The Big Shut Up: the eviction moratorium and speech

May 19, 2020:-  The Massachusetts eviction moratorium (Chapter 65) has several execrable features, and one of the worst is the abridgment of free speech. The speech in question is in the category that courts refer to as “commercial speech.” Should you care about State government violating people’s right to utter commercial speech? If you care about the non-commercial variety, yes.

Some, but not all, notices to quit

The statute — §3(a)(ii) to be precise — prohibits housing providers from sending “any notice, including a notice to quit, requesting, or demanding that a tenant of a residential dwelling unit vacate the premises” for non-payment of rent, for cause, or for no cause. However, the statute does permit notices to quit where a tenant’s criminal activity or lease violations “may impact the health or safety” of another person, including the general public.

So if a tenant is violating the lease in a way that “may impact the health or safety” of another, the housing provider is allowed to terminate the tenancy and issue a notice to quit (a prerequisite for most eviction proceedings, called “summary process” in Massachusetts).  But if a tenant is simply not paying rent, the housing provider is not allowed to do so.

Before going any further, it is important to remember this key point: The law prohibits some, but not all, notices to quit.

Notices to quit are speech

A notice to quit is, literally, correspondence; a letter from one person to another. Both sender and recipient are parties to a contract, and the notice to quit is how the sender tells the recipient that the contract is at an end. It is a form of “expression related solely to the economic interests of the speaker and its audience” so constitutes commercial speech.  Central Hudson Gas & Elec. Corp. v. Public Serv. Comm’n of N.Y., 447 U.S. 557, 561 (1980). The housing provider who sends the notice to quit is not evicting the tenant. Only a judge can do that by way of legal proceedings called summary process (see below).

Even though the notice to quit is commercial speech, which means that it gets less protection from the courts than non-commercial varieties, the government does not have free rein. If it wants to restrict someone’s commercial speech, the government still has to follow some rules.

To be constitutional, commercial-speech restrictions must be effective

The Supreme Judicial Court has held that “a restriction on commercial speech will not be upheld if it provides only ineffective or remote support for the government’s purpose.”  Bulldog Inv’rs Gen. P’ship v. Sec’y of Com., 460 Mass. 647, 669–70 (2011) quoting Central Hudson, 447 U.S. at 564. If the restriction does not effectively support the government’s purpose, it is unconstitutional.

Does the ban on some notices to quit (but not others) effectively support the government’s purpose? And what is the government’s purpose, anyway?

The selective ban on notices to quit is ineffective

The express purpose of the Commonwealth, stated in the statute’s emergency preamble, is to establish “a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures during the Governor’s COVID 19 emergency declaration.” So for the duration of the emergency the government wants to temporarily stop evictions. Fair enough, some might say.

But evictions are not something housing providers can perform. Housing providers cannot evict anyone; only judges can do that. There are statutes that make this clear.  G.L. c. 239 and c. 186.

If landlords try to evict, that is called self help, and it is illegal in Massachusetts. In fact, tenants’ advocates recommend that if a landlord resorts to self help the tenants should call the police and file a criminal complaint. Don’t believe me? Follow this link to the Massachusetts Legal Aid site and scroll down to the words in bold: Call the police and file a criminal complaint.

In order to impose a moratorium on evictions, the Commonwealth need only prohibit the courts from issuing judgments and executions for possession, which it has done by way of §3(b)(ii) which states that the courts must not “enter a judgment or default judgment for a plaintiff for possession of a residential dwelling unit… (iii) issue an execution for possession of a residential dwelling unit… ; (iv) deny, upon the request of a defendant, a stay of execution, or upon the request by a party, a continuance of a summary process case; or (v) schedule a court event, including a summary process trial.”

Courts are not allowed to hold summary process trials, enter judgment, award possession to housing providers, or deny tenants a stay of execution (execution means the eviction itself, where the sheriff forcibly removes the people and their belongings). That part of the statute, §3(b)(ii), is the one part that actually does establish a moratorium on evictions.

But only some evictions. Remember, Chapter 65 prohibits evictions for non-payment of rent and evictions where the housing provider does not specify a particular reason, so-called “no cause” evictions. It does not prohibit evictions where the tenant’s criminal activity or lease violations” may impact the health or safety” of another person or the general public.

How does evicting someone for criminal activity that may impact the safety of the general public (thereby rendering that dangerous person homeless) help keep the general public safe, whereas evicting someone for nonpayment of rent makes the general public less safe?  That is a genuine question. I would like to know the Commonwealth’s answer.

Conclusion

The supposed goal of Chapter 65 is to establish a moratorium on evictions during the COVID 19 emergency. One part of the statute does exactly that (almost), by barring the courts from evicting people, except people who are potentially a danger to the public (putting them out on the street is OK, apparently). What does restricting the commercial speech rights of housing providers do to make the moratorium more effective? Nothing.

Chapter 65 is set to expire on August 18 unless the Governor exercises his option to extend it. Should he let it expire, or grant it an extension?

Exercise your speech rights while you can and let me know what you think.

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Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Maura Healey edits statute

May 12, 2020:-  On May 8, 2020, Attorney General Maura Healey issued an “advisory” on residential evictions. An advisory is not a law or regulation, but it indicates how the Attorney General will interpret the law and try to persuade the courts to apply it. This particular advisory includes a novel interpretation of Chapter 65, the statute that limits the right of access to the courts for one class of people, namely housing providers (landlords).

The statute also abridges freedom of speech by banning landlords from sending notices to quit. In addition, by preventing property owners from obtaining possession even when tenants stop paying rent (whether for reasons related to COVID 19 or not) it operates as a taking. I have addressed those violations before and will do so again in future posts. This post is about access to justice, and how Attorney General Healey’s advisory (mis)interprets what the statute has to say about it.

Chapter 65

Chapter 65 allows housing providers to file for summary process only where a tenant’s criminal activity or lease violations “may impact the health or safety” of another person lawfully on the property or of the general public. But it bars housing providers from taking tenants to court for non-payment of rent. Under Chapter 65 (as opposed to the Declaration of Rights) no access to the courts is the rule, and the health/safety provision is the exception.

Statute in Derogation of Liberty

Chapter 65 takes away a fundamental liberty, namely access to the courts, which (as I have mentioned elsewhere) is one of the liberties guaranteed by the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights. Here in Massachusetts it is well established that statutes in derogation of liberty should be strictly construed and interpreted narrowly. They should be narrowly tailored to serve a compelling and legitimate government interest and strictly construed to comply with requirements of substantive due process, as the Supreme Judicial Court held in the Mattter of E.C., 479 Mass. 113 (2018).

In other words, if a statute takes away a basic right, the courts should interpret it narrowly so as to confine the damage to the individual’s liberty interest.

But Attorney General Healey says the opposite, that it is the fundamental right that should be narrowly construed, not the exception to it.

Editing out, and editing in

“Evictions can be brought only where a tenant (1) violates lease terms or engages in criminal activity, and (2) the violation may impact the health or safety of others who are lawfully on the premises. This exception is narrow and should only be used where there is a serious health or safety concern that can’t otherwise be addressed.”

That is what the advisory says about the statute. But that is not what the statute itself says. Not at all. First, the statutory language about impacts on health/safety applies not only to people lawfully on the premises but also to the general public. It says so right there in Section 1 of the statute:

“… may impact the health or safety of other residents, health care workers, emergency personnel, persons lawfully on the subject property or the general public.”

So in advising the general public, the Attorney General Healey left out that bit about the general public.

Second, if the Legislature had intended to say that housing providers may ask the courts to evict tenants only where the criminal activity or lease violations “are likely to seriously affect the health or safety of another person and cannot be addressed short of eviction” it would have said so. But it did not. Chapter 65 does not say “serious health or safety concerns” nor does it state that eviction must be the very last resort.

In addition to leaving out some words and adding others, the Attorney General’s interpretation is the opposite of the way to interpret a statute that derogates from liberty. The advisory says that the right of access to the courts that is the “narrow exception,”  which is not what the appellate decisions say about statutes in derogation of liberty. On the contrary, according to precedent it is the liberty that should be construed broadly, and the exception to that liberty (in this case the barring of the courtroom doors for all but health/safety cases) that should be construed narrowly.

Conclusion

As if it were not bad enough that we have a statute that abridges freedom speech, bars access to the courts for one class of people, operates as an unconstitutional taking without reasonable compensation, and grants the Governor the option of extending its duration, now the Commonwealth’s chief law-enforcement official says that she will read into that statute words that are not there and apply it n a way that flies in the face of precedent.

So now you know the opinion of Attorney General Healey about your right of access to the courts. Should you wish to share your opinion with Attorney General Maura Healey, here is a link to the Contact page.

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Peter Vickery, Esq.

Legislature poised to give Governor even more power

April 15, 2020:-  Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse. If the Massachusetts Legislature passes the eviction moratorium embodied in this bill, which emerged from the Senate today, it will not only violate two of the bedrock rights that are guaranteed in the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, but will also grant to the Governor a power that no executive branch in the Anglosphere — no English monarch even — has claimed since the 17th Century: the power of suspending and dispensing the laws. This is a step backward, a step back to the era of royal absolutism.

It was already bad enough that our full-time salaried lawmakers wished to take private property without compensation and bar people from going to the courts. As I pointed out in a previous post, Article 10 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights guarantees reasonable compensation when the government takes property for public uses and Article 11 guarantees everyone the right to a remedy by recourse to the law and the right to obtain justice freely and promptly. Neither of those articles contains a carve-out for when the Governor declares an emergency.

Now the Legislature intends to strip away another right, one that the people of Massachusetts granted to their Legislature, namely the power to decide how long a statute should remain in force. Section 7 of the new bill says that the eviction moratorium will expire in 120 days unless the Governor extends it. Read that again. Unless the Governor extends it. The alleged power to suspend or dispense legislation was a medieval prerogative reclaimed in the 1640s by Charles I. Things went poorly from there, for both the king and the kingdom.

If this were simply a matter of the Legislature surrendering their own rights to the executive branch, it would merit little more than a meh. But the right is not theirs to give. The purpose behind the separation of powers is to protect the rights of the people, not the rights of their full-time salaried servants in the State House.

If Governor Baker signs this bill into law we will have crossed another constitutional threshold.

 

 

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.

Free speech for public employees?

October 28, 2016:- If you are one of the 139,000+ people employed by state or local government in Massachusetts, today’s decision about speech-rights at work might be of interest.

The case involves an erstwhile employee of the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office, Jude Cristo, who complained about a colleague’s use of official time and facilities while campaigning for Scott Bove, a candidate running for Sheriff (unsuccessfully, as it turned out). After the election the new Sheriff, Lew Evangelidis, fired Cristo, who brought an action under federal law for violation of his civil rights, namely his right to freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Cristo lost. The Appeals Court applied the federal test, which protects the speech of public employees only if they are speaking as citizens and not “pursuant to their official duties.” Cristo’s complaints were pursuant to his duties, said the Appeal Court.

But in a footnote, the court left open the possibility that public employees’ speech rights under the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights might be greater than under the First Amendment. If the speech that triggered the firing was whistle-blowing, the court hinted, then the fact that it was job-related whistle-blowing would not necessarily prove fatal. In other words, the  employee might have a viable free-speech claim. Click here to read the case, Cristo v. Evangelidis.  The footnote in question is number 6 on page 15.

Another campaign finance rule. KA CHING!

As if they needed it this presidential-campaign season, here’s some good news for political consultants. The Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance (OCPF) is generating more business for them.

The latest state regulation aimed at controlling the funding of political speech  means that candidate committees and independent expenditure political action committees (IE PACs) will face penalties if they share consultants. How will they likely avoid that? By employing separate consultants, of course.

Massachusetts law prohibits IE PACS from coordinating with candidate committees. But proving coordination can be difficult, so the regulations create presumptions that put the onus on the PACs and candidate committees to prove they did not coordinate. Readers with backgrounds in criminal law, constitutional law, high-school civics, or cop shows may be familiar with the presumption of innocence: These presumptions are not like that presumption.

Under the new state regulation, there will be a presumption that the IE PAC and the candidate committee are coordinating expenditures if they use the same “political, media, or legal consultant, or polling firm.” They can rebut the presumption, i.e. prove their innocence, by demonstrating that they adhered to a written firewall policy, the sort of document lawyers and political consultants are good at drafting. Those who would prefer to avoid any entanglements in the first place should bear in mind the words of Han Solo on the subject: “That’s the real trick, isn’t it. And it’s gonna cost you something extra.” An extra consultant, that is.

Another provision states that there will be a presumption of coordination if an IE PAC republishes in whole or in part “a communication relating to a candidate that is posted on the candidate’s Internet or social media site.” So no mere copying from now on. This rule should encourage even greater creativity (a billable quality) by requiring IE PAC consultants to make their clients’ communications look and sound distinct from those on the candidates’ site. Whoever said red tape stifles business?

Somewhere in the Caribbean, I suspect, there floats a yacht named OCPF.

Peter Vickery_2012_focus
Peter Vickery, Esq.