NY lawmakers extend eviction moratorium

May 28, 2020:- According to this report in News Brig, the New York legislature voted to extend the moratorium on residential evictions to last as long as the state of emergency. Originally, the moratorium was scheduled to expire in August.

Unlike Massachusetts (whose eviction moratorium will end on August 18 unless the Governor extends it)* New York’s moratorium is confined to cases where the reason for non-payment is related to COVID 19.  In contrast, the Massachusetts law, Chapter 65, prohibits housing providers starting evictions for any and all reasons, except where a tenant’s criminal activity or lease violations “may impact the health or safety” of another person on the premises or the general public.

*Under Chapter 65, if Governor Baker so chooses, he could extend the moratorium for the length of the state of emergency plus 45 days. How long will state of emergency last? How long is a piece of string?

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Eviction moratorium still in effect

May 26, 2020:- The eviction moratorium (Chapter 65) is still in effect. The earliest date on which is will expire is August 18 (120 days after Chapter 65 became law). However, the Governor could extend it by 90 days, and keep doing so until 45 after the end of the state of emergency.

End?

When will the state of emergency end? The Governor has not said. There has to be a state of emergency in effect for the Governor to issue emergency orders, so the chronology of his four-phase re-opening plan gives some clues.

No NTQs

Until the moratorium expires (August 18 at the earliest, and possibly later), housing providers must not send notices to quit, except for “essential evictions,” i.e. where the tenant’s criminal activity/lease violations “may impact the health or safety” of another person lawfully on the premises or the general public.

P.S.

May 28, 2020:- In addition to the State-level eviction moratorium established by Chapter 65, there is also a federal moratorium that Congress imposed on some properties by way of the CARES Act. As this reminder from HUD points out, housing providers are not allowed to charge late fees that accrue for unpaid rent during the 120-day federal moratorium (which ends July 25). To determine whether your property is subject to the federal moratorium, you may want to ask your lawyer.

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Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels.com

 

Rent guarantee insurance

May 22, 2020:- Missed rental payments are on the rise in Massachusetts, but a market solution may be available.

Even though the eviction moratorium law (Chapter 65) says that tenants are required to pay rent, the lack of an enforcement mechanism is leading some to skip paying the rent with a sense of impunity. Housing providers still have to pay to maintain the property and keep it up to code even when they are not receiving rent. One way for providers to stay afloat might be rent-guarantee insurance, also known as rent default insurance, which promises coverage in the event that a tenant stops paying rent.

Unless and until the Massachusetts Legislature takes up the Fair and Equal Housing Guarantee surety-bond policy that MassLandlords is promoting, some housing providers may find this kind of product helpful. And I see that one company, Avail, has a short video on the subject.

If affordable, insurance might be a viable market solution to government failure. By “government failure” I mean the Commonwealth requiring one party to provide housing without being able to go to court to make the other party pay for said housing. This forces rental-property owners to either (a) provide free housing (not a great business model) or (b) exit the market, thereby reducing the amount of rental housing available.

Ideally, Governor Charlie Baker would let Chapter 65 expire on August 18 rather than exercising his option to extend it. But if he chooses to prolong the moratorium, insurance might do the trick.

Please note that I have no contractual, fiduciary, relationship with Avail or Steady Marketplace, either oral or written, and receive no remuneration of any kind from the companies, make no representations regarding them, and suspect that there are other entities out there that offer similar insurance products. In the vernacular, I am not shilling for Avail or Steady Marketplace, or any other insurance company for that matter.  I just think that for some housing providers, rent-guarantee insurance might be worth exploring.

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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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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.

 

 

 

Rights under attack: no court for you

April 3, 2020:- In order to slow the spread of COVID 19, on March 10 Governor Baker declared a state of emergency. On March 23, he ordered all “non-essential” businesses to close. Yesterday, the Massachusetts House of Representatives voted to prohibit landlords (commercial and residential) from issuing notices to quit and commencing eviction actions for the duration of the state of emergency plus 30 days. For the eviction-moratorium bill itself click here.

If tenants cannot pay rent (e.g. because state government destroyed their jobs) the landlord will not receive the money needed to pay for the upkeep of the premises, to pay employees, and pay taxes. Perhaps, to cover at least one part of this government-made crisis, the Legislature will appropriate money to expand the RAFT program. If so, it will need to dramatically expand not just the amount of money but also the eligibility rules.

The eviction moratorium marks the crossing of an important threshold. If and when the Governor signs it into law, the people of Massachusetts will experience yet another extraordinary erosion of their rights.

Rights trampled

If government takes your property for public use, it should compensate you. If you have a grievance, you should be able to seek redress in a court of law. These are not ideas that just popped into my head; they are principles embodied in our founding charter.

Article 10 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights guarantees reasonable compensation when the government takes property for public uses. 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.

The eviction moratorium robs property-owners of the right to a legal remedy and it amounts to a taking without just compensation. It makes a mockery of Article 1, which describes the right of enjoying and protecting property as “natural, essential, and unalienable.” And it will have a devastating impact on rental-property owners, their families, and their employees. What possible rationale could there be for such an attack on our rights?

Pretext

According to the COVID Tracking Project, at this point the cumulative number of hospitalizations for COVID 19 is approximately 36,000, and the number of deaths is 6,962.  Unfortunately it seems reasonable to expect that the numbers will rise over the next couple of months, perhaps even as high as 100,000.

For some perspective, here are the nationwide figures from the CDC for the 2017-18 flu season:

The overall burden of influenza for the 2017-2018 season was an estimated 45 million influenza illnesses, 21 million influenza-associated medical visits, 810,000 influenza-related hospitalizations, and 61,000 influenza-associated deaths.

That’s certainly a large number of deaths. There’s no getting around the fact that 61,000 represents a lot of lost lives and bereaved families.  That same year, by the way, there were 36,550 deaths attributable to road traffic accidents.

Here are the figures for the previous flu season:

The overall burden of influenza for the 2016-2017 season was an estimated 29 million influenza illnesses, 14 million influenza-associated medical visits, 500,000 influenza-related hospitalizations, and 38,000 influenza-associated deaths.

So in the two-year period 2016-18, the approximate number of hospitalizations in the United States for influenza was 1.3 million and the approximate number of deaths was 99,000. And we did not close down the economy and throw millions of people out of work.

A few years before, according to the CDC.

From 12 April 2009 to 10 April 2010, we estimate that approximately 60.8 million cases (range: 43.3-89.3 million), 274,304 hospitalizations (195,086-402,719), and 12,469 deaths (8868-18,306) occurred in the United States due to pH1N1. Eighty-seven percent of deaths occurred in those under 65 years of age[.]

Approximately 12,000 people in the United States died from H1N1 in 2009-10. The following flu season (2010-11), approximately 37,000 died from a different kind of influenza, according to the CDC. We did not close down the economy and throw millions of people out of work.

We are not at war, no matter what the politicians say (well, we are at war–at least our all-volunteer military is–but not against a virus). Rather, we are in a horrible but manageable pandemic. The circumstances do not justify this attack on our rights.

Conclusion

The Legislature and Governor are poised to strip property owners of the right to go to court to seek repossession of their own property. They are forcing an economic minority (rental-property owners) to pay the price for the state government shuttering businesses and destroying jobs, in other words to provide a public good without reasonable compensation. The rights that we lose today will not automatically bounce back tomorrow, or the day after, or when the Governor chooses to declare the emergency over.

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STABILIZE HOUSING: GUARANTEE RENT NOW

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Sign the petition

March 31, 2020:- For many people in Massachusetts, tomorrow rent is due. Some will face a very tough choice. Why?

Because today is the seventh day since Governor Baker’s business-closure order took effect.  At the stroke of a pen, approximately 150,000 people had their jobs and livelihoods taken away (albeit with the best of intentions on the part of the Governor).

People are hurting. For a lot of us, renters and home-owners alike, it feels like we are about to fall off a cliff.

What happens when people cannot afford to pay rent?

In this emergency, no landlord would want to ask the Housing Court to evict a tenant for nonpayment of rent. And now many do not have that option anyway, even for tenants who are still in work and can afford to pay rent. Why?

Because today is also the fifth day since Congress passed the CARES Act, which (among other things) imposes a 4-month moratorium on evictions from residential properties with federally-backed mortgages. For the applicable language, scroll down to page 574 and read Section 4024(a)(4) and (5).

In the coming months, more and more people are going to face hardship and the appalling choice between food and rent. I know which one I would choose.

There will be a handful–there always is–of those who can pay but won’t; those who will take advantage, safe in the knowledge that if they live in a property with a federally backed mortgage the landlord must not send them a notice to quite, let alone ask a judge to evict them.

So who is going to pay for the cost of housing people who can’t (or won’t) pay rent?

Who is going to pay the landlord’s employees and contractors, the people who keep rental homes fit to live in?

Sign the petition

Again, most of us know that the Governor has the best of intentions in issuing the orders that are causing businesses to close down and shed workers. That’s a given. But when it creates a problem, government has a responsibility to fix it. Here’s one way, and if you agree please sign the petition.

The Commonwealth should immediately stand as surety for renters who cannot afford to pay rent. A surety bond is a guarantee that if one party to a contract does not perform its obligations (e.g. fails to make timely payments) an outsider will pick up some or all of the tab so that the other party to the contract does not lose out.

In order to safeguard homes during and after the emergency, the Legislature needs to act now and issue surety bonds.

If you think that the Commonwealth as a whole should stabilize housing by guaranteeing rents via surety bonds, sign the petition today.

Tell the Legislature to keep us from falling off that cliff.

Civil Asset Forfeiture

March 6, 2020:- Civil asset forfeiture is a way for law-enforcement agencies to acquire property (money, vehicles, real estate, etc.) from people who have not been charged with, let alone convicted of, any crime. If somebody — anybody — used the property, or even just intended to use it, in the commission of a drug crime, the government can take the property, sell it, and keep the proceeds, and all without the rigmarole of a trial.

Under Massachusetts law, G.L. c. 94C, sec. 47(d), if the Commonwealth establishes probable cause (not a very high bar) the burden is on the owner to prove that the property is not forfeitable.

For example, one case in Tewksbury involved local and federal agencies trying to take a motel that had been in the same family for two generations. The reason? Over the course of 14 years during which the owners had rented out rooms approximately 200,000 times there had been 14 drug-related arrests on the premises. There was no suggestion that the owners themselves had done anything wrong.

As an editorial Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly in 2019 stated:

All of this makes it too easy for property to be confiscated, and creates incentives for police and prosecutors to use forfeiture as a way to target those without the ability to fight a seizure. The law can also lead to unintended consequences, such as putting elderly parents or minor children living in a target’s house at risk for homelessness.

I am committed to helping reform the these laws, and am working with other concerned citizens to raise awareness and organize for change.

In the meantime, if law enforcement is trying to obtain your property through forfeiture, email/call me for a free 30-minute consult.

Tel. 413.992.2915  Email: peter@petervickery.com

 

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Peter Vickery, Esq.

New rules in effect at MCAD

February 28, 2020:- New rules of procedure have taken effect at the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD). One welcome addition: Rule 1.13(9)(b)(3), which allows for a stay of the investigation pending the adjudication of a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction (my personal hobbyhorse). I’ll drink to that.

For my earlier post on the subject, click here.

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New MCAD rules: I’ll drink to that.

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.

Tenant’s right to jury trial

March 31, 2017:- Today the Appeals Court issued its decision in CMJ Management Co. v. Wilkerson,  a landlord-tenant case from the Boston Housing Court.  After the tenant failed to comply with the pre-trial orders, the judge struck the demand for trial by jury.

The Appeals Court held that the judge should not have struck the demand without first considering “lesser sanctions.” But it also made clear that Housing Court judges do have the discretion to impose the sanction of striking a jury-trial demand, so long as the judge takes into account the tenant’s culpability, any prejudice to the landlord, and the deterrent effect. The right to jury trial is fundamental but it is not absolute.

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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.

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.

Marijuana and small businesses

November 29, 2016:- In the general election the voters of Massachusetts approved a law to legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana. It was a convincing eight-point win for the legalization campaign: 54% to 46%. In my home town, Amherst, the margin was dramatically larger: 75% to 25%.

How the new law will affect Amherst and the surrounding communities was the focus of a forum I moderated recently for BLAAST (Business Leadership for Amherst Area Strategies) a joint program of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce and the Amherst Business Improvement District. To watch the video, click here. To read the related article in Business West, click here.

Given the nature of my practice, a few people have asked me about the effect of legalization  on trademarks, e.g. will marijuana sellers be able to register their trademarks?  Two facts are relevant.

The first is that there trademark owners can protect their marks via state law and federal law. Registering a mark with the state only protects it within that state, of course. For example, I have registered my mark (the flying-V logo) in Massachusetts, the state where I am admitted to practice law. If some lawyer started using the same mark in California and I sued for trademark infringement, my Massachusetts certificate of registration would not be sufficient evidence to afford me an automatic courtroom victory. To have the presumptive exclusive right to use my mark nationwide I would need to register it federally with the United States Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO).

The second important fact is that on the subject of marijuana there is now a clear tension between federal law and state law. In 1970 Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act, which prohibits the cultivation, possession, and distribution of marijuana. The Supreme Court of the United States upheld the statute in 2005, ruling that Congress had the necessary constitutional authority under the Commerce Clause. And although the People of Massachusetts have enacted the Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana Act, Congress has not repealed the Controlled Substances Act.

Nor has Congress amended the federal trademark statute, the Lanham Act. This matters because the Lanham Act only allows the registration of trademarks that are used in connection with lawful activities, which excludes the sale of marijuana (a federal crime). For so long as the Controlled Substances Act and the unamended Lanham Act remain the law of the land, it seems highly likely that the USPTO will carry on refusing to register marks used in connection with the sale of marijuana.

As a result of this federal-state tension, a few constitutional questions come to mind. For example, doesn’t the Supremacy Clause mean that the Controlled Substances Act preempts state law in this field? No. Why not? Because the statute itself expressly says so (section 903, if you’re interested). Nevertheless, couldn’t the federal government compel Massachusetts to enforce the Controlled Substances Act? No. Why not? Because of the Tenth Amendment.

So could the trademark section in the Corporations Division of the Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth allow marijuana sellers to register their marks at the state level? My answer to this question is forthright and unequivocal: it depends.

On the one hand, the applicable state statute prohibits the registration of marks that consist of or comprise “immoral… or scandalous matter.” In view of the voters’ decision to legalize marijuana it seems unlikely that a judge would find that the drug qualifies as immoral or scandalous any more. Under Massachusetts trademark law, therefore, marijuana trademarks are beginning to look registrable.

On the other hand, there is a big difference between not enforcing the federal Controlled Substances Act and positively aiding and abetting its violation, a criminal offense under Section 846. This means that state trademark officials in Boston who register a mark that the applicant expressly uses in connection with the sale of marijuana could face federal criminal charges.

Would that happen? I doubt it? Could it happen? Yes. Some future U.S. District Attorney for the District of Massachusetts prosecuting Secretary of the Commonwealth William F. Galvin for issuing a certificate of trademark registration to owners of, say, BUDS-U-LIKE is not beyond the realm of possibility. At the very least, the idea could serve as the basis for a book, albeit one with very limited appeal destined for rapid remaindered status.

But, more realistically, what if an applicant uses the mark in connection with other products, not just marijuana, and makes no mention of marijuana in the state trademark application? Now that is a much more practical area of inquiry. Stay tuned.

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Peter Vickery, Esq.

Court cuts off gas contracts

August 17, 2016:- If you are interested in electricity prices, today’s decision from the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) affects you. The case saw the Conservation Law Foundation and the power company Engie Gas (formerly GDF Suez) on the same side. Neither wanted to see electricity companies able to buy pipeline capacity, as this article in the Springfield Republican explains.

The question before the SJC: May the Department of Public Utilities  (DPU) approve contracts that electricity-distribution companies want to enter into with natural-gas power generators?

The answer: No. That is the abridged version of today’s 37-page decision.

The impact? Find out by looking at your electricity bills over the months and years ahead.

Note to grammarians and students of legislative drafting: You too may be interested in this decision because it discusses redenda singula singulis, AKA the rule of the last antecedent.

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Peter Vickery, Esq.

Commission creep: discrimination agency asserts jurisdiction in late-filed cases

July 1, 2016:-  The term “mission creep” refers to a military operation that gradually expands beyond its stated objectives. A new report provides evidence of a government commission repeatedly extending its reach beyond the parameters laid out in its statutory remit, a phenomenon I hereby dub “commission creep.”

The State Auditor has published an official report on the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) and in addition to revealing the usual, garden-variety problems that bedevil state agencies (e.g. mismanagement, inefficiency,  and poor book-keeping) it confirms a long-harbored suspicion: The MCAD asserts jurisdiction where it has none. This matters not only to the small business owners who find themselves the target of costly investigations that drag on for years, but to all citizens who expect public servants to abide by one of the bedrock principles of constitutional government, namely the separation of powers (see Article 30 of the Massachusetts Constitution).

Despite clear statutory language confining its jurisdiction to cases filed within 300 days of the last allegedly discriminatory act, the Commission investigates cases filed after the deadline. And it does so on a scale that suggests something more than ineptitude, no mere unfortunate series of oopsy daisy events.

So that readers may judge for themselves, here is the text of the statute (section 5 of chapter 151B of the General Laws) in words as clear and unambiguous as the English language permits:

Any complaint filed pursuant to this section must be so filed within 300 days after the alleged act of discrimination.

The word must falls into the category of words legislative drafters call mandatory, as opposed to precatory or hortatory. In the vernacular, it is hard not mushy.

Nevertheless, the State Auditor’s report (p. 11) reveals that in the three-year period of the audit (2012-2015) the MCAD processed at least  123 separate cases where it lacked subject matter jurisdiction because the applicable statute of limitations had run its course:

[D]uring our audit period, MCAD accepted 123 complaints beyond the 300-day timeframe for complainants to file their complaints. MCAD regulations allow for this 300-day timeframe to be extended under certain conditions, but there was no documentation in the case files to substantiate that any of these complaints met those conditions.

I cannot tell whether the auditors independently identified the 123 cases or simply made note of the instances where the MCAD itself had determined that it lacked jurisdiction on the basis of the limitation period. If the latter, then the determination would have come at the end of the MCAD’s investigative phase, the point at which the Commission issues a Lack of Probable Cause (LOPC) finding. On average that point now arrives four years — yes, four years — after the filing of the complaint. In the meantime MCAD investigators will have required the employer to devote hours responding to questions and demands for internal documents and to attending “investigative conferences” at the agency’s offices.

Either way, this is an extraordinary finding on the part of the State Auditor. The 300-day deadline is not some off-the-cuff recommendation or flexible guideline but a statutory limitation. The Legislature decided that the deadline for filing a discrimination complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) is 300 days, and only the Legislature can amend a statute. By flouting the limitation period so often, the MCAD has arrogated to itself the power to legislate, a power the Massachusetts Constitution expressly reserves to the legislative branch.

The report bears out something I have suspected for some years, i.e. that the MCAD investigates cases where it clearly lacks jurisdiction. Because of my experience with the MCAD, after the 2014 gubernatorial election I sent the incoming Baker-Polito administration a proposal that would remedy the problem, and the associated problem of the MCAD improperly asserting jurisdiction over employers with fewer than six employees (another statutory limit on the MCAD’s jurisdiction called the “small-business exemption”). My proposal is this:

If a respondent files a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, the MCAD shall suspend its investigation until it has adjudicated the motion.

The proposal does not require action on the part of the Legislature. With a nudge from the Governor the Commissioners could make it happen via a simple amendment to the MCAD’s regulations, with proper notice and comment. Under my proposal, the MCAD would have to deal with the threshold matter of jurisdiction before putting the employer to the expense of a full-blown, years-long investigation.

I submitted this suggestion back in January 2015.  In view of the State Auditor’s findings, I shall re-send it.

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Peter Vickery, Esq.

Happy birthday, Massachusetts Constitution

June 16, 2016:-  It was on June 16, 1780 (236 years ago today) that the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was deemed and declared ratified. Its principal author, John Adams, produced an operating manual for a self-governing commonwealth of free people that combines practicality with elegance. If you have a minute or two to mark the occasion of our Constitution’s anniversary, you may wish to read the Preamble:

The end of the institution, maintenance, and administration of government, is to secure the existence of the body politic, to protect it, and to furnish the individuals who compose it with the power of enjoying in safety and tranquility their natural rights, and the blessings of life: and whenever these great objects are not obtained, the people have a right to alter the government, and to take measures necessary for their safety, prosperity and happiness.

The body politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals: it is a social compact, by which the whole people covenants with each citizen, and each citizen with the whole people, that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good. It is the duty of the people, therefore, in framing a constitution of government, to provide for an equitable mode of making laws, as well as for an impartial interpretation, and a faithful execution of them; that every man may, at all times, find his security in them.

We, therefore, the people of Massachusetts, acknowledging, with grateful hearts, the goodness of the great Legislator of the universe, in affording us, in the course of His providence, an opportunity, deliberately and peaceably, without fraud, violence or surprise, of entering into an original, explicit, and solemn compact with each other; and of forming a new constitution of civil government, for ourselves and posterity; and devoutly imploring His direction in so interesting a design, do agree upon, ordain and establish the following Declaration of Rights, and Frame of Government, as the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

SJC announces another defense against claims for possession

May 24, 2015:- Today the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) sent back to the Housing Court a summary process case that started almost four years ago in August 2012. In its decision (in favor of the tenants) the SJC points out the need to promote “the legislative goal of just, speedy, and inexpensive resolution of summary process cases.” But it is not only connoisseurs of irony who will find the decision noteworthy. Although the case concerns an attempted post-foreclosure eviction, it refers to yet another defense against claims for possession (a defense, as opposed to a mere counterclaim) that may have an impact on the more run-of-the-mill landlord-tenant cases as well.

In May 2012, a mortgage company recorded the foreclosure deed  for home of Edward and Emanuela Rego. At the foreclosure sale, the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae) took title. In August it started a summary process action in Housing Court to evict the Regos. In October 2012, the Regos filed their Answer, replete with 25 affirmative defenses and one counterclaim alleging that the mortgage company had violated the Consumer Protection Act, G.L. c. 93A.  According to the Regos’ counterclaim, the company had violated 93A by charging excessive late fees and sending deceptive notices about their eligibility for loan modifications.

Fannie Mae filed a motion for summary judgment in February 2014, almost two years after it had purchased the house. The Housing Court awarded it possession and dismissed the Regos’ counterclaim. In July 2014, the Housing Court entered final judgment in favor of Fannie Mae. But the judge did not expressly state whether he agreed with Fannie Mae’s argument that because he had awarded possession he now lacked jurisdiction to decide the 93A counterclaim. The judge scheduled a separate hearing this particular question, and dismissed the 93A counterclaim, but did not state why. This bit is important, by the way.

When Fannie Mae prevailed on its motion for summary judgment and the Housing Court awarded it possession, its lawyers may well have thought they could discern the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. When the judge entered final judgment, the light may have shone a little more brightly. But today the SJC — which had reached down to transfer the matter to itself from the Appeals Court — vacated the summary judgment and reinstated the tenants’ counterclaims, thereby snuffing out the light and turning Fannie Mae back into the tunnel of Housing Court.

On appeal, the Regos argued that the mortgage company had failed to comply with the writing-under-seal requirement of the foreclosure statute, focusing on a statutory amendment enacted in 1906. The SJC’s decision goes into laudable detail explaining why this argument must fail. But the 93A counterclaim is another matter, the SJC held. Please note: The Regos raised 93A as a counterclaim, not a defense.

Fannie Mae argued that even if the 93A counterclaim was successful, it would not entitle the Regos to possession, only to monetary damages. Not so, contended the Regos: The court could deploy the equitable remedy of rescinding the foreclosure sale.

One of the organizations that responded to the SJC’s request for amicus briefs was Community Legal Aid, which stated that:

In certain cases, the equitable rescission of a foreclosure sale might not be the trial court’s remedy for violations of G.L.c. 93A. Nevertheless, the adjudication of different claims arising from the same facts supports both judicial economy and access to justice for low-income and elderly litigants who may be unable to advance claims independently.

Even if rescission is not on the cards and no right to possession is at issue any more, the Housing Court should retain jurisdiction, in other words. Of like mind, the SJC held:

“[U]nable to determine whether, in the context of the summary process action, the judge determined that the Regos’ G.L.c. 93A counterclaims and defenses did not entitle them to equitable relief affecting the right to possession, or whether he intended to consider that form of equitable relief, along with all other potential forms of equitable and monetary relief in the separate proceeding but erroneously concluded that he lacked the jurisdiction to do it.” (Emphasis added).

Of course, the Housing Court judge did, in fact, rule on the counterclaim, which tends to suggest that he had concluded that he had the jurisdiction to do so. Had he “erroneously concluded that he lacked the jurisdiction” he could have chosen a different course. But this absence of an express ruling on Fannie Mae’s jurisdictional argument led the SJC to sent the case back.

“All very interesting, I’m sure,” I hear you think, “but how does this affect me?”  Here’s how:

Landlords seeking possession should bear in mind that a tenant’s 93A counterclaim is an equitable defense.

Justin Sargent 6
Peter Vickery, Esq.

 

 

Issue more regulations, court tells agency

May 17, 2016:- Today the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) told the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) that it has to issue more regulations in order to comply with the Global Warming Solutions Act, which the Legislature enacted in 2008. In Kain v DEP, the SJC ruled in favor of the Conservation Law Foundation and held that the DEP’s current regulations do not comply with the statute’s requirement of “declining aggregate [greenhouse gas] emissions limits.”

More to follow. In the meantime, two questions for diligent readers:

(1) By how much have our commonwealth’s greenhouse gas emissions declined since 2008?

(2) For bonus points, what is the main reason for the decline?

Justin Sargent 6
Peter Vickery, Esq.