Overview

On March 30, 2018, Judge Rya Zobel of the United States District Court (District of Massachusetts) issued a memorandum of decision on two Defendants’ (NSTAR Electric, formerly Boston Edison, and General Electric) Motions for Summary Judgment in an asbestos personal injury and wrongful death matter, June Stearns and Clifford Stearns as Co-Executors of the Estate of Wayne Oliver v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., et al., that addresses multiple issues, including statute of repose, strict liability and liability of a premises owner.

Background

Plaintiff’s decedent, Wayne Oliver, worked on the construction of two power plants, Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station (Massachusetts) and Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant (Maryland), between 1971 and 1978 and his estate alleges that Mr. Oliver was exposed to asbestos-containing products present at those sites. Defendant NSTAR Electric (formerly Boston Edison)(“Boston Edison”) owned the Pilgrim premises.  Defendant General Electric (“GE”) allegedly designed, manufactured, and sold generators used at Pilgrim and at Calvert Cliffs.  Oliver worked as a pipe inspector for Bechtel, the architect-engineer on projects at both Pilgrim and Calvert Cliffs.

 

As the owner of Pilgrim, Boston Edison conducted safety audits while the construction proceeded, but primary responsibility for the site construction rested with GE and Bechtel: GE for the steam supply system, nuclear fuel system, and the generators themselves; and Bechtel for everything else. In that capacity, Bechtel hired and supervised all subcontractors on the project, including an insulation installer, New England Insulation (“NEI”). Although NEI reported to Bechtel, it installed the asbestos-containing insulation around the generators pursuant to directions from both Bechtel and GE, and pursuant to GE’s specifications that specifically required asbestos-containing insulation.  The Court also recognized that at both Pilgrim and at Calvert Cliffs, GE had rejected suggestions or proposals for an asbestos-free insulation alternative.

 

Oliver allegedly sustained exposure to asbestos at both sites while inspecting pipe near dusty thermal insulation as other subcontractors installed it around the generators. He was subsequently diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2015 and died in 2016.  In denying summary judgment to GE and granting summary judgment to Boston Edison, the Court found that:  (1) while the construction work performed by GE met the definition of an improvement to real property for purposes of the statute of repose, public policy considerations necessitated an exception to the application of the statute in cases involving alleged asbestos-related disease; (2) the installation of asbestos insulation was not an abnormally dangerous activity; (3) Boston Edison did not exercise sufficient control over the work at issue to be held negligent; and (4) a premises owner, such as Boston Edison, has no duty to warn where the subcontractor has knowledge of the hazard which is equal to or greater than that of the premises owner.

 

Application of Statute of Repose

GE argued protection from Plaintiffs’ claims under Massachusetts’s six-year statute of repose, which bars claims concerning “improvements to real property.” Under Massachusetts law, this involves a “permanent addition” versus “ordinary repair.” Whether this statute applied to asbestos claims against manufacturers posed an issue of first impression for the Court. GE argued that its generators were permanent improvements to the plant. Plaintiff disagreed, and further argued that public policy prevented the application of the statute to asbestos claims given their long latency.

 

Ultimately, the Court agreed with GE that the generators were permanent improvements, but found that public policy cut against the application of the statute of repose to GE’s benefit. Though the public policy behind statutes of repose is based on the policy judgment that a potential defendant should have no reasonable expectation of responsibility for injuries that occur after the passage of a number of years, the Court held that such a policy rationale does not apply to asbestos cases because: (1) the potential dangers associated with asbestos exposure were well known by 1971; and (2) the typical latency period from asbestos exposure to disease is much longer than the six-year window for filing personal injury claims under the statute of repose.  Accordingly, the Court found that an asbestos defendant should not have a reasonable expectation that an injury, if one should occur, would likely manifest itself within the six year statute of repose.

 

The Court further relied on what it called a “somewhat relaxed” burden of proof in asbestos cases, thereby minimizing the argument that evidence relied upon by the parties would become stale over the passage of time, another policy reason behind the application of statutes of repose. The Court also noted that GE’s responsibility was not typical of a manufacturer that releases its products to an end user without much retained control. In this case, GE directed the material selection and at least some of the work allegedly giving rise to the exposure.  In addition, GE continued to exercise some level of control for an extended period of time through on-site maintenance and inspections following completion of the project. On these grounds, the Court refused to bar Plaintiffs’ claims against GE on statute of repose grounds.

 

Although the decision purports to rely on a case-by-case factual approach to the application of the statute of repose, as evidenced by the Court’s statement that “although designers, engineers, and contractors like GE appear facially covered by the statute of repose, their protection is ultimately determined by reference to underlying acts.” the Court implicitly states that the statute of repose can never properly apply to asbestos claims, because such application would bestow upon asbestos defendants “absolute immunity” due to the typical latency period for asbestos-related diseases.

 

Strict Liability of Premises Owner

Plaintiff argued for the imposition of strict liability on Boston Edison based on the premise that the act of insulating equipment with asbestos-containing insulation amounted to an abnormally dangerous activity. Massachusetts imposes a balancing test on the application of strict liability in which the court evaluates: (a) whether an activity risks harm; (b) the magnitude of the harm; (c) whether the risk can be mitigated with reasonable care; (d) whether the activity is a common one; (e) whether the activity is appropriate where it is taking place; and (f) the activity’s value to the community. Here, the Court disagreed with Plaintiff’s argument and found that, despite the risk of significant harm posed by asbestos-containing insulation, the fact that asbestos insulation was commonly used during the time frame at issue, and the possibility of taking reasonable precautions to mitigate that harm weighed against the imposition of strict liability. Accordingly, the Court granted summary judgment in favor of Boston Edison on Plaintiffs’ strict liability claim. This decision suggests that, going forward, the Court will not be receptive to the blanket categorization that asbestos products are abnormally dangerous.

 

Negligence of Premises Owner

In addition, Plaintiffs argued that, to the extent Plaintiff’s employer, Bechtel, was negligent by exposing him to asbestos, Boston Edison bears vicarious responsibility. In Massachusetts, an employer of an independent contractor on their premises is not liable for harm caused by that independent contractor’s negligence, unless the employer retains control over performance of the work. Plaintiffs argued that Boston Edison’s authority to monitor the construction, coupled with the ability to shut down the project, rose to a sufficient level of control. The Court disagreed, and considered the right of inspection and the right to impose work stoppage insufficient levels of control to justify imposition of vicarious liability, and granted summary judgment. This decision supports the arguments of premises owners charged with responsibility for their independent contractors, and reaffirms the importance of clearly delineated responsibilities.

 

Plaintiffs further argue that, as premises owner, Boston Edison negligently failed to give Oliver’s employer a warning regarding the dangers of on-premises asbestos. Massachusetts landowners owe a duty of reasonable care to employees of independent contractors. However, courts distinguish pre-existing hazards with those created by the work the independent contractor undertakes to perform. With the latter, the independent contractor stands on equal footing with regard to the risk. The Court considered the insulation a case of the latter—where Boston Edison’s knowledge of the risks of asbestos was no greater than Bechtel’s, Boston Edison had no duty to warn, and therefore no liability, and granted summary judgment. This decision cuts against plaintiffs’ attempts to make premises owners the effective “insurers” for on-premises work, the nature of which subcontractors may be more or equally aware.

A March 22, 2018, denial of a defendant’s summary judgment motion in the New York City Asbestos Litigation (NYCAL) signals a drastic lowering of the product identification standards in that venue (and a possible strategic adjustment necessary in future defendants litigating there).

 

In Trumbull v. Adience, Inc., a former brewer sued Stavo Industries (“Stavo”) as a manufacturer of asbestos-containing products to which the plaintiff was allegedly exposed.  Stavo made, among other products, filters used in breweries. The plaintiff listed Stavo in his interrogatory responses, but not during his deposition testimony.  At his deposition, the plaintiff recalled exposure to filters generally, but only named one specific manufacturer—Cellulo.  However, the plaintiff also referred back, on the record, to his interrogatory responses for the list of filter brands that he supposedly encountered.

 

From Stavo’s perspective, the plaintiff’s general interrogatory mention of Stavo and reference back to those interrogatories during the deposition failed the requirement for product identification. Stavo moved for summary judgment.  Justice Manuel Mendez denied Stavo’s motion, and ruled that a reference back to the interrogatory responses during his deposition did “sufficiently identify” Stavo filters as an exposure source.  The Court found that Stavo’s liability could be inferred from the plaintiff’s testimony that he worked near filters being removed and replaced, considered with Stavo marketing materials from the time at issue claiming widespread usage of Stavo products in the brewing industry.  For the Court, this provided enough evidence to survive summary judgment.

 

After this decision, the bar for product identification in the NYCAL appears dangerously low.  This standard encourages plaintiffs to make blanket references to their vague interrogatory responses in depositions where actual recollection is impossible. It also forces prudent defendants to cross-examine during depositions with or without a specific mention of the defendant’s product occurring. If the NYCAL proceeds with this standard, the number of identifications stands to increase.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating on the bases of race, color, national origin, religion, and sex. Federal circuits are currently split on whether discrimination based on sexual orientation falls within the scope of discrimination based on sex (and therefore within the scope of Title VII’s prohibition). On February 26, 2018, the en banc Second Circuit Court of Appeals found in Zarda v. Altitude Express that Title VII’s prohibition of discrimination based on sex does in fact cover discrimination based on sexual orientation, overturning its own precedent holding from almost twenty years prior. This result signals increased viability for challenges advocating a broader interpretation of Title VII to remedy sexual orientation discrimination, as well as a potential pushback by the Jeff Sessions-helmed Justice Department as these challenges arise.

 

Zarda involved a skydiving instructor (Zarda) who alleged that his employer (Altitude Express) fired him in response to a customer telling them of his sexual orientation. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York granted summary judgment in favor of Altitude Express on Zarda’s claim, finding that Title VII failed to cover sexual orientation discrimination, and that Zarda failed to establish the type of gender-stereotyping claim covered by the act. The District Court considered itself bound by the Second Circuit’s 17-year-old decision in Simonton v. Runyon, and held that, absent an en banc review by the Second Circuit reversing Simonton, Second Circuit precedent required dismissal. Zarda appealed the summary judgment to the Second Circuit, which granted an en banc review. Writing the majority opinion, Judge Robert Katzmann wrote in the majority opinion that sexual orientation discrimination necessarily involves sex discrimination, as it means discrimination against someone based on their own sex in relation to the sex of those to whom they are sexually attracted. Katzmann noted that although Congress had not sought to address sexual orientation discrimination in Title VII, laws like Title VII “often go beyond the principal evil to cover reasonably comparable evils,” which in this case included sexual orientation discrimination. The Second Circuit thus reversed Simonson, vacated the summary judgment, and remanded the Title VII claim to the District Court.

 

By allowing such a claim to proceed under Title VII, the Second Circuit joined the Seventh Circuit, which found last April that Title VII covers sexual orientation discrimination in its decision in Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana. Hively concerned an adjunct professor who alleged that her employer passed her up for full employment because she was openly gay. Hively argued that she faced discriminated for failing to conform to female stereotypes, and because she publicly identified as a lesbian. The Seventh Circuit reversed and remanded the summary judgment in favor of her employer. It found that “discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a form of sex discrimination” and that “a person who alleges that she experienced employment discrimination on the basis of her sexual orientation has put forth a case of sex discrimination for Title VII purposes.” According to the Seventh Circuit, Title VII encompassed both her gender non-conformity and sexual orientation discrimination allegations.

 

The Eleventh Circuit held otherwise in Evans v. Georgia Regional Hospital, decided on March 10, 2017. The case involved a male-identifying security hospital security guard (Evans) allegedly dismissed from employment for failing to present as a woman. Like the plaintiff in Hively, Evans argued that she suffered discrimination due to her gender non-conformity, which she argued fell within the scope of Title VII’s prohibition of sex discrimination. The Eleventh Circuit agreed that Title VII protected against this type of discrimination, but found that she failed to make a prima facie showing of it. The Eleventh Circuit distinguished discrimination based on gender non-conformity from discrimination based on sexual orientation, and found that Title VII did not address the latter.

 

In Franchina v. City of Providence, decided on January 25, 2018, the First Circuit heard the city’s appeal of a verdict and judgment against it for a female firefighter’s Title VII claim that her employer provided her with a hostile workplace, where she suffered discrimination as both a woman and a lesbian. She proceeded under a “sex-plus” theory, or a gender discrimination claim alleging that an employer classifies employees based on their sex “plus” another characteristic (in this case, sexual orientation). The First Circuit held in denying the city’s challenge that the plaintiff’s claim of sexual orientation discrimination, although not technically redressable under Title VII, did not cause her meritorious sex discrimination claim to fail. In a jurisdiction following Zarda’s reasoning, this “sex-plus” heuristic becomes less meaningful or necessary for the plaintiffs to resort to, where sexual orientation itself becomes a protectable distinction. The difference between two jurisdiction’s analyses in cases like Franchina underscores the stakes in the national push for Circuit reconsideration of narrow judicial applications of Title VII.

 

After these cases, a pronounced Circuit split exists on the scope of Title VII’s coverage. On December 11, 2017, the Supreme Court refused certiorari for the plaintiff’s appeal in Evans, but more appeals to the Court’s jurisdiction on this issue appear imminent. The Second Circuit’s reversal appears to increase the impetus for the Supreme Court to address this question. In the meantime, state legislatures draft their own provisions aimed at remedying the type of discrimination typified by these suits.

A California appellate court recently ruled that Tinder’s age-based pricing strategy violated the state’s Unruh Civil Rights Act, which broadly outlaws discrimination based on sex, race, sexual orientation, age, and other classes. California’s Second District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles reversed the trial court’s dismissal of a class action brought by a putative group of customers over 30 years of age, who claim Tinder improperly charged them more for a premium service than it did users in the 18-29 age range.

This case, which has drawn a great deal of publicity, may appear to signal the beginning of a judicial push against age-based price differences, but the implications outside California are likely limited.

 

In March 2015, the free dating service switched to a “freemium” pricing model. Users could still join Tinder without cost, but for a fee, they could upgrade their membership to Tinder Plus and receive additional features, including the ability to undo mistaken swipes or expand their geographic filter for potential matches. For this membership upgrade, users over 30 paid a $20 subscription fee, while users under 30 paid only $14.99 (or $9.99, depending on any promotions in effect).

 

Tinder claimed that before setting the price, it conducted market research that showed that users under 30 were more likely to be “budget constrained” and were less likely to pay an increased fee. The named plaintiffs (one of whom previously sued a women-only networking event to allow the inclusion of men) argued that this stated basis failed to justify what amounted to a surcharge on older customers, some of whom might actually have had less disposable cash than younger users.

 

The court found that, under the Unruh Civil Rights Act, Tinder’s stated basis failed to justify what amounted to age discrimination. The court acknowledged that while this practice might make business sense, it violated the spirit of California’s law, which treats people equally unless the legislature provides an explicit basis to do otherwise (as it has for discounts for elderly persons and minor children). The court found no such legislative basis for young adults generally.

 

Many other products lend themselves well to different pricing tiers like the one challenged in the Tinder case: software licenses, content subscriptions, club memberships, etc. This scrutiny of Tinder’s pricing suggests that potential plaintiffs may scrutinize any pricing benefitting a non-elderly or minor age group. However, because the age-based claim that will now proceed in California is cutting-edge and largely untested, the full impact of this ruling remains to be seen. In several states (California, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin), courts have found that ladies’ nights violate state discrimination laws, but have not clearly addressed age-based pricing in a similar context.  Regardless, the case law in California and elsewhere will continue to develop. For example, it remains an open question whether student discounts would pass the Appeal Court’s “legislative-findings” standard as applied in the Tinder case.

 

 

A group of companies that advertised job opportunities through Facebook’s ad-serving platform discriminated against older members of the applicant pool, claims a proposed class action filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. This filing suggests potential liability for any employer that posts jobs via ads that target recipients based on demographic metadata.

 

As Facebook’s roughly two-billion active users view, like, and share content, they give Facebook concrete information about their preferences and behaviors. Facebook’s ad platform leverages this data by allowing advertisers to reach the users most likely to find their ads relevant. Because Facebook also collects information on its users’ demographic factors, such as  age, race, and gender, critics note a potential for discriminatory ad targeting. In a December 20th filing, a proposed class of older job-seekers on Facebook argued that this discriminatory potential came to fruition when a group of employers (including Amazon, Cox, and T-Mobile) used an age filtering feature for their job postings to target younger cohorts and screen out older ones in violation of the Age Discrimination Employment Act (ADEA).

 

Largely in response to concerns about the opacity of Facebook’s ad-targeting, Facebook offers a feature on each ad that allows users to determine “Why am I seeing this ad?” Based on job postings like the one above, class members claim they were screened off from job postings that reached younger Facebook users. Since this filing, Facebook, which was not named a defendant, commented in response to this suit that its ads could be part of a broader media campaign by hiring employers, and that targeting is a permissible part of a diversified hiring strategy. Facebook further noted that its ads are no different from TV and magazine ads, which inherently reach different demographics by virtue of their viewer and subscriber bases.

 

Several important implications from this filing:

 

  • Targeting may not equal discrimination, but it can get you sued.

 

The defendant employers likely share Facebook’s view—that targeting is not per se discrimination. Whether or not this argument prevails, this filing shows that applicants scrutinize potential discrimination in posting criteria as well as in the hiring decision. The plaintiffs argue that Facebook ads are so ubiquitous and pervasive that being screened off from those ads is to be effectively eliminated from the pool. Courts will have to decide whether or not targeting gives rise to ADEA liability, but before the question can be settled, employers accused of targeting will be dragged into expensive, broad-ranging suits like this one if their postings facially preference a certain age.

 

  • This is bigger than Facebook postings.

 

Facebook is not the only platform with targeted ads. A 12/20/17 ProPublica and New York Times report highlighting potentially discriminatory employment ads found that Google’s AdSense and LinkedIn ads had the same age-filtering capability (LinkedIn since eliminated this function). Going forward, postings through these and other, smaller ad-serving platforms can expect the same scrutiny by potential plaintiffs and their lawyers. The proposed class presently includes the Communications Workers of America, an international union representing 700,000 workers in telecom, cable, IT, media, education, and public service sectors, but the groups affected by these targeted online ads putatively include job seekers and employers in every conceivable industry.

 

  • This age filter was just the one the plaintiffs could see—the next frontiers of litigation are the ones we can’t yet see.

 

This suit focuses on an overt age filter, one that is visible to the applicant-user. The direct connection between the targeting factor and the impermissible criteria (age) presents an ideal argument for the plaintiffs’ lawyers, i.e.: where the defendants chose to click on an age range to target, their intent to discriminate based on age can be inferred. The immediate result of this filing will likely be the removal of age-filtering options (following LinkedIn’s example), but this will not end the inquiry into targeted job postings. Ad-serving platforms have a wealth of data that gives them a subtler capacity to discriminate, and plaintiffs will dig deeper into the nuances of Facebook’s and other algorithms to uncover more sophisticated discrimination, like using permissible targeting factors as a proxy for impermissible ones.

 

The diversity of the data collected by Facebook creates the ability to use other factors as a proxy for age. For example, if a tech company sought to preference millennial applicants and exclude older ones, it might target users who liked, viewed, and shared content about fidget spinners, vape pens, and avocado toast (or any number of factors that correlate strongly with millennial status), rather than flagging its intent by selecting the 18-38 age range. The age-filtering effect on who receives the ads might be the same, but the intent would be harder to discern. Ads could use proxies to target factors other than age, such as race, gender, or sexual orientation, which by their nature would be more likely to use coded methods than overt ones. The basis for these “proxy-factor” claims requires an understanding of an ad-serving platform’s targeting algorithm. If this class action proceeds to discovery, the key struggle will be between the plaintiffs’ press to lay bare the criteria of this algorithm and Facebook’s push to protect its and its advertisers’ proprietary information. The stakes in this struggle are the viability of future claims along these lines.

 

In the meantime, employers posting jobs online should avoid applying overt age filters to targeted ads on platforms like Facebook. Other sites with embedded ads may use similar functionalities, so be sure to double check what you’ve selected before posting.