Bar Counsel v. Farber

Decision Date09 April 2013
Docket NumberSJC–11171.
Citation464 Mass. 784,985 N.E.2d 1155
PartiesBAR COUNSEL v. Peter S. FARBER.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Supreme Court

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

Constance V. Vecchione, Boston, Bar Counsel.

Peter S. Farber, pro se.

Present: IRELAND, C.J., SPINA, CORDY, BOTSFORD, GANTS, DUFFLY, & LENK, JJ.

BOTSFORD, J.

Attorney Peter S. Farber filed a civil action against G. Russell Damon in the Superior Court in October of 2011, asserting claims of defamation, “wrongful instigation of civil proceedings,” and violation of G.L. c. 93A. Each claim was based on allegedly false statements made in a complaint and follow-up communications that Damon had previously filed with bar counsel, and in testimony Damon gave in a public hearing before a hearing committee of the Board of Bar Overseers (board). Bar counsel thereafter filed this action for declaratory judgment in the county court. At the heart of the declaratory judgment action are questions concerning the scope of immunity from civil liability afforded to bar discipline complainants by S.J.C. Rule 4:01, § 9(§ 9), as appearing in 425 Mass. 1312 (1997).

Background. The pertinent underlying facts are essentially undisputed. Damon is a licensed real estate broker who works on Cape Cod. In the fall of 2008, he filed identical complaints with bar counsel and the division of professional licensure, claiming that Farber, an attorney admitted to the Massachusetts bar and a real estate broker, made misrepresentations to induce Damon to split a $13,000 real estate commission with him. The gist of Damon's complaint was that Farber fraudulently misrepresented certain facts to Damon in connection with a real estate purchase in which Farber was involved on behalf of the actual purchasers, leading Damon to give Farber one-half of the real estate commission he received from the sellers in connection with the sale. On November 25, 2009, bar counsel filed a petition for discipline against Farber; one of the counts was based on Damon's complaint and concerned Farber's conduct in connection with Damon. A hearing committee of the board heard the matter in May, 2010, and Damon testified as a witness called by bar counsel. The hearing committee made findings consistent with the allegations in the petition for discipline, including those relating to Damon, and recommended that Farber be suspended from the practice of law for one year and one day. The board adopted the hearing committee's factual findings but recommended that Farber receive a public reprimand, concluding that while Farber had made misrepresentations and thereby violated Mass. R. Prof. C. 8.4(c), 426 Mass. 1429 (1998), he had done so while acting as a real estate broker, not as an attorney. In August, 2011, a single justice of this court agreed with the board and issued a decision and order of public reprimand. It appears that as a matter of routine policy, the board released the decision to local newspapers, which subsequently printed stories about it.

Approximately six weeks later, on October 11, 2011, Farber filed a civil action against Damon. All three claims that Farber included in his Superior Court complaint were based on statements made by Damon in (1) Damon's complaint filed with bar counsel, (2) a follow-up communication Damon later sent to bar counsel, and (3) Damon's testimony before the hearing committee. Farber later notified bar counsel that he was intending to add her as a party in this suit.

Based on § 9, bar counsel requested that Farber dismiss his civil action against Damon on the grounds that Damon was immune from the civil liability sought by Farber. Farber refused to do so, stating that § 9 did not apply to the case. Bar counsel commenced a disciplinary proceeding against Farber on or about November 21, 2011, and then filed the present action for declaratory judgment and injunctive relief in the county court to resolve the controversy between the parties relating to the proper interpretation or construction of § 9.1 Following initial pleadings and responses, bar counsel and Farber most recently have filed dispositive motions in the declaratory judgment action—a motion for judgment on the pleadings and for summary judgment by bar counsel and a cross motion for summary judgment by Farber. A single justice reserved and reported the case without decision to the full court, and ordered a stay with respect to further proceedings in the Superior Court until further order of this court.

Discussion. 1. Interpretation of S.J.C. Rule 4:01, § 9. Section 9 provides in relevant part:

Immunity.

(1) Complaints submitted to the Board or to the bar counsel shall be confidential and absolutely privileged. The complainant shall be immune from civil liability based upon his or her complaint; provided, however, that such immunity from suit shall apply only to communications to the Board or the bar counsel and shall not apply to public disclosure of information contained in or relating to the complaint.

(2) The complainant and each witness giving sworn testimony or otherwise communicating with the Board or the bar counsel during the course of any investigation or proceedings under this rule shall be immune from civil liability based on any such testimony or communications; provided, however, that such immunity from suit shall apply only to testimony given or communications made to the Board or the bar counsel and shall not apply to public disclosure of information attested to or communicated during the course of the investigation or proceedings.”

Bar counsel reads the section to afford a complainant such as Damon absolute immunity from any civil liability with respect to his complaint and its allegations, see § 9(1), and, of more direct concern in this case, with respect to testimony that the complainant may provide in the course of a proceeding before a hearing committee of the board, see § 9(2).2 She interprets the public disclosure provisos of § 9(1) and (2) to mean that a complainant would not be entitled to the immunity conferred by the rule with respect to statements made or testimony provided by the complainant to a person or entity outside a bar disciplinary proceeding.

Farber rejects this reading. He accepts, as he must, see Matter of Lupo, 447 Mass. 345, 356–357, 851 N.E.2d 404 (2006), that under § 9 a complaint is absolutely privileged and the complainant is entitled to immunity from any civil liability based directly on the contents of the complaint or his communications to bar counsel or the board itself. However, Farber reads the public disclosure provisos of § 9(1) and (2) to mean that any public disclosure of the substance of a complaint or a complainant's communications to bar counsel or the board—for example, in the form of testimony by the complainant at a public proceeding conducted by a hearing committee of the board or through the board's publication of a disciplinary decision 3—will cause the complainant to lose that immunity. He makes a related argument that a complainant is not entitled to claim immunity relating to communications made or testimony provided to a hearing committee because a hearing committee is neither the board nor bar counsel, and only the board and bar counsel are listed in § 9 as permissible recipients of communications to which immunity applies.

We agree with bar counsel's reading of § 9 and reject the reading proffered by Farber. In explaining the reasons for this conclusion, we begin with the history of § 9 in its present form, because, contrary to Farber, we do not find the scope of the limitation to immunity appearing in the public disclosure provisos in § 9(1) and (2) to be self-evident based on the language of the rule itself. See Associated Subcontractors of Mass., Inc. v.University of Mass. Bldg. Auth., 442 Mass. 159, 164, 810 N.E.2d 1214 (2004), quoting Chandler v. County Comm'rs of Nantucket County, 437 Mass. 430, 435, 772 N.E.2d 578 (2002) (where statutory language fails conclusively to reveal statute's meaning, court turns to other sources, including legislative history, to assist in interpretation); Matter of the Liquidation of Am. Mut. Liab. Ins. Co., 440 Mass. 796, 801–802, 802 N.E.2d 555 (2004) (legislative history “sheds light” on Legislature's purpose in enacting statute).

Before July, 1993, the relevant provision of S.J.C. Rule 4:01, § 9, as amended, 370 Mass. 906 (1976), provided for a form of qualified immunity, stating in pertinent part:

“Complaints submitted to the Board or to the Bar Counsel shall be confidential and conditionally privileged. The complainant shall be immune from liability based upon his complaint and any testimony given by him relative thereto, and any witness shall be immune from liability based upon his testimony given in the proceeding provided that no such immunity shall be extended to a complainant or witness who is responsible for any unreasonable disclosure of the complaint or testimony adduced in the proceeding or who acts in bad faith (emphasis supplied).

In October of 1991, the board proposed amendments that would for the first time open bar disciplinary proceedings to the public after the service of a formal petition for discipline, meaning, among other things, that absent a protective order, the public would have access to the board docket, would be entitled to attend proceedings and arguments before a hearing committee or an appeal panel of the board, and would be entitled to review reports and decisions issued by hearing committees, appeal panels, and the board itself. Of direct relevance here, the board also proposed at this time that the qualified immunity given complainants and witnesses in bar discipline proceedings under § 9 be amended so that complaints submitted to the board or bar counsel would be absolutely privileged, and both complainants and witnesses giving sworn testimony during the course of any investigation or proceeding under S.J.C. Rule 4:01 would be immune from civil...

To continue reading

Request your trial
6 cases
  • Carey v. Maine Board of Overseers of Bar
    • United States
    • Maine Superior Court
    • 25 Octubre 2017
    ... ... Civ. P. 12(b) filed by the following ... parties: (1) the Maine Board of Overseers of the Bar ... ("BBO"), Bar Counsel J. Scott Davis, Deputy Bar ... Counsel Aria Eee, and Jacqueline M. Rogers (collectively, the ... "BBO Defendants"); (2) Judge Maria ... lawyer's conduct against expensive retaliatory suits by ... the lawyer in response. [ 23 ] ... Bar Counsel v. Farber, 985 N.E.2d 1155, 1161 n.6 ... (2013). The United States District Court for the District of ... Maine has analyzed Maine law on the ... ...
  • Carey v. Me. Bd. of Overseers of the Bar
    • United States
    • Maine Superior Court
    • 3 Enero 2018
    ...those who would complain about a lawyer's conduct against expensive retaliatory suits by the lawyer in response.25Bar Counsel v. Farber, 985 N.E.2d 1155, 1161 n.6 (2013). The United States District Court for the District of Maine has analyzed Maine law on the issue and determined the Law Co......
  • Howard v. Harris
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Northern District of Florida
    • 16 Febrero 2023
    ... ...          Third, ... a glance at the docket would suggest that Plaintiff is ... represented by counsel Richard B. Collins. Mr. Collins ... briefly entered an appearance in this case on behalf of ... Howard & Associates, P.A., ECF No. 15, ... complaint” and not just “immunity from liability ... for a claim of defamation.” Bar Couns. v ... Farber , 464 Mass. 784, 793, 985 N.E.2d 1155, 1163 ... (2013). No case has been located which applies the ... “absolute immunity” of a Bar ... ...
  • Shaw's Supermarkets, Inc. v. Melendez
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Supreme Court
    • 3 Septiembre 2021
    ...basic principles of statutory construction. Thus, we begin with the plain language of the order. See, e.g., Bar Counsel v. Farber, 464 Mass. 784, 791, 985 N.E.2d 1155 (2013) (interpreting S.J.C. Rule 4:01, § 9, as appearing in 425 Mass. 1312 [1997], regarding bar discipline based on "plain ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT