive range of housing options to accommodate the City’s diverse population, while disrupting historic concentrations of poverty and patterns of racial and cultural segregation and providing access to employment and training opportunities for affected residents.

For public housing redevelopments, this may mean ensuring that income-restricted units are integrated with the market-rate units, whereas in purely private developments like Suffolk Downs, it may mean planning to ensure sufficient “affordable units” of the right bedroom size to house families and a community benefit agreement to mitigate meaningfully against adverse development impacts and hardships. I have proposed a zoning change for Boston to systematically ensure that all developers undertake deliberate and “meaningful actions, in addition to combating discrimination, that overcome patterns of segregation and foster inclusive communities free from barriers that restrict access to opportunity based on protected characteristics.” This change would amend the text of Boston’s Zoning Code to expressly incorporate our preexisting federal Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing obligations. Seattle and Portland, for example, already review their plans with a lens for racial equity and displacement risk along with opportunities for economic growth, to inform their choices.

The City also recently strengthened its comprehensive planning under the Climate Ready Boston Initiative by passing an Ordinance Protecting Local Wetlands and Promoting Climate Change Adaptation in the City of Boston to ensure the equitable protection of all residents from the effects of climate change.

Community Stabilization

Boston has been taking aggressive steps to address the chronic housing crisis since October 2014 when the mayor’s Housing Advisory Task Force issued Housing a Changing City: Boston 2030, which was updated in 2018. The original Plan called for the production of 69,000 new housing units by 2030 with specific targets for different affordability levels in an effort to create a more equitable and inclusive City. Beyond production, the City also dedicates funds to support the acquisition and deed-restriction of properties as affordable housing, regulates and restricts short-term rentals, protects against condominium conversions, and supports a right to counsel in eviction proceedings––all measures intended to protect residents, especially long-time, low-income, elderly, and disabled tenants, against involuntary displacement. The City also created the Office of Housing Stability (“OHS”) in 2016, the first of its kind in the nation, to work across City departments and with external partners to promote policies, practices, and programs that are effective in achieving housing stability for tenants at risk of eviction, which is also critical to stabilizing communities like Boston where the majority of the population is renters.

Other high-cost cities also have passed right to counsel legislation, and some states such as Oregon, California and New York are moving towards rent stabilization policies which would allow rent increases but prohibit increases as high as those experienced by many Boston residents. These states, as well as Boston, have also looked to “just cause eviction” policies in efforts to protect tenants current with rent and who otherwise have not broken their lease agreements.

Additionally, to encourage home ownership, Boston has expanded the availability of low-interest loans to moderate-income families through the ONE+ Boston program and approved zoning to allow for accessory dwelling units. Other policies which support resident-controlled housing, such as cooperatives, cohousing and community land trusts; the co-ownership of such housing by residents; and a resident’s right of first refusal  to purchase, would each promote community stability, as well as individual opportunity to gain equity and build wealth.

Conclusion

Boston’s housing affordability crisis is not abating, and our response has not scaled up to protect all residents. With bolder action, we can create lasting stability in neighborhoods and reverse historic patterns of discrimination and dispossession in our real estate market, as well as in zoning and planning decisions. To achieve community stability we need a multifaceted approach to the housing shortage that is responsive to the diverse needs of all residents and to historic inequities and barriers to enabling them to remain in place and housed in their communities of choice.

Lydia Edwards has spent her entire career as an advocate, activist, and as a voice on behalf of society’s most vulnerable. She served as the deputy director within the Mayor’s Office of Housing Stability, as a public interest attorney with Greater Boston Legal Services focusing on labor issues, and she currently represents District One on the Boston City Council. For the 2020-2021 council session, she serves as Chair of the Committees on Housing and Community Development and Government Operations.


SJC Addresses the Enforceability of Settlements Entered Without Insurers’ Consent

by Austin Moody

Case Analysis

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) recently issued an important decision addressing three issues that can arise in the fairly common scenario in which an insurer recognizes its duty to defend its insured, does so under a reservation of rights, and then brings a separate action seeking a declaratory judgment that it owes no duty to indemnify its insureds.

In Commerce Ins. Co. v. Szafarowicz, 483 Mass. 247 (2019) the court addressed 1) whether the lower court properly denied the insurer’s motion to stay the underlying action until the question of its duty to indemnify had been determined in a declaratory judgment action, 2) whether the lower court properly denied the insurer’s motion to deposit its policy limit with the court – which would prevent the accrual of postjudgment interest, and 3) whether the insurer was bound by the settlement/assignment agreement the insured reached in the underlying matter.

The underlying case involved a wrongful death suit brought by the estate of David M. Szafarowicz.  On August 3, 2013, shortly after a verbal altercation at a bar, Mr. Szafarowicz was struck and killed by a vehicle operated by Matthew Padovano.  The vehicle was owned by Matthew’s father, Stephen Padovano, who had purchased an automobile insurance policy from Commerce Insurance Company (Commerce). Id. at 249 – 50.

Commerce agreed to defend the Padovanos in the underlying case.  In addition, Commerce agreed to pay the $20,000 in compulsory insurance offered by the policy.  However, it issued a reservation of rights regarding $480,000 in optional insurance based on the fact that the policy did not cover intentional acts and there was substantial evidence that Matthew Padovano struck the decedent intentionally.  Commerce subsequently brought a declaratory judgment action seeking to establish that it had no duty to indemnify the Padovanos. Id. at 250 – 51.

Less than three weeks before the trial of the underlying action, Commerce filed a motion to intervene in the case based on its claim that both plaintiff and defendants were presenting Mr. Szafarowicz’s death as arising out of negligence rather than an intentional act – ostensibly to maximize the available insurance coverage.  The judge denied the motion but held that Commerce would be allowed to challenge the fairness of the underlying litigation in the future.  Id. at 252 -53.  After the denial of its motion to intervene, Commerce moved to stay the wrongful death trial until after the question of insurance coverage was resolved in the declaratory judgment action.  Again, Commerce’s motion was denied. Id. at 253.

Shortly before trial, the wrongful death action was settled.  Matthew Padovano agreed that he was grossly negligent, the estate agreed not to enforce any judgment beyond the amounts payable by the insurance policy, and the Padovanos agreed to assign all rights under the Policy to the estate.  Commence objected to the settlement, but again, its motion was denied.  Judgment ultimately entered in the amount of $7,669,254.41 – $5,467,510 in damages plus prejudgment interest in the amount of $2,201,744.41. Id. at 254.

Commerce appealed, challenging the denial of its motions to stay the wrongful death action so that the declaratory judgment action could be adjudicated first, and the overruling of its objections to the settlement.  In addition, it sought to deposit the policy limits plus accrued postjudgment interest with the court.  Commerce’s objective was to limit its liability for future postjudgment interest under a policy provision stating “[w]e will not pay interest that accrues after we have offered to pay up to the limits you selected.”  Commerce’s motion to deposit the funds was denied and Commerce filed an interlocutory appeal.  On its own motion, the SJC transferred both appeals to its court. Id. at 254 – 56.

During the pendency of the appeal, Commerce prevailed in its declaratory judgment action in which the trial court held that the death was caused by Michael Padovano’s intentional conduct. The SJC therefore found that Commerce had no duty to contribute to the judgment above the $20,000 in compulsory insurance it had already paid.  However, under the terms of the policy, Commerce still had an obligation to pay postjudgment interest on the entire judgment

In its decision, the SJC addressed three issues.  First, the SJC found that the lower court did not abuse its discretion by denying Commerce’s motion to stay.  The Court found that Commerce did not suffer prejudice when the judge refused to stay the wrongful death action pending a resolution of the coverage dispute.  Commerce was protected from prejudice based on the fact that it was subsequently permitted to challenge any underlying findings of negligence in the wrongful death action and was not bound by that court’s findings.  In fact, Commerce had successfully done so and prevailed in the coverage litigation.  Additionally, the Court found that it would be unfair to the claimant to delay the wrongful death action pending the resolution of the coverage case. Id. at 257 -58.

Second, the SJC found that the court did not abuse its discretion by denying Commerce’s motion to deposit the policy limits and accrued interest. Commerce was not permitted to prevent the accrual of postjudgment interest by conditionally depositing the policy limits plus accrued postjudgment interest with the court.  The Court held that in order to prevent the accrual of postjudgment interest, Commerce would have to agree to pay its limits without conditions or qualifications.  However, Commerce was actively seeking a declaratory judgment that it did not owe indemnity due to the intentional acts exclusion and, if successful, it planned to seek the return of the policy limits.  Therefore, Commerce could not prevent the accrual of postjudgment interest. Id. at 259.

Finally, the Court found that Commerce was only bound by the underlying settlement/assignment agreements to the extent that they were found to be reasonable by the trial court.  The SJC ruled that reasonableness should be considered based upon the “totality of the circumstances” including the facts bearing on the liability and damage aspects of plaintiff’s claim, as well as the risks of going to trial.  Id. at 265.  Because no reasonableness hearing was conducted by the trial court in this case, the SJC remanded for a hearing on the reasonableness of the settlement/assignment agreements. Id. at 267.

The SJC declined to consider an alternative inquiry into whether the settlement was collusive, because it opined that all settlement agreements of this nature – in which only the insurer is at risk of paying the plaintiff’s damages – can be characterized as somewhat collusive. It held that any concern an insurer may have that the plaintiff and the insured defendant have colluded to improperly inflate a settlement or stipulated judgment may be addressed as part of a reasonableness hearing.  Id. at 266 – 67.  Presumably, any settlement that was reached as the result of improper collusion would be determined to be unreasonable.  The Court also declined to join a minority of states that in all circumstances, “because of the risk of collusion, declare such settlement/assignment agreements to be unenforceable where an insurer has honored its duty to defend.”  Id. at 264.

The SJC noted that “the procedure we direct on remand is different from what we expect to happen in the future where an insurer successfully challenges a settlement/assignment agreement before judgment.” Id. at 267. In that event, the trial court “may decline to enter judgement in that amount and invite the parties to renegotiate “an agreement that might prove reasonable in amount”.  Id. at 267 – 68.

Ultimately, the SJC’s opinion provides helpful guidance as to how an insurer offering an insured a defense under a reservation of rights in Massachusetts should proceed.  It recognizes that the insurer will not always be bound by the findings of fact in an underlying case and preserves an insurer’s ability to challenge unreasonable settlements.

Austin Moody is an associate with White and Williams LLP in Boston, where he represents insurance carriers in complex coverage disputes.


Boston Housing Authority v. Y.A., 482 Mass. 240 (2019): SJC Clarifies VAWA Defenses in Eviction Cases

by Julia Devanthery, Dan Daley, and Lisabeth Jorgensen

Case Focus

Boston Housing Authority v. Y.A., 482 Mass. 240 (2019), is the most recent guidance from the Supreme Judicial Court concerning the application of the federal Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), 34 U.S.C. §§ 12291 et seq., to summary process (eviction) cases. Among other safeguards provided under VAWA, the statute protects victims of domestic violence from eviction from federally subsidized housing so long as the basis for the eviction is a direct result of domestic violence. Boston Hous. Auth. v. Y.A., 482 Mass. 240, 245 (2019); 34 U.S.C. § 12491(b)(1) (2018); 24 C.F.R. § 5.2005(b).

Summary of Case & Applicable Law

In BHA v. Y.A., the housing authority brought a motion to issue execution against one of its tenants who failed to adhere to the payment schedule in a court approved agreement for judgment (the “Agreement”) the tenant had signed. At the hearing, the tenant testified that it was because she was in an abusive relationship. The trial court granted the housing authority’s motion, finding that the tenant’s failure to pay her rent was a substantial violation of a material term of the Agreement under M. G. L. c. 239, § 10. However, the judge did not take into account the tenant’s testimony about domestic violence. On appeal, the tenant—represented by counsel for the first time—argued that the judge failed to consider whether the tenant’s alleged breach of the Agreement was related to domestic violence or whether she was protected from eviction by VAWA.

The application of the VAWA defense to tenants of public housing facing eviction for non-payment of rent after having signed an agreement for judgment was a matter of first impression for the SJC. See BHA v. Y.A., 482 Mass. at 247. In BHA v. Y.A., the SJC held that the trial court should have determined whether the tenant was entitled to VAWA protection from eviction, reversed the housing court’s decision allowing the housing authority to evict the tenant and remanded it “for further inquiry and findings whether domestic violence contributed to Y.A.’s failure to make agreed-upon payments.”  Id. at 248.

Key Holdings

BHA v. Y.A. will have far-reaching implications for victims of domestic violence across Massachusetts and, perhaps, nationally. The holding affirms many core principles that will protect victims and their families from eviction and homelessness.

First, the SJC’s holding that a tenant may raise a VAWA defense to eviction at any time during an eviction proceeding, even after multiple years of nonpayment and signing multiple agreements for payment plans, will help ensure that victims can raise the defense whenever it is safe to do so, or when they learn of their right to do so. See BHA v. Y.A., 482 Mass. at 248. The SJC’s decision confirmed that a tenant in federally financed housing can raise a VAWA defense for the first time in response to a landlord’s claim of a violation of an agreement for judgment.  Id. at 246-247.

Y.A. had never raised the issue of domestic violence before appearing in court for the hearing on the housing authority’s motion for issuance of execution. See BHA v. Y.A., 482 Mass. at 247. The SJC held “that Y.A.’s statement at the hearing that she was in an abusive relationship and that her partner “would take everything” from her was not untimely.” Id. In fact, the SJC held that Y.A. was permitted to raise her VAWA defense on the enforcement of the fifth court agreement between the parties. Id. at 248. So long as the nonpayment is a direct result of domestic violence, the VAWA defense can be raised even in instances of chronic non-payment of rent. Id. at 249. According to BHA v. Y.A., in which Y.A. did not refer to VAWA at all, a tenant is only required to give the judge “reason to believe that domestic violence … might be relevant to a landlord’s basis for eviction.” Id. at 247.  This more flexible approach to raising a VAWA defense is consistent with the fact that most tenants go unrepresented in summary process cases and is very similar to the standards used in cases involving disabled tenants and reasonable accommodations.

Finally, the Court gave significant guidance to both covered housing providers and judges when presented with evidence of domestic violence. The Court held that covered housing providers are not only barred from evicting tenants for reasons directly related to domestic violence, but are also required to relocate a tenant to a safe unit, upon request, where there is a reasonable belief that there is a threat of imminent harm from staying in the same unit. Id. at 244-45. Additionally, it held that judges, upon hearing evidence of domestic violence, are obligated to inquire further in order to fully evaluate the applicability of VAWA and write findings before issuing a decision. Id. at 247.

Practical Lessons

Providing notice to a landlord prior to action for eviction

It is clear from the principles set forth in BHA v. Y.A. that, in a federal housing eviction case, a tenant has the right to raise a VAWA defense to an allegation of a breach of a lease agreement without having sought any VAWA protection from the landlord beforehand. However, as a practical matter, practitioners should advise clients to notify their landlords that domestic violence has affected the tenant’s ability to pay rent or has otherwise caused the tenant to violate the terms of the lease as soon as it is safe to do so. When landlords are informed about domestic violence issues affecting a tenancy, VAWA expressly encourages housing providers to “undertake whatever actions permissible and feasible under their respective programs” to assist domestic violence victims living in their housing units to remain in their housing. See 24 C.F.R. § 5.2009(c). For example, under VAWA, and upon request, a covered landlord is required to relocate a tenant to a safe unit (or may remove a household member from a lease) in order to mitigate the threat of imminent harm from further violence.

The VAWA defense in a court proceeding

In Massachusetts, a defendant normally raises defenses to possession through an answer to the complaint. See Uniform Summary Process Rule 3 and Uniform Summary Process Rule 10(a).  However, as explained above, the VAWA defense may now be raised at any time during an eviction from federally subsidized housing.

Conclusion & Tips for Effective Counseling

Certain safety repercussions need to be considered in counseling a client with a potential VAWA defense. As explained above, the defense can be raised directly with the housing provider pre-eviction, in an answer or in subsequent pleadings, during a hearing, trial, or post-judgment. To qualify for the defense, a practitioner should seek to admit one of the VAWA-approved forms of verification but should also carefully consider whether the client’s testimony is necessary. Advocates should also evaluate the client’s options to impound the file, identifying information, or other specific documents that contain sensitive information about domestic violence. Finally, tenant advocates should counsel the client to seek safety-planning support from a domestic violence service provider before deciding whether to raise the defense, and throughout the case.

Julia Devanthéry is a staff attorney at the ACLU in Southern California in the Dignity for All Project. Julia is the founder of the Housing Justice for Survivors Project at the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School, where she served as a Lecturer of Law and co-taught and supervised the Housing Law Clinic. Ms. Devanthéry represented the tenant in BHA v. Y.A.

Daniel Daley is a staff attorney at MetroWest Legal Services (MWLS) where he has specialized in housing and eviction cases for the last twenty years. MWLS, based in Framingham, has been providing free civil legal aid to low-income people and victims of crime for over forty (40) years.

Lisabeth Jorgensen is the Civil Legal Aid for Victims of Crime (CLAVC) staff attorney at MWLS, a position funded by the Massachusetts Office for Victim’s Assistance (MOVA). She represents victims of crime in their related civil matters across many sectors, including housing.

*Photo credit to Stan Rowin (https://www.stanstudio.com/) for Daniel Daley’s and Lisabeth Jorgensen’s headshots.


After Goodridge: the Potential of Equal Protection Challenges Under the Massachusetts Constitution Involving Non-Economic, Personal Interests

by Steven E. Gurdin and Kelly A. Schwartz

Legal Analysis

Massachusetts courts apply an enhanced version of rational basis review where regulations infringe on non-economic, personal interests.[1] In light of Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, 440 Mass. 309 (2003), this analysis has the potential to support constitutional challenges on equal protection grounds to two existing Massachusetts statutes related to families. They are: (1) M.G.L. c. 119, § 39D, the grandparent visitation statute; and (2) M.G.L. c. 209C, § 10, custody of children born out of wedlock.

Equal Protection and Enhanced Rational Basis Review in Massachusetts

Equal protection requires “that all persons in the same category and in the same circumstances be treated alike.”  Opinion of the Justices, 332 Mass. 769, 779-80 (1955). The standard of review in Massachusetts for equal protection claims that do not involve a fundamental right or suspect class is rational basis review.  See Tobin’s Case, 424 Mass. 250, 252-53 (1997).

The Massachusetts Constitution requires that a regulation be “rationally related to the furtherance of a legitimate State interest.” Mass. Fed’n of Teachers, AFT, AFL-CIO v. Bd. of Educ., 436 Mass. 763, 777 (2002) (quoting Chebacco Liquor Mart, Inc. v. Alcoholic Beverages Control Comm’n, 429 Mass. 721, 722 (1999)).  However, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) has determined that in cases involving non-economic regulations, Massachusetts’s Constitution “may guard more jealously against the exercise of the State’s police power” than the Federal Constitution.[2] That is, the SJC has applied an enhanced version of rational basis review where classifications affect personal, non-economic interests that are not considered fundamental.  See Friedman, supra note 2.

The most prominent example of this analysis is Goodridge.[3]  There, same-sex couples alleged that the denial of their access to marriage licenses and the status of civil marriage violated the Massachusetts Constitution. The Court held that this exclusion violated equal protection. The Court concluded that “[t]he marriage ban works a deep and scarring hardship on a very real segment of the community for no rational reason,” noting that “[t]he absence of any reasonable relationship between” the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage and the protection of the general welfare.  Goodridge, 440 Mass. at 341 (emphasis added).

As exemplified by Goodridge, enhanced rational basis review under the Massachusetts Constitution requires that there be an actual, rather than merely a conceivable, connection between the government’s legitimate regulatory interest and the imposed regulation, and that the connection be reasonable.  See Friedman, supra note 2 at 418.  Moreover, Massachusetts’s rational basis review for equal protection claims, “requires that an impartial lawmaker could logically believe that the classification would serve a legitimate public purpose that transcends the harm to the members of the disadvantaged class.”  Goodridge, 440 Mass. at 330 (emphasis added) (internal quotations omitted) (quoting English v. New England Med. Ctr., Inc., 405 Mass. 423, 429 (1989)).

Grandparent Visitation  

Under this enhanced rational basis review, Massachusetts’s grandparent visitation statute, as-applied, arguably violates equal protection under the Massachusetts Constitution.

M.G.L. c. 119, § 39D states in relevant part:

If the parents of an unmarried minor child are divorced, married but living apart, under a temporary order or judgment of separate support, or if either or both parents are deceased, or if said unmarried minor child was born out of wedlock whose paternity has been adjudicated by a court of competent jurisdiction or whose father has signed an acknowledgement of paternity, and the parents do not reside together, the grandparents of such minor child may be granted reasonable visitation rights . . . upon a written finding that such visitation rights would be in the best interest of the said minor child . . . .

(Emphasis added.)

The statute, as interpreted by Blixt v. Blixt, 437 Mass. 649 (2002), essentially imposes two conditions for grandparents to seek visitation: that the parents are separated or divorced; and that the grandparents have either a significant preexisting relationship with the grandchildren, or that the grandchildren will suffer significant harm absent visitation with the grandparents. Under Blixt, the second condition amounts to a heightened pleading requirement that grandparents must meet in order to seek visitation.

As-applied, the law discriminates against grandparents of grandchildren whose parents are not divorced or separated with respect to their ability to seek visitation when it is in the grandchildren’s best interest.  The statute creates two classes of grandparents: (1) those who can seek visitation because the parents are divorced or separated; and (2) those who cannot because the parents are not divorced or separated.  The classes are similarly situated because both sets of grandparents would presumably seek visitation regardless of the parents’ marital or living status on the grounds that it would be in the best interests of their grandchildren.

Applying enhanced rational basis review, the statutorily-created classifications of grandparents do not rationally serve a legitimate public purpose that transcends the harm in denying the opportunity for grandparents of parents who are not separated or divorced from seeking visitation when it is in the grandchildren’s best interest.  Three potential rationales for the discrimination are: preserving judicial resources; preventing infringement of parental rights; and safeguarding the welfare of children and giving deference to Blixt’s rationale “that the burden of the traumatic loss of a grandparent’s significant presence may fall most heavily on the child whose unmarried parents live apart” in using parental status to distinguish between classes of grandparents.  437 Mass. at 664; see Goodridge, 440 Mass. at 331.  Each of these rationales likely fails enhanced rational basis scrutiny.

First, the requirements for visitation would continue to preserve judicial resources even if grandparents of parents who are not separated or divorced petitioned for visitation because the heightened pleading requirements would serve as a gatekeeping mechanism. Second, the heightened pleading requirements would protect the rights of parents to make child-rearing decisions because only grandparents who can demonstrate that there was a significant preexisting relationship with the grandchildren, or that the grandchildren will be significantly harmed, could seek visitation.[4]  Finally, denying certain grandparents the right to seek visitation when it is in the grandchildren’s best interests would not safeguard children’s interests, especially when Blixt acknowledges that there may be children whose parents are not divorced or separated who would be harmed without visitation with their grandparents.  See 437 Mass. at 664. It is precisely these factual circumstances that would serve as the basis for an as-applied challenge to the statute, where a court can reconsider the law in the context of an actual dispute.  See Wash. State Grange v. Wash. State Republican Party, 552 U.S. 442, 449-50, 457-58 (2008).

Custody of Children Born Out of Wedlock

Similarly, Massachusetts’s statute pertaining to custody of children born out of wedlock arguably violates equal protection under the Massachusetts Constitution pursuant to enhanced rational basis review analysis.

M.G.L. c. 209C, § 10(a)-(b) provides in relevant part:

(a) Upon or after an adjudication or voluntary acknowledgment of paternity, the court may award custody to the mother or the father or to them jointly . . . as may be appropriate in the best interests of the child . . . . In awarding the parents joint custody, the court shall do so only if the parents have entered into an agreement pursuant to section eleven or the court finds that the parents have successfully exercised joint responsibility for the child prior to the commencement of proceedings pursuant to this chapter and have the ability to communicate and plan with each other concerning the child’s best interests.

(b) Prior to or in the absence of an adjudication or voluntary acknowledgment of paternity, the mother shall have custody of a child born out of wedlock.  In the absence of an order or judgment of a probate and family court relative to custody, the mother shall continue to have custody of a child after an adjudication of paternity or voluntary acknowledgment of parentage.

(Emphasis added.)

As-applied, the law denies unwed fathers not cohabitating with the mother,[5] the right to equal protection by discriminating against these fathers as compared to divorcing fathers when joint legal custody is in the child’s best interest.[6]  Pursuant to M.G.L. c. 208, § 31, divorcing fathers are presumed to have joint legal custody of a child until otherwise ordered and need only prove that it is in the child’s best interest for it to be awarded.  Whereas, pursuant to M.G.L. c. 209C, § 10(a)-(b), unwed fathers not cohabitating with the mother are not presumed to have joint legal custody and must meet additional and burdensome requirements to have it awarded.[7]  The fathers are similarly situated because both groups are men whose parentage has either been assumed due to their marital status or established by adjudication or acknowledgment, and whose children would presumably benefit from their involvement in their life.[8]

To be awarded joint legal custody absent an agreement with the mother, in addition to satisfying the best interest standard, an unwed father not cohabitating with the mother is required to prove that he and the mother “have successfully exercised joint responsibility for the child prior to the commencement of proceedings;” and he and the mother have “the ability to communicate and plan with each other concerning the child’s best interests.”  M.G.L. c. 209C, § 10(a).  A divorcing father, however, enjoys “temporary shared legal custody of any minor child of the marriage” and he need only ultimately prove that an award of joint custody is in the child’s best interest.  M.G.L. c. 208, § 31.

Under an enhanced rational basis review analysis, the different treatment of unwed fathers not cohabitating with the mother and divorcing fathers pursuant to M.G.L. c. 209C, § 10(a)-(b) likely does not rationally serve a legitimate public purpose that transcends the harm in requiring that unwed fathers meet more onerous requirements.[9] Potential public purposes that may be advanced to justify the discrimination are: preserving judicial resources; and safeguarding the wellbeing of children.[10]

First, judicial resources would not be further expended if both classes of fathers were afforded the same presumption and held to the same standard to be awarded joint legal custody.  In fact, judicial resources may be conserved if all fathers were afforded the presumption and only the child’s best interest governed.  Second, the wellbeing of children is not enhanced by requiring that unwed fathers not cohabitating with the mother meet more burdensome requirements or be denied a presumption of joint legal custody because an analysis of the child’s best interest should afford all children the same protection, especially where there are divorcing fathers who do not have a history of successfully exercising joint responsibility for the child and cannot communicate or cooperate with the mother. If children of unwed fathers not cohabitating with the mother are afforded greater protections than children of divorcing fathers, this likely violates “the Commonwealth’s strong public policy to abolish legal distinctions between marital and nonmarital children in providing for the support and care of minors.” Goodridge, 440 Mass. at 325 (citations omitted); see M.G.L. c. 209C, § 1 (“Children born to parents who are not married to each other shall be entitled to the same rights and protections of the law as all other children.”).  Further, these additional and burdensome requirements may discourage fathers whose children would benefit from their participation in important decisions from pursuing these rights.  See Cuadra, supra note 6 at 634-35.

Conclusion

Looking to Goodridge as a roadmap for an enhanced rational basis review analysis, some Massachusetts statutes impacting personal interests, like a grandparent’s ability to pursue visitation or an unwed father’s ability to participate in important child rearing decisions, may well be vulnerable to challenges on equal protection grounds. This kind of judicial review recognizes that there may be instances in which legislative classifications draw lines that infringe on personal interests without adequate justification.  This review does not mean every statute that differentiates among significant personal interests will fail—just that the Commonwealth must be able to articulate a reason for the discrimination that has a basis in fact. On the right facts, an enhanced rational basis review analysis has the potential to push the legal landscape to better serve families by pushing the Commonwealth either to justify the discrimination or abandon distinctions that no longer make sense.

Steven E. Gurdin is a partner at Fitch Law Partners LLP, concentrating his practice in and frequently presenting on family law and probate litigation matters.  He represents clients in all aspects of family law including, divorce proceedings, paternity actions, child removal actions, modification and contempt actions, grandparent visitation cases, and alimony and child support issues.

Kelly A. Schwartz is an associate at Fitch Law Partners LLP.  Her practice is in family law, which includes matters involving divorce, child custody, alimony, child support, and asset division.

[1] Special thanks to Lawrence Friedman, Professor of Law at New England Law, for his input and support.

[2] See Blue Hills Cemetery, Inc. v. Bd. of Reg. in Embalming & Funeral Directing, 379 Mass. 368, 373 n.8 (1979); Coffee-Rich, Inc. v. Comm’r of Pub. Health, 348 Mass. 414, 421-22 (1965); Lawrence Friedman, Ordinary and Enhanced Rational Basis Review in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court: A Preliminary Investigation, 69 Albany L. Rev. 415 (2006) (discussing history of Massachusetts cases in which courts applied less deferential rational basis review under the Massachusetts Constitution); see also Goodridge, 440 Mass. at 328 (“The Massachusetts Constitution protects matters of personal liberty against government incursion as zealously, and often more so, than does the Federal Constitution, even where both Constitutions employ essentially the same language.”), n.18 (“We have recognized that our Constitution may more extensively protect individual rights than the Federal Constitution in widely different contexts.”).

[3] See Friedman, supra note 2 at 419-22, 440.

[4] Of note, Massachusetts House Bill No. 1534, which was submitted in the current session on January 18, 2019, provides that any grandparent may file an original action for visitation rights if it is in the child’s best interest and if, among other conditions, “the child is living with biological parents, who are still married to each other, whether or not there is a broken relationship between either or both parents of the minor and the grandparent and either or both parents have used their prenatal authority to prohibit a relationship between the child and the grandparent.”

[5] See Dep’t of Revenue v. C.M.J., 432 Mass. 69, 77 (2000) (determining that under M.G.L. c. 209C, § 10(b), an unwed father cohabitating with the mother and providing support to his children was presumed a custodial parent even absent a court order regarding custody); Trial Court Judgment of Dismissal and Memorandum of Decision (Gibson, J. Nov. 5, 2013); see also Com. v. Gonzalez, 462 Mass. 459, 464 & n.12 (2012); 14B Mass. Prac., Summary of Basic Law, § 8:264 (5th ed. 2019) (“[I]f the father is living with the mother and the child or children born out of wedlock, the mother’s custody is not sole custody, but joint custody with the father.”) & nn.4-5.

[6] See Bernardo Cuadra, Family Law–Maternal and Joint Custody Presumptions for Unmarried Parents:  Constitutional and Policy Considerations in Massachusetts and Beyond, 32 W. New Eng. L. Rev. 599, 620-22 (2010) (footnote notation omitted) (discussing the difference in Massachusetts between divorcing parents and unmarried parents with regard to the presumption of joint legal custody).

[7] Department of Revenue v. C.M.J. did not, however, address whether unwed fathers cohabitating with the mother must also meet the additional requirements outlined in M.G.L. 209C, § 10(a) to be awarded joint legal custody.

[8] See Cuadra, supra note 6 at 633-34 (“Joint legal custody has been shown in the context of divorce to increase a father’s involvement with his child, including parenting time and overnights.  Subsequent research suggests the same outcome for unwed fathers.”).

[9] See Goodridge, 440 Mass. at 330; see also Cuadra, supra note 6 at 639 (suggesting that Massachusetts’s different treatment of divorcing and unwed fathers should be examined pursuant to a rational basis review where the statute would “be scrutinized with something greater than sweeping deference.”) & n.251 (citing and quoting Goodridge).

[10] See Goodridge, 440 Mass. at 331; Blixt, 437 Mass. at 663; Trial Court Judgment, supra note 5.


Reid v. City of Boston: Extending the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act’s Interpretive Complexity

by Andrew Gambaccini

Case Focus

The Legislature enacted the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act (“MTCA”), G.L. c. 258, §§ 1 et seq., to replace a crazy quilt of judicially created exceptions to governmental immunity and provide a “comprehensive and uniform regime of tort liability for public employers.” Lafayette Place Associates v. Boston Redevelopment Auth., 427 Mass. 509, 534 (1998). Since its initial enactment, what has developed is a further set of immunity principles, exceptions to those principles, and exceptions to the exceptions to the principles that has led to uncertainty for courts and practitioners, which continues with the decision in Reid v. City of Boston, 95 Mass. App. Ct. 591, rev. denied, 483 Mass. 1102 (2019).

The Evolution of Governmental Immunity in Massachusetts

Historically, the Commonwealth and its political subdivisions enjoyed broad governmental immunity protections based upon common law principles. See Cormier v. City of Lynn, 479 Mass. 35, 37-38 (2018) (citations omitted). Over time, a convoluted landscape of judicial exceptions to governmental immunity developed, triggering a 1973 request from the SJC that the Legislature create a statutory scheme authoritatively detailing the contours of governmental immunity. See Morash & Sons, Inc. v. Commonwealth, 363 Mass. 612, 618-21 (1973). After a few years of legislative inaction, in 1977 the SJC made its intentions clear:  it would abrogate governmental immunity following the 1978 legislative session if the Legislature did not take definitive action. See Whitney v. Worcester, 373 Mass. 208, 210 (1977).

The MTCA followed, allowing for limited governmental tort liability as well as setting out the procedures through which claims were to be presented and pursued. The statutory scheme provides generally that public employers are liable for the negligent or wrongful acts or omissions of public employees acting within their scope of employment, while public employees are shielded from personal liability for negligent conduct. G.L. c. 258, § 2. At the same time, several statutory exceptions to the general waiver of governmental immunity were created. See G.L. c. 258, § 10.

It was not long before case nuances again created interpretive difficulties. In 1982, the SJC applied the “public duty rule” to protect governmental units from liability unless a plaintiff demonstrated that a duty breached was owed to that plaintiff, and not simply to the public at large. See Dinsky v. Framingham, 386 Mass. 801 (1982). Within a short time, the SJC endorsed a “special relationship” exception to the public duty rule, permitting governmental liability where a governmental actor reasonably could foresee both an expectation to act to protect a plaintiff and the injury caused by failing to do so. See Irwin v. Ware, 392 Mass. 745 (1984). When subsequent judicial gloss through the “public duty-special relationship dichotomy” failed to produce “a rule of predictable application[,]” the SJC announced its intention to abolish the public duty rule altogether. Jean W. v. Commonwealth, 414 Mass. 496, 499 (1993) (Liacos, C.J. concurring); see also 414 Mass. at 514-15 (Wilkins, Abrams, J. concurring) and 523-25 (Greaney, J. concurring). The Legislature responded by amending the MTCA, most notably by adding six new § 10 exceptions, (e) through (j), to the general waiver of governmental immunity,modification that has done little to diminish the vexing complexities of governmental liability and immunity.

Reid v. City of Boston

Reid features the latest judicial foray into two of the knottiest statutory exceptions concerning governmental immunity, §§ 10 (h) and 10 (j). Plaintiff Reid received a call from her sister, during which the sister was heard asking someone to stop following her and why that person’s hands were behind his back. Knowing her sister had a troubled relationship with her boyfriend, Reid drove to her sister’s home, where she saw her sister’s boyfriend, Cummings. Reid engaged him in a conversation that was neither heated nor worrisome for Reid. As they spoke, Reid’s sister called 911 and reported that Cummings had threatened to kill her.

Three Boston police officers responded and came upon Reid and Cummings. The officers perceived the two to be speaking calmly, noted no injuries and saw no indication of either being armed, something both Reid and Cummings denied. As the inquiry continued, one officer  approached Cummings from behind, suddenly grabbed him and reached for his waist, intending to frisk Cummings for weapons. Cummings pushed the officer away, drew a firearm from his waistband and opened fire. The officers returned fire. Cummings was killed, one officer was shot in the leg and Reid also was shot in the leg by Cummings.

Reid sued the officers and the City. The Superior Court dismissed the claims against the officers, but the negligence claim against City proceeded to trial. Reid claimed that the attempt to frisk Cummings created a harm that otherwise did not exist, escalating a controlled encounter into a shootout, and that such negligence caused her injury. By special verdict form, the jury found the City liable, concluding the police pre-shooting negligence was a substantial contributing factor in causing Reid’s injury. The City filed a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, arguing that it was immune pursuant both to G.L. c. 258, § 10 (h), which, among other things, immunizes municipalities from claims based upon failure to provide police protection, and § 10 (j), which, in part, forecloses claims against a governmental agency based upon a failure to prevent violence by a third party not originally caused by a government actor. The Superior Court denied the motion and the City appealed.

The Appeals Court affirmed the denial of the motion, turning away both of the City’s § 10 arguments. As to immunity for failure to provide police protection under § 10 (h), the tip of the City’s spear was Ariel v. Kingston, 69 Mass. App. Ct. 290 (2007). Ariel involved a plaintiff who was a passenger in a motor vehicle approaching an intersection where police officers were directing traffic in the vicinity of an accident. Proceeding with a green light, the driver of the plaintiff’s vehicle entered the intersection while contemporaneously an officer waved, against a red light, another vehicle into the intersection, leading to a collision. The Ariel Court determined that the town was immune pursuant to § 10 (h) because controlling traffic was a form of police protection to the public.

Analyzing the § 10 (h) exception in Reid, the Appeals Court stated that, while § 10 (h) “shields municipalities from claims where police officers negligently failed to prevent harm posed by third parties[,]” Reid’s “successful theory of liability was not that the police officers failed to protect her from a threat, but rather that the officer’s affirmative conduct created a danger that did not previously exist.” Reid distinguished Ariel by noting the officers directing traffic were providing police assistance to mitigate a dangerous condition while, in Reid, the officers encountered a calm situation and it only was police action that created the danger.

Concerning immunity for the failure to prevent violence by third parties not originally caused by government actors under § 10 (j), Reid avoided the intensely problematic determination of whether the officers’ actions “originally caused” Reid’s injury, instead drawing on a statutory exception to this immunity. Specifically, the Appeals Court found that subsection § 10 (j) (2)’s exception to immunity applied because the officer’s intervention had “place[d] the victim in a worse position than [s]he was in before the intervention[.]” In broad stroke, Reid concluded that the City could be liable because its officer had engaged in an “affirmative act” that contributed materially to create the danger from which the plaintiff sustained injury.

It long has been difficult to chart a predictable course through the statutory and judicial landscape of governmental immunity. Reid’s interpretation of § 10 (h) adds another layer of complexity to this area of law. While Ariel involved an officer engaging in the affirmative act of waving a car into a police-controlled intersection, there was no municipal liability in that case because the circumstance was “dangerous” however municipal liability existed in Reid because a police response to a 911 call featuring an allegation of domestic assault somehow took place in “calm” conditions. Further, because Reid passed on its opportunity to clarify §10 (j), including, for example, a discussion of factors relevant to determining whether the officers’ actions were the original cause of injury, §10 (j) remains a morass of cascading exceptions to the MTCA’s general waiver of immunity.

Cummings was armed and prepared to shoot. If he had fired before any attempt at a frisk, there seems little doubt that the City could not have been found liable. That Cummings made his choice to shoot after an officer tried to frisk him for purposes of weapon detection and disarmament rendered the City liable for Cummings’ shooting of Reid. In the last analysis, Reid’s interpretation of §§ 10 (h) and 10 (j) leaves the principles of governmental immunity as it found them – a complex, nuanced and often confusing “process of defining the limits of governmental immunity through case by case adjudication.” Whitney, 373 Mass. at 209-10.

Andrew Gambaccini is an associate at Reardon, Joyce & Akerson, P.C., where he focuses his practice in civil rights and the defense of law enforcement officers.


Massachusetts Wage and Hour Laws Apply to Au Pairs

by Andrea Peraner-Sweet and Lauren D. Song

Heads Up

On December 2, 2019, in Capron v. Attorney General of Massachusetts, 944 F.3d 9 (2019) (“Capron”), the First Circuit Court of Appeals held that federal laws regulating the J-1 Visa Exchange Visitor Program for au pairs (“Au Pair Program”) do not preempt Massachusetts wage and hour laws applicable to domestic worker arrangements: Massachusetts Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Act  (“DWBRA”), G.L. c. 149, §§ 190191, and the Massachusetts’ Fair Wage Law, G.L. c. 151, § 1. This means that host families in the Commonwealth are obligated to pay au pairs at least the state minimum wage ($12.75/hour effective January 1, 2020) and overtime, higher compensation than the federal $7.25 hourly rate currently required under the Au Pair Program. It also means that host families–as employers of domestic workers–must become familiar with the DWBRA’s requirements because failure to comply with Massachusetts wage and hour laws can expose host families to substantial damages, including treble damages, attorneys’ fees and costs. See Andrea Peraner-Sweet, How to Hire a Domestic Worker and Stay Out of Trouble, 62 Boston Bar J. (Summer 2018).

The Au Pair Program And Its Compensation

As described in Capron, the Au Pair Program is a cultural exchange program regulated by the United States Department of State (“DOS”) through which foreign individuals can obtain J-1 Visas and be matched with United States host families to provide up to 45 hours a week of child care services while pursuing a post-secondary education. 22 C.F.R. § 62.31. The DOS administers the Au Pair Program through private placement agencies it designates to conduct DOS-approved exchange programs (“Sponsors). The Sponsors select and match participants with host families. 22. C.F.R. § 62.10.

The Au Pair Program regulations require Sponsors to ensure that au pairs are compensated “at a weekly rate based upon 45 hours of child care services per week and paid in conformance with the requirements of the [FLSA] as interpreted and implemented by the [Department of Labor (DOL)].” 22 C.F.R. § 62.31(j)(1). The DOL has determined that Au Pair Program participants are “employees” within the meaning of FLSA and, thus, entitled to federal minimum wage. 29 U.S.C. § 206(a). The FLSA, however, exempts live-in domestic workers from overtime payment. 29 U.S.C. § 213(b)(21). DOL regulations also permit deductions for the costs of room and board:  either a fixed credit amount that is tied to a percentage of the federal minimum wage, or  the actual, itemized costs, provided the itemized deductions are supported by adequate records. 29 C.F.R. § 552.100(c)(d). Importantly, as the First Circuit notes, the FLSA contains a savings clause that “[n]o provision of this chapter or of any order thereunder shall excuse noncompliance with any Federal or State law or municipal ordinance establishing a minimum wage higher than the minimum wage established under this chapter.” 944 F.3d at 18 (quoting 29 U.S.C. § 218(a)).

Massachusetts Au Pair Compensation

The DWBRA defines au pairs as “employees” and “domestic workers” and their host families as “employers.” G.L. c.  149, § 190(a). Under the DWBRA and Fair Wage Law, au pairs are entitled to the state minimum wage and overtime pay at 1.5 times the hourly rate for “working time” over 40 hours per week. G.L. c. 151, § 1; 940 C.M.R. 32.03(3). An au pair’s “working time” includes all hours that the au pair is required to be on duty including meal, rest and sleep periods unless during those periods the au pair is free to leave the host family’s premises, use the time for their sole benefit and is relieved of all duties during these time periods. Id., 32.02. Host families are required to keep records of an au pair’s hours worked. Id., 32.04(2). The DWBRA also permits deductions for lodging and food, if agreed to in advance and in writing by the domestic worker, which are at a fixed credit amount of $35 per week for a single-occupancy room and $1.25 for breakfast, $2.25 for lunch, and $2.25 for dinner. Id., 32.03(5)(b)-(c).

Additionally, au pairs are entitled to at least 24 consecutive hours of rest when working 40 hours per week, workers’ compensation, sick time, and notice of why and when the host family may enter their living space.

The Litigation

In 2016, in response to enactment of the DWBRA, Cultural Care, Inc., a Sponsor au pair placement agency and two former Massachusetts hosts (“Plaintiffs”), sought declaratory and injunctive relief from the United States District Court claiming that the federal laws governing the Au Pair Program impliedly preempted Massachusetts wage and hour laws with respect to au pairs. The District Court found no preemption and dismissed the action, and Plaintiffs appealed.

The Plaintiffs claimed that the Au Pair Program preempted Massachusetts wage and hour laws under “field preemption” and/or “obstacle preemption.” Under “field preemption,”  Plaintiffs argued that the detailed regulatory scheme governing the Au Pair Program together with the federal interest in regulating immigration and managing foreign relations evidenced the federal government’s intent to “occupy the field” of regulation of au pairs, thereby preempting state laws and regulations that might otherwise apply to au pairs. 944 F. 3d at 22. Under “obstacle preemption,” Plaintiffs argued that compliance with Massachusetts wage and hour laws would create an obstacle to achieving the underlying purposes and objectives of the Au Pair Program by frustrating the federal intent to “set a uniform, nationwide ceiling” on compensation obligations and  recordkeeping and administrative burdens. Id. at 26-27.

The First Circuit rejected Plaintiffs’ arguments, concluding that Plaintiffs failed to sustain their burden of proving either field or obstacle preemption. The Court determined that Plaintiffs’ reliance on the DOS’s comprehensive and detailed regulations was insufficient to demonstrate a federal intent to oust a whole field of state employment measures, a “quintessentially local area of regulation.” Id. at 22.  Rather, the Court opined: “It is hardly evident that a federal foreign affairs interest in creating a ‘friendly’ and ‘cooperative’ spirit with other nations is advanced by a program of cultural exchange that, by design, would authorize foreign nationals to be paid less than Americans performing the same work.” Id. at 26.

The Court also rejected Plaintiffs’ obstacle preemption claim that enforcement of Massachusetts’ employment laws would frustrate a federal objective of establishing a nationally uniform compensation scheme for au pair participants. Noting that “the text of the au pair exchange regulations…does not supply the requisite affirmative evidence that the state law measures would pose an obstacle to the accomplishment of the purposes and objectives of the Au Pair Program,” the First Circuit concluded, “[i]n fact, the text of the regulations reflects the DOS’s intention to ensure that the regulations would accommodate the DOL’s [Department of Labor] determination that au pair participants are employees who are entitled to be protected by an independent wage and hour law that is not itself preemptive….[and] that the DOS contemplated that state employment laws would protect exchange visitor program participants from their employers.” Id. at 32-33 (underline in original).

What do host families need to know now?

It is not yet clear whether Capron will apply retroactively or whether Massachusetts host families will be liable for back wages for au pairs who were not compensated in accordance with state wage and hour laws. The Attorney General’s office has indicated that, “at this time,” its focus is on ensuring that au pair agencies bring their programs into compliance with Massachusetts laws and it does not intend to enforce the DWBRA or other wage and hour laws against host families.  The Attorney General’s office does note, however, that it has no control over private litigation.  As of the time of this writing, at least three putative class action suits and one other action, all by private individuals, have been filed in Middlesex Superior Court against several Sponsor au pair agencies.  No action has yet to be filed against any host families.

Andrea Peraner-Sweet is a partner at Fitch Law Partners LLP.  Her practice focuses on general business litigation with an emphasis on employment litigation as well as probate litigation.  Andrea is a  current member of the Boston Bar Journal.

Lauren D. Song is a Senior Attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services where her practice focuses on affordable housing preservation and development through public-private partnerships.  Lauren is a current member of the Boston Bar Journal.


Student Disciplinary Proceedings Revisited: A Responding Party is Not Entitled to “Quasi-Cross-Examination” in Private School Disciplinary Proceedings

by R. Victoria Fuller

Case Focus

Until recently, a key procedural issue in disciplinary proceedings administered by educational institutions—whether the responding party was entitled to conduct cross-examination—remained unclear in Massachusetts and the First Circuit.  A pair of recent First Circuit decisions provide some clarity for Massachusetts public and private institutions, respectively.  First, in Haidak v. University of Massachusetts-Amherst, 933 F.3d 56 (1st Cir. 2019), discussed in the Fall issue of the Boston Bar Journal, the First Circuit Court of Appeals addressed the obligations imposed by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment on public educational institutions in disciplinary proceedings.  There, the Court held that the responding party did not have a right to cross-examine the reporting party or other adverse witnesses in such proceedings, even where credibility was at issue, and that a public educational institution could implement a non-adversarial, “inquisitorial” system without violating the federal Due Process Clause so long as the educational institution adequately questioned the reporting party.

Most recently, in John Doe v. Trustees of Boston College, 942 F.3d 527 (1st Cir. 2019), the First Circuit addressed the same issue, but in relation to disciplinary proceedings in private educational institutions.  As discussed below, the responding party argued that he was entitled to real-time examination of the reporting party and adverse witnesses through a neutral—or as the First Circuit called it, “quasi-cross-examination.”  The Court rejected that argument.  It held that private school proceedings are governed by state law, not the federal Due Process Clause, and that applicable Massachusetts contract law did not recognize a right of cross-examination.

The Complaint and Disciplinary Proceedings

In John Doe, the disciplinary proceeding was triggered by a complaint by a female student that a male student—the responding party—had sexually assaulted her.  The complaint was governed by the university’s Student Sexual Misconduct Policy (the “Policy”), which established the university’s procedure for the adjudicating sexual misconduct complaints. Under the Policy, sexual misconduct complaints were to be investigated by one (or more) internal or external investigators.  The Policy did not permit either party to cross-examine the other party or adverse witnesses.

In the case of John Doe, once the investigators completed the investigation, they prepared a written report.  Applying a preponderance of the evidence standard, the investigators found that several of the responding party’s statements lacked credibility, or failed to support his defense that the sexual contact at issue was consensual, and concluded that the responding party had violated the Policy. Based on the investigators’ findings and conclusions, the university imposed an immediate one-year suspension on the responding party.

After exhausting his appeals at the university, the responding party sued in the District of Massachusetts, seeking an injunction staying his suspension. The responding party argued that he was entitled to a form of real-time examination, including:

  • Contemporaneous questioning by a “neutral” (who may be a hearing officer or an investigator) of both the reporting party and the responding party (though not necessarily in the same room);
  • Disclosure of the exact statements of the adverse party in real time; and
  • The opportunity to submit questions to the neutral, either orally or in writing, to be put to the other party.

The District Court agreed, and granted the requested injunction, thus staying the responding party’s suspension.  The university appealed.

Private School Disciplinary Proceedings Are Governed by State Law

The First Circuit disagreed and vacated the injunction. The Court held that Massachusetts private schools are not obligated to provide any form of cross-examination, let alone the “real-time examination” sought by the responding party (and which the First Circuit referred to as “quasi-cross-examination”).

The Court explained that Massachusetts private school disciplinary proceedings are not governed by the federal Due Process Clause, but instead by applicable Massachusetts contract law.  See 942 F.3d at 529.  In Massachusetts, courts use two analyses to determine whether a private institution has breached its contract with a student: (1) whether the reasonable expectations of the parties have been met; and (2) whether the procedures implemented by the school were conducted with “basic fairness.”  Id. at 533-34.[1]  First, the Court rejected the responding party’s argument that he reasonably expected he would be afforded the opportunity to conduct a form of quasi-cross-examination.  Nothing in the Policy’s detailed procedures provided any basis for such an expectation.

Second, the Court stated that Massachusetts concept of “basic fairness” does not require quasi-cross-examination.  “Basic fairness” requires only that a public institution act in good faith and on reasonable grounds, and that its decision must not be arbitrary and capricious.  See Coveney v. President & Trs. of The Coll. of The Holy Cross, 388 Mass. 16, 19 (1983); Driscoll v. Bd. of Trs. of Milton Acad., 70 Mass. App. Ct. 285, 295 (2007).  The Court also clarified that its recent decision in Haidak v. University of Massachusetts-Amherst was inapplicable: Boston College was neither a public university nor a government actor, and therefore was not subject to the federal Due Process Clause.  The Court also noted that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court had specifically held in Schaer v. Brandeis University, 432 Mass. 474 (2000) that the obligations imposed by basic fairness on private institutions were not equivalent to those imposed by the federal Due Process Clause on public institutions, and Massachusetts state courts had not recognized quasi-cross-examination as an obligation imposed by the basic fairness requirement.

Perhaps anticipating that its decision in John Doe would not be the final word on the matter, the First Circuit concluded that “whether Massachusetts in the future will wish to redefine the requirements of contractual basic fairness in college and university discipline matters poses important policy choices for the Supreme Judicial Court and/or state legislature to make.”  Id. at 536.

Conclusion

With its decision in John Doe, the First Circuit clarified the distinction between the obligations imposed on public educational institutions by the federal Due Process Clause, and those imposed by Massachusetts contract law on private schools.

Importantly, the First Circuit also noted that “[f]ederal courts are not free to extend the reach of state law.”  942 F.3d at 535.  While no previous Massachusetts case has held that “basic fairness” includes a right to cross-examination in private school disciplinary proceedings, the right of cross-examination in both public and private school disciplinary proceedings has become a hot topic across the country.  Indeed, the law is rapidly evolving, and not always cohesively.  Compare Haidak v. University of Massachusetts-Amherst, 933 F.3d 56 (2019) (holding no absolute right to cross-examination in public institution disciplinary proceedings) with Doe v. Baum, 903 F.3d 575, 582-3 (6th Cir. 2018) (recognizing a right to cross-examination in public institution disciplinary proceedings).

Perhaps not surprisingly, then, after the case was remanded by the First Circuit, lawyers for John Doe requested that the District of Massachusetts certify to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court the question:

[W]hether basic fairness, implied in the contract between a student and a college or university, requires an opportunity for parties in a college or university disciplinary process, to have their questions put to each other and witnesses in real time, even if only through a neutral person, particularly in matters that involve credibility determination, such as the Title IX investigatory setting.

See Civ. A. No. 1:19-cv-11626-DPW, Dkt. 73. The District of Massachusetts has postponed any potential certification until after summary judgment practice. One way or the other, given the recent changes and clarifications in this area of the law, we can expect unsatisfied responding parties in private school disciplinary proceedings to continue to raise the issue in Massachusetts courts until the Supreme Judicial Court directly addresses it.

Victoria Fuller is an attorney at White and Williams LLP. Her practice focuses on insurance law, employment law, and general commercial litigation.

[1] “Basic fairness” applies not only to colleges and universities, but to all private educational institutions.  See, e.g., Discol v. Bd. of Trs., 70 Mass. App. Ct. 285, 295 (2007) (applying “basic fairness” standard to disciplinary proceedings in private school that admitted students from kindergarten through grade twelve).