Walter E. Fernald Corp. v. Governor

Decision Date29 May 2015
Docket NumberSJC–11801.
Citation31 N.E.3d 47,471 Mass. 520
CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Supreme Court

Joseph Callanan, Assistant Attorney General (John M. Donnelly, Assistant Attorney General, with him) for the defendants.

Thomas J. Frain (C. Alex Hahn with him) for the plaintiff.




, J.

The Walter E. Fernald Corporation (corporation), established in 1850, is a charitable organization devoted to serving the needs of the developmentally disabled. The corporation brought an action in the Land Court, seeking, among other things, a declaration under G.L. c. 231A, § 1

(declaratory judgment act), that it is the owner of certain parcels of recorded land. The parcels are located on Norcross Hill in Templeton (Templeton parcels). As defendants in its suit, the corporation named the Governor, the Department of Developmental Services, and the Division of Capital Asset Management (collectively, the Commonwealth); the Commonwealth had asserted ownership of the Templeton parcels by, among other things, naming several of them in a statute designating an expanse of land for conservation and public recreational purposes. See St. 2002, c. 504.

A judge of the Land Court denied the Commonwealth's motion to dismiss the corporation's suit on grounds of sovereign immunity. Subsequently, the judge allowed the corporation's motion for summary judgment. The judge concluded that there could be no genuine dispute that, although a school established by the corporation became an agency of the Commonwealth in the early Twentieth Century, the corporation itself remained independent of the Commonwealth, and purchased the Templeton parcels on its own behalf. The judge therefore entered judgment declaring the corporation's ownership of the parcels.

We affirm, holding that sovereign immunity does not apply to the particular type of action brought here and adopting the same analysis of the facts taken by the judge below.

1. Background. We outline the facts that gave rise to this litigation, reserving the details for later discussion.

The corporation was created by a special act of the Legislature, at a time when no general framework had been enacted for the establishment of corporations.2 See St. 1850, c. 150. The incorporating statute gave the corporation the name, unfortunate by today's lights, “the Massachusetts School for Idiotic and Feeble-minded Youth.” St. 1850, c. 150, § 1

. As soon as it was created,

the corporation established a school, also named “the Massachusetts School for Idiotic and Feeble-minded Youth” (school). In addition, the corporation devoted resources to conducting and publishing research.

Over the years, the corporation changed its name several times. In 1883, as the school began to accept adults as well as children, the corporation took the name “the Massachusetts School for the Feeble–Minded.” Other name changes were made in 1925 (“the Walter E. Fernald State School) and 1987 (“the Walter E. Fernald State School Corporation). The corporation assumed its current name (“the Walter E. Fernald Corporation) in 2006. Walter E. Fernald, for whom the corporation eventually was named, served as the school's longtime superintendent in the early Twentieth Century.

From the start, the Commonwealth made appropriations to help support the school, both annually and for specific purposes. See, e.g., Resolves 1851, c. 44; St. 1901, c. 303. In several instances, the Commonwealth provided funding to purchase land for the school. See Resolves 1887, c. 64; Resolves 1897, c. 64. The corporation purchased the Templeton parcels with its own money, in a series of transactions conducted between 1923 and 1969. This land was used by the school at various times, particularly for farming.

In 2002, the Legislature enacted a statute designating enumerated parcels of land for “conservation and public recreational purposes.” St. 2002, c. 504. Five of the six Templeton parcels were included among those listed in the statute.3 The corporation brought an action in the Land Court, seeking, among other things, a declaration that the Templeton parcels are owned by the corporation.

Portions of the corporation's complaint were dismissed by a Land Court judge in an order issued on February 14, 2011. The judge determined, in that decision, that the Governor was not a necessary or proper party, and that the relief sought by the corporation other than declaratory relief was not within the Land Court's jurisdiction. The judge did not, however, agree with the Commonwealth that the corporation's suit was barred altogether by the doctrine of sovereign immunity.

The corporation moved for summary judgment on the balance

of its complaint. In another order, issued on December 27, 2013, the Land Court judge allowed the motion and declared the corporation's ownership of the parcels, free of any claims by the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth appealed, arguing that the judge erred both in his rejection of the Commonwealth's sovereign immunity defense and in his resolution of the merits. We transferred the appeal to this court on our own motion.

2. Standard of review. We review a grant of summary judgment de novo. See Federal Nat'l Mtge. Ass'n v. Hendricks, 463 Mass. 635, 637, 977 N.E.2d 552 (2012)

. We “need not rely on the rationale cited and ‘may consider any ground supporting the judgment.’ District Attorney for N. Dist. v. School Comm. of Wayland, 455 Mass. 561, 566, 918 N.E.2d 796 (2009), quoting Augat, Inc. v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co., 410 Mass. 117, 120, 571 N.E.2d 357 (1991). Summary judgment is appropriate if, viewed “in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party,” Fuller v. First Fin. Ins. Co., 448 Mass. 1, 5, 858 N.E.2d 288 (2006), the materials properly in the summary judgment record “show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Mass. R. Civ. P. 56(c), as amended, 436 Mass. 1404 (2002).

3. Sovereign immunity. The doctrine of sovereign immunity provides that the Commonwealth “cannot be impleaded into its own courts except with its consent.” Randall v. Haddad, 468 Mass. 347, 354, 10 N.E.3d 1099 (2014)

(Randall ), quoting Woodbridge v. Worcester State Hosp., 384 Mass. 38, 42, 423 N.E.2d 782 (1981). Such consent may be provided “by statute; it also may be “implicit[ ], where ‘governmental liability is necessary to effectuate the legislative purpose.’ Woodward Sch. For Girls, Inc. v. City of Quincy, 469 Mass. 151, 177, 13 N.E.3d 579 (2014), quoting Todino v. Wellfleet, 448 Mass. 234, 238, 860 N.E.2d 1 (2007). The doctrine applies “both to money judgments and more generally to ‘interference by the court at the behest of litigants.’ Boxford v. Massachusetts Highway Dep't, 458 Mass. 596, 601, 940 N.E.2d 404 (2010)

, quoting New Hampshire Ins. Guar. Ass'n v. Markem Corp., 424 Mass. 344, 351, 676 N.E.2d 809 (1997).

Sovereign immunity originated in the ancient notion that [t]he king can do no wrong.” J.A. Sullivan Corp. v. Commonwealth, 397 Mass. 789, 793, 494 N.E.2d 374 (1986)

. Scholars have for many years “suggested that the doctrine is an anachronism in American law,” given our nation's rejection of the monarchy. See Morash & Sons, Inc. v. Commonwealth, 363 Mass. 612, 618, 296 N.E.2d 461 (1973) (Morash & Sons ), citing K.C. Davis, 3 Administrative Law § 25.01, at 435 (1958). Many courts and legislatures have agreed; “[t]he courts in some

jurisdictions have abolished the doctrine of governmental immunity entirely,” and [a]ll other jurisdictions have eroded the immunity by both statutory exceptions and judge made exceptions.” Morash & Sons, supra at 618–619, 296 N.E.2d 461

, and cases cited. See H.J. Alperin, Summary of Basic Law § 17.132, at 870 (4th ed. 2009).

Our own view has been that “there should be limits to governmental liability and exceptions to the rule of liability.” Morash & Sons, 363 Mass. at 623, 296 N.E.2d 461

. Yet we also have recognized that an overly comprehensive rule of sovereign immunity is “unjust and indefensible as a matter of logic and sound public policy.” Whitney v. Worcester, 373 Mass. 208, 209, 366 N.E.2d 1210 (1977) (Whitney ). We have explained that sovereign immunity creates an “inversion of the law,” shielding the government from liability for wrongs that ordinarily would be redressed. See Morash & Sons, supra at 621, 296 N.E.2d 461. Although this “inversion of the law,” id., is financially beneficial to the general public, “it can hardly be termed sound public policy that some persons contribute only tax revenues to the commonwealth while from others additional contribution is exacted in the form of uncompensated injuries.” Whitney, supra at 215, 366 N.E.2d 1210.

We have “long recognized that ‘sovereign immunity is a judicially created common law concept,’ ... and, as such, is subject to judicial abrogation or limitation.” Randall, 468 Mass. at 356, 10 N.E.3d 1099

, quoting Morash & Sons, 363 Mass. at 615, 296 N.E.2d 461, and citing Whitney, 373 Mass. at 212, 366 N.E.2d 1210. In 1977, we announced our intention to abrogate sovereign immunity in tort cases. See Whitney, supra at 210, 366 N.E.2d 1210. Soon thereafter, the Legislature enacted the Tort Claims Act, G.L. c. 258, which permits recovery, subject to certain exceptions and limitations, for torts committed by the Commonwealth, its subdivisions, and its agents. No similar legislative action was needed with regard to actions in contract, since the law has long been settled that “a State consents to jurisdiction by voluntarily entering into a contract.” J.A. Sullivan Corp. v. Commonwealth, 397 Mass. at 793, 494 N.E.2d 374.

Sovereign immunity remains in place in other areas of the law. See Randall, 468 Mass. at 357, 10 N.E.3d 1099

. We have identified three “reasons of justice and public policy” (citation and quotation omitted), id. at...

To continue reading

Request your trial
4 cases
  • Minich v. Spencer
    • United States
    • Massachusetts Superior Court
    • May 12, 2016
    ...may be provided 'by statute'; it also may be 'implicit[ ], where governmental liability is necessary to effectuate the legislative purpose.'" Id. (alteration original) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). " The rules of construction governing statutory waivers of sovereign immu......
  • Nordberg v. Commonwealth
    • United States
    • Appeals Court of Massachusetts
    • October 10, 2019
    ...Air Serv., Inc. v. Division of Fisheries & Game, 342 Mass. 356, 357-358, 173 N.E.2d 614 (1961). See also Walter E. Fernald Corp. v. Governor, 471 Mass. 520, 525, 31 N.E.3d 47 (2015) ("we have continued to maintain that a plaintiff cannot sidestep the common-law shield of sovereign immunity,......
  • Padmanabhan v. Bd. of Registration in Med.
    • United States
    • Appeals Court of Massachusetts
    • June 13, 2022
    ... ... c. 13, § 10, the board's members are ... appointed by the Governor, who may remove them "for ... neglect of duty, misconduct, ... entitled to sovereign immunity. See, e.g., ... Walter E. Fernald Corp. v ... Governor, 471 Mass. 520, 524 (2015) ... ...
  • Stover v. Dep't of Conservation
    • United States
    • Appeals Court of Massachusetts
    • June 29, 2015
    ...does not expressly waive immunity with respect to actions to quiet title. However, such a waiver is implied. Walter E. Fernald Corp. v. The Governor, 471 Mass. 520, 526 (2015) ("holding that sovereign immunity does not encompass actions by which a plaintiff seeks to vindicate its ownership ......

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