City of Boston v. Keene Corp.

Decision Date14 December 1989
Citation406 Mass. 301,547 N.E.2d 328
PartiesCITY OF BOSTON, et al. 1 v. KEENE CORPORATION, et al. 2 , Attorney General, intervener.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Supreme Court

Rory FitzPatrick, Boston, for Nat. Gypsum Co. and others.

Stanley J. Levy, New York City (Steven P. Perlmutter, Boston, with him), for City of Boston and others.

William L. Pardee, Asst. Atty. Gen., for Atty. Gen., intervener.

Lawrence G. Cetrulo, Boston, for Armstrong World Industries, was present but did not argue.

Richard M. Bluestein, Brookline, and Janet Steckel Lundberg, Natick, for Boston Housing Authority, amicus curiae, submitted a brief.


GREANEY, Justice.

In this case, the defendants, eighteen named manufacturers of asbestos-containing products, challenge the constitutionality (under various provisions of the Declaration of Rights of the Massachusetts Constitution) of St.1986, c. 336 (set forth in full below), 3 which (1) establishes a six-year limitations period for "asbestos related corrective actions" brought by the Commonwealth or any of its political subdivisions, and (2) provides a four-year period during which any such action "which would otherwise be barred" may be brought. After deciding that a suitable controversy exists that ought to be determined by a declaration of rights under G.L. c. 231A, we conclude that St.1986, c. 336, is constitutional.

The background of the case is as follows. The city of Boston, joined by the other plaintiffs, filed suit against the defendants in the Superior Court on March 27, 1986, seeking to recover the costs of removing asbestos from certain public buildings in Boston. The complaint is now proceeding on theories of negligence, nuisance, and breach of express and implied warranties. The defendants denied any liability, and in their answers raised a number of affirmative defenses, among them that the statute of limitations applicable to each particular claim had run and barred the cause of action.

On July 22, 1986, St.1986, c. 336, was signed into law (effective ninety days later). In October of 1987, the defendants filed an amended answer containing counterclaims by which they sought, among other relief, a declaration under G.L. c. 231A, that St.1986, c. 336, was unconstitutional under various provisions of the Declaration of Rights of the Massachusetts Constitution. The defendants moved for summary judgment on their counterclaims pursuant to Mass.R.Civ.P. 56(a), 365 Mass. 824 (1974). After hearing, a judge of the Superior Court ordered that the counterclaims "be dismissed on the merits." The judge also decided under Mass.R.Civ.P. 54(b), 365 Mass. 821 (1974), that there was "no just reason for delay," and he directed the entry of an immediate judgment dismissing the counterclaims. The defendants took a timely appeal.

1. The Attorney General argues that an "actual controversy" suitable for declaratory judgment under G.L. c. 231A does not exist. He contends that, until it has been established that the ordinary limitations period applicable to one or more of the plaintiffs' claims has run, there is no basis to consider the validity of St.1986, c. 336.

The "actual controversy" requirement of G.L. c. 231A, § 1, is to be liberally construed, see Massachusetts Ass'n of Independent Ins. Agents & Brokers, Inc. v. Commissioner of Ins., 373 Mass. 290, 293, 367 N.E.2d 796 (1977), and a party seeking declaratory judgment need not demonstrate an actual impairment of rights. See School Comm. of Cambridge v. Superintendent of Schools of Cambridge, 320 Mass. 516, 518, 70 N.E.2d 298 (1946). Rather, we require only that the pleading "set forth a real dispute caused by the assertion by one party of a legal relation or status or right in which he has a definite interest and the denial of such assertion by the other party, where the circumstances ... indicate that, unless a determination is had, subsequent litigation as to the identical subject matter will ensue." Hogan v. Hogan, 320 Mass. 658, 662, 70 N.E.2d 821 (1947). See School Comm. of Cambridge v. Superintendent of Schools of Cambridge, supra, 320 Mass. at 518, 70 N.E.2d 298. Further, an express purpose of declaratory judgment is to "afford relief from ... uncertainty and insecurity with respect to rights, duties, status and other legal relations." G.L. c. 231A, § 9. Cf. Wellesley College v. Attorney Gen., 313 Mass. 722, 731, 49 N.E.2d 220 (1943).

This case raises questions of considerable importance concerning matters of public health and safety, and it involves potential damages awards possibly totalling as much as several hundred million dollars. Resolution of the constitutional validity of St.1986, c. 336, will serve to expedite decision in the trial court of what may be a very lengthy case by focusing the parties on issues other than the statute's possible application. There is a measure of discretion in deciding whether a case is appropriate for declaratory relief. We conclude that the judge acted properly in deciding that there existed a controversy over St.1986, c. 336, which should be put to rest by a prompt declaration of rights.

2. We begin our analysis of the constitutional issues presented in this case by noting the difficult burden the defendants face. In asking us to strike down St.1986, c. 336, as unconstitutional, the defendants run squarely into the settled rule that a reviewing court must grant all rational presumptions in favor of the constitutionality of a legislative enactment. See Paddock v. Brookline, 347 Mass. 230, 232, 197 N.E.2d 321 (1964); Druzik v. Board of Health of Haverhill, 324 Mass. 129, 138-139, 85 N.E.2d 232 (1949). The sole issue is whether the statute falls within the legislative power to enact, not whether it comports with a court's idea of wise or efficient legislation. See Zeller v. Cantu, 395 Mass. 76, 85, 478 N.E.2d 930 (1985); Klein v. Catalano, 386 Mass. 701, 710 n. 11, 437 N.E.2d 514 (1982); Opinion of the Justices, 368 Mass. 880, 886 n. 1, 335 N.E.2d 362 (1975). The party challenging the statute's constitutionality must demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt, see Klein v. Catalano, supra, 386 Mass. at 706-707, 437 N.E.2d 514, that there are no "conceivable grounds" which could support its validity. See Zeller v. Cantu, supra, 395 Mass. at 84, 478 N.E.2d 930; Commonwealth v. Franklin Fruit Co., 388 Mass. 228, 235, 446 N.E.2d 63 (1983).

With these principles in mind, we proceed to the constitutional issues presented for determination. The defendants raise two primary arguments against the constitutionality of St.1986, c. 336: (1) the statute violates art. 10 of the Declaration of Rights (the classification claim); 4 and (2) the statute violates the substantive due process provisions of the Massachusetts Constitution by reviving claims on which the statute of limitations already has run (the revival claim.) 5

3. With respect to the classification claim, the defendants first argue that St.1986, c. 336, violates the first sentence of art. 10 of the Declaration of Rights, which provides that "[e]ach individual of the society has a right to be protected by it in the enjoyment of his life, Liberty and property, according to standing Laws." 6 The constitutional infirmity, contend the defendants, lies in the fact that St.1986, c. 336, constitutes improper special legislation. We disagree.

Article 10 prohibits the Legislature from enacting special legislation which "single[s] out any person for special privileges or advantages at the expense of the rights of another," Sciuto v. Lawrence, 389 Mass. 939, 944, 452 N.E.2d 1148 (1983), ensuring thereby the constitutional principle that all similarly situated citizens of a society are governed under generally applicable laws. We have made it clear, however, that art. 10 cannot be applied mechanically. The mere fact that a statute constitutes special legislation 7 rather than general legislation does not render it unconstitutional per se. See Boston Gas Co. v. Department of Pub. Utils., 387 Mass. 531, 536-537, 441 N.E.2d 746 (1982) (noting that art. 10 is not automatically violated by a statute which applies only to an individual or a small group); Commissioner of Pub. Health v. Bessie M. Burke Memorial Hosp., 366 Mass. 734, 740, 323 N.E.2d 309 (1975) (affirming the Legislature's power to enact special legislation). We have said that the Legislature may go so far as to confer an outright bounty on selected individuals "if some public purpose is promoted, [that is] if the statute is 'for the good and welfare' of the Commonwealth (Constitution, Part II, c. 1, § 1, art. 4), as to which the Legislature's judgment will weigh heavily." Commissioner of Pub. Health v. Bessie M. Burke Memorial Hosp., supra at 744, 323 N.E.2d 309. See Opinion of the Justices, 354 Mass. 799, 801, 238 N.E.2d 855 (1968); Wachusett Regional School Dist. Comm. v. Erickson, 353 Mass. 77, 80, 228 N.E.2d 62 (1967); Gray v. Salem, 271 Mass. 495, 498, 171 N.E. 432 (1930).

Statute 1986, c. 336, does not fit the pattern of those cases in which, because of a benefit to a person singled out, this court has found a violation of the prohibition of the first sentence of art. 10. The 1986 act applies to a wide range and large number of governmental entities. In addition to the Commonwealth, it applies to all fourteen counties, thirty-nine cities, three hundred twelve towns; numerous school, water, and fire districts; every housing authority; and each and every other political subdivision in the Commonwealth. Perhaps the act raises due process of law issues because of its impact on the defendants, a point we shall come to. It is not, however, an example of special legislation violative of the prohibition of the first sentence of art. 10 of the Declaration of Rights. We have never held that legislation benefiting such a large number of entities is subject to the prohibition, and...

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