SAUNDRA R. EDWARDS
COMMONWEALTH & another. 
Heard: February 6, 2017.
action commenced in the Superior Court Department on December
to dismiss were heard by Richard E. Welch, III, J. The
Supreme Judicial Court granted an application for direct
Michael J. Pineault for Deval Patrick.
William H. Sheehan, III (Thomas J. Flannagan also present)
for the plaintiff.
Present: Gants, C.J., Lenk, Hines, Gaziano, & Lowy, JJ.
September 16, 2014, then Governor Deval Patrick removed
Saundra R. Edwards from her position as chair of the Sex
Offender Registry Board (SORB). A few days later, in response
to media inquiries about Edwards's abrupt departure,
Patrick explained that, among other reasons, he had decided
to replace Edwards because she inappropriately had attempted
to pressure a SORB hearing officer to change the outcome of
one of his decisions on an offender's classification
level. In subsequent comments to the media, after Edwards had
filed an action for defamation and wrongful termination in
the Superior Court, Patrick repeated his explanation that he
had decided to remove Edwards from office because she had
interfered with the independence of a SORB hearing officer.
Edwards filed an amended complaint, asserting a wrongful
termination claim against the Commonwealth, and two
defamation claims against Patrick, individually, one for each
of the two statements.
moved pursuant to Mass. R. Civ. P. 12 (b) (6), 365 Mass. 754
(1974), to dismiss Edwards's amended complaint on two
grounds. He argued that the court should conclude, consistent
with Federal law and with a number of other jurisdictions,
that he, as governor, had an absolute privilege for
statements made in the course of his official duties. In the
alternative, Patrick argued that he had a qualified
privilege, because the statements were made while acting
within the scope of his official duties concerning
Edwards's status as a public official, and that the
allegations in the amended complaint were not sufficient to
overcome that privilege. Because, Patrick maintained, the
amended complaint contained only bare conclusory assertions
of actual malice without allegations of facts sufficient to
support those assertions beyond the level of mere
speculation, the complaint did not meet the pleading
requirements for a defamation claim under
Iannacchino v. Ford Motor Co., 451
Mass. 623, 636 (2008). A Superior Court judge denied
Patrick's motion to dismiss the defamation claims, and
denied the Commonwealth's motion to dismiss the wrongful
termination claim. Patrick appealed from the denial of his
motion, and both defendants sought a stay in the Superior
Court pending the resolution of that appeal. We allowed
Patrick's motion for direct appellate review.
first whether the amended complaint alleges facts sufficient
to overcome a qualified or conditional privilege, we conclude
that it does not assert facts sufficient to demonstrate that
Patrick's statements to the media were made with actual
malice, and thus the complaint against him properly should
have been dismissed. Given this conclusion, we need not reach
Patrick's argument as to the existence of an absolute
privilege against defamation claims for a governor, or other
high-ranking State official, for statements made in the
course of his or her official duties.
recite the facts asserted in the amended complaint, taking
them as true for purposes of evaluating the motion to
dismiss. SORB is an administrative agency within the
Executive Office of Public Safety and Security (EOPSS). SORB
is responsible for enforcing the provisions of the sex
offender registry law, G. L. c. 6, §§ 178C-178Q,
and also promulgates rules, regulations, and guidelines to
implement those provisions. See G. L. c. 6, § 178K (1).
The chair of SORB is "appointed by and serve[s] at the
pleasure of the governor." Id.
had been a member of the Massachusetts bar for almost
twenty-five years when Patrick appointed her as chair of SORB
on November 5, 2007. Edwards served in that role until
September 16, 2014. Prior to her appointment, Edwards had
served as an assistant district attorney in Plymouth County
for thirteen years. She specialized in prosecuting sex
offenses, child abuse, and domestic violence.
to the amended complaint, in September, 1993, Patrick's
brother-in-law, Bernard Sigh, pleaded guilty to a charge of
spousal rape in California; in his plea he admitted that he
"accomplished an act of sexual intercourse with [his]
wife against her will by means of force." He was
sentenced to a term of incarceration followed by five years
of probation. Sigh moved to Massachusetts in 1995, but did
not register as a sex offender when the Legislature
enacted the sex offender registry law in 1996.
December, 2006, almost a year before Edward's appointment
as chair, SORB notified Sigh of his duty to register as a
level 1 (lowest risk) sex offender. Sigh sought a hearing to
challenge the determination that he had been convicted of a
"like offense" to the offense of rape as defined in
Massachusetts law. SORB scheduled a hearing on his petition
and assigned the matter to one of its board members. While
that hearing was pending, SORB referred to the office of the
Attorney General the question whether a conviction of spousal
rape under California law was a "like offense" to
rape under Massachusetts law, thus requiring a Massachusetts
resident to register with SORB.
hearing officer Attilio Paglia replaced the previously
assigned board member, and scheduled a hearing on Sigh's
petition. SORB officials authorized Paglia to
decide preliminary motions in the case, but instructed him to
continue the hearing pending the Attorney General's
review of the legal question concerning the status in
Massachusetts of Sigh's offense.
these instructions, Paglia began the hearing on August 1,
2007. After being informed of the hearing, Paglia's
supervisor ordered him not to issue a decision in the matter
pending a determination by the Attorney General. Paglia
continued to hear evidence on August 10 and 31 and issued an
oral decision finding that the California crime of spousal
rape is not a like offense to the Massachusetts crime of
rape. Accordingly, he relieved Sigh of the obligation to
register as a sex offender. Paglia did not issue a written
decision, as is required by SORB regulations.
Edwards's involvement in the Sigh-Paglia matter.
took office on November 5, 2007, several months after the
Sigh hearing and the oral decision. She was advised by
SORB's counsel and other SORB officials of the
disagreement between SORB administrators and Paglia. She also
learned that, as a result of his actions with respect to the
Sigh matter, Paglia had been disciplined for insubordination.
9, 2008, Edwards met with Paglia to discuss the Sigh matter.
She informed Paglia (who is not an attorney) of the legal
elements of rape as defined under Massachusetts law, and also
told him that the California crime of spousal rape is a like
offense to the Massachusetts crime of rape because "rape
is rape." After consulting with EOPSS and SORB's
general counsel, Edwards directed that a written decision
issue in the Sigh case. SORB also enacted an emergency
regulation to permit it to correct errors of law by hearing
officers. To prevent further ...