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Lynch v. Crawford

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Suffolk

December 10, 2019

JUDY C. LYNCH & others [1]
KEITH D. CRAWFORD & others [2] (and a consolidated case[3] ).

          Heard: September 5, 2019.

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

         Civil action commenced in the Superior Court Department on February 10, 2016.

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

         After review by the Appeals Court, the Supreme Judicial Court granted leave to obtain further appellate review.

          Christopher G. Clark (Christopher E. Novak also present) for Keith D. Crawford.

          Andrew E. Goloboy (Richard B. Reiling also present) for the plaintiffs.

          Jonathan C. Green, Assistant Attorney General, for the Attorney General, amicus curiae, submitted a brief.

          John J. Barter, for Professional Liability Foundation, Ltd., amicus curiae, submitted a brief.

          Present: Gants, C.J., Lenk, Gaziano, Lowy, Cypher, & Kafker, JJ.

          GANTS, C.J.

         The plaintiffs, former employees of the now-dissolved Roxbury Comprehensive Community Health Center, Inc. (RoxComp), were not paid for the work they performed during the weeks before RoxComp shut its doors. Under the Wage Act, G. L. c. 149, § 148, discharged employees are entitled to be paid all wages due them on the day of their discharge by their "employers." The "president and treasurer of a corporation and any officers or agents having the management of such corporation" are "deemed to be the employers of the employees of the corporation within the meaning of [the statute] ." Id. The plaintiffs brought consolidated civil actions against the defendant Keith D. Crawford alleging that, as RoxComp's president, he was among the "employers" who had violated the Wage Act by failing to pay them the wages they were due.[4]Crawford moved for summary judgment, claiming that he was not RoxComp's president but solely the chair of its board of directors and that, even if he were its president, he served without compensation and therefore was immune from suit under the Federal Volunteer Protection Act (VPA), 42 U.S.C. § 14503(a) (2012), and the State charitable immunity statute, G. L. c. 231, § 85W (§ 85W).

         A Superior Court judge denied Crawford's motion, concluding that there were disputes of material fact as to whether Crawford served as president and whether his conduct placed him outside the scope of the qualified immunity provided to volunteers under the VPA and § 85W. Crawford filed a petition pursuant to G. L. c. 231, § 118, first par., seeking leave from a single justice of the Appeals Court to pursue an interlocutory appeal from the denial of his motion for summary judgment. A single justice denied leave to appeal under § 118 and declared that, if Crawford contended that he had a right to interlocutory appeal under the doctrine of present execution, the way to assert that right was to file a notice of appeal in the Superior Court. Crawford then timely filed such a notice.

         In an attempt to harmonize two of our opinions applying the doctrine of present execution -- Maxwell v. AIG Domestic Claims, Inc., 460 Mass. 91 (2011), and Marcus v. Newton, 462 Mass. 148 (2012) -- the Appeals Court concluded that "where a statute designed to encourage private conduct speaks in terms of providing immunity only from liability, and that statute places no affirmative obligations on the protected party to take the actions being immunized, courts are not, without more, to infer an intent to provide immunity from suit." Lynch v. Roxbury Comprehensive Community Health Ctr., Inc., 94 Mass.App.Ct. 528, 535 (2018). Consequently, the Appeals Court held that the doctrine of present execution did not entitle Crawford to an interlocutory appeal from the denial of his motion for summary judgment based on his claimed charitable immunity under Federal or State law because (1) "[t]he language of [§ 85W and the VPA] speaks in terms of immunity only from liability, not from suit"; (2) § 85W "imposes no obligations on people who serve as volunteer board members of nonprofit institutions"; and (3) the VPA does not command "State interlocutory appellate review when such an appeal otherwise would not be available." Id. at 535, 537-538. We granted Crawford's motion for further appellate review.

         We hold that, where a statute provides qualified immunity, as do the VPA and § 85W, we attempt to discern whether the Legislature intended immunity from suit, rather than simply immunity from liability. That the statute speaks only of liability and does not specifically spell out immunity from suit is not dispositive. Rather, we look to the language of the entire statute and, where there is ambiguity, apply our traditional standards of statutory interpretation to determine whether the Legislature intended to grant immunity from suit. Having done so here, we conclude that Congress intended the VPA to provide qualified immunity from suit for officers in nonprofit organizations who receive no compensation and that § 85W may only expand the scope of that immunity, not diminish it. Because our doctrine of present execution recognizes that interlocutory appeal is necessary to vindicate the rights of one who is ordered to proceed to trial despite being immune from suit, we conclude that Crawford, as a volunteer for a nonprofit organization, is entitled to interlocutory review of the denial of his motion for summary judgment.

         As to the merits of that summary judgment motion, we affirm the judge's denial of the motion, finding that there are genuine issues of material fact as to whether Crawford was, in fact, the president of RoxComp and as to whether he engaged in "any acts or omissions intentionally designed to harm" that would deprive him of the immunity otherwise provided by § 85W.[5]

         Discussion. 1.

         Doctrine of present execution. a. Immunity from suit. Generally, a litigant is entitled to appellate review only of a final judgment, not of an interlocutory ruling, such as the denial of a motion for summary judgment. See Pollackv.Kelly, 372 Mass. 469, 470-471 (1977). "However, in narrowly limited circumstances, where 'an interlocutory order will interfere with rights in a way that cannot be remedied on appeal' from a final judgment, and where the order is 'collateral to the underlying dispute in the case' . . ., a party may obtain full appellate review of an interlocutory order under our doctrine of present execution." Patelv.Martin, 481 Mass. 29, 32 (2018), quoting Maddocksv.Ricker, 403 Mass. 592, 596 (1988). "The doctrine is intended to be invoked narrowly to avoid piecemeal appeals from ...

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