Sunshine Week

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.

Measuring Success

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.

Photo by Diego PH on Unsplash

Captain Albert Brox and religious liberty

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.

Photo by Jack Sharp on Unsplash

No Jab, No Job: Are you a public employee facing discrimination?

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.

Religious Freedom

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.

Genetic Discrimination

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.

Bioethics

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.

Consult

To set up a consult, please use this form.

Court of Appeals tells District Court to reconsider denial of injunction in vaccine mandate case

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.

Check here for updates on this case.

Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

Vaccination mandates and employer liability

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”[6] 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?

First, are the pharmaceutical companies liable? No, obviously not.

Second, is the government liable for urging you to do it? I doubt it (that’s what the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program is for).

Is the employer liable? I wonder.

If you are a public employee and are curious about your rights, feel free to use the contact form and sign up for a no-charge consult.

WATCH LIVE: civil asset forfeiture commission

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.

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

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.

Featured image by Logan Weaver on Unsplash

New fair housing rule from HUD Secretary Ben Carson

July 23, 2020:- The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has published a new rule about affirmatively furthering fair housing. It defines what the term “affirmatively further fair housing” actually means and makes it easier for communities to show that they are, indeed, doing just that (i.e. affirmatively furthering fair housing). This new rule replaces an old rule.

2015 rule

In 2015 President Obama’s HUD adopted a regulation that required towns and cities to explain in detail how their zoning, land use laws, and services such as public transportation were affirmatively furthering fair housing.  This article from the Atlantic magazine describes the rationale for the Obama administration’s decision.

2018 suspension

In 2018, citing the time-and-cost burdens that the rule-mandated assessment tool put on local governments,  HUD Secretary Ben Carson suspended it. Several organizations, including the ACLU and the National Fair Housing Alliance, went to court in an unsuccessful effort keep the 2015 assessment tool in place. According to this ACLU statement, suspending it “puts housing integration in serious jeopardy.”

The State of New York joined the lawsuit. For Governor Cuomo’s announcement about the case click here. For a brief account of New York City’s track record as landlord from the National Apartment Housing Association click here. For another revealing story about affordable housing in New York, click here.

Several other States (including Massachusetts) and some cities (including Oakland, California; Portland, Oregon; and Seattle, Washington) signed on to an amicus brief in support of the effort to stop Secretary Carson suspending the 2015 rule. The new rule that Secretary Carson announced would seem to moot the case.

Disparate Impact

The new HUD rule about AFFH does not affect the need for local governments to avoid policies that have a disparate impact on protected classes, a form of discrimination that the Supreme Court of the United States recognized in Dept. of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project, Inc., 135 S. Ct. 2507 (2015) and that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recognized in Burbank Apartments Tenants Ass’n v. Kargman, 474 Mass. 107, 122 (2016). To browse the SCOTUSblog material on Inclusive Communities click here. For Secretary Carson’s National Review article on the decision and its implications for HUD’s 2013 disparate-impact rule, click here.

My own post from 2013 discusses the disparate-impact rule that HUD had adopted prior to the SCOTUS decision in Inclusive Communities and the rule’s potential to address racially segregated housing and schooling patterns in an around Springfield, Massachusetts. In the 7 years since I wrote that post, I have not heard of any real progress on that front. If you know of some positive steps or have practical suggestions, please share them.

Question

What should State and local government do (or not do) here in Massachusetts in order to reduce racial segregation in housing? If you have success stories or a policy proposal, I would like to hear from you.

Not a rent moratorium

April 23, 2020:- The new law is a moratorium on some (not all) evictions, not on rent. The law expressly states:

Nothing in this section shall relieve a tenant from the obligation to pay rent or restrict a landlord’s ability to recover rent.

Are landlords allowed to remind tenants of this fact? Yes.

Certainly, landlords who choose to provide a written reminder need to take care not to say anything that could construed as a request to vacate or as a threat to initiate a debt-collection lawsuit, nor should they visit the tenant. Sending the reminder to some tenants but not to others would invite a charge of discrimination, so an all-or-none approach would be wiser.

Statute

The eviction moratorium statute prohibits landlords from sending, for the purposes of a “non-essential eviction,” any notice, including a notice to quit, requesting or demanding that a tenant of a residential dwelling unit vacate the premises.”

Regulations

The Attorney General’s emergency debt-collection regulations prohibit “creditors” from threatening to initiate a collection lawsuit. Is a landlord who is trying to collect rent owed (overdue by 30+ days) under a lease a “creditor” within the meaning of the debt-collection regulations?

The emergency regulation states, at s. 35.03(2), that the prohibitions do not apply to “an attempt to collect a debt owed by a tenant to an owner.” The applicable regulation defines “tenant” as a person who occupies a dwelling unit “under a rental agreement,” which term the regulation defines as “an express or implied agreement for use and occupancy of a dwelling unit.” Is a tenant-at-sufferance someone who is occupying a dwelling unit “under an express or implied agreement”?  No; on the contrary, the tenant-at-sufferance is occupying the unit without the owner’s agreement, after any express or implied agreement has expired or been terminated.

This is somewhat convoluted, but bear with me: It is all too easy to imagine someone whose lease/rental agreement has expired or been terminated claiming to be a tenant-at-sufferance and, therefore, not a “tenant” within the meaning of the regulation and, therefore, outside the scope of the landlord-tenant exception to the ban on creditor-debtor communication. So tread carefully.

Takeaway

Sending a simple reminder to all tenants that the new law states that “nothing in this section shall relieve a tenant from the obligation to pay rent or restrict a landlord’s ability to recover rent” would not, in my opinion, violate the statute or the regulations.

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Peter Vickery, Esq.

Some evictions are still legal

April 23, 2020:-  Landlords and lawyers should bear in mind that the new eviction-moratorium law does not prohibit all evictions. The definition of “non-essential evictions” excludes:

(a) criminal activity that may impact the health or safety of other residents, health care workers, emergency personnel, persons lawfully on the subject property or the general public; or

(b) lease violations that may impact the health or safety of other residents, health care workers, emergency personnel, persons lawfully on the subject property or the general public.

Such evictions are not non-essential. Put another way so as to avoid a surfeit of negatives, such evictions are essential.

Note in particular the words “may,” “impact,” and “or.” The law does not say that the tenant’s criminal activity/lease violations must have a significant impact on the health and safety of another person, only that it “impact” the health or safety. Plus, it uses the disjunctive “or” as opposed to “and.”

What kind of activity can be said to “impact” someone’s health, including mental health? That is food for thought.

Takeaway: If a tenant’s activity may impact the health or safety of another person, the new law allows the landlord to file–and does not authorize the court to reject–a summary process case.

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Peter Vickery, Esq.

 

 

 

Assistance Animals: New Guidance from HUD

January 28, 2020:- The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has issued a new guidance document on the subject of assistance animals, a term that covers (1) service animals, and (2) support animals. Its purpose is to clarify the rights and responsibilities of housing providers and people with disabilities in the area of reasonable accommodations under the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA).

As HUD clearly states, the guidance document is just that: a guidance document, not something that expands or otherwise alters obligations under the federal Fair Housing Act.

To read the document click here.

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Peter Vickery, Esq.

Discrimination regs: public hearing in Springfield

September 19, 2019:-  At 12 noon on October 9 in its Springfield office, the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) will hold a public hearing on proposed changes to its procedural regulations. For a link to the notice click here.

One proposal in particular caught my eye, as I mentioned in a previous post, and here is the text of the comment I submitted to the MCAD in support of it:

804 CMR 1.13(9)(b)(3)

The proposed rule provides that “where the Commission’s jurisdiction or authority to proceed is challenged by a motion filed with the Commission, the Investigating Commissioner may stay investigation of the merits of the charge pending a ruling on the motion.”

As an attorney who has previously complained about the Commission investigating charges without having adjudicated a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, I welcome this proposal.  A clear and unambiguous grant of discretion to issue a stay would be a significant improvement on the current situation.

However, where a respondent’s motion raises the limitation period I believe that a stay should be mandatory not discretionary.  The purpose of a statute of limitation is to provide a degree of certainty and predictability, which purpose is undermined when investigations commence after the statutory deadline has passed.  Accordingly, where a motion seeks dismissal based on the expiry of the limitation period, the Commission should only continue to investigate after determining that the period has not expired and the Commission does, in fact, have jurisdiction.

In order to maintain the principle of separation of powers (one of the bulwarks of liberty), agencies should operate within, not beyond, their statutory remit. Conducting an investigation without jurisdiction violates that principle. It should not happen. This proposed regulation goes some way toward preventing the MCAD exceeding its authority, so I hope that it makes the final cut.

I intend to be at the public hearing in Springfield and to post a brief report of what, if anything, occurs. Probably it will not be necessary to arrive hours ahead of time and queue for a seat. After all, on October 9 many Bay Staters will be busy observing the anniversary of the banishment of Roger Williams in 1635 or celebrating Leif Erikson Day. Quite possibly, therefore, there may not be much of a crowd at the mid-week, noontime meeting to discuss amendments to the MCAD’s procedural regulations. But you never know. In the meantime, if readers would like to know more about the issue, please post a comment or email me.

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Peter Vickery, Esq.

Progress at the MCAD

January 15, 2019:-  The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) has published its draft procedural regulations, and I am happy to report that the draft includes a proposal of mine, or at least a version of it.

Readers may recall that back in 2017 I wrote a bill to cover situations where there is doubt that the MCAD has jurisdiction to investigate a complaint. (New MCAD Bill Filed). If a person accused of discrimination files a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, the MCAD should rule on that motion first, before launching an investigation. In the meantime, the Investigating Commissioner should stay (i.e. suspend) the investigation.

The new proposed rules give the Investigating Commissioner clear authority to issue a stay.

Generally, investigation of a complaint shall not be not stayed pending the ruling on a motion. However, where the Commission’s jurisdiction or authority to proceed is challenged by a motion filed with the Commission, the Investigating Commissioner may stay investigation of the merits of the charge pending a ruling on the motion.

Draft 804 CMR 1.13 (9)(b)(3). Here is a link.

Although not as good as an automatic stay, this is a very welcome step. Well done, MCAD.

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Peter Vickery, Esq.

 

Marijuana: respect for voters trumps supremacy clause

July 17, 2017:- Today the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) held that where an employer fired an employee for her off-site use of marijuana, the employee may sue for handicap discrimination. The name of the case is Barbuto v. Advantage Sales and Marketing, LLC, and you can read it by clicking here. The decision does not sit easily with the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution of the United States, to put it mildly.

The case involves the Massachusetts anti-discrimination law, chapter 151B. Under 151B an employee who is a “qualified handicapped person” may seek “reasonable accommodations.” In this case, the employee asked for one particular accommodation, namely marijuana use. Faced with this request the employer demurred, arguing that marijuana use is a crime and, therefore, inherently unreasonable.

Certainly, in 2012 Massachusetts enacted the medical marijuana act. But the use of marijuana is illegal under the federal Controlled Substances Act, which Congress enacted and has not repealed. The SJC referred to this contradiction between state and federal law as an “unusual backdrop.” That is one way of putting it, I suppose.

Now, admittedly I am no judge and nobody asked me, but my starting point in resolving the contradiction would have been clause 2 of article VI of the Constitution of the United States, which provides:

This Constitution and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof… shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any thing in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.

The clause means that a law passed by Congress becomes part of “the supreme law of the land.” That is why we call it the Supremacy Clause. Lest there be any doubt, the clause includes the proviso “any thing in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.”  If a State does not like a Federal law, the judges of that State may not repeal it.  Nullification is not an option.  I believe we fought a war about this.

However, the SJC held that respect for the supreme law of the land must take second seat to something else, something not referred to in the Constitution of the United States:

“To declare an accommodation for medical marijuana to be per se unreasonable out of respect for the Federal law would not be respectful of the recognition of Massachusetts voters, shared by the legislatures or voters in the vast majority of States, that marijuana has an accepted medical use for some patients suffering from debilitating medical conditions.”

That is a very difficult sentence for me to understand.  Don’t get me wrong: I can read English, so I understand the words. I just do not understand how (with all due respect to the SJC) one can square that sentence with the plain language of the Supremacy Clause or with the body of precedent on the subject of field preemption.

After all, the Supremacy Clause is a straightforward answer to this simple question: Where there is a clear conflict between a federal law and a subsequent state law, which prevails? Federal law, says he Supremacy Clause. State law, says the SJC.  Why? Because it is better to ignore the federal law than fail to be “respectful” of the voters.

Perhaps this is one of those instances where the framers and ratifiers tacked on an exception using invisible ink, so that to the cognoscenti the Supremacy Clause actually concludes with the words “and the judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any thing in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding, except when they decide not to be.” Hold your copy of the Constitution up close, then at arms’ length. If that doesn’t work, try holding it up to the light.

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Peter Vickery, Esq.

Court corrects MCAD

April 18, 2017:- If an employer believes that an employee’s disability poses a safety threat, may it re-assign or terminate that employee?

Until today, the answer to that question was this: only if the employer can prove an affirmative defense by demonstrating a “reasonable probability of substantial harm.” That is the standard set by the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) in its guidelines. Today the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) decided that the MCAD guidelines are wrong. For the text of the decision in Gannon v. City of Boston click here. It involves a concussed MMA fighter/police officer, by the way.

After explaining why the MCAD is wrong to place the burden of proof on the employer (e.g. lack of statutory authority), the SJC stated that what the employer bears is the burden of production. So in a case where the employer’s decision is based on the employee’s disability, in order to avoid liability for discrimination the employer must show “specific evidence that the employee would pose an unacceptably significant risk of serious injury to the employee or others.” Then, when the employer has met this burden of production, the employee must prove that s/he is “capable of performing the essential functions of the job without posing an unacceptably significant risk of serious injury to the employee or others.”

The distinction between the burden of proof and the burden of production is important. The burden of proof must remain with the plaintiff employee, said the SJC. Contrary to the MCAD’s guidelines, employers do not have to raise the affirmative defense and then prove by the preponderance of the evidence the existence of “reasonable probability of substantial harm.” Rather, after the employer has shown an “unacceptably significant risk of injury” the onus is on the employee to prove that she or he can, in fact, do the job without posing such a risk.

In a nutshell: This decision delivers a subtle but important victory for employers.

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Peter Vickery, Esq.

New MCAD bill filed

February 23, 2017:- If you are charged with discrimination and you file a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, must the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) rule on your motion before launching an investigation? No, not at present. But that will change if H. 775 becomes law.

Titled “An Act Streamlining the Investigation Process of Discrimination Complaints,” the bill would require the MCAD to adjudicate a respondent’s motion first and start its investigation only if it determines that jurisdiction is proper.

Why does this matter? The main reason is the constitutional principle of the separation of powers: an executive agency should not hale people in if the Legislature has said it should not. For example, when it enacted Chapter 151B the Legislature said that the MCAD would have no jurisdiction to investigate businesses with fewer than six employees (the small-business exemption). So when the MCAD does investigate businesses with fewer than six employees it is, in effect, exercising the legislative function by re-writing the statute.

But there are pocket-book reasons too. Defending against a charge of discrimination can prove costly, which rather stacks the deck in favor of the complainant who is represented either by a lawyer working on a contingent-fee basis or by the MCAD itself. Add to that the MCAD’s institutional bias toward early resolution (which is not necessarily a bad thing) and you have an incentive for respondents to fold faster than Superman on laundry day, as Jerry Seinfeld put it.

As things stand a respondent will be tempted to settle at a commission-mandated conciliation conference early on, even if the case should never have been on the agency’s docket in the first place. Real money is at stake here, and business owners should not have to fork over for claims that should be thrown out on jurisdictional grounds. That is not an efficient use of resources. Screening out cases like these would allow businesses to devote those resources to other purposes, e.g. improving products and services to benefit their customers and creating new jobs.

The bill has been assigned to the Joint Committee on the Judiciary. Stay tuned for updates, and click here for a previous post on this subject.

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Peter Vickery, Esq.

Speed-up at MCAD

February 9, 2017:- Earlier this month the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) announced a significant cut in its backlog of cases.

In 2016, the agency substantially reduced the number of cases that were more than 2 years old. Of the 3,811 investigations currently open at the MCAD, just 318 remain over 2 years old, down from 1,134 in 2015, a reduction of 72%.

Approximately 3,000 new complaints are filed with the MCAD every year, so the dramatic reduction in the old cases is quite an achievement. Complainants and respondents alike should hope that the agency manages to maintain this level of efficiency.

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Peter Vickery, Esq.

 

New harassment enforcement guidelines

February 3, 2017:- The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is soliciting public comment on its proposed new Unlawful Harassment Enforcement Guidelines. You can read the guidelines and comment on them here.

One item that employers should note: Harassment of a “transgender individual ” can include “using a name or pronoun inconsistent with the individual’s gender identity in a persistent or offensive manner.”

The word “or” means that the use of the pronoun/name need only be offensive, and not necessarily persistent, in order to qualify as harassment under these enforcement guidelines.

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Peter Vickery, Esq.

 

 

Hospital settles with flu vaccine refuseniks

May a hospital fire employees who refuse the flu vaccine on religious grounds? Saint Vincent Health Center in Erie, Pennsylvania, must have thought so back in 2014 when it terminated the employment of six vaccine refuseniks, but now that it has agreed to shell out $300,000 in back-pay and compensatory damages it probably realizes that the short answer is no. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) press release states:

“While Title VII does not prohibit health care employers from adopting seasonal flu vaccination requirements for their workers, those requirements, like any other employment rules, are subject to the employer’s Title VII duty to provide reasonable accommodation for religion… In that context, reasonable accommodation means granting religious exemptions to employees with sincerely held religious beliefs against vaccination when such exemptions do not create an undue hardship on the employer’s operations.”

Last year I wrote an article about Boston Children’s Hospital fending off a discrimination complaint after it fired an employee who had refused the flu vaccine on religious grounds. The judge found that the hospital had offered reasonable accommodations and the accommodation that the employee requested would have imposed an undue hardship on the hospital.

The lesson for health-care providers?  If employees object to the vaccine on religious grounds, work hard with them to devise some reasonable accommodations and document those efforts carefully and thoroughly.

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Peter Vickery, Esq.

OK to exclude gay men, says MCAD

Must a charity that offers free reconstructive surgery to female victims of domestic violence also provide those services to a gay man? No, said the MCAD in a decision last September. Only two months earlier the Legislature and Governor had prohibited places of public accommodations from excluding men from women’s restrooms and locker rooms, so you might think the case would have grabbed the odd headline, but apart from this Mass Lawyers Weekly article it received surprisingly little media attention.

The respondent was the R.O.S.E (Regaining One’s Self Esteem) Fund, a non-profit that seeks to help women who are the survivors of domestic violence. In 2008 it declined to extend its services to Kevin Doran, whose male partner had assaulted him, leaving him with broken teeth and facial bones. With the support of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), Mr. Doran argued that the ROSE Fund is a place of public accommodation and that by turning him away it had violated the Massachusetts anti-discrimination laws.

In 2014 an MCAD hearing officer ruled in favor of the ROSE Fund, finding that the organization was not a place of public accommodation. In its appeal brief GLAD said the decision meant that “ROSE can now discriminate not only against men, but also on the basis of race, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, and disability as well.”

Nevertheless the full three-member Commission upheld the 2014 decision on First Amendment grounds:

“The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized the venerable history of the public accommodation laws in Massachusetts, but when applied to expressive activity, the laws may not act to compel certain speech in violation of the First Amendment.”

For that reason, the Commission held that “a private charity set up with the express purpose of serving a narrow community may be allowed to make choices about whom to serve, based on the purpose of the organization and consistent selection criteria.”

This is a very narrow ruling. The MCAD limits its First Amendment expressive-activity exception to a thin sliver of entities: tax-exempt corporations set up to serve a “narrow community,” as opposed to regular businesses and individuals who do not have tax-exempt status and cater to the general public.  The decision sits awkwardly alongside expressive-conduct cases from other jurisdictions such as Elane Photography (photographers fined for refusing to photograph same-sex commitment ceremony) and Barronnelle Stutzman (flower arranger fined for refusing to design arrangement for her friend’s same-sex wedding). In those cases, the fact that the defendants’ businesses consisted of expressive activity did not exempt them from the legal obligation to provide their services at same-sex weddings. If those are not examples of the state “compelling certain speech” I don’t know what is.

And as for why tax-exempt corporations should have greater free-speech rights than the rest of us, that is not something the MCAD’s Doran decision addresses.

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Peter Vickery, Esq.

Election 2016: one call to make the day after

October 26, 2016:- With less than a fortnight to go until the general election, now is the time to start thinking about the day after.

In addition to choosing the state’s presidential electors, in 13 days’ time Massachusetts voters will elect the state legislature, officially known as the Great and General Court of Massachusetts. Perhaps “elect” is too strong a word given that almost 80% of the seats are uncontested, earning Massachusetts a competitiveness ranking of 44 out of 50. Nevertheless, even without the ordeal of an actual race many freshly re-elected politicians tend to experience feelings of relief and generosity of spirit, which makes Election Day + 1 an ideal time to ask them for a favor.

If you are willing to make one post-election request of your state representative and senator, please consider asking them to co-sponsor a bill to restore some balance to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD). The goal is quite modest. If enacted, this piece of legislation would require the MCAD to make sure that it only handles cases that fall within its jurisdiction. In fact it does not even go that far. It puts the onus on the respondent (the person being accused of discrimination) to file a motion to dismiss, which would automatically stay, i.e. pause, the investigation until the MCAD determines that it does, in fact, have jurisdiction.

Why is this necessary? Because, as a report by the State Auditor showed, the MCAD routinely investigates cases that are outside its statutory remit, which not only contributes to the agency’s four-year backlog but is unfair to the individuals who are haled in and investigated without justification. Click here for my article on the subject in the Massachusetts Bar Association’s Lawyers Journal.

Invidious discrimination is real, and there are enough cases that do fall within the MCAD’s jurisdiction without the agency having to spend its budget investigating cases that do not. The new legislation would restore some balance. If you would like a copy of the bill and a bill summary for legislators and their aides, email peter@petervickery.com with the words “MCAD Bill” in the subject line.

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