Lynch v. Crawford, SJC-12700

CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts
Citation135 N.E.3d 1037,483 Mass. 631
Decision Date10 December 2019
Docket NumberSJC-12700
Parties Judy C. LYNCH & others v. Keith D. CRAWFORD & others (and a consolidated case ).

483 Mass. 631
135 N.E.3d 1037

Judy C. LYNCH & others1
Keith D. CRAWFORD & others2 (and a consolidated case 3 ).


Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Suffolk..

Argued September 5, 2019
Decided December 10, 2019

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

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

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

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

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


483 Mass. 632
135 N.E.3d 1040

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

483 Mass. 633

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, 950 N.E.2d 40 (2011), and Marcus v. Newton, 462 Mass. 148, 967 N.E.2d 140 (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, 114 N.E.3d 1021 (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

135 N.E.3d 1041

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, 114 N.E.3d 1021. 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.

483 Mass. 634

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 Pollack v. Kelly, 372 Mass. 469, 470-471, 362 N.E.2d 525 (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." Patel v. Martin, 481 Mass. 29, 32, 111 N.E.3d 1082 (2018), quoting Maddocks v. Ricker, 403 Mass. 592, 596, 531 N.E.2d 583 (1988). "The doctrine is intended to be invoked narrowly to avoid piecemeal appeals from interlocutory decisions that will delay the resolution of the trial court case, increase the over-all cost of the litigation, and burden our appellate courts." Patel, supra.

In civil cases, one of those limited circumstances in which we invoke the doctrine of present execution is "where protection from the burden of litigation and trial is precisely the right to which [a party] asserts an entitlement." Estate of Moulton v. Puopolo, 467 Mass. 478, 485, 5 N.E.3d 908 (2014). Where a party claims immunity from suit but does not prevail on

135 N.E.3d 1042

a motion to dismiss or for summary judgment, the party cannot completely vindicate his or her rights on appeal from a final judgment because the party would already then have defended the case at trial -- exactly what immunity from suit was "designed to prevent." See Patel, 481 Mass. at 33, 111 N.E.3d 1082. "[E]ven if the erroneous order were ultimately reversed after trial, the right to immunity from suit would still have been ‘lost forever.’ " Id., quoting Brum v. Dartmouth, 428 Mass. 684, 688, 704 N.E.2d 1147 (1999).

Where absolute or qualified immunity is provided by statute or common law, we discern whether the right to immunity is from suit or from liability, because only immunity from suit entitles a

483 Mass. 635

party to an interlocutory appeal under the doctrine of present execution. See Breault v. Chairman of the Bd. of Fire Comm'rs of Springfield, 401 Mass. 26, 31, 513 N.E.2d 1277 (1987), cert. denied sub nom. Forastiere v. Breault, 485 U.S. 906, 108 S.Ct. 1078, 99 L.Ed.2d 237 (1988) ("The defendant would not benefit from our rule of ‘present execution’ ... if the asserted right to immunity is but a right to freedom from liability ..., for in that case his right could be vindicated fully on appeal after trial. If, however, the asserted right is one of freedom from suit, the defendant's right will be lost forever unless that right is determined now, and his appeal is proper").

In considering claims of absolute or qualified immunity by governmental entities or employees, we have interpreted the immunity to provide protection from suit, not merely from liability; therefore, we have applied the doctrine of present execution to allow an interlocutory appeal from an order denying a motion to dismiss or for summary judgment brought by someone asserting such immunity. See Boxford v. Massachusetts Highway Dep't, 458 Mass. 596, 601, 940 N.E.2d 404 (2010) (town entitled to interlocutory appeal from denial of motion to...

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