First Degree Murder Appeals: From Docket to Disposition

by Francis V. Kenneally

Voice of Judiciary

Managing the first degree murder caseload of the Supreme Judicial Court is a challenge – interesting and usually enjoyable, but definitely a challenge. For reasons tied to the cases of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, which began almost 100 years ago, appeals from convictions of first degree murder are different from any other type of case, criminal or civil.  Moreover, both because of these differences and the seriousness of the crime and sentence involved, there are a number of different players, individual and institutional, that have strong interests in how these appeals are handled. The following discusses the unique aspects of first degree murder appeals, how they have contributed to a backlog of pending first degree murder appeals in the full court, and the court’s recent efforts to address some of the historic issues affecting its first degree murder docket.

Appeals from first degree murder convictions are entered directly in the SJC; in contrast to almost all other types of appeals, the Appeals Court does not have concurrent jurisdiction with the SJC to hear first degree murder appeals. See G. L. c. 211A, § 10. The statute governing appellate review of first degree murder convictions, G. L. c. 278, § 33E, directs the SJC to consider the “whole case,” and – unlike virtually all other appeals – review is not limited to issues that have been properly preserved. Rather, § 33E provides that “the court may, if satisfied that the verdict was against the law or the weight of the evidence, or because of newly discovered evidence, or for any other reason that justice may require (a) order a new trial or (b) direct the entry of a verdict of a lesser degree of guilt.” See, e.g., Commonwealth v. Dowds, 483 Mass. 498, 513 (2019) (In the unique circumstances of this case, a “verdict of murder in the second degree is more consonant with justice than is a verdict of murder in the first degree.”).

This special, fulsome “33E review,” as it is called, has led the court to schedule longer oral arguments than is regularly allowed in any other appeal – twenty minutes per side versus fifteen. And it is this statutory duty to review the whole case combined with other provisions in 33E, particularly those governing motions for a new trial, that makes managing the first degree murder docket so challenging. Apart from any other post-conviction motion for a new trial, 33E draws a critical distinction between motions filed before the direct appeal is finally decided by entry of the appellate rescript 28 days after the appellate decision is released, and motions filed post-rescript. As to new trial motions filed before the appellate rescript, the motion must be filed with the Supreme Judicial Court for the Commonwealth, which, with rare exception, remands the motion to the Superior Court for disposition. The goal – certainly of defense counsel – is to have any appeal from the denial of such a motion in the Superior Court joined with the direct appeal of the underlying conviction because, if it is, the combined appeals both get the benefit of 33E review. And even if the appeals are not combined, an appeal from a denial of a new trial motion that is filed before entry of the appellate rescript in the direct appeal receives direct review by the full court. Commonwealth v. Raymond, 450 Mass. 729, 729-30 n. 1 (2008).

The landscape, however, changes dramatically if the motion for a new trial is filed after the full court decides the defendant’s direct appeal and the appellate rescript enters. The motion must then be filed in the Superior Court, and if denied, the defendant must apply for leave from a single justice of the Supreme Judicial Court to allow review of the Superior Court’s denial by the full court. A defendant’s desire to litigate fully a motion for a new trial before a decision on the direct appeal is understandable and borne out by the statistics on “so-called” gatekeeper petitions.  From 2014 to 2018, 109 gatekeeper petitions were filed in the Supreme Judicial Court for Suffolk County (the county court), and were reviewed by a single justice.  Of these, 97 were denied, 5 were allowed to be reported for review to the full court, 4 were dismissed, and 3 were withdrawn.  If the single justice denies a gatekeeper petition, there is no appellate review of the denial.  Commonwealth v. Gunter, 456 Mass. 1017, 1017 (2010).

Working together, these statutory provisions can cause lengthy delays in the court’s consideration of first degree murder appeals. For obvious reasons, defendants do not want their direct appeals heard before thoroughly exploring the possibility of filing and litigating motions for a new trial not only to preserve the right of appeal from any denial (and thus avoid the gatekeeper) but also to ensure 33E review. So, historically, at the request of defendants, the court has stayed direct appeals virtually indefinitely while the new trial motion is litigated in the Superior Court. Litigation in the Superior Court may take years for a variety of reasons, including (among others): the trial judge may have retired and reassignment is necessary; Superior Court judges are working to capacity on their current dockets; the parties battle over post-conviction discovery before the motion is finally presented and heard; and, because of some recent appellate decisions, there appears to be an increasing number of evidentiary hearings, which results in scheduling challenges and delays to accommodate the calendars of witnesses – expert witnesses in particular – as well as judges and counsel. As a result, appeals have been stayed for 5, 10, and at times more than 15 years.

Another cause of delay is the frequency of motions for appointment of new counsel filed by defendants or motions to withdraw filed by counsel; not infrequently, these occur multiple times in a single appeal. The Committee for Public Counsel Services must then find new counsel from its limited list of attorneys qualified to handle first degree murder appeals. Each new appointment of counsel, some many years after entry of the appeal, slows the progress of the appeal because new counsel must, at a minimum, become acquainted with a new client, meet with predecessor appellate counsel, speak with trial counsel, review voluminous files and transcripts, and decide whether to file a motion for a new trial.

The confluence of these factors led the SJC, in April 2018, to examine its first degree murder docket, identify areas of concern, and address some of the docket’s unique, systemic problems. The murder docket at the time had 129 pending appeals with the oldest of these entered in 1996. The caseload consisted of 22 appeals that were entered from 1996 to 2010, 60 from 2011 to 2015, and 47 from 2016 to 2018. Undue delay, in some but not all of these appeals, thwarts the judiciary’s obligation to provide justice fairly and efficiently: if there is error requiring a new trial, delay may jeopardize the Commonwealth’s ability to retry the defendant; delay undermines the public perception of the administration of justice, especially by the families of murder victims; and delay has caused defendants to question the fairness of a process that takes so long.

To that end, the Justices appointed retired Supreme Judicial Court Justice Margot Botsford as a special master in April 2018 to help manage the first degree murder docket and devise strategies to resolve long-standing problems. Through regular status conferences with attorneys, the special master implemented individualized case management plans in the oldest cases. These status conferences focused on: (1) the oldest murder cases; (2) newer murder cases; (3) cases in which counsel have appearances in 5 or more murder appeals; and (4) cases where the defendant’s presence was required. At this writing, the special master has held over 170 status conferences.

As part of the case management plan, the full court clerk’s office reviews every Superior Court docket where a motion is pending after remand and sends a monthly report to the Chief Justice of the Superior Court. The report includes information about motions in need of assignment, due dates for the Commonwealth’s responses, scheduled evidentiary hearings, pending motions for a new trial and for discovery, and any motions currently under advisement.

In the meantime, the full court explored the possibility of establishing special time standards in first degree murder appeals by way of a standing order. Before doing so, Chief Justice Gants and Justice Gaziano met in January 2019 with a group of stakeholders that included the special master, defense attorneys, and assistant district attorneys. This meeting provided an opportunity to discuss general concerns about the full court’s first degree murder docket and specific concerns about the adoption of a standing order for the docket.

Following this meeting, in April 2019, the court published a proposed standing order governing first degree murder appeals with a request for comment. After consideration of comments received from the bar and the judiciary, the proposed standing order was revised and adopted by the full court on August 6 with an effective date of September 4, 2019.  See https://www.mass.gov/files/documents/2019/08/07/sjc-standing-order-governing-first-degree-murder-appeals-effective-september-2019.pdf

The standing order imposes time standards designed to remedy undue delay.  Motions for a new trial must be filed “as soon as reasonably practicable but no later than 18 months after entry of the direct appeal.” However, the special master has broad discretion to allow extensions “on a substantial showing of need.” A timely filed motion guarantees that both the direct appeal and the appeal from any denial of the motion for a new trial will be considered together. If a motion for a new trial is not timely filed, there is no longer a presumption, formal or informal, that review of any denial of that motion for a new trial will be considered at the same time as the direct appeal.

To help identify any transcription issues at an early stage of the appeal, the defendant is required to report whether all transcripts necessary for appellate review have been filed with the clerk within 4 months after entry of the appeal. Status conferences, which had previously been scheduled on an ad hoc basis, must be scheduled 6, 9, 12, and 15 months after entry of the direct appeal. At the first status conference, and if necessary thereafter, the special master will discuss with counsel the likelihood that the defendant will be filing a motion for a new trial, and if so, discuss the scheduling of that motion – all to ensure that absent compelling circumstances, any motion will be filed within 18 months of the entry of the direct appeal.  Finally, where a motion to withdraw is allowed and new counsel is appointed, deadlines previously imposed remain in effect despite the change in counsel.  The special master may, however, adjust the deadlines for status conferences, briefs, and new trial motions for good cause.

Whether these case management innovations lead to lasting changes to the full court’s first degree murder docket remains to be seen. It is clear, though, that it will take the concerted effort of many to balance the interests of all stakeholders and promote efficiency without sacrificing fairness.

Francis V. Kenneally is clerk of the Supreme Judicial Court for the Commonwealth.  He serves on the SJC’s Standing Advisory Committees on the Rules of Civil Procedure and on the Rules of Appellate Procedure, and served as co-chair of the SJC’s Appellate Pro Bono Committee.


Categorically Counterintuitive: Pre-Trial Imprisonment Based on Dangerousness

by Reyna M. Ramirez

Case Focus

Dangerousness hearings have huge stakes for defendants: if the Commonwealth proves by clear and convincing evidence that there are no conditions that can assure the safety of the community, a defendant can be incarcerated for up to 120 days in a district court case, or 180 days in a Superior Court case. G.L. c. 276, § 58A. However, pretrial detention based on “dangerousness” is counter-balanced by the presumption of innocence that undergirds our entire criminal justice system, and criminal defendants have recently mounted successful challenges to certain applications of the statute.  This article reviews the challenges, the Supreme Judicial Court’s rulings, and responsive proposed legislation.

“Dangerousness” Hearings Under G.L. c. 276, § 58A

Under General Laws c. 276, § 58A, a court may order pretrial detention of a criminal defendant if the prosecution shows, by clear and convincing evidence, that no conditions of release will reasonably assure the safety of any other person or the community. But the Commonwealth can seek such pretrial detention only if the defendant is charged with: (a) one of several predicate enumerated crimes; (b) a misdemeanor or felony that involves “abuse” (the “abuse clause” of § 58A); (c) a felony that has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against another (the “force clause”); or (d) a felony that, by its nature, involves a substantial risk that physical force against the person of another may result (the “residual clause”).

The abuse clause defines “abuse” with reference to the definition of abuse contained in Chapter 209A, that is, where the charged crime is against the defendant’s “family or household member,” including somebody who is or has been in a substantive dating or engagement relationship with the defendant, and involves: 1) attempting or causing physical harm; 2) putting others in fear of imminent serious physical harm; or 3) causing another to participate in sexual relations involuntarily through force, threat, or duress (i.e., rape).

The force clause focuses on whether the elements of the charged offense involve the use of force. A “categorical approach” is used to determine whether a non-enumerated felony qualifies as a predicate under the force clause. Commonwealth v. Young, 453 Mass. 707, 712 (2009). This approach assesses the elements of the felony “independent of the particular facts giving rise to a complaint or indictment.” Id. In other words, to determine whether a charge qualifies as a predicate under the force clause, the court asks not whether the defendant’s conduct involved the use of force, but rather whether the elements of the crime necessarily always involve the use of force.

Finally, the residual clause asks whether a felony “by its nature, involves a substantial risk that physical force against the person of another may result.” G. L. c. 276, § 58A.

Commonwealth v. Barnes / Scione v. Commonwealth

In January 2019, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled on the consolidated appeals of David Barnes and William Scione, each of whom had been detained following a finding of dangerousness under § 58A. Scione v. Commonwealth, 481 Mass. 225 (2019). Barnes was charged with statutory rape in violation of G.L. c. 265, § 23A, based on an allegation that he had sexual intercourse with a 15-year-old girl at a hotel after the two met online. Scione, on the other hand, was charged with using an incendiary device in violation of G.L. c. 266, § 102A, based on an allegation that he created a homemade improvised explosive device and placed it at the bottom of the driveway of his former girlfriend’s home (the record indicated that the device could have caused serious harm if it had not failed to explode). Neither of the charged crimes is an enumerated predicate charge under § 58A.

The SJC first ruled that statutory rape under § 23A is not a predicate charge under the force clause. Using the required categorical approach to analyze the elements of statutory rape under § 23A, the SJC observed that the crime requires proof that: (1) the defendant had sexual or unnatural intercourse with (2) a child between 12 and 16 years old where (3) there was a greater than 10-year age difference between the defendant and the child. Thus, force is not a required element of proof for statutory rape. The SJC noted that forcible rape of a child is its own crime under G.L. c. 265, § 22A, and that“[t]he fact that the Legislature saw fit to create two separate statutory rape offenses – one that includes the use of force and one that does not” – supported its decision to find there is no force element with respect to § 23A. Scione, 481 Mass. at 230. Justice Lowy wrote a separate concurrence “because such a counterintuitive result requires further discussion and consideration by the Legislature,” signaling to the Legislature to fix what he termed an “unfortunate” decision mandated “under the law as currently written.” Id. at 239.

The SJC next ruled that statutory rape under § 23A cannot be a predicate charge under the residual clause, because the residual clause is unconstitutionally vague. Scione, 481 Mass. at 230. To reach this conclusion, the SJC relied on the decisions of the United States Supreme Court in Johnson v. United States, 576 U.S. —, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015) and Sessions v. Dimaya, 548 U.S. —, 138 S. Ct. 1204 (2018) which, respectively, held that similarly-worded residual clauses in the federal Armed Career Criminal Act and the federal statutory definition of “crime of violence” were each vague because they failed to set out how to determine which crimes triggered the statute’s application. Noting that it had already followed Johnson in interpreting the Massachusetts Armed Career Criminal Act, see Commonwealth v. Beal, 474 Mass. 341 (2016), the SJC ruled that the residual clause of § 58A is unconstitutionally vague under Article 12 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights and, therefore, cannot be used to justify dangerousness proceedings in any case.

Turning to Scione’s case, the Court analyzed whether his charge of using an incendiary device under § 102A could trigger a dangerousness hearing under the abuse clause (which, the Commonwealth argued, applied because the alleged victim had previously been in a substantive dating relationship with the defendant). The Court held that, unlike the force clause, the abuse clause does not require use of the categorical approach. The SJC reached this conclusion in part because only one Massachusetts statutory crime—assault and battery on a household member (G.L. c. 265, § 13M)—explicitly includes abuse as an element. Id. at 236. Using statutory interpretation principles to presume that the Legislature intended to act logically, the Court opined that, “had the Legislature intended that only one crime be captured under the abuse clause,” it would have enumerated that crime rather than enact a separate “abuse” clause. Id. Instead, the SJC found, abuse “is best described as a characterization of an action or actions” and, therefore, a judge can look at the details of the defendant’s underlying conduct to determine whether the charge involves abuse. Id. Applying those principles to Scione, the SJC found that his alleged acts of placing a potentially-harmful IED on the property of his former girlfriend indeed involved abuse.

Commonwealth v. Vieira

The SJC’s decision in Barnes paved the way for its October 2019 decision in Commonwealth v. Vieira. 483 Mass. 417 (2019). There, the defendant was charged with indecent assault and battery on a child under 14 years old, in violation of G.L. c. 265, § 13B, based on allegations that he had engaged in sexual activity with a thirteen-year old boy he met online.  Indecent assault and battery on a child under 14 is not an enumerated charge under § 58A, and the Commonwealth sought to treat it as a predicate charge under the force clause.

At the outset of its opinion, the SJC reminded practitioners that “pretrial detention is a measure of last resort,” and that the presumption of innocence always applies. Applying the categorical approach, the SJC observed that indecent assault and battery on a child under § 13B does not have statutory elements, but rather incorporates the common law definition of battery, including to the extent that an assault is simply a threatened or attempted battery. The SJC explained that, at common law, there were three types of battery: (1) harmful battery, involving touching with such violence that bodily harm was likely to result; (2) reckless battery, involving a wanton, willful, or reckless act that results in injury; and (3) offensive battery, requiring “only that the defendant, without justification or excuse, intentionally touched the victim, and that the touching, however slight, occurred without the victim’s consent.” Although the first two types, the SJC found, necessarily involve the use of physical force, offensive battery does not. And, because a court evaluating bail and pretrial detention does not look to whether the charged conduct involves harmful, reckless, or offensive battery, application of the categorical approach means that a statutory crime incorporating all three types of battery does not necessarily always include force. Applying those principles, the SJC concluded that indecent assault and battery under § 14B is not a predicate charge under the force clause of § 58A.

Looking Forward

Two days after the SJC’s decision in Barnes, Governor Charles Baker submitted House Bill No. 66, An Act to Protect the Commonwealth from Dangerous Persons, which sought to change the dangerousness statute to include sex offenses involving children by adding those crimes – along with others – to § 58A’s list of enumerated crimes. This bill retains the force clause but completely removes the unconstitutional residual clause. Adding more enumerated crimes would have the effect of subjecting more individuals to dangerousness hearings and pre-trial detention. However, this approach does not address the issue that battery may not always include force, but commonly does. See, e.g., G.L. c. 265, § 13A (assault and battery). Instead, this legislation only addresses the specifics of the cases the SJC has adjudicated and misses an opportunity to draft legislation that looks forward and targets only the most dangerous of offenses and individuals.

Reyna M. Ramirez is a Partner at Ramirez and Sunnerberg, a criminal defense and prisoners’ rights practice on the South Shore. She is also an Associate at the firm J. W. Carney, Jr. and Associates, where she litigates complex criminal defense cases.


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

by Julia Devanthery, Dan Daley, and Lisabeth Jorgensen

Case Focus

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

Summary of Case & Applicable Law

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

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

Key Holdings

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

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

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

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

Practical Lessons

Providing notice to a landlord prior to action for eviction

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

The VAWA defense in a court proceeding

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

Conclusion & Tips for Effective Counseling

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

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

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

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

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


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

by Andrew Gambaccini

Case Focus

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

The Evolution of Governmental Immunity in Massachusetts

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

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

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

Reid v. City of Boston

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Magazu and the Expansion of Agency Power

lundy_sandyby Sandra E. Lundy

Legal Analysis

May a couple’s childrearing practices, which are not illegal and are deeply rooted in their sincere religious convictions, disqualify them from becoming foster and pre-adoptive parents?  In the closely watched case Magazu v. Department of Children and Families,[i] the Justices unanimously answered “yes.”  Here, I argue that while Magazu may have been correctly decided, the Court’s analysis has troubling implications for the expansion of agency power.

Path to the SJC

Gregory and Melanie Magazu had two biological daughters but wanted a larger family.  Concerns about Melanie’s health led them to apply to become foster and pre-adoptive parents. The couple seemed ideally suited to foster and then adopt a child who was in the Department of Children and Families’ (“DCF”) care – until they revealed that they occasionally used physical punishment on their biological children. Believing as a matter of religious faith in the maxim “spare the rod, spoil the child,” Greg or Melanie, on the few occasions when one of their daughters engaged in “a continuous pattern of disobedience,” would spank the child on the buttocks by hand in the privacy of the girl’s bedroom.[ii]

DCF regulations prohibit the use of corporal punishment on a foster child.[iii]  Accordingly, the Magazus were prepared to enter into a written agreement not to use corporal punishment on any foster child placed in their home and never to physically punish one of their biological children in the presence of the foster child. The couple would not, however, and for religious reasons could not, agree to forego physical discipline of their biological children. Citing their refusal, DCF denied the Magazus’ application to become foster and pre-adoptive parents. The Magazus appealed.  At the administrative hearing, DCF’s witnesses testified that foster children typically have been subjected to abuse and neglect and could be re-traumatized by direct or indirect exposure to corporal discipline.  DCF acknowledged that it had no written policy disqualifying parents who physically discipline their biological children from becoming foster parents, but maintained that such was its unwritten policy and practice.  First the hearing officer, and then a Superior Court judge, affirmed DCF’s denial of the Magazus’ application.  The Supreme Judicial Court transferred the case sua sponte from the Appeals Court.

The Decision

The Justices faced two questions of law.  First, was DCF’s decision arbitrary and capricious, based on an irrational interpretation of its statutory and regulatory authority, and/or ungrounded in substantial evidence, in violation of DCF’s statutory and regulatory mandates?  Second, by conditioning the couple’s receipt of a government benefit on their renunciation of their religious practices, did DCF violate the Magazus’ free exercise rights under the Federal and Massachusetts Constitutions?

The Justices dismissed both claims. The Court deferred–almost without scrutiny–to DCF’s policy of not placing foster and preadoptive children in homes where parents physically discipline their children.  Notwithstanding that the policy was “not . . . articulated in express terms,” the Court held that “such a policy falls squarely within the parameters of the department’s enabling legislation and companion regulations, and is rationally related to the department’s objectives in the placement of foster children.”[iv] The Court next applied the familiar “balancing test” of Wisconsin v. Yoder[v] and Attorney Gen. v. Desilets[vi] to the constitutional claim.  The Court concluded that DCF had substantially burdened the Magazus’ practice of their sincere religious convictions by presenting them with an untenable choice:  the couple could become foster parents by abandoning their religiously-motivated practices, or they could continue their faith-based disciplinary practices and abandon any hope of becoming foster and pre-adoptive parents.  Nonetheless, the Court held that the substantial burden on the Magazus’ constitutional rights was outweighed by the State’s “first and paramount duty,” rooted in its ancient parens patriae authority, to protect children from actual or potential harm.[vii] The decision shut the door on the Magazus’ hopes to foster and adopt children through DCF.

Judging By Unwritten Rules

It is easy to assume that Magazu was correctly decided.  Both common sense and compassion argue for taking every precaution to protect emotionally fragile children from further harm.  Nonetheless, the Court’s reasoning is troubling on at least two fronts.

First, the Court extended unwarranted deference to DCF’s “unwritten” policies and procedures.  A fundamental objective of the Administrative Procedures Act, G. L. c. 30A, which governs DCF’s actions, is to ensure the agency’s objectivity, accountability, transparency, predictability, and uniformity in its application of policies and other practices.[viii] Permitting DCF, or any agency, to rely on unwritten rules severely limits judicial oversight of agency discretion.  How does a court distinguish between a legitimate unwritten policy and post hoc rationalization?  How is a court to know, for instance, when the unwritten rule was adopted, by whom, for what reason, and how it was communicated?

The Court’s deference to DCF’s unwritten policies rested on the thinnest of precedents.  In both cases on which the Court relies, Anusavice v. Board of Registration in Dentistry[ix] and Arthurs v. Board of Registration in Med.,[x] the agency’s position on the unethical or criminal characteristics of the conduct at issue could readily have been foreseen from prior published agency decisions.  Here, the Magazus’ disqualifying conduct was legally permissible: within limits, one may spank one’s child. See, e.g., Commonwealth v. Dorvil; Cobble v. Department of Soc. Services.[xi]  The Magazus had no notice that their lawful conduct would disqualify them to be foster parents.

Justice Cordy’s concurrence, joined by Justices Botsford and Duffly, gives voice to this concern about unfettered deference to unwritten agency policy.”[xii] Justice Cordy begins by acknowledging two stark realities: the increasing need for good Massachusetts foster homes in light of DCF’s growing caseload, and “the highly publicized tragedies of the last two years regarding children under the supervision of the department in foster homes,” including a recent horrific case in the western region where the Magazus reside.[xiii]  He also reiterates the uncontested evidence demonstrating “that in every respect (but for one) [the Magazus] were ideal foster and preadoptive candidates.”[xiv] In light of the department’s woeful record of investigating recent notorious cases of foster placements, where the warning signs of danger were writ large, Justice Cordy wrote that one is “left to wonder . . . whether the high standards and intensive assessment and scrutiny applied to the plaintiffs is the exception rather than the norm,” or “whether the real problem in this case was not so much the department’s concern for child safety, but rather a disagreement with the plaintiff’s beliefs regarding the upbringing of their children.”[xv]  He queries whether, whatever the unwritten licensing standard actually is, it will be uniformly applied.[xvi] If an agency may impose significant burdens on individuals based on unwritten policies, the concurrence suggests, meaningful judicial review of the conduct of State bureaucracies is all but eviscerated.

The Paternalistic State

A second reason for concern in Magazu is the Court’s reliance in the parens patriae doctrine to justify burdening the Magazus’ constitutional rights. The doctrine of parens patriae endows the State with inherent authority to protect the vulnerable, particularly children, from harm. See, e.g., Petition of Catholic Charitable Bureau of the Archdiocese of Boston, Inc., to Dispense with Consent to Adoption.[xvii]  Massachusetts appellate courts have invoked the doctrine in countless child-related cases.

Parens patriae, however, like its kindred “best interests of the child” standard, is a doctrine increasingly criticized as inchoate and infantilizing.[xviii]  Recently, in Guardianship of L.H.,[xix] a case involving substituted judgment for an incompetent adult, Judge Agnes (dissenting) implored courts to “be cautious and critical of signs of paternalism legitimized by the parens patriae doctrine, where State actors purport to have an absolute understanding of what is in the best interests of an individual, whose liberty, dignity and privacy are at issue, and whose voice is muted by the swift and overriding authority of court-appointed  professionals.”[xx]  Judge Agnes’ dissent is particularly cautionary for Magazu, where DCF presented no hard data on actual or prognostic harm, where the prospective foster parents pledged to abide by DCF regulations concerning the discipline of children placed in their care, and where their credentials were otherwise stellar.

Of course, the Magazus are not the only parents ensnared here by parens patriae.  The decision summarily disqualifies an entire class of people whose religious convictions lead them to physically discipline their children from even becoming foster and preadoptive parents.  Regardless of one’s views on the corporal punishment of children, the use of parens patriae in Magazu to preclude any foster child from finding love and care in a loving family invites speculation about just what the limits of parens patriae, if any, may possibly be.

Conclusion

Magazu closes the door to foster parentage to the Magazus and all those similarly situated.  How widely it opens the door to bureaucratic over-reach will be tested in the line of cases that follow.

Sandra E. Lundy is an appellate and domestic relations litigator at Tarlow, Breed, Hart & Rodgers, P.C., Boston.  She is Board Member of the Women’s Bar Association and a former member of the BBA Family Law Section Council. Attorney Lundy received her J.D. from Yale Law School and her Ph.D. from Columbia University.

[i] 473 Mass. 430 (2016).

[ii] Id. at 433.

[iii] See 110 Code Mass. Regs. §§ 7.104 (1) (q) and 7.111(3).

[iv] 473 Mass at 440-441.

[v] 406 U.S. 205 (1972).

[vi] 418 Mass. 316, 321-323 (1944).

[vii] 473 Mass at 445-446.  See also 418 Mass at 321-323.

[viii] See, e.g., G. L. c. 30A, §§ 2-6.

[ix] 451 Mass. 786, 795 (2008).

[x] 383 Mass. 299, 312-313 (1981).

[xi] 472 Mass. 1 (2015); 430 Mass. 385 (1999).

[xii] 473 Mass. at 446-449  (Cordy, J., concurring).

[xiii] Id. at 448.

[xiv] Id. at 447..

[xv] Id. at 448.

[xvi] Id. at 448-449.

[xvii] 392 Mass. 738, 740-741 (1984).

[xviii] See, for example, Charlow, Awarding Custody: The Best Interests of the Child and Other Fictions, 5 Yale L. and Pol’y Rev.  267, 269-273  (1986), available at http://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/ylpr/vol5/iss2/3.

[xix] 84 Mass. App. Ct. 711 (2014),

[xx] Id. at 734.


SJC Rules State Must Set Annual Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reductions

sanders_dylanby Dylan Sanders

Case Focus

The state’s responsibility to confront climate change is now the subject of Massachusetts case law. In a landmark decision interpreting the state’s Global Warming Solutions Act (“GWSA”), Kain v. Department of Environmental Protection, 474 Mass. 278 (2016), the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the Department of Environmental Protection (“DEP”) must impose mandatory “volumetric limits” on multiple sources of greenhouse gas emissions – meaning limits on the actual amount of greenhouse gases emitted by those sources – and that those limits must decline on an annual basis. The decision could have far-reaching implications for how the state regulates emissions in many sectors of the economy, with the SJC warning that the “act makes plain that the Commonwealth must reduce emissions and, in doing so, may, in some instances, elevate environmental goals over other considerations.” 474 Mass. at 292.

Background

The GWSA was enacted in 2008, against the backdrop of what the SJC characterized as the “emerging consensus … that climate change is attributable to increased emissions, … [and] that national and international efforts to reduce those emissions are inadequate.” 474 Mass. at 281. Among other provisions, the GWSA required DEP to maintain an inventory of greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions in the state and to determine the statewide GHG emissions level as of 1990.

The GWSA also required the state to adopt two types of declining GHG emission limits. One relates to total emissions from all sources, while the other relates to individual sources. First, the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (the “Secretary”) was required to adopt limits on the total amount of GHG emissions from all sources for 2020, 2030, 2040 and 2050, with the 2050 limit reducing overall GHG emissions in the Commonwealth by 80 percent from the 1990 level. Second, the GWSA required DEP to adopt annual declining limits on individual sources of GHG emissions, in addition to the end-of-decade limits, specifically by “establishing a desired level of declining annual aggregate emission limits for sources or categories of sources that emit greenhouse gas emissions.” This latter provision, codified at chapter 21N, § 3(d), led to the controversy that was decided in Kain.

DEP agreed that the end-of-decade limits were legally binding caps for statewide GHG emissions. However, with regard to Section 3(d)’s “declining annual aggregate emission limits” for sources of GHG emissions, DEP took the position these were aspirational “targets,” not binding caps, citing the statute’s reference to “desired” levels. Alternatively, DEP contended that several existing regulatory programs fulfilled Section 3(d)’s requirements to limit sources of GHG emissions, and that the agency need not adopt new regulations to comply with the law.

When DEP failed to adopt any new regulations on sources of GHG emissions pursuant to Section 3(d), four teenagers, the Conservation Law Foundation, and the Mass Energy Consumers Alliance sued DEP to compel it to adopt binding caps on sources of GHG emissions that declined annually. (The teenagers, two from Boston and two from Wellesley, were among scores of youth who, concerned about the impact of climate change on their future, had unsuccessfully petitioned DEP to adopt new Section 3(d) rules in 2012.) On cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings, the Superior Court ruled in favor of DEP, on the grounds that the three regulatory schemes cited by DEP fulfilled Section 3(d)’s requirements. After granting direct appellate review, the SJC reversed.

The SJC Decision

At the outset, the SJC acknowledged that DEP has wide discretion in establishing the scope of its authority, but stated that deference to DEP’s interpretation of Section 3(d) “would tend to undermine the [GWSA]’s central purpose of reducing emissions in the Commonwealth.” Id. at 287.

The Court first rejected DEP’s argument that Section 3(d) required only aspirational “targets” for limiting sources of GHG emissions, not binding caps. The Court observed that when the GWSA referred to “limits” elsewhere in the statute, DEP conceded that “limits” referred to binding caps. The Court refused to give the word “limit” a different meaning with regard to the annual limits on sources of emissions in Section 3(d). 474 Mass. at 288.

The Court also pointedly said that “a regulation, by definition, is not aspirational” and expressed doubt that the Legislature would require an agency to promulgate regulations that were merely aspirational. Finally, while DEP had stressed that the term “desired level” necessarily implied that “limits” on emissions were aspirational, the Court disagreed. The Court held that, in the context of the statute’s goal of reducing emissions in the Commonwealth, the term “desired level” meant the level of emissions from a source or category of sources that would be “suitable” to achieve the statewide GHG emissions limits. 474 Mass. at 289.

The SJC next turned to the three regulatory schemes that DEP argued fulfilled Section 3(d)’s requirements to limit sources of GHG emissions, and held that none satisfied the statute’s mandate. The first regulatory scheme limits the rate of leakage of a powerful greenhouse gas from certain electrical switch gear, with the intent of gradually reducing the leakage rate from the equipment.  The Court held that this regulatory scheme did not satisfy Section 3(d) because it established only a declining rate of emissions from sources, not a cap on the actual volume of emissions, and the amount of leaked emissions therefore could increase simply by the installation of additional equipment in a facility or in the state as a whole. 474 Mass. at 295.

As to the second regulatory scheme, the “low emission vehicle” (“LEV”) program, which also “regulates through the imposition of rates, rather than actual caps on emissions,” the SJC held it did not comply with Section 3(d)’s requirement that DEP promulgate declining volumetric emissions limits. 474 Mass. at 299. The LEV program regulates emissions based on the average emissions of each auto manufacturer’s fleet of cars. Thus, like the regulations regarding switch gear emissions, although the average rate of emissions from a vehicle fleet may decline, the total number of vehicles on the road from a manufacturer’s fleet may increase and thus the volume of emissions from those sources may increase as well. Id.

Here and elsewhere, DEP argued that it should be free to use a rate rate-based mechanism rather than a volume-based cap on emissions, because using a cap would potentially limit the actual number of emission sources. Disagreeing, the Court said the GWSA required that new or additional GHG sources must comply with a regulatory scheme that required the reduction of the actual volume of emissions. 474 Mass. at 295.

Finally, the SJC turned to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (“RGGI”), a regional cap and trade system for carbon dioxide emitted by power plants, pursuant to which the overall cap on emissions from plants in Massachusetts and eight other states is reduced by 2.5 percent each year. Although RGGI imposes an overall cap on carbon dioxide emissions that declines annually through 2020, the SJC held that it nevertheless did not fulfill Section 3(d)’s requirements. The Court observed that RGGI was established by a separate statute, and that the GWSA elsewhere created a separate process by which emission levels associated with the electric sector are set. Id. at 297. These factors, said the Court, indicated the Legislature did not intend for the RGGI program to be part of the Section 3(d) regulations. In addition, the Court noted that under RGGI, a Massachusetts power plant could purchase allowances from another state that would permit the Massachusetts plant to increase emissions. Accordingly, RGGI does not actually require carbon dioxide emissions from power plants located in the Commonwealth to decrease annually.

In ruling that none of the three programs proffered by DEP satisfies Section 3(d)’s requirements, the SJC acknowledged that these schemes may play important roles in achieving greenhouse gas reductions. But the SJC also repeatedly said that, because these regulatory schemes do not actually require annual decreases in the volume of GHG emissions, they simply do not require what Section 3(d) mandates.

Conclusion

The full import of Kain remains to be seen.  At a minimum, it requires DEP to establish annual declining volumetric limits for those sources, or categories of sources, of emissions in the GHG inventory, which will help the state achieve its 2020 and 2050 limits.  Designing programs to achieve those limits is another matter.  Moreover, the Section 3(d) regulations were supposed to take effect no later than January 1, 2013, and to sunset on December 31, 2020. The work at hand now concerns what can best be achieved in the time that remains.

 

Dylan Sanders practices environmental law at Sugarman, Rogers, Barshak & Cohen, P.C., and, together with his colleague Phelps Turner, represented the four teenage plaintiffs in the Kain case.


Massachusetts Leads The Nation On The Attorney-Client Privilege For Law Firms

by Robert M. Buchanan, Jr.

Case Focus

BuchananThe Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts has taken intellectual leadership on an issue of nationwide importance for the legal profession.  RFF v. Burns & Levinson, 465 Mass. 702, 703 (July 2013) addressed “whether confidential communications between law firm attorneys and a law firm’s in-house counsel … are protected from disclosure to the client by the attorney-client privilege.”  The SJC ruled firmly that the privilege does apply the first time this issue has been resolved by the highest court in any jurisdiction.

Examples Of The Issue In Practice

The Boston Bar Association filed an amicus brief in the RFF case.  We provided several practical examples of how in-house counsel function in law firms.

Example 1:  Law Firm represents Client A and also represents Client B.  Client B calls Lawyer asking for urgent advice about an affiliate of Client A.  Does Lawyer have a conflict of interest?

Example 2:  Lawyer is preparing for a strategy discussion with Client, which is scheduled to begin in a few hours.  Suddenly Lawyer realized that he may have made a technical or strategic mistake.  What should he do?  Does he need to disclose something to Client?

Example 3:  A real estate developer Client sends a letter accusing Law Firm of malpractice, and at the same time insists that Law Firm continue performing work for the developer.  Should Law Firm continue performing work for this Client?

In each of these three scenarios, the lawyer needs guidance; the law firm’s in-house counsel is in the best position to provide guidance; and the client will benefit if the lawyer obtains proper guidance promptly.

The Facts Of The RFF Case

The RFF case was similar to Example 3.  Real estate lawyers received a demand letter from their client, a real estate developer.  The lawyers faced a difficult set of questions.  Should they argue with the client?  Should they continue to represent the client?  How could they do both at the same time?  The lawyers sought advice from their partner who was “designated to respond to ethical questions and risk management issues.”  RFF, 465 Mass. at 704.

The real estate developer later filed a malpractice action and sought to take depositions.  The Business Litigation Session — in a well-reasoned opinion by Judge Billings, dated November 20, 2012 ruled that the attorney-client privilege protected the lawyers from interrogation about their discussion with in-house counsel.

The SJC’s Analysis

The SJC affirmed, stating a logical series of principles, as the BBA had advocated.

1.         Lawyers in law firms often need advice.

Law firms, like corporations, face a vast and complicated array of regulatory legislation, where the line between permissible and prohibited conduct is not always an instinctive matter.

RFF, 465 Mass. at 708-09, quoting Chambliss, The Scope of In-Firm Privilege, 80 Notre Dame L.Rev. 1721, 1756 (2005).

2.         The attorney-client privilege enables in-house counsel to give advice.

Where a law firm designates one or more attorneys to serve as its in-house counsel on ethical, regulatory, and risk management issues that are crucial to the firm’s reputation and financial success, the attorney-client privilege serves the same purpose as it does for corporations or governmental entities:  it guarantees the confidentiality necessary to ensure that the firm’s partners, associates, and staff employees provide the information needed to obtain sound legal advice.

RFF, 465 Mass. at 704-10.

3.         There is no principled reason to reject the privilege.

Lower courts in some other jurisdictions had ruled that the attorney-client privilege does not apply.  These courts have held that the law firm is impaired by a conflict of interest when the firm represents itself adverse to a current client.  The SJC ruled, to the contrary, that the law firm can’t avoid analyzing what to do, and its analysis should be protected by the attorney-client privilege.  Justice Gants stated the critical distinction as follows:

. . .[A] client is entitled to full and fair disclosure of facts that are relevant to the representation, including any bad news, and to sound legal advice from its law firm.  But a client is not entitled to revelation of the law firm’s privileged communications with in-house or outside counsel where those facts were presented and the sound legal advice was formulated.

RFF, 465 Mass. at 716 (emphasis added).

The Privilege Applies If Four Requirements Are Met

The BBA’s amicus brief proposed a three-part test for applying the attorney-client privilege to in-house counsel.  These three requirements were adopted by the SJC in the passage below.  The SJC also added a fourth requirement, confidentiality, which is consistent with them.  The SJC held:

For the privilege to apply, four conditions must be met.  First, the law firm must designate, either formally or informally, an attorney or attorneys within the firm to represent the firm as in-house or ethics counsel, so that there is an attorney-client relationship between the in-house counsel and the firm when the consultation occurs.  Second, where a current outside client has threatened litigation against the law firm, the in-house counsel must not have performed any work on the particular client matter at issue or a substantially related matter….  Third, the time spent by the attorneys in these communications with in-house counsel may not be billed or charged to any outside client….  Fourth, as with all attorney-client communications, they must be made in confidence and kept confidential.

RFF, 465 Mass. at 723 (emphasis added).

Conclusion

All Massachusetts law firms should review these four requirements.  Although the SJC’s holding is not binding outside Massachusetts, its powerful reasoning should be persuasive in other states as well.  In the long run, this analytical clarity should benefit all U.S. law firms and the clients that they serve.

Robert M. Buchanan, Jr. wrote the Boston Bar Association’s amicus brief, pro bono, in the RFF case.  Mr. Buchanan is Chair of the Ethics Committee at Choate Hall & Stewart, where he is a partner in the Litigation Department and leads the Antitrust practice.