Solar Project Development: the Special Case of Agrivoltaic Projects

by Jonathan Klavens, Courtney Feeley Karp, and Elizabeth Mason

Legal Analysis

[1] As it becomes more challenging to develop large-scale solar projects in Massachusetts, it is worth taking a closer look at “dual use” or “agrivoltaic” projects – solar projects designed with specially elevated and spaced solar panels to allow for continued agricultural use of the land beneath. Some view solar development on “greenfield” sites (open space, forested land, farmland) as less desirable than installing solar on rooftops, parking lots, brownfields, and other previously developed sites. Agrivoltaic projects present an important opportunity to install additional clean energy generation in Massachusetts without the trade-offs often associated with greenfield development. Any solar project where farmland is converted to exclusive solar use gives the landowner the opportunity to supplement farm income by renting out a portion of the land to a solar developer. An agrivoltaic project can provide supplemental income without loss of farmland; it can even lead to the creation of new farmland or more active use of existing farmland, such as upgrading a hayfield to a vegetable farm. An agrivoltaic project can also play a dual role in the fight against climate change: increasing the share of energy generated from carbon-free sources while also promoting regenerative agriculture, the cultivation of plants and healthy soil that can help reduce the atmosphere’s existing carbon load. This article looks at three different regulatory frameworks that impact the development of agrivoltaic projects in Massachusetts: zoning; the Commonwealth’s solar incentive program; and taxation of agricultural land.

Local Permitting of Solar Projects

Like other commercial solar projects in Massachusetts, agrivoltaic projects face an array of permitting requirements. We will focus on the zoning landscape with special attention to several trends and dilemmas.

While state law limits the application of local zoning to solar facilities and both the Land Court and Superior Court have had occasion to interpret that law in recent years, there remains a good deal of confusion about the permissible scope of local zoning authority over solar projects. Zoning regulation of solar projects is limited by M.G.L. c. 40A, § 3 (“Section 3”), which provides that “[n]o zoning ordinance or by-law shall prohibit or unreasonably regulate the installation of solar energy systems or the building of structures that facilitate the collection of solar energy, except where necessary to protect the public health, safety or welfare.” Section 3 evidences the legislature’s intent to protect solar facilities from certain local zoning restrictions but when and to what extent?

Many zoning bylaws do not mention solar energy use (or any broader use that would include solar energy use). Given that zoning bylaws almost universally prohibit uses that are not expressly permitted, this means that in the first instance solar would be prohibited under a bylaw that is silent as to solar use. In turn, however, one Land Court decision held that Section 3 would ordinarily preempt that prohibition, effectively rendering solar use a use allowed by right.[2]

Notwithstanding Section 3, more and more municipalities are adopting solar bylaws that regulate solar projects in one or more ways. Some provide that solar projects are allowed by right in certain zoning districts, with or without a requirement for site plan approval (a mechanism for imposing reasonable conditions on as-of-right uses). Others provide that solar projects are allowed by special permit in certain districts. Still other solar bylaws purport to prohibit solar use in certain districts. Where solar facilities are allowed, a solar bylaw often lays out special dimensional and other requirements, such as requirements for vegetative screening or for posting of financial assurance to cover the costs of removing the facility at the end of its useful life. Larger scale ground mounted solar projects are often the only subject of solar bylaws or are subject to more extensive requirements than other types of solar facilities.

With the proliferation of solar bylaws, questions have arisen about the extent to which they are enforceable in light of Section 3. In its role as reviewer of the legality of new bylaws, the Office of the Attorney General has admonished municipalities to consult with counsel to ensure they do not run afoul of Section 3,[3] but has not rejected any solar bylaw as facially inconsistent with Section 3. In addition, courts have offered some guidance, providing several prospective “rules of thumb” to local zoning boards and solar developers.  For example, although a special permit granting authority (“SPGA”) can ordinarily exercise broad discretion to deny a special permit, it likely cannot do so outside the bounds of Section 3.[4]  Moreover, certain bylaw requirements (or permit conditions) may be inconsistent with Section 3 on an as-applied basis because they effectively prohibit a project or are not “necessary to protect public health, safety or welfare.”[5]  For example, given the benign nature of a typical ground mount solar facility it might be difficult to justify a 200-foot setback requirement as necessary to protect public health, safety or welfare.

It is also unclear under Section 3 under what circumstances a municipality may allow solar energy use in certain districts while prohibiting it in others. There are two keys ways of viewing this issue through the lens of Section 3. One view is that if a municipality allows solar energy use in at least some locations, it cannot be deemed to have “prohibit[ed]” solar use within the meaning of Section 3. The alternative view is that Section 3 bars a municipality from prohibiting solar energy projects even in just a single district “except where necessary to protect public health, safety or welfare.” Id. While an initial Land Court decision seemed to provide some support for the first view,[6] two subsequent clarifying Land Court decisions have endorsed the second.[7]

In Briggs v. Zoning Board of Appeals of Marion, the Marion Zoning Board of Appeals argued that, as long as commercial solar energy use was allowed in some zoning districts, it could still be prohibited in a residential district consistent with Section 3. The court appeared to accept this reasoning, finding that it is “rational” and “reasonable” to prohibit commercial solar energy systems in residential districts,[8] even though Section 3 expressly bars any prohibition of solar energy systems – not just irrational or unreasonable prohibition of solar energy systems – “except where necessary to protect the public health, safety or welfare.” Id. The court noted that the board made no findings on the impact of the proposed project on public health, safety or welfare, id. at *2, nor did the court in its de novo review make any such findings, see id. at *4-5.

In Duseau v. Szawloski Realty, Inc., issued nearly a year later, the court reached a similar conclusion, but only because it determined that the defendant solar developer had the burden of proving that the prohibition of solar energy use in the town’s rural residential district was not necessary to protect public health, safety and welfare and the developer never even argued the issue.[9]

More recently, in PLH LLC v. Town of Ware, the court ruled that a municipality could not require, and then could not deny or condition, a special permit for a solar project in a particular district “except where necessary to protect the health, safety or welfare.”[10] Notably, it appears that no court has yet concluded that a prohibition of solar energy use, or a denial of a permit for solar energy use, has been necessary to protect public health, safety or welfare under Section 3. Given that many larger solar projects are now operating (including many in residential districts) across Massachusetts, and that many municipalities that have hosted such projects are supportive of additional solar development, it seems likely that the parties to future litigation on this point will have a good deal of experience from which to draw.

In short, developers of larger solar projects must navigate local land use regulation and differing interpretations of Section 3 as to which aspects of local regulation are actually enforceable. Meeting the Commonwealth’s clean energy goals will likely require more balanced regulation and more certainty about how municipalities can lawfully regulate clean energy projects.

SMART Program Incentives for Agrivoltaic Projects

The Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target Program (the “SMART Program”) implemented by the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (“DOER”) provides a base financial incentive for production of each unit of solar energy from eligible projects in Massachusetts. The SMART Program regulations also offer extra incentives known as “adders” to promote certain types of projects, such as solar carports, solar on landfills, and community solar facilities. Agrivoltaic facilities, referred to as Agricultural Solar Tariff Generation Units (“ASGTUs”) in the regulations, are the target of one such adder. In addition to providing adders for preferred project types, the SMART Program also has what are called “greenfield subtractors” which reduce the incentive payments for solar facilities located on greenfield sites. ASTGUs are not subject to the subtractor given that the land on which they are located will continue to be farmed.[11] ASTGUs are also exempt from strict new rules adopted in July 2020 that generally bar solar facilities from participating in the SMART Program if they are located on land designated as priority habitat, core habitat, or critical natural landscape as identified by the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife BioMap2 framework with the Commonwealth’s Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program.[12]

At the same time, the process and standards for qualification of a SMART ASTGU are quite rigorous under state regulations and guidelines.[13]  For example, the reduction of direct sunlight relating to an ASTGU cannot exceed 50% – measured on every square foot of the project site. While a SMART facility can generally be up to 5 MW AC in size, under the current ASTGU Guideline an ASTGU would typically be capped at just 2 MW AC. Id. at  3. The current regulations also contain a number of other requirements including continuous growth, growing plans, and productivity reports. 225 C.M.R. 20.06(1) (d)(3), (5); ASTGU Guideline at 3. While it is important to ensure that there are not significant detrimental effects on agriculture from an ASTGU, there could be many appropriate reasons for reduced productivity, such as a drought year or appropriate crop rotation. The approval process thus far has raised questions about the appropriate baseline for measuring impacts, determining which impacts to attribute to the solar facility or to other causes, what type or magnitude of impact would result in disqualification of an ASTGU or removal of its adder.

There may well be many more types of symbiotic solar and agricultural uses that do not fit within the current requirements for ASTGUs. For example, mushroom cultivation, beekeeping and animal husbandry are all farming activities that might benefit from shade reduction greater than 50%. The state’s Department of Energy Resources (“DOER”) has a process for seeking waivers for unique and worthwhile alternatives but obtaining an exception is not easy, quick or predictable.

Based on experience gleaned from processing ASTGU applications for almost two years, DOER has recently issued a “straw proposal” to modify the guideline governing qualification of ASTGU projects. Among other things, the straw proposal raises the possibility of allowing for ASTGUs of up to 5 MW AC in certain instances and streamlining the approval process by permitting qualification by a third party organization, which should increase speed and predictability for approval of project designs. This change would provide greater certainty for the financing of these projects and allow the full range of potential climate change benefits to come to fruition.

Property Tax Incentives for Land in Agricultural/Horticultural Use

Land in active agricultural or horticultural use is entitled under M.G.L. c. 61A (“Chapter 61A”) to reduced property tax rates. Chapter 61A land that is converted from agricultural to commercial use must be removed from Chapter 61A. So what happens when Chapter 61A land serves as the site of an agrivoltaic facility? 

Before land is to be removed from Chapter 61A, the landowner must deliver to the municipality a notice of intent to convert. Such notices are accompanied by plans showing the total acreage that will cease to be farmed (the “Converted Land”) and the balance of the land that will continue to be farmed (the “Remaining Land”). The Converted Land is removed from Chapter 61A and the landowner pays roll-back taxes (and, if applicable, conveyance taxes) in connection with this removal. The Remaining Land should remain eligible for reduced taxation under Chapter 61A.

There is currently some confusion about the applicability of Chapter 61A to land under agrivoltaic facilities in light of the existence of Section 2A of Chapter 61A. Section 2A was inserted by the legislature in 2016 to address situations where ground mounted solar facilities are installed on farmland, precluding use of the land under the solar panels for agricultural or horticultural use but generating power used for the operation of the farm. Section 2A allows owners of agricultural or horticultural land who install a “renewable energy generating source” on their land which meets the requirements of Section 2A to maintain all of their land as agricultural or horticultural land under Chapter 61A, even the land that is exclusively occupied by the solar array and can no longer be farmed. Section 2A is not relevant to agrivoltaic facilities because they involve installation of solar panels above land which will continue to be farmed.

Land under and around an agrivoltaic facility is instead governed by Sections 1 and 2 of Chapter 61A. Section 1 states that land shall be considered to be in agricultural use when “primarily and directly used in raising animals, including, but not limited to, dairy cattle, beef cattle, poultry, sheep, swine, horses, ponies, mules, goats, bees and fur-bearing animals, for the purpose of selling such animals or a product derived from such animals in the regular course of business.”  Section 2 states that land shall be considered to be in horticultural use when “primarily and directly used in raising fruits, vegetables, berries, nuts and other foods for human consumption for the purpose of selling these products in the regular course of business.”  The Remaining Land at the site of an agrivoltaic facility, which will continue to be farmed, meets these definitions.

Note that farming the land underneath and surrounding the solar arrays of an agrivoltaic facility is something that, as noted above, facility owners are required to do under the SMART Program in order for the facilities to qualify for – and stay qualified as –ASTGUs under that program. If in the future the owner ceases farming the land underneath and surrounding the solar arrays and uses it for a non-qualifying purpose, the land would then lose eligibility for classification under Chapter 61A.

Chapter 61A and the publications of the Massachusetts Department of Revenue’s Division of Local Services (“DLS”) are clear that it is the use of the land that determines whether or not land is eligible for classification under Chapter 61A. Section 20 of a set of FAQs published by DLS states that, in the case of solar facilities that (like the agrivoltaic projects discussed here) don’t meet the requirements of Section 2A, only land “necessary for the operation of” the solar facility or “impacted by its operation” is ineligible for continued classification under Chapter 61A.[14]  The Converted Land at the site of an agrivoltaic facility meets this definition and is the portion of the land no longer eligible for taxation under Chapter 61A. The Remaining Land is not “necessary for the operation of” the solar facilities. It will continue to be farmed and should remain eligible for classification under Chapter 61A.[15]

Whether land under and around an agrivoltaic facility can remain in Chapter 61A can have a significant impact on the economic viability of an agrivoltaic project. If land under an agrivoltaic project is not allowed to remain in Chapter 61A, that may not just mean that the project would have to be able to support higher property taxes (potentially reducing benefits to the farmer) but could also raise questions about the project’s ability to operate as an ASTGU under the SMART Program. An agrivoltaic project can qualify as an ASTGU if it is on land currently enrolled in Chapter 61A or land that has been in Chapter 61A in the previous five years. 225 C.M.R. 20.02 (definitions of ASTGU and Land in Agricultural Use). If a project also needs a waiver under the ASTGU Guideline, however, it must demonstrate that “the primary use of the land is for agricultural or horticultural production, as defined under [Chapter 61A].”  ASTGU Guideline at 4. If the land is removed from Chapter 61A because of hosting the ASTGU, the rationale for such removal would presumably be that the primary use is no longer agricultural or horticultural. This would create tension rather than synergies between laws, and would highlight the importance of interagency coordination to further the Commonwealth’s policy goals, particularly with respect to climate change. Removing any uncertainty about this issue will be important to the growth of agrivoltaic facilities and the environmental and economic benefits that flow from them.

Development of larger scale solar projects is a challenging venture, and development of agrivoltaic projects involves special challenges and special opportunities. Overcoming those challenges and realizing those opportunities requires harmonization of and certainty in land use regulation, financial incentive qualification, and property taxation. Striking the right balance would be a victory for sensible land use planning, support of local agriculture, and the transition to a clean energy future.

[1] The authors would like to thank Sarah Matthews, senior counsel at Klavens Law Group, P.C., and Jaidyn Jackson, law student intern at Klavens Law Group, P.C., for their valuable contributions to this article.

[2] See Waller v. Alqaraghuli, No. 17 MISC 000233, 2017 WL 3380387, at *4 (Mass. Land Ct. Aug. 4, 2017) (Scheier, J.). Although Section 3 does allow regulation of solar facilities as “necessary to protect the public health, safety or welfare,” in the case of a local zoning bylaw whose prohibition of solar use is preempted, a local zoning board cannot then choose to regulate solar use “by a case-by-case determination by the Board.” Id. at *5 n.7.

[3] See, e.g., Letter from the Office of the Attorney General Municipal Law Unit to Town of Plympton, at 2 (Apr. 3, 2020) , https://massago.onbaseonline.com/MASSAGO/1801PublicAccess/mlu.htm) (input Case Number “9750”; then click “Search”; then follow hyperlink) (advising Town that, [i]n applying [solar bylaw amendments] the Town should consult closely with Town Counsel to ensure that the Town does not run afoul of [Section 3]”).

[4] See PLH LLC v. Town of Ware, No. 18 MISC 000648, 2019 WL 7201712, at *3 (Mass. Land. Ct. Dec. 24, 2019) (Piper, C.J.) (holding that zoning bylaw may require a special permit for solar energy use in a particular district but special permit review “must be limited and narrowly applied in a way that is not unreasonable, is not designed or employed to prohibit the use or the operation of the protected use, and exists where necessary to protect the health, safety or welfare”); cf. Waller at n.7 (suggesting that municipal authority under Section 3 to regulate solar use as necessary to protect public health, safety and welfare can only be exercised in crafting a generally applicable bylaw, not to justify case-by-case determination with respect to particular projects).

[5] See, e.g., Ayotte v. Town of Cheshire Planning Board, CA No. 17-275, slip. op. at 9-13 (Mass. Sup. Ct. May 4, 2018) (Ford, J.) (refusing to uphold planning board’s denial of special permit for solar project based on concerns about solar glare and inadequate screening and remanding to the board “for the consideration and imposition of any reasonable conditions”) (emphasis in original).

[6] Briggs v. Zoning Board of Appeals of Marion, No. 13 MISC 477257, 2014 WL 471951 at *4 (Mass. Land Ct. Feb. 6, 2014) (Sands, J.).

[7] Duseau v. Szawloski Realty, Inc., Nos. 12 MISC 470612, 12 MISC 477351, 2015 WL 59500 at *8 (Mass. Land Ct. Jan. 2, 2015) (Cutler, C.J.); PLH LLC, 2019 WL 7201712 at *3.

[8] Briggs, 2014 WL 471951 at *4.

[9] Duseau, 2015 WL 59500 at *8 & n.11.

[10] PLH LLC, 2019 WL 7201712 at *3.

[11] See 225 CMR 20.07(4)(g); Mass. Dep’t of Energy Resources, Guideline Regarding Land Use, Siting, and Project Segmentation at §§ 3, 4(b) (revised Oct. 8, 2020)  (the “Land Use Guideline”).

[12] See Land Use Guideline, §§ 5(4)-(5).

[13] See 225 CMR 20.02 (definition of Agricultural Solar Tariff Generation Unit) and 20.06(1)(d) (eligibility requirements); Guideline Regarding the Definition of Agricultural Solar Tariff Generation Units (the “ASTGU Guideline”).

[14] Mass. Dep’t. of Rev., FAQs on Classified Forest, Agricultural/Horticultural and Recreational Land (revised Mar. 15, 2019)  (the “FAQs”).

[15] In addition, Sections 14(A) and (B) of the FAQs state that any roll-back and conveyance tax are to be assessed “only on that portion of the land on which the use has changed to the non-qualifying use.”

Jonathan Klavens is the principal of Klavens Law Group, P.C.  He practices across the fields of corporate, land use and environmental law, with a special focus on the development, financing and purchase and sale of clean energy projects, as well as the formation, financing and ongoing support of cleantech companies. 

Courtney Feeley Karp is senior counsel at Klavens Law Group, P.C. where she advises clients on development and compliance matters for clean energy projects, including those located on agricultural land. Previously she served as counsel at the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources and the Massachusetts Senate Ways & Means Committee.

Betsy Mason is senior counsel at Klavens Law Group, P.C., where she focuses her practice on resolving real estate, land use and permitting, and environmental compliance issues arising during the development, construction and acquisition of renewable energy projects.  Her past positions have included, among others, in-house counsel for real estate and business development at a leading national solar developer and Senior Assistant Regional Counsel at EPA Region 1 in Boston.


In the Matter of a Grand Jury Investigation, 485 Mass. 641 (2020)

by Victor Hansen

Case Focus

In one of his last opinions before his untimely passing, Chief Justice Ralph Gants addressed the unique and important responsibility of the criminal prosecutor to do justice.  In fulfilling this responsibility, the prosecutor acts not as an extension of law enforcement but as an important check against corrupt and abusive practices.  These reminders came in the Matter of a Grand Jury Investigation involving two police officers (the petitioners) who admitted filing false police reports regarding the use of force by a fellow officer.

While on duty, the petitioners observed, but did not participate in, the arrest of a citizen charged with, among other things, resisting arrest.  The arresting officer, Michael Pessoa, claimed that the arrestee was noncompliant and threatening, and that force had to be used to subdue him, as a result of which the arrestee was injured.  The petitioners supported Pessoa’s version when they completed an internal departmental report of the arrest.  However, video evidence revealed that the arrestee had not resisted.  Rather, Pessoa had struck the compliant arrestee with his head and shoulder, knocking the arrestee to the ground “in a violent manner.”

During an ensuing grand jury investigation into Pessoa’s conduct, the petitioners testified under grants of transactional immunity and admitted to lying in their departmental reports.  The district attorney sought permission from the Superior Court to disclose this information to criminal defendants in other cases where the petitioners could be potential witnesses, asserting that due process required the disclosure of this potentially exculpatory evidence under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), and Giglio v. United States, 405 U.S. 150 (1972).  The petitioners sought to prevent the disclosure of their testimony.

In its decision, the Supreme Judicial Court addressed three questions: (1) whether Brady requires disclosure of this information in unrelated cases; (2) whether, if there is such an obligation, the district attorney could disclose the evidence even if it was obtained pursuant to a grant of immunity and order to testify before the grand jury; and (3) whether, if there is a Brady obligation, the prosecutor must seek prior judicial approval before disclosing the evidence.  The Court concluded that the prosecution had an obligation to produce the discovery at issue without a court order.  Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Gants powerfully reaffirmed that prosecutors do not serve a narrow constituency and are not merely an arm of law enforcement. Rather, the prosecution has the unique and important responsibility to seek justice.

First, the Court took a broad view of the type of evidence that falls within the scope of Brady. Brady covers not merely direct evidence of a defendant’s possible innocence, but equally information that challenges the credibility of key prosecution witnesses (the type of evidence at issue in this case).  The Court also noted that the prosecution’s disclosure obligations are broader than Brady, the Massachusetts Rules of Criminal Procedure, and the Rules of Professional Conduct require prosecutors to disclose all evidence or information that tends to negate the guilt of the accused or mitigate the offense.  The Court thus included within Brady not only the constitutional obligation to disclose exculpatory information but also the broader obligation to make disclosure under Massachusetts rules.

Second, the petitioners argued that the failure to disclose this evidence in other criminal cases would not automatically require new trials in those cases because, even if a defendant were convicted, the information is not exculpatory.  The Court rejected this argument for two reasons: it reflected a too narrow view of the scope of a prosecutor’s Brady obligation, and because such an approach would encourage prosecutors to game the system and only consider how much exculpatory information they could safely withhold. Chief Justice Gants reminded us that we expect more from prosecutors than gamesmanship: rather than operating close to the ethical sidelines, prosecutors must operate in the middle of the field.  According to the Chief Justice, “once the information is determined to be exculpatory, it should be disclosed – period.” And if the prosecutors are at all in doubt about the exculpatory nature of the evidence, they should err on the side of caution and disclose it.

Applying this standard, the Court had little difficulty determining that, when police officers lie in official reports, such information is exculpatory and must be disclosed to any criminal defendant in whose case those officers may testify.

The petitioners also argued that the immunity grant they had received in exchange for their grand jury testimony should be applied broadly.  They contended that, if their falsehoods were disclosed to defendants in other cases, it would penalize the police officers for invoking their privilege against self-incrimination and violate the protections they received from the immunity grant.  The Court concluded, however, that, while the evidence was compelled, that did not affect the prosecutors’ Brady obligations.  Even though the disclosed exculpatory information might paint the petitioners in a bad light and reveal their “dirty deeds,” the grant of immunity protected the petitioners only from prosecution and not embarrassment. Chief Justice Gants reminded prosecutors that complying with their Brady obligations might be inconvenient, uncomfortable, embarrassing or worse, but that prosecutors cannot fail to disclose Brady material out of a misplaced sense of duty or loyalty to law enforcement, or to prevent embarrassing themselves or members of their office, public officials or potential witnesses.  Although avoiding needless or gratuitous embarrassment is worthwhile, that interest never outweighs a criminal defendant’s due process rights. Disclosure is always the correct choice, even when it may have a short term impact on the relationship between prosecutors and others, including law enforcement officials.

Finally, the Court addressed whether prior judicial approval is required before disclosing Brady material that was part of a grand jury proceeding.  The Court again referred to the duties of the prosecutor.  While maintaining grand jury secrecy is important, the Massachusetts Rules of Criminal Procedure governing grand jury secrecy provide that prosecutors may disclose matters occurring before the grand jury doing so is within the official performance of their duties. Just as prosecutors have an official duty to present inculpatory evidence to a grand jury, they have an equally important duty to disclose exculpatory information that may enable defendants to prove their innocence.  Accordingly, the prosecution can disclose this Brady information without a court order as part of their official duties. Chief Justice Gants again emphasized that prosecutors represent not an ordinary party, but of a sovereignty whose obligation is to govern impartially.

Many familiar with the role and functions of the prosecutor may not find the Court’s ruling surprising. The ethical and constitutional obligations of the prosecutor are broad and, to its credit, the lawyers in the district attorney’s office recognized those obligations and proactively complied with them.  One might wonder, then, why Brady violations continue to be a persistent problem in the criminal justice system, both nationally and in Massachusetts. Indeed, one of the most egregious Brady violations in the Commonwealth’s recent history occurred not long ago, when prosecutors failed to disclose the breadth of an Amherst drug lab technician’s substance abuse problems, which affected many hundreds of criminal cases.

The reasons why Brady violations persist are complicated and varied, including confirmation bias, the difficulty of prosecutors policing themselves, the desire of prosecutors to have good working relationships with law enforcement, job security, and even racial bias.  It is a fitting testament to Chief Justice Gants’ legacy that he clearly recognized that none could outweigh a criminal defendant’s right to a fair trial. The Chief Justice’s opinion serves as a poignant and important reminder that our criminal justice system is far from perfect, and that prosecutors, when they are motivated and guided by a sense of doing justice, have a critical role to play to ensure it is just.

Professor Victor M. Hansen, Professor of Law, directs the Criminal Practice and Procedure certificate program and teaches Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure, Evidence, and Prosecutorial Ethics at New England Law | Boston. He is the author of several articles and books on criminal and military law, evidence, and national security issues, and is an elected member of the American Law Institute. 


Fiduciary Duties in Massachusetts and Delaware Closely Held Corporations

by Nicholas Nesgos and Benjamin Greene

Legal Analysis

Introduction

Where a company chooses to incorporate directly affects the fiduciary duties imposed upon its leadership and shareholders. Under the internal affairs doctrine, the law of the state in which a company is incorporated applies to disputes over the company’s internal workings, regardless of where the company is actually based or where the alleged conduct occurred.[1] Consequently, the distinctions between Massachusetts and Delaware corporate law take on particular importance in the context of closely held corporations and LLCs, where each state’s case law and statutes uniquely impact the imposition of fiduciary duties and the extent to which such duties can be contractually waived. Understanding these differences is essential to making informed decisions on business formation and litigation strategy.

Fiduciary Duties In Closely Held Corporations

In both Massachusetts and Delaware, a corporate fiduciary, such as a director, generally owes a duty of care and a duty of loyalty, both of which impose a responsibility to act in the best interests of the corporation and/or its shareholders. Specifically, the duty of care requires a fiduciary to act in an informed and reasonable manner, and the duty of loyalty requires a fiduciary to act in good faith with the primary intent of furthering the best interests of the company. In the context of closely held corporations, including LLCs, Massachusetts and Delaware take divergent approaches as to whether shareholders may owe each other additional or enhanced fiduciary duties.

In Donahue v. Rodd Electrotype Co. of New England, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held that a “close corporation” is typically one in which there is “(1) a small number of stockholders; (2) no ready market for the corporate stock; and (3) substantial majority stockholder participation in the management, direction and operations of the corporation.”[2] The Donahue Court then held that “[s]tockholders in close corporations must discharge their management and stockholder responsibilities” under a standard of utmost good faith and loyalty.[3] 

Therefore, a controlling group of shareholders in a close corporation “may not, consistent with its strict duty to the minority, utilize its control of the corporation to obtain special advantages and disproportionate benefit from its share ownership.”[4] Even if the majority shareholders demonstrate a legitimate business purpose for their actions, minority shareholders may still maintain a claim if they can establish that the same business purpose could have been achieved in an alternative manner less harmful to the minority.[5] Importantly, minority shareholders in Massachusetts close corporations also owe fiduciary duties and may not intentionally engage in corporate conduct to their own personal advantage that is detrimental to the corporation and its other shareholders.[6] 

In Massachusetts, where a minority shareholder has a reasonable expectation of continued employment within a closely held company, the termination of such minority shareholder’s employment  may be considered a “freeze-out” and, as such, be a breach of the majority shareholders’ fiduciary duties.[7] In this regard, the remedy for a breach of a majority shareholder against the minority shareholder is, to the extent possible, to “restore to the minority shareholder those benefits which she reasonably expected, but has not received because of the fiduciary breach.”[8] Massachusetts courts have the ability to award monetary damages, as well as impose a wide range of equitable remedies, such as reinstating corporate officers, forcing the distribution of dividends or even amending corporate operating agreements.[9]   

In contrast, a closely held Delaware company must be specifically incorporated as a “close corporation.” Even when incorporated as such, shareholders generally will not  owe each other fiduciary duties unless the articles of incorporation or an agreement among the shareholders imposes such duties. [10] Consequently, the “protections afforded to minority stockholders in closely-held corporations under Delaware common law are no different than those in publicly-held corporations.” [11] 

Majority shareholders in a closely held Delaware corporation, or shareholders who otherwise exert control over the close corporation, may act in a manner that unintentionally harms the interests of minority shareholders as long as such actions do not contravene the best interests of the corporation itself.[12] The same holds true in the context of Delaware LLCs, except that managing members still owe fiduciary duties to the company and its passive members.[13] However, if majority/controlling shareholders are found to have engaged in a transaction in which they would uniquely benefit, such shareholders must demonstrate that the transaction was entirely fair to the corporation, in terms of both price and dealing, and conducted with the utmost good faith.[14] In Delaware, remedies for such breaches usually are  limited to either monetary damages or equitable rescission of the contested transaction.[15]

Contractually Limiting Fiduciary Duties

Contracts, which govern shareholder conduct, may supersede common law or statutory fiduciary duties. In Massachusetts, “[a]lthough a shareholder in a close corporation always owes a fiduciary duty to fellow shareholders, good faith compliance with the terms of an agreement entered into by the shareholders satisfies that fiduciary duty.”[16] Consequently, claims for breach of fiduciary duty with respect to things such as employment or stock purchases may only arise when a prior agreement among the parties “does not entirely govern the shareholder’s actions.”[17] To the extent an agreement does not directly address an issue, fiduciary duties apply.[18] 

In the LLC context, Massachusetts allows for greater flexibility regarding the limitation of fiduciary duties. Massachusetts Gen. Laws c. 156C, § 63, specifically provides that “[t]o the extent that, at law or in equity, a member or manager has duties, including fiduciary duties, and liabilities relating thereto to a limited liability company or to another member or manager . . . the member’s or manager’s duties and liabilities may be expanded or restricted by provisions in the operating agreement.”[19] Additionally, “[t]he certificate of organization or a written operating agreement may eliminate or limit the personal liability of a member or manager for breach of any duty to the limited liability company or to another member or manager.”[20]  Contractual language limiting or modifying fiduciary duties “should be strictly, not expansively, construed.”[21]   

In JFF Cecilia LLC v. Weiner Ventures, for example, the plaintiff and defendant were members of a Massachusetts LLC that was primarily formed to develop a large real estate project. The plaintiff asserted claims based on the defendant’s failure to provide notice that it was publicly announcing the canceling of the development project. [22] The Superior Court recognized the enforceability of a clause in the LLC agreement, which stated that its members owed no fiduciary duties to the company or each other “except to the extent such duties are expressly set forth in this Agreement.”[23] The court, however,  found that the plaintiff still had a cause of action based on another section of the agreement, which imposed a duty upon its members to “consult with one another openly, fairly and in good faith,” to “work collaboratively” and to “use their reasonable efforts to keep one another informed of all known and material information with respect to” the company.[24] Likewise, in Butler v. Moore, the relevant LLC agreement stated that its members were not “obligated to present an investment opportunity to the Company even if it is similar to or consistent with the business of the Company. . . [and they had the] right to take for their own account or recommend to others any such investment opportunity.”[25] Nonetheless, the court refused to interpret such provisions as allowing its members to take, “for their own personal benefit,” those opportunities that  already had been presented to the company. [26]

Similar to Massachusetts, in Delaware where a corporate “dispute arises from obligations that are expressly addressed by contract, that dispute will be treated as a breach of contract claim . . . [and] any fiduciary claims arising out of the same facts that underlie the contract obligations would be foreclosed as superfluous.”[27] Likewise, Delaware statutorily allows provisions in LLC agreements in which a member or director’s fiduciary duties are “expanded or restricted or eliminated.”[28] For example, in Marubeni Spar One, LLC v. Williams Field Servs. – Gulf Coast Co., L.P., the Chancery Court dismissed a claim for breach of fiduciary duty because the LLC agreement stated that the “Operating Member shall have no liability under this Agreement or otherwise to the Company or any Member for any actions taken in its capacity as Operating Member or for any actions it fails to take unless it breaches its obligations under this Agreement as a result of its gross negligence, fraud or willful misconduct.”[29] 

 Although parties to a Delaware LLC agreement are not allowed to waive “the implied contractual covenant of good faith and fair dealing,” even this limitation is narrowly applied.[30]  As the Chancery Court explained, when an LLC “agreement eliminates fiduciary duties as part of a detailed contractual governance scheme, Delaware courts should be all the more hesitant to resort to the implied covenant. . . . “[r]especting the elimination of fiduciary duties requires that courts not bend an alternative and less powerful tool into a fiduciary substitute.”[31]

Indemnification

Both Massachusetts and Delaware allow closely held corporations and LLCs to indemnify their directors and managers for any defense costs, settlements or judgments, which might arise from an alleged breach of their fiduciary duties. Pursuant to Mass. Gen. Laws c. 156D, § 8.51, a corporation may indemnify a director against any liability as long as the director: (1) has acted in “good faith;” (2) “reasonably believed that his conduct was in the best interests of the corporation or that his conduct was at least not opposed to the best interests of the corporation;” and (3) “had no reasonable cause to believe [the ] conduct was unlawful.”[32]  Massachusetts law also mandates that a corporation indemnify a director for their defenses costs if such director “was wholly successful, on the merits or otherwise, in the defense of any proceeding to which he was a party.”[33]

In the context of LLCs, Massachusetts law provides even wider latitude in determining the scope of indemnification. Indeed, the burden of denying indemnification may be placed on the company. LLCs can indemnify their members and managers “against any and all claims and demands whatsoever,” without having to establish that the member actually acted in good faith or with any particular intention or knowledge.[34] An LLC may not provide any form of indemnification if the member or manager is specifically found in the course of a proceeding “not to have acted in good faith in the reasonable belief that his action was in the best interest of the limited liability company.”[35]

In Delaware, the circumstance under which a corporation may indemnify a director is similar to Massachusetts in that the person must have acted in good faith with the reasonable belief that he, she or they were acting in the best interest of the corporation, and with no reason to believe his, her or their conduct was unlawful.[36] Delaware corporations are required to provide indemnity for  defense costs incurred by qualified individuals who succeed on the merits of their case.[37] Delaware provides additional statutory guidance to determine when a person qualifies for indemnification. In this regard, the termination of an action by judgment, order or settlement (except where such judgment is based on a guilty plea) “shall not, of itself, create a presumption that the person did not act in” a manner entitling him, her or them to indemnification.[38] A company cannot provide any indemnification if a person has “been adjudged to be liable to the corporation unless and only to the extent that the” relevant court makes a separate determination that despite such judgment the person is still entitled to indemnification.[39]

In Delaware, “[n]o criteria are established by statute to govern the indemnification that limited liability companies may offer.”[40] Pursuant to 6 Del. C. § 18-108, “a limited liability company may, and shall have the power to, indemnify and hold harmless any member or manager or other person from and against any and all claims and demands whatsoever.”[41] The statute “defers completely to the contracting parties to create and delimit rights and obligations with respect to indemnification and advancement,” and does not in itself create any right or limits to indemnification.[42]

Conclusion

In the context of closely held corporations, Massachusetts and Delaware take somewhat divergent approaches to the imposition and waiver of fiduciary duties among shareholders. Shareholders in closely held Massachusetts companies owe each other heightened fiduciary duties, and such duties can only be eliminated by contractual agreements that specifically address the duties or situations under which such duties may arise. Consequently, founders of, or investors in, closely held companies who seek heightened protections against the potential misconduct of their fellow shareholders, may favor Massachusetts incorporation. In contrast, shareholders in closely held Delaware companies generally do not owe each other fiduciary duties, and Delaware takes a more expansive approach with respect to allowing the elimination of fiduciary duties that could be imposed upon such shareholders. Accordingly, parties whose priority is to avoid potential liability, or the threat of such liability, from their fellow shareholders, may prefer Delaware incorporation.

In either state, potential shareholders should carefully review any contractual arrangements among the shareholders, including by-laws, purchase agreements and employment contracts. Such contracts may supersede, modify or eliminate what would otherwise be the parties’ default fiduciary duties. Awareness of these key distinctions between Massachusetts and Delaware corporate law is essential to making informed decisions about incorporation, investment and litigation.

[1] Harrison v. NetCentric Corp., 433 Mass. 465, 471 (2001). The majority of states adhere to the internal affairs doctrine. Notably, California and New York have particular statutory exceptions to the doctrine, which require consideration of whether the company has substantial contacts with the forum state. See Cal. Corp. Code § 2115; N.Y. Bus. Corp. L. §§ 1317–20.

[2] Donahue v. Rodd Electrotype Co. of New England, 367 Mass. 578, 586 (1975) (holding that the categorization of company as a “close corporation” is a factual inquiry); Allison v. Eriksson, 479 Mass. 626, 636 (2018) (in determining whether an LLC is closely held company, a court also examines the manner “in which a particular LLC is structured”).

[3] Id. at 593 (1975); Butler v. Moore, No. CIV. 10-10207-FDS, 2015 WL 1409676, at *61 (D. Mass. Mar. 26, 2015) (“As a matter of logic and fairness, there is no reason why the fiduciary duties of members of a closely held LLC should be materially different from those of shareholders of a closely held corporation.”); Blank v. Chelmsford Ob/Gyn, P.C., 420 Mass. 404, 408 (1995) (“They may not act out of avarice, expediency, or self-interest in derogation of their duty of loyalty to the other stockholders and to the corporation.”).

[4] Donahue, 367 Mass. at 598.

[5] Wilkes v. Springside Nursing Home, Inc., 370 Mass. 842, 851-52 (1976).

[6] Donahue, 367 Mass. at 593; Zimmerman v. Bogoff, 402 Mass. 650, 658 (1988)

[7] Selmark Assocs., Inc. v. Ehrlich, 467 Mass. 525, 536 (2014) (“Freeze-outs can occur when a minority shareholder is deprived of employment.”); Pointer v. Castellani, 455 Mass. 537, 551 (2009).

[8] Brodie v. Jordan, 447 Mass. 866, 870–71 (2006) (internal quotations omitted)    

[9] Allison v. Eriksson, 479 Mass. at 638.

[10] Pursuant to Del. Code Ann. tit. 8, § 342, a Delaware company may incorporate as a close corporation. Such corporate form places restrictions on the number of stockholders and types of stock transfers, as well as prohibits any “public offering” of the company’s stock. However, the statute does not impose any additional fiduciary duties.

[11]  Blaustein v. Lord Baltimore Capital Corp., No. CIV.A. 6685-VCN, 2013 WL 1810956, at *14 (Del. Ch. Apr. 30, 2013), aff’d, 84 A.3d 954 (Del. 2014) (explicitly contrasting its view with the approach of Massachusetts courts).

[12] Id. (citing Gilbert v. El Paso Co., 1988 WL 124325 (Del. Ch. Nov. 21, 1988))

[13] Feeley v. NHAOCG, LLC, 62 A.3d 649, 662 (Del. Ch. 2012) (“Managers and managing members owe default fiduciary duties; passive members do not.”)

[14] Nixon v. Blackwell, 626 A.2d 1366, 1376 (Del. 1993)

[15] Basho Techs. Holdco B, LLC v. Georgetown Basho Inv’rs, LLC, No. CV 11802-VCL, 2018 WL 3326693, at *49 (Del. Ch. July 6, 2018), aff’d sub nom. Davenport v. Basho Techs. Holdco B, LLC, 221 A.3d 100 (Del. 2019).

[16] Merriam v. Demoulas Super Markets, Inc., 464 Mass. 721, 727 (2013).

[17] Id.

[18] Selmark Assocs., Inc., 467 Mass. at 539 (“[T]o supplant the otherwise applicable fiduciary duties of parties in a close corporation, the terms of a contract must clearly and expressly indicate a departure from those obligations.”).

[19] Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. ch. 156C, § 63.

[20] Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. ch. 156C, § 8.

[21] Butler v. Moore, No. CIV. 10-10207-FDS, 2015 WL 1409676, at *73 (D. Mass. Mar. 26, 2015); Selmark Assocs., 467 Mass. at 539 (2014)  (“[T]o supplant the otherwise applicable fiduciary duties of parties in a close corporation, the terms of a contract must clearly and expressly indicate a departure from those obligations.”).

[22] JFF Cecilia LLC v. Weiner Ventures, LLC, No. 1984CV03317-BLS2, 2020 WL 4464584, at *11 (Mass. Super. July 30, 2020)

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Butler, 2015 WL 1409676, at *73.

[26] Id. at *74.

[27] Nemec v. Shrader, 991 A.2d 1120, 1129 (Del. 2010)

[28] 6 Del. C. § 18-1101

[29] Marubeni Spar One, LLC, 2020 WL 64761 at *10; see In re Sols. Liquidation LLC, 608 B.R. 384, 407 (Bankr. D. Del. 2019) (finding that plaintiffs’ claims for the defendants’ alleged breach duty of loyalty and good faith were precluded by the LLC agreement, which eliminated such duties).

30] 6 Del. C. § 18-1101.

[31] Lonergan v. EPE Holdings, LLC, 5 A.3d 1008, 1018 (Del. Ch. 2010).

[32] Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. ch. 156D, § 8.51

[33] Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. ch. 156D, § 8.52.

[34] Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. ch. 156C, § 8

[35] Del. Code Ann. tit. 8, § 145.

[36] Id.

[37] Id.

[38] Id.

[39] Id.

[40]Branin v. Stein Roe Inv. Counsel, LLC, No. CIV. A. 8481-VCN, 2014 WL 2961084, at *4 (Del. Ch. June 30, 2014).

[41] 6 Del. C. § 18-108.

[42] Majkowski v. Am. Imaging Mgmt. Servs., LLC, 913 A.2d 572, 591 (Del. Ch. 2006).

Nicholas Nesgos is a Partner in the Complex Litigation Group at Arent Fox. He handles a wide variety of business disputes including disputes among shareholders in closely held companies.

Benjamin Greene is an Associate in the Complex Litigation Group at Arent Fox LLP.   Benjamin represents a range of individual and corporate clients in complex commercial, employment and real estate litigation. 


Effective Advocacy in a “Virtual” World

by Hon. Hélène Kazanjian

Voice of the Judiciary

We find ourselves during these difficult times trying to operate court business without parties actually coming to court. This is likely the “new normal.” In the short term, while we have begun to open courthouses for some in-person business, the court still encourages virtual hearings for most matters. In the longer term, it is possible that we will continue to handle some court business virtually for quite some time, if not forever.

Courts throughout the Commonwealth have been conducting virtual hearings for several months. It has unquestionably been an adjustment for everyone. Lawyers and judges have had to be flexible and patient as we have grappled with video and audio problems. Many have had to learn how to use virtual conferencing programs such as Zoom. We most certainly have had to keep our sense of humor as the occasional cat, dog, or young child makes a fleeting appearance at a hearing.

In light of these challenges and the limitations of the technology, how can lawyers most effectively advocate for their clients in a virtual environment?

First, it is important that lawyers understand how hearings are being conducted at the courthouses. The short answer is that it differs throughout the Commonwealth because technological capabilities vary. Despite these differences, in all instances, hearings have to be officially recorded, which generally requires the presence of a clerk in the courtroom. Judges will either be physically present in the courtroom or joining the hearing virtually. In some courtrooms, the clerk is able to connect the in-court For the Record (“FTR”) recording system to the virtual platform. Where that technology is not available, FTR will record the sound in the courtroom, which will ordinarily come out of small computer speakers built in or connected to the judge’s or clerk’s laptop.

With this backdrop, here are some suggestions to enhance your ability as lawyers to effectively advocate during a virtual hearing:

  1. Technology, technology, technology: First and foremost, make sure you have working technology. Minimally you need a computer or tablet with a camera, microphone, and speakers. You also need fast and reliable Wi-Fi. It is not ideal to be calling into a hearing from your cell phone. Cell phone callers often cannot join by video or cannot be heard well enough. You also may not be able to see all of the participants on your phone.
  2. Settings: Once you sign into a hearing, make sure the correct microphone is selected on your device. For example, if you are using an external webcam, you have to select the webcam as your operating microphone. The audio settings on your microphone and speakers must be loud enough. In Zoom, there are microphone and audio settings within the Zoom program. That means that in addition to checking the settings on your device, you need to check the program’s audio settings.
  1. Virtual workspace: Make sure you have a workspace that is conducive to a virtual hearing; that is, a place that allows you to participate without distraction. Trying to join a hearing from a cell phone in your car or from a computer in a room where there is other activity is not effective. Look directly at your camera and speak loudly into the microphone. Make sure your background, whether it is real or virtual, is presentable. Likewise, if you use a pin photo, which is an image that appears on your account when you shut down your video feed, make sure it is court appropriate. We know that many of you are juggling a lot. You may be working at home with other family members present who need your attention. That being said, do your best to set aside the scheduled time to focus on the hearing.
  2. Practice: Practice before you appear for your first virtual hearing. Find out in advance if your equipment and Wi-Fi work. Learn how to sign in with both video and audio, and how to adjust the microphone and speaker settings. Because the sound is sometimes better when the parties who are not speaking are muted, make sure you know how to mute and unmute yourself quickly.
  3. Identify yourself: So the record is clear, you should identify yourself each time you speak during the hearing, unless the court addresses you by name.
  4. Documents: If you have documents, pleadings, photographs or other items that you would like to use or “hand” to the judge during the hearing, or if you are planning to offer exhibits into evidence, make sure to get them to the clerk and the other participants in advance. Check with the clerk several days before the hearing about how he or she will accept these items (e.g. email, e-file, mail). Screen sharing can be an effective way to display documents during a hearing. Attorneys should check with the clerk in advance to make sure the host (the judge and/or clerk) is comfortable with that aspect of the technology.
  5. Other participants: In criminal cases, defendants will be present, or virtually present, unless their presence has been waived. Victims, witnesses, clients in civil cases, and members of the public should also be able to attend proceedings virtually, and, in some instances, give testimony. It is advisable to check with the clerk in advance if others want to attend a hearing. Make sure the individuals wanting to attend have the required technology to sign into the virtual call. If you are going to be questioning a witness about documents, pleadings, photographs, or other items, make sure the witness and all parties have copies of those items in advance. Speak to your client and/or witnesses before the hearing about how they should conduct themselves during the hearing so as to not distract from your arguments. It is not helpful to your case if your clients are rolling their eyes or shaking their heads during the hearing.
  6. Breakout rooms: If you and your client are in different locations and you need to speak privately during the hearing, if the court has the capacity you can ask the judge to send you to a virtual breakout room, where you can have a private/unrecorded conversation. This also can be done when multiple lawyers representing a single party or lawyers of different parties want to consult privately during a hearing. Alternatively, parties can mute themselves and briefly communicate with each other off-line.
  1. Demeanor: Conduct yourself in the hearing just as you would if you were in court. Address the judge not the other parties. The usual back and forth is not as easy so be prepared with a short presentation. At the same time, there is sometimes a sound delay, so be aware if the judge is trying to ask you a question. Finally, wear court appropriate attire.

The sudden switch to virtual hearings has required patience and a touch of ingenuity. In the end, virtual hearings can only work if we all accept and adjust to this new way of conducting court business, and if we commit to taking the necessary steps, including technology upgrades and individual training.

 

Judge Hélène Kazanjian has served as an Associate Justice of the Superior Court since 2016. Previously she served as the Chief of the Trial Division at the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office, and as an Assistant United States Attorney in Washington, D.C. and Maine.  


Why Fraud Matters When Using R&W Insurance: Revising ABRY and EMSI

by Richard French and Alvin L. Reynolds, Jr.

Legal Analysis

Introduction

Representations and warranties insurance (“RWI”) is a common feature of private M&A transactions, aligning the interests of seller and buyer by transferring the risk of a breach of the representations given by the seller in the underlying purchase agreement to an independent, creditworthy insurer. Before “stepping into the shoes of the seller” and issuing a policy to the buyer, the RWI insurer must underwrite several risks, including the seller’s failure to disclose known matters addressed by the representations given in the underlying purchase agreement.

A central pillar of the RWI underwriting process is that parties negotiate at arms’ length, with a seller engaging in a robust disclosure process to ensure known matters are disclosed pursuant to schedules included in the transaction documents. To encourage a thorough “scheduling” process, RWI insurers have historically required sellers to remain liable for a portion of potential losses. A high proportion of transactions are now structured to eliminate the seller’s liability, with such transactions being commonly referred to as “no indemnity” or “public-style” deals.[1] In order to incentivize robust seller disclosure, RWI insurers preserve their right to pursue sellers in the event of seller fraud.

This article explores the rights available to an insurer to mitigate the risk of inadequate disclosure, and those available to a seller to limit the scope of recourse available to a buyer and/or RWI insurer in a transaction.[2]

Representations, Disclosure and Moral Hazard  

The primary purpose of a buyer demanding representations in the underlying agreement is to elicit disclosure from a seller. The information obtained from the disclosure exercise enables a buyer to determine the appropriate purchase price. In this way the representations and disclosure act as a “pre-signing” price adjustment mechanism.[3] The secondary purpose of representations is to act as a “post-signing” price adjustment mechanism, allowing a buyer to recoup any overpayments. When a seller is liable for a breach of the representations, there is a clear incentive to fully disclose known matters, as doing so avoids a post-closing claim against the seller. However, in an RWI-backed deal, the seller has limited or no liability which, prima facie, removes the incentive to disclose; indeed, if an insurer bears the risk of a post-closing claim, the seller is incentivized to limit disclosure in order to achieve a higher upfront price. How do insurers control for this “moral hazard”?

“Moral hazard” is the tendency to increase exposure to risk when the consequences of the risk are borne by a third party (e.g., insurer).[4] As the policyholder, a buyer is a party to the RWI insurance contract, and the RWI insurer can control for the buyer’s moral hazard directly. Matters within its knowledge are carved out of coverage through a “no claims declaration” and corresponding exclusion. The no claims declaration operates as an anti-sandbagging provision, precluding a buyer from making a claim for matters of which it had prior actual knowledge.

Of greater importance to an RWI insurer is mitigating the moral hazard risk of a seller not scheduling known matters. As the seller is not a party to the insurance contract, an insurer has no direct means of controlling seller behavior. The insurer must therefore seek to influence the behavior of the seller indirectly – via the rights of a buyer through the doctrine of subrogation.

Subrogation

The principle of subrogation enables an insurer to attempt to recoup its loss once it has paid the insured under the policy. After payment, the insurer can “step into the shoes” of the insured and proceed against any third party responsible for causing loss.[5] This can be any claim that the insured may have against a third party, including contract, tort or statutory claims. Although an insurance policy will typically contain express subrogation provisions, the rights of subrogation will generally apply even if not stipulated in the policy wording. It is important to understand that an insurer’s right of subrogation derives from the rights of the insured. In the context of RWI, this is the right of a buyer against the seller within the underlying purchase agreement.

Why “fraud” matters

An important mechanism for an RWI insurer to incentivize thorough seller disclosure is to retain the right to recoup from a seller any money paid to the buyer as a result of “fraud.”

As explained below, “fraud” has many interpretations, and it is therefore imperative for a seller to define it appropriately. Undefined or poorly drafted fraud carve-outs in the purchase agreement might expose a seller to unintended claims, e.g., fraud of the management team of which a private equity sponsor had no knowledge. “Fraud carve-out” clauses are frequently included within the “limitation provisions” of the purchase agreement, delineating the instances in which a breaching party will be unable to “shield” itself behind the carefully negotiated limitation (e.g., caps, survival periods).

Two Delaware Court of Chancery cases, ABRY Partners v. F&W Acquisition LLC (“ABRY”) and EMSI Acquisition, Inc. v. Contrarian Funds, LLC. (“EMSI”), demonstrate the importance of carefully drafting limitation provisions and associated fraud carve-outs.[6] While ABRY demonstrates that even a well-crafted limitation provision will not shield a seller from its own intentional fraud with respect to express representations and warranties in a transaction document, EMSI highlights the perils of imprecise drafting in exposing the seller to others’ fraud.

In ABRY, the purchase agreement contained a limitation provision capping the seller’s liability at a defined amount with no fraud carve-out. Citing public policy, the court found that, notwithstanding the limitation cap in the agreement, the seller was unable to shield itself from a claim by the buyer in respect of its own intentional fraud that contradicted the express representations and warranties given by it in the agreement.

EMSI highlights the dangers of “inelegant” drafting and the potential for fraud to be imputed on all sellers as a result. In EMSI, the purchase agreement included a fraud carve-out provision that included “any action or claim based upon fraud.” At the pleading stage, the court ruled that such broad language could be interpreted to permit recovery against all sellers, even if those sellers had no knowledge of the fraud and/or were not responsible for the management of the business. Thus, the defendants’ motion to dismiss was not granted. This position highlights the need for sellers to explicitly limit the fraud carve-out as desired.

As a matter of law, the absence of a clearly defined fraud carve-out could result in an extensive scope of possible recourse against a seller, as “undefined fraud is an ‘elusive and shadowy term,’ which may not be limited to deliberate lying despite that common notion.”[7] More specifically, fraud has many meanings, including “common law fraud” (which includes recklessness), “equitable fraud,” “promissory fraud” and “unfair dealings fraud.”[8] Therefore, the possible interpretations of fraud by courts extend beyond “lies” of a seller.

Notably, ABRY ruled with respect to the express representations and warranties set forth in the purchase agreement that “when a seller lies — public policy will not permit a contractual provision to limit the remedy of the buyer to a capped damage claim.” Consistent with ABRY, RWI insurers are primarily concerned with sellers who knowingly make false representations. Therefore, based on ABRY, practitioners representing sellers should seek to limit the definition of “fraud” to a seller’s actual (not constructive) knowledge of the inaccurate representation expressly given in a purchase agreement, made with intent to induce the other party to rely on the misrepresentation. Defining fraud in such a way avoids future claims by buyers/insurers premised on (i) alleged “reckless” or “equitable fraud”; (ii) alleged fraud based on extra-contractual statements (e.g., statements made in meetings but not enshrined as representations in the contract); or (iii) alleged fraud committed by third parties such as management.

Agreement provisions

As noted above, the subrogation rights of an RWI insurer against a seller derive from those rights of a buyer against the seller. An understanding of an insurer’s subrogation rights therefore requires an examination of a buyer’s rights against the seller. While there are numerous “limitation provisions” in agreements that limit a buyer’s rights against a seller, the principle clauses are the “non-reliance,” “exclusive remedy and “indemnification and limitation” clauses. Additionally, in an RWI deal, a seller will often require that the agreement contains a “subrogation waiver” clause to limit any claims the insurer, through subrogation, may have against the seller.

Examining each provision in turn:

Through a non-reliance clause, a seller disclaims liability for all representations other than those contained in the agreement; that is, a buyer is unable to make a claim for statements made in management presentations, data rooms, Q&A trackers and other deal documents. This limits a buyer’s rights to the four corners of the agreement. Given the wide scope of potential statements that may be made by the various parties on an M&A transaction (management, advisors, consultants), buyers typically accept that there should be no fraud carve-out to the non-reliance clause, regardless of whether RWI is used on the deal.

Through an exclusive remedy clause, a buyer’s claims (contract and tort) against a seller for a breach of the representations are limited solely to: (i) the indemnification clause and RWI policy on seller indemnity deals; or (ii) the RWI policy for “no indemnity” or “public-style” deals. It is common for buyers to insist on a fraud carve-out to the exclusive remedy provision. This is often accepted by sellers, but only if fraud is appropriately defined.

Through an indemnification and limitation clause, a seller will indemnify a buyer for a breach of the representations, subject to predetermined monetary caps and survival periods. On an RWI-backed deal with limited seller indemnity rights, the representations will typically survive for 12-18 months and be capped at 0.5% of the enterprise value. On a “no indemnity” or “public-style” deal, there will be no indemnification provisions in the agreement. It is common for buyers to insist on a fraud carve-out to the limitation provisions, and this is often accepted by sellers but only if fraud is appropriately defined.

Through a subrogation waiver, a buyer: (i) acknowledges the seller has limited or no liability for a breach of the representations given in the agreement; and (ii) covenants that the RWI insurer will waive any subrogation rights against the seller, save in the event of fraud. Certain sellers will desire that this waiver be given without the fraud carve-out, but this is typically unacceptable to RWI insurers.

Considerations for buyers and sellers

First, sellers must insist that “fraud” is appropriately defined so that it is limited to the seller’s intentional misrepresentation of the express representations in the agreement with intent to deceive.

Second, the parties must assess whether it is reasonable for the “non-reliance,” “exclusive remedy,” “indemnification & limitation” and “subrogation waiver” provisions to contain a fraud carve-out, taking into account RWI insurer requirements.

As previously noted, the “non-reliance clause” will typically not contain a fraud carve-out. An RWI insurer will never require a fraud carve-out, given the RWI policy only covers a breach of the representations given within the four corners of the underlying agreement. The insurer will never be liable for extra contractual representations, so it would be unreasonable and unnecessary for an insurer to request a fraud carve-out to the non-reliance clause.

In light of ABRY, there is a strong argument that RWI insurers should not require a fraud carve-out for “exclusive remedy” and “indemnification and limitation” provisions. This is because, as a matter of law, the seller is unable to shield itself from the type of fraud of which RWI insurers are primarily concerned, so an RWI insurer’s subrogation rights will be unhindered for circumstances in which it will pursue subrogation. Certain insurers (particularly if the agreement is governed by Delaware law) can accept this, while others require a fraud carve-out to the “exclusive remedy” and “indemnification and limitation” provisions. For agreements governed by the laws of other jurisdictions, particularly New York where the case law is less certain, there are still reasonable arguments for RWI insurers to accept no fraud carve-out to the “exclusive remedy” and “indemnification and limitation” provisions, but the arguments are less compelling.

With very rare exceptions, RWI insurers require the “subrogation waiver” provision to include a fraud carve-out. However, as emphasized above, a seller should insist this fraud carve-out is limited to “actual fraud” with “intent to deceive.”

Conclusion

Given the increasing prevalence of “no indemnity” deals, RWI insurers’ requirement to maintain subrogation rights in the event of seller fraud has never been more important. However, it is imperative that “fraud” is appropriately defined to preserve the delicate balance between an RWI insurer’s need to ensure robust disclosure and a seller’s need to avoid post-closing disputes. Lawyers representing sellers should seek to limit an RWI insurer’s rights of subrogation against a seller to instances of “fraud” that law and public policy do not permit to be limited by contract. Consistent with the ruling in ABRY, this means that the definition of fraud should be limited to a seller’s actual knowledge of an inaccurate misrepresentation given in an agreement with intent to induce a buyer to rely on such misrepresentation.

[1] Atlantic Global Risk, Atlantic Global Risk: M&A Insurance Market – 2019 Insights 7 (2020)

[2] Special thanks to Glenn D. West, Partner, Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP, for his wonderful insights and input; and special thanks to Virginia Wong, Senior Analyst, Atlantic Global Risk, for her hard work and contributions to this article.

[3] See Sean J. Griffith, Deal Insurance: Representation and Warranty Insurance in Mergers and Acquisitions, 104 U. Minn. L. Rev. 4 (Forthcoming) (2020)

[4] See Sean J. Griffith, Deal Insurance: Representation and Warranty Insurance in Mergers and Acquisitions, 104 U. Minn. L. Rev. 4-5 (Forthcoming) (2020)

[5] Sean J. Griffith, Deal Insurance: Representation and Warranty Insurance in Mergers and Acquisitions, 104 U. Minn. L. Rev. 53 (Forthcoming) (2020); C.L. Tyagi & Madhu Tyagi, Insurance Law and Practice, 146

[6] ABRY Partners V, L.P. v. F&W Acquisition LLC, 891 A.2d (Del. Ch. 2006); EMSI Acquisition, Inc. v. Contrarian Funds, LLC, et al., C.A. No. 12648-VCS (Del. Ch. May 3, 2017)

[7] Glenn D. West, That Pesky Little Thing Called Fraud: An Examination of Buyers’ Insistence Upon (and Sellers’ Too Ready Acceptance of) Undefined “Fraud Carve-Outs” in Acquisition Agreements, The Business Lawyer, Vol. 69 1053 (2014)

[8] Glenn D. West, That Pesky Little Thing Called Fraud: An Examination of Buyers’ Insistence Upon (and Sellers’ Too Ready Acceptance of) Undefined “Fraud Carve-Outs” in Acquisition Agreements, The Business Lawyer, Vol. 69 1055 (2014)

 

Richard is a Managing Director and Co-Founder of Atlantic Global Risk, a specialist transactional risk insurance broker. Richard is responsible for directing Atlantic’s strategic growth and direction, including identifying and developing new product lines.

Alvin is an Executive Director and the head of Atlantic’s Boston office, where he counsels clients on risk mitigation solutions for complex regulatory issues and other matters.


DACA, Dreamers, and the Limits of Prosecutorial Discretion: DHS v. Regents of the University of California

by Ilana Etkin Greenstein

Heads Up

On June 18, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a narrow 5-4 opinion in Department of Homeland Security et. al. v.  Regents of the University of California et.  al., Slip Op. No. 18-587 591 U.S. __ (2020) (“Regents”) that halted the Trump Administration’s plan, announced in September 2017, to “immediately terminate” the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (“DACA”) program. The decision extended the life of an immigration policy which, since inception in 2012 under the Obama Administration, has provided more than 600,000 young undocumented immigrants with stays of deportation and the opportunity to live and work with authorization in the United States. In response to the Regents setback which left the DACA Memorandum in place, on July 28, 2020, DHS announced interim changes that pending its reconsideration of the DACA termination, DHS would continue to reject all new and pending DACA requests and associated employment authorization applications as it had been since 2017, would shorten the renewal of DACA and associated work authorization to one year, and exercise its discretion to reject applications for advance parole and to terminate or deny any deferred action requests. This article reviews Regents’ affirmation of the principles of reasoned agency decision-making and its implications for the DHS’ future actions to scale back or completely and permanently terminate DACA.

The History: Failed Legislation and the Dreamers

Beginning in 2001 with the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (“DREAM”) Act,[1] and in the 18 years that followed, at least ten versions of legislation were introduced in Congress, including most recently in May 2019,[2] to provide undocumented minors with a path to immigration status and citizenship. A movement of popularly known as the “Dreamers” sprang up in support. While the various versions of the Dream Act contained some key differences, each would have provided a pathway to legal immigration status for certain undocumented individuals brought to the U.S. as children. Although each bill enjoyed voter and bipartisan Congressional support[3]—with some versions garnering as many as 48 co-sponsors in the Senate and 152 in the House—none became law.[4]

Acts of Administrative Grace: DACA and DAPA

DACA was established on June 15, 2012 as an act of administrative grace for the Dreamers in the absence of Congressional action. The program was instituted and implemented through a DHS policy memorandum entitled “Exercising Prosecutorial Discretion with Respect to Individuals Who Came to the United States as Children” (“DACA Memorandum”) and issued at the direction of then-President Barack Obama. Unlike the Dream Act, DACA does not confer an immigration status or provide a pathway to citizenship, but is the exercise of prosecutorial discretion to forbear from exercising removal actions with respect to certain non-citizens between the ages of 15 and 30, who had been brought to the United States as children more than five years previously, and who had either graduated from high school or college in the U.S., earned a G.E.D., or served in the U.S. Armed Forces. DACA-eligible individuals who are granted deferred action in two-year increments are also eligible under preexisting regulations for certain attendant benefits, such the opportunity to apply for employment authorization, renewable for as long as the recipient remains eligible for DACA and the DACA Memorandum remains in effect. The valid scope of the DACA program depends on the Executive Branch’s inherent authority to exercise prosecutorial discretion within the framework of existing law.

Two years after the initial DACA memo, DHS issued a new memorandum to expand DACA eligibility by removing the age cap, extending the DACA renewal and work authorization to three-year increments, and adjusting the date-of-entry requirement from June 15, 2007 to January 1, 2010, and to create a new, related, program titled Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (“DAPA Memorandum”). DAPA would have offered approximately 4.3 million undocumented parents of U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident children the same forbearance from removal and opportunity to apply for work authorization as afforded to DACA recipients. Like the DACA Memorandum, the DAPA Memorandum expressly stated that the DAPA policy “confer[s] no substantive right, immigration status or pathway to citizenship.”

Litigation, an Administrative About-Face, and More Litigation

Before DAPA went into effect, Texas and 25 other states with Republican governors filed suit against the U.S. seeking injunctive relief from both DAPA and the DACA expansion, arguing that DAPA violates the Constitution and federal statutes. On February 16, 2015, a preliminary injunction issued barring the implementation of DAPA, which was affirmed by a three-member panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals with one dissent, and by a deadlocked 4-4 Supreme Court which left the lower court’s preliminary injunction in place. On June 15, 2017, the newly inaugurated Trump Administration rescinded the DAPA Memorandum, and the state plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed the pending litigation, terminating the hope that the case would reach the Supreme Court on the merits.

Three months later, on September 5, 2017, then-Attorney General Jefferson B. Sessions III announced that DACA conferred federal benefits that exceeded the scope of DHS’s authority. Subsequently, in 2017 and 2018, DHS issued memoranda to rescind the 2012 DACA Memorandum, with then-Acting Secretaries Elaine Duke and Kirstjen Nielsen, respectively, ordering their constituent bureaus to wind down the program.

In response, several groups of plaintiffs filed suit in federal district courts in California, New York, and the District of Columbia, arguing that DHS’s decision to rescind DACA was arbitrary and capricious in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act (“APA”) and infringed the plaintiffs’ right to equal protection under the Fifth Amendment. The cases made their ways up through the Second, Ninth, and D.C. Circuits, respectively. While those appeals were pending, the government filed for certiorari in three of those cases—Regents (18-587), Trump v. National Ass’n for the Advancement of Colored People (18-588), and Wolf v. Batalla Vidal (18-589)—which were granted and consolidated for Supreme Court review and oral argument on November 12, 2019.

The Regents Decision:  Federal Jurisdiction and the Limits of Prosecutorial Discretion

On June 20, 2020, Chief Justice John Roberts, joining the Court’s four more liberal justices, wrote the narrow Regents decision that vacated the DHS’s 2017 rescission of the DACA Memorandum. The scope of the Regents decision was limited. The Court did “not decide whether DACA or its rescission are sound policies,”[5] did not affirm the legality of the DACA program, or order the DHS to restore and maintain the DACA policy in full force pending any agency reconsideration of the policy. Indeed, there was no dispute that the scope of DHS’ prosecutorial discretion includes the legal authority to rescind the program. Rather, the dispute was narrowly about whether the agency followed reasoned agency decisionmaking procedures in doing so, and whether the Court had jurisdiction to review the agency’s decision.[6]

As a preliminary matter, on the threshold issue of reviewability, the Court held that neither of the jurisdiction-stripping provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act (“INA”), 8 USC §1252(b)(9), which bars judicial review of claims arising from an “action or proceeding brought to remove an alien” from the United States, nor §1252(g), which bars review of cases “arising from” decisions “to commence proceedings, adjudicate cases, or execute removal orders,” divested it of jurisdiction to review whether DHS’s termination of the DACA program was arbitrary and capricious under the Administrative Procedure Act.  Slip Op. at 12.

The Court also determined that there was no plausible inference that the rescission was motivated by racial animus in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

Turning to the merits, the Court considered whether DHS’s decision to rescind DACA was arbitrary and capricious or, as the government asserted, an appropriate response to the Attorney General’s determination that the DACA program violated the INA and raised important policy concerns. The Court acknowledged that “[w]hether DACA is illegal is, of course, a legal determination, and therefore a question for the Attorney General.” The Court also recognized that DHS has the discretion to determine how to address the DOJ’s finding of illegality and relevant policy concerns.[7] Nonetheless, the Court held that the APA required the agency to engage in a reasoned assessment of those legal and policy issues, including potential reliance on the program, in determining whether and how to end it.

In deciding that the agency termination of DACA was arbitrary and capricious because DHS failed to provide a reasoned explanation of the scope of the agency’s prosecutorial discretion and failed to exercise that discretion in a reasonable manner, the Court distinguished between dual facets of DACA that DHS had erroneously painted with a single brush:  (1) protection from deportation (forbearance) and (2) eligibility for certain attendant benefits under other preexisting regulations, including employment authorization. The Court reasoned that, although the Attorney General had determined that DACA conferred federal benefits that exceeded the scope of DHS’s authority, there was not also consideration of “whether to retain forbearance and what if anything to do about the hardship to DACA recipients” with “legitimate reliance” on the DACA program benefits. Accordingly, the agency acted arbitrarily and capriciously without explanation, in violation of the requirement for reasoned decision-making under the APA, and the rescission must be vacated:[8]

“Here the agency failed to consider the conspicuous issues of whether to retain forbearance and what if anything to do about hardship to DACA recipients. That dual failure raises doubts about whether the agency appreciated the scope of its discretion or exercised that discretion in a reasonable manner. The appropriate recourse is therefore to remand to DHS so that it may consider the problem anew.”[9]

Tomorrow and Beyond:  What Does the Future Hold for the Dreamers?

While Regents was pending before the Supreme Court, a separate suit was in the federal district court in Maryland, Casa de Maryland v DHS, also challenging the DACA rescission. On July 17, 2020, the court in that case entered its order vacating the DACA rescission memo in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Regents, and enjoining the agency from implementing or enforcing the rescission.[10] Casa de Maryland, in other words, explicitly restores the program to its pre-September 5, 2017 status.

On July 28, 2020, however, Acting DHS Secretary Chad F. Wolf issued yet another memorandum to the three constituent bureaus charged with implementing the DACA program.  The Wolf memorandum clarifies the agency’s legal and policy concerns with continuing the program, rescinds DHS’ 2017 Duke and 2018 Nielsen memoranda, and instructs that DHS shall, among other things, reject all initial DACA requests.[11] Whether the 2020 Wolf memorandum will withstand a legal challenge remains to be seen.

So where do these developments leave the hundreds of thousands of young people who are potentially eligible for DACA benefits?  For those who had applied for and been granted DACA at some point in the past, the answer is relatively clear.  Under the agency’s guidance as it existed prior to Regents:[12]

  • Current DACA recipients: People who currently have DACA can apply to renew it;
  • Expired DACA recipients (less than one year): People whose DACA expired one year ago or less can apply to renew it;
  • Expired DACA recipients (more than one year): People whose DACA expired more than one year ago may not apply for renewal, but may make an initial DACA request.[13]
  • Terminated DACA: People whose DACA has been terminated may file an initial request.

There is, however, no guarantee that the program will remain in place in the long term. The Executive has full authority to end the DACA program; all the Supreme Court required was that it refrain from doing so in an arbitrary and capricious manner, and that it articulate a reasoned explanation for its decision.  Whether individuals who had never been granted DACA, but who are arguably eligible to apply now, remains unclear.[14] The Supreme Court and Maryland District Court orders each require DHS to maintain the program under the 2012 guidelines unless and until the agency follows correct procedures to terminate it.

Additionally, for all that Regents did to provide a respite for those who have relied on DACA, a separate case remains pending in the federal district court in the Southern District of Texas that could have even greater stakes. In Texas v. U.S. (1:18-cv-068), state attorneys general challenge the constitutionality of DACA. That case, which is before the same judge who issued the injunction barring implementation of the DAPA memorandum, was stayed pending Regents. Now, with each side claiming that Regents supports its position, Plaintiffs have sought to have their summary judgment motion heard in August 2020, while the intervening DACA recipients have sought to stay the action.

Of course, even Texas v U.S. side-steps the core issue: the millions of young people who are working, studying, serving in our armed forces, contributing to our society every day and continue to have no immigration status at all.[15] Although certainly a welcome respite for the hundreds of thousands of young people who have been protected under the policy over the years, DACA is still nothing more than an act of administrative grace with no permanent benefits and no potential for durable relief.  It is not, strictly speaking, a legal status,[16] and confers nothing more than an impermanent limbo. It remains that Congress has the ultimate authority to decide the future of the Dreamers – to let them languish in the shadows or to provide a path to durable legal status by legislation.

[1] S. 1291, 107th Cong. (2001).

[2] S. 1291, 107th Cong. (2001); S. 1545, 108th Cong. (2003); H.R. 1648, 108th Cong. (2003); S. 2075, 109th Cong. (2005); H.R.5131, 109th Cong. (2005); S.2205, 110th Cong. (2007); H.R. 1275, 110th Cong. (2007); H.R. 5241, 111th Cong. (2010); S. 729, 111th Cong. (2010); S. 3992, 111th Cong. (2010); H.R. 1842, 112th Cong. (2011); S. 952, 112th Cong. (2011); H.R. 1468, 115th Cong. (2017); H.R. 3591, 115th Cong. (2017) H.R. 2820, 116th Cong. (2019).

[3] In a recent survey by the Pew Research Group, 91% of Democrats and 54% of Republicans favored granting legal status to undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children.

[4] In 2010, the bill fell just five votes short of the 60 necessary to proceed in the Senate.  H.R. 5241, 111th Cong. (2010); 12/18/2010.

[5] Slip Op. at 29.

[6] Slip Op. at 9.

[7] Slip Op. at 19.

[8] Slip Op. at 21.

[9] Slip Op. at 29.

[10] CASA de Maryland, et al. v. Dept. of Homeland Security, et al., 8:17-cv-02942 (D.Md.)

[11] In addition to precluding new initial applications, the 2020 memo limits DACA extensions and associated employment authorization to periods of one year, and precludes the agency from granting DACA recipients authorization to travel outside the United States (advance parole).

[12]  https://www.uscis.gov/humanitarian/deferred-action-for-childhood-arrivals-response-to-january-2018-preliminary-injunction

[13] The distinction between initial and renewal applications relates only to the documentation required for each:  Initial applicants must submit documentation to establish all of the eligibility requirements; renewal applicants are not required to resubmit documentation filed with their initial applications.  https://www.uscis.gov/sites/default/files/document/forms/i-821dinstr.pdf

[14] Because most DACA recipients must be at least fifteen years old, there are a significant number of young people who did not qualify for DACA prior to the 2017 rescission, but who are now potentially eligible to apply.  The Migration Policy Institute puts this number at approximately 66,000.  https://twitter.com/MigrationPolicy/status/1273662071146778624

[15] In 2012, just prior to DACA’s implementation, the Migration Policy Institute estimated that there were approximately 3.2 million undocumented children and young adults under the age of 24 living in the United States.  https://newscenter.sdsu.edu/education/cescal-conference/files/06163-7_Data_One_Sheet.pdf

[16] https://www.uscis.gov/archive/consideration-of-deferred-action-for-childhood-arrivals-daca

 

Ilana Etkin Greenstein is Senior Technical Assistance Attorney at the Immigration Justice Campaign.


Protecting Trade Secrets During (and After) a Global Pandemic: Practical Tips for Employers

by Russell Beck and Hannah Joseph

Practice Tips

 

The evolution toward a cloud economy has made it easy and often profitable for employees to misappropriate valuable data from their employers. Indeed, pre-pandemic estimates suggested that over 50 percent of employees take – and most of them are willing to use – their employer’s information when leaving a company.[1]

Against this backdrop, COVID-19 unexpectedly caused the world to shut down in early 2020, resulting in mass layoffs, the highest unemployment rates since the Great Depression, and a fundamental and perhaps permanent shift toward a predominately remote workforce.

Together, these factors have created a precarious environment for trade secrets, as well as customer relationships and other legitimate business interests. Employees working from home have more opportunity to convert company information and customers, and some, particularly those facing involuntary unemployment, may feel driven to do so. Moreover, the ongoing crisis has made preliminary injunctive relief (the judicial remedy most often used to protect trade secrets and other legitimate business interests) more elusive, as courts are typically less willing to restrain employees from competitive employment during economic downturns. See, e.g., All Stainless, Inc. v. Colby, 364 Mass. 773, 781 n.2 (1974).

Whether during or after the pandemic, it is vital for companies to have strong measures in place for protecting their trade secrets and other legitimate business interests, rather than to solely rely on after-the-fact litigation. Below are some practical tips for how to do so.

Tips for protecting trade secrets and other legitimate business interests during and after a global pandemic

Know your trade secrets. A remote workforce means that employees are developing, accessing, and using their employer’s trade secrets from home (and elsewhere). Accordingly, understanding the categories, sources, and life cycles of the company’s trade secrets, and the risks of exposure to which such information is most susceptible, is necessary for establishing and implementing policies and practices that are best suited to protect that information during and after the pandemic. Depending on the organization, the analysis will likely need to involve management, human resources, legal, corporate governance, sales, information technology, information management, research and development, manufacturing, and other relevant stakeholders.

Firm up policies and procedures. Once a company has categorized its trade secrets, both existing and under development, it must ensure that its policies and procedures are appropriately designed to protect the information against likely sources of risk. Such policies and procedures, which should be reviewed on a regular basis, are also critical to protecting other legitimate business interests, such as customer goodwill.

Among other things, employers should have policies that establish clear criteria, protocols, and expectations for the access, use, and disclosure of confidential information, including third-party information; working from home; the use of the employer’s devices, systems, and accounts (and, if applicable, the employer’s policies concerning monitoring such devices, systems, and accounts); the use of personal devices; the use of social media accounts, including as they relate to client communications; the use and protection of passwords; and the post-employment return of information and property. In addition, employers should have a policy that instructs employees to report incidents of unauthorized access, use, or disclosure of confidential information, and provides clear instructions for how to make such a report. This list is not comprehensive, and policies are not one-size-fits-all; they must be tailored to meet the unique needs of the employer and be reasonable in the context of the company’s needs, capabilities, and culture.[2]

Employers should also work closely with their remote employees to ensure that the employees’ at-home work environments are secured against both external threats and inadvertent disclosure. For example: home Wi-Fi routers should be secured with strong passwords; passwords, non-guessable meeting IDs, and other security settings should be used for video conference solutions like Zoom; confidential information should not be reviewed where others in the household may see or overhear it; and confidential information should not be left out in the open when the workspace is unattended. Employers should be prepared to run through a comprehensive checklist with their employees to make sure that employees are taking necessary precautions to protect their workspaces.

Finally, the unfortunate reality of increased furloughs and layoffs during the pandemic dictates that employers have a system in place for off-boarding employees remotely. The system should include, at the least, a mechanism for terminating exiting employees’ access to the employer’s information and information systems (including the remote wiping of company data from devices in the employee’s possession), for securing the full return of all equipment and confidential information, and for the employee to acknowledge their obligation to return (and not retain, use, or disclose) the employer’s confidential information (as well as to comply with their other post-employment contractual obligations).

Educate your employees. Policies and procedures are worthless, and can hurt more than help, if they are not disseminated, understood, and followed. This means that employers must, on an ongoing basis, educate their employees about company policies and practices. While in-person trainings are ill-advised in the era of social distancing, they may be easily replaced by online trainings, whether live or pre-recorded. Processes should be in place that require employees to not only read the policies and procedures, but also to acknowledge that they understand and agree to abide by them. Policies and procedures should provide an avenue for employees to ask questions and obtain answers that will be consistent throughout the company, either through legal or other channels. Employers are well-served by maintaining accurate records of policies and procedures and any amendments thereto, training dates, and employee acknowledgments. While training and acknowledgments will not necessarily prevent all willful misconduct, they may serve as a deterrent, help to limit incidents of inadvertent disclosure (or unauthorized solicitation) and, if litigation becomes necessary, help to establish the company’s reasonable efforts to protect its trade secrets and other legitimate business interests.

Monitor your workforce. Trade secret misappropriation and other forms of employee misconduct do not usually happen in a vacuum. Oftentimes, there will be warning signs that an employee is unhappy (e.g., a lack of engagement, an attitude shift or sudden change in behavior, increased activity on LinkedIn[3]). Moreover, employees who take their employer’s information with the intention of using it at their next place of employment frequently commit multiple acts of taking in the days and weeks leading up to their termination. Similarly, employees who plan to solicit customers may begin well before termination. For those reasons, employers should consider monitoring their employees’ email activity as well as their activity on other information systems to determine whether the employees are accessing information that they do not have a business need to know or are accessing appropriate information, but with unusual frequency. Periodic monitoring may enable an employer to detect and address internal threats earlier, thereby obviating the need for judicial intervention. Before engaging in any kind of monitoring, employers should disseminate policies that put employees on notice that the employers’ devices, systems, and accounts belong solely to the employer and may be monitored on a periodic or ongoing basis.

Conclusion

While these steps are intended to help employers protect their legitimate business interests, they are not comprehensive and are not guaranteed to protect against every threat of disclosure and other forms of misconduct. When implemented correctly, however, they should substantially reduce overall risk. In addition, where litigation is necessary, an employer that has implemented the above steps will have ample evidence to show that it both identified its legitimate business interests to its employees and notified them of their legal obligations to protect such interests. This can dramatically improve an employer’s chances of prevailing in court.

[1] SeeWhat’s Yours is Mine: How Employees are Putting Your Intellectual Property at Risk,” White Paper by the Ponemon Institute and Symantec Corporation (2013), available at https://www.ciosummits.com/media/solution_spotlight/OnlineAssett_Symantec_WhatsYoursIsMine.pdf.

[2] For a comprehensive checklist of steps employers can take, see “A primer and checklist for protecting trade secrets and other legitimate business interests before, during, and after lockdown and stay-at-home orders,” available at https://www.faircompetitionlaw.com/2020/05/17/a-primer-and-checklist-for-protecting-trade-secrets-and-other-legitimate-business-interests-before-during-and-after-lockdown-and-stay-at-home-orders/.

[3] See, e.g., “13 Signs That Someone Is About to Quit, According to Research,” by Timothy M. Gardner and Peter W. Hom, Harvard Business Review (Oct. 20, 2016), available at https://hbr.org/2016/10/13-signs-that-someone-is-about-to-quit-according-to-research.

 

Russell Beck is a founding partner of Beck Reed Riden LLP. He has authored books on trade secrets and restrictive covenants, assisted the Obama Administration on a Call to Action on noncompetes and trade secrets, drafted much of the Massachusetts Noncompetition Agreement Act, and revised the Massachusetts Uniform Trade Secrets Act. Russell teaches Trade Secrets and Restrictive Covenants at the Boston University School of Law and is President Elect of the Boston Bar Foundation.

Hannah Joseph is senior counsel at Beck Reed Riden LLP and focuses her practice on trade secrets and restrictive covenants law. Hannah regularly publishes and speaks on the topics of intellectual property law and restrictive covenants, including at the American Intellectual Property Law Association, Boston Bar Association, and Practising Law Institute. In addition, Hannah co-teaches the course Trade Secrets and Restrictive Covenants at Boston University School of Law.


Getting It Right: Bar Counsel’s Ethical Helpline Helps Lawyers Resolve Ethical Dilemmas and Avoid Sleepless Nights

by Robert M. Daniszewski and David A. Kluft

The Profession

It was a situation that would fray the nerves of any lawyer, even one inured by three decades of experience in handling criminal cases and the ethical issues that can go along with such a practice. The lawyer’s client was on trial for first-degree murder; he had allegedly attended a party hosted by the family of his ex-girlfriend and, while there, robbed and shot her new boyfriend. The Commonwealth rested its case after presenting evidence that included eyewitness testimony, surveillance video, and ballistics. The client, rather than exercise his Fifth Amendment right not to testify, and against the lawyer’s advice, told the lawyer that he planned to take the stand in his own defense. The lawyer understood that some specific aspects of the testimony the client planned to give would be false, which meant that the lawyer was now faced with a serious ethical problem if the client insisted on being called to the stand. Rule 3.3(e) of the Massachusetts Rules of Professional Responsibility prohibits attorneys from knowingly eliciting false testimony from a witness or referring to such evidence in closing arguments. The lawyer therefore needed to negotiate a path between two potentially conflicting ethical duties. As counsel for a criminally accused defendant, he needed to safeguard his client’s rights to a fair trial while zealously advocating for his acquittal. But as an officer of the court, he was forbidden from participating in the presentation or use of perjurious testimony. Failing to find the appropriate middle ground between these competing requirements could lead to dire consequences.

The solution to the lawyer’s dilemma came as a result of a telephone call to the “Ethical Helpline,” a service of the Office of Bar Counsel (OBC). The evening before the trial was set to resume, the lawyer called the Ethical Helpline and was put in touch with an experienced assistant bar counsel (ABC) to whom he explained the situation. She listened, directed the lawyer to the relevant rules, comments, and case law, and helped him outline the steps he would need to take during the trial to avoid assisting in the presentation of false testimony. As a result, the client offered his testimony in the form of a narrative rather than through the usual process of question and answer.

The procedure used by this lawyer, and the results of the case, are recounted by the Supreme Judicial Court in its recent decision, Commonwealth v. Leiva, 484 Mass. 766 (2020). Rejecting the client’s argument that having to testify by narrative was prejudicial to his defense, the justices noted the probity the lawyer had displayed, not only in the way he had handled the Rule 3.3 issue when it was time for his client to testify, but also in his decision the evening before to call OBC for guidance on how to proceed. Because of his “prudent advance consultation with bar counsel,” the lawyer had, in the Court’s words, “exemplified conduct befitting a member of our profession.” Id. at 784-85.

The Leiva case may be the first time a call to the Ethical Helpline has figured into a decision of the Supreme Judicial Court, but Leiva by no means represents the first time the Ethical Helpline has assisted an attorney in working through a difficult and stressful ethical problem. A staff of approximately a dozen ABCs collectively field about 2,000 calls every year through the Ethical Helpline as an adjunct to their usual duties investigating and prosecuting cases of alleged misconduct.

Unsurprisingly, the range of topics presented to the OBC through the Ethical Helpline is immense, covering nearly every aspect of the practice of law. On any given afternoon’s session, the Ethical Helpline may hear from a caller who is uncertain about how to deal with a client who has disappeared, a lawyer needing help applying the rules on advertising and solicitation to her marketing idea, or a sole practitioner attempting to untangle a knotty conflict-of-interest question that arises because of a promising job opportunity. Many of the calls, like the one in Leiva, supra, raise serious and urgent questions that go to the heart of the lawyer’s duties to a client.  For example, the Ethical Helpline has assisted numerous lawyers in deciding whether a client’s menacing words or declining cognitive state justify taking actions that might require disclosure of otherwise confidential information. The Ethical Helpline provides an opportunity to get immediate, practical guidance on these and many other situations that arise in a lawyer’s practice.

Both the evolving, technology-driven nature of the practice of law as well as the intrusion of outside events can shape the kinds of questions presented to OBC on the Ethical Helpline.  Callers increasingly inquire about emerging issues such as the ethical implications of storing case files in the cloud, or whether a firm can post a rebuttal to a negative online review. In connection with the coronavirus pandemic, helpline staff have fielded a variety of calls from lawyers who were attempting to cope with their inability to meet or appear in court with clients, comply with discovery deadlines, or otherwise attend to the needs of a case as they would have in the absence of Covid-19-related restrictions. The Ethical Helpline assists callers in dealing with these novel ethical problems while providing the added benefit of keeping ABCs abreast of real-world issues that are transforming the practice landscape.

Not all calls or questions are appropriate for the Ethical Helpline and there are limitations on how the information a caller receives should be used. The service is only offered to attorneys admitted in Massachusetts, rather than out-of-state lawyers, non-lawyer staff, or members of the general public. Moreover, the service is expressly offered for the purpose of assisting lawyers in resolving their own ethical dilemmas, not complaining about another attorney’s conduct. (Such complaints, which may be mandatory under Mass. R. Prof. C. 8.3 depending on the seriousness of the misconduct, should be directed to the Attorney and Consumer Assistance Program which performs the intake and screening functions for OBC.)

Importantly, the Ethical Helpline cannot offer legal opinions or legal advice, and lawyers who avail themselves of the service remain responsible for their own ethical conduct at all times. Because of the informal nature of the consultation and the limited facts presented on the call, the purpose and focus of the call is to assist lawyers in identifying  the ethical rules and principles that apply to their situation and clarifying any particular points  the caller needs to consider in order to address the situation appropriately. Depending on the nature of the problem, the Ethical Helpline may refer the caller to any of dozens of existing OBC web articles addressing topics that are relevant to the caller’s predicament. When a question is not clearly addressed by the rules or the comments thereto, and especially where the answer to a question depends on a question of substantive or procedural law outside the area of legal ethics, callers are advised to conduct their own further legal research in deciding how to proceed. In some instances, the ABC handling the call may suggest seeking a formal ethics opinion from the Massachusetts Bar Association or the Boston Bar Association.

Although callers to the Ethical Helpline do not identify the client or case that prompted the call, they do have to identify themselves; the Ethical Helpline does not take anonymous calls. However, bar counsel will not disclose the content of a call to third parties and generally will not act on any information provided by a caller except to offer guidance in construing the caller’s ethical responsibilities. The calls are not recorded, but the Office of Bar Counsel keeps a record indicating the date a call took place and the name of the ABC with whom the caller spoke. As in Leiva, the fact that a lawyer sought guidance from the Ethical Helpline on an issue may prove relevant in a subsequent ethical or court proceeding, whether as an indication of the lawyer’s good faith desire to resolve a problem appropriately, to show that, subsequent to the call, the lawyer acted in manner inconsistent with the guidance he or she had received, or for some other purpose. For the most part, however, lawyers contact the Ethical Helpline not with a view to create a record of having consulted OBC, but out of a sincere desire to make the right decision in addressing a complicated or unfamiliar ethical problem, and to get the peace of mind that comes when the right decision comes into focus.

The telephone number for the Ethical Helpline is (617) 728-8750. The service operates from 2:00 to 4:00 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, although inquiries outside those days and hours can usually be accommodated for lawyers in need of emergency assistance. Lawyers who find themselves in an ethical quandary with no obvious solution, or who think they have arrived at the correct answer to an ethical dilemma on their own but simply want to talk it through before taking final action, should call the Ethical Helpline for assistance.

 

Robert Daniszewski is an Assistant Bar Counsel with the Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers since 2014. In his prior civil practice, he concentrated on matters involving attorney professional responsibility, representing both lawyers and clients in such cases. He is a 1990 graduate of Boston College Law School.

Dave Kluft is an Assistant Bar Counsel with the Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers. He graduated from Boston University Law School in 2003 and clerked for the Supreme Judicial Court. He is a former partner at Foley Hoag, and previously served on the Boston Bar Journal board of editors.


Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, 590 U.S. ___, 140 S. Ct. 1731 (2020)

by Amanda Hainsworth

Case Focus

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has protected employees from discrimination “because of … sex” for more than half a century. 42 U.S.C.§ 2000e-2. Over time, Title VII has been construed to prohibit a range of different forms of sex discrimination, including sex stereotyping and sexual harassment. Yet some lower courts have stopped short of including LGBTQ workers within Title VII’s ambit, leaving LGBTQ employees in more than half of the states across the country without employment discrimination protections.

This changed in June when the Supreme Court of the United States held, in a landmark 6-3 decision, Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, 590 U.S. __, 140 S. Ct. 1731, 1737 (2020), that Title VII’s ban on sex discrimination includes discrimination based on sexual orientation and transgender status. This decision is a major victory for LGBTQ people and advocates, and has significant implications that extend well beyond the employment context.

Background

The issue came to the Supreme Court in a trio of cases that raised essentially the same question: does Title VII bar employers from discriminating against a person because they are gay or transgender?

In Altitude Express, Inc., et al. v. Zarda, No. 17-1623, Donald Zarda was fired from his job as a skydiving instructor within days of mentioning to his employer that he was gay.

In R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc. v. EEOC, No. 18-107, Aimee Stephens was fired from her job after penning a letter to her employer disclosing her transgender status and intent to live and work full-time as a woman.

And in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, No. 17-1618, Gerald Bostock was fired from his job after he began participating in a gay recreational softball league.

Each of these employees brought suit under Title VII, alleging unlawful discrimination because of sex. The Second and Sixth Circuits concluded that Title VII bars employers from firing people because of their sexual orientation (as to Mr. Zarda) or their transgender status (as to Ms. Stephens). In Mr. Bostock’s case, the Eleventh Circuit reached the opposite conclusion and held that Title VII does not prohibit employers from firing employees for being gay. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve the circuit split over the scope of Title VII’s protections. Sadly, Mr. Zarda and Ms. Stephens both passed away before the Supreme Court issued its decision.

The Supreme Court’s Decision in Bostock

In Bostock, the Court unequivocally held that an employer who fires an individual for being gay or transgender violates Title VII. This is because, in firing a person for being gay or transgender, the employer has fired that person “for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex,” which is exactly what Title VII prohibits. Bostock, 140 S. Ct. at 1737.

The Court relied heavily on the plain meaning of “because of . . . sex” at the time that Title VII was enacted. It proceeded on the assumption that, in 1964, “sex” signified male or female, and concluded that “because of” incorporated a traditional “but-for” causation standard, which the Court explained, “directs us to change one thing at a time and see if the outcome changes.” Bostock, 140 S. Ct. at 1739. Thus, an employer violates Title VII “if changing the employee’s sex would have yielded a different choice by the employer.” Id. at 1741. And, because “it is impossible to discriminate against a person for being homosexual or transgender without discriminating against that individual based on sex,” employers who do so are in violation of Title VII. Id.

To illustrate the point as to sexual orientation, the Court offered an example of an employer with two employees—one male and one female—both of whom are attracted to men and otherwise identical in all material respects. If the employer fired the male employee because he is attracted to men, but retained the female employee who is also attracted to men, then the employer has violated Title VII because the male employee’s sex was a necessary part of the termination decision.

To illustrate the point as to transgender status, the Court provided another example of an employer who fired a transgender woman because she was assigned male at birth. In this scenario, “[i]f the employer retains an otherwise identical employee who was identified as female at birth, the employer intentionally penalizes a person identified as male at birth for traits or actions that it tolerates in an employee identified as female at birth.” Bostock, 140 S. Ct. at 1741.  Here again, the employee’s sex was a necessary and impermissible part of the termination decision.

The Court rejected the employers’ argument that Congress did not intend Title VII to reach discrimination against LGBTQ people in 1964 when it enacted the statute. In doing so, the Court pointed out that there is no such thing as a “canon of donut holes” where Congress’ failure to directly address a specific circumstance that falls within a more general statutory rule creates an implicit exception to that general rule. Bostock, 140 S. Ct. at 1746-47. Instead, Title VII prohibits all forms of sex discrimination, however such discrimination might manifest and regardless of how else the discrimination might be characterized.

The Court also rejected the argument that Congress’ failure to pass amendments to expressly include sexual orientation and transgender status should be relevant to the Court’s interpretation of the statute. The Court noted that “speculation about why a later Congress declined to adopt new legislation offers a ‘particularly dangerous’ basis on which to rest an interpretation of an existing law a different and earlier Congress did adopt.” Bostock, 140 S. Ct. at 1747.

Finally, the Court rejected the employers’ argument that “sex” should be construed narrowly because of the “no-elephants-and-mouseholes canon” which “recognizes that Congress does not alter fundamental details of a regulatory scheme by speaking in vague or ancillary terms.” Bostock, 140 S. Ct. at 1753 (quoting Whitman v. Am. Trucking Assns., Inc., 531 U.S. 457, 468 (2001)). While the Court agreed that the Bostock holding is certainly an elephant, it rejected the idea that Title VII—a major federal civil rights law that is “written in starkly broad terms” and has “repeatedly produced unexpected applications”—is a mousehole. Id. Instead, the Court concluded, “[t]his elephant has never hidden in a mousehole; it has been standing before us all along.” Id.

Implications

The potential implications of the Bostock decision are sweeping.

The largest and most obvious implication is that LGBTQ people now have nationwide protection against discrimination by any employer covered by Title VII (i.e., any employer with fifteen or more employees). Although Massachusetts’s nondiscrimination law has protected LGBTQ people from employment discrimination for years, see G.L. ch. 151B, § 4, Bostock represents a sea change for those states without any employment discrimination protections for LGBTQ people. Employers in those states now need to, among other steps, review and update policies and procedures and employee benefits packages to ensure compliance.

More broadly, while the Court’s holding was limited to Title VII, Bostock may mean that other federal civil rights statutes that prohibit sex discrimination also prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and transgender status. This is because courts routinely rely on rulings in Title VII cases to inform rulings in cases involving other civil rights laws with comparable prohibitions on sex discrimination. There are more than 100 different federal laws that prohibit sex discrimination in a wide variety of different contexts, including in education, credit, housing, healthcare, and military service. Bostock means that all of those laws may also protect LGBTQ people. Bostock also calls into question the legality of the Trump Administration’s efforts to roll back federal civil rights protections for LGBTQ people in areas such as education and school athletics (Title IX), the military, and the Affordable Care Act.

Beyond these implications, there will almost certainly be a great deal of litigation related to the interplay between federal civil rights laws and employers’ religious beliefs.  Title VII contains a narrow exception for discrimination on account of religion, but the Court did not address the extent to which employers will be permitted to discriminate against LGBTQ people based on religious beliefs.

Bostock also has potential implications for the standard of review that should be applied to federal equal protection claims involving discrimination against LGBTQ people.  Rational basis review has been applied to such claims since the Court’s decision in Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620 (1996). But sex-based classifications have long been subject to intermediate scrutiny, and Bostock’s holding that discrimination against LGBTQ people is, at core, sex discrimination suggests that intermediate scrutiny should be applied to such claims moving forward.

And, finally, but perhaps most importantly, Bostock may help shine a light toward a world where LGBTQ people—and in particular Black and brown transgender people—can begin to live freely and openly, with a little less fear and a little less pain, and a little more opportunity to succeed and thrive.

*This article represents the opinions and legal conclusions of its author(s) and not necessarily those of the Office of the Attorney General.  Opinions of the Attorney General are formal documents rendered pursuant to specific statutory authority.

 

Amanda Hainsworth is an Assistant Attorney General in the Civil Rights Division of the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office.


E.K. v. S.C.: A New Family Law Removal Inquiry Established by the Appeals Court

by Jessica Dubin

Heads Up

In E.K. v. S.C., 97 Mass. App. Ct. 403 (2020), the Appeals Court established a new removal inquiry that applies when an out-of-state, non-custodial parent seeks custody of a child living in Massachusetts and requests permission to move the child to the state where that parent resides. Previously, case law had addressed only the standards applicable to requests to remove a child out-of-state by a parent living in Massachusetts, and had established three different inquiries depending on the child’s custodial status.[1]

Background

The parties in this case were never married and had one child. As part of the judgment of paternity, the court awarded the parties shared legal custody of their child, primary physical custody to the mother, and parenting time of one weeknight per week and every other weekend to the father. Approximately six years later, the father filed a Complaint for Modification seeking sole legal custody and permission to move the child to New Hampshire, where the father already lived.  He alleged that the mother was acting contrary to the health, education and welfare of the child by unilaterally stopping the child’s medication, withdrawing him from a special needs school program without the father’s consent, and maintaining uninhabitable living conditions. After a bench trial, the judge found for the father.

The Appeals Court’s Decision

After concluding that the trial judge’s detailed findings of fact supported her conclusion that a material and substantial change of circumstances had occurred warranting a change in custody, the Appeals Court turned to the novel question of what removal inquiry should apply when a non-custodial parent seeks to relocate a child out-of-state to the state where that parent resides. The Court set forth a three-part inquiry:

  1. First, the judge must analyze whether a parent’s move out-of-state was motivated by a desire to deprive the custodial parent of time with the child. If the judge finds that the intent of the move was not to interfere with the custodial parent’s relationship with the child and that the move was not designed to establish a basis to request a change in physical custody, then the judge should proceed to the second inquiry.
  2. Second, the judge must determine whether the out-of-state parent is rooted in the community where that parent seeks to move the child. Factors analyzed as part of this inquiry may include the parent’s employment, financial situation, housing, family composition, and social and emotional benefits of that parent’s circumstances. If the judge finds that the parent is rooted in the community, this may be considered a “real advantage” to that parent. Once the out-of-state-parent demonstrates a “good, sincere reason” for the move, the judge should proceed to the third inquiry.
  3. If the first two inquiries favor the out-of-state parent, then the judge must determine the best interests of the child, including the impact the proposed move would have on each parent and the resultant effect on the child. The factors to be considered in this analysis include: “(1) whether the quality of the child[]’s [life] will be improved, including any improvement that ‘may flow from an improvement in the quality of the custodial parent’s life;’ (2) any possible ‘adverse effect of the elimination or curtailment of the child[ ]’s association with the noncustodial parent’; (3) ‘the extent to which moving or not moving will affect the [child’s] emotional, physical, or developmental needs’; (4) the interests of both parents; and (5) the possibility of an alternative visitation schedule for the noncustodial parent.” Murray v. Super, 87 Mass. App. Ct. 146, 150 (2015), quoting Dickenson v. Cogswell, 66 Mass. App. Ct. 442, 447 (2006).

Applying the “clearly erroneous” standard of review, the Appeals Court affirmed the trial judge’s findings that the father’s move to New Hampshire occurred long before any custody modification proceeding was contemplated and that he was firmly rooted in his community. Accordingly, the Court concluded that the father’s decision to move to and remain in New Hampshire provided him with a real advantage. Proceeding to the best interests of the child analysis, the Court held that the trial judge’s findings addressed all of the Murray factors and were supported by the record. The Court accepted the judge’s final determination that the father had the better ability to address the child’s significant needs.

Conclusion

Four different removal inquiries now exist. Which inquiry will apply depends on the facts of each particular case. The four inquiries that exist after E K. v. S.C. are as follows:

  1. when a parent who lives in Massachusetts has sole physical custody and seeks removal to another state, that request is analyzed using the real advantage standard pursuant to Yannas v. Frondistou-Yannas, 395 Mass. 704, 711-712 (1985);
  2. when a parent who lives in Massachusetts has shared physical custody and seeks removal to another state, that request is analyzed using the best interests of the child standard pursuant to Mason v. Coleman, 447 Mass. 177, 184-185 (2006);
  3. when a parent who lives in Massachusetts seeks removal to another state and no prior custody order exists, a judge must first perform a functional analysis regarding the parties’ respective parenting responsibilities to determine whether those more closely approximate sole or shared custody, and then apply the corresponding Yannas or Mason standard, pursuant to Miller v. Miller, 478 Mass. 642, 643 (2018); and
  4. when a non-custodial parent who lives outside of Massachusetts seeks removal to the state where the parent resides, the request is analyzed using the three-pronged inquiry outlined above pursuant to E.K. v. S.C.

[1] Although beyond the scope of this article, the Appeals Court also resolved these procedural issues: (i) motions for reconsideration continue to be subject to the requirements of  Standing Order 2-99 even though such motions were deleted from the Standing Order in 2012; (ii) although the trial judge should not have issued a temporary order changing custody without contemporaneous findings of fact, her failure to do so should not result in reversal on technical grounds when the mother failed to demonstrate prejudice from the delayed findings of fact; and (iii) the trial judge did not abuse her discretion in denying the mother’s motion to reopen evidence.

 

Jessica Dubin is a partner at Lee & Rivers LLP where she concentrates her practice on all aspects of family law.  Jessica is a member of the Boston Bar Association’s Council and Family Law Section Steering Committee, and serves on the Board of Editors of The Boston Bar Journal