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Lynch v. Roxbury Comprehensive Community Health Center, Inc.

Appeals Court of Massachusetts, Suffolk

November 30, 2018

JUDY C. LYNCH & others[1]
v.
ROXBURY COMPREHENSIVE COMMUNITY HEALTH CENTER, INC., & another.[2]

          Heard: October 4, 2018

         Civil action commenced in the Superior Court Department on October 24, 2013.

         The case was heard by Paul D. Wilson, J., on motions for summary judgment, and a motion for reconsideration was considered by him.

          Christopher G. Clark for Keith D. Crawford.

          Andrew E. Goloboy for the plaintiffs.

          Present: Milkey, Desmond, & Wendlandt, JJ.

          MILKEY, J.

         The plaintiffs are former employees of the Roxbury Comprehensive Community Health Center, Inc. (RCCHC), a now-defunct, nonprofit health care provider. Alleging that they were not paid wages owed to them, the plaintiffs brought the current action against RCCHC pursuant to the Wage Act, G. L. c. 149, § 148. They also asserted that defendant Keith D. Crawford, M.D., the chairman of RCCHC's board of directors, personally was liable for the alleged Wage Act violations.[3]Crawford moved for summary judgment, arguing that -- as a volunteer director of a nonprofit institution -- he enjoyed immunity from Wage Act claims. He asserted such immunity based on two separate statutes: the Volunteer Protection Act (VPA), 42 U.S.C. § 14503 (2012), and G. L. c. 231, § 85W. A Superior Court judge concluded that these statutes applied to Wage Act claims. However, the judge ultimately denied Crawford's motion for summary judgment on the ground that there was a dispute of fact over whether Crawford's conduct here fell within statutory exceptions to such immunity.[4] After Crawford unsuccessfully pursued a motion for reconsideration, he appealed. We are now called upon to decide whether this appeal is properly before us. For the reasons that follow, we conclude that it is not, and we decline to exercise our discretion to reach the underlying merits. Accordingly, we dismiss the appeal.

         Background.

         We summarize the relevant facts set forth in the summary judgment record in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, the nonmoving party. Augat v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co., 410 Mass. 117, 120 (1991).

         The alleged Wage Act violations.

         By early 2013, RCCHC began to experience serious financial difficulties. At that time, Crawford served not only as chairman of RCCHC's board, but also held himself out as its "[p]resident" and "acting CEO." Crawford learned by February 25, 2013, that RCCHC did not intend to pay its employees for future work unless and until a Federal grant came through. He also learned that RCCHC likely would be unable to meet its payroll obligations on March 15, 2013. Nevertheless, he personally encouraged the employees to keep working and assured them that they would get paid. RCCHC did in fact miss its payroll on March 15, 2013, and it had not paid its employees by March 22, 2015 (the date by which Crawford alleges any Wage Act violation accrued). As documented by electronic mail messages (e-mails) sent a few days after that, once apprised of limited funds remaining in RCCHC's payroll account, Crawford suggested using that money toward paying off RCCHC's vendors instead of its employees.

         The interlocutory rulings for which review is sought.

         The plaintiffs allege that with Crawford effectively having served as "president" of RCCHC, he personally is liable for the Wage Act violations. See G. L. c. 149, § 148 (defining "employer" for purpose of Wage Act as including president of corporation). Crawford's principal defense was that because he was not paid for any roles he was serving at RCCHC, a nonprofit entity, he is immune from a Wage Act violation by operation of the VPA and its State counterpart, G. L. c. 231, § 85W.[5]

         As noted, the judge denied Crawford's motion for summary judgment on the ground that the plaintiffs had raised a triable issue as to whether Crawford's conduct met the exceptions set forth in the two immunity statutes. With respect to the VPA, the judge concluded that "there is at least some evidence in the record from which a jury could conclude that Crawford engaged in 'willful' misconduct," which falls outside the immunity provided by the statute. With respect to G. L. c. 231, § 85W, the judge ruled that there was some evidence upon which a jury could conclude that Crawford's acts were "intentionally designed to harm" the plaintiffs, which would place them outside the scope of the immunity that statute provided.

         In his motion for reconsideration, Crawford argued that the only real evidence that he might have engaged in disqualifying conduct was the e-mails that could be taken to indicate his preference to pay RCCHC's vendors over its employees. According to him, these e-mails could not be considered because of their timing, the e-mails having been sent only after any Wage Act violations already had occurred. The judge denied the motion for reconsideration, and Crawford appealed.[6]

         Discussion.

         Whether an interlocutory appeal is proper.

         The initial question we face is whether the current interlocutory appeal is properly before us.[7] The denial of a motion for summary judgment is a classic interlocutory ruling that typically cannot be appealed. See Elles v. Zoning Bd. of Appeals of Quincy, 450 Mass. 671, 673-674 (2008). There are, however, recognized exceptions to this rule, including those that are denominated collectively as the doctrine of present execution (a venerable, if confusing, label) . Id. at 674. In short, under that doctrine, immediate appeals are allowed "where the interlocutory ruling 'will interfere with rights in a way that cannot be remedied on appeal' ...


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