Flags and masks: SCOTUS and SJC issue new decisions

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.

For my post on that SCOTUS decision, click here.

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.

What should you tell tenants who do not pay rent?

April 27, 2020:- Since March 23, 2020, when Governor Baker issued COVID 19 Order No. 13, closing businesses across Massachusetts, about half-a-million Bay Staters have been thrown out of work. Some are renters who will find it difficult–or impossible–to pay rent. In ordinary times, landlords would have had the option of sending them a notice to quit and then going to court for summary process.

On April 20 the Governor signed the eviction moratorium that the Legislature had passed, which will last as long as the state of emergency plus 45 days, namely Acts of 2020 Chapter 65. The new law prohibits property-owners from going to court for summary process (except where a tenant’s criminal activity/lease violations  “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 landlords with tenants who can’t or won’t pay rent have no legal recourse. They are, however, allowed to remind tenants of the duty to pay rent.

Question

If you are a property owner, what should you tell the tenant who misses rent?

Answer

Do not worry: the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development of  has decided for you. It has issued regulations that state not only what you may write but what you must write. These are emergency regulations, so did not have to go through the process of notice and comment that allows the public to have a say. Here are the precise words that your State government requires you to utter:

THIS IS NOT A NOTICE TO QUIT.  YOU ARE NOT BEING EVICTED, AND YOU DO NOT HAVE TO LEAVE YOUR HOME.  An emergency law temporarily protects tenants from eviction during the COVID-19 emergency.  The purpose of this notice is to make sure you understand the amount of rent you owe to your landlord.
For information about resources that may help you pay your rent, you can contact your regional Housing Consumer Education Center.  For a list of agencies, see https://www.masshousinginfo.org/regional-agencies.
Additional information about resources for tenants is available at https://www.mhp.net/news/2020/resources-for-tenants-during-covid-19-pandemic. You will not be subject to late fees or a negative report to a credit bureau if you certify to your landlord in writing within 30 days from the missed payment that your non-payment of rent is due to a financial impact from COVID-19.  If possible, you should use the approved form at: https://www.mass.gov/lists/moratorium-on-evictions-and-foreclosures-forms-and-other-resources.
If you cannot access the form on this website, you can ask your landlord to provide the form to you.  You may also send a letter or email so long as it contains a detailed explanation of your household loss in income or increase in expenses due to COVID-19.
The regulation adds:
The notice may also include other information that will promote the prompt and non-judicial resolution of such matters, such as the total balance due, the months remaining and the total of lease payments expected to be made on a lease for a term of years, information on how to contact the landlord to work out a revised payment arrangement, and a reminder that after the state of emergency ends the tenant may face eviction if rent remains unpaid.
The term “non-judicial resolution” is a bit pointless in the absence of any possibility of judicial resolution (Chapter 65 effectively barred the courthouse doors). But anyway,  at least they are letting you say how much the tenants owe you and what may happen after the emergency.
The regulation goes on to add something that you should do, and also mentions something it “encourages” you to do.
If a landlord knows that the tenant is not proficient in English, the landlord should use reasonable efforts to deliver the notice in a language that the tenant understands.
Not a mandate, of course, just a suggestion. Then some more hortatory language.
Landlords are encouraged to include with the notice a statement that the notice is important and should be translated, a form of which is available on the EOHED website.
“Should” is not “shall” and “encouraged” is not exactly the same as “directly ordered to,” but you do not need a particularly vivid imagination to foresee what will happen to the landlord who chooses not to translate the notice and not to include the translated statement about the notice’s importance.

Conclusion

State government now permits you to inform non-paying tenants how much they owe and that after the state of emergency they may face eviction for non-payment. If you do choose to communicate with tenants on this subject, State government requires you to write the words set forth in the regulation. For some additional legal text that I consider relevant, click here.

Compelled speech 2
Editorial advice from State Government

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.

Free speech victory for enviro bloggers

February 14, 2017:-Today the highest court in Massachusetts marked St. Valentine’s Day  by demonstrating its love for free speech.

The question was this: If bloggers accuse a scientific consulting company of fraud, questionable ethics, and intentionally manipulating findings, may the company sue the bloggers for defamation? The answer: No, not in Massachusetts, at least not if the company is providing expert testimony in high-profile litigation.

In a case connected to the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) considered the defamation complaint one of BP’s experts, Chemrisk, had brought against two environmental activists. The activists wrote that Chemrisk had engaged in fraud and “intentionally manipulated findings.” Relying on the anti-SLAPP statute, they had asked a lower court to dismiss Chemrisk’s lawsuit. The  lower court denied the motion, but the SJC essentially overturned that denial and, to boot, awarded the activists their costs and legal fees. To read the SJC decision, click here.

The anti-SLAPP statute protects defendants not only in directly petitioning governmental bodies, but also in making “any statement reasonably likely to enlist public participation” in that petitioning effort effort. According to the SJC, the activists’ blog post was “part of [their] ongoing efforts to influence governmental bodies by increasing the amount and tenor of coverage around the environmental consequences of the spill, and closes with an implicit call for its readers to take action.”

Today’s decision represents a very welcome victory for freedom of speech.

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Peter Vickery, Esq.