September 27, 2022:- It’s amazing what you can not find out when you don’t try. And the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is definitely not trying to find out something that most of us would find quite helpful, especially if we wanted to learn how to protect people against COVID-19.
Today I learned that the Commonwealth’s public health agency no longer tracks the number of people who are “fully vaccinated” against COVID-19 who have gone on to catch COVID-19 anyway (the disease that the vaccines were supposed to stop them catching).
A good leaving alone
Today I learned that instead of tracking those numbers, the Commonwealth is giving them a good leaving alone, as Howie Carr would say.
What does this lack of curiosity on the part of State government have to do with the practice of law? I will tell you.
Readers may know that I represent a number of people who worked for agencies of the Commonwealth until the Governor ordered them to be injected with products advertised as “COVID-19 vaccines.” For religious reasons, my clients were not able to comply, so they requested exemption from the mandate on religious grounds. The State denied their requests. And then the State discharged them.
In defending itself against charges of religious discrimination, the State says that letting workers carry on working without being injected would have caused undue hardship because these un-injected workers posed a threat. Of course, that defense rests entirely on the premise that the injections would have stopped the workers from catching and spreading the disease. It falls rather flat if it turns out that the injections do not really do that.
August 6: The day the calculator stood still
The Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) used to publish regular reports that showed the growing number of “fully vaccinated” people who have caught COVID-19 (the disease that the vaccines were supposed to stop them catching). Public health officials refer to these as “breakthrough cases.”
Those regular reports stopped in early July when the number of breakthrough cases reached 617,337, i.e. 11.4% of all the fully vaccinated people in Massachusetts. As I mentioned in a previous post, that figure only includes the cases that people report to their healthcare providers.
For most people who display some symptoms, those symptoms are mild (e.g. sore throat, slight cough, and runny nose) and do not require a visit to a healthcare provider. If a person with COVID-19 does not report the infection to a healthcare provider, nobody enters the case into a healthcare provider’s database, and it does not appear in the department’s figures.
So the official figure does not does not include people who are fully vaccinated and then contract COVID-19 but do not report the fact to a healthcare provider. This means that the number 617,337 (11.4% of the fully vaccinated population) is an undercount.
The last report was dated July 5, 2022. Because I am curious (which, in and of itself, probably disqualifies me from a job in the upper reaches of State government) I asked DPH for records showing the number of COVID-19 breakthrough cases from July 6 to the date of the response.
Today the Department responded. According to State Epidemiologist Catherine Brown, the number of breakthrough cases reported in the period June 26-August 6, 2022 (41 days) was 38,015.
That’s a lot of new infections in just 41 days. But what about after August 6?
The Department does not have a responsive record for data after August 6, 2022, as the analysis is not performed routinely, and no analysis has been performed beyond that date.
Why? Why has the Department not analyzed data beyond that date? The letter does not say. And that is why I just submitted another public records request.
A simple question
In my new public records request, I am asking for records that embody or reflect the reason why, after August 6, 2022, the Department stopped analyzing COVID-19 breakthrough cases. Why seems like such a simple question.
September 21, 2022:- Another volume of the Western Division Housing Court Law Reporter is available online.
The reporter is an unofficial compilation of decisions and orders issued by the Western Division Housing Court. It is a collaborative effort by and among several individuals representative of the Court, the local landlord bar, the local tenant bar, and government practice.
August 29, 2022:- The latest volume of the Western Division Housing Court Reporter is available. The reporter is the unofficial compilation of decisions and orders issued by the Western Division Housing Court
August 11, 2022:- Here is an update to my previous post about the lack of new data on so-called breakthrough infections in Massachusetts.
When the State stopped publishing the number of “fully vaccinated” people who are on record as having caught COVID-19 (the stoppage occurred when the number reached 617,337, i.e. 11.4% of the fully vaccinated population), I was curious. So I submitted a public records request. Today I received the response from Monica Mitteness, Epidemiologist at the Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences. Or rather, I received a response telling me that an actual response will cost me $175..
Apparently there are 440 responsive records, and reviewing them will take 11 hours.
“At a rate of $25.00 per hour, the total estimated fee for reviewing, redacting, and electronically producing records in response to your request is $175 ((11 hrs. – 4 hrs.) x $25 = $175).”
How long does it take to perform 11 hours’ work?
OK, once they get the check will I get the documents right away? No. The letter states:
“Upon payment of the fee, DPH will require an extension of time to respond to this request given the volume of records.”
I wonder how much time they will need to perform 11 hours of work. If there are any mathematicians out there reading this, perhaps you could chime in with an estimate.
Anyway, should I cough up the sum of $175 to see at least some of the 400+ documents in which public employees discuss why their employer (the public) should no longer be privy to this information about the efficacy of medical products advertised as “vaccines”? Money well spent, in my opinion.
By the way, take a look at the footnote in the excerpt of the letter posted above:
“Please note that dates may be extended one day in either direction to account for time zone conversions.”
Needing to take account of time zone conversions suggests that the decision involved correspondence with people in other time zones. Massachusetts, the other New England States, and Washington, DC, are all in the same time zone. Officials in what other States (or countries) could have had a say in the decision to withhold this data from the residents of Massachusetts? I look forward to finding out.
July 26, 2022:- To celebrate the notion of open government, in the month of March we have “sunshine week.” March has come and gone. We are in July and, weather notwithstanding, it is most definitely not sunshine week.
As of mid-July the Massachusetts Department of Public Health is no longer publishing the number of COVID-19 breakthrough cases, i.e. people who got the shot and then caught the disease. The number of such cases has been rising steadily. At the beginning of July that number was 617,337, which is 11.4% of the population the State classifies as fully vaccinated, up from 8.4% in February.
Keeping track of the number of reported COVID-19 cases among people who have had the jab helps all of us gauge the efficacy of the products and to make informed choices about whether to keep getting injected with them. But making informed decisions just became harder; the department’s site now states:
Yes, the “data on vaccine breakthrough cases in Massachusetts are no longer being updated.” The department does not say why.
Perhaps the data were becoming just too embarrassing. After all, the No Jab, No Job policy in Massachusetts that forced many State employees out of work rested on the claim that receiving the products would reduce the spread of COVID-19. You may remember Rochelle Walensky assuring us that the data (“real world data,” as she put it) show that “vaccinated people do not carry the virus and don’t get sick.”
One of the facts that undermines that claim is the increasing number of vaccinated people who who do carry the virus and do get sick.
The most recent figures from the Massachusetts Department Health show that of the Massachusetts residents classified as “fully vaccinated” at least 11.4 % have caught COVID-19.
As of July 2, 2022 there were 5,408,359 fully vaccinated people and there were 617,337 cases in vaccinated people
10,121 of those 617,337 cases resulted in hospitalization and 3,213 cases resulted in death based on information reported to date
The department classifies as “fully vaccinated” people who reported testing positive for COVID-19 more than 14 days after receiving their final dose. Below the figures, the department includes this note about undercounting both of cases and hospitalizations:
Identification of cases in vaccinated people relies on matching data between the system of record for cases and vaccinations. The number of cases in vaccinated people may be undercounted due to discrepancies in the names and dates of birth of individuals, resulting in an inability to match records across systems. Hospitalization data is likely also undercounted as identification and reporting of hospitalized cases relies on that information being obtainable by case investigators through patient interview.
This note about undercounting is important, but it leaves out something equally important. It has been clear since soon after the outbreak that a large proportion of people infected with COVID-19 are asymptomatic. Approximately 25-45% of people who are infected with COVID-19 show no symptoms at all, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaking on Good Morning America on June 10, 2020.
For most people who display some symptoms, those symptoms are mild (e.g. sore throat, slight cough, and runny nose) and do not require a visit to a healthcare provider. If a person with COVID-19 does not report the infection to a healthcare provider, nobody enters the case into a healthcare provider’s database, and it does not appear in the department’s figures.
Accordingly, the case count of 617,337 does not include people who are fully vaccinated and then contract COVID-19 but do not report the fact to a healthcare provider. So the number 617,337 (11.4% of the fully vaccinated population) is an undercount.
It is not clear whether the department is now (a) keeping track of the breakthrough cases but keeping the figures to itself or (b) just no longer counting them. Choosing not to publish the data is one thing, but choosing not to even collect it would be something else. It is hard to say which would be worse.
In either case, why is State government keeping these cards so close to the vest rather than tipping its hand? This is not a game.
If the public servants in the Department of Public Health have a legitimate reason for either not collating the data at all or collating it but not publishing it, that reason must be written down somewhere, e.g. a memorandum or at least an email. Using the Public Records Law, I will try to find out the State’s rationale for keeping this important information from the public.
If and when I can drag the relevant documents out into the sunshine, I will post them here.
July 28, 2022:- Today I submitted a public records request to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health asking for the documents that reflect or embody the decision to stop publishing the data on breakthrough infections.
On the subject of breakthrough infections, here is Dr. Deborah Birx, former White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator, stating:
“I knew these vaccines were not going to protect against infection and I think we overplayed the vaccines.”
May 31, 2022:- The latest volume (number 14) of the Western Division Housing Court Reports is available online. It is the unofficial compilation of decisions and orders issued by the Western Division Housing Court, published for the benefit of lawyers, landlords, tenants, and the public at large.
May 20, 2022:- In a development that will be of interest to people discharged because of the No Jab, No Job policy (e.g. 1,000 or so State employees in Massachusetts) a congressional report has revealed that approximately 400 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines had to be destroyed for “quality control reasons.”
The House Committee on Oversight and Reform’s Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis just issued a report titled The Coronavirus Vaccine Manufacturing Failures of Emergent Biolsolutions. It describes cross-contamination in Emergent’s production of Johnson& Johnson and AstraZeneca vaccines. For the report click here; for the subcommittee, click here.
If you were one of those State employees who thought you had the right to consider this sort of information (contamination at the vaxx plant) before deciding to receive or decline a COVID-19 shot, you quickly learned that your boss had other ideas.
In Executive Order 595, which mandated vaccines for executive-branch employees, Governor Baker wrote:
WHEREAS, COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective, as evidenced by the fact that COVID-19 vaccines have satisfied the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s rigorous scientific standards for safety, effectiveness, and manufacturing quality needed to permit widespread use and distribution, and to date, more than 357 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been safely administered in the United States, with more than 9 million safely administered in the Commonwealth, and negative side effects have proven exceedingly rare…
You didn’t get to decide whether to receive the jab. Governor Baker made that decision for you when he issued Executive Order 595 on August 19, 2021. Meanwhile, according to the congressional report:
Due to poor quality control approximately 240 million vaccine doses had to be destroyed in late 2020 and early 2021— significantly more than revealed previously. Following the discovery that Emergent had cross-contaminated vaccine doses in March 2021, the Biden Administration halted Emergent’s manufacturing from April to July 2021.
The discovery about the contamination was in March 2021. So that was before August 19, 2021. The report continues:
After Emergent was permitted to resume manufacturing in July 2021, an additional 90 million newly manufactured coronavirus vaccine doses had to be destroyed for quality control reasons, and 135 million remain sequestered pending further testing.
Was the trouble with the vaccines top secret? Not at all. Here’s a quote from an article published in April 2021 (four months before Governor Baker issued E.O. 595):
An FDA report cites multiple failures in an Emergent BioSolutions plant tapped to produce vaccines for Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca. The vaccine plant had been forced to discard up to 15 million doses of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine in a single manufacturing batch.
Here’s a quote from another article published in April 2021:
An FDA report has illuminated problems at Emergent BioSolution’s Baltimore manufacturing site, where the CDMO recently had to scrap up to 15 million Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine doses over a production error.
Thing is, the FDA flagged Emergent for very similar issues almost a year ago to the day. During an April 2020 inspection of the CDMO’s contract testing laboratory, the FDA said Emergent failed to adequately prevent data tampering or deletion, neglected to follow its quality control procedures or put them in writing and, notably, didn’t do enough to stop contamination or mix-ups.
I mention all this because the State, whether acting as government or as employer, should allow people to make their own decisions about medical interventions. Is this my quirky personal predilection? No, it’s a principle that the United States endorsed as part of the Universal Declaration on Bioethics & Human Rights, article 6 of which provides:
Any preventive, diagnostic and therapeutic medical intervention is only to be carried out with the prior, free and informed consent of the person concerned, based on adequate information. The consent should, where appropriate, be express and may be withdrawn by the person concerned at any time and for any reason without disadvantage or prejudice.
Consent is not “free” when your lack of consent leads to lack of your job. And I think loss of one’s job counts as a “disadvantage or prejudice.” Is the consent “informed” when your Governor issues an official order proclaiming the product’s safety? Answers on a postcard, please.
If you or someone you know lost a State job because of Executive Order 595, please feel free to contact my office for a free consult.
By the way, for the latest figures on COVID-19 hospitalizations in Massachusetts, click here. Spoiler alert: the percentage of COVID-19 patients who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 is 65%.
Would you like to know about alternatives to eviction and ways to settle disputes before they end up in Housing Court?
At 6:00pm, Wednesday, June 1, 2022, I will be giving a Zoom presentation to MassLandlords members — and potential members — on the subject of relocation assistance agreements (cash-for-keys in the vernacular).
If the prospect of Housing Court litigation has you reaching for the TUMS®, a cash-for-keys agreement offers a healthy alternative, but it is not to everybody’s taste. I will discuss some of the essential ingredients, and why this item on the menu proves appetizing to some but unpalatable to others.
Every rental agreement in Massachusetts — whether written or unwritten — contains an important clause. It will remain as part of the agreement even if both parties, landlord and tenant alike, want to waive it. No matter how hard you try, you cannot erase it.
What is this ineradicable clause? It is the warranty of habitability. It is the landlord’s guarantee that the landlord will, at a minimum, keep the premises in compliance with the State Sanitary Code, more particularly Chapter II of the Code titled Minimum* Standards of Fitness for Human Habitation.
So one easy way for landlords to breach the warranty of habitability, and land themselves in expensive trouble, is to ignore the State Sanitary Code. Ignoring the Code could result in the landlord having to pay the tenant damages (possibly multiple damages) plus the tenant’s legal fees.
On the other hand, by paying attention to the State Sanitary Code, and making sure that each and every rental unit complies with it, landlords are more likely to live up to the warranty of habitability, stay out of trouble, and maintain a healthy business relationship with their tenants.
State government has posted a synopsis of the responsibilities of landlords in Massachusetts. It is well worth a look. In the meantime, here are some — just some — of the requirements of the State Sanitary Code. The following five items are just a starting point, not an exhaustive list. Landlords and aspiring landlords should familiarize themselves with the Code in its entirety.
1. The Code applies to every dwelling
The State Sanitary Code states:
No person shall occupy as owner-occupant or let to another for occupancy any dwelling, dwelling unit, mobile dwelling unit, or rooming unit for the purpose of living, sleeping, cooking or eating therein, which does not comply with the requirements of 105 CMR 410.000
That is a clear rule. If you provide rental accommodation, you must comply with the State Sanitary Code. There are three exceptions to the rule for landlords to know about: (1) dwellings on campgrounds that comply with the applicable State regulations for campgrounds, and (2) dwellings used exclusively as civil defense shelters. Those two exceptions are very narrow. The other exception? If the dwelling is covered by another part of the Code.
What if the would-be tenant says, “Don’t worry about the warranty of habitability. I’m happy to sign a contract waiving it. Or we can say that I’m using the apartment exclusively as a civil defense shelter. Just knock $50 off the rent.”
No. The warranty of habitability is not something a tenant can waive. And if the apartment is an ordinary rental unit, it not exclusively a civil defense shelter. A lease provision cannot transform an ordinary apartment into a civil defense shelter, even if both parties apply the George Costanza Doctrine of Truth. Housing Court judges do not take kindly to such ruses.
2. Minimum living space
The State Sanitary Code establishes the minimum amount of living space that each dwelling unit must consist of:
Every dwelling unit shall contain at least 150 square feet of floor space for its first occupant, and at least 100 square feet of floor space for each additional occupant, the floor space to be calculated on the basis of total habitable room area.
This does not include: rooms containing toilets, bathtubs or showers; laundries; pantries; foyers; communicating corridors; closets; and storage spaces. These parts of the unit do not count toward the square footage of floor space.
There is a separate square-footage requirement for rooms used for sleeping. For one occupant, the sleeping room has to contain at least 70 square feet. For more than one occupant, the sleeping room must have at least 50 square feet for each person, e.g. for two occupants, 100 square feet; for three occupants, 150 square feet.
A unit that is less than 150 square feet, excluding closets and storage spaces, is not a Code-compliant unit. An owner who rents such a unit to a tenant is breaching the warranty of habitability.
What if the unit is 145 square feet, just 5 feet under the minimum, and the would-be tenant says, “I don’t mind. Just knock $50 off the rent?”
No, the landlord is not able to contract out of the warranty of habitability.
3. Kitchen facilities
The unit must contain a kitchen sink and space to store, prepare, and serve food in a sanitary manner, and there must be a stove in good repair. Unless the written agreement puts the obligation on the tenant to provide a stove, the landlord must provide one. In addition, there must be space and connections for a refrigerator.
The kitchen must have at least one lighting fixture and at least two electrical outlets (for the kettle, coffee-maker, toaster, etc.) in “convenient locations.” In practice, this means that the tenants should not have to plug in the toaster down at the skirting board or up by the picture rail!
The Code also requires a kitchen window:
For each kitchen over 70 square feet, transparent or translucent glass which admits light from the outdoors and which is equal in area to no less than 8% of the entire floor area of that kitchen.
What if the would-be tenant says, “I don’t mind not having a kitchen. Just knock $50 off the rent.”
No, the landlord is not able to contract out of the warranty of habitability.
What if the landlord says to the would-be tenant, “There is no light fixture in the kitchen. I could install one if you pay for it.”
“Sure, I’ll pay for it,” says the would-be tenant.
No, the Code says that the owner must provide the fixture and outlets and it defines the word “provide” as “supply and pay for.”
4. Maintaining facilities
Everything that the owner installs, the owner must maintain. For example, the owner has the duty to maintain the toilets, sinks, wash basins, water pipes, sewer lines, and gas lines free from leaks, obstructions, and defects. If the owner installed the stove and refrigerator, the owner must keep them in good repair. When the tenant tells the owner that the faucet is leaking, the owner has to repair it.
Does the Code say what standard the owner must live up to? Yes, the owner must install and maintain facilities “in accordance with accepted plumbing, gasfitting and electrical wiring standards.”
So who should do the plumbing? A licensed plumber. The wiring? A licensed electrician.
But let’s say the kitchen sink has always leaked. It leaked when the landlord bought the place, and it has leaked ever since. During the showing, the landlord says to the would-be tenant,
“The kitchen sink leaks. It’s leaked from the get-go. Somehow I never get around to fixing it.”
“That’s OK,” says the would-be tenant, “I don’t mind a leaky sink. Just knock $10 off the rent.”
No, the landlord is not able to contract out of the warranty of habitability.
5. Windows must be secure
The Code states that in every habitable room other than the kitchen there must be:
transparent or translucent glass which admits light from the outdoors and which is equal in area to no less than 8% of the entire floor area of that room
It also says:
The owner shall provide, install and maintain locks so that… Every openable exterior window shall be capable of being secured.
A habitable room needs a window of sufficient size. If the window is capable of being opened it needs to have a mechanism to keep it from simply sliding or falling open or from being opened from the outside (by an intruder, for example). It needs a lock.
What if the latch on the living-room window fell off?
“I see that the living room window doesn’t have a lock or even a latch that works. Could you knock $50 off the rent?”
“Sorry,” says the owner, “I can’t buy my way out of the warranty of habitability. I’ll install a lock tomorrow. And I’ll send you the bill.”
No, the owner is not allowed to charge the tenant for the cost of making the exterior window secure. The owner’s duty is to provide the lock, and the word “provide” means “supply and pay for.”
Anyone who intends to become a landlord in Massachusetts should become familiar with the State Sanitary Code, and consistently comply with it. Failing to comply with the Code and breaching the warranty of habitability could be a very expensive mistake.
*This is the word to focus on. The State Sanitary Code establishes the minimum standards of fitness for human habitation. Think of it as a floor, not a ceiling.
April 12, 2022:- Rent control has a new moniker: It now identifies as “rent stabilization.” You know when a policy is unpopular when its advocates give it a new name. Even today, when face-masking, mind-closing, and line-toeing are all the rage among the bien pensant, a policy with the word “control” right there in the title just doesn’t sit well, I guess.
But the reason for the policy’s unpopularity is not the name but the aim. And what is the aim of rent stabilization (née rent control)? An article in Jacobin explains. It has the headline “New York Needs Universal Rent Control Now,” and a sub-headline that tells you why: “Rent control can build tenant power and undermine the logic of speculative neighborhood investments.”
The phrase “undermine the logic of speculative neighborhood investments” is a reasonably to-the-point way of expressing the idea “abolish private property.” You can count on a forthright explanation from a magazine named after the movement that was responsible for the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution.
Lest readers doubt that the editor responsible for writing the headlines and sub-headlines at Jacobin got it wrong, here is a quote from the article itself:
By discouraging speculation and lowering the value of investment properties, it lays the groundwork for an expansion of alternative housing models, like social housing and community land trusts.
Discouraging speculation? That speaks for itself, as does “lowering the value of investment properties.” Similarly, the expansion of social housing (in plain English, government housing) and community land trusts (in plain English, government housing) means the contraction of something else, i.e. privately owned housing.
Why is this expressly Statist, anti-market policy of rent stabilization (née rent control) back on the political agenda in Massachusetts and elsewhere? In short, because the politics of the people who write for Jacobin are the politics of the people who are setting the agenda for the Democratic Party in Massachusetts, namely the supporters of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).
DSA stalwart State Representative Mike Connolly of Cambridge has a bill, H. 1378, that includes an option for towns and cities to enact rent control. The Joint Committee on Housing is scheduled to vote on it next month.
Myself, I believe that affordable good-quality housing is more likely to emerge through markets than through policies such as rent control. That is a belief that some committed socialists share, and it is exactly why they want rent control. From the perspective of a dedicated revolutionary, if rent control reduces the amount of affordable housing, thereby exacerbating the situation, fomenting discontent, and stimulating revolutionary conditions, so much the better.
From the standpoint of the true socialist, in the long run no housing reforms are safe without a wholesale socialist transformation of society.
But reasonable people who wish to address the need for more affordable housing (and are not revolutionary socialists or even gradualist socialists) may find the arguments for and against rent control evenly poised. They may be on the fence about it.
There are plenty of reasons to oppose rent control (click here for a few) but here’s one that the fence-sitters might — just might — think about:
Rent control artificially reduces housing units’ value, forcing housing providers to offer their properties at below-market rates. This dramatically reduces developers’ incentive to construct new units, as the artificially deflated rental market offers a lower return on investment. In cities that implement rent control, new construction decreases dramatically, producing substantial declines in the availability of rental housing.
That’s a quote from an op-ed by Drew Hamrick, senior vice president of government affairs and general counsel for the Colorado Apartment Association, writing in Colorado Politics. The bill Mr. Hamrick opposes would impose rent control on Colorado’s mobile-home parks.
Yes, it’s not just Massachusetts. Even in Colorado — longtime home of Hunter S. Thompson, birthplace of Duane “Dog the Bounty Hunter” Chapman, and where it is illegal to lend your vacuum cleaner to your neighbor — questionable ideas sometimes find their way onto the agenda.
To be fair, the socialists have a response to people like Drew Hamrick. To the claim that rent control reduces the amount of new rental housing, they say “oh no it doesn’t.” For an article in Jacobin countering the pro-private property argument with data, click here. For arguments from the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute in favor of private ownership and against rent control, also with data, click here.
Please do me a favor and read the arguments for and against rent control.
As a former socialist whose mind changed after much experience, reading, and reflection, I am grateful for the liberty to read works that express ideas that differ from my own. Of course, that very liberty depends entirely on another liberty: the liberty to own and sell property. If one entity (the State) controls your ability to make the money with which you can buy food, shelter, and whatever else you need and desire, your ability to criticize that entity will be very constrained. Without that liberty to criticize through writing and speech, dissent sounds like this. And that, fundamentally, is why rent control is a bad policy.
March 30, 2022:- The Appeals Court has ruled that two District Court judges should not have prohibited a woman from posting anything online about the lawyer she and her husband had hired.
According to the lawyer, the couple had made statements on Facebook “calling us thiefs [sic]” and criticizing the lawyer in emails that cc’d other people. On the strength of this, first one judge (in Leominster District Court) then another (in Worcester District Court) issued a harassment prevention order under G.L. c. 258E. As the name suggests, harassment prevention orders are supposed to prevent harassment, not to prevent criticism. Nevertheless, two separate judges employed the harassment-prevention law to ban constitutionally-protected speech.
The Leominster judge issued the order on June 25, 2021, and the Worcester judge extended it on July 9, 2021 for a period of one year. The orders banned the defendant — the lawyer’s former client — from uttering any statements about the lawyer via “Internet or social media posts.” More than 8 months later, on March 30, 2022, the Appeals Court vacated the gag order. The part of the decision titled Discussion begins with this clear statement:
There is no basis in the record on which a c. 258E order could lawfully have issued.
Then the Appeals Court points out that the lawyer did not claim that the ex-client ever uttered any threats, and that nothing in the lawyer’s complaint described conduct that could qualify as “harassment,” which the statute defines in this way:
(i) 3 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; or (ii) an act that: (A) by force, threat or duress causes another to involuntarily engage in sexual relations; or (B) constitutes a violation of section 13B, 13F, 13H, 22, 22A, 23, 24, 24B, 26C, 43 or 43A of chapter 265 or section 3 of chapter 272.
To run afoul of the statute, a person needs to engage in three or more acts. Those acts need to be willful and malicious. The person must intend the acts to cause fear, intimidation, abuse or damage to property. And each of the three acts must, in fact, cause fear, intimidation, abuse or damage to property.
The appellate courts have consistently construed this definition so that it does not (or, at least, should not) discourage people, still less prohibit them, from engaging in the sort of robust back-and-forth speech that is essential in a self-governing republic of free people. To put it another way, no appellate court in Massachusetts has ever held that criticism of a lawyer by a disgruntled former client constitutes harassment under chapter 258E, still less that the offending speech warranted a comprehensive year-long ban on the mere utterance of the lawyer’s name online.
On the bright side, the lawyer’s ex-client had the wherewithal to hire another lawyer to file a successful appeal. But it is truly galling that a resident of Massachusetts should have to take a case up to the Appeals Court in order to vindicate her right to speak freely. It is more than galling that a lawyer and two judges (all of whom took an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States, which still includes the First Amendment) all considered it OK to quash free speech. After all, even today — in the Trudeau-pian era of ochlocracy, Big Tech/Big Pharma shut-uppery, and the categorization of “misleading narratives that undermine public trust in US government institutions” as terrorism — this area of Massachusetts law is absolutely clear. It has been particularly clear since 2016 when the Supreme Judicial Court explained (because it was, sadly, necessary to explain) that judges really should not ban political candidates from mentioning the names of their opponents at election time. For my post on that decision, click here (quick, before they ban it).
So, three cheers for the Appeals Court justices and no cheers at all for the District Court judges who issued the gag order in the first place.
March 15, 2022:- It’s Sunshine Week, a time to promote open government. Who says so? The News Leaders Association.
People who refer to themselves as “News Leaders” make me suspicious, for reasons that I will not sidetrack myself by going into. So staying focused (my suspicions of the News Leadership notwithstanding) and because the concept of Sunshine Week appeals to me, I will mark the event by recounting what I learned from the response to one of my recent public records requests, more specifically the discovery that a particular record does not seem to exist.
Hate Crime Hotline
After the election of Donald Trump (R), Maura Healey (D), who is the Attorney General of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, issued a press release:
“Following reports of harassment and intimidation of racial, ethnic and religious minorities, women, LGBTQ individuals and immigrants since Election Day, Attorney General Maura Healey today announced that her office has launched a new hotline for Massachusetts residents to report such incidents.”
At the time, I was reading about both (1) actual hate crimes, and (2) hate crime hoaxes, so the hotline caught my attention. I wondered what, if anything, would happen in response to calls that people made to the hotline and how, if at all, the Attorney General would measure the efficacy of the hotline. Whether public officials will bother to evaluate the effectiveness of a publicly-funded initiative (or even bother to think about how they would evaluate its effectiveness) is, indeed, one of the things that I wonder about.
Hate crimes are heinous. So if you receive a report of one, I think you should look into it, especially if you are the Commonwealth’s top law-enforcement official and you have set up a hotline for people to call. You might also want to keep track of the complaints. This, I thought, is what Attorney General Healey will do because according to the press release:
The hotline will be managed by attorneys and staff in the AG’s Office. While not every incident will be appropriate for legal action, the AG’s Office will be tracking reports and appropriate matters may be referred to local law enforcement or the Attorney General’s Criminal Bureau.
Based on that statement, it seemed reasonable to believe that the Attorney General’s Office (AGO) would be tracking reports and, perhaps, referring appropriate matters to local law enforcement or the Attorney General’s Criminal Bureau.
One very good reason to keep track of reports and of how many you refer to law enforcement and what happens to the referral thereafter is this: Without that knowledge, you do not know whether the hotline works. Collating that information is essential to determining whether this particular policy — a hate crime hotline — has any effect on hate crimes.
If the hotline works, hallelujah. If it does not work, stop wasting those resources on a failed initiative and devote them instead to an initiative that is more likely to reduce hate crimes.
That, of course, assumes that the purpose of the hotline is to help reduce hate crimes as opposed to, say, conveying the message that the election of Donald Trump led to an increase in hate crimes.
Public Records Request
In January 2022, I submitted a public records request (the Massachusetts equivalent of a federal FOIA request) to the AGO asking for, among other things, the total number of calls received since the hotline’s inception. This, according to the AGO’s response is 5,929. I was surprised not so much by the total number as by how many were from other States (quite a few from California, in particular Los Angeles).
Another fact that I deem worthy of note is that 13 of the calls were from Amherst, where I live, so I have followed up with a public records request to the local police department to find out what, if anything, happened with these 13 hotline complaints.
In addition to the total number of calls, I asked for:
The number of complaints received via the hotline referred to local law enforcement or the Attorney General’s Criminal Bureau, and
Investigations commenced as a result of calls to the hotline, and prosecutions and convictions arising therefrom.
Regarding these two items, the AGO answered:
[W]e do not track our cases in a manner in which we could identify responsive records without spending an undetermined, yet voluminous, amount of time. It would require that we search, both electronically and manually, through every electronic and paper record made or received by AGO staff in multiple Bureaus and Divisions and review all of the records so found for applicable exemptions and privileges.
What I learned from this statement is that the AGO does not have a clear idea of how many hotline complaints were referred to local law enforcement or how many hotline calls resulted in investigations, prosecutions, and convictions. To find out, the folks at the AGO would have to really, really look into it, which would take an “undetermined, yet voluminous, amount of time.”
This matters. The AGO urged “any Massachusetts resident who has witnessed or experienced bias-motivated threats, harassment or violence” to call the hotline. And many Massachusetts residents did, along with residents of many other places (including more than one might have expected from LA for some reason). There have been almost 6,000 hotline calls logged over the last 5 years or so.
So what happened to those complaints? How many did the AGO refer to local law enforcement, how many were investigated, and how many led to convictions? The AGO has not collated all that information.
This is why public records requests are useful. With them, we can learn not only what records our public officials make, but also what sort of records our public officials do not consider it worth making.
March 1, 2022:- Today Attorney Patrick Daubert talked with me about the case of Captain Albert Brox v. Wood’s Hole, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket Steamship Authority, which concerns religious liberty and medical-product mandates. Attorney Daubert represents employees of a State agency who are seeking religious exemptions from the mandate that their employer imposed at the beginning of the year. After the State court judge enjoined the authority from enforcing its mandate, the authority removed the case to federal court.
To watch and listen to the conversation, click here.
If you are a State or municipal employee facing religious discrimination, I would like to hear from you.
For example, if your employer requires you to receive a product known as a “COVID-19 vaccine” as a condition of your employment (the No Jab, No Job rule) and refuses your request for a religious exemption, you may have legal recourse. To set up a free 20-minute consult, use the contact form below.
As you may know, Massachusetts law (M.G.L. c. 151B) prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion. If your employer denied your request for a religious exemption from the No Jab, No Job rule, you may have a claim under that law. The place to file your claim is the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) and the filing deadline is 300 days after the discriminatory act.
This is a complicated and shifting area of law, so it is worth reading up on the subject even before talking to a lawyer. The New Civil Liberties Alliance has articles and press releases about its courtroom efforts against mandates, the Pacific Justice Institute provides free resources on protecting religious rights in the workplace, and the Christian Legal Aid Society offers a Religious Freedom Toolkit. You may also want to check out Attorney Aaron Siri’s site, Injecting Freedom.
In addition to the law against religious discrimination, Massachusetts also forbids discrimination on the basis of genetic information. Similarly, a federal statute called the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act (GINA, Title II) makes it unlawful for an employer
to limit, segregate, or classify the employees of the employer in any way that would deprive or tend to deprive any employee of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect the status of the employee as an employee, because of genetic information with respect to the employee.
This information page and Q&A show where the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) stands on GINA and vaccines. Bear in mind, these EEOC documents are not law (they are not statutes, regulations, or judicial decisions) but courts usually defer to the EEOC when the agency is interpreting the statutes in its purview. The EEOC documents are helpful insights for employees who wish to use GINA to challenge the No Jab, No Job rule.
Another helpful resource for employees is Article 6 of the UNESCO Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights, which the General Conference of UNESCO adopted in 2005.
The relevant paragraph of Article 6 provides that:
Any preventive, diagnostic and therapeutic medical intervention is only to be carried out with the prior, free and informed consent of the person concerned, based on adequate information. The consent should, where appropriate, be express and may be withdrawn by the person concerned at any time and for any reason without disadvantage or prejudice.
Although it does not have the force of law, the Declaration is something that judges may choose to take note of in some cases, e.g. the Second Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Abdullahi v. Pfizer, a case about Pfizer’s drug trials in Nigeria.
The principle of prior, free, informed consent should guide courts and adjudicatory bodies like the MCAD when considering No Jab, No Job cases.
February 18, 2022:- Yesterday the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals sent a vaccine-mandate case back down to the District Court for the judge to re-consider the employees’ request for a preliminary injunction. The case is Sambrano, et al, v. United Airlines, Inc., United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas USDC 4:21-CV-1074.
The employees are suing the employer because the employer requires them to receive a COVID-19 vaccination. The District Court had denied the employees’ request for a preliminary injunction on the grounds that the employees could not show “irreparable injury,” but the Court of Appeals disagreed:
Plaintiffs allege a harm that is ongoing and cannot be remedied later: they are actively being coerced to violate their religious convictions. Because that harm is irreparable, we reverse the district court.
January 14, 2022:- Last year, President Biden issued a vaccine mandate through the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA). The regulation that OSHA issued would have required employers with 100+ employees to ensure that their employees either received vaccination against COVID-19 or to wear masks and undergo weekly testing. Yesterday, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a stay of OSHA’s regulation, effectively putting an end to it.
The court pointed out that COVID-19 is a life hazard, not an occupational one:
Although COVID–19 is a risk that occurs in many workplaces, it is not an occupational hazard in most. COVID–19 can and does spread at home, in schools, during sporting events, and everywhere else that people gather. That kind of universal risk is no different from the day-to-day dangers that all face from crime, air pollution, or any number of communicable diseases.
Congress gave OSHA the limited task of regulating workplace safety, not the unlimited task of regulating the safety of society as a whole:
Permitting OSHA to regulate the hazards of daily life—simply because most Americans have jobs and face those same risks while on the clock—would significantly expand OSHA’s regulatory authority without clear congressional authorization.
The court pointed out the difference between job-specific risks and the general, everyday risks that we all face both at work and elsewher:
That is not to say OSHA lacks authority to regulate occupation-specific risks related to COVID–19. Where the virus poses a special danger because of the particular features of an employee’s job or workplace, targeted regulations are plainly permissible… But the danger present in such workplaces differs in both degree and kind from the everyday risk of contracting COVID–19 that all face.
Again, the statutes that Congress has enacted that give OSHA the legal authority to issue regulations confine that authority to occupational safety, not to safety in general. If Congress wishes to give OSHA the authority to regulate the safety of everyone, everywhere, all the time, then Congress needs to do so via statute. OSHA cannot just give itself that power, even at the direction of the President. The court’s decision recognizes this basic principle of the separation of powers.
By the way, here in Massachusetts, according to the Department of Health dashboard, the number of people currently in hospital with COVID-19 is 3,180. Of that number, 1,505 (approximately half) are fully vaccinated.
January 10, 2022:- An op-ed in today’s edition of the Wall Street Journal titled “Omicron makes Biden’s vaccine mandates obsolete” will prove important, I think. It states that the vaccinations that are supposed to protect us against COVID-19 may make us more susceptible to catching the latest version of the disease known as the Omicron variant:
One preprint study found that after 30 days the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines no longer had any statistically significant positive effect against Omicron infection, and after 90 days, their effect went negative—i.e., vaccinated people were more susceptible to Omicron infection. Confirming this negative efficacy finding, data from Denmark and the Canadian province of Ontario indicate that vaccinated people have higher rates of Omicron infection than unvaccinated people.
One of the two co-authors is Jed Rubenfeld, a professor at Yale Law School. The other is Dr. Luc Montagnier, who won the 2008 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. But be advised, Wikipedia warns us about Dr. Montagnier:
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Montagnier was criticised for using his Nobel prize status to “spread dangerous health messages outside his field of knowledge” for promoting the conspiracy theory that SARS-CoV-2 was deliberately created in a laboratory. Such a claim has been refuted by other virologists
Of course, Wikipedia also states that the total number of deaths from COVID-19 in China (pop. 1.4 billion) is about 5,000, which is roughly the same as the death toll in Ireland (pop. 5 million). According to Wikipedia:
Around March 2020, there was speculation that China’s COVID numbers were deliberately inaccurate, but now China’s COVID elimination strategy is considered to have been successful and its statistics are considered to be accurate
When weighing the credibility of Wikipedia on the subject of Dr. Montagnier, it’s worth considering the credibility of Wikipedia on the subject of the Chinese government’s COVID-19 statistics. To be a little more blunt, if you believe that the number of COVID-19 fatalities in China is the same as the number in Ireland, perhaps I could interest you in the purchase of a certain bridge.
So with that word of caution about Dr. Montagnier from Wikipedia, and my own word of caution about Wikipedia’s word of caution, let me move on to the legal implications.
If the vaccinations make people more susceptible to COVID-19, what are the implications for those employers who imposed a vaccine mandate on their employees? I have in mind the companies that gave their workers a simple choice: Either (A) get vaccinated; or (B) you’re terminated.
And what if the workers who chose option A (i.e. they got vaccinated) then caught COVID-19 — not in spite of but because of the vaccine — and became sick? Do they have any legal recourse, and if so against whom?
September 7, 2021:- Massachusetts legislators are considering H. 1434, which would establish a moratorium on non-payment evictions. It would not ban all evictions, only a subset of evictions “where the plaintiff’s complaint is based upon or includes any claim for rent or use and occupancy.” The bill has an emergency preamble, and it’s supposedly related in some way to COVID-19.
Nothing can justify another ban on people regaining possession of their property from those who are occupying said property without paying rent. The article in this week’s Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly on that subject quotes me, accurately:
“In January, the pandemic was killing about 3,000 people a day, notes Amherst attorney Peter Vickery. But as vaccines have been distributed, the death rate has declined dramatically, down to about 150 people a day.
Vickery references the New Jersey law that prohibits motorists from pumping their own gasoline. There may be some very real concerns that led to the passage of that law, but there is an ‘extraordinary mismatch between the threat and the policy.'”
I mis-stated the current daily death toll, which is now around 400-500, up from about 200 per day in July but still a far cry from the January 2021 average of 3,000. Yesterday (September 6, 2021) in the United States there were 246 deaths from COVID-19, according to the CDC. For the CDC’s tracker of daily deaths from CIVID-19, click here.
NJ ban on amateur gas-pumping
But what does the New Jersey law against pumping your own gas have to do with eviction moratoria? For readers who are curious, please consider the findings that NJ legislators included in the statute so as to justify the self-pumping ban (NJSA 34:3A-4), which findings include:
“(d)… [R]isks of crime and fall-related personal injury, which are a special burden to drivers with physical infirmities, such as the handicapped and some senior citizens;
(e) Exposure to toxic gasoline fumes represents a health hazard when customers dispense their own gasoline, particularly in the case of pregnant women;
(f) The significantly higher prices usually charged for full-service gasoline in States where self-service is permitted results in discrimination against low income individuals, who are under greater economic pressure to undergo the inconvenience and hazards of dispensing their own gasoline.”
These are all plausible risks. But do they really justify banning amateurs from filling our own gas tanks and leaving the job to trained pump attendants? No. In the rest of the United States, people manage to pump their own gas without triggering the Apocalypse. Similarly, nor does the potential for spreading COVID19 justify a ban on people regaining possession of their own property from those who are not paying rent.
As the Supreme Court of the United States held recently regarding the Biden administration’ unconstitutional non-payment eviction moratorium:
“The moratorium has put the applicants, along with millions of landlords across the country, at risk of irreparable harm by depriving them of rent payments with no guarantee of eventual recovery. Despite the CDC’s determination that landlords should bear a significant financial cost of the pandemic, many landlords have modest means. And preventing them from evicting tenants who breach their leases intrudes on one of the most fundamental elements of property ownership—the right to exclude.”
Alabama Ass’n of Realtors v. Dep’t of Health & Hum. Servs., No. 21A23, 2021 WL 3783142, at *4 (U.S. Aug. 26, 2021).
Massachusetts legislators should read this decision and, before criticizing it, think about the Court’s reasoning.
Our right to own property is one of the many rights that the State and federal Constitutions guarantee. It is not untrammeled, but it is is not something that legislators can violate on a whim. Here in Massachusetts, the Supreme Judicial Court has held:
“[S]ubstantive due process requires a statute affecting a fundamental right to be narrowly tailored to achieve compelling government interests.”
Sharris v. Commonwealth, 480 Mass. 586, 593, 106 N.E.3d 661, 668 (2018). Is the right to exclude non-paying tenants from your property a fundamental right? If it is, the court should apply strict scrutiny and require the Commonwealth to show that the law is narrowly tailored to further a compelling government interest.
Even if the court were to apply the weaker intermediate-scrutiny test, the non-payment eviction moratorium should fail. To pass this test, the Commonwealth would have to show a reasonable, proportional fit between the law and an important governmental interest. Here, what connection could there be between a ban on non-payment evictions and the governmental interest, i.e. slowing the spread of COVID19?
The reason that the CDC gave for its non-payment eviction moratorium — and that moratorium advocates continue to echo — was that “evicted renters must move.” They may move into “shared housing or other congregate settings” (of course, they may be moving from shared housing or other congregate settings, but no matter). And their relocation may even entail “crossing State borders.”
What H. 1434 would not do
Surely, if people moving from one place to another is such a risk enhancer, the Legislature should put a stop to it altogether.
But does the Legislature wish to ban all of us, renters and homeowners alike, from moving house? No, it is not trying to prevent people who own their own homes from selling them and going to live somewhere else.
Does the Legislature wish to ban tenants from relocating of their own accord? No.
Does the Legislature wish to ban all evictions? No.
Does the Legislature wish to ban judges from evicting tenants who are using the premises for illegal purposes, causing a nuisance, or interfering with other tenants’ quiet enjoyment? No.
For this bill to be a good fit, there would have to be some evidence that tenants who do not pay rent are more likely to contract and transmit COVID-19 than the tenants who are using the premises for illegal purposes, causing a nuisance, or interfering with other tenants’ quiet enjoyment. And that is just silly.
Yes, deaths from COVID-19 are higher than they were in July, but nowhere near the high of January-February 2021. Most adults in the United States — and about 90% of those aged 70 and over — have been vaccinated against COVID-19, and those vaccinations work (click here for a recent article in the Atlantic magazine on that subject). Even if there had been a good reason for H. 1434 in early 2021 (and there was not) that reason has gone.
The only kinds of evictions that the Legislature wishes to ban with H. 1434 are evictions where the landlord is trying to get paid. That might make the bill’s proponents feel good, but it would not reduce the transmission of COVI-19.
August 31, 2021:- If you are a regular reader of my posts, you already know that Massachusetts is one of the worst States in the nation for civil asset forfeiture (worst, that is, from the point of view of the people whose property the police seize). And you also know that police departments can keep whatever they take from someone even if that person is never charged, let alone convicted, of any crime. But you might still be wondering how Massachusetts officials spend the proceeds. A new report by WBUR and ProPublica has some answers.
The WBUR and ProPublica journalists looked at Worcester County, where the District Attorney, Joseph D. Early, Jr., obtained $4 million in forfeitures in the period 2017-20:
“Early has been criticized by the state auditor for spending forfeiture funds on a Zamboni ice-clearing machine and tree-trimming equipment. Over the years, his office has posted photos on its website of Early handing out checks for “Drug Forfeiture Community Reinvestment,” to pay for baseball and softball fields or to support a cheerleading team.”
There’s nothing inherently wrong with baseball, softball, and cheerleaders, in my opinion. If the DA wants to spend his own money on that sort of thing, OK. But other people’s money? And who are these other people?
“WBUR’s analysis of Worcester County forfeitures from 2017 through 2019 found that more than half of the seizures in these cases were for less than $500. In one incident, Fitchburg police seized $10 from a man listed as homeless. In another, Sturbridge police took $10 from a 14-year-old boy.”
This helps explain why so few people bother challenging seizures in court: The cost of hiring an attorney is far higher than the value of the seized property.
August 27, 2021:- HUD Secretary Marcia L. Fudge issued a statement criticizing the Supreme Court of the United States for holding the CDC eviction moratorium unconstitutional. Here is the opening paragraph of the statement:
“I am deeply disappointed by the Supreme Court’s ruling on the CDC’s eviction moratorium. With this decision, the Court has put millions of Americans at risk of losing their homes—even as the Delta variant heightens their risk of exposure to COVID-19. Many of these Americans are among our most vulnerable—including senior citizens, people with chronic illnesses, young children, and families with the lowest incomes.”
The statement is inaccurate. As the Supreme Court’s decision points out, it is Congress, not the CDC, that has the power to enact an eviction moratorium. Congress has done so before, and it could do so again. If Congress had wanted to enact a new eviction moratorium, it could have. But it did not. That choice on the part of Congress did not magically empower another branch of the federal government to legislate in its place.
Many political actors have put people at risk of losing their homes, e.g. the governors who closed down businesses and the legislators who enabled them. The culprits do not include the justices of the Supreme Court.
August 27, 2021:- Yesterday evening, the Supreme Court of the United States lifted the stay (pause) on the District Court’s order vacating the Biden administration’s eviction moratorium. By way of a reminder about the separation of powers, the Supreme Court stated:
The Government contends that the first sentence of §361(a) gives the CDC broad authority to take whatever measures it deems necessary to control the spread of COVID–19, including issuing the moratorium. But the second sentence informs the grant of authority by illustrating the kinds of measures that could be necessary: inspection, fumigation, disinfection, sanitation, pest extermination, and destruction of contaminated animals and articles. These measures directly relate to preventing the interstate spread of disease by identifying, isolating, and destroying the disease itself. The CDC’s moratorium, on the other hand, relates to interstate infection far more indirectly: If evictions occur, some subset of tenants might move from one State to another, and some subset of that group might do so while infected with COVID–19.
This downstream connection between eviction and the interstate spread of disease is markedly different from the direct targeting of disease that characterizes the measures identified in the statute. Reading both sentences together, rather than the first in isolation, it is a stretch to maintain that §361(a) gives the CDC the authority to impose this eviction moratorium. Even if the text were ambiguous, the sheer scope of the CDC’s claimed authority under §361(a) would counsel against the Government’s interpretation. We expect Congress to speak clearly when authorizing an agency to exercise powers of vast economic and political significance… That is exactly the kind of power that the CDC claims here.
(internal citations and quotation marks omitted).
The Court was not saying that no branch of the federal government can impose an eviction moratorium. Congress can do it (and Congress has done it) but an executive-branch administrative agency cannot.
This article in scotusblog.com provides a clear description and link to the decision.
August 25, 2021:-Attorney Wayne Detring of Franklin, Tennessee, is not someone I had heard of before yesterday but, as a result of his letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal, he is going on my Christmas card list.
Attorney Detring pointed out that after President Biden repeatedly said that there was no legal basis for extending his predecessor’s eviction moratorium (and then went ahead and did it anyway) the administration’s lawyer put his name to a court document arguing that, contrary to his client’s repeated and accurate public statements, the moratorium is lawful. That sort of conduct verges on the unethical, wrote Attorney Detring (see below).
Here is the President saying that the courts had ruled that the previous CDC eviction moratorium was unconstitutional and that although most constitutional scholars think that a new one would be “unlikely to pass constitutional muster” a few think it might and by the time a challenge gets through the courts the order will have served its purpose.
The court decision President Biden was referring to was the one that Judge Dabney Friedrich of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued back in June. “The question for the Court is a narrow one,” wrote Judge Friedrich.
“Does the Public Health Service Act grant the CDC the legal authority to impose a nationwide eviction moratorium? It does not.”
The reason has nothing to do with the wording or extent of the CDC’s eviction moratorium. The reason is simpler than that. As an executive branch agency, the CDC may only act within the parameters that Congress has set for it, and Congress has never granted the CDC the authority to ban people who own rental property from going to court when tenants do not pay rent. The CDC does not have, and never has had, that authority.
At the end of June, Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh stated that a moratorium extension would need clear and specific congressional authorization via new legislation.
Nevertheless, when Congress did not enact any such clear and specific authorization, President Biden issued another eviction moratorium through the CDC.
The Alabama Association of Realtors quickly challenged the new moratorium.
In response, the Solicitor General filed a reply in which he argued that Congress had given the CDC authority via 42 USC 264(a), enacted in 1944, which provides that:
“The Surgeon General, with the approval of the Secretary, is authorized to make and enforce such regulations as in his judgment are necessary to prevent the introduction, transmission, or spread of communicable diseases from foreign countries into the States or possessions, or from one State or possession into any other State or possession. For purposes of carrying out and enforcing such regulations, the Surgeon General may provide for such inspection, fumigation, disinfection, sanitation, pest extermination, destruction of animals or articles found to be so infected or contaminated as to be sources of dangerous infection to human beings, and other measures, as in his judgment may be necessary.”
According to the Acting Solicitor General of the United Stats, Brian H. Fletcher, by way of this provision in the 1944 statute Congress gave the head of the CDC discretion to “prevent the movement of persons to prevent the spread of communicable disease.” To be fair, he was quoting the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia when it rejected the request from the Alabama Association of Realtors to vacate the stay of Judge Friedrich’s previous order. But at the time the Solicitor General filed the reply it was already clear that five justices of the Supreme Court of the United States share the opinion of Judge Friedrich that the 1944 statute, which (prior to President Trump) had never been used in this way, does not confer the necessary authority.
If you think there ought to be a rule against this sort of thing, there is, as Attorney Detring points out:
“Rule 3.1 of the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct prohibits lawyers from bringing or defending a proceeding unless there is a basis in law or fact for doing so. Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure states that by signing or submitting a pleading, an attorney certifies that it is not presented for any improper purpose, such as to ‘cause unnecessary delay.’ Rule 11 also provides a process for sanctioning violators… Ordinary practicing attorneys would be in grave danger of sanctions for filing a pleading knowingly unsupported by law or fact, and by admittedly filing the pleading for the purpose of delay.”
Good point, I think.
President Biden’s conscious decision to issue an unlawful order will be one of topics up for discussion at an event MassLandlords has scheduled for September 8 titled “Are Eviction Moratoriums the New Normal?” The other points up for discussion:
Courtroom challenges to the CDC moratorium;
The “state moratorium 2.0” currently pending the Massachusetts Legislature; and
What litigation might be brought to bear against a new Massachusetts eviction moratorium.
I will be one of the three speakers, together with Attorney Jordana Roubicek Greenman and Attorney Richard Vetstein. For the event link, click here.
August 6, 2021:- President Biden, like President Trump before him, has issued an eviction moratorium, via the CDC, without authorization from Congress. For an overview from Reason magazine, click here.
August 4, 2021:- If you lie awake worrying that there are too few people incarcerated, too few criminal offenses on the statute books, and too much unregulated speech (in fact altogether too much unregulated human activity in general) rest easy. Help is at hand. The Massachusetts Legislature is considering a bill that would criminalize videos that make it look as if people are saying things that they did not really say.
It seems unlikely that the bill, H. 1755, sponsored by Representative Jay D. Livingstone, will become law, not this session anyway. It is a refile of H. 3366, which he filed in 2019. For reasons that I explain below, I hope this bill does not become law, not this session, not next session, not ever.
The clue is in the typo
Whoever drafted the bill apparently drew inspiration, and most of the text, from a federal bill titled the Malicious Deep Fake Prohibition Act of 2018 filed by United States Senator Bill Sasse (R – Nebraska). If you want to read Attorney Nina Iacono Brown’s critique in Slate of Senator Sasse’s bill and similar proposals, click here.
Copying another legislator’s bill is not a violation of the Copyright Act, of course (on which subject see below). In fact, they should have gone the whole hog and copied the title too. Because what did the drafters choose as a moniker for Representative Livingstone’s adaptation of Senator Sasse’s bill? They called it “An Act to protect against deep fakes used to facilitate torturous or criminal conduct.”
Aside from the irony-laden, Freudian-slippy typo (I am quite sure that they meant to write “tortious” not “torturous”) it’s just too much of a mouthful. But that problem is a small one compared with the bill’s potential impact on freedom of expression. It would hand the shut-uppers yet another tool with which to silence heterodox speakers.
Trust me, I’m from Big Tech
H. 1755 was on the agenda for the Joint Committee on the Judiciary on July 27, 2021. If you would like to watch the relevant part of the hearing, click here and scroll to 1:09:40. There you can see and hear testimony from Nick Gatz, manager of State Government Relations for Adobe, who states that the company is neutral on H.1755 and offers the Legislature its expertise “on the topic of content manipulation and online misinformation,” which is the sort of thing Adobe is against, I gather.
Adobe is so very much against content manipulation and online misinformation that it has established an entity called the Coalition for Content Provenance and Authenticity. If that name was approved by a focus group, I am quite sure that its members either: (a) had no familiarity with Orwell’s 1984; or (b) considered the book to have been not so much a cautionary tale as an instruction manual.
Coalition of the all too willing
The purpose of the Coalition for Content Provenance and Authenticity? To deploy technology that will help us — naïve saps that we are — sort the real-news wheat from the fake-news chaff, thereby obviating the need for legislation. Why should politicians bother to extend control over online speech with laws (laws that could conceivably be struck down by bothersome judges or repealed by the great unwashed) when Big Tech has an app for that? If the alternative to the Act to Protect Against Deep Fakes Used to Facilitate Torturous or Criminal Conduct is the Coalition for Content Provenance and Authenticity, forgive me for not sighing with relief.
One of the more famous members of the coalition is Twitter, the company that (like Google’s YouTube) runs advertisements for the Chinese government, says the Columbia Journalism Review:
“According to a number of reports, the most recent ads push the message that protesters in Hong Kong are violent extremists and that state police are simply doing their best to keep the peace.”
Yes, Twitter takes money to promote the Chinese Communist Party line that pro-democracy protestors are violent extremists, a falsehood that does not count as “online misinformation” so far as Twitter is concerned, apparently.
Another coalition member is Microsoft, which, according to Business Insider, complies with China’s censorship laws. For example, earlier this year, when users in the United States tried to find images of Tank Man via Microsoft’s search engine, Bing, their searches yielded no results.
Readers may recall that Tank Man was the protestor who stood in front of Red Army tanks during the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. He was being a “violent extremist,” I suppose. But Bing’s omission was merely the result of “human error,” according to reports on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
“Beijing is known to require search engines operating in its jurisdiction to censor results, but those restrictions are rarely applied elsewhere.”
The most important word in that sentence is “rarely.” Fans of Gilbert and Sulivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore may be recalling the Captain’s lines, “What, never? Well, hardly ever.”
Coincidentally, the BBC is another member of the Coalition for Content Provenance and Authenticity. For readers unfamiliar with the BBC, it is Britain’s publicly-funded media organization that makes popular dramas, documentaries, and situation comedies and, once upon a time, used to be a trustworthy source of news, at least in comparison with, say, TASS or Pravda. It is also the organization that employed Martin Bashir, the reporter who secured a TV interview with Diana, Princess of Wales, by using faked bank statements that fueled the princess’s paranoid delusions that she was the victim of a conspiracy involving, inter alia, royal bodyguards; her husband and heir apparent to the Crown, Prince Charles; the Secret Intelligence Service; and GCHQ, Britain’s equivalent of the National Security Agency.
The BBC followed up on Bashir’s fakery with an equally fake internal inquiry and not only retained his services but gave him a promotion. For the report of the independent inquiry, click here.
In addition to Martin Bashir, the BBC employed Jimmy Savile who, during his lengthy broadcasting career, sexually assaulted approximately 72 people and raped several more, including an 8-year-old girl, crimes to which the BBC later admitted it had “turned a blind eye.”
So Twitter, Microsoft, and the BBC are now coalescing with other media corporations in order to protect us — poor, credulous, undiscerning, gullible us — against content manipulation and online misinformation. What, as they say, could possibly go wrong.
During the hearing, the House chair of the committee suggested that deepfakes might be better dealt with via a new federal law. This brought to mind a current federal law, namely section 506 (c) of the Copyright Act, which makes it a crime to place on any work a false copyright notice:
“Any person who, with fraudulent intent, places on any article a notice of copyright or words of the same purport that such person knows to be false… shall be fined not more than $2,500.”
This provision came to mind for two reasons. First, it was only last year that the Supreme Court of the United States issued its decision in Georgia, et al v. Public.Resource.Org, Inc., on the subject of copyright in legislative works (the public edicts doctrine). The court reiterated the well-established point that legislators cannot claim copyright in the works they create in the course of their official duties.
That’s why Senator Ben Sasse has no grounds to go after State Representative Livingstone. And it is why the Massachusetts Legislature cannot claim copyright in the documents that it publishes. If it did so, e.g. by fraudulently posting a false copyright notice on its website, it would be violating section 506 (c) of the Copyright Act.
And that was the second reason that the provision came to mind as I watched the hearing, because right there on the screen, at the bottom of the page, appeared the following words:
I wonder if that qualifies as “online misinformation.”
From tort to crime
If we cannot safely place total trust in Twitter, Microsoft, the BBC, and the Coalition for Content Provenance and Authenticity as a whole (and we can’t), would we be any better off with Rep. Livingstone’s Act to Protect Against Deep Fakes Used to Facilitate Torturous or Criminal Conduct? No, and here’s why.
The proposed law would make it a crime to distribute a video in order to “facilitate criminal or tortious conduct” if the video was “created or altered in a manner that [it] would falsely appear to a reasonable observer to be an authentic record of the actual speech or conduct of an individual.”
The word “facilitate” is pretty clear, I suppose, and the term “criminal conduct” is easy enough to grasp. It covers things like assault and battery, and fraudulently placing a false copyright notice in violation of section 506 (c) of the Copyright Act.
But what qualifies as tortious conduct? We have torts aplenty in Massachusetts, but here are two that tend to come up in the context of online spats: defamation and the intentional infliction of emotional distress. To me, these are the two torts that seem likely to provide a pretext for political prosecutions under H. 1755, allowing Massachusetts politicians to use the courts to silence their opponents. Do such things really happen here? For just one example, see my post titled “Free speech wins (four years after judge bans candidate from mentioning opponent’s name.”
It can be difficult for public figures such as politicians to shut up their detractors with defamation lawsuits. They have to prove “actual malice,” i.e. that the speaker made a false statement knowing that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.
Easier, then, if you are an elected tribune of the people, to seek a civil harassment-prevention order, as did the politician in the case I discuss in the aforementioned post. Even easier, perhaps, to bring a private criminal complaint under the proposed Act to Protect Against Deep Fakes Used to Facilitate Torturous or Criminal Conduct or, better still, get your friend the prosecutor to ask a grand jury to issue an indictment.
If H. 1755 becomes law and you share a deepfake with the intent to cause emotional distress to, say, Senator Suehappy Thinskin you won’t be looking at your screen for a while; you’ll be looking at two and a half years in the slammer.
To safely forward the video of the esteemed Senator without fear of criminal prosecution, you would need to know — prior to sharing it — that it was not “created or altered in a manner that would falsely appear to a reasonable observer to be an authentic record of the actual speech or conduct of an individual.”
How could you be sure? Perhaps you could look for a certificate of authenticity issued by the Coalition for Content Provenance and Authenticity. But the Coalition (i.e. Twitter, Microsoft, the BBC, etc.) might not issue certificates to videos that criticize the powerful. It might routinely withhold certificates from people who say things that the powerful do not like.
But the absence of a certificate would not necessarily mean that the video was deepfake. So you could roll the dice, share the video, and hope that you don’t get a call from the offended hack’s lawyer or from law enforcement.
Even if the video is authentic, you might worry that people with friends in high places might be able to persuade law enforcement — and even a judge and jury — that it is not. Readers may have noticed that when somebody says something true, but embarrassing, about a powerful person, the powerful person first denies it and then attacks the somebody who said it, often with the eager help of the online mob. Even if the truth of the statement eventually becomes apparent, by that point the speaker’s life has been turned upside down.
Yes, H. 1755 says that “no person shall be held liable under this section for any activity protected by the Massachusetts Constitution or by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.” But when do you, the speaker, find out whether your activity was protected by the Massachusetts Constitution or by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States? When a judge says so, i.e. long after you’ve been interrogated and prosecuted.
Those risks, I suspect, would make you think twice about forwarding the video of Senator Suehappy Thinskin saying or doing something idiotic. We call this the chilling effect.
But shouldn’t there be laws against using deepfakes to defame people or cause them emotional distress? Yes, and we already have them, e.g. the torts called defamation and the intentional infliction of emotional distress.
If you still think we need more criminal offenses for prosecutors to threaten people with, check out @ACrimeADay on Twitter. Spoiler alert: There are a lot.
Back in 2019, the Massachusetts bill to ban deepfakes had two cosponsors, but this time Representative Livingstone is going it alone. The bill is losing support rather than gaining it. You may think that I should take heart from this trend, but I do not. Why? Because of the difference between bad ideas and nuclear waste.
At some point, with the passage of time, nuclear waste stops being dangerous. Not so with bad ideas. You cannot summon forth the ideas that H. 1755 embodies, bottle them, bury them in a lead-lined underground vault, and wait for them to disintegrate into harmless nothingness. No, they remain in the atmosphere, floating freely like wraiths, sometimes for decades, until they suddenly make themselves manifest as emergency bills or outside sections in the State budget.
That is why I am no more relieved at the bill’s feeble prospects this session than I am about entrusting the task of identifying deepfakes to the likes of Twitter, Microsoft, and the BBC.
P.S. For the full text of Representative Jay Livingstone’s bill, H. 1755, scroll down below the image.
SECTION 1. Chapter 266 of the General Laws is hereby amended by inserting after section 37E the following section:-
Section 37E 1/2. (a)As used in this section, the following words shall have the following meaning unless the context clearly requires otherwise:
“Audiovisual record,” any audio or visual media in an electronic format and includes any photograph, motion-picture film, video recording, electronic image, or sound recording.
“Deep fake”, an audiovisual record created or altered in a manner that the record would falsely appear to a reasonable observer to be an authentic record of the actual speech or conduct of an individual.
(b) Whoever (1), creates, with the intent to distribute, a deep fake and with the intent that the distribution of the deep fake would facilitate criminal or tortious conduct, or (2) distributes an audiovisual record with actual knowledge that the audiovisual record is a deep fake and with the intent that the distribution of the audiovisual record would facilitate criminal or tortious conduct shall be guilty of the crime of identity fraud and shall be punished by a fine of not more than $5,000 or imprisonment in a house of correction for not more than two and one-half years, or by both such fine and imprisonment.
No person shall be held liable under this section for any activity protected by the Massachusetts Constitution or by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.
A security deposit slip up can spoil a seemingly straightforward summary process case. So MassLandlords is holding a virtual lunch-and-learn session for housing providers (12 noon on Tuesday, July 20, 2021) where I will provide an overview of this slippery subject and answer questions.
June 24, 2021:- President Biden has extended President Trump’s eviction moratorium again. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) announced that the moratorium will remain in effect until the end of July 2021.
June 7, 2021:- The owner of a short-term rental property was not liable for the shooting death of a man who attended a party at the property, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) announced today in the case of Heath-Latson v. Styller.
The shooting occurred in May 2016 at the Lynnfield home of Alexander Styller, who let the house to a group of people as a short-term rental. Here is a link to the NECN coverage.
Ostensibly the booking was for a college reunion but via social media one of the group advertised the gathering as a “Splash Mansion Pool Party.” Approximately 100 people attended and in the early hours of the morning the local police received a call that somebody had been shot.
The estate of the decedent, Keivan Heath, sued the organizers and Mr. Styller (the homeowner) in Superior Court. The judge allowed Mr. Styller’s motion to dismiss, and the case went to the SJC. In upholding the dismissal, the SJC stated:
“A duty to protect against harm caused by the conduct of a third person arises where there is a special relationship between a defendant and a plaintiff such that the defendant reasonably could foresee that he would be expected to take affirmative action to protect the plaintiff and could anticipate harm to the plaintiff from the failure to do so…
Here, the complaint alleges no facts suggesting that the defendant had a duty to protect the decedent from wrongdoing of a third party. Although the complaint cites a finding made by a Land Court judge in a related case that that short-term rentals have significant external effects on the neighboring community and community at large, it does not allege that short-term rentals are correlated with an increase in violent crime.”
Heath-Latson v. Styller (internal citations and quotation marks omitted)
The decision reiterates the duties of a landlord and the limits on those duties.
The SJC issued another decision involving Mr. Styller today, namely Styller v Zoning Board of Appeals of Lynnfield, in which the court upheld the ZBA’s determination that the zoning bylaw prohibited short-terms rentals even before it did so expressly in 2016.
June 3, 2021:- Today the Asset Forfeiture Commission held its sixth meeting, which consisted of a presentation by Attorney Dan Alban, co-director of the National Initiative to End Civil Forfeiture at the Institute for Justice (IJ). You can watch the hearing by clicking here.
Among Attorney Alban’s recommendations:
Not simply increasing the evidentiary standard from probable cause to preponderance of the evidence/beyond reasonable doubt. Instead, remove the financial incentive for the practice.
Using criminal asset forfeiture only and abolishing civil asset forfeiture, as New Mexico has done. IJ’s goal is not to defund the police but to restore due process. “Crime should not pay,” he said, “and it is legitimate for the State to confiscate the proceeds of crime.”
Enacting anti-circumvention laws to prevent State law enforcement simply outsourcing forfeiture to their federal counterparts. Massachusetts engages in “equitable sharing” with the federal government far more than most other States (the Commonwealth is 48th in IJ’s ranking)
Requiring greater detail in law enforcement’s reporting requirements in Massachusetts in connection with proceeds of civil asset forfeiture. Attorney Alban pointing to the 2018 report which states that 6% of the proceeds went to travel and training, 7% to equipment, with 53% listed as “other.”
After the presentation, Norfolk District Attorney Michael W. Morrissey said that he agreed with the need for more information, which should be a prerequisite to any overhaul of the system in his opinion. He stated that forfeiture is necessary to deal with those who are “undercutting” the “pretty successful consumer oriented sale of drugs,” i.e. marijuana, in Massachusetts. He held up a photograph of one of the houses he had seized, stating that it had been used as a “grow house.”
DA Morrissey also stated that prosecutors stay (i.e. pause) civil forfeiture cases until the criminal case is resolved. My review of some of the 70 or so civil forfeiture cases filed under MGL c 94C, section 47, in Hampden County Superior Court over the last year did not support that assertion but that may be a result of my sample size or of my misreading the docket. I used masscourts.org and searched under Administrative Civil Actions. Readers with the time and inclination can double-check my search in Hampden Superior Court and look for cases in the Superior Court in other counties.
In response to DA Morrissey’s request for one example of an innocent owner whose property had been forfeited in Massachusetts, Attorney Alban cited the Motel Caswell case in Tewksbury, in which the owner had not only reported criminal activity but had cooperated in a sting operation. Law enforcement seized his motel anyway.
DA Morrissey pointed out that the Motel Caswell case was an instance of “equitable sharing,” i.e. local police working with the federal law enforcement and using federal law. The Malinda Harris case did not come up during the discussion.
Co-chair Senator Jamie Eldridge announced that the commission will issue its report, with recommendations, by July 31, 2021. Between now and then the commission will have one more meeting (date to be announced).
June 2,2021:- Where is the $12 million of public money earmarked for the Eviction Diversion Initiative actually going?
Finding out is harder than you might think because the body in charge of distributing the money (the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation) says that it is not subject to the Public Records Law. So on behalf of MassLandlords, I asked the Legislature to investigate.
To learn more, you can read my article in the MassLandlords newsletter by clicking here.
June 1,2021:- On Thursday, June 3, starting at 10:00 a.m., the Massachusetts commission on civil asset forfeiture will hold a meeting that you can watch live via malegislature.gov.
Readers will recall that civil asset forfeiture is where law enforcement seizes property that they have mere probable cause to believe may have been used in connection with a crime and then the owner has to go to court to prove innocence in order to get their property back. The system lets police and prosecutors treat ordinary people like an ATM.
Does this really happen in Massachusetts? Yes, as the experience of Malinda Harris, covered in Reason magazine, illustrates:
“On March 4, 2015, police in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, seized Malinda Harris’ 2011 Infiniti G37 because her son, Trevice, was suspected of selling drugs. Although Harris had let Trevice borrow her car, the cops never alleged that he used it for drug dealing or that she knew about her son’s illegal activity. Harris heard nothing more about her purloined property until October 2020, more than five years after the seizure, when she was served with a civil forfeiture complaint that had been prepared the previous January.”
Jacob Sullum, Reason, 3.2.2021
Law enforcement seized and held Malinda Harris’s car for five years before even allowing her an opportunity to try to get it back. There is nothing extraordinary about the experience of Ms. Harris, other than the fact that she came to the attention of a nonprofit organization that was able to represent her for free. That is what makes her case exceptional.
If you think that Ms. Harris’s case is an outlier, here are some facts and figures from the Massachusetts Trial Court that speak for themselves:
In the period 2017-19 the Massachusetts attorney general and district attorneys seized more than $20 million from people who had not been accused of, let alone convicted of, any crime
In 24% of cases the amount of money seized was between $2,000 and $4,999, in 25% the amount was less than $2,000, and in one case was $6.20
Section 47(d) of chapter 94C of the Massachusetts General Laws puts the burden on a claimant to prove that the property is not forfeitable
In most cases the legal fees that an innocent owner would incur in making a claim would exceed the value of the seized property
In approximately 80 per cent of civil asset forfeiture cases in the period 2017-19 the owner made no claim
I intend to watch the commission’s hearing and to post an update soon afterwards. And I will be right on the keyboard as soon as the Judiciary Committee schedules a hearing for the bill that I wrote (H.1724) to provide free counsel in civil asset forfeiture cases.
In the meantime, for the op-ed Malinda Harris co-authored in USA Today click here. For the latest report from the Institute for Justice, titled Policing for Profit, click here.
For a Cato Institute interview with Attorney Tom Sandefur on the subject of civil asset forfeiture (with a mention of the Malinda Harris case) click here.
And lest you think that this is a libertarians-only hobbyhorse, click here to read about the ACLU’s position.
May 28, 2021:- Rents are rising again in the United States, according to Fannie Mae as reported by Bloomberg.
This affects everyone, not just renters. Why? Because, as this article in the Wall Street Journal points out, it contributes to inflation:
“Higher rents could play a role in an anticipated rise in inflation, unleashed by waves of stimulus checks, low borrowing rates and pent-up demand after months when the pandemic damped consumer spending. Rent accounts for about one-third of the consumer-price index, which economists expect to tick higher in the months ahead.”
Will Paker, “Apartment Rents Rise; Perks, Discounts Fade: Covid-19 vaccine rollout, higher employment bring more people back into cities looking to rent,” Wall Street Journal (April 24, 2021). Paywall.
Talk of inflation always makes me think of Berlin, of which more below.
Why are rents rising? I do not pretend to be an economist but I suspect that the governmental response to COVID-19, e.g. eviction moratoria, might have something to do with it. After all, if you want to make something more expensive, you make it scarce.
The effects of rising rents on renters – known to politicians as “voters” – are obvious and unwelcome. How the politicians will respond to the predicament of these voters is less obvious. But were I a betting man, I would remember that the number of voters who are renters is vastly greater than the number of voters who are landlords, and put money on the politicians doing something that panders to renters. Sadly, as the Duke of Wellington once pointed out, something is usually the wrong thing to do.
Here in Massachusetts, I expect that lawmakers will enact new measures to supplement the laws that they enacted during the State of Emergency, measures that on the face of it look friendly to renters and not so friendly to landlords. Even if those laws helped cause rents to rise (the phenomenon that actually hurt renters) they will opt for more of the same.
I now refer to this approach to policymaking as the Father Ted Fine-Tuning Approach. Click here to see what I mean.
If they were trying to drive you out of business, what would they do differently?
What proposals have lawmakers tossed into the legislative hopper so far? At the start of the session State Representative Mike Connolly, a Democrat and member of Democratic Socialists of America, sponsored a bill to cancel rent, HD.4072.
That particular bill seems to be in limbo, but another of Representative Connolly’s bills, H.1378, is moving along. It would enable towns and cities to impose rent control. Lest owners try to avoid rent control by taking their units off the market, Representative Connolly has another bill that would allow municipalities to impose excise tax on units that are vacant for more than 90 days (H.2852).
Representative Connolly’s bills reflect the mood of the Boston chapter of Democratic Socialists of America, which considers rising rents, along with evictions, something to “fight.” The Boston DSA site states that its Housing Working Group is
“concerned with organizing around one of our most fundamental rights — the right to a stable and affordable home. In Boston this right has come increasingly under attack as rent prices skyrocket, rising by 25% in the last five years. The Housing Group works closely with City Life Vida Urbana, a local tenants rights organization, as well as other community groups, to fight rent increases and evictions in the neighborhoods where these trends are most acutely felt.”
So in answer to the question I get asked from time to time by landlords in Massachusetts, “Are they trying to drive us out of business?” the answer is a qualified yes. If by “they” you mean state legislators, I do think some of them are trying to drive landlords out of business. Those who are committed socialists wish to bring real estate, including rental properties, under government control.
The first draft of the Democratic Socialists of America 2021 platform states that:
“As socialists we ultimately believe in the abolition of capitalism and the creation of a democratically run economy that would provide for people’s needs without the distortion of the profit motive, and we support economic regulation that moves us closer to that vision.”
Not surprisingly then, one of the party’s medium-term goals is to:
“Nationalize and socialize (through worker and community ownership and control) institutions of monetary policy, insurance, real estate, and finance.”
That is on page 4, under the title Economic Regulation. On pages 9-10, under the title Housing, the Democratic Socialists of America announce that:
“We seek to use this [COVID-19] crisis to build on the insurgent tenant movement and further decommodify housing and land. This can be done through canceling rent, closing eviction courts, and, as landlords exit the market, using State action to acquire properties and leveraging disinvestment to convert thousands of homes into publicly and democratically controlled land/housing.”
In this way the first draft of 2021 platform of Democratic Socialists of America offers a clear answer the question “Are they trying to drive us out of business?” Yes, they wish to use the COVID-19 crisis to cancel rent, close eviction courts, “and, as landlords exit the market, use State action to acquire properties and leveraging disinvestment to convert thousands of homes into publicly and democratically controlled land/housing.” Their words, not mine.
As the long-term demand, they want “democratically controlled, publicly run housing everywhere.” The medium-term demand?
Pass a universal tenants bill of rights that includes:
Right to renew your lease
Universal rent control
Right to organize a tenants’ union in your home
Universal right to counsel in housing court
Organizing a tenants union, or anything else, will pose a challenge if the Democratic Socialists achieve one of their medium-term Economic Regulation demands namely the “public ownership and control of social media platforms.” With the government controlling social media, good luck organizing anything more than the occasional day-trip to the tractor factory for the Young Pioneers.
But kudos to Democratic Socialists of America for their candor about wanting to use the COVID-19 crisis to drive landlords out of business and, more generally, “economic regulation that moves us closer to that vision.” What vision? The abolition of capitalism.
Onward to Berlin
When DSA legislators promote measures that a reasonable objective observer with some experience of rental housing, markets, and human nature would consider antithetical to the continued private ownership of rental properties, those legislators are not being naïve. They are being dedicated. In contrast, when non-DSA legislators – rank and file Democrats of the go-along-to-get-along variety – endorse these measures, naivete is the most generous word to describe them with.
Bills that are already popular among non-DSA Democrats in the State House are H.1434, which would effectively prohibit evictions for non-payment of rent, and H.1426, which would give tenants the right of first refusal if the owner tries to sell (thereby automatically delaying by months any sale to someone other than the tenants or the organization of their choice). This will make the business of being a landlord more difficult, and it is important to remember that this not a bug but a feature.
What’s next? How will they get from rendering the business of being a landlord increasingly difficult to making it completely non-viable? That is, after all, the avowed goal of Democratic Socialists of America. Perhaps they will look to Berlin.
As I mentioned, at the mention of inflation my mind turns to Berlin (here’s why) so I looked into what left-leaning Berliners are up to nowadays. As luck would have it, some of them are promoting a measure that I am sure the Democratic Socialists of America would approve of, namely the expropriation of rental properties. Expropriation is where the government takes private property (in the US we refer to it as eminent domain).
Slatecovered this campaign recently, putting in the context of rising rents:
“Data from Guthmann Estate, a real estate company in Berlin, shows that the median rent in the city rose by more than 70 percent between 2012 and 2021.”
Here’s a link to an article on the same subject titled “We Want a Society Without Landlords” in Jacobin magazine, a publication that describes itself as “a leading voice of the American left, offering socialist perspectives on politics, economics, and culture.” The authors explain that seizing 240,000 units of private housing is not really all that radical, which alone makes it is well worth a read.
Socialists in Berlin want to stop landlords from raising the rent by stopping them from being landlords. Like many ideas that people tried in the 20th century, it has the allure of simplicity.
To solve the rising-rent problem in Massachusetts, perhaps DSA will try to put a question on the ballot to take by eminent domain rental units that have remained vacant for 90 days or more (or just take all rental units, which would be more efficient).
I think not, but not because I doubt their candor. Democratic Socialists of America are admirably up-front about their wish to use the COVID-19 crisis to cancel rent, close eviction courts, “and, as landlords exit the market, use State action to acquire properties and leveraging disinvestment to convert thousands of homes into publicly and democratically controlled land/housing.”
Why would they not put expropriation on the ballot?
Because it is not necessary. All they have to do carry on making it harder and harder for private property owners to provide rental housing and before long those owners will, as the Democratic Socialists of America predict, exit the market. Onward to Berlin. East Berlin, that is.
May 19, 2021:- The Florida Association of Realtors® and R.W. Caldwell, Inc., have filed a complaint in the United States District Court in the Middle District of Florida, Tampa Division, asking the court to set aside the partial eviction moratorium that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) imposed, first at the direction of President Trump and then at the direction of President Biden.
One judge did just that quite recently. In early May Judge Dabney Friedrich set aside the partial eviction moratorium but stayed the order, i.e. put it on hold, while the Biden administration appeals the case. This means that the CDC partial eviction moratorium remains in effect for the time being.
This new complaint asks for the same kind of relief that Judge Dabney ordered earlier in the month. I quote two paragraphs of the complaint that get to the heart of the matter.
Paragraph 40 of the complaint states:
“The Eviction Moratorium contains no findings and relies on no evidence to support its stated assertion that Covid-19 will spread between states or United States territories if landlords are permitted to exercise their contractual rights to evict tenants who fail to make rent payments as required by their leases.”
That is why I call it a partial eviction moratorium, by the way. It only covers some evictions, i.e. nonpayment cases. Why the tenants in that kind of case are more likely than tenants in other sorts of cases (e.g. those being evicted for, say, criminal activity) to contract and transmit COVID-19 is not clear, at least not to me.
And the CDC certainly did not issue a moratorium on moving house. House sales have done very well during the emergency, I believe. Lots of people are buying and selling, moving from place to place. The CDC did not try to ban residential real estate transactions.
Getting to the constitutional argument, paragraph 5 of the complaint states:
“The CDC predicates this unprecedented action on its statutory authority to prevent the interstate spread of disease, but that authority does not make the CDC the nation’s landlord-in-chief any more than it places the CDC in charge of citizens’ social media or the national minimum wage. Were it otherwise, then Congress would have impermissibly turned over its lawmaking authority to an unelected administrative agency. The United States Constitution and its nondelegation doctrine prevent Congress from doing so. Indeed, the Constitution does not authorize Congress or the CDC to interfere with the purely local matter of tenants’ occupancy of individual rental properties.”
What’s the problem with an unelected administrative agency exercising the lawmaking authority that the Constitution grants exclusively to the Congress? Why is it unconstitutional for unelected government employees to legislate?
The reason has to do with democratic accountability, an essential requirement for a self-governing republic of free people, and stripped of legal jargon it is this: We can’t throw out those rascals. The only rascals We the People can throw out are the rascals we elected in the first place. Unelected rascals are beyond our reach.
What will happen to the CDC’s partial eviction moratorium? Stay tuned.
May 18, 2021:- If you like to read judges’ decisions about landlord-tenant disputes, you will be glad to learn that Volume 9 of the Western Division Housing Court Reporter (an unofficial compilation of decisions and orders issued by the Western Division Housing Court) is available online. To see it, just click here.
May 12, 2021:- A few years ago, by way of an outside section to the budget, the Massachusetts Legislature established a Civil Forfeiture Commission to “study civil asset forfeiture policies and practices in the commonwealth… [and] submit a report of its study and any recommendations, together with any draft legislation necessary to carry those recommendations into effect.”
Before reading any further, it may be helpful to know these key facts about civil asset forfeiture in Massachusetts:
In the period 2017-19 the Commonwealth, through civil asset forfeiture actions under section 47(d) of chapter 94C of the General Laws by the attorney general and district attorneys, seized assets from people who had not been accused of, let alone convicted of, any crime, including more than $20 million in money;
In 24% of cases the amount of money seized was between $2,000 and $4,999, in 25% the amount was less than $2,000, and in one case was $6.20;
The statute puts the burden on a claimant to prove that the property is not forfeitable; and
In most cases the legal fees that an innocent owner would incur in making a claim would exceed the value of the seized property.
On March 30, 2021, the Commission reconvened after a lengthy COVID-19 State of Emergency-related hiatus. Here is a link to the video of the meeting.
When listening to the chair, Majority Leader Representative Claire Cronin, you will notice that she reminds the members of the need to confine their work to the charge that the Legislature gave them. When Senator Jamie Eldridge, Senate chair of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, suggests (at around minute 50) asking presenters to include stories from people directly affected by civil asset forfeiture, Representative Cronin says that it “may be beyond the scope of the charge.”
This is odd.
If you read the charge (follow the link above in the words “outside section”) you will see that one of the commission’s express tasks is to conduct “an analysis of any racial or socioeconomic disparities in the application of civil asset forfeiture laws in the commonwealth.” Analysis means something more than merely presenting the figures. Hearing the voices of ordinary people with first-hand experience of the practice could be very helpful in analyzing the racial and socioeconomic disparities.
In addition, the charge begins with the customary tautologous phrase, “the study shall include, but not be limited to.”*
The commission’s remit is quite broad, certainly broad enough to listen to residents who have committed no crime but have had their property seized by the government. I hope that Senator Eldridge and other members of the commission will persevere and invite voices from outside the political class to help the commission really analyze the disparate impacts of civil asset forfeiture.
Next the commission is going to look at the annual reports that District Attorneys file with the Legislature about how they spend the fruits of their seizures; seek data from the State Police about the number of forfeitures connected to cases that result in prosecutions; and ask Attorney General Maura Healy how long her office holds on to seized assets.
* I call it tautologous because the word “include” means to be part of a thing, as opposed to being the whole thing. Adding “not limited to” is redundant, in my opinion. Students of legislative drafting, please note: Nobody cares about my opinion.
In order to protect their intellectual property, Native American tribes can provide information to the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) free of charge. The USPTO refers to the information when examining trademark applications to determine whether the applicant is falsely suggesting an affiliation with a tribe.
Here is the text of a recent announcement from the USPTO that explains the process:
“The USPTO’s Native American tribal insignia database is a part of the Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS). This database records the official tribal insignias of federally or state-recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribes (Native American tribes).
The USPTO considers the tribal insignias in its database when examining trademarks in pending applications. Tribes who choose to participate allow the USPTO to evaluate whether a trademark may suggest a false connection to their tribal insignia and refuse registration. This gives tribes the benefit of helping to protect their intellectual property and cultural heritage.
“Your tribal insignia must be adopted by tribal resolution and consist of a flag, coat of arms, other emblem, or device. Your tribe must be recognized federally or by your state. A word or words alone are not considered a tribal insignia, and are not entered in the database.”
If someone believes that a trademark applicant is misappropriating or mis-using tribal intellectual property in a way that would cause confusion or that suggests a false connection, there are steps for the tribe to take, depending on the stage of the trademark application, e.g. a letter of protest, a notice of opposition, and a petition to cancel. The link above provides details about taking those steps.
March 29, 2021:- Today the Biden administration announced that it will extend the Centers for Disease Control partial eviction moratorium to June 30, 2021.
In the meantime, here in Massachusetts housing providers who go to Housing Court to try to obtain unpaid rent and to eventually regain possession of their property are up against taxpayer-funded lawyers. Tenants obtain counsel at no charge; housing providers must pay, unless they can find a lawyer who will work for free. To misquote Animal Farm, some equal protection is more equal than others.
To read my latest article on the subject for MassLandlords, click here.
January 21, 2021:- Yesterday President Biden extended the CDC’s eviction moratorium through March 31, 2021. For the Forbes article click here. For the CDC order itself, click here.
Housing providers in Massachusetts who take tenants to court for nonpayment of rent have to file an affidavit swearing that they have not received a CDC declaration from the tenants. In any event, even if the CDC moratorium does not cover the tenants in question, under a state law that was tacked on to the budget (Chapter 257 of the Acts of 2020) in nonpayment cases judges are not allowed to enter orders for possession or issue executions if the tenants have a pending application for rental assistance.
Under Chapter 257, housing providers who send tenants notices to quit for nonpayment of rent have to also give the tenants a form stating that the tenants do not have to leave:
“THIS NOTICE TO QUIT IS NOT AN EVICTION. YOU DO NOT NEED TO IMMEDIATELY LEAVE YOUR UNIT. YOU ARE ENTITLED TO A LEGAL PROCEEDING IN WHICH YOU CAN DEFEND AGAINST THE EVICTION. ONLY A COURT ORDER CAN FORCE YOU TO LEAVE YOUR UNIT.”
They also have to send the Commonwealth a copy of the notice to quit via an online portal. Later, when filing the case in court, housing providers have to submit a sworn statement (another form) confirming compliance. This is in addition to the CDC affidavit and (if e-filing) an affidavit confirming compliance with the e-filing rules.
What does this mean in practice? Nonpayment cases involve more paperwork and take longer.
December 28,2020, Washington, DC:- Yesterday President Trump signed the Consolidated Appropriations Act for 2021 (H.R. 133) which, among many other things, extends the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) moratorium on some evictions. The CDC eviction moratorium is now set to expire January 31, 2021.
For the House summary, click here and scroll down to page 22.
October 6, 2020:- The Housing Court has issued a new standing order (SO 6-2) that will govern pending and newly-filed summary process cases if the eviction moratorium expires on October 17 (and if the Legislature does not impose a new one).
I will provide a synopsis in a future post. In the meantime, housing providers should note that:
(1) for default judgments entered after March 1, the Housing Court is allowing all motions to remove the default;
(2) for already-filed cases summary process cases the Clerks will be sending out scheduling notices for conferences with Housing Specialists;
(3) for new summary process cases, the owner/attorney who completes the summons and complaint should not insert a trial date (write TBD instead); and
(4) because the CDC moratorium order is in effect, the Housing Court will provide an affidavit for housing providers to use in order to tell the Court whether the renters gave them the declaration that the CDC order requires.
October 2, 2020:- They say a week is a long time in politics. But a whole year is not, apparently. And a whole year beyond the expiry of the state of emergency is how long the next eviction moratorium will last if the Joint Housing Committee of the Massachusetts Legislature gets its way.
Under the new proposal, which now goes to Ways and Means and the Legislature as a whole, housing providers whose renters stop paying rent would be able to apply for a tax credit to cover the arrears “subject to availability.”
The term “subject to availability” does not sound like much of a guarantee and, sure enough, this article in CommonWealth Magazine quotes one of the sponsors as saying that the “funding structure is something intentionally left out.”
So they left it out on purpose. Thank goodness they didn’t just forget.
September 28, 2020:- Another small victory for freedom of expression in Massachusetts, again from a Federal judge rather than the State courts. The key point? Housing providers should not have to promote organizations that seek to strip away their rights.
In the case of Baptiste v. Kenneally, the U.S. District Court did not grant the plaintiffs an injunction against the Commonwealth’s eviction moratorium, but did find that the regulations issued under it impermissibly burden free speech.
In April, the Massachusetts Legislature enacted Chapter 65 (the eviction moratorium) which prohibits landlords from sending notices to quit, but allows them to send missed-payment notices stating how much the tenants owe.
Then the executive branch issued emergency regulations (with no notice-and-comment period) that tell housing providers what to say in these missed-payment notices, including a link to certain “resources.” The “resources” include Massachusetts Housing Partnership, which in turn links to the advocacy group City Life/Vida Urbana, the taxpayer-funded nonprofit corporation* that campaigns for measures that are (I will put this mildly) not entirely consistent with the constitutionally-guaranteed right to possess and enjoy private property, e.g.
“We will fight for legislation to protect and expand rights for all working-class renters and homeowners, including RENT CONTROL, RIGHT TO COUNSEL, and an EVICTION SEALING ACT. We’ll actively support efforts to make corporate developers pay for these initiatives through a TRANSFER FEE on the sale of luxury development” (all caps in original).
That quote is from the page on the corporation’s website titled Our Work. All those measures are diametrically opposed to the interests of housing providers, and members of the statewide organization MassLandlords have consistently voiced their opposition to them.
On September 25, Judge Mark L. Wolf held that the State government regulations infringe the speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.
[T]he court finds that plaintiffs are likely to prevail on their claim that the second paragraph of 400 C.M.R. §5.03(2) unconstitutionally compels speech by requiring plaintiffs to include in any notice of rent arrearage addresses of non-governmental websites that, in turn, refer tenants to tenant advocacy groups, including City Life/Vida Urbana, with interests adverse to plaintiffs’.
The judge went on:
“[I]t is a fact that organizations like City Life/Vida Urbana provide legal services to tenants who want to resist being evicted, they also engage in other activities including, among other things, advocating for legislation that restricts landlords’ rights to evict, and litigating against them.”
The judge explained that State government should not compel landlords to endorse and promote these activities, and that compelled speech of this sort would not survive intermediate scrutiny let alone strict scrutiny.
This part of the decision represents a welcome victory for free speech in the Federal District Court. What a shame the State-level courts in Massachusetts so rarely evince a similar regard for that right.
*The corporation’s legal name is Urban Revival, Inc. and according to its Form 990 (2017) its mission/significant activities are “racial/ethnic harmony through affordable housing and economic development,” which is more succinct than (and different in tone from) the mission statement on its website:
“City Life/Vida Urbana is a grassroots community organization committed to fighting for racial, social and economic justice and gender equality by building working class power. We promote individual empowerment, develop community leaders and build collective power to effect systemic change and transform society.”
P.S. A note about my choice of image, which illustrates the idea of the mailed fist in the velvet glove. When I write about compelled speech, I like to offer a reminder about who it is, exactly, that is doing the compelling. If ever you disobey a law, you risk an encounter with agents of the only organization in society that (as Max Weber pointed out) claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, namely the government. If you refuse to do what the government tells you to do, or you refuse to speak the words that it demands that you utter, eventually you will come into contact with the government’s agents, people who wear uniforms, carry weapons, and have the power to alter your condition from free to un-free and from alive to dead.
September 18, 2020:- The New Civil Liberties Alliance lawsuit against the CDC eviction moratorium order (Brown v Azar) argues, among other things, that the agency’s order flies in the face of the non-delegation doctrine. This is the doctrine that says that the legislature cannot delegate its authority to the executive because doing do would violate article 1, section 1 of the Constitution of the United States, which vests all legislative power in Congress. It is supposed to help keep each branch of government in its own lane.
I find it hard to see how this particular argument can fail.
There is no doubt that the authority to establish a nationwide eviction moratorium lies (if anywhere) with Congress. To find evidence to support this, we do not have to look very far. In fact we only have to look back as far as April 2020, when Congress passed the CARES Act, section 4024 of which established a nationwide eviction moratorium.
If any branch of the federal government has the authority to bar property owners from going to court to seek the return of their own property, which is by no means certain, it is Congress. By imposing an eviction moratorium of its own, the CDC, an executive branch agency, is usurping the power that the Constitution vests exclusively in Congress.
September 9, 2020:- The New Civil Liberties Alliance filed a complaint that challenges the constitutionality of the CDC’s order that purports to ban evictions nationwide. For the press release, click here.
The organization is also seeking a temporary restraining order to prevent Health & Human Services Secretary Alex Azar implementing the order. My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that the CDC order exceeds the agency’s authority by a country mile. Stay tuned for updates.
September 8, 2020:- Quite properly, Attorney General Maura Healey is cracking down on wage theft, according to this article on MassLive. Wage theft is where a worker provides a service but does not get paid.
It’s a shame that housing providers who provide housing without getting paid can’t look to the Attorney General for help.
September 2, 2020:- Imagine they passed a law saying that you’ve got to go to work every day of the year, and if the company doesn’t pay your wages, that’s just too bad. You can’t sue them. You can’t go on strike. You can’t even quit.
I have a client who is in a position something like that.
She works as a housing provider, in addition to her day job as a nurse. She owns her own home and one other house that she bought in order to rent it out. Her goal was to use the rental income to pay the bank, and then (when she’d paid off the mortgage) start making a profit.
“It was supposed to be my 401(k),” she told me.
Not a 401(k)
That’s not how it turned out. In November 2019, the tenant (then, as now, unemployed) stopped paying rent, so my client started summary process (eviction) proceedings in Housing Court. But then the Legislature and the Governor passed Chapter 65, the partial eviction moratorium, which prohibits the courts from moving forward with non-payment cases even if the reason for non-payment has nothing to do with COVID 19 or the state government’s job-destroying, livelihood-wrecking response to it.
So the summary process case is suspended until the moratorium expires, which could be in October or might be in January if the Governor chooses to extend it. Or it could be even later; who knows.
When the case emerges from limbo, it will be one among thousands waiting for a judge to hear it. In the meantime, is there anything my client can do to try to get paid? At this point, the rent arrears are somewhat north of $8,000, by the way.
Two attorneys brought a constitutional challenge to the partial eviction moratorium, namely Jordana Rubicek Greenman and Richard Vetstein. For details of the lawsuit, check out Attorney Vetstein’s blog.
I wrote an amicus brief for MassLandlords, and watched the oral argument before Superior Court Judge Paul Wilson online. In the course of the argument, Attorney Vetstein made the point that the moratorium is barring the courts to one class of litigants, i.e. landlords. Not so, responded counsel for one of the tenants’ organizations who said that the courts aren’t barred because landlords can still sue tenants for breach of contract.
In his order denying the request for a preliminary injunction, Judge Wilson said the same thing: “[T]he economic effect on landlords is mitigated not only by their ability to sue non-paying tenants for breach of contract, but by the temporary nature of the moratorium.”
Could that really be a viable route, I wondered? Could landlords, who can’t use summary process for the foreseeable future, sue for breach of contract? The client I’m writing about here agreed to try.
Breach of contract case
On her behalf, I filed a simple breach of contract case in Housing Court. The tenant’s (taxpayer-funded) lawyer filed a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(9) of the Massachusetts Rules of Civil Procedure on the basis that my client can’t have two cases about the same issue going at once.
Fair enough, you might say, why not just dismiss the summary process claim? Dismissing a case where the other side has filed counterclaims (which happened here) requires a motion that a judge has to rule on, and the partial eviction moratorium prohibits the courts from scheduling a court event.
More importantly, if my client did dismiss her summary process case, in order to regain possession of her house when the moratorium expires she would have to start all over again. She would be at the back of a line. A very long line.
Regarding those counterclaims that the tenant filed: Are there two sides to this story? Obviously.
But what if (after the moratorium expires) a judge, after hearing all the evidence, decided that even if some of the counterclaims were valid, the tenant owed my client, say, 75% — or even 50% — of the rent that had built up since November 2019? Does anyone really believe that the unemployed tenant will be able to pay several thousand dollars?
Anyway, we had a hearing, and the judge took it under advisement. When the court issues the decision, I will post an update.
No names, no pack drill
This story is far from being the most extraordinary that I have heard in the last few months. This one seems worth telling today, now that the federal government has established a nationwide eviction moratorium and there is some wider public discussion of the administration’s proffered justification and the likely impact.
My client gave me permission to tell her story online, but I decided not to use her name or other identifying information because you know how things are these days.
Like the tenant, she is a real person. She deserves some consideration from policymakers, and from the people who are supposed to hold them to account, i.e. the electorate.
She has to pay to maintain the property and keep it up to code. The tenant won’t pay rent, and has not applied for the subsidies that are available to cover the rent. But without the tenant applying, my client can’t get access to those subsidies.
So my client doesn’t want to be a landlord any more, obviously. But she doesn’t have a choice. She can’t get paid, and she can’t even quit.
September 2,2020:- Yesterday the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) issued an order prohibiting evictions. For the fact sheet from the White House, click here. Before going any further, let me quote a pertinent passage:
“This Order does not apply in any State… with a moratorium on residential evictions that provides the same or greater level of public health protection than the requirements listed in this Order.”
If “public health protection” means eviction moratorium, then (assuming Governor Baker extends the moratorium through the end of 2020) the federal order would not apply in Massachusetts. The partial eviction moratorium here is much broader than the CDC’s.
Readers who care about old-fashioned concepts like law might be wondering, “what is the statutory authority for this order?” The agency cites section 361 of the Public Health Services Act.
As for whether the order is lawful and constitutionally sound, perhaps someone will sue and ask a judge to decide.
In terms of common sense, do the circumstances justify the order? I offer two screenshots from the CDC, and ask you to decide for yourself. The first screenshot is from the order. The second is from the agency’s recent provisional weekly COVID 19 death count. I urge you look at the full document.
If you have an opinion to share, please use the form that appears below screenshot 2.
August 26, 2020:- Today Suffolk Superior Court Judge Paul D. Wilson declined to issue a preliminary injunction against the Massachusetts eviction moratorium. Ruling that the moratorium does not amount to an uncompensated taking because “it does not deprive Plaintiffs of all economically viable use of their land” the judge also pointed out something that housing providers may find helpful:
[T]he economic effect on landlords is mitigated not only by their ability to sue non-paying tenants for breach of contract, but by the temporary nature of the moratorium.
For the purposes of seeking a remedy in the here and now, it is the first part of the sentence that merits attention. Picking up on a point that representatives of the tenants’ bar raised in oral argument, Judge Wilson statement suggests that even though they cannot start summary-process actions, landlords can still sue non-paying tenants for breach of contract.
July 30, 2020:- Perhaps I am a slow learner. But I think I just realized something important about the eviction moratorium.
Those following the Matorin v. EOHED case challenging Chapter 65 (the eviction moratorium) will know that earlier today the Superior Court held a hearing on the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction.
What struck me while I was watching the oral argument was the size of the gap between the law’s supposed purpose and its actual effect. Then I realized that there is a gap between the two sides over the nature of the very thing they are arguing about, i.e. evictions. I will explain what I mean in a moment, but first a very brief explanation of a key term, namely “execution.”
In Massachusetts, only a judge can evict a tenant and award the housing provider possession of the rented premises. If, after trial, the judge decides to award the housing provider possession, the housing provider has to wait 10 days and then ask for a document called the writ of execution. This is the document that authorizes the sheriff or constable to physically remove the renters and their belongings. When the sheriff does so, it is called levying.
When non-lawyers think about evictions, what they have in mind is the event called levying the execution. It is quite rare, fortunately.
Before the constables or sheriffs can even get their hands on an execution to levy, the renters can ask the judge for a stay, i.e. a pause or delay. The law allows judges to stay execution for up to six months (12 months, if the renters have disabilities or are age 60+).
Rule 13 of the Uniform Rules of Summary Process lays out the steps.
Now back to the argument over Chapter 65.
How to stop executions
The proponents of Chapter 65 argue that the Legislature enacted the eviction moratorium in order to stop people being made homeless during the COVID 19 pandemic. If that had indeed been the real purpose, the Legislature could have achieved it by banning the courts from issuing executions and prohibiting the sheriffs from levying on any executions already issued. Here is the bill the Legislature could have enacted:
In any summary process case, the court shall not issue execution, and no person shall levy execution, until 45 days after the end of the state of emergency.
But the Legislature chose not to do that. Instead of banning the thing that non-lawyers think of as evictions (levied executions), it banned housing providers from even getting into court. And that, in turn, bars access to the trained Housing Court mediators who resolve disputes and help the parties work out payment plans.
If the Legislature and Governor had defined the problem they were trying to solve, they would not have created the unholy mess that will confront so many housing providers and renters when the moratorium finally ends. Defining problems before attempting to solve them is a big part of the job. And, unlike some of the housing providers I represent, the legislators are actually getting paid. Legislative salary moratorium, anyone?
As for the hearing in the Matorin case, the judge took the matter under advisement, which means that he will issue his decision at a later date. To stay up to date, and to read more about the case from Attorney Richard Vetstein, who is one of the two lawyers representing the Matorin plaintiffs, click here.
May 2, 2022:- Two new decisions arrived today, one from a unanimous Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) against the City of Boston’s refusal to let an applicant fly a Christian flag from a municipal flagpole, and the other from the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) of Massachusetts regarding the City of Lynn’s insistence that a busines owner conduct her business be-masked.
For Shurtleff v. City of Boston click here, and for City of Lynn v. Murrell click here.
Shurtleff v. City of Boston
SCOTUS held that the City of Boston’s refusal to approve Harold Shurtleff’s request to raise a Christian flag on a City flagpole abridged his right to freedom of speech. The City had allowed people to use the City flagpole to fly the flags of other countries, e.g. Venezuela, and various secular organizations, e.g. Metro Credit Union, but claimed that flying this particular flag could constitute “government speech.” Justice Alito’s concurrence addresses this succinctly:
The flags flown reflected a dizzying and contradictory array of perspectives that cannot be understood to express the message of a single speaker. For example, the City allowed parties to fly the gay pride flag, but it allowed others to fly the flag of Ethiopia… a country in which “homosexual act[s]” are punishable by “imprisonment for not less than one year.”
The prize for the pithiest observation, however, goes to Justices Thomas and Gorsuch in their concurrence. To see what I mean, scroll down to page 40.
City of Lynn v. Murrell
In this case, the City of Lynn fined business owner Ariana Murrell for her no-mask policy, which defied the Commonwealth mask mandate. How did the City find out? Here are the words in the decision that made my heart sink:
The Lynn police department received multiple complaints about Murrell’s no-mask policy. The Lynn police investigated and corroborated these complaints with their own independent and documented observations of Murrell’s practices at Liberty Tax. Members of the public also contacted the city’s board of health (board) to notify it of Murrell’s no-mask policy.
This practice (ratting, snitching, informing, whatever you want to call it) was the sort of thing that the bien pensant still seemed to care about as late as 2019, judging by this article in the Atlantic. But no longer.
The habit of informing on one another is now suitably engrained, but the mask mandates themselves have gone, at least for now.
And because the mandates are no more, the SJC decided that the issues were moot. But, in a somewhat encouraging response to Ms. Murrell’s argument that the issues remain alive because the State can reimpose a mask mandate whenever it feels like, the SJC implied (albeit ambiguously) that the widespread availability of treatments makes new mask mandates less likely. In addition, the court cited the SCOTUS decision on the OSHA vaccine-or-mask mandate, stating with sub-optimal clarity:
In light of this decision, we cannot say with any degree of certainty that our understanding of OSHA’s authority to issue general COVID-19 regulations, and the interrelated issue of preemption, would be the same if the Governor were to issue another Statewide mandate.
In a glass half-full frame of mind, I think that the SJC was signaling that in reviewing any new mask mandates, it would take into account the changed jurisprudential landscape and would determine whether the facts (remember those?) really justify the mandates. Or perhaps I am getting carried away with hope.
On November 12, 2021, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed its decision to stay (pause) the COVID-19 vaccine mandate that President Biden issued via the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OHSA). You can read the decision here.
The court had several reasons for finding the mandate unlawful, including the following:
[T]he Mandate’s strained prescriptions combine to make it the rare government pronouncement that is both overinclusive (applying to employers and employees in virtually all industries and workplaces in America, with little attempt to account for the obvious differences between the risks facing, say, a security guard on a lonely night shift, and a meatpacker working shoulder to shoulder in a cramped warehouse) and underinclusive (purporting to save employees with 99 or more coworkers from a “grave danger” in the workplace, while making no attempt to shield employees with 98 or fewer coworkers from the very same threat). The Mandate’s stated impetus—a purported “emergency” that the entire globe has now endured for nearly two years, and which OSHA itself spent nearly two months responding to—is unavailing as well.
With regard to the supposed “emergency” that could justify the OHSA rule, the court added:
And, of course, this all assumes that COVID-19 poses any significant danger to workers to begin with; for the more than seventy-eight percent of Americans aged 12 and older either fully or partially inoculated against it, the virus poses—the Administration assures us—little risk at all.
As with the President Biden’s use of the CDC to ban evictions for non-payment of rent, this latest attempt to usurp the legislative function has failed, for the time being anyway.
Adam Schultz, photographer
Official portrait of President Joe Biden, taken in the Library room at the White House