Judicial Foreclosure in Massachusetts: It’s About Time

cohen_nadinekaplan_toddby Nadine Cohen and Todd S. Kaplan

Point

The foreclosure crisis in Massachusetts is not over.  Massachusetts foreclosure rates continue to climb, depressing values of surrounding homes, creating urban blight, decreasing the economic health of predominantly low and moderate income communities, especially communities of color, and generally negatively affecting economic vitality and residential lending in Massachusetts. Foreclosures affect us all.  So what can be done?  It is time to look seriously at adopting judicial foreclosure.

Almost all foreclosures in Massachusetts go forward without an opportunity for the homeowners to challenge the foreclosure or present important defenses, including: that they do not owe what is claimed; that the foreclosing entity does not own the mortgage or note; or that the mortgage was obtained by fraud.

Oftentimes, challenges to an unlawful foreclosure are not made until the owner is being evicted – the first time there is an opportunity for a hearing before a judge.  Ironically, Massachusetts law offers greater protection for rental tenants in Summary Process cases than it does to former homeowners facing foreclosure.

More than sixty percent of the US population benefits from the opportunity to be heard that judicial foreclosure provides.  As a state that values transparency and due process, why is Massachusetts so backward in its foreclosure laws?

Non-judicial foreclosure was traditionally allowed only because foreclosing entities exercised strict compliance in every step of the foreclosure proceeding.  This was an honor system, predicated upon lenders maintaining high standards of legal precision in writing, conveying and, if necessary, foreclosing upon mortgages.  The foreclosure process therefore did not require a judge’s supervision.

As the residential mortgage market became more complex—including through securitization, assignment of mortgages into trusts, and consolidation of banks into large entities—it also became clear that banks and foreclosure firms often foreclosed carelessly and did not strictly follow the foreclosure statutes or power of sale provisions of the mortgages.

This has been made clear by the many SJC cases involving banks and foreclosure firms that did not comply with the strict procedural requirements.  Specifically, beginning with U.S. Bank Nat. Ass’n v. Ibanez, 458 Mass. 637, 941 N.E.2d 40 (2011), the Supreme Judicial Court has ruled on a number of foreclosure cases, finding that banks and mortgage holders failed to properly foreclose because: they did not hold the mortgage and note at the time of the foreclosure; they did not send the appropriate notices required by statute; or they failed in some other way to strictly comply with power of sale provisions of the mortgage.  The lower court decision in Ibanez stated that many lenders have been allowed “to take someone’s home without any demonstrable right to do so.”  Judicial foreclosure is needed to ensure this does not continue to happen.  The absence of judicial oversight over foreclosures in Massachusetts has resulted in many foreclosures being invalidated, creating a slew of foreclosed homes with title problems, unnecessarily displacing homeowners, destabilizing neighborhoods, and breeding mistrust and ill-will for mortgage lenders.  Despite the legislature adding new notice requirements to Mass. G.L. c.244, this did not cure the problem of unlawful foreclosures.  In fact, the number of foreclosures in Massachusetts has been increasing and many continue to be improper.

One study by the Center for Responsible Lending found that, “on average, families affected by nearby foreclosures have already lost or will lose $21,077 in household wealth, representing 7.2 percent of their home value, by virtue of being in close proximity to foreclosures.”  Another study by the Alliance for a Just Society estimated lost wealth due to foreclosures at $192.6 billion, an average of $1,700 in lost wealth per U.S. household and that there was a disproportionate effect on communities of color.

The sloppiness and uncertainty created by the non-judicially regulated process has led even some title insurance companies and real estate lawyers in Massachusetts to complain and reconsider the merits of judicial foreclosure. In the wake of some of the recent foreclosure decisions such as Ibanez and Pinti v. Emigrant Mortgage Co., Inc., 472 Mass. 226 (2015), some title insurers said they would change their insurance contracts to require a judicial decision. In fact, some even called for judicial foreclosure.  See Rich Vetstein, Title Insurance Companies Balk At Insuring Foreclosed Properties, The Massachusetts Real Estate Blog (Sept. 3, 2015).

In addition, the absence of judicial foreclosure has overburdened the Housing and District Courts that hear Summary Process cases because this is the first opportunity that former homeowners have to challenge the underlying validity of the foreclosure auction and sale. This system clogs up the Summary Process docket and forces often complex litigation into courts that are set up to adjudicate simple and straightforward evictions of tenants.  For these cases, this has taken the “summary” out of summary process!

From colonial times, Massachusetts has been a leader in protecting the rights of its residents to due process of law.  The Massachusetts Constitution’s due process clause was a model for that of the U.S. Constitution.  Yet, regrettably, Massachusetts now lags behind in protecting these rights in the foreclosure process.  It is clear the honor system of non-judicial foreclosure has failed:  This is especially so for homeowners who have wrongfully been foreclosed upon and for unsuspecting third party buyers who have had to face summary process eviction claims.  We urge Massachusetts to join with the over 20 other states that mandate judicial foreclosure in affording homeowners a fair hearing and the right to a day in court, in order to ensure that the law has been followed before they lose their homes.  It is a matter of fundamental fairness to extend this basic protection to citizens.

Nadine Cohen is the Managing Attorney of the Consumer Rights Unit of Greater Boston Legal Services.  She has been representing homeowners in foreclosure cases since the foreclosure crisis began in 2008.

Todd S. Kaplan is a Senior Attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services.  He has worked at GBLS for over 19 years and has worked in the Consumer Rights Unit for over 5 years representing homeowners pre and post-foreclosure.  Prior to that he represented tenants facing eviction and was part of a team of attorneys that resulted in a landmark settlement with the MBTA for persons with disabilities.

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Non-Judicial Foreclosure Works As It Should

Moriarty_Robertby Robert J. Moriarty, Jr.

Counterpoint

This is not the time to move to a system of judicial foreclosure in Massachusetts.  The current system of non-judicial foreclosures has worked as it should, allowing foreclosures to proceed independent of the courts, yet simultaneously allowing judicial intervention where appropriate to protect the rights of borrowers from improper practices.

Although foreclosure requires the knowledge and experience of an attorney, the process itself is largely formulaic.  There are notices that must be sent and legal advertisements that must be drafted and published, each on particular dates and at particular intervals, and there is a process that must be followed for the entry and for the foreclosure public auction.

For centuries, Massachusetts attorneys have handled this process properly while the courts have stood available to resolve disputes only when necessary.  This system has conserved judicial resources for disputes that truly require judicial intervention.  If the Commonwealth now adopted a system of judicial foreclosure, the regular would become the routine, with courts inevitably treating the process as an administrative one and focusing on the process itself rather than the substance.  The cases would be handled by clerks with minimal involvement by judges.  There is no reason to believe that the administrative process of judicial foreclosure would enhance borrowers’ rights.  Indeed, the opposite is true: The influential foreclosure decisions of the Massachusetts courts (e.g., U.S. Bank Nat. Ass’n v. Ibanez, 458 Mass. 637 (2011), Bevilacqua v. Rodriguez, 460 Mass. 762 (2011), Eaton v. Federal Nat’l Mortgage Ass’n, 462 Mass. 569 (2011), and their progeny), have resulted not from judicial foreclosures, but from a system that allowed the foreclosures to receive the particular attention of a judge in a singular case.

Conversely, there is grave concern that the courts do not have the resources to handle the volume of judicial foreclosure cases.  The Land Court and the Superior Court already are taxed by their existing caseloads.  And the recent example of the Servicemembers’ Civil Relief Act—which required the Land Court to review and approve certain foreclosures—has shown how the increased workload has led to delays in the completion of foreclosures.

Although foreclosures are symptoms (not causes) of an economic downturn, systematic delays in foreclosure beyond those necessary to protect the rights of borrowers can aggravate an economic downturn.  The presence of large numbers of homes in foreclosure has an adverse effect on communities, where the homes may sit vacant or in disrepair for an extended period of time.  Cities and towns that are already economically disadvantaged are likely to suffer even more.  The system of judicial foreclosure in Florida is instructive.  There, the judicial foreclosure process became so bogged down that delays as long as three years became the norm.  The courts could not handle the volume of cases, so cases waited for hearing dates.  Values remained depressed, condominium associations struggled to collect sufficient revenues, and the overall economy struggled. It is not a coincidence that the Massachusetts real estate market has improved dramatically from the depths of the recession, while Florida brokers are still complaining and newspapers are still writing about the adverse effect of distressed real estate and foreclosures.

Massachusetts has traditionally been in the forefront of protecting its citizens, and it remains so.  In the wake of the scandals regarding predatory lending and failures in the secondary mortgage market, the General Court enacted significant changes to Mass. G.L. c.244, § § 35A, 35B, and 35C, that protect borrowers in pre-foreclosure contexts to a degree not found in many other states.  We have a system in place that has worked, and has mostly respected the rights of borrowers.  Where that has not happened, our courts have been vigilant in protecting those rights.  Judicial foreclosure will strain our courts and create delays that harm the economy and real estate market.  There is no evidence that a change in the foreclosure process will protect the rights of borrowers to any greater extent than the existing process.  Where our existing system of non-judicial foreclosure is not broken, there is no need to fix it.

Robert J. Moriarty, Jr. is a founding partner in Marsh, Moriarty, Ontell & Golder, P.C. and has concentrated his practice in commercial and residential real estate.  He is a frequent lecturer on complex title matters and is a former president of REBA.


Siting Opioid Treatment Programs: Legal Tools for Addressing Zoning Restrictions and other Municipal Impediments

holtzman_Paulmeixel_jillby Paul Holtzman and Jill Brenner Meixel

Heads Up

 The opioid epidemic has reached historic proportions in the Commonwealth and beyond, as we are reminded by near daily news stories detailing its devastating consequences.  Massachusetts leaders have taken strong steps to curb the epidemic, including legislation signed by Governor Charlie Baker in March.[1]  Similar legislative efforts, including additional funding for treatment, are advancing in Congress, and the Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) announced in March an initiative to increase access to medication-assisted treatment (“MAT”) which employs medication, counseling and education.

While the Commonwealth has prioritized the need for additional treatment, municipal restrictions often hamper efforts by nonprofit and other providers to site substance-abuse treatment programs.  Although public opinion supports expanded treatment in the abstract, when a particular counseling or treatment program is proposed, opposition often arises from neighbors (whether commercial or residential).  In response, municipal officials sometimes advance pretextual bases to deny a building permit or certificate of occupancy.

Attorneys can play an important role in advocating for these programs by marshaling protections offered by state and federal law to overcome unlawful zoning restrictions and discriminatory NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) opposition.  This article outlines two statutory sources of protection for providers seeking to address the epidemic.  In addition, it discusses case law supporting remedies for substance abuse and other social-service programs that have been impeded by neighborhood opposition grounded in stereotypes about, or hostility toward, those suffering from addiction or other disabilities.

  1. The Dover Amendment, M.G.L. c. 40A, §3, ¶ 2.

While a municipality may generally impose zoning restrictions to regulate where different types of uses – residential, commercial, medical, etc. – may be sited, when an educational nonprofit seeks to site a predominantly educational program, M.G.L. c. 40A, §3, ¶ 2, also known as the “Dover Amendment,” expressly prohibits a municipality’s zoning ordinances or bylaws from “regulat[ing] or restrict[ing] the use of land or structures” for that purpose.  This means that a qualifying use must be permitted as of right in any zoning district.  This law “represents a specific exception to the general power of municipalities to adopt and enforce zoning regulations and by-laws.”  Regis College v. Town of Weston, 462 Mass. 280, 289 (2012).

The Massachusetts Zoning Act, which includes the Dover Amendment, authorizes courts to enjoin violations of the Dover Amendment.  See M.G.L. c. 40A, §7.  When representing a substance-abuse facility in response to a municipality’s invocation of inapplicable zoning restrictions, the Dover Amendment is an important legal tool.  Sometimes town officials are not familiar with the provision and a demand letter can resolve the dispute.  In other cases, it is necessary to obtain injunctive relief.  Qualifying nonprofit organizations have successfully negotiated settlements which include both permission to site their program at the chosen location and substantial attorney-fee awards.[2]

What uses qualify as predominantly educational?

If a program’s educational purpose is subordinate to other purposes, it does not qualify for Dover protection.  “The Dover Amendment protects only those uses . . . that have as their bona fide goal something that can reasonably be described as educationally significant”; such an “educationally significant goal must be the ‘primary or dominant’ purpose for which the land or structures will be used.”  Regis College, 462 Mass. at 285.

However, courts “have refused to limit Dover Amendment protection to traditional or conventional educational regimes.”  Id.  In fact, recognizing that the term “education” is a “broad and comprehensive term,” courts have determined that education is the primary or dominant purpose for which land or structures will be used in programs including substance-abuse treatment centers, group homes, programs serving formerly institutionalized adults with mental disabilities, facilities for the care and education of emotionally disturbed children, and organizations helping the homeless.  Id.; Campbell v. City Council of Lynn, 32 Mass. App. Ct. 152, 154 (1992); Fitchburg Housing Auth. v. Zoning Board of Appeals of Fitchburg, 380 Mass. 869, 874 (1980).  Courts have specifically held that “[r]ehabilitation surely falls within the meaning of education.”  Gardner-Athol Area Mental Health Assoc., Inc. v. Zoning Board of Appeals of Gardner, 401 Mass. 12, 15 (1987).  However, “purely residential and purely recreational projects” do not qualify as “educational.”  Regis College, 462 Mass. at 287.

Courts have consistently found that the Dover Amendment protects substance-abuse treatment programs with a primarily educational purpose, including both non-medication and medication-based treatment programs.  Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Boston v. Town of Framingham exemplifies a non-medication based Dover-qualifying program.  Recognizing that Massachusetts courts have interpreted education broadly to include activities “outside the realm of a traditional curriculum,” the court held that a nonprofit educational program for families, including those recovering from addiction, was a protected educational use.  1994 WL 16193868, at *2 (Mass. Land Ct. 1994).

Recently, in Spectrum Health Sys., Inc. v. City of Lawrence, No. 2015-288-C (Essex Super. Ct.), the court granted injunctive relief to a substance-abuse counseling and education center.  In a March 9, 2015 Order, the court held that the plaintiff was protected by the Dover Amendment, noting that “Lawrence is one of a handful of communities within the Commonwealth that is significantly adversely impacted by issues of the economy, crime and substance abuse (now, especially opiate distribution and use/overdosing),” and determined that “by statute, Spectrum has a right to now operate.”  The court entered a further order on April 6, 2015, requiring the defendant to “now issue to the plaintiff . . . an occupancy permit/certificate for the use and occupancy of” the commercial property at issue.

Courts also have held that programs that include medication (the focus of the recent HHS initiative) qualify for Dover Amendment protection.  See, e.g., Fitchburg Housing Auth., 380 Mass. 869, 873 (1980) (“[t]he fact that many of the residents of the facility . . . will be taking prescription drugs does not negate its educational purpose or make its dominant purpose medical.”).  Likewise, the court in Spectrum Health Sys., Inc. v. Town of Weymouth, Civ. A. No. 06-12133-RWZ, 2006 WL 3487030 (D. Mass. Dec. 4, 2006) granted injunctive relief to a provider seeking to operate a MAT program.  The court determined that the program was “likely to prevail on the merits” on its claim that the municipality acted in violation of the Dover Amendment by refusing to issue building permits.  The court ordered the municipality “to immediately allow Plaintiff . . . to operate the subject program.”  See Order of December 7, 2006.

A similar ruling was made where a nonprofit corporation sought to site a MAT program in a commercial (and not medical) district.  In Spectrum Health Sys., Inc. v. City of Haverhill, Civ. A. No. 2014-130-B (Essex Super. Ct.), by order dated January 31, 2014, the court endorsed an agreement whereby the municipality would issue the certificate of occupancy and the provider agreed to certain terms and conditions regarding the operation of the program.  The order stated that the agreement was reached “after a full hearing by the Court, in which the Court advised that there was a likelihood of success on the merits of Plaintiff’s case and that the City of Haverhill potentially could face a sizable judgment of damages should the Plaintiffs prevail.”

The issue of whether a purpose is predominantly educational is often contested and may implicate disputed issues of fact.  For example, in Regis College, the plaintiff proposed to construct a development at the college for older adults, which would require an application and interview process for admission.  Regis College, 462 Mass. at 282.  Residents would have academic advisors and “be required to enroll in a minimum of two courses per semester,” and could potentially “pursue degrees and certificates awarded to the plaintiff’s current student body.”  Id. at 282-83.  While the Land Court entered summary judgment for the defendant determining that the use did not meet the educational requirement, the Supreme Judicial Court vacated the decision, holding that there existed a dispute of fact regarding whether the program “will primarily operate in furtherance of educational purposes.”  Id. at 281.  The SJC noted that the “primary and genuine purpose” requirement ensures that “a party invoking Dover Amendment protection does so without engrafting an educational component onto a project in order to obtain favorable treatment under the statute.”  Id. at 290.  In other words, it is not sufficient to rely upon a stray educational purpose which is a minor element of an otherwise non-exempt project.

Municipalities May Subject Dover-Protected Programs to Certain Restrictions

While municipalities cannot interfere with the siting of substance-abuse programs protected by the Dover Amendment, “such land or structures may be subject to reasonable regulations concerning the bulk and height of structures and determining yard sizes, lot area, setbacks, open space, parking and building coverage requirements.”  M.G.L. c. 40A, §3, ¶ 2.  However, municipalities may not restrict qualifying Dover uses beyond these regulations.  See e.g., Bible Speaks v. Board of Appeals of Lenox, 8 Mass. App. Ct. 19, 33-34 (1979) (“provisions of the Lenox by-law go well beyond the scope of bulk, dimensional, and parking regulations permitted to be imposed on educational uses by G.L. c. 40A, s. 3, and place the board in a position to act, as it did in this case, impermissibly to impede the reasonable use of the (institution’s) land for its educational purposes”) (quotations omitted).

2. The Federal Fair Housing Act

In addition to the Dover Amendment, the federal Fair Housing Act (“FHA”) is often invoked in disputes regarding a municipality’s opposition to the siting of a substance-abuse treatment program.  The FHA establishes that it is unlawful to discriminate “in the sale or rental, or to otherwise make unavailable or deny, a dwelling to any buyer or renter because of a handicap of . . . that buyer or renter.”  42 U.S.C. §3604(f)(1)(A).  Further, the FHA provides that it is “unlawful to coerce, intimidate, threaten, or interfere with any person in the exercise or enjoyment of . . . any right granted or protected by” the Act.  42 U.S.C. §3617.  This statute protects both for-profit and nonprofit providers of services to disabled individuals, and also provides for recovery of attorneys’ fees where a violation is established.

Under the FHA, a plaintiff can assert three distinct causes of action: “intentional discrimination (or disparate treatment), disparate impact, or failure to make a reasonable accommodation.”  South Middlesex Opportunity Council, Inc. v. Town of Framingham, 752 F. Supp. 2d 85, 95 (D. Mass. 2010); Easter Seal Soc’y of New Jersey, Inc. v. Township of North Bergen, 798 F. Supp. 228, 234 (D.N.J. 1992) (township’s misclassification of the use, among other evidence, strongly suggested discrimination).  Discriminatory intent “may be established against [a] public entity by demonstrating” discriminatory treatment, for example, by applying “different rules to the disabled than are applied to others.”  Arc of New Jersey, Inc. v. New Jersey, 950 F. Supp. 637 (1996) (D.N.J. 1996).

Further, any interference or delay in responding to an application for a local permit may constitute a separate violation of the FHA.  Specifically, Section 3604(f)(3)(A) states that “discrimination includes … a refusal to permit … reasonable modifications of existing premises occupied or to be occupied by such person if such modifications may be necessary to afford such person full enjoyment of the premises.”  Case law highlights that municipalities may not impose artificial obstacles to the siting of a facility providing services to the disabled, including the imposition of delay.  By way of example, in South Middlesex, 752 F. Supp. 2d at 89, nonprofit educational corporations operating residential substance abuse treatment programs sued when, in response to a proposed relocation within the Town, the plaintiffs “encountered resistance from some of the residents and local officials” over a period of years.  The court determined that discrimination under the FHA “includes delays in issuing permits that are caused in part by discriminatory intent, even if the permits are ultimately granted,” and stated that “[t]his case involves not only evidence in the record indicating delays, but also communications by the Defendants linking such delays to the nature of the projects and their residents.”  Id. at 97-98.  Accordingly, the court denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, finding that “there is sufficient evidence in the record to raise a dispute as to whether discriminatory action was taken.”  Id. at 98.

Most recently, the Second Circuit reached a similar result in Mhany Mgmt, Inc. v. County of Nassau, No. 14-1634, 14-1729, 2016 WL 1128424 (2d Cir. Mar. 23, 2016).  A non-profit housing developer and several residents alleged that the governmental defendants had re-zoned parcels of county-owned land to prevent the construction of low- and middle-income housing as part of a long-standing discriminatory policy to exclude racial minorities.  The court determined that the defendants’ decision to re-zone was made with discriminatory intent and “was a knowing response to the vocal and racially influenced opposition among [defendants’] citizenry.”  Id. at *19.  The court held that “the district court was entitled to conclude . . . that something was amiss here, and that [defendants’] abrupt shift in zoning in the face of vocal citizen opposition to changing the character of Garden City represented acquiescence to race-based animus.”  Id. at *24.  Importantly, there was no requirement to establish that the governmental officials were themselves motivated by racial discrimination where they acted in “acquiescence” to the discriminatory objections from residents.  The same principle applies in the context of Fair Housing Act liability for discrimination on the basis of disability or handicap.

Reasonable Accommodation Requirement

The FHA also establishes that it is a “discriminatory housing practice” to refuse to make

reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services when such accommodations may be necessary to afford [a handicapped] person equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.

42 U.S.C. §3604(f)(3)(B).  When a municipality refuses to make a reasonable accommodation in the implementation of its zoning “rules,” “policies,” or “practices,” the municipality violates the FHA.  Oxford House v. Town of Babylon, 819 F. Supp. 1179, 1185 (E.D.N.Y. 1993).

It is settled law that a required reasonable accommodation may take the form of an exception to a zoning ordinance.  As the First Circuit noted in Casa Marie, Inc. v. Superior Court, 988 F.2d 252, 270 n. 22 (1st Cir. 1993), “compliance with the zoning ordinances should be ‘waived’” as a reasonable accommodation.  Similarly, the court held in Oxford House, 819 F. Supp. at 1186, that the failure to provide a reasonable accommodation is per se “discriminatory conduct” under the FHA, and stated:

Because one of the purposes of the reasonable accommodations provision is to address individual needs and respond to individual circumstances, courts have held that municipalities must change, waive, or make exceptions in their zoning rules to afford people with disabilities the same access to housing as those who are without disabilities.

An accommodation is “reasonable,” and hence required under the FHA, if it

 does not cause any undue hardship or fiscal or administrative burdens on the municipality, or does not undermine the basic purpose that the zoning ordinance seeks to achieve.

Id.; see also Oxford House v. Township of Cherry Hill, 799 F. Supp. 450, 462 n. 25 (D.N.J. 1992) (“‘Reasonable accommodation’ means changing some rule that is generally applicable to everyone so as to make its burden less onerous on the handicapped individual”).

3. Conclusion

By invoking the robust protections afforded by the Dover Amendment, Fair

Housing Act and other civil-rights statutes, attorneys can assist those on the front lines of substance-abuse treatment and prevention.  While municipalities are empowered to impose reasonable regulations addressing the uses specified in the Dover Amendment, the proposed siting of a qualifying use cannot be derailed or delayed no matter how vociferous the opposition from neighboring residents or businesses.  This set of legal protections constitutes a critical tool in promoting the availability of services for those suffering from the scourge of addiction.

[1] An Act relative to substance use, treatment, education and prevention, Chapter 52 of the Acts of 2016 (March 14, 2016).

[2] While the Dover Amendment does not include an attorneys’ fee provision, applicable civil rights statutes do.  As a result, for example, the City of Pittsfield paid $100,000 in attorneys’ fees to a nonprofit corporation after initially refusing to permit a substance-abuse treatment program to operate.  See “Taxpayers to pay for $100K clinic settlement,” Berkshire Eagle, August 14, 2012.

Paul Holtzman, a partner at Krokidas & Bluestein LLP, focuses on employment, civil rights and litigation matters, including discrimination, harassment, retaliation and whistleblower claims.  He also serves as a mediator and arbitrator.

Jill Brenner Meixel, a partner in Krokidas & Bluestein LLP’s litigation group, represents for-profit and non-profit entities and individuals in commercial, employment, real estate and general litigation matters.

Attorneys Holtzman and Meixel have represented social service providers including substance abuse programs in challenging municipal obstacles to siting.


Helping to Create the “Practice Ready” Lawyer

Burroughs_Allisonby BBA President Lisa Arrowood

President’s Page

In late 2015, I had the honor of speaking at one of the several swearing in ceremonies for new lawyers in Faneuil Hall. It’s one of the things I enjoy most about being an officer of the Boston Bar Association.   It was so nice to speak to a group of enthusiastic young lawyers, as well as their proud family members.

As I welcomed them to the profession – a profession which, I think, is one of the best in the world – I knew that many of them had not yet found jobs that required a J.D. degree and that some of them never would.

There are so many challenges affecting lawyers today that it’s hard to list them all, but I think for many of the people who recently graduated law school the most significant challenge is the reduction in the number of jobs available for new lawyers.

I have always had a great deal of sympathy for anybody who put themselves through the three years of rigorous study that law school requires – not to mention the cost – who then get out and don’t get jobs.  As a hiring partner at two separate firms, I have received countless resumes from incredibly impressive recent graduates for whom we had no openings. It breaks my heart to see people work very hard to do well both in college and law school, and then be unable to find employment.   This is such a contrast to the situation not so very long ago when there were well-paying jobs galore.

Compounding this issue is the fact that these recent graduates don’t yet know how to do much legal work.  For those who will never get hired, they need to learn how to do the cases ordinary people will hire a solo practitioner to do handling a divorce case, drafting a will or handling an eviction.

And so a big part of what I’m focusing on as President of the BBA is finding ways to help those people. Can we get them all jobs? No. But what we can do is help them become “practice ready.” We can help them build practical skills so they can represent regular people with regular legal needs. These are the clients who aren’t eligible for legal aid, but who still can’t afford most lawyers out there.

To that end, I’m so pleased to announce that in January we launched “Friday Fundamentals,” which is a series of short, “how-to” trainings on specific legal issues. These sessions are designed to give new attorneys the practical and technical skills required to represent clients, as well as add some additional knowledge and expertise to their resume.

The BBA is also working hard to ensure that new lawyers who want to go solo are getting top-notch guidance and support.  Later this year, we will offer a comprehensive, hands-on workshop on how to launch a successful solo practice. This, in addition to our existing resources – from offering a place to meet with clients in our new member space rooms to discounts on professional liability insurance through USI Affinity – should help new graduates start their own practices and begin representing clients who now have no legal representation and who are part of the pro se litigant crisis troubling our courts.

With its well-established Professional Development program structure, the BBA is incredibly well suited to teach these skills. When I first learned about the BBA’s brown bag lunches, I went to a few of them.  In 90 minutes over lunch, a young lawyer can learn from the stars of the bar – for free!

Friday Fundamentals is building off this very successful model. From now until June, each of the BBA’s 24 sections – covering all areas of law – will offer CLEs or brown bag lunch programs designed for beginners. I’m thrilled and proud of the effort that these Section leaders have put in toward training the next generation of lawyers.  To those of you with new associates in your ranks: encourage them to take advantage of this series.  For those young lawyers out there: these programs are for you.  Take advantage of them!

Are we going to fix this in a year? No. But it’s a wonderful place to start.

Lisa is a founding partner of Arrowood Peters LLP, whose practice concentrates on business litigation, employment disputes, medical malpractice, personal injury, and legal malpractice. At the BBA, Lisa has served as the President-Elect, Vice President, and Secretary of the Council, the Co-Chair of the BBA Torts Committee, and a member of the Executive Committee, as well as various other committees. She is a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers (ACTL), a Fellow of the International Academy of Trial Lawyers and immediate past Chair of the ACTL Massachusetts State Committee as well as a member of the Boston Bar Foundation’s Society of Fellows. 


The Federal Judicial Selection Process

Burroughs_Allisonby Judge Allison D. Burroughs

Voice of the Judiciary

As the most newly-minted judge in the Federal District of Massachusetts, I have been asked to reflect on my experience through the selection process while it is still relatively fresh in my mind.  At least in this district, in my round (and as I learned at baby judge school, there is a wide variety between districts), the two Massachusetts senators formed a selection committee, headed by Judge Nancy Gertner (ret).  The committee solicited applications.  The application itself was long and detailed.  It collected a lot of information which I am sure was helpful to the committee, but also required me to dig up long forgotten personal information (like addresses, phone numbers and jobs) going back to when I was 18 years old. Harder than it sounds.  This likely served the dual purpose of providing information, but also sorting out who was truly committed to the process.  The names of the approximately 12 committee members and the application itself were publicly available.

The front end of the process moved very quickly. Once the application deadline had passed (late January, 2014), I was asked to interview with the committee (approximately February).  The interview questions were as wide ranging and diverse as the interests of the committee members and included topics such as temperament, role of a judge, reasons for wanting to be a judge, substantive legal questions, experience with various sorts of cases, views on discovery and professional and personal  background.    The next step was an interview with the two senators (approximately March).  In my case, they interviewed me together, but I am not sure that is always the case.  At some point thereafter (approximately April), I was notified that my name was being forwarded to the White House.  This was the single most exciting moment of the process and one that I will always remember.  I was in the lobby of a hotel, on vacation with my family, when my cell phone rang.  I didn’t recognize the number and let it go to voice mail. It turned out to be Senator Warren herself, asking that I return the call.  Needless to say, I returned the call very promptly.  I have kept that voice mail – truly one of those calls you don’t really ever expect and certainly don’t forget.

After that, my primary contact with the process was through the Justice Department Office of Legal Policy rather than the Senators.  My application, resume, background and professional qualifications were vetted by the FBI – which I know only because of the number of calls I got from people who had been contacted. There was an interview in the Old Executive Office Building that included White House Counsel staff and people from the Department of Justice, among others (but not the President).  During this same time frame, I was also vetted by the ABA which traditionally has been given the opportunity to review candidates prior to their nomination and to share with the White House its opinion of an applicant’s qualifications.  The vetting process is an odd thing to experience, in part because it can be awkward to interact with people that you realize are likely being interviewed about you.  It’s also disquieting to know that you are being judged by committees of people whom you have never met and who don’t know you.  At various points, I had the chance to respond generally to things that were said about me and my qualifications.  On the one hand, some people are very generous in their assessment of others.  That being said, there were also comments that seemed unfounded, but that were, in some instances, hard to defend against.  It was also humbling and somewhat surprising to realize that strong endorsements could come from unexpected constituencies, but that the opposite was also true.

In approximately May, I was informed by the Office of the Legal Policy that the President was going to nominate me.  Surprisingly, this moment was much less climactic than learning that my name was going to be forwarded to the President – largely because it was the culmination of a process that I knew was going on, rather than a surprise call.  I was formally nominated on July 31, 2014.  On September 17, I had my confirmation hearing which involved the Senate Judiciary Committee questioning a panel that consisted of me and 3 other nominees from other districts (3 Article III judges and 1 Article II judge).  The hearing was not attended by all of the committee members and was shorter than I anticipated.  The questioning was done by one Senator from each party.  The Senators who attended and the ones that did not then had the opportunity to follow up the hearing with written questions. These were quite substantive and covered topics such as the death penalty, my view of precedent, appropriate judicial temperament, gay marriage, equal protection and the reach of the Commerce Clause.

On November 20, I was voted out of committee (which I learned from the Senate Judiciary website).  This meant that my nomination could proceed to the Senate floor for a vote.  I was given very little information about when the floor vote might happen, if at all.  In my case, the votes for the group of judicial and other presidential nominees in which I was included took place on December 16, 2014, right before the Senate recessed for the year, and in literally the last series of votes before the recess. This was fortuitous given the less hospitable make-up of the new Senate for presidential nominees; I was aware that it was at least possible that my nomination might never be brought forward for a vote if it did not occur before the recess.  I did not know the vote was going to happen beforehand, but I did know it was likely the last night of the session.  I was able to watch the vote only because I had the television set turned on to CSPAN.  Hearing my name called for a Senate vote was one of the other very big thrills of the process.

Once a nomination is voted on by the Senate, the President has to sign your commission which generally takes no more than a couple of days.  At that point you are IN! I took a few weeks to wind up my practice.  I was officially sworn in January 2015 (almost exactly a year after I submitted my application) and then had a more public ceremonial swearing in July – oddly enough a year to the day from my nomination.

Although that largely sums up my active participation in my nomination and confirmation, I am sure there were many machinations behind the scenes – not about me exactly, but more about the challenges of getting a large group of pending nominations (not just judicial) through the Senate as quickly and efficiently as possible.  I appreciated and was repeatedly impressed throughout the process with how generously and selflessly various people worked to make sure that my nomination and confirmation continued to move forward, and I remain grateful for their encouragement and support.

Now that I am on the bench, I continue to feel very honored and lucky to have this job.  I spend a lot of time thinking about how to do it right – in terms of correctly applying law to facts, but also in making sure that I treat litigants and their lawyers with respect and in trying to ensure that people, win or lose, feel like they were heard and their views fairly considered.  A few other random thoughts:

I think about I Love Lucy, even if fleetingly, almost every day. This job is so much like the bon bons on the conveyor belt episode. The paper just keeps coming. For those of you (like my law clerk) too young to understand what I just said – find the episode.  It’s a classic.

As a judge, I have repeatedly offered young associates in court the opportunity to make a brief argument on a motion once the lead attorneys have finished their presentations. Not once has anyone taken me up on this offer.  I suspect that is because the young attorneys are wary of partner or client response. I will keep making the offer and hope that litigants will see it as an opportunity to make their points one more time, rather than as a potential pitfall for the young and unwary.  Just as I would like to see more young lawyers with speaking roles, I have also been struck by the relative paucity of female litigators and would similarly like to see more women in court.

I am aware that the women on the bench, particularly the few of us with younger children, are, to some extent, role models for other women and that we may have a unique perspective on some of the challenges facing women in the legal profession.  I have been experimenting with a 10-4 trial day instead of the more usual 9-1, thinking that this might benefit parents who do school drop off, as well as resulting in fewer trial days for the jurors.  I am also finding that as a judge, rather than a partner in a law firm with client and practice development responsibilities, I have much better control of my schedule (except for those times when I have no control over it at all).  As a result, I am more likely to make it home for dinner with my family.  That being said, the volume of work is huge and unrelenting and I almost always work for several more hour later in the evening.

Finally, for those who have asked, yes, some people treat me differently. Most people treat me the same, which I appreciate.  That being said, the job has required me to give significant thought to personal relationships.   All of the other judges have been incredibly welcoming and generous with their time and advice, but there is the adjustment of thinking of them as peers and the resulting reordering of my prior relationships with many of them.  Similarly, many legal conflicts are easily identified and resolved, but determinations about the appearance of unfairness based on personal and past professional interactions can be much more nuanced.   I believe that a judge should remain a part of the legal community, but there are challenges in maintaining those connections without compromising confidence in the fairness of the process.   I pay a great deal of attention to this obligation, and am becoming more comfortable with the balancing as time goes on.

Judge Burroughs was sworn in as a United States District Court Judge for the District of Massachusetts in January 2015.  Prior to joining the bench, she was a partner in the Boston law firm of Nutter McClennen & Fish.  Before entering private practice, she served for sixteen years as an Assistant United States Attorney in Boston and Philadelphia.  


The Impact of Recent Revisions of the Massachusetts Rules of Professional Conduct on Confidentiality

Newhouse_MartinWoolf_Jeffreyby Martin J. Newhouse and Jeffrey D. Woolf

Heads Up 

The recent revisions by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) to the Massachusetts Rules of Professional Conduct effective July 1, 2015 included numerous changes to the rules governing confidentiality of client information, including substantial revisions of rule 1.6 (“Confidentiality of Information”).  The changes, as addressed herein, generally clarify a lawyer’s obligations under the Rules and also offer more helpful guidance on several points than was previously provided.

Rule 1.6:

  • The scope of information covered remains unchanged.  The SJC maintained a major difference between the Massachusetts and the ABA Model Rules, namely by continuing to limit the information covered by rule 1.6 only to “confidential information relating to the representation.”  (The ABA Model Rule covers all “information relating to the representation.”)
  • A clearer definition provided for “confidential information.”  In a very helpful step, the SJC also provided new comments, [3A] and [3B], clarifying what constitutes “confidential information.”  Comment [3A] defines confidential information as information relating to the representation of a client, whatever its source, that is (a) privileged; (b) likely to be embarrassing or detrimental to the client if disclosed; or (c) is information the lawyer has agreed to keep confidential.  Comment [3A] also provides a road map of what types of information would not be “confidential” under the rule.  Comment [3B] further explains the limitation of the rule to “confidential information” and explains how this change has been carried out throughout the Massachusetts Rules of Professional Conduct.
  • Expanding protection of non-confidential information.  In an interesting addition, the SJC warns in comment [4] that the prohibition against disclosing confidential information also prohibits any disclosure of information, while not itself protected under rule 1.6, that “could reasonably lead to the discovery of [protected] information by a third person.”  Included in this are hypotheticals that may lead others to “ascertain the identity of the client or the situation involved.”
  • Enlarging the scope of permissible disclosures. Most notably, the SJC has added two new exceptions to rule 1.6(b).  Rule 1.6(b)(4) expressly permits disclosure “to secure legal advice about the lawyer’s compliance with these Rules.”  Rule 1.8(b)(7) permits limited disclosure “to detect and resolve conflicts” when lawyers change employment or firm ownership changes.  In addition, the new rule 1.6(b)(3), along with revisions to rule 1.6(b)(1) and (2), clarify prior existing exceptions.  Significantly, rule 1.6(b)(1) continues to contain a provision, absent from the Model Rules, which authorizes the disclosure of confidential information “to prevent the wrongful execution or incarceration of another.”  Rule 1.6(b)(2) also continues the prior Massachusetts provision that permits disclosure to “prevent the commission of a criminal or fraudulent act,” without limiting this exception to conduct committed by “the client,” as exists under Model Rule 1.6(b)(2).  Thus the Massachusetts rule permits disclosure to prevent the commission of a crime or fraudulent conduct by a third person.  Also unlike Model Rule 1.6(b)(2), the Massachusetts rule does not require that the lawyer’s services must have been used in furtherance of the crime or fraud in order for disclosure to be permitted.  Permissive disclosure under rule 1.6(b)(2) is also not limited, as previously and under the Model Rules, to preventing conduct likely to cause substantial damage to property and financial interests of another; new rule 1.6(b)(2) additionally permits disclosure where substantial damage is likely to “other significant interests” of another.
  • Enhanced guidance with regard to disclosure exceptions. Comments [5] et seq. have been revised or wholly rewritten to provide more detailed and much needed guidance for lawyers seeking to understand whether disclosure is permitted or required.  For example, comment [12] discusses disclosure that may be required by other law; comment [15] provides guidance on dealing with a court order requiring disclosure; comments [13] and [14] deal in detail with the disclosures when lawyers change employment or firms change ownership.  Finally, comment [17] provides important guidance on how lawyers should exercise their discretion when an exception under rule 1.6(b) authorizes discretionary disclosure.
  • Addition of Rule 1.6(c). This new subsection requires lawyers to make reasonable efforts to prevent inadvertent or unauthorized disclosure of, or access to, confidential information protected under the rule.  New comments [18] and [19] provide, inter alia, that unauthorized access to or disclosure of confidential information “does not constitute a violation of paragraph [1.6](c) if the lawyer has made reasonable efforts to prevent the access or disclosure.” The comments discuss the factors to be considered as to whether reasonable efforts have been made.  Comment [18] cross-references comments [3] and [4] to rule 5.3 with regard to the sharing of information with non-lawyers outside the lawyer’s firm (e.g., an outside document management company).  Comments [18] and [19] confirm an attorney’s obligation to comply with all applicable state and federal privacy laws.  (Practice tip: be aware of your obligations under Mass. G.L. c. 93H (the Massachusetts security breach notification law) and the corresponding regulations, 201 CMR § 17.00 et seq.).

Rule 1.8(b) and 1.9(c)(1):

Although in a number of respects, the SJC’s revisions to the Massachusetts Rules of Professional Conduct have brought our rules into closer conformity with the ABA Model Rules, they have also preserved important distinctions.  As discussed above, the SJC retained our narrower definition of the scope of information covered by rule 1.6.

Similarly, while both rules 1.8(b) and 1.9(c)(1) parallel the ABA Model Rules in prohibiting the use of confidential information relating to the representation to the disadvantage of the client or, in the case of rule 1.9(c)(1), the former client, the SJC has retained in each rule the prohibition against using such information for the benefit of a third party or for the lawyer’s own benefit.  Under rule 1.8(b) such information may be so used if the client gives informed consent or such use is permitted or required by the rules.  Under rule 1.9(c)(1), such use is only allowed if permitted or required under rules 1.6, 3.3, or 4.1 with respect to the former client.  Rule 1.9(c) applies not only to a lawyer who has formerly represented a client in a matter but also if the lawyer’s present or former firm has formerly represented the client in a matter.

New Rule 1.18:

On the other hand, the SJC has not hesitated to adopt aspects of the ABA Model Rules that fill gaps in or represent improvements to the Massachusetts ethics rules.  One such example is the SJC’s adoption of Model Rule 1.18, which defines the duties owed to prospective clients.  The new rule makes it an ethical violation for a lawyer to engage in conduct for which the lawyer  would previously have been liable in tort for violating confidentiality obligations to a prospective client:

  • Under rule 1.18(b), even when no client-lawyer relationship is formed with the prospective client, a lawyer may not use or disclose confidential information learned from the prospective client, except as rule 1.9 would permit in the case of a former client.
  • Under rule 1.18(c), a lawyer who has received confidential information from a prospective client may not take on a representation materially adverse to the prospective client in the same or substantially related matter if the confidential information received could be significantly harmful to the prospective client.  If a lawyer is disqualified under this sub-section, no lawyer in the lawyer’s firm may knowingly undertake or continue the representation adverse to the prospective client.
  • However, rule 1.18(d) provides that, even when the lawyer has received disqualifying information from the prospective client, representation in the adverse matter is permitted if (1) both the affected and the prospective client give written informed consent or the lawyer who received the information took reasonable precautions to limit the information from the prospective client and is timely screened, as defined in rule 1.10(e), and the prospective client is promptly given written notice.

 Rule 1.0 (former Rule 9.1):

“Definitions” in the Massachusetts Rules of Professional Conduct used to be found in rule 9.1.  Consistent with the ABA Model Rules, this has been renamed as “Terminology” and renumbered as rule 1.0.  Three new definitions (and corresponding commentary) have been added:  “informed consent”; “confirmed in writing”; and “writing” (or “written”).  The new Massachusetts definitions are largely consistent with the ABA Model Rules.

New Rule 4.4(b):

The SJC also has added rule 4.4(b), which is identical to the corresponding ABA Model Rule, and for the first time addresses a lawyer’s obligation upon receipt of documents or electronic information that was inadvertently sent by opposing lawyers or parties.  Rule 4.4(b) requires a lawyer receiving such documents or information to notify the sender promptly, in order that (as stated in comment [2]) the sender may take protective measures.  Comments [2] and [3] provide a good discussion of the problem the rule addresses.  Importantly, comment [2] brings metadata in electronic documents within the purview of rule 4.4(b) “only if the receiving lawyer knows or reasonably should know that the metadata was inadvertently sent to the receiving lawyer.”   Comment [3] recognizes a lawyer’s professional discretion to return or delete such documents unread where the law does not require other action.

In conclusion, the reader is directed to the “Report of the Standing Advisory Committee on the Adoption of Revised Rules of Professional Conduct Effective July 1, 2015,” for a further discussion of these and other changes.

Martin J. Newhouse, President of the New England Legal Foundation, is a member of the SJC Clients’ Security Board and BBA Ethics Committee.

Jeffrey D. Woolf is an Assistant General Counsel to the Board of Bar Overseers and is a member of the BBA Ethics Committee.


Seeking Justice for the Erroneously Convicted: Assessing the First Decade of Compensation Claims under Chapter 258D

Hartnagel_Davidby David Hartnagel

Legal Analysis

By the late 1990s and early 2000s, due to increased use of DNA and other scientific evidence, and further scrutiny of eyewitness identification, the number of criminal exonerations in both Massachusetts and the nation grew significantly.  As of 2002, over 100 prisoners nationwide were found to be innocent and released after additional scientific testing of evidence; and between 1997 and 2002, six men in Massachusetts were exonerated after new DNA testing proved they were innocent of the crimes for which they had been convicted.[i]  As attention on wrongful convictions increased, so did interest in providing exonerated individuals with a means to seek relief redress for time served, erroneously, in prison.  As a result, in late 2004, Massachusetts enacted Chapter 258D.  See St. 2004, c. 444; G.L. c. 258D.

This legislation was intended, in part, to meet the Commonwealth’s “moral obligation” to compensate those who had been erroneously convicted.[ii]  Before Chapter 258D was enacted, Massachusetts had compensated only two exonerated men over the prior half-century, both by special legislative action.  In 1958, Santos Rodriguez, who had spent over two years in prison for allegedly killing a woman, received $12,500 after the true killer confessed.  Similarly, in 1992, Bobby Joe Leaster, who had served 15 years of a life sentence for murder, received a $500,000 annuity when new eyewitness testimony exonerated him.[iii]  In contrast, since the enactment of Chapter 258D, approximately 50 people have sought relief, resulting in the Commonwealth paying over $9 million to nearly two dozen individuals whose convictions had been overturned.

This article examines Chapter 258D’s key provisions and looks back at its first decade, analyzing how well the Act has worked in compensating those who were erroneously convicted, and proposing changes to make the Act more effective.

I. Key Provisions of the Erroneous Conviction Statute
A. To Seek Compensation, a Claimant Must First Be Eligible

Chapter 258D sets forth strict threshold criteria for an individual even to be considered eligible for compensation.  A person must have been convicted of a felony and sentenced to not less than one year in a state prison – and served all or part of that sentence.  G.L. c. 258D, § 1(C).  In addition, the individual must have either received a pardon from the Governor or been granted judicial relief by a state court “on grounds which tend to establish the innocence of the individual.”  G.L. c. 258D, § 1(B).[iv]  The term “tend to establish” was offered by then-Governor Romney to “limit[] the class of claimants to those who received judicial relief on grounds that directly implicate innocence.”  Guzman v. Commonwealth, 458 Mass. 354, 358-59 (2010).  The phrase has been further interpreted to mean “grounds resting upon facts and circumstances probative of the proposition that the claimant did not commit the crime.”  Id. at 362 (internal citations and quotations omitted).  But such grounds must tend to do more than merely “assist the defendant’s chances of acquittal.”  Id. at 360.[v]

In the first appellate decisions interpreting the statute, Guzman and Drumgold v. Commonwealth, 458 Mass. 367 (2010), the claimants’ underlying convictions were overturned on grounds that undoubtedly tended to establish their innocence.  In Guzman, the claimant’s defense attorney failed to call two eyewitnesses who would have testified that the claimant was not the person who committed the crime.  458 Mass. at 363-65.  In Drumgold, the Commonwealth failed to disclose exculpatory evidence concerning promises and rewards made to a prosecution witness and newly discovered evidence relating to the credibility of a critical eyewitness.  458 Mass. at 372-76.

More recently, though, courts have considered factual scenarios that are less clear cut, such as where claimants’ convictions were reversed simply due to insufficient evidence.  In the first instance, Renaud v. Commonwealth, 471 Mass. 315 (2015), the Court agreed with the Commonwealth that convictions reversed for insufficient evidence do not “categorically” equate to actual innocence, but the Court concluded that the absence of certain types of evidence may nonetheless tend to show actual innocence.  Id. at 319.  Courts must therefore “follow a case-specific, fact-based approach to determine whether judicial relief based on insufficient evidence tends to establish actual innocence in any given case.”  Santana v. Commonwealth, 88 Mass. App. Ct. 553, 555 (2015).  As it turned out, the courts in Renaud, Santana, and Nguyen v. Commonwealth, 88 Mass. App. Ct. 1111, 2015 WL 6680985 (Nov. 2, 2015) (Rule 1:28 opinion) all held that the claimants were eligible under Chapter 258D.  See Renaud, 471 Mass. at 317 (larceny convictions reversed where the evidence consisted largely of only an EBT card bearing the claimant’s name at the crime scene); Santana, 88 Mass. App. Ct. at 555 (drug conviction reversed because the only evidence of constructive possession was claimant’s presence as a passenger in the car where the drugs were discovered); Commonwealth v. Nguyen, 76 Mass. App. Ct. 1137, 2010 WL 2268933, at *3 (June 28, 2010) (Rule 1:28 opinion) (gun conviction reversed because of insufficient evidence that claimant had knowledge that the firearm was in the vehicle where it was found).  As a result, the more recent appellate trend in these types of cases has been to hold in favor of claimants’ eligibility.

B. To Receive Compensation, a Claimant Has the Burden To Prove His Actual Innocence

If a claimant meets the eligibility requirements, he will face a trial at which he must, by clear and convincing evidence, prove that he did not commit the crime for which he was originally charged, or any other felony arising out of or reasonably connected to the facts supporting the indictment or complaint, or any lesser-included felony.  G.L. c. 258D, § 1(C)(vi).

Chapter 258D, however, also recognizes that an erroneous conviction trial may take place years after the underlying crime occurred.  Evidence and testimony may have been lost, forgotten, damaged, or destroyed, all through no fault of any party.  Thus, Chapter 258D  provides that a court “shall exercise” its discretion “when determining the admissibility and weight of evidence” by considering:  “any difficulties of proof caused by the passage of time, the death or unavailability or witnesses, or other factors not caused by the claimant, or those acting on the claimant’s or the commonwealth’s behalf.”  Id. § 1(F).  Moreover, “[t]he court shall instruct the jury that it may consider the[se] same factors when it weighs the evidence presented at trial.”  Id.  Chapter 258D thus balances the need for the parties to provide the factfinder with as much evidence concerning the allegations and defenses, while acknowledging the limitations on the reliability of such evidence.

C. Types of Relief Available Under Chapter 258D

A successful claimant can receive four potential types of relief:  (1) $500,000[vi]; (2) 50 percent tuition reduction from any public university or college in Massachusetts; (3) services to address physical and emotional deficiencies related to one’s conviction and incarceration; and (4) expungement or sealing of records.  G.L. c. 258D, §§ 5, 7.  However, one who settles with the Commonwealth, where no judgment is entered in his favor, is ineligible to seek expungement or sealing.  See Memo. of Decision and Order, Commonwealth v. Baran, Civil Action No. SUCV2010-00034 (Mass. Super. Dec. 12, 2013).  In addition, a claimant is barred from recovering punitive damages, interest, costs, or attorney’s fees.  See G.L. c. 258D, § 5(A).

II. Actions Under the Erroneous Conviction Statute

Approximately 50 actions have been filed under Chapter 258D and the vast majority have proceeded along one of two paths:  settlement or dismissal due to ineligibility.  The initial cases largely concerned convictions that had been reversed well before 2004[vii] because of scientific testing, perjured or manufactured evidence, or faulty eyewitness testimony.  Due to the uncontroverted evidence of innocence, those cases often ended in settlements at or near the maximum amount of monetary relief.[viii]  The Commonwealth has settled approximately half of all Chapter 258D cases for over $9 million, which cases (except for one) were filed in the statute’s first five years.  After 2010, the Commonwealth has settled few cases and none recently.  Many of the remaining closed cases were often dismissed as the claimants were ineligible, i.e. their convictions were reversed on grounds that did not tend to establish their innocence, their claims were untimely, or they did not otherwise satisfy the statute’s requirements.

Just three cases have gone to trial, and only one – brought by Ulysses Charles – ended with a verdict for the claimant.  But this figure will likely increase in the near future:  as of this article’s publication, around a half dozen cases are pending before the Superior Court and at least two others are pending appeal (with respect to claimants’ eligibility).  Also, a number of these actions, such as Renaud, Santana, and Nguyen, are unlikely to settle.  These cases are largely based on convictions that were reversed due to insufficient evidence, as opposed to newly discovered affirmative evidence of innocence such as DNA evidence, recanted testimony, or police misconduct.  Similar circumstances existed in the two other Chapter 258D actions that went to trial, which ended with verdicts in favor of the Commonwealth.  Ultimately, with the presently pending Chapter 258D cases, the Commonwealth will likely be more inclined to take its chances at trial (with the attendant cap on damages and unavailability of interest and fees) than settle beforehand, in light of the claimants’ high burden at trial and the lack of clear exonerating evidence.

III. Challenges to Fulfilling Chapter 258D’s Goals, and Potential Solutions

With just over a decade’s worth of experience with Chapter 258D, some challenges to its efficacy have come to light.  Certain changes, some small in nature, could greatly improve its workability and help achieve its purpose more fully.

A. Chapter 258D Actions Proceed Slowly, Preventing an Erroneously Convicted Individual From Receiving Timely, Effective Compensation
1. Chapter 258D Actions Are Assigned to the Slowest Schedule in the Superior Court

Because of the pace at which Chapter 258D actions proceed, they place an unnecessary burden on claimants.  This is particularly so when one considers that claimants’ cases typically involve considerable investigation and discovery well before any Chapter 258D action is even contemplated.  One reason for the slow pace is that Chapter 258D actions, as actions against the Commonwealth, are assigned to the most deliberate schedule, Track A, under current Superior Court Standing Orders.  Track A provides for two years of discovery, and targeted resolution in three years.  See Superior Court Standing Order 1-88.

As one example, Bernard Baran served approximately 20 years in prison before his conviction was reversed.  Commonwealth v. Baran, 74 Mass. App. Ct. 256 (2009).  By the time Baran filed his Chapter 258D action in 2010, at least a half dozen substantive and evidentiary proceedings had occurred over the prior two decades.  Yet, Baran was forced to proceed via Track A.  Ultimately, Baran settled for less than the statutory cap in 2012, instead of waiting – possibly even years longer – for greater compensation and a potential judgment of innocence.

Even where claimants had claims that would otherwise exceed $500,000 in damages, if not for the Chapter 258D cap, due to lengthy incarcerations, and presented uncontroverted evidence of innocence, they have at times faced long delays before receiving compensation.  Stephan Cowans, Angel Hernandez, Dennis Maher, Neil Miller, Marvin Mitchell, Anthony Powell, and Eric Sarsfield all had convictions reversed as a result of scientific evidence,[ix] yet each waited from seven months to almost two years after filing their Chapter 258D complaints before settling for the maximum amount of compensation under the statute.

These delays are contrary to the statute’s purpose, particularly when a conviction is reversed as a result of uncontroverted scientific evidence and the claimant’s innocence should not be in question.[x]  As a result, Standing Order 1-88 should be amended to allow for Chapter 258D cases to be brought under an accelerated schedule.  In the alternative, Chapter 258D should be amended to provide a right to a speedy trial, akin to other civil matters.[xi]  Another possible solution is mandatory mediation between a claimant and the Commonwealth in cases where convictions are overturned on the basis of uncontroverted scientific evidence.  This final idea finds further support in light of the newly-enacted Chapter 278A, which provides for post-conviction access to DNA testing for convicted individuals asserting their innocence.  G.L. c. 278A, et seq.

2. The Commonwealth’s Right to Interlocutory Appeal of Eligibility Determinations

Another cause of significant delay in Chapter 258D actions is the Commonwealth’s right to interlocutory appeal of an adverse decision on the issue of a claimant’s eligibility.  The Commonwealth may pursue such an interlocutory appeal pursuant to the doctrine of present execution because Chapter 258D represents a limited waiver of sovereign immunity.  See Irwin v. Commonwealth, 465 Mass. 834, 842 (2013).  The claimant is then faced with a difficult choice:  (a) stay discovery, preserve resources, and wait for a potentially lengthy appeal period to be completed or (b) proceed with discovery, incur expenses, and impose on the claimant’s time and mental health, while running the risk of losing the appeal on the threshold issue of eligibility.[xii]

One possible solution is for the Appeals Court to alter its internal practices, prioritizing Chapter 258D actions when the issue is one of a claimant’s eligibility.  The Appeals Court regularly expedites cases involving custody and adoption issues concerning children; the same could be done for Chapter 258D erroneous conviction claims.  An alternative would be to amend Chapter 258D to impose a fee-shifting measure for any unsuccessful appeal by the Commonwealth on the issue of eligibility.

B. The Statutory Cap on Monetary Relief Prevents Fair Compensation

After a decade in practice, the Chapter 258D damages cap of $500,000 should be increased or modified.  Simply put, an individual who was erroneously convicted and served months, years, or decades in prison is very likely to receive a damages award exponentially lower than one who alleges that the Commonwealth violated his civil rights or discriminated under Chapter 151B, as neither of those claims has a cap on damages.

When the statute was enacted in 2004, capping monetary damages at $500,000 was intended to limit the Commonwealth’s fiscal exposure.  This concern, however, is outweighed by the moral imperative of providing individuals the opportunity to be compensated for years lost in wrongful confinement.  In the initial years after Chapter 258D’s passage, the Commonwealth settled many claims with people exonerated long before the law’s enactment, resulting in millions of dollars of damages awards.  But since 2011, the Commonwealth has paid less than a million dollars in compensation under Chapter 258D to only a few exonerees, and nothing since 2013.

Modifying the damages cap would provide the Commonwealth, courts, and juries with the flexibility to compensate more fairly those individuals most deserving.  For example, Angel Hernandez served 13 years before being cleared through DNA evidence.  He ultimately received a maximum settlement under the statute; however, that amount equaled only around $38,000 for every year he should not have been in prison.

The Commonwealth need not forgo a cap – other jurisdictions with analogous compensation schemes have more flexible forms of relief, some providing limits based on years of incarceration.[xiii]  As a result, claimants could be entitled to a maximum amount of money for every year they erroneously served in prison, for example $100,000 per year, thereby providing greater compensation to those persons who have suffered the greater harm.

The enactment of Chapter 258D filled a critical void – it both acknowledged that mistakes are made in our criminal justice system and that the Commonwealth should compensate the victims of such errors.  After a decade in practice, however, Chapter 258D presents certain obstacles for erroneously convicted individuals to receive compensation for the years they were wrongfully imprisoned.  Consistent with the statute’s goal to address the Commonwealth’s moral obligation to these individuals, Chapter 258D should be amended to advance its original intent: fairly and efficiently compensating erroneously convicted individuals.

 

[i] Fisher, Stanley Z., Convictions of Innocent Persons in Massachusetts: An Overview, 12 B.U. Pub. Int. L.J. 1, 72 n.3 (2002).

[ii] See Testimony of Representative Patricia Jehlen (March 19, 2003), available at http://web.archive.org/web/20040807031601/http://www.patjehlen.org/2506testimony.html (last visited January 2, 2016).

[iii] Wisneski, Ashley H., “‘That’s Just Not Right’:  Monetary Compensation for the Wrongly Convicted in Massachusetts,” 88 Mass. L. Rev. 138, 139 & nn.20-21 (2004).

[iv] Such relief must have vacated or reversed the conviction and either the indictment or complaint was dismissed (or a nolle prosequi entered) or the individual was found not guilty if a new trial was conducted.  G.L. c. 258D, § 1(B)(ii).

[v] The Court in Guzman also provided a non-exhaustive list of procedural, evidentiary, and structural deficiencies that may serve as the basis for the reversal of a defendant’s conviction, but would not satisfy Chapter 258D’s eligibility provision in light of the Governor’s amendment: a violation of a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to confrontation; a violation of a defendant’s Bruton rights; a prosecutor’s improper closing argument; and an erroneous disallowance of a defendant’s peremptory challenge.  Guzman, 458 Mass. at 358 n.6; see Silva-Santiago v. Commonwealth, 85 Mass. App. Ct. 906, 909 (2014); Riley v. Commonwealth, 82 Mass. App. Ct. 209, 215-16 (2012).

[vi] One concern of legislators prior to Chapter 258D’s enactment was the financial burden it might place on the Commonwealth.  In the end, the payment of the $500,000 annuity to Leaster in 1992 served as a guidepost for the maximum amount of recovery allowable under the statute.  See Note 3 (citing then-Representative Jehlen’s testimony before the House Committee on Public Safety (Mar. 15, 2001)); McCarthy, Brendan, “House passes wrongful conviction bill,” The Boston Globe (Oct. 23, 2003); G.L. c. 258D, § 5.

[vii] Individuals whose convictions had been overturned prior to 2004 had three years after the enactment of Chapter 258D to file suit.  2004 Mass. Acts c. 444, § 3.

[viii] This includes the settlements for, among others, Stephen Cowans, the Estate of Louis Greco, Angel Hernandez, Donnell Johnson, Dennis Maher, Neil Miller, Marvin Mitchell, Marlon Passley, Anthony Powell, Guy Randolph, and Eric Sarsfield.  See http://www.newenglandinnocence.org/category/exonerees/ (last visited January 2, 2016).

[ix] See Note 8.

[x] Certain legislative sponsors of the original statute anticipated that such cases would be handled promptly.  Then-Senator Diane Wilkerson said she “might understand [the Attorney General] scrutinizing a case involving a defendant who was wrongly convicted because of, say, a flawed police investigation” but questioned the delays in compensation for those who filed claims who “were exonerated because of airtight DNA evidence.”  Saltzman, Jonathan, “Reilly accused of funds delay for ex-inmates,” The Boston Globe (June 21, 2005).

[xi] See, e.g., G.L. c. 151B, § 9 (for unlawful discrimination); G.L. c. 231, § 59F (for parties age 65 or older).

[xii] The latter is what occurred in Irwin.  The Commonwealth appealed the denial of its motion to dismiss in August 2011; the claimant did not agree to a stay pending appeal; the parties engaged in full discovery for nearly two years; and in July 2013, the Supreme Judicial Court dismissed the case due to the claimant’s ineligibility.

[xiii] See, e.g., 28 U.S.C. § 2513(e); Ala. Code §29-2-159; Fla. Stat. § 961.06(e); Minn. Stat. § 611.365; N.C. Gen. Stat. § 148-84; Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § 2743.48(E)(2); Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 103.052; Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 13, § 5574(b); Wash. Rev. Code § 4.100.060(1)(d)(5).

David Hartnagel is an attorney at Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green P.A. in Boston where he practices complex commercial and employment litigation for both business and individual clients.  Previously, as an Assistant Attorney General, he served as counsel on behalf of the Commonwealth in some of the cases cited in this article.