Friday, July 11, 2008

A Pesky Claim

With some frequency, enterprising plaintiffs include in their complaints claims for violations of the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act. The Act provides a cause of action when someone -- anyone: government, civilian, whatever -- interferes with another person's exercise of his or her constitutional rights. The SJC has been quite clear that the Act does not create a "vast constitutional tort", but it sort of, well, does just that.

Yesterday, in Kennie v. Natural Resource Dept. of Dennis, SJC-10052, the SJC reversed a trial court's summary judgment dismissal of a claim under the Act. The Act requires a plaintiff to establish that the interference with the constitutional right have been carried out by means of physical threats, physical intimidation, or coercion (which need not be physical). It's this last prong that makes claims under the Act so pesky.

Kicking claims like the one in this case to the jury gives plaintiffs a pretty formidable weapon. We each have an expansive collection of constitutional rights. And there are an expansive number of ways in which another person could interfere with those rights via moral or economic coercion. Most civil complaints filed in the Commonwealth probably include a claim for violation of the unfair business practices statute, Chapter 93A. Might we be entering an era where plaintiffs also, as a matter of course, also include claims for violation of the Civil Rights Act? Time will tell.


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