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.  


Workers’ Rights Keep Pace With Corporate Practices: Recent SJC Decisions Expand Reach of Wage & Hour Laws

by Jocelyn B. Jones 

Case Focus

SONY DSCOnly 20 years ago, criminal prosecution was the sole means of enforcing the Massachusetts wage and hour laws. But the enforcement landscape has changed dramatically since 1993, when enforcement authority was transferred to the Attorney General’s Office from the former Department of Labor & Industries, and employees were authorized to initiate private lawsuits, in which those who prevailed were entitled to treble damages and attorneys’ fees, among other remedial measures. A further transformation took place in 1998, when the Attorney General was granted civil citation authority and monetary penalties for violations were enhanced, and with them, greater deterrence was set into play. The Legislature’s addition of these enforcement mechanisms in the 1990s increased  the development of wage and hour related case law, particularly at the appellate level. This rather dramatic expansion of case law in the wage and hour arena has accompanied the crystallization of the viewpoint expressed by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) that these legal protections are to be interpreted broadly, to ensure that the laws accomplish their underlying goal of guaranteeing that all workers receive their earned wages.  Consistent with this view, two recent SJC decisions underscore the expansive reach of the wage and hour laws’ protections.

LLC Managers & Wage Act Liability

In Cook v. Patient Edu, LLC, et al., the SJC addressed an issue of first impression about whether managers of a Limited Liability Company (“LLC”) may be held personally liable for violations of the Massachusetts Wage Act, M.G.L. c. 149, §148. A former employee brought suit in Superior Court against the LLC, as well as two of its managers, for unpaid wages. Relying on the statutory language and the express legislative purpose of protecting employees from long-term wage detention, the SJC concluded that “[b]ecause a manager or other officer or agent of an LLC…” may be a “person having employees in his service,” if he “controls, directs, and participates to a substantial degree in formulating and determining policy” of the business entity, he may thus be civilly or criminally liable for violations of the Wage Act.

Originally enacted in 1879, the Wage Act has been amended over the years to apply to both private and public sector employers. Among other provisions, the law requires that “[e]very person having employees in his service” must pay employees within the time limits specified within the statute. In addition, the statute expressly imposes liability on corporate officers and agents, as well as certain public officers. Cook’s managers pointed to these references and argued that because managers of LLCs are not specifically identified as employers under the Wage Act, in contrast to corporate or public officers, they cannot be held individually liable. But the SJC disagreed. The Court found that personal responsibility for Wage Act violations is not limited only to these particular categories of individuals. The SJC reasoned that the Legislature has merely provided examples of situations in which an individual may be deemed to be an employer. With that, the SJC remanded the case back to the trial court for further proceedings to determine what role the managers played and whether they were sufficiently involved with the LLC’s financial decisions to render either of them liable as a “person having employees in his service.”

This and other recent Massachusetts appellate decisions considering actions that may implicate workers’ rights under the wage and hour laws suggest that employers should consider that that courts are often likely to interpret statutory provisions in the light most favorable to workers. This reality, coupled with the prospect of individual liability, provides abundant motivation for business leaders to ensure that their employees are paid in full and on time.

Misclassification of Out-of-State Employees

Much has been made of the Massachusetts’ Employee Misclassification Law (or so-called Independent Contractor law), since its significant amendment in 2004. Today, the Massachusetts statute is arguably the most protective employment misclassification law in the country. The statute ensures that individuals who are properly classified as employees are afforded the protections intended for employees, including but not limited to timely payment of wages, minimum wage, overtime, as well as workers’ compensation, unemployment, the right to organize and nondiscrimination protections, i.e., statutory protections not available to independent contractors. Massachusetts has a history of leading the way in enacting laws that favor worker protections, and increasingly other states are following suit. Indeed, many state legislatures have either recently adopted misclassification laws very similar to ours or are currently considering doing so. A recent SJC decision highlights why all employers should be aware of this trend.

In Taylor v. Eastern Connection Operating, Inc., the SJC ruled that the Massachusetts Independent Contractor law applied to couriers who both lived and worked in New York while employed by a Massachusetts-based delivery company, Eastern Connection Operating.  The SJC found that these individuals, who neither live nor work in Massachusetts, are nevertheless entitled to the protections of the Massachusetts Independent Contractor law. How, you may ask, can that be? The decision rests on the “choice-of-law doctrine,” which considers, among other things, the parties’ expressed intent as to which state’s law will govern legal disputes between them and which state has the most stake in the outcome of an lawsuit.

In considering these factors, the Court made two key findings in the case:   1) the employment contracts between the company and the couriers demonstrated that the parties intended to apply Massachusetts law, and 2) because the laws of New York and Massachusetts concerning employment misclassification are quite similar, applying Massachusetts law would not undermine New York public policy. As the Court wrote:

“Under both Massachusetts and New York law, a purported independent contractor who does not enjoy sufficient independence from the hiring party is deemed an employee. States seek to protect workers by classifying them as employees, and thereby grant them the benefits and rights of employment, where the circumstances indicate that they are, in fact, employees. New York simply uses a different mechanism to effectuate this aim than does Massachusetts” (emphasis supplied.)

Importantly, the Court also noted that “where no explicit limitation is placed on a statute’s geographic reach, there is no presumption against its extraterritorial application in appropriate circumstances.” And here, the SJC found that the Massachusetts Independent Contractor law contained no such limitation. For these reasons, the court held that the Massachusetts law applied to the plaintiffs’ claims and that because the plaintiffs could ultimately be found to be employees under Massachusetts law, the Superior Court erred by dismissing their wage claims on the basis that they were independent contractors.

As other states’ misclassification laws continue to evolve to more closely resemble those of Massachusetts, the Taylor case suggests that employers should take care to ensure that they understand the effect of contractual choice of law provisions and that their in-state and out-of-state workers are properly classified. Massachusetts’ more formidable wage protections may well be within their reach.  And other states’ laws are helping them on their way.

The Cook and Taylor decision are but two of many important workers’ rights victories that have been handed down by the SJC over the past decade.  As case law in the wage and hour arena continues to expand, we can expect that the SJC will continue to interpret the law with an eye towards ensuring the goal of protecting workers’ rights so clearly central to the state’s wage and hour laws.

Jocelyn B. Jones is Deputy Chief in the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office (AGO), Fair Labor Division, a position she has held since 2007. She has served as an Assistant Attorney General in the Division since 2000, and as Special Counsel for Fair Labor Policy since early 2013.

*  The Attorney General’s Fair Labor Division filed an amicus curiae brief on the behalf of the Plaintiff in the Cook matter.  This article represents the opinions and legal conclusions of its author and not necessarily those of the Office of the Attorney General.  Opinions of the Attorney General are formal documents rendered pursuant to specific statutory authority; this article is not intended to be an official Opinion of the Attorney General rendered pursuant to statutory authority.   


SJC Clarifies Legal Standard Used in Child Support Modification Cases

by Ruthanne Withers

Case Focus

Withers_RuthIn its recent decision, Morales v. Morales, 464 Mass. 507 (2013), the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) clarified the standard used in child support modification cases.  Previously, a litigant had the burden of proving that a “material and substantial change in circumstances” had occurred since entry of the prior child support order.  Pursuant to the SJC’s decision in Morales, which reaffirmed the relevant statutory standard, a litigant must now show that an “inconsistency” exists between the prior order and the order that would result from the application of the Child Support Guidelines (“Guidelines”).

Due to changes in federal law regarding the collection and enforcement of child support orders, Massachusetts child support statutes were amended in 1994.  One of the most notable amendments was the change in the standard used to modify child support orders.  Before 1994, a litigant had the burden of proving that a “material and substantial change in circumstances” had occurred since entry of the last child support judgment.  See, e.g.,  G.L. c. 208, §28, as amended by St. 1993, c. 460, §§60 to 62.  Under current law, a child support order “shall be modified if there is an inconsistency between the current order and the order that would result from application of the child support guidelines.”  See, e.g., G.L. c. 208, §28.

Mr. and Mrs. Morales were divorced by order of the Probate and Family Court in May, 2008.  The Judgment of Divorce Nisi (“Judgment”) ordered Mr. Morales to pay child support of $172 weekly for the parties’ son.  In May 2009, Ms. Morales filed a Complaint for Modification to modify the child support order due to her ex-husband’s increase in pay and promotion at work.  After a two-day trial, the Probate and Family Court dismissed Ms. Morales’ Complaint for Modification on the grounds that she had not proven a “material and substantial change in circumstances” since entry of the May 2008 Judgment.

After the Appeals Court affirmed the lower court’s decision, Ms. Morales filed an application for Further Appellate Review, which was granted by the SJC.  In March 2013, the SJC issued its decision and clarified the standard for modification of child support orders.  Morales v. Morales, supra. The SJC concluded that the “trial judge, in ruling on the mother’s modification complaint, erred by applying a standard requiring a material and substantial change in circumstances (material and substantial change standard) rather that the standard set forth in G.L. c. 208, §28…”.  Morales at 508.

The SJC’s decision is significant because there has long been a conflict between the modification standard cited in court decisions and the statutory language defining the standard for modification of child support orders.  The inconsistency standard will simplify the judicial process, ease congestion in the courts, and reduce the amount of litigation involved in child support modification cases.  Family law practitioners handling child support modification cases should not notice much change in terms of their approach to the subject as the Guidelines are  still used for litigants whose combined incomes fall below $250,000.  The most significant change will be that a client will no longer have to prove a “material change” has occurred since the last order.  If the previous child support order is different from what it should be under the Guidelines, then the order shall be modified.  However, it should be noted that if the original order deviated from the Guidelines, the new standard may not apply, and a client will have the burden of proving that a material change has occurred in order to modify the existing order.

Lower and moderate income litigants who are seeking to either increase or decrease a child support order, and who often do not have the financial resources to hire an attorney or engage in protracted litigation, will benefit the most from the clarified standard.  Showing an objective “inconsistency” between a prior order and a proposed new order, instead of proving a subjective “material and substantial change in circumstances,” affords greater access to the courthouse because it is a simplified standard that the general public can easily grasp.  In these tough economic times, when nearly 70% of litigants in some Probate and Family Courts are pro se, it is more important than ever to provide greater ease and access to justice for all Massachusetts litigants, especially those trying to navigate an often complex judicial system by themselves.

Ruthanne Withers is an Associate with the Attleboro law firm of Coogan, Smith, McGahan, Lorincz, Jacobi & Shanley, LLP.  From 2005 through 2013, Attorney Withers was employed with the Family Law Unit of Community Legal Aid in Worcester.  She represented the wife in the Morales v. Morales case.