SJC Remakes Search-and-Seizure Law to Keep Pace with Modern Realities of Smartphone Technology and Race RelationsPosted: May 11, 2017
by Ruth O’Meara-Costello and David Rangaviz
In recent decisions, the Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) has cast an increasingly skeptical eye on law enforcement activities in two areas of perennial controversy: the search and seizure of cell phones and electronic data, and police encounters with young black men. The SJC’s review of search and seizure matters has been stringent, as the court has demanded a specific evidentiary basis for searches in both the digital and physical realms. These cases implement in practice the principles that absent reasonable suspicion, an individual may voluntarily terminate a police encounter; before obtaining a warrant, the police must have a particularized reason to believe that evidence will be found in a place to be searched (including a specific folder within an electronic device); and officers need individualized suspicion of a suspect’s involvement in a crime before stopping and seizing the individual. In a series of cases, the court has breathed new life into these oft-stated and staid legal rules, particularly in the context of digital searches.
The court has also explicitly addressed the role of race in interactions between the police and the minority residents of the communities they serve. In doing so, the court has recognized the reality in which many black targets of police investigations live. The SJC has forced the criminal justice system – and the overwhelmingly-white players within it – to imagine what it is to be African-American in an over-policed and underrepresented community. By analyzing what probable cause means in the context of digital searches and relying on social science to understand interactions between police and African-American suspects, the court has brought an added degree of rigor in applying Fourth Amendment principles to the realities of modern American life.
First, in Commonwealth v. Dorelas, 473 Mass. 496 (2016), the SJC reviewed whether a warrant to search an iPhone was supported by probable cause. Police had reason to suspect the defendant was involved in a shooting, and that his iPhone might contain incriminating evidence because the victim had been receiving threatening calls and texts. But the warrant did not authorize a search of just call and text history; it allowed officers to search all of the phone’s other contents, including photographs. Executing the warrant, officers found a photo of the defendant holding a gun and wearing clothing similar to that of the alleged shooter. The defendant sought to suppress the photograph, arguing that there was no probable cause to support the search of the photographs (as opposed to call or text history) and that the warrant did not identify the items to be seized or places to be searched with sufficient “particularity.”
The SJC rejected both arguments in a 4-3 decision, but announced a more demanding standard for searches of the digital contents of a smartphone.[i] The majority noted that given the vast “volume, variety, and sensitivity” of information stored in or accessed through a smartphone, permitting a digital search to extend anywhere targeted information could be found is a “limitation without consequence” in the digital world, because “data possibly could be found anywhere within an electronic device.” In light of those “properties that render an iPhone distinct from the closed containers regularly seen in the physical world,” searches of such electronic data require “special care” and must satisfy a “more narrow and demanding standard” than physical searches. But the majority reasoned that the search into the phone’s stored photographs met that standard because threatening photos received or sent via text could have been stored separately from the texts themselves.
The dissent argued that the potential connection to a threat did not justify a search of the phone’s photographs. It emphasized a forensic examiner’s testimony that extraction of call and text history would have retrieved photographs attached to messages, eliminating any need to search all photographs separately stored on the device. The dissent also argued that the warrant failed to satisfy the Fourth Amendment’s “particularity” requirement because it authorized a general search of the entire iPhone. Given the expansive capacity of today’s smartphones, the dissent likened this to “limiting a search to the entire city.” The dissent thus fully rejected the traditional “container” analogy that generally permits a search of any “container” or file that is capable of containing the evidence sought.
Dorelas reflects a closely-divided court struggling over how to translate analog constitutional rules to modern digital reality. Both the majority and dissenting opinions appreciated the need for a heightened standard on cell phone searches, though they took different approaches when considering the obligation to limit the search’s intrusiveness.
A few months later, in Commonwealth v. Broom, 474 Mass. 486 (2016), the SJC provided further guidance on the kind of evidence needed to justify a cell phone search. The defendant in Broom was charged with the first-degree murder and rape of his former neighbor. His statements to police put at issue his whereabouts the night before the murder. A search of “cellular site location information” (CSLI) – location data associated with the defendant’s cell phone – undercut the defendant’s claims about that night. A search of the contents of his cell phone call log and text messages yielded a crude text message from the defendant to his fiancé suggesting that he was sexually frustrated. On appeal, the defendant challenged admission of both the CSLI and the text message.
The court concluded that probable cause did not exist to search the cell phone.[ii] The court emphasized the heightened Dorelas standard, and concluded that the affidavit in support of the search warrant failed to describe “particularized evidence” that the defendant’s phone would contain evidence relating to the crime. The court completely discounted the detective’s statement that, in his training and experience, cell phones “store vast amounts of electronic data” and thus “there is probable cause”, explaining that such a “general, conclusory statement adds nothing to the probable cause calculus.” While the court found the error in Broom to be harmless, its decision put lower courts on notice that they cannot authorize digital searches merely based on an officer’s training and experience without the kind of specific supporting information present in Dorelas.[iii]
In Commonwealth v. White, 475 Mass. 583 (2016), the court made explicit what it had implied in Broom: “Probable cause to search or seize a person’s cellular telephone may not be based solely on an officer’s opinion that the device is likely to contain evidence of the crime under investigation.” The search warrant affidavit’s factual basis for the request to search the cell phone in White amounted to two things: (a) there was evidence that the defendant had participated with others in a robbery-homicide, and (b) the officer’s “training and experience” suggested that cell phones generally contain incriminating evidence of communications in multi-defendant cases. The court found this basis insufficient, emphasizing that the existence of probable cause to arrest does not necessarily provide probable cause to search a suspect’s cell phone; the latter requires particularized evidence that the phone was reasonably likely to contain evidence related to the crime. Absent such particularized evidence, a suspect’s cell phone cannot be searched.
The court has also recently taken on the challenge of applying Fourth Amendment rules to the reality of modern racial dynamics. In Commonwealth v. Warren, 475 Mass. 530 (2016), the unanimous court held that an African-American defendant’s flight from the police does not give rise to probable cause for a subsequent search. The SJC emphasized reasons other than consciousness of guilt that an African-American might flee a police encounter: “Such an individual, when approached by the police, might just as easily be motivated by the desire to avoid the recurring indignity of being racially profiled as by the desire to hide criminal activity.” Citing an ACLU of Massachusetts report about the disproportionate impact of police stops on African-Americans, the court held that flight “add[s] nothing to the reasonable suspicion calculus.” (That study, examining the Boston Police Department’s “stop and frisk” activity, concluded that 63% of Boston police-civilian encounters from 2007 to 2010 targeted African-Americans, who are less than 25% of the city’s population. The Department itself acknowledged that “[t]he study did show some racial disparities that must be addressed.”)
The Warren opinion recognizes the importance of perspective in applying legal doctrine. It attempts to defeat stereotypes that only guilty people flee police encounters, and reconciles the justice system with the reality that black men in Boston have an innocent and legitimate reason to flee the police.
The court’s analytical approach is also noteworthy. As the foregoing cases make clear, the court has not hesitated to change the law to keep pace with changes in technology.[iv] Similarly, the SJC’s opinion in Warren suggests its willingness to alter criminal practice and procedure based on emerging social science research. This forward-thinking perspective is unusual – appellate practitioners are trained to rely upon legal sources: statutes, legislative history, constitutional provisions, and precedent. Indeed, the defense attorney litigating Warren never cited the report about racially-biased police stops in his brief to the Appeals Court and SJC – justices of the Appeals Court cited the study in dissent, and the SJC relied on it to effect a sweeping change in doctrine.[v] The court’s recent receptiveness to this type of outside-the-record social science information is worth noting by appellate advocates.[vi]
Finally, in Commonwealth v. Meneus, 476 Mass. 231 (2017), the court held that a search of a group of young black men who happened to be located near a crime scene was unconstitutional. After gunshots struck a woman’s car, she described having seen a group of young black men run away. The SJC held that such a vague description – “a group of young black males” – falls far short of justifying a search of all people fitting that description. In the court’s words: “[T]he mere presence of a nondescript group of young black males standing near the scene of a reported shooting did not, standing alone, sufficiently narrow the range of possible suspects to include this group of individuals.”[vii] As in Warren, the court refused to rely on the defendant’s flight to find reasonable suspicion. Ultimately, despite the seriousness of the crime under investigation, the court’s decision in Meneus was a rebuke to the conduct of the police. In its emphasis on the need for specific evidence to support suspicion and rejection of the importance of proximity to a crime or presence in a high-crime neighborhood, Meneus complements Warren and emphasizes the court’s determination to stringently uphold constitutional protections for minority groups who may be unfairly targeted by law enforcement.
The complex legal issues posed by digital searches, and the reality of racial profiling, will undoubtedly continue to confront the criminal justice system in Massachusetts and elsewhere. With a quartet of new members, and an additional seat to be filled in the near future, it remains to be seen how the SJC’s search and seizure jurisprudence will grapple with these questions going forward.
[i] The Majority opinion was written by Justice Cordy, and joined by Chief Justice Gants and Justices Spina and Botsford; Justice Lenk wrote the dissent, joined by Justices Duffly and Hines. The defendant was represented by an attorney in the CPCS Public Defender Division Appeals Unit. David Rangaviz, co-author of this piece, had no involvement in the case.
[ii] As to the CSLI, the SJC had previously ruled that the Commonwealth may obtain CSLI only pursuant to a warrant. Commonwealth v. Augustine, 467 Mass. 230 (2014). The Broom court held that the Commonwealth should have sought a warrant for the defendant’s CSLI, but that the error did not require reversal. The SJC found no prejudice in the evidence’s admission because (1) the CSLI was only for the day of and day before the murder, and (2) in light of the defendant’s DNA on the victim police had sufficient probable cause to retrieve his CSLI for those two days anyway. The court thus seemed to suggest that there was no prejudice because a warrant would have issued if sought. (The court has, however, previously rejected the notion that “an illegal warrantless search could be cured by proof that a search warrant, if sought, would have been issued and the evidence inevitably discovered.” Commonwealth v. O’Connor, 406 Mass. 112, 115 (1989).)
[iii] The admission of the contents of the defendant’s cell phone was thus error, but the court upheld the conviction based on the strength of other evidence against the defendant, coupled with the fact that only a single text message was erroneously admitted.
[iv] Another recent opinion follows this trend. In Commonwealth v. Martinez, 476 Mass. 410 (2017), the court held that probable cause that the user of a certain IP address possesses child pornography is generally sufficient to justify a search of the residence assigned that IP address. The court nonetheless recognized that its holding may not “always” hold true as future technology “may further erode the connection between an IP address and a physical address” and “analysis hinges on fluid and rapidly changing technologies.” The court has recently heard argument in Commonwealth v. Keown (SJC-10593), in which the defendant argues that a warrant to search his laptop was insufficiently particularized, and therefore is likely to weigh in again on this issue in the near future.
[v] Justices Peter Agnes and Peter Rubin first cited the study in their dissenting Appeals Court opinions. After their views did not carry the day – a three-justice majority of Chief Justice Rapoza and Justices Cypher and Green disagreed – a unanimous SJC embraced the dissenters’ opinion and rationale.
[vi] The SJC’s interest in evidence-based rulemaking is also apparent in recent decisions (all written by Chief Justice Ralph Gants) regarding eyewitness identification. In Commonwealth v. Crayton, 470 Mass. 228 (2014) and Commonwealth v. Collins, 470 Mass. 255 (2014), the court cited social science to limit the admissibility of in-court identifications. In Commonwealth v. Gomes, 470 Mass. 352 (2015), the court changed its model jury instruction regarding eyewitness identification to incorporate updated research, while “acknowledg[ing] the possibility that, as the science evolves, we may need to revise our new model instruction . . .”. Similarly, in Commonwealth v. Silva-Santiago, 453 Mass. 782 (2009), the SJC described a protocol, designed to decrease the risk of misidentification, for police to use before providing an eyewitness with a photographic array of potential suspects. The court recently reaffirmed this protocol’s importance in Commonwealth v. Thomas, 476 Mass. 451 (2017). The court will determine whether to extend Crayton and Collins in Commonwealth v. Dew (SJC-12225), currently pending.
[vii] The court also discounted the relevance of a police claim that the events occurred in a “high-crime area” and reiterated calls for caution regarding that claim in a reasonable suspicion analysis.
David Rangaviz is a staff attorney in the Appeals Unit of the Public Counsel Division of CPCS.
Ruth O’Meara-Costello is a partner at Zalkind Duncan & Bernstein LLP. Her practice focuses on criminal defense and student disciplinary matters
by William G. Cosmas
Two years ago in this journal, I examined the process of obtaining a pardon in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts from the perspective of having represented one of the first successful petitioners for such relief since 2002. This article examines the Executive Clemency Guidelines issued by Governor Charles D. Baker (the “Baker Guidelines”) as compared to those that his predecessor, Governor Deval L. Patrick, issued in January 2014 (the “Patrick Guidelines”).
In Massachusetts, a governor’s Executive Clemency Guidelines (the “Guidelines”) largely govern the process from petition to clemency. Statutes and regulations set forth the procedure through which the Parole Board, acting as the Advisory Board of Pardons (the “Board”), reviews, evaluates, and considers petitions for clemency. The Guidelines set forth the qualitative framework for that analysis, through an expression of the governor’s philosophy concerning clemency and the criteria that he or she will use to determine whether a petitioner merits recommendation to the Governor’s Council (the “Council”) for relief. On the day after his inauguration, Governor Baker rescinded the Patrick Guidelines, under which Governor Patrick had issued four pardons at the close of his term, halting administrative review of existing petitions until he could draft and issue his own Guidelines. Baker Rescinds Ex-Gov. Patrick’s Clemency Guidelines, Associated Press, Jan. 16, 2015. Governor Baker described his decision as “standard operating procedure,” because with a new governor comes a new understanding of the nature and contours of the governor’s pardon power. See Gov. Baker To Submit New Pardon Guidelines In Coming Weeks, Associated Press, Jan. 23, 2015. The Baker Guidelines were issued in December 2015.
An Apparent Attempt to Streamline
While the Baker Guidelines offer streamlined, procedural clarity and hew closely to relevant law, the Patrick Guidelines contemplated a holistic review of each petitioner, “intend[ing] to inform” the Board—the “public officials who are most able to make informed decisions on the persons seeking relief” —in its preliminary analysis of each petition. See Patrick Guidelines (“PG”) at 1-2. In contrast, the Baker Guidelines emphasize his prerogative to “direct” the Board’s analysis, in language that agrees with the Board’s recently-revised regulations (see, e.g., 120 CMR 900.01(2) (2017) (“The [Board] shall be directed by the Governor’s Executive Clemency Guidelines in its consideration of petitions for executive clemency.”) See Baker Guidelines (“BG”) at 1-2. Such emphasis also reflects the governor’s constitutional power, under Article 73 of the Amendments to the Massachusetts Constitution, to determine which clemency petitions merit submission to the Council for approval. See In re Op. of the Justices, 210 Mass. 609, 611 (1912); see also M.G.L. ch. 127 § 152.
Both sets of Guidelines reserve that power notwithstanding their own terms, but the Baker Guidelines explicitly acknowledge that they do not bind the Council, whose “concurrent action” on a petition is required to issue a pardon. BG at 2; see In re Op. of the Justices, 210 Mass. at 611. This nod to the Council’s constitutional independence, see Pineo v. Exec. Council, 412 Mass. 31, 36-37 (1992), an esoteric point of law easily lost on those without experience on Beacon Hill, may prove crucial to future petitioners who reach the final stage of review. Without this provision, a petitioner (and his/her counsel) might assume that the same Guidelines that governed the lengthy process to that point also set the rules for Council’s essential consideration of a petition. In truth, there are no rules for the Council’s analysis or for any related hearing other than those, if any, promulgated by the Council for the occasion.
Finally, the Baker Guidelines offer added precision by incorporating relevant statutory and regulatory provisions. For example, both Guidelines indicate that, for certain offenses, a pardon “rarely” would include restoration of a petitioner’s firearms rights. Unlike the Patrick Guidelines, however, the Baker Guidelines specifically incorporate the offenses included in M.G.L. ch. 140 § 121’s definition of “violent crime”: “any crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year… that: (i) has as an element the use, attempted use or threatened use of physical force or a deadly weapon against the person of another; (ii) is burglary, extortion, arson, or kidnapping; (iii) involves the use of explosives; or (iv) otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious risk of injury to another,” BG at 4. Although the Supreme Judicial Court struck down part (iv) of the statute as unconstitutionally vague in May 2016, Commonwealth v. Beal, 474 Mass. 341, 349-51 (2016), the precision that the rest of § 121 provides may help petitioners set more accurate expectations for the process.
An Embrace of Retributive Justice
Both Guidelines establish similar basic threshold considerations for pardon relief, but the Baker Guidelines imbue those considerations with a retributive theory of justice. Perhaps drawing the line for the Commonwealth’s retribution at the petitioner’s release from state supervision, the Patrick Guidelines first considered whether “[t]he grant of a pardon is in the interests of justice,” considering “the nature of the underlying offense(s), the impact of the crime on any victim(s) and society as a whole, the petitioner’s role in the underlying offense, and the fundamental fairness and equity of granting a pardon to the petitioner.” PG at 3. By contrast, the Baker Guidelines identify the “nature and circumstances of the offense” as the first “paramount consideration,” paying particular attention “to the impact on the victim or victims and the impact of the crime on society as a whole.” BG at 3. The greater the severity of the petitioner’s offense, the more time “that should have elapsed in order to minimize any impact clemency may have on respect for the law.” Id. at 2.
The second threshold question under the Patrick Guidelines focused on a petitioner’s rehabilitation, considering whether “the petitioner has been a law-abiding citizen and presents no risk for re-offense,” to determine whether a pardon would be consistent with maintaining public safety. PG at 3. That analysis focused on the petitioner’s “good citizenship” during a period of time following confinement or probation based on whether the petitioner’s offense was a felony or misdemeanor. PG at 3. The Baker Guidelines’ analogous “paramount consideration”—“the character and behavior, particularly post-offense behavior, of the petitioner”—presents a striking shift from the Patrick Guidelines. See BG at 3. A petitioner must have “clearly demonstrated acceptance of responsibility for the offense for which the petitioner is seeking clemency” —and appealing or challenging the underlying conviction or sentence is “[g]enerally… inconsistent with acceptance of responsibility.” Id. In other words, a petitioner who exercised his legal right to appeal or challenge a conviction twenty-five years ago, no matter the justification, unwittingly disadvantaged his future clemency petition to Governor Baker in the process. The Baker Guidelines also essentially require that a petitioner have “made full restitution” to victims economically injured by the petitioner’s crime(s), giving “stronger consideration to petitioners who have made restitution in a prompt manner.” Id. A petitioner’s public service will also lead to “stronger consideration,” whether that public service consists of “substantial assistance to law enforcement in the investigation or prosecution of other more culpable offenders” or “service in the military or other public service, or . . . charitable work.” Id.
Narrowed Opportunity for Petitioners
Both sets of guidelines provide additional factors to be taken into account in determining a petitioner’s entitlement to relief, such as requiring a period of “good citizenship” since release from government supervision, but the Baker Guidelines take a narrower focus, limiting opportunities for petitioners. The Patrick Guidelines considered “either (1) a compelling need for a pardon; or (2) extraordinary contributions to society that would justify restoration of his/her reputation as a concluding step of rehabilitation.” PG at 2. Similarly, the Baker Guidelines require petitioners to “demonstrate both good citizenship and a verified, compelling need,” but do not expressly consider the “extraordinary contributions to society” that might have tipped the balance to clemency under the Patrick Guidelines. BG at 3. Instead, the Baker Guidelines require disclosure and investigation of “whether the petitioner has been the subject of any civil lawsuit, including any restraining order, during the claimed period of good citizenship,” thus imposing a greater burden than the Patrick Guidelines, which required consideration only of restraining orders or civil contempt orders. See BG at 4; PG at 4.
On the whole, the Baker Guidelines provide additional clarity—but commensurately narrower paths to clemency—than those they replaced. It remains to be seen whether and in what circumstances Governor Baker will exercise his constitutional power to grant the “extraordinary remedy” of a pardon—and whether his Guidelines will impact his ability to do so.
William G. Cosmas, Jr., is an associate at Fitch Law Partners LLP, where he works primarily in the areas of business litigation, white-collar criminal defense, government investigations, real estate disputes, and complex civil litigation. In 2014, he represented a successful petitioner for clemency in Massachusetts.
Commonwealth v. Lawson and Commonwealth v. Griffin: Recent Changes in Criminal Responsibility and the Presumption of SanityPosted: May 11, 2017
by Crystal L. Lyons
This past fall, without much portent, the Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) created a seismic shift in the law of criminal responsibility when it eliminated the “presumption of sanity” in Commonwealth v. Lawson, 475 Mass. 806 (2016). As a result, the presumption of sanity will no longer carry the Commonwealth’s burden of proof and may no longer be considered as evidence of sanity. In fact, juries will no longer even receive an instruction on the presumption of sanity. Id. at 807, 814-815 & n.8. This article addresses Lawson’s explicit guidance, analyzes its application just a week later in Commonwealth v. Griffin, 475 Mass. 848 (2016), and anticipates the questions that both cases implicitly left open.
Before Lawson, when a question of the defendant’s criminal responsibility was raised, courts were required to instruct juries that they may consider that, because a great majority of persons are sane, there was a resulting likelihood that the defendant was sane. Lawson, 475 Mass. at 815 & n. 8. In Lawson, however, the SJC announced that rather than a true legal presumption, the “presumption” of sanity is instead “merely an expression” of the “commonsense understanding” that a defendant is probably sane because most people are sane.
In Lawson, the SJC recast a defendant’s lack of criminal responsibility as an affirmative defense, akin to self-defense. As an affirmative defense, the defendant must first proffer “some evidence” that, “viewed in the light most favorable to the defendant, would permit a reasonable finder of fact to have a reasonable doubt whether the defendant was criminally responsible at the time of the offense.” Id. at 807, 811. After doing so, “the Commonwealth bears the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was criminally responsible.” Id.
Although the SJC appeared to anchor its decision in established precedent, Lawson breaks new ground and will have significant effects in the future. For example, Lawson cited Commonwealth v. Keita, 429 Mass. 843 (1999), for the proposition that the Commonwealth already bore the burden of proving that the defendant was criminally responsible. Previously, however, the Commonwealth’s burden was usually a mere formality where the presumption of sanity alone was sufficient to overcome a challenge. See Lawson, 475 Mass. at 813; cf. Commonwealth v. Vives, 447 Mass. 537, 540 (2006) (characterizing mental illness as a hindrance to the defendant’s ability to form a specific intent rather than as an affirmative defense). Now, however, to prove criminal responsibility, the Commonwealth must establish either:
1) That at the time of the alleged crime, the defendant did not suffer from a mental disease or defect; or
2) That if the defendant did suffer from a mental disease or defect, he nonetheless retained the substantial capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness or criminality of his conduct and to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law.
Griffin, 475 Mass. at 856 (citing Model Jury Instructions on Homicide 10 (2013)).
The Commonwealth can establish the defendant’s mental capacity at the time of the offense through either circumstantial or medical evidence. Lawson, 475 Mass. at 815-817. The types of circumstantial evidence that can support the inference of sanity are already well-known from prior cases. They include: the circumstances of the offense; efforts to plan the offense; a rational motive to commit the offense; rational decisions made proximate to the offense; efforts to avoid capture; attempts to conceal the offense or the defendant’s role in the offense; words and conduct before, during, and after the offense; and evidence of malingering. Id. “Where, however, this [circumstantial] evidence provides only weak support for a finding of criminal responsibility,” the Court made clear that “the Commonwealth proceeds at its peril if it chooses to offer no expert to rebut a defense expert’s opinion of lack of criminal responsibility.” Lawson, 475 Mass. at 817. Medical evidence is typically presented through expert testimony.
Even though criminal responsibility is not an element of any offense, because the Commonwealth bears the burden of presenting sufficient evidence for a rational fact-finder to find criminal responsibility, a defendant may now seek a required finding of not guilty on the ground that the Commonwealth presented insufficient proof. Id. at 812. A motion for a required finding on that basis can be raised only at the close of all evidence, however, because practically speaking, evidence of such a defense is typically first offered during the defense’s case, after which the Commonwealth is permitted a full opportunity to rebut any such defense. Id. at 816-817. The circumstantial evidence of sanity described above is generally sufficient to overcome a motion for a required finding except when a defense expert’s view of the evidence shows the Commonwealth’s argument for sanity to be “incredible or conclusively incorrect.” Id. at 817-818.
Just six days after deciding Lawson, the SJC applied its new framework in Griffin. Although the Court affirmed the defendant’s first degree murder conviction for killing his young daughter, in analyzing whether the Commonwealth had met its burden of proving criminal responsibility, the Court first highlighted the Commonwealth’s lack of medical expert testimony. Griffin, 475 Mass. at 855-856. This is noteworthy not only because the defendant had not presented an expert (though he had secured funds to hire one) but also because the circumstantial proof of sanity appeared overwhelming. The Commonwealth’s evidence in Griffin mapped perfectly onto the categories identified in Lawson. It showed that the defendant: acted normally in the days leading up to the killing; before the crime, prepared a last will and testament and left a note at his home apologizing for his “sins” and asking for God’s mercy; had a strong motive for the killing, which he had discussed with others; carefully planned the killing, including assembling all the necessary materials, choosing to walk to minimize the sound of his approach, turning off the electricity to the house and taking off his shoes upon his arrival to reduce the chance of being discovered, and cutting telephone lines to eliminate calls for help; and methodically cleaned the basement crime scene and repacked his materials after the murder. Id. at 856-857. The defendant’s only evidence of lack of criminal responsibility consisted of self-serving pre-trial statements in which he had claimed that God told him to commit the murder (even though there was no indication he was deeply religious or possessed religious materials) and had described the severity of his mental illness (descriptions which were proven by evidence at trial to be overstated). Id. at 857. By highlighting the Commonwealth’s absence of a prosecution expert in these circumstances, Griffin raises the question whether the prosecution should consider using an expert even in the cases that seem to least warrant one.
The Court clarified that a prosecutor may properly address in closing argument the inferences to be drawn from circumstantial evidence and inconsistencies in the defendant’s evidence as that evidence bears on criminal responsibility; in so doing, he or she “does not testify as an unqualified expert witness.” Id. at 860. The Court also clarified that Lawson’s elimination of the instruction on the presumption of sanity was not merely a prospective change. The Court concluded that the instruction had been erroneously provided in Griffin, but that it had not created a substantial likelihood of a miscarriage of justice where “the trial judge strongly and specifically instructed that the burden is on the Commonwealth to the prove criminal responsibility beyond a reasonable doubt” and where “substantial evidence” supported the jury’s finding of criminal responsibility. Id. at 862-863.
Although Lawson’s and Griffin’s affirmation of the convictions might suggest it will be business-as-usual in criminal responsibility cases despite the Court’s shift, the cases raise several important questions. First, what quantum of proof will be necessary for a defendant to sufficiently raise “some evidence” of a criminal responsibility defense, particularly if the defendant presents no direct medical evidence or testimony (whether because expert testimony cannot be secured or perhaps because no previous treatment or diagnosis exists) and relies solely on arguably self-serving statements to sustain the defendant’s burden of production? Second, under what circumstances may a defense expert’s testimony show the Commonwealth’s evidence to be “incredible or conclusively incorrect” and thereby insufficient to overcome a motion for a required finding of not guilty? One can imagine a situation in which an expert testifies that the inferences argued by the Commonwealth are invalid given the defendant’s diagnosis and that the circumstantial evidence presents normal or expected symptoms of the claimed mental illness. Finally, what differences may exist between sufficient evidence to sustain the Commonwealth’s burden of proof of criminal responsibility under the familiar Latimore standard—viewing all evidence and resolving all inferences in favor of the Commonwealth—and what may be necessary to establish “substantial evidence” of criminal responsibility in pre-Lawson cases where the presumption of sanity instruction has already been provided?
The Commonwealth will need to evaluate carefully whether to call an expert in any case that raises a potential criminal responsibility defense. Despite the Court’s assurances in both cases that “the Commonwealth need not offer expert testimony in every case,” Lawson, 475 Mass. at 807; Griffin, 475 Mass. at 855-856, the SJC highlighted in Griffin the lack of an expert for the Commonwealth. That the Court would do so in a case with overwhelming circumstantial evidence of sanity—and no defense expert testifying to the contrary—suggests that the cautious approach for the Commonwealth to avoid the possibility of reversal will be to call a prosecution expert nonetheless. Lawson, 475 Mass. at 817.
Crystal L. Lyons is an Assistant District Attorney in the Appeals & Training Bureau of the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office, where she also serves as Captain of the Mental Health Team. She is a member of the BBJ Board of Editors. This article represents the opinions and legal conclusions of its author and not necessarily those of the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office.
I have always seen the practice of law as one of the most significant means of participating in our unique American democracy. As lawyers, we are accustomed, by training and practice, to embracing an adversarial role while still advancing a principled position.
Still, many of us in the bar could not help but be deeply troubled by the implications of some of the rhetoric in this year’s election campaign upon our long-held principles of American jurisprudence, including respect for the rule of law, due process, equal rights, and access to justice. Like so many of you, I have been angered and saddened to hear comments, and learn of events, that disrespect individuals who identify as minorities, or come from diverse backgrounds, beliefs and cultures. Such conduct erodes our Constitutional democracy, resulting in divisiveness, fear, and anxiety, all of which are felt acutely not only by adults, but perhaps most disturbingly, by our children as well.
In this context, I wanted to reach out to my colleagues at the bar to let you know that I believe the work of the Boston Bar Association, and its mission, have rarely been more relevant.
The BBA has a strong record of rising above division, finding common ground, and inspiring diverse groups to overcome disagreement to advance access to justice and excellence in the practice of law. We are – and will continue to be – a solutions-oriented convener that welcomes all stakeholders to exchange ideas and build relationships. But we also bear a responsibility, to one another and in the service of our communities, to be ever watchful and vigilant in ensuring that individual and due process rights remain valued and protected as bedrock principles in the implementation of our laws.
I write to our members now, to assure you that the BBA stands ready, willing and able to answer any necessary call to action resulting from this climate of uncertainty and ever changing events.
Over the past week, we have heard many expressions of concern, – both from our members and from local organizations with whom we partner. But we have also experienced a true sense of inspiration by the commendable desire of those same members and organizations to become actively engaged. We recognize that as lawyers, we are at our best when we are dealing with well-defined issues and actual cases and controversies. I want to state — unequivocally — that we remain committed to our work on the following fronts:
- The BBA is committed to protection of due process rights for all, as enumerated in the United States Constitution, with its Bill of Rights, and our Massachusetts Constitution, with its Declaration of Rights. Yet it is not enough for us to remain watchful. We will be empowering others to do the same through “Know Your Rights” programs in our communities and schools.
- We must remain cognizant of deportation as a potential collateral consequence of involvement with the justice system. Just this week, the SJC heard arguments on a case regarding the so-called Annie Dookhan defendants, in which the BBA filed an amicus brief asking the Court to vacate all remaining convictions without prejudice. The risk that any of these individuals might face deportation proceedings on the basis of a conviction supported by tainted drug-lab evidence adds greatly to our argument for a “global remedy.”
Harassment, discrimination, and hate crimes:
- I share the concern of many of our members over the recent spike in acts of violence and intimidation against members of minority populations. Such actions must never be tolerated. We will continue to work with our partners at the six local affinity bar associations – and seek ways to engage with other, similar organizations – to defend individuals and groups that are under threat, and to educate people about their rights.
Access to justice:
- Our advocacy on behalf of access to justice for all residents will not waver. Join me on January 26th at Walk to the Hill as we once again make the case to the Governor and the Legislature, for a substantial increase in funding for civil legal aid, building on the BBA’s Investing in Justice task-force report. Providing all with access to justice is more important than ever.
- In addition, we are working with Attorney General Maura Healey and other legal services organizations to identify emerging legal needs in the community, particularly as they pertain to the increase in Hate Crimes and Immigration issues.
The BBA will continue to do everything we can to support the core values of meaningful access to justice and of diversity and inclusion that are at the heart of who we are as an organization of lawyers. Now is the time for all of us at the BBA to show Boston, the country, and the world that we can continue to advance respectful, innovative, and common-ground solutions to big challenges. But that must start at home with listening to one another and getting involved. I am proud and grateful to work with all of you, and I have no doubt that you will continue the great tradition in this Commonwealth during times of change or uncertainty, by rolling up your sleeves and asking the simple question, “How can I help?”
Carol A. Starkey is the president of the Boston Bar Association. She is a partner at Conn, Kavanaugh, Rosenthal, Peisch & Ford.
The New Transgender Anti-Discrimination Law and Guidance Issued by the Attorney General’s Office and the MCADPosted: January 19, 2017
On July 8, 2016, Governor Baker signed into law An Act Relative to Transgender Anti-Discrimination, St. 2016, c. 134 (the “Act”), expanding Massachusetts’ protection against gender identity discrimination. Before the Act, the Transgender Equal Rights Act (“TERA”), St. 2011, c. 199, had prohibited gender identity discrimination in employment, housing, education, credit and lending. The Act now prohibits gender identity discrimination in places of public accommodation. G.L. c. 272, § 98, as amended by St. 2016, c. 134, § 3. It also requires places of public accommodation that lawfully segregate or separate access based on a person’s sex to “grant all persons admission to, and the full enjoyment of, such places of public accommodation, consistent with the person’s gender identity.” G.L. c. 272, § 92A, para. 2, as amended by St. 2016, c. 134, § 2 (emphasis added).
Guidance on the new law was issued on September 1, 2016, by the Attorney General’s Office (“AGO”) and the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (“MCAD”). The MCAD issued clarified guidance on December 5, 2016, as discussed in more detail below. This article provides an overview of the AGO and MCAD guidance and recommended best practices.
Effective October 1, 2016, the Act amended G.L. c. 272, §§ 92A and 98 to include gender identity as an unlawful basis for discrimination in places of public accommodation. St. 2016, c. 134, § 5. A place of public accommodation is “any place whether licensed or unlicensed which is open to and accepts or solicits the patronage of the general public.” G.L. c. 272, § 92A. The definition is broad: a place of public accommodation can be either public or private, can provide products or services (regardless of whether it charges for products, services, or admission), and can include retail stores, restaurants, hotels, theaters, museums, libraries, public facilities, and sports and health clubs. AGO Guidance, p. 2. After a lawsuit filed by four religious organizations (which has been voluntarily dismissed), the AGO removed an unqualified reference to “houses of worship” from its list of examples of places of public accommodation. The MCAD similarly clarified that although the Act would not apply to religious organizations if such application “would violate the organization’s First Amendment rights,” places of public worship may be subject to the public accommodations law if they engage in, or their facilities are used for, a “public, secular function.” MCAD Guidance, p. 4.
Gender identity is defined as “a person’s gender-related identity, appearance or behavior, whether or not that gender-related identity, appearance or behavior is different from that traditionally associated with the person’s physiology or assigned sex at birth.” G.L. c. 4, § 7, Fifty-ninth. A person’s gender identity must be “sincerely held as part of the person’s core identity.” Id. It includes transgender, that is, “a person whose gender identity is different from that person’s assigned birth sex.” AGO Guidance, p. 1; MCAD Guidance, p. 6.
Examples of unlawful gender identity discrimination by places of public accommodation include: refusing or denying services; offering different or inferior services; advertising the refusal to accept business from or patronage of transgender or gender non-conforming individuals; providing false information about the availability of products, goods or services, facilities or admission; and harassment or intimidation. AGO Guidance, p. 2; MCAD Guidance, pp. 4-5. Moreover, it is now a crime, punishable by fine and/or imprisonment, and subject to a private right of action, for any individual to “aid or incite another in making a distinction, discriminating against or restricting an individual from a place of public accommodation” based on gender identity. MCAD Guidance, p. 4.
Use of Sex-Segregated Facilities
By far, the law’s most controversial provision concerns the use of sex-segregated facilities (e.g., bathrooms). Although places of public accommodation need not eliminate sex-segregated facilities, they must now allow patrons to use the facility most consistent with their gender identity. G.L. c. 272, § 92A, para. 2, as amended by St. 2016, c. 134, § 2. A person should be presumed to be using the facility most consistent with their gender identity if the person is not engaged in any improper or unlawful conduct. AGO Guidance, pp. 2-3. A person should not be presumed to be using the wrong facility based solely upon the person’s appearance. Id., p. 3.
If a place of public accommodation has a legitimate concern (i.e., about potentially improper or unlawful conduct) as to whether a person is using the appropriate facility, a limited inquiry of the person is recommended through a “private and discrete conversation.” Id., pp. 3-4. After confirming that the person is using the appropriate facility, the inquiry should end. Id., p. 4.
Improper or Unlawful Purpose
Gender identity cannot be asserted for an “improper or unlawful purpose.” G.L. c. 4, § 7, Fifty-ninth. Examples of such conduct include:
- loitering in a facility for the purpose of observing other patrons;
- harassment of employees or patrons;
- threats or violence;
- photographing or videotaping others without their permission; and
- violation of the law.
If a place of public accommodation has reasonable grounds to believe that a person is using the facility for an improper or unlawful purpose, it may take action consistent with its usual policies regarding removing persons who engage in improper conduct, including contacting law enforcement if warranted. Id.
Request for Proof of Gender Identity
Only in very limited circumstances is it permissible to request proof of gender identity. AGO Guidance, p. 4; MCAD Guidance, pp. 6-7. If a place of public accommodation, such as a health or sports club, regularly requires documentation of gender for all members, an individual’s gender identity may be documented by presenting “any one of the following:
- (1) a driver’s license or any other government-issued identification;
- (2) a letter from a doctor, therapist or other healthcare provider;
- (3) a letter from a friend, clergy or family member regarding the individual’s routine conduct such as dress, grooming and the use of corresponding pronouns; or;
- (4) any other evidence that the gender identity is sincerely held as a part of the person’s core identity.”
AGO Guidance, p. 4 (emphasis in original); MCAD Guidance, pp. 6-7 (providing additional examples). A place of public accommodation cannot use a request for documentation to harass, intimidate, embarrass or otherwise discriminate. AGO Guidance, p. 4; MCAD Guidance, p. 6.
The Act’s major change is to ensure that places of public accommodations are accessible to all persons, consistent with their gender identity, and that employees of public facilities are properly trained in the Act’s provisions. Most businesses updated their anti-discrimination policies following enactment of the TERA; similar updates are warranted in light of the Act. The following adapts the best practice recommendations in the updated MCAD guidance for places of public accommodation:
- Update employment policies and training materials to include a statement that discrimination and harassment based on gender identity is prohibited;
- Prohibit derogatory comments or jokes about transgender people and promptly investigate and discipline persons who engage in prohibited conduct;
- Update business and personnel records, payroll records, email systems and all other administrative records to reflect the stated name and gender identity of employees, clients and vendors;
- Use appropriate names and pronouns corresponding to each person’s stated gender identification in communications;
- Avoid gender-specific dress codes and permit attire that is consistent with each person’s stated gender identity;
- Develop a written policy concerning procedures for when a person undergoes gender transition and which promotes the confidentiality of the person’s transition; and
- Develop a policy that provides access to any sex-segregated facility consistent with a person’s gender identity and train all staff on the policy.
The Act is not expected to usher in a new round of litigation, in light of the TERA’s prior enactment and the public accommodation law’s liberal construction by courts and the MCAD. See e.g., Joyce v. Town of Dennis, 705 F. Supp. 2d 74, 83 (D. Mass. 2010). But, all places of public accommodation should review their policies and procedures to ensure that they are in compliance with the new law.
Andrea Peraner-Sweet is a partner at Fitch Law Partners LLP. Her practice focuses on general business litigation with an emphasis on employment litigation as well as probate litigation.
Two significant changes affecting pay equity are on the horizon for Massachusetts employers. The first is a new Massachusetts law, An Act to Establish Pay Equity (the “Act”), effective July 1, 2018. The Act rewrites section 105A of G. L. c.149 (“section 105A”), which prohibits discrimination based on an employee’s sex in the payment of wages. The second change is issuance of a revised Employer Information Report (“EEO-1”), effective March 31, 2018. The EEO-1 is a form that that private employers and federal contractors must file annually with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) that provides company employment data by job category, race/ethnicity, and gender. The EEOC uses the data to examine employment patterns and assist its enforcement of anti-discrimination laws. Counsel can take a number of steps to prepare clients for the changes embodied in the Act and the revised EEO-1.
I. An Act to Establish Pay Equity
A. Basic Provisions.
Section 105A(c) as revised by the Act contains three basic requirements: (i) employers may not inquire about an applicant’s salary or benefits history before extending an employment offer that contains compensation terms; (ii) employers may not prohibit employees from talking to their co-workers about wages or benefits; and (iii) employers must pay women based on competitive market rates and not salary history. Those changes are premised on the theory that using salary history disadvantages those who have been the victim of past pay discrimination.
Section 105A(b) inserted by the Act provides an exception to the equal pay requirement if there is a legitimate business reason to pay a man more than a woman (e.g., a bona fide seniority system; a bona fide merit system; a bona fide system that measures productivity; geographic location; education, training or experience; or travel). Employers still should consider reviewing their pay systems for gender bias to ensure that exceptions, if applied, are not discriminatory.
Under new section 105A(d), an affirmative defense to claims of pay inequality is available to employers who perform a good faith self-evaluation of their pay practices that is reasonable in detail and scope at least once every three years. The employer must also be able to demonstrate reasonable progress in addressing any disparity identified during a self-evaluation. Corrective action may not, however, include lowering one individual’s salary to correct an identified disparity.
As with most employment statutes, the Act prohibits retaliation against a person who has engaged in a protected activity. Accordingly, employers must protect from retaliation employees who file complaints or participate in an investigation or litigation. Many practitioners believe that retaliation is the easiest form of discrimination to prove because it can often be demonstrated through timing. Retaliation can be established through a “but/for” test to determine whether an adverse action took place under the Act within a close temporal proximity to the protected activity.
B. Steps Clients Should Take.
Lawyers should encourage clients to begin compliance efforts by performing a self-audit to identify any instances of pay disparity. Depending on the results, clients may then revise their policies, processes, and written materials and online applications, and conduct appropriate training prior to the Act’s effective date.
Self-audits require a careful review of compensation structures to identify pay disparities between positions that are similar in title or function and which involve “comparable work.” An analysis of pay practices should be conducted even if there is no evidence of overt gender bias, because pay structures can unwittingly become misaligned over time.
Clients may need assistance to determine whether any disparity is unlawful, or the product of a legitimate business exception that is objective and reasonable. If a disparity is unlawful, corrective action must be taken promptly. If a legitimate reason for the disparity exists, it should be carefully vetted. A disparity based on merit or productivity should be validated using reliable metrics, and the findings should be carefully documented. An analysis of the business exceptions can not only be used to demonstrate compliance with the Act, but may provide an opportunity to identify and address other potential issues, such as other forms of employment discrimination.
The next challenge for lawyers and clients is determining appropriate corrective actions for pay disparities that do not qualify for legitimate business exceptions. Corrective actions must also demonstrate reasonable progress in eliminating pay inequities, including mechanisms to ensure that disparities do not arise in the future. Solid documentation of corrective action plans and progress in eliminating pay disparity is critical to demonstrating compliance with the Act.
In addition to conducting a self-audit and implementing corrective actions, employers should take prompt steps to review and revise other employment practices such as the recruitment of new employees. Employers can remove requests for salary information from on-line and written applications and instruct recruiters and hiring managers not to request salary information from applicants or during reference checks.
Lawyers should also advise their clients to review all employee materials (e.g., handbooks and manuals, offer letters, etc.) to eliminate language that might discourage employees from talking about pay or benefits with co-workers. Furthermore, these changes should be communicated to employees, and any required notices must be posted when they become available. Documenting such efforts also helps demonstrate good-faith compliance with the Act.
Training employees involved in the onboarding process about what they can and cannot ask during interviews is another critical compliance step. Such training can be coordinated with periodic equal employment opportunity and best practices training, and should be carefully documented.
Lawyers should also be aware that proposed corporate changes, such as a merger or acquisition, may warrant additional review in light of the Act. Suppose, for example, that when pay scales are reviewed prior to a merger, it becomes apparent that men at Company A are paid $100,000 a year, and for the comparable job, women at Company B are paid $60,000. The parties involved in the merger must decide if the merger still makes sense taking into consideration corrective actions that may be necessary to eliminate pay disparities. How, for example, will such corrective measures impact the potential profitability of the merger?
By encouraging clients to implement these changes now, lawyers can help ensure that clients are fully aware of the Act and fully compliant before the Act goes into effect.
II. Changes to the EEO-1
A. Summary of Revisions.
The revisions to the EEO-1 are designed to capture detailed data about employees and wages that will enable the EEOC to improve its analysis of, and address, pay disparities based on discrimination against members of protected classes. For example, the revised EEO-1 differentiates ten job categories and seven categories of “race/ethnicity.” Employers might consider using some of the analytical methods recommended above to examine employment practices with respect to protected classes.
The reporting requirements of the revised EEO-1 are extensive. Effective March 31, 2018, employers with 100 or more employees will need to provide summary pay data, including the total number of annual hours that full- and part-time employees work, in each of the twelve pay bands listed for each EEO-1 job category. Employers must also report the aggregate hours worked by all employees in each pay band. For 2018 filings, the 100-employee threshold is met if the employer has 100 or more full- or part-time employees during any pay period between October 1 and December 31, 2017.
Summary pay data required on the revised EEO-1 include the Form W-2 Box 1 earnings for all employees identified in the selected pay period, including employees who no longer work for the company at year’s end. Summary pay data do not include income earned at the end of 2017 but paid in 2018. Employees’ hours counted during a pay period must be reported as an aggregate value for each job category and pay band (i.e., the total hours worked during that year by all employees reported in that job category and pay band). For non-exempt employees, employers must count the actual hours worked. Exempt employees are credited with 40 hours per week for full-time employees or 20 hours per week for part-time employees. Exempt employees’ hours are multiplied by the number of weeks that they were employed during the year.
The filing deadline for the Form EEO-1 has changed from September 30th to March 31st. This change makes it possible to coordinate such mandated reporting with year-end income reporting.
B. Steps Clients Should Take.
Clients required to file the revised EEO-1 form should begin developing processes to collect the required data. Implementing such processes will require careful coordination between the human resources department, the human resource information system, and the payroll department (or payroll vendor). Such processes should be tested well ahead of the compliance date to ensure that information is captured accurately.
Lawyers should promptly begin to assist clients with analysis of the data that will be submitted on the revised EEO-1. Delaying that analysis could limit an employer’s ability to develop, implement, and document necessary corrective actions.
Employers can use 2016 Form W-2’s to create a mock EEO-1. Lawyers and their clients can then review the mock EEO-1 just as the EEOC would: to identify pay disparities that may lead to an investigation and possibly litigation. To the extent the data suggests that a pay disparity exists, employers can compile evidence to demonstrate the legitimate reason(s) for the pay differential. Such evidence may include records of a seniority system, merit pay, or productivity-based compensation.
Employers should also consider applying some of the steps recommended above for compliance with the Act to an analysis of all protected classes identified on the revised EEO-1. Such an analysis may reveal the need to create new company policies, modify existing policies, provide training to management, and create programs to help develop job skills for employees in protected classes.
By encouraging employer clients to take the steps described in this article now, counsel can help ensure that potential issues of pay inequality are identified and corrected prior to the effective date of the changes implemented by the Act and the revised EEO-1. Such steps may also enable employers to identify and remediate other potential claims of discrimination before they become problematic.
David G. Gabor is a partner with The Wagner Law Group, PC. His practice focuses on employment law and human resources matters.
The Department of Labor is amending a longstanding Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) regulation that defines fiduciary “investment advice.” Barring postponement by the new administration, the new rule will generally become effective on April 10, 2017, and will dramatically affect financial advisors and other service providers who provide assistance to ERISA plan sponsors, plan participants, and IRA customers with their investment decisions.
Expanding the Definition of “Investment Advice”
The rule, 29 C.F.R. § 2510.3-21, greatly expands the range of activities that constitute fiduciary investment advice under ERISA. Today, fiduciary duties attach to investment advice if the advice provider and the advice recipient have a mutual understanding that the advice “will serve as a primary basis for investment decisions.” The new rule eliminates this concept of “reliance” and instead treats as fiduciary investment advice any “communication that, based on its content, context, and presentation, would reasonably be viewed as a suggestion that the advice recipient engage in or refrain from taking a particular course of action.” In addition, the new rule covers not only recommendations to buy and sell, but also recommendations about whether to hold a security or other property, take a distribution or rollover, manage assets or select an investment manager, and use a brokerage or fee-based advisory account.
These changes are important for two reasons. First, fiduciaries are subject to a “best interest of the investor” standard of care. A fiduciary must therefore make recommendations with the care, skill, diligence and prudence that a person experienced in such matters would use taking into account the investment objectives, risk tolerance, financial circumstances and needs of the investor. A fiduciary must also make recommendations without regard to the financial interests of the advice provider. Because the new rule’s broad definition of a “recommendation” potentially encompasses routine sales activity, it creates a major disruption for traditional commission-based advisors such as broker-dealers and insurance agents.
Second, fiduciaries are subject to ERISA’s prohibited-transaction rules, which apply to both employee benefit plans and IRAs. This means that a fiduciary may not provide investment advice if it would cause the fiduciary’s compensation to vary, unless a prohibited transaction exemption applies. In other words, an advisor who receives commissions—as well as any other provider compensated through a plan’s investments who might provide advice under the new definition, such as plan recordkeepers or third-party administrators—must either comply with an exemption or avoid providing fiduciary advice in the first place. Even an advisor who charges a flat fee must be careful when marketing its own advice services to a prospective customer, because its compensation will vary based on whether or not the customer hires it.
Dealing with the New Definition
The rule provides a few tools to navigate these new waters. The most prominent of these is a new, broad-based prohibited transaction exemption called the “Best Interest Contract,” or “BIC,” exemption. The BIC exemption is available for fiduciary advice to IRA customers, plan participants, and plan fiduciaries who hold, manage or control less than $50 million in plan and non-plan assets. The BIC exemption’s conditions are extensive, but it principally requires that the advice be provided pursuant to an enforceable obligation to act in the retirement investor’s best interest, either under ERISA or under a private contract with an IRA owner. Streamlined requirements apply where the advisor’s and its affiliates’ compensation is a fixed percentage of the advised assets or a set fee that does not vary with the investments recommended.
The rule also identifies a number of circumstances that, despite the rule’s otherwise broad scope, will not be considered fiduciary advice. For example, the rule outlines specific types of investment education that are not considered advice. Other carve-outs exist for marketing investment platforms, making general communications to the public, certain communications among employees of an employer sponsoring a plan, and recommendations to plan fiduciaries who hold, manage or control at least $50 million in plan and non-plan assets and who are capable of independently evaluating investment risks and recommendations. All of these carve-outs are subject to certain conditions and, in many cases, subject to certain disclosures to the recipient.
Consequences to Investors, Plan Sponsors and the Industry
Although the rule is intended to benefit retirement investors, it is likely to prove disruptive to the retirement industry. For example, the rule will now subject account rollover recommendations to a fiduciary standard, so many expect rollovers to IRAs to decline and the proportion of assets remaining in 401(k) and other employer plans to increase.
The rule will also likely increase the use of low-cost investments that have minimal or no 12b-1 fees or revenue-sharing associated with them. Thus, an increasing proportion of retirement assets will likely be invested in collective investment trusts, index funds, and low- or no-revenue-sharing share classes of mutual funds. By the same token, high-cost and high-revenue-sharing investments, as well as proprietary investments of an advice provider, will likely receive a smaller share of retirement assets. Other products such as variable annuities may also diminish in popularity as the rule subjects them to increased requirements under the BIC exemption.
Pricing for advice services to retirement customers will also likely shift from variable or commission-based arrangements to fixed-fee-based arrangements. This is because variable compensation would trigger the need to comply with the BIC or another prohibited-transaction exemption, or will limit the advice provider to communications that fit within a carve-out under the rule. Registered investment advisors, who generally employ fixed-fee arrangements today, will likely be less affected than broker-dealers and other commission-based service providers. Similarly, fee-based managed account products, including so-called “robo-advisors,” should see a boost in sales.
Plan sponsors will also need to consider how the new advice landscape may affect them. Many plan sponsors will need to determine whether and how to prudently select and monitor an advice provider both for recommendations on the plan lineup and for recommendations to plan participants. Sponsors may also need to evaluate the current plan lineups in light of the new rule and potentially change compensation arrangements with service providers. IRA owners may be faced with similar issues.
Ralph C. Derbyshire is Senior Vice President and Deputy General Counsel for FMR LLC, the parent company of Fidelity Investments. Fidelity Investments is a leading provider of investment management, retirement planning, portfolio guidance, brokerage, benefits outsourcing, and other financial products and services to more than 20 million individuals, institutions, and financial intermediaries. From 2012 – 2014, he served as the investment management industry representative to the Department of Labor’s ERISA Advisory Council.
James Barr Haines is a Vice President and Associate General Counsel at Fidelity Investments, supporting Fidelity’s workplace plan administration business. Jay is also co-chair of the Boston Bar Association’s ERISA Sub-Committee.