News + Insights from the Legal Team at Zalkind Duncan & Bernstein

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In Concepcion v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court continued its support for sentencing discretion for district court judges. In this case, the issue was how much discretion a sentencing judge has when resentencing a defendant pursuant to the First Step Act, a substantial criminal justice reform act that Congress passed in 2018. Among its provisions is one allowing for resentencing of persons convicted before 2010 for distribution of crack cocaine who had been ineligible for resentencing when Congress in 2010 revised downward the penalties for crack cocaine (in the so-called Fair Sentencing Act). The quantities that triggered mandatory minimum sentences were reduced substantially, and the guidelines were amended to reflect those reductions. 

Mr. Concepcion had been given a 19-year sentence in 2009 for selling 13.8 grams of crack. Because he was a “career offender,” meaning that he had a number of prior convictions for “crimes of violence” or drug distribution, his guideline sentencing range was not affected by the quantity reductions, and so he was not eligible for resentencing when the crack sentencing changes took effect in 2010.  CONTINUE READING ›

https://www.bostonlawyerblog.com/files/2022/06/Screen-Shot-2022-06-19-at-9.10.07-PM.pngUnder longstanding case law in Massachusetts and the First Circuit, a court must interpret a student handbook or other school policy consistent with the “reasonable expectations” of a student reading it. If the school fails to follow its established policies, the student may be able to hold it accountable through a suit for breach of contract. But what happens when the school’s policies contain inconsistent or ambiguous provisions? In Sonoiki v. Harvard University, the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit held that a student’s claims should be allowed to proceed where the student’s interpretation of the policies was reasonably supported in the policies’ text – even if that interpretation contradicted other parts of the policies. CONTINUE READING ›

Uber-EatsThe SJC struck an initiative from November’s ballot that, if approved, would have created a new class of “app-based driver” not subject to many bedrock employment laws. In Koussa v. Attorney General, the Court held that the proposed initiative raised too many different policy questions, and, thus, did not meet constitutional requirements for petitions. Because Massachusetts law only allows ballot initiatives that present voters with “related” and “mutually dependent” issues, the Court held that the Attorney General should not have allowed the initiative onto the ballot. CONTINUE READING ›

School-Uniform-SkirtsThis week, the Fourth Circuit court of appeals, sitting en banc (meaning all of the judges of the court together), held that a charter school’s dress code that requires girls to wear skirts violates their constitutional right to equal protection. The Court also reasoned that the dress code likely violates their rights under Title IX to be free from gender-based discrimination at school. The opinion was a resounding victory for students’ civil rights and for women’s rights. CONTINUE READING ›

Boston-PDIn a resounding victory for civil liberties, in January the First Circuit overturned an immigration court’s denial of Cristian Josue Diaz Ortiz’s claims for asylum, finding that the Boston Police Department’s (BPD) Gang Assessment Database (on which the immigration court’s decision relied) is a “flawed” system that relies on “an erratic point system built on unsubstantiated inferences.” The First Circuit’s criticism of the Gang Assessment Database could have broader implications for people challenging law enforcement decisions made based on their inclusion in that database. CONTINUE READING ›

Image-A-scaledTitle VII promises to protect employees who oppose workplace discrimination and harassment in good faith.  Over time, judicial opinions have eroded this protection by creating an exception that has allowed employers to discipline employees if the employer deems that the manner of the employee’s complaints was insubordinate or disruptive. Last fall, the First Circuit affirmed this exception in a panel decision in Jenkins v. Housing Court Department. In that case, a Black Costa Rican employee emailed multiple discrimination complaints to his supervisors and various staff. The employer then terminated the employee for disobeying orders after he was told and refused, to cease his complaints. The First Circuit affirmed a ruling of summary judgment for the employer. Last month, the plaintiff filed a petition for certiorari, asking the Supreme Court of the United States to weigh in on a doctrine that has appeared in various forms in the lower courts and that, as scholars have noted, severely undercuts Title VII’s anti-retaliation provisions. 

The insubordination exception is not rooted in Title VII’s text or legislative history, but emerged in a 1976 preliminary injunction decision concluding that a female biologist whose employer characterized her pay complaints as disloyal and noncooperative was not protected by Title VII, Hochstadt v. Worcester Found. for Experimental Biology.   

Most modern First Circuit Title VII cases—including Jenkins—draw the principle that anti-retaliation statutes do not protect employees from termination for insubordination from Mesnick v. General Electric Co., a First Circuit ADEA retaliation case in which the employer terminated an employee in part for his “confrontational attitude” and other interpersonal issues with coworkers and managers against whom he alleged age discrimination. Mesnick draws its reasoning from Jackson v. St. Joseph State Hospital, an Eighth Circuit Title VII case regarding a hospital accountant who was terminated for “highly offensive and disruptive” attempts to obtain a specific statement from a coworker to use in his sex discrimination case against the hospital. Jackson, in turn cites Hochstadt 

courtroom-144091_960_720Restraining orders are an essential tool that Massachusetts law makes available to help victims of abuse or harassment stay safe. Abuse prevention orders and harassment prevention orders (the two types of civil restraining orders available in Massachusetts) allow courts to impose restrictions on abuse and on contact. Some judges are very quick to grant requests for orders, sometimes after giving defendants scant opportunity to challenge a plaintiff’s claims. Seeking to prevent violence and other serious harm is a praiseworthy motive. But restraining orders carry significant consequences and their erroneous issuance can also cause real harm. Recently the Massachusetts Appeals Court, in Idris I. v. Hazel H., reversed and vacated a restraining order because the trial court failed to give the defendant a fair hearing before issuing the order. CONTINUE READING ›

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“This court is very concerned about the disparate impact automobile stops have on persons of color and the national statistics on the fatalities suffered by such communities at the hands of police officers,” wrote Justice Cypher in a fractured plurality opinion for the Supreme Judicial Court in Commonwealth v. Sweeting-Bailey last month. Despite this acknowledgment, the majority of the SJC justices agreed to grant police officers power to continue targeting communities of color and low-income neighborhoods as it confirms that police officers can consider subjective factors in deciding whether to search a passenger in a stopped car.   

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option-2-scaledOn Friday the Supreme Judicial Court handed employees a decisive victory, holding in Meehan v. Medical Information Technology, Inc. that employers cannot retaliate against employees who exercise their statutory rights to file rebuttals in their personnel record. In so holding, the SJC overturned a decision of the Appeals Court from earlier this year (which we discussed on this blog). The Appeals Court had held that while the state’s personnel records law gives employees the right to submit written responses to documents in their personnel records with which they disagree, because the Legislature did not write a provision prohibiting retaliation for exercising that right, an employer could fire the employee for submitting such a rebuttal.  

 The SJC overturned the Appeals Court. In an opinion written by Justice Kafker, the Court held that a termination in retaliation for an employee exercising their rights under the personnel records statute violates the Commonwealth’s public policy. While Massachusetts is generally an “at-will” employment state—meaning an employer has the right to terminate an employee at any time for (almost) any reason—there are statutory exceptions to that rule. An employer cannot fire an employee for discriminatory reasons, or because the employee engaged in certain protected activity, like making complaints about discrimination, health and safety issues, or equal pay issues. Where there is no statute preventing an employer from terminating an employee, the only common law constraint on employers is that they cannot terminate an employee for reasons that would violate a public policy. As Justice Kafker noted in his opinion, the Court previously held the public policy doctrine has been recognized “for asserting a legally guaranteed right (e.g., filing a worker’s compensation claim), for doing what the law requires (e.g., serving on a jury), or for refusing to do that which the law forbids (e.g., committing perjury)” and for employees performing important public deeds. When an employee’s actions fall under one of these categories they are protected from termination. 

 In Meehan the Court held that the rights created by the public records law fall under the first category of the public policy exception to the at-will employment rule: when an employee files a rebuttal in their personnel record they are asserting a legally guaranteed right. In coming to this decision, the Court noted that the Appeals Court had weighed whether the statutory right set forth in the personnel record law was “important.” While the Appeals Court had concluded it was not, the SJC disagreed. The Court held that “the right of rebuttal and accuracy of information in personnel files” is important for employees to protect their ability to seek other employment, for future employers to have accurate information about the people they hire, and for evaluating employers’ compliance with Massachusetts laws. More importantly, however, the Court held that whether a right is “important” is not a decision a Court should make determining whether an employee was terminated in violation of public policy for asserting a legal right. The Court stated that by passing the personnel record statute, the Legislature had already made the decision that the right is important. This holding will extend beyond the context of the Meehan case; where the Legislature has created a statutory right, Meehan should be read to mean that the exercise of that right will always be protected from retaliation under the public policy exception, even if the statute itself does not contain an anti-retaliation provision.   

Blog-pic-1“Where the police have observed a traffic violation, they are warranted in stopping a vehicle.” The Supreme Judicial Court made this statement more than thirty years ago, summarizing what came to be known as a basic premise of operating a motor vehicle in the United States. 

CONTINUE READING ›

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