Posts tagged ‘law’
April 18, 2017:- If an employer believes that an employee’s disability poses a safety threat, may it re-assign or terminate that employee?
Until today, the answer to that question was this: only if the employer can prove an affirmative defense by demonstrating a “reasonable probability of substantial harm.” That is the standard set by the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) in its guidelines. Today the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) decided that the MCAD guidelines are wrong. For the text of the decision in Gannon v. City of Boston click here. It involves a concussed MMA fighter/police officer, by the way.
After explaining why the MCAD is wrong to place the burden of proof on the employer (e.g. lack of statutory authority), the SJC stated that what the employer bears is the burden of production. So in a case where the employer’s decision is based on the employee’s disability, in order to avoid liability for discrimination the employer must show “specific evidence that the employee would pose an unacceptably significant risk of serious injury to the employee or others.” Then, when the employer has met this burden of production, the employee must prove that s/he is “capable of performing the essential functions of the job without posing an unacceptably significant risk of serious injury to the employee or others.”
The distinction between the burden of proof and the burden of production is important. The burden of proof must remain with the plaintiff employee, said the SJC. Contrary to the MCAD’s guidelines, employers do not have to raise the affirmative defense and then prove by the preponderance of the evidence the existence of “reasonable probability of substantial harm.” Rather, after the employer has shown an “unacceptably significant risk of injury” the onus is on the employee to prove that she or he can, in fact, do the job without posing such a risk.
In a nutshell: This decision delivers a subtle but important victory for employers.
February 3, 2017
February 3, 2017:- The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is soliciting public comment on its proposed new Unlawful Harassment Enforcement Guidelines. You can read the guidelines and comment on them here.
One item that employers should note: Harassment of a “transgender individual ” can include “using a name or pronoun inconsistent with the individual’s gender identity in a persistent or offensive manner.”
The word “or” means that the use of the pronoun/name need only be offensive, and not necessarily persistent, in order to qualify as harassment under these enforcement guidelines.
January 24, 2017
May a hospital fire employees who refuse the flu vaccine on religious grounds? Saint Vincent Health Center in Erie, Pennsylvania, must have thought so back in 2014 when it terminated the employment of six vaccine refuseniks, but now that it has agreed to shell out $300,000 in back-pay and compensatory damages it probably realizes that the short answer is no. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) press release states:
“While Title VII does not prohibit health care employers from adopting seasonal flu vaccination requirements for their workers, those requirements, like any other employment rules, are subject to the employer’s Title VII duty to provide reasonable accommodation for religion… In that context, reasonable accommodation means granting religious exemptions to employees with sincerely held religious beliefs against vaccination when such exemptions do not create an undue hardship on the employer’s operations.”
Last year I wrote an article about Boston Children’s Hospital fending off a discrimination complaint after it fired an employee who had refused the flu vaccine on religious grounds. The judge found that the hospital had offered reasonable accommodations and the accommodation that the employee requested would have imposed an undue hardship on the hospital.
The lesson for health-care providers? If employees object to the vaccine on religious grounds, work hard with them to devise some reasonable accommodations and document those efforts carefully and thoroughly.
November 29, 2016:- In the general election the voters of Massachusetts approved a law to legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana. It was a convincing eight-point win for the legalization campaign: 54% to 46%. In my home town, Amherst, the margin was dramatically larger: 75% to 25%.
How the new law will affect Amherst and the surrounding communities was the focus of a forum I moderated recently for BLAAST (Business Leadership for Amherst Area Strategies) a joint program of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce and the Amherst Business Improvement District. To watch the video, click here. To read the related article in Business West, click here.
Given the nature of my practice, a few people have asked me about the effect of legalization on trademarks, e.g. will marijuana sellers be able to register their trademarks? Two facts are relevant.
The first is that there trademark owners can protect their marks via state law and federal law. Registering a mark with the state only protects it within that state, of course. For example, I have registered my mark (the flying-V logo) in Massachusetts, the state where I am admitted to practice law. If some lawyer started using the same mark in California and I sued for trademark infringement, my Massachusetts certificate of registration would not be sufficient evidence to afford me an automatic courtroom victory. To have the presumptive exclusive right to use my mark nationwide I would need to register it federally with the United States Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO).
The second important fact is that on the subject of marijuana there is now a clear tension between federal law and state law. In 1970 Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act, which prohibits the cultivation, possession, and distribution of marijuana. The Supreme Court of the United States upheld the statute in 2005, ruling that Congress had the necessary constitutional authority under the Commerce Clause. And although the People of Massachusetts have enacted the Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana Act, Congress has not repealed the Controlled Substances Act.
Nor has Congress amended the federal trademark statute, the Lanham Act. This matters because the Lanham Act only allows the registration of trademarks that are used in connection with lawful activities, which excludes the sale of marijuana (a federal crime). For so long as the Controlled Substances Act and the unamended Lanham Act remain the law of the land, it seems highly likely that the USPTO will carry on refusing to register marks used in connection with the sale of marijuana.
As a result of this federal-state tension, a few constitutional questions come to mind. For example, doesn’t the Supremacy Clause mean that the Controlled Substances Act preempts state law in this field? No. Why not? Because the statute itself expressly says so (section 903, if you’re interested). Nevertheless, couldn’t the federal government compel Massachusetts to enforce the Controlled Substances Act? No. Why not? Because of the Tenth Amendment.
So could the trademark section in the Corporations Division of the Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth allow marijuana sellers to register their marks at the state level? My answer to this question is forthright and unequivocal: it depends.
On the one hand, the applicable state statute prohibits the registration of marks that consist of or comprise “immoral… or scandalous matter.” In view of the voters’ decision to legalize marijuana it seems unlikely that a judge would find that the drug qualifies as immoral or scandalous any more. Under Massachusetts trademark law, therefore, marijuana trademarks are beginning to look registrable.
On the other hand, there is a big difference between not enforcing the federal Controlled Substances Act and positively aiding and abetting its violation, a criminal offense under Section 846. This means that state trademark officials in Boston who register a mark that the applicant expressly uses in connection with the sale of marijuana could face federal criminal charges.
Would that happen? I doubt it? Could it happen? Yes. Some future U.S. District Attorney for the District of Massachusetts prosecuting Secretary of the Commonwealth William F. Galvin for issuing a certificate of trademark registration to owners of, say, BUDS-U-LIKE is not beyond the realm of possibility. At the very least, the idea could serve as the basis for a book, albeit one with very limited appeal destined for rapid remaindered status.
But, more realistically, what if an applicant uses the mark in connection with other products, not just marijuana, and makes no mention of marijuana in the state trademark application? Now that is a much more practical area of inquiry. Stay tuned.
Invidious discrimination does occur, and we are fortunate to have an agency tailor-made to address it, namely the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD). But the current four-year backlog of cases at the MCAD is hurting litigants on both sides, employers and employees alike. Justice delayed is justice denied, as the saying goes. And most reasonable people would agree that the MCAD should not handle cases outside its jurisdiction.
So what should we do about the problem? Check out my article in the current edition of the Massachusetts Bar Association’s Lawyers Journal by clicking here.
As if they needed it this presidential-campaign season, here’s some good news for political consultants. The Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance (OCPF) is generating more business for them.
The latest state regulation aimed at controlling the funding of political speech means that candidate committees and independent expenditure political action committees (IE PACs) will face penalties if they share consultants. How will they likely avoid that? By employing separate consultants, of course.
Massachusetts law prohibits IE PACS from coordinating with candidate committees. But proving coordination can be difficult, so the regulations create presumptions that put the onus on the PACs and candidate committees to prove they did not coordinate. Readers with backgrounds in criminal law, constitutional law, high-school civics, or cop shows may be familiar with the presumption of innocence: These presumptions are not like that presumption.
Under the new state regulation, there will be a presumption that the IE PAC and the candidate committee are coordinating expenditures if they use the same “political, media, or legal consultant, or polling firm.” They can rebut the presumption, i.e. prove their innocence, by demonstrating that they adhered to a written firewall policy, the sort of document lawyers and political consultants are good at drafting. Those who would prefer to avoid any entanglements in the first place should bear in mind the words of Han Solo on the subject: “That’s the real trick, isn’t it. And it’s gonna cost you something extra.” An extra consultant, that is.
Another provision states that there will be a presumption of coordination if an IE PAC republishes in whole or in part “a communication relating to a candidate that is posted on the candidate’s Internet or social media site.” So no mere copying from now on. This rule should encourage even greater creativity (a billable quality) by requiring IE PAC consultants to make their clients’ communications look and sound distinct from those on the candidates’ site. Whoever said red tape stifles business?
Somewhere in the Caribbean, I suspect, there floats a yacht named OCPF.
March 31, 2016:- Yesterday the Supreme Judicial Court issued its decision in Van Liew v. Stansfield, a case I wrote about here involving two Chelmsford politicians. What a relief that the Court ruled that politicians should not use the anti-harassment laws to shut up their critics, and what a disgrace that the question even came up in Massachusetts in the Twenty-first Century.
By way of a reminder: When one politician (Van Liew) referred to the other (Stansfield) as corrupt and a liar, called her uneducated and stupid during a phone conversation, and allegedly said during the course of a meet-and-greet event at the local library “I’m coming after you,” Ms. Stansfield sought a civil harassment-prevention order. The judge not only granted the order, but even prohibited Mr. Van Liew from using Ms. Stansfield’s name online and in print, an order that brings to mind the 1982 Zimbabwean law that forbade jokes about the name of the president, Canaan Banana.
After the election, Mr. Van Liew sued Ms. Stansfield for malicious prosecution and abuse of process, and Ms. Stansfield brought a special motion to dismiss the case under the anti-SLAPP statute. Yesterday’s decision from the Supreme Judicial Court means that Mr. Van Liew’s case can go forward (four years after a judge banned him from uttering his opponent’s name during a political campaign). A welcome vindication of the rights of the citizen, to be sure, but how unfortunate that a candidate for public office would ask a judge for a gag order and how much more unfortunate that a judge would issue one.
Lopsided laws are annoying. But here in Massachusetts we have the right to require that our legislators observe the principles of justice and moderation in formulating our laws. It says so in the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights (article 18, to be precise). So immoderate, unjust laws do more than annoy; they flout some fundamental constitutional principles.
Which prompts me to ask, Why do we put up with the dramatically different burdens that the law places on landlords who hold security deposits vis-à-vis tenants who withhold rent?
If you are a Massachusetts landlord you are free to ask for a security deposit to insure against the tenants damaging your property. But if you do, you had better comply with every jot and tittle of the security-deposit law, M.G.L. c. 186, §15B. The amount of the security deposit must not exceed one month’s rent (not by so much as a dollar), you have to place the deposit it in a separate, interest-bearing account in a Massachusetts bank — not a New Hampshire bank or a Connecticut bank — and give the tenant (1) a detailed receipt within 30 days, and (2) annual statements showing the interest that the deposit has earned. The law goes into great detail about what you must and must not do with the security deposit at the end of the tenancy. Innocent mistakes can prove as costly as deliberate violations. Landlords who are curious about the kind of oversights that could trigger multiple damages and attorney’s fees should watch this short slide-show video by tenants’ lawyer Arthur Hardy-Doubleday, Esq. If pushed for time start watching at the 3:45-minute mark.
In contrast, if you are a Massachusetts tenant and you wish to withhold rent from the landlord (i.e. go on rent strike) the list of legal formalities you have to comply with is considerably shorter. Here is a short video on the subject.
Rent withholding has a reasonable purpose. Tenants are allowed to withhold rent if the conditions in the dwelling are unsanitary, which encourages landlords to make repairs promptly upon request. Fair enough. Mind you, just try that rationale in the realm of workplace relations.
Employer: “Your performance is inadequate.”
Employee: “Are you going to fire me?”
Employer: “No, and you can’t quit either. You have to keep working for us. But we’re going to stop paying you.”
Any employers desiring an insightful predictive analysis of the likely outcome of such an interaction should click here.
If tenants withhold rent, do they have to set the money aside? After all, if — many months, or even years, after the rent strike started — the Housing Court judge decides that the landlord is entitled to some or all of the bank-rent, it could be difficult for the tenants to come up with money. It takes above-average self discipline to save the money rather than spend it on all the other pressing day-to-day demands, especially in a culture that actively discourages thrift (have you looked at interest rates lately?).
But no, the law does not require that tenants place the withheld rent in escrow, so nor do tenants have to provide the landlord with documentary evidence stating the name of the bank and the number of the account.
To recap, landlords holding security deposits have to comply with a long list of legal requirements whereas tenants withholding rent have to comply with none. Landlords who fail to give tenants a detailed statement within 30 days face the prospect of paying treble damages and the tenants’ legal fees. Tenants who withhold rent even if a judge concludes that the withholding was not justified do not have to pay a penalty of any kind.
If you think of tenants as wards of the state and your image of landlords conforms to popular Dickensian stereotypes, or this, or this, this imbalance in the law may not bother you much. If so, I urge to watch a real landlord, Garth Meikle, argue a real case in front of the Supreme Judicial Court. To see and hear Mr. Meikle click here, and start at minute 18:38. Mr. Meikle simply wanted his apartment back so that one of his children could move in, but the tenant alleged that Mr. Meikle had made a mistake with the security deposit. By the way, the tenant received pro bono representation from a Harvard Law School clinic; the landlord had to represent himself.
On the other hand, if you think that the provision of affordable homes is a social good that we should encourage or at least not discourage, and that it might be time to restore some balance to landlord-tenant law, there is hope. Recently I went to the State House to listen to testimony about a proposal to amend the rent-withholding law by requiring tenants to deposit the withheld rent into escrow. Will it pass? I shall keep you posted.
Now for the quiz that I promised in the headline.
If I had to choose one word to describe the current security-deposit law it would be persnickety, an adjective (possibly related to the Scottish pernickety or pernicky) that boasts the highest jurisprudential imprimatur available on this side of the Atlantic, namely a 2011 decision of the Supreme Court of the United States.
Question: Which justice penned the opinion?
Email your answer to email@example.com with the word persnickety in the subject line. There will be a prize for the first correct answer.* But, please, no pre-quiz use of Google, LexisNexis, etc. We use the honor system around here.
* A warm glow.**
** Subject to availability, satisfaction not guaranteed, and no warranties as to fitness for general or particular purpose. Some glow-feelers may experience side effects so before winning this quiz talk to your primary care physician, pharmacist, and faith-community leader.
February 23, 2016:- A case that started in the Western Division Housing Court in 2009, Clark v. Leisure Woods Estates, Inc., has provided some clarity as to how much money a tenant can get from a landlord under M.G.L. c. 186, S. 14. Judge Robert G. Fields found that the landlord violated the quiet-enjoyment provision in two different ways and awarded triple damages for each violation, i.e. two separate triple-damage awards. The Appeals Court vacated one of the two triple-damages awards as duplicative, holding that
only one triple rent award is available in a single proceeding under S. 14, no matter how many ways the landlord interferes with the tenant’s quiet enjoyment.
In a footnote, the Court noted that the statute “prohibits five separate categories of landlord misconduct” of which the Leisure Woods case involved just one (interference with quiet enjoyment). The decision “does not address a situation in which the landlord violated two or more categories.” So if landlords violate the right of quiet enjoyment and violate S. 14 in other ways as well (e.g. cross-metering, failing to provide adequate heat) they still face the threat of having to pay multiple damages for those other violations in addition to the quiet-enjoyment violation. But at least they are only liable for one triple-damage award per category.
In a nutshell, the decision limits the exposure of landlords somewhat, and reduces the leverage of tenants’ counsel concomitantly. Tenants who show 57 varieties of violation of their right to quiet enjoyment should not expect 57 separate awards of triple damages.
February 4, 2016
February 4, 2016:- Employment lawyers have been wondering, “Will Massachusetts adopt or reject the after-acquired evidence doctrine?” Today we have the answer: No.
If an employer terminates an employee for no cause and later discovers a reason that would have provided grounds for discharge, later on in court may the employer rely on that after-acquired evidence as justification? In states with the after-acquired evidence doctrine, the answer is yes. We are not one of those states. But we do not positively not have the doctrine either, if you see what I mean.
In announcing its decision in EventMonitor, Inc. v. Leness, the Supreme Judicial Court chose not to reach the issue of after-acquired evidence. So for the time being, the doctrine is neither accepted nor rejected.
I will post a more detailed account shortly.
In 1945, when it became clear that Winston Churchill and the Conservative Party had lost the general election, Churchill’s wife suggested that the loss might be a blessing in disguise. Churchill replied, “At the moment it seems quite effectively disguised.”
But there is no disguising the blessing in a recent Rule 1:28 summary decision by a panel of the Appeals Court with the fortuitous docket number 1945, in which a lawyer named Churchill won a noteworthy victory. The panel affirmed a jury award of $424,000.00 in favor of Attorney Churchill’s client, Dennis Craig, and — as icing on the blessed cake –granted Mr. Craig the costs and fees he incurred in defending the appeal .
The case is Craig v. Sterling Lion, LLC, and it concerned the Wage Act. The employee, Mr. Craig, sued his former employer for unpaid wages, and the jury found in his favor, awarding him treble damages and attorney’s fees.
The employer, Sterling Lion, LLC, appealed, arguing that (1) before starting his lawsuit Mr. Craig had failed to file a Wage Act complaint with the Attorney General, and (2) the trial judge had not given the jury an instruction about joint ventures. Sterling Lion hoped to characterize Mr. Craig as a joint venturer (similar to a partner) not an employee and, therefore, not entitled to the protection of the Wage Act.
The three-justice panel of the Appeals Court disposed of the first point by noting that during the trial the employer’s attorney told the judge that Sterling Lion would not be raising the issue as a defense and stipulated that the Attorney General had issued Mr. Craig with a right-to-sue letter. As for the second point regarding joint venture, when he gave evidence at trial Sterling Lion’s principal testified that Mr. Craig had not been a joint venturer or partner. In view of that testimony, the justices decided that the trial judge was correct in not giving the joint-venture instruction.
This Churchillian success story should remind Massachusetts employers of the dangers both of misclassifying employees and failing to pay owed wages.
October 30, 2015
Perhaps “minefield” is over-used as a metaphor, but ask almost any landlord or attorney who has done a tour of duty in Housing Court and you will hear a war story about security deposits. It is an area where you need a map to make it across in one economic piece, and a single false step can trigger an explosion of damages.
Landlords who take tenants to court for non-payment of rent can expect counterclaims with the prospect of treble damages and attorney’s fees if they, the landlords, have ever failed to observe the least punctilio of the the security-deposit law. That much is certain. But if a landlord makes a mistake with a security deposit, does that give the tenant not simply a counterclaim but also a defense against the landlord’s claim for possession? We shall find out soon enough.
The new edition of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly has a story about the case of Garth v. Meikle in which the Supreme Judicial Court will provide an answer. I wrote the amicus brief for Mass Landlords (link here). Oral arguments are scheduled for November 5.
October 15, 2015
In the business of intimate hair removal, it turns out that in Massachusetts it is not only unkind but costly for employees to joke about zapping a client in the scrotum with a laser. By “costly” I refer to a figure north of one quarter of a million dollars ($260,000.00, in fact), which is the sum of money that a respondent in a discrimination suit is going to have to part with following a decision from the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD), namely Barnes v. Sleek, Inc., et al.
The bare facts are these: The respondents hired the complainant, Mr. Barnes, to manage a spa in the Burlington mall, where patrons could pay for certain hair removal procedures, such as bikini waxing. Mr. Barnes was only there a week, however. He was fired after complaining to his boss about the employees’ habit of laughing and joking about what the MCAD describes as “clients’ genitals and private parts” (emphasis added; until today I had thought that genitals were private parts, not something separate and additional to them). As an example, the decision refers to a “discussion about intentionally ‘zapping’ a male client in the scrotum with a laser.”
To make matters worse, at least so far as Mr. Barnes was concerned, “the outgoing manager of the spa flashed her breasts to a web-camera.” She expressed the hope that the owner was watching. And all of this going on in the Burlington mall, just a few doors down from Pretzel Twister and the Cheesecake Factory.
Perhaps it is my British school-boyishness, but given the nature of the work, i.e. pubic topiary, I would have considered ribaldry to be a what lawyers call a BFOQ, or a bona fide occupational qualification. Not so the MCAD, which awarded Mr. Barnes $41,641.67 for lost wages and $150,000.00 for emotional distress. In addition, the Commission imposed a civil penalty of $50,000.00 and ordered the respondents to pay a hair over $18,000.00 in legal fees, with interest running at 12%. Altogether that comes to more than a quarter of a million dollars, which is at least as eye-watering as the prospect of a laser zap to the private parts, including but not limited to the genitals.
Readers should note that the respondents did not mount a defense. They did not submit an answer and position statement nor did they, in the words of the decision, “cooperate in the Commission’s investigation.” Although it may not have made any difference to the finding of retaliation — and I am speculating here — the lack of a robust defense may have affected the size of the damage award. With a bit of care and attention, the respondents might have been able to shave off a few thousand dollars.
October 12, 2015
Should politicians be allowed to use the harassment-prevention laws to silence their opponents? That is one way to frame the question that the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) will consider in December. Here is the way the SJC frames the political-speech question presented by Van Liew v. Stansfield:
Whether statements made by the plaintiff, allegedly in the context of “political discourse,” could have qualified as acts of harassment for purposes of G. L. c. 258E; whether a request by the defendant, an elected official, for a harassment prevention order under c. 258E “was devoid of any reasonable factual support or any arguable basis in law” for purposes of the anti-SLAPP statute, G. L. c. 231, § 59H, where the plaintiff’s statements on which the request was based allegedly were “political speech” and made to express the plaintiff’s “version of what was happening in the town.”
In a nutshell, during a municipal election campaign in Chelmsford one local politician (Stansfield) obtained a court order banning another local politician (Van Liew) from using Stansfield’s name “in any email, blog, twitter, or any document through the internet, television show, ad, or otherwise.” In an ex parte hearing (i.e. without the opposing party) Stansfield alleged that Van Liew’s conduct amounted to harassment under M.G.L. c. 258E. The court later decided not to extend the order. Van Liew then sued Stansfield for malicious prosecution and abuse of process. After the district court dismissed his complaint and the appellate division re-instated it, the matter ended up on docket of the commonwealth’s high court.
Given the case’s implications for freedom of speech, it is not surprising that the SJC has requested amicus briefs. But with oral arguments scheduled for December, there is very little time for interested parties to weigh in.
The question before the court is whether the statements that Mr. Van Liew made to Ms. Stansfield could constitute harassment, which the statute (chapter 258E) defines as “three or more acts of willful and malicious conduct aimed at a specific person committed with the intent to cause fear, intimidation, abuse or damage to property and that does in fact cause fear, intimidation, abuse or damage to property.” I shall write more on that question in a later post. In the meantime, an equally important question is one that the SJC has not articulated in its request for amicus briefs, namely whether a judge issuing a harassment-prevention order should engage in such sweeping prior restraint as the judge in this case.
At Ms. Stansfield’s request, the judge prohibited Mr. Van Liew from using Ms. Stansfield’s name in any TV appearance, advertisement, email, blog, or tweet. Because of this, according to his brief, Mr. Van Liew cancelled a Meet the Candidate show that had been going to run online and on TV. By way of the anti-harassment law Ms. Stansfield achieved a result that she probably could not have obtained via defamation law.
If Ms. Stansfield had been suing Mr. Van Liew for libel, and sought a preliminary injunction to prevent Mr. Van Liew from publishing further defamatory statements about her, I suspect the judge would have looked at her request through First Amendment lenses and denied the request.
So I have a question, particularly for any of my Legislative Drafting students who are reading this: Is this something best left to the discretion of a trial judge, or should the Legislature amend chapter 258E to make clear that it must not be used to chill freedom of speech? If you think a legislative fix is necessary, what would your proposed amendment say?
June 8, 2015
Is it an appropriations bill or a money bill? That is the constitutional question currently before the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) as the result of a disagreement between the two chambers of the Massachusetts Legislature. The dispute concerns the state budget and taxes.
The origination clause in the Massachusetts Constitution says that money bills have to originate in the House of Representatives, not in the Senate. But when the House passed the general appropriations bill for 2016, the Senate noticed two sections about tax expenditures that (in the Senate’s opinion) provided an opportunity to change the tax laws. Not so, said the House, and asked the SJC to provide an advisory opinion on whether the Senate’s action violated the origination clause.
When the SJC asked for amicus briefs, I filed one. This news story in The Republican/Masslive describes the issue and mentions my brief.
March 3, 2015
Is a physical therapist a physician? Yes, said the Supreme Judicial Court, so long as we are talking about “physician” in the context of motor-vehicle insurance law.
In Ortiz v. Examworks, Inc., the Court looked at Massachusetts General Laws chapter 90, section 34M, paragraph three, which requires that people applying for personal injury protection (PIP) benefits have to submit to “physical examination by physicians selected by the insurer.” It held that the term “physician” includes physical therapists. This is a case where the Court arrived at the right destination by an unfortunate route, using statutory construction to solve a problem that was the Legislature’s to fix.
When the plaintiff, Flor Ortiz, applied for PIP benefits the insurer, Progressive, asked Examworks to provide an independent medical examination (IME). The IME that Examworks set up for Mr. Ortiz was with a physical therapist, not a medical doctor. Although the physical therapist’s report did not become part of the court record, on the basis of what happened next it seems fair to surmise that Mr. Ortiz deemed it a disappointment.
Mr. Ortiz sued, alleging that by submitting him to an exam with a physical therapist not a medical doctor Examworks had violated, among other things, the Consumer Protection Act (which provides for multiple damages and attorney’s fees). Examworks filed a motion to dismiss, which the Superior Court granted, and Mr. Ortiz appealed. The case ended up before the Supreme Judicial Court. Ruling that the court below was correct to dismiss the case — a just outcome, I believe — the SJC chose to imbue the word “physician” with more elasticity than modern custom and usage would seem to allow.
What did the Legislature mean when it used the word “physician,” asked the SJC? The relevant provision became law in 1970, so the Court decided to consult the 1969 edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, which states that the word “physician” includes “any person who heals or exerts a healing influence.” Bingo and ergo. Exerting a healing influence is something a physical therapist does, therefore a physical therapist is a physician. Of course, so is Barney, by that standard.
Should the Legislature not have been more precise when it created the PIP system? Not at all, said the Court, quoting dicta from a 1978 decision: “In so large a legislative enterprise… there are likely to be casual overstatements and understatements, half-answers and gaps in the statutory provisions.”
The bigger and more complicated the law, in other words, the greater the degree of carelessness we should expect from lawmakers. Ask them to enact a law establishing the official state folk dance, and they will do themselves proud. But give them something as complex as, say, health care and insurance, and they will inevitably descend to a level of slap-dashery that would embarrass even the drafters of the ACA. What a dismally low standard for the judicial branch to apply to the legislative branch.
Should the law require a PIP applicant to submit to examination by a medical doctor, dentist, or physical therapist of the insurance company’s choosing? Perhaps. But does it? Not as currently written. Rewriting the statute so that it does is a task for the Legislature alone, not for the courts.
October 16, 2014
“Who owns the copyright?” That is a question I hear quite often, from employers, employees, and independent contractors alike. The short answer is “it depends,” and the slightly longer answer is spelled out in this post on the Legal Solutions blog, which contains a handy graphic.
October 7, 2014
Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick wants to abolish non-compete agreements. Would you like to find out why, and why the Legislature has (so far) said no? Just click here for my latest article in Business West.
September 4, 2014
Today’s Supreme Judicial Court decision in Massachusetts Electric Company v. Dept. of Public Utilities caught my eye not so much for its conclusion as for its citation to one particular source as authority, namely State House News. This seems to be somewhat of a trend, and not one that I welcome.
One issue in the case was the standard that the Department of Public Utilities (DPU) used in deciding whether three electricity providers had restored power promptly enough after the 2011 storms. In 2009 the Legislature enacted a statute that gave the DPU power to levy fines against companies that fell short of its “standards for acceptable performance emergency preparation and restoration of service.” The companies argued that the DPU should have applied the prudence standard, i.e. did their performance conform to “fair and prevailing utility practice,” rather than a mere reasonableness standard.
The SJC disagreed, pointing to the fact that if the Legislature had intended to establish a prudence standard it would have done so (“the Legislature is familiar with the prudence standard and knows how to direct the department to apply it in the regulation of public utilities”). But then, to bolster the point with legislative history, the Court went on to quote comments that State House News had included in its reports of the debate in the House of Representatives. One of the statements was from Representative Robert Rice, who said, according to State House News, that the bill would “put a knife over the heads of the utilities” and give the DPU “the muscle and teeth that was previously lacking.”
Lurid language of this caliber has a way of making it into news stories; that is one reason why politicians employ it. If you have ever been in politics you will know that memorable and quotable phrases help maintain your public profile and increase your chances of reelection. There is absolutely nothing wrong with striving for eloquence, or even just the occasional bon mot that will look good in ink. After all, persuading colleagues to support your bill and the qualified and registered residents of your district to vote for you is part of your job. But when judges use your quips to help discern the meaning of statutes, greater glory beckons, and herein lies an unfortunate incentive.
Construing an ambiguous statute entails divining the intent of the Legislature, and most judges (or rather all judges, I hope) would agree that the place to start is the statute itself. If other statutes use the same word or phrase, or if there are binding precedents in which appellate courts have construed it consistently, there is little danger that the judge will misunderstand the intent of the Legislature. But If the judge proceeds to look to extraneous sources for meaning, such as the words of individual legislators, as reported in the press, we face the risk that politicians will engage in “legislation by soundbite.”
Quoting politicians in judicial decisions encourages them to make misleading statements (as if they needed any encouragement) regarding the meaning of a given piece of legislation or a phrase therein. If your preferred definition fails to make it into the final version of the bill that both chambers enact and present to the Governor for signature, you are still in with a shot of influencing how the courts will construe it: Simply read a pithy phrase on the floor of the House in the hope that it will end up in the news.
Temptation of this nature is hard to resist, and who could fault a doughty advocate for succumbing to it. But that does not alter the fact that there are only two ways to legislate in Massachusetts: the ballot initiative and the Legislature. Under our Constitution legislating via the Great and General Court involves passage through the House and Senate followed by gubernatorial signature (or veto and override). Nowhere does the Constitution grant special privileges to the legislator with the catchiest quip.