Author Archives: James Daily

Uncle Ben at the Supreme Court

Thanks to Joe, Josh, and others for pointing out Justice Kagan’s quotation in yesterday’s decision in Kimble v. Marvel:

What we can decide, we can undecide. But stare decisis teaches that we should exercise that authority sparingly. Cf. S. Lee and S. Ditko, Amazing Fantasy No. 15: “Spider-Man,” p. 13 (1962) (“[I]n this world, with great power there must also come—great responsibility”). Finding many reasons for staying the stare decisis course and no “special justification” for departing from it, we decline Kimble’s invitation to overrule Brulotte.

I happen to disagree with the majority’s decision; Brulotte v. Thys was wrongly decided*, and the Court wasted a rare opportunity to correct a mistake.  So on the one hand the citation and other references to Spider-Man were fun, but on the other hand it felt a little too cute by half for a decision that will ultimately result in Marvel (now part of the second largest media company in the world) avoiding royalty payments to an individual inventor whose idea Marvel (apparently) pretty blatantly ripped off.  The tone of the opinion is incongruous with its consequences.

It may seem a little overly dramatic in a case that is ultimately about money, but I am reminded of Robert Cover’s Violence and the Word:

Legal interpretation takes place in a field of pain and death. This is true in several senses. Legal interpretive acts signal and occasion the imposition of violence upon others: A judge articulates her understanding of a text, and as a result, somebody loses his freedom, his property, his children, even his life. Interpretations in law also constitute justifications for violence which has already occurred or which is about to occur. When interpreters have finished their work, they frequently leave behind victims whose lives have been torn apart by these organized, social practices of violence. Neither legal interpretation nor the violence it occasions may be properly understood apart from one another.

This is not to say that all judicial writing should be humorless.  I have enjoyed reading any number of funny, often acerbic opinions, but those opinions were usually written in response to parties that were themselves behaving badly or foolishly, and so deserved to be treated lightly or even mockingly.  In this case, however, the Court has sided with a multi-billion dollar corporation over an individual inventor and did so on fairly technical grounds.  The majority interpreted the law of stare decisis, and as a result Stephen Kimble lost his property (i.e. the contractual right to royalties from sales of the patented toy).  This does not seem like an appropriate occasion for such levity.

Stepping back off my soap box, I promise the next post will return to discussing the legal implications of comic book hijinks.

* A full discussion of why this is the case is beyond the scope of this blog, but if you’re interested, see the dissent in Kimble and Judge Posner’s opinion in Scheiber v. Dolby Labs.

Who’s paying for all of this?! Thor: the Dark World Part 2

(This guest post was written by Christopher Chan, who is currently studying for his Master of Laws at University College London.  He is an aspiring barrister in London, England looking to practise in the areas of insolvency and restructuring.)

In the first part of my examination of Thor: the Dark World, I looked at who the University of Greenwich (“the Claimant”) could sue for the property damage it suffered as a result of the battle between Thor and Malekith in the final act of the film. Here, we take a look at whether the Claimant may still be compensated for its loss by suing the employer of the film’s protagonists, S.H.I.E.L.D., under the doctrine of vicarious liability.

The conclusion reached in my previous analysis was not a good one for the Claimant. There is a claim against Malekith, but serving his estate in the realm of Svartalfheim with a claim form would be difficult. Suing the God of Thunder presents the same problem, but there is also the additional concern of public authority immunity from negligence claims. Ms Foster, Mr Selvig, Ms Lewis and Mr Boothby (“the Additional Party”) all had a hand in the loss suffered by the Claimant as well, but the amount of assets they own would make recovery from them pointless. It would seem then that the University would have to pay for the renovation of their institution out of their own pocket.

Luckily, the University of Greenwich may still raise a claim against S.H.I.E.L.D. as the employer of the film’s protagonists. This would be under the doctrine of vicarious liability, which makes an employer liable for the torts committed by its employees. This is a very attractive option for the Claimant because not only is S.H.I.E.L.D.’s primary residence on Earth, it possesses a substantial fortune to recover from. In the second part of my analysis of Thor: the Dark World, I look at how the University of Greenwich can argue the doctrine of vicarious liability in English tort law in making S.H.I.E.L.D. liable for the negligence of Thor and his companions.

 

Vicarious liability

Simply put, vicarious liability makes an employer liable for a tort committed by the employee. The tort in question here is negligence. The doctrine requires that (i) a tort was committed by the employee; (ii) that the employee can be said to be in a relationship of employment with the employer; and (iii) that the tort was committed in the course of employment. In the first part of my analysis, I had established already the strong case that the Claimant has against the defendants for negligence. The following discussion will focus on the second and third requirements of vicarious liability as they relate to Thor and the Additional Party.

 

An employment relationship

It may seem obvious who the employee and employer are between the two parties, but determining whether such a relationship existed when a tort was committed has proven to be a complex matter for the Courts. The starting point will be something as simple as whether there is a contract of employment in existence. But beyond the hard evidence available, the traditional test has been one of control: an employer is someone who could not only tell an employee what to do, but also how to do it. Deviations are made from this general test depending on the facts and circumstances of each case. Take an employee who possesses special skill, such as the ability to summon lightning. An employer may well be able to tell Thor what to do with this skill, but giving orders on how to do so is another matter entirely!

In fact, the traditional test of control has shown its limits in applicability over the years. In the case of Cassidy v Ministry of Health [1951] 2 KB 343, an employer was found liable for the torts of its employees despite the fact that the latter had special skill and thus an absence of control. The modern approach of whether there is an employment relationship takes a holistic view; the courts will take a look at the entire relationship. Certain elements will undoubtedly be of particular significance, such as the degree of control, who has the right of appointment and dismissal, method of payment, and the provision of work equipment (Ready Mixed Concrete (South East) Ltd v Minister of Pensions and National Insurance [1968] 2 QB 497).

The film does not provide much evidence as to what sort of relationship S.H.I.E.L.D. has with Thor or the Additional Party. We know from Avengers Assemble that Thor is at the very least an Avenger, and Mr Selvig was working for S.H.I.E.L.D. at the beginning of that film before he was brainwashed by Loki. However, Mr Selvig was interned in a mental hospital by the time of Thor: the Dark World, so his employment with S.H.I.E.L.D. may have terminated. Finally, there is no indication as to whether Ms Foster, Ms Lewis and Mr Boothby work for S.H.I.E.L.D. either, despite sharing similar goals.

Regardless, let us not have something as silly as the lack of evidence halt us from our analysis. Were an employment relationship to be assumed, the Claimant must next prove that the tort committed by Thor and the Additional Party was done in the course of employment.

 

In the course of employment

It is not enough that S.H.I.E.L.D. was the employer at the relevant time; the tort must also be committed in the course of employment. So an employer cannot be made liable for a tort committed by an employee off the clock. Answering this question does however bring us back to the consideration made in the first part of my analysis concerning acting in a public versus private capacity. Remember, the UK Courts have shown a reluctance to impose a duty of care on a public authority for policy reasons. The preliminary question then is whether S.H.I.E.L.D. is a public authority.

The publication history of S.H.I.E.L.D. has shown that control over the organisation has shifted between the United Nations and the United States government depending on the storyline. Fortunately, both bodies are considered public authorities, which suffices for the purpose of this discussion. Thus, as employees of S.H.I.E.L.D., as a public body, there is a viable defence for our heroes to be exempt from liability for policy reasons.

Nevertheless, let us consider the possibility that S.H.I.E.L.D. is a private body. In determining this component of vicarious liability, the Courts have traditionally adopted the Salmond test. This test states that a tort will be committed in the course of employment if it is either (a) a wrongful act authorised by the master, or (b) a wrongful and unauthorised mode of doing some act authorised by the master. The Courts have however demonstrated a tendency to go beyond this test by looking at how closely connected the tort is with the employment.

The relevant principle to be applied concerning the close connection test is whether the tort is so closely connected to the employment, the employer can be said to have introduced the risk of the wrong (Lister v Hesley Hall Ltd [2001] UKHL 22). The tort our heroes are liable for is the property damage they caused in the course of battling Malekith. The mandate of S.H.I.E.L.D. is the defence of Earth from paranormal and superhuman threats. It is therefore likely that Thor and his companions would be found acting in the course of their employment given the close connection found between the purpose of their conduct and the raison d’etre of S.H.I.E.L.D.

It can be concluded then that if S.H.I.E.L.D. is considered to be a public body, then our heroes have acted in the course of their employment sufficient to absolve themselves from liability. But if S.H.I.E.L.D. were a private body, then it would be vicariously liable for the torts committed.

 

Conclusion

Taking stock of the conclusions made in the first and second parts of my analysis, the University of Greenwich is advised to raise a claim against S.H.I.E.L.D. for the vicarious liability of Thor and the Additional Party. The defendant will argue vigorously that they should be exempt from liability on public policy grounds, but failing such a defence, the close connection test will prevent the employer from distancing itself from the actions of the film’s heroes. Claiming against S.H.I.E.L.D. is the most attractive option given the vast fortune it possesses, and the practical advantages of serving a claim form on a defendant that maintains a primary residence on Earth.

Who’s paying for all of this?! Thor: the Dark World Part 1

(This guest post was written by Christopher Chan, who is currently studying for his Master of Laws at University College London.  He is an aspiring barrister in London, England looking to practise in the areas of insolvency and restructuring.)

In the final act of Thor: the Dark World, our hero faces off against Malekith in a bid to save the world from total darkness. Predictably, the supervillain is no match for the God of Thunder, but the real victim of the clash is the University of Greenwich. The battle that ensued on the campus of this historical institution resulted in an astronomical amount of property damage. Since the event giving rise to damages occurred on English soil, the applicable law for a claim would be English tort law. This will be the first part of an analysis looking at whom the University of Greenwich (“the Claimant”) may sue under the tort of negligence for loss suffered. The second part will consider whether it may be more sensible to sue S.H.I.E.L.D. as the employer of our superhero.

 

A claim in negligence

When an ordinary citizen harms another, whether it is an injury to the body or damage to one’s property, a private claim can be made under the tort of negligence for compensation. To succeed in a claim of negligence, the Claimant will have to prove a number of elements to satisfy the Court.

The first element is the existence of a sufficient connection between the Claimant and the defendant. This is known in law as owing a duty of care, which is another way of saying one owes a responsibility to another person. In establishing this connection, the traditional principle the English Courts have used is the neighbour principle. This tells us that people must take reasonable care not to injure others who could foreseeably be affected by their action or inaction (Donoghue v Stevenson [1932] UKHL 100).

But it is not enough that a duty was present, the defendant must have breached that duty as well. An objective standard is used in assessing whether the duty has been breached, which means that the Court will not consider particular character traits of the defendant. The defendant will be measured against the standard of the reasonable person who is undertaking the task or activity in the course of which the negligence is said to arise.

Next, it must be shown that the breach caused the loss suffered by the Claimant. In proving this element, the Claimant will have to show that but for the acts of the defendant, the injury suffered would not have occurred. It must also be demonstrated that where there is a chain of events that led to loss, nothing new occurred that would break that chain. This latter consideration is a test of legal causation.

Finally, after all of the above elements have been proven, the defendant may still escape liability if he/she can mount a sufficient defence. An example would be where the Claimant had voluntarily placed itself into a situation where harm might result; the Claimant is said to have voluntarily assumed the risk that resulted in the loss suffered.

 

Malekith – Causation in law

Let us assume that the ruler of the Dark Elves left an estate for the Claimants to claim against. A duty of care is presumed to arise because the two parties are close together, just like two drivers on a road. Establishing that this duty has been breached will be fairly simple given Malekith’s smashing entrance onto the university grounds. But for the defendant crashing his mother ship into the Old Royal Naval College, the property damage that resulted would not have occurred and so causation is also proved.

Can Malekith be said in law to have caused the entirety of the damages suffered by the Claimant, or just the loss resulting from the parking of his mother ship on George Square? Legal causation is a bit trickier to determine because although the entirety of the damage can be strictly said to have occurred because of Malekith’s conduct, some of the resulting loss may have been caused by a new event that interrupted the chain of causation. Indeed, it was the arrival of Thor and the ensuing battle that caused the majority of the damage. If the defendant can prove that the superhero’s appearance broke the chain, then the extent of his liability will be limited. We turn next to what the addition of the God of Thunder to the factual matrix means for the Claimant’s action.

 

Thor – Duty of care owed by public authorities

Our protagonist poses an interesting case given that he may be considered a rescuer, which means that his arrival would not break the chain of causation for the claim against Malekith. This is because the intervention of a rescuer is considered by the Courts to be a foreseeable, natural and probable result. Even if the rescuer were careless in his rescue, it’s unlikely that the Court would allow Malekith to use this as an excuse for the damage.

But what about claiming against Thor for the property damage? The role that our hero plays parallels situations involving the police, which is a public authority. In general, a public authority can owe a duty of care, but for policy reasons no such duty would be imposed (Smith v Chief Constable of Sussex Police [2008] EWCA Civ 39). The UK Courts have maintained a consistently strong stance prohibiting the imposition of a duty on police on the basis that they should be given discretion in how to conduct their operations. This is a hot topic of contention in the UK, with cases being appealed to the European Court of Human Rights on a number of occasions (Osman v The United Kingdom Case No 87/1997/871/1083).

The strength of the Claimant’s case against Thor will therefore hinge on whether the defendant is considered to have acted in a public or private capacity. If the former were to be assumed, then it would be unlikely for a negligence claim to succeed for policy reasons. However, if Thor were considered to have acted in a private capacity, the Courts will likely find him liable in negligence for the property damage caused, albeit leniency afforded to him for acting as a Good Samaritan rescuer.

 

Jane Foster / Erik Selvig / Darcy Lewis / Ian Boothby – Additional parties

It may be hard to raise a claim against the God of Thunder due to the difficulties involved in traveling to Asgard. Rather, it may be more sensible for the Claimant to sue the Asgardian Prince’s companions instead.

There should not be a problem for the Claimant in recovering from any of these four parties; none of the elements that need be proved show signs of any contentious points arising. However, there may be practical reasons why the Claimant would not wish to pursue a claim. For one, the public policy defence available to Thor may also be applicable to his companions. A more simple reason would be that any damages recovered from the defendants would be nominal, reflecting only a fraction of the substantial loss suffered. There are no indications in the Marvel films that would suggest that these particular defendants own a considerable amount of personal assets. The property damage they helped cause would have likely reached millions of pounds; it is improbable that even the combined assets of all four defendants would amount to a few hundred thousand pounds.

 

Conclusion

The chances for the University of Greenwich to win a lawsuit look grim. Malekith is certainly liable for at least a part of the property damage suffered by the Claimant, but suing him will be difficult. We’re not sure if the supervillain has left an estate for the Claimant to recover from, and then there are the practical difficulties of traveling to the realm of Svartalfheim to serve a claim form.

Travel difficulties are equally applicable to the situation with Thor. What’s more, the God of Thunder may escape liability entirely if the Courts accept that he was acting in a public capacity. Ms Foster, Mr Selvig, Ms Lewis and Mr Boothby can also rely upon this defence, but for financial reasons, the Claimant would unlikely want to sue them anyway.

However, all is not lost for the university; they may still be able to sue S.H.I.E.L.D. under the doctrine of vicarious liability. In the second part of my analysis, I will be looking at the strength of the Claimant’s case against Thor’s employer.

Age of Ultron, Part 3

(This post contains spoilers for Avengers: Age of Ultron.  You have been warned.)

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Age of Ultron, Part 2

(This post contains spoilers for Avengers: Age of Ultron.  You have been warned.)

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Age of Ultron, Part I

(This post contains spoilers for Avengers: Age of Ultron.  You have been warned.)

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Is Thor an illegal immigrant?

Superman’s immigration status has been considered here before, and recently I received a link (thanks, Rick!) to this great piece: Is The Avengers’ Thor an Illegal Alien?, written by Jake Lipman, an immigration attorney with Lipman & Wolf, LLP.  Check it out!

Human Remains and the Walking Dead

Lawrence M. Friedman is a partner at Barnes, Richardson & Colburn, LLP and an adjunct professor at the John Marshall Law School’s Center for International Law.  He is also the author of the Customs Law Blog, and a previous guest poster here at Law and the Multiverse.  This post was originally written for the Customs Law Blog and is republished here by his invitation.

Lately, I have been on a slow binge of watching the Walking Dead. Like most TV adaptations of graphic novels and comics, I am finding it very entertaining. I’m only in Season 3, so no one tell me . . . well, anything. As a result, I have been seeing a lot of images of corpses, both animate and inanimate. That reminded me that there is a specific provision in the Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States (“HTSUS”) for the importation of corpses.

The HTSUS is the statute (19 USC 1202) by which imported products are assigned rates of duty. It also sets out certain other regulatory requirements and exceptions. General Note 3(e), HTSUS, exempts from customs duties “corpses, together with their coffins and accompanying flowers.”

When goods arrive at a port in the U.S., they are usually subject to an “entry.” That is the process of legally entering the goods into the commerce of the United States and reporting that fact to Customs and Border Protection. The Customs Regulations provide that “all merchandise” is subject to entry unless exempted and lists HTSUS General Note 3(e) as an exemption. That seems confirm that corpses are not subject to entry requirements and not subject to duty. Or maybe not.

What if the “merchandise” to be imported is human heads, heads with necks, torsos, legs, arms, etc. taken from body donors? That is the question answered by Customs and Border Protection in its private letter ruling HQ H235506 (Jan.14, 2013). As customs rulings go, this is awesome. I don’t know how I missed it when it was issued.

The ruling starts with the ancient legal principle that there can be no commercial property interest in a dead body. Among other sources, Customs cited Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634) for this legal proposition. At the same time, we all have a legal right to a decent burial, which puts a duty on survivors to properly care for the body of the decedent. For this, Customs cites a book I desperately want: The Law of Cadavers by Percival Jackson. All of which must be weighed against the right of the not-yet-dead to donate their body to science under the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act.

Getting to the substance of the issue, Customs looked at prior rulings in which it determined that cadavers imported for medical analysis are “corpses” for purposes of General Note 3(e). Customs has long had the practice of exempting corpses from duty and entry.

But this case involves parts of corpses. Counsel for the importers made the hand waving argument that it would be distasteful for CBP “to begin quibbling about the relative portions of human remains that are imported before qualifying for the GN 3(e)” exemption. Based solely on longstanding practice, a couple rulings, and “the weight of history,” Customs agreed. Given that the body parts will eventually be given a decent burial, Customs saw no reason to interfere with the disposition of the “merchandise.”

I have a couple of questions. First, is there a flipside to the distasteful task of deciding how much of a body should be treated as a corpse? Counsel for the importer seemed to be wondering how much can be removed from the deceased and still have it remain a corpse for purposes of the customs laws. Apparently, the answer is that an entire body can be removed leaving the head legally a “corpse.” What about a sample taken from a living human? This ruling says an arm or leg taken from a cadaver is a “corpse” and exempt from classification and entry. What about an arm or leg taken from a living person? Is that extremity now a corpse if imported into the United States. How would Customs know whether the “donor” was living or dead? Is the legal distinction administrable?

My second question has to do with the looming zombie apocalypse depicted in the Walking Dead TV series and presumably in the graphic novel. What if the unlucky victim of viral zombie reanimation happens to be visiting the Windsor Ballet at the time of his or her demise? When the undead start shuffling north toward the tunnel to Detroit, will there be a problem when it arrives at Customs? Is the walker a “corpse?” If so, it will not need to be entered as merchandise, and can continue walking.

If it is a person, it will need to clear immigration checks, which will be hard for the inarticulate shuffler lacking a passport. Customs might have to make accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Also, would the passport still be valid? It seem the correct “birthday” would now be the date of reanimation. I will leave that to the immigration lawyers.

Assuming the walker is no longer a person, Customs should treat it like an animal. If it is a dead but still walking animal, the best guidance ruling I can find (with minimal research) is HQ 975664, in which dead animals are treated as zoological specimens in HTSUS item 9705.00.00 (it’s duty free!). In this case, the dead animal is walking itself across the border, which raises questions of whether the walker is the “owner, purchaser, or consignee” of the merchandise (which is the walker). Since we know there can be no property interest in a dead body (or living person), the walker would need to be his or her own consignee to have the legal right to make entry of himself or herself. If it is alive but non-human, I suggest an HTSUS classification of 0106.11.00 as live primates, which is also duty free.

Finally, there are, of course, issues of admissibility. As Customs pointed out in the ruling that sparked this post, the importation of corpses is subject to regulation by the Centers for Disease Control. Given the plot of The Walking Dead, it seems pretty certain that the CDC would have something to say about this.

If anyone from Customs and Border Protection knows what would happen if an unaccompanied non-human primate showed up at the border crossing, please drop a comment below.

Also, if any readers have rulings to nominate for Ruling of the Week treatment, please note them in a comment. I am particularly interested in bizarre products, crazy food items, and restricted merchandise. I am aware of the numerous NSFW rulings on personal massage devices, so no need to reference those. I try and keep this a family and office friendly site.

Joint Inventorship at the Movies

Nathaniel Lucek, a patent attorney at Hodgson Russ LLP, and Cheryl Junker, a Licensing Manager at the University of Georgia, wrote this great piece on joint inventorship issues raised in various movie scenarios.  Examples are drawn from several movies, including comic book adaptations The Dark KnightThe Dark Knight Rises, and Iron Man 2. The article does a great job of combining two of my favorite things: legal analysis of fictional scenarios and patent law.  Check it out!

Laurel Lance’s Drug Problem

This guest post was written by Tracy Douglas, who is an attorney in the Illinois Governor’s Office. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and not those of the Governor’s Office.

Arrow season 2 includes a plot about Laurel Lance’s drug and alcohol addiction. This raises several legal issues about public employees and legal ethics.

 

1. Can Laurel be fired?

In “Blind Spot,” Laurel investigates Sebastian Blood. After finding drugs in her apartment, the cops arrest Laurel for drug possession (she’s been using her dad’s prescription drugs). When she’s released from police custody, she’s kidnapped, and it appears a cop was behind everything, not Blood. Assistant District Attorney Adam Donner tells her the drug charges were dropped, but she’s being fired because she has a drug problem. He tells her it’s not coming from District Attorney Spencer but from him because he hired her.   Whether her firing is proper depends on if Laurel had a right to notice and a hearing.

In certain situations, public employees have a right to notice of termination and a hearing before they are terminated. This is guaranteed by the 14th amendment’s due process clause, which protects government employees from being fired without notice and a hearing if they have a protected property interest and can only be dismissed for cause. Bd of Regents v. Roth, 408 U.S. 564, 577, 578 (1972); Perry v. Sindermann, 408 U.S. 593, 602-603 (1972). In this analysis, it must be determined if the public employment at issue is a protected property interest. Roth at 571. A property interest can be created by “existing rules or understandings that stem from an independent source such as state law.” Roth at 577. Further, where a person’s reputation is at stake, notice and an opportunity to be heard are important. Roth at 573. A public employee who can only be dismissed for cause is entitled to a limited pre-termination hearing to be followed by a more extensive post-termination hearing. Cleveland Bd. Of Ed. v. Loudermill, 470 U.S. 532, 545-546 (1985). Therefore, to be a proper firing, Laurel needs notice and a hearing if she has a property interest in her job. To have a property interest, reputation can be looked at, but state law must be examined.

Arrow is not clear where Starling City is located. The DC comics have shown it as a stand-in for San Francisco or Seattle. For this discussion, California, Washington and Illinois law will be used to see how public employment and legal ethics are treated by different states. In Washington and California, Laurel would have more job protections as a county employee than in Illinois.

In California and Washington, Laurel has a protected property interest established by county rules and possibly the collective bargaining agreements. This means she has a right to notice and an opportunity to be heard. County attorneys in San Francisco county and King County, Washington (Seattle) are represented by unions. The collective bargaining agreements might include more protections than the county rules. In the absence of the labor agreement, her employment is protected by county civil service rules. She would have notice of her termination and a right to a hearing before she is officially terminated. San Francisco County Civil Service Rule 122.1.3; 122.1.4; King County Code 3.12.270.   This satisfies the 14th amendment’s due process requirement. So, if Starling City is in a state with laws like California and Washington, then Donner could not fire Laurel without a written notice and a hearing.   His informing her may be an informal hearing under Loudermill, but she has a right to a fuller hearing. This is important because under Roth her reputation is at stake and she needs the chance to tell her side.

On the other hand, if Starling City is in a state like Illinois, Laurel may not have those protections. The state’s attorney has complete control over the office, including the ability to hire and fire employees. 55 Ill. Comp Stat. Ann. § 5/3-9006 (West 2014). Laurel may have an argument based on Roth and Sindermann that she has a protected property interest in her job. However, both Roth and Sindermann talk about public employees who are protected from being fired without cause. Without a union or contract, Illinois assistant state’s attorneys are at-will employees, and that means Laurel likely won’t have a right to notice and a hearing because firing is not limited to for cause. She could claim a right because her reputation is at stake, but the firing seems proper under Illinois law.

 

II. Would a state bar investigation make her unemployable?

In “Tremors,” Laurel refuses to seek help through counseling, and she finds out from her colleague, Joanna, that she’s under investigation by the state bar. It is looking in to her fitness to practice based on her arrest. It’s not clear how much time has passed from her firing, so it’s not clear if this is an initial investigation or if charges have been filed. Joanna’s partner sits on the disciplinary committee of the state bar, and he found out Laurel was under investigation when they thought about hiring her.   This is probably its own violation because if it is not public information yet, then he is revealing confidential information. Joanna says that while the investigation is out there, they can’t hire her. Usually, only the most egregious violations of legal ethics result in disbarment. For other cases, there are suspension and censure punishments. Laurel’s actions may have violated professional rules, but punishment depends on the severity of the violation. If the investigation is beyond the beginning stages, then Laurel will know about it. If she knows about it, then she should tell potential employers. While there is an ongoing investigation, she would likely be unemployable unless the person is a friend doing her a favor or doesn’t care about the bad optics of hiring someone under investigation.   State legal ethics are overseen by the courts, but the process varies.

In California, the state bar court oversees the rules of professional conduct and disciplinary matters. Cal Bus. & Prof. §§ 6076, 6077 (West 2014).   Under the California rules, lawyers face discipline if they “intentionally, recklessly, or repeatedly fail to perform legal services with competence” or commit an “act involving moral turpitude, dishonesty or corruption.” Cal. Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 3-110; Cal. Bus. & Prof. § 6106. When a lawyer is charged with a crime, the bar must be notified, and it could start its own investigation even when the charges are dropped. Cal. Bus. & Prof. § 6101; California Rules of the State Bar, Title 5, Rule 2402. Any of these might cover what Laurel does in the show. What’s problematic about this situation is that Laurel seems to not know about the investigation. It’s possible that Laurel would not know about it if it’s at the preliminary stage, before she’s been notified. However, the lawyer who is being investigated would eventually be notified when charges are filed, and that would be public information. California Rules of the State Bar, Title 5, Rule 2403; Rule 2604. So, being investigated by the bar and being rendered unemployable rings true, but she would probably know about the investigation.

Washington and Illinois have similar Rules of Professional Conduct. Washington’s misconduct rule says that misconduct includes “commit[ing] a criminal act that reflects adversely on the lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer in other respects.” Washington Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 8.4(b); Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 8.4(b) (2010). Washington statute provides grounds for disbarment, including “any act involving moral turpitude, dishonesty, or corruption” and “gross incompetency in the practice of the profession.” Wash. Rev. Code Ann. 2.48.220 (West 2014). A criminal conviction is not required to begin disciplinary action. Washington Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 8.4(i). Washington’s rules also have a catchall “engage in conduct demonstrating unfitness to practice law.” Washington Rules of Professional Conduct 8.4 (n). In Illinois, however, the rules drafters clarified that lawyers are “professionally answerable only for offenses that indicate lack of those characteristics relevant to law practice.” Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct Comment 2 (2010). Laurel could face an investigation for any of these, especially if her arrest was reported to the bar and an investigation began. It’s possible that her arrest, even though the charges were dropped, would reflect adversely on her fitness as an attorney. If she was reported, an investigation would begin.

Washington and Illinois have similar investigation practices. The Washington Disciplinary Counsel investigates complaints against lawyers, and Laurel would have an opportunity to respond during the investigation. Washington Rules for Enforcement of Lawyer Conduct (ELC) 5.3 (a)(b) (2014). In Illinois, it is the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission, which investigates when it receives a complaint and may give the accused an opportunity to respond. IARDC Rule 53. If sent to a hearing, then the attorney would receive notice of the filing of charges. ELC 10.3 (a) (1)(2) (2014); IARDC Rule 55. Complaints are also published on the ARDC’s website, so a potential employer who searched the attorney’s name would be able to find the complaint Like California, the point about being unemployable seems correct, but not knowing seems wrong unless it’s in the very beginning.

Substance abuse is a real problem among lawyers. Most states have Lawyer Assistance Programs to help deal with these problems. The Washington State Bar Association has one, and Illinois law provides one ran by the Supreme Court. 705 Ill. Comp. Stat. Ann. § 235/1. California seems to have a unique program, the Attorney Diversion and Assistance Program. Cal. Bus. & Prof. §§ 6230, 6231. The State Bar can refer the attorney under investigation to this program, but the attorney will be on either inactive status or have practice restrictions, which will be lifted when his time in the program is over. Cal. Bus. & Prof. § 6232.

 

III. Can she get her job back?

In “Birds of Prey,” Donner invites Laurel to prosecute Frank Bertinelli. Laurel mentions the bar investigation is ongoing, but Donner says he has a friend on the committee who can fix it. By saying this, he commits his own ethics violation in Washington and Illinois by “stat[ing] or imply[ing] an ability to influence improperly a government agency or official.” Rule 8.4 (e) Given that he was willing to put one criminal on trial in the hopes of getting another criminal to appear, it’s not surprising that he would commit an ethics violation. This is questionable because there is usually more than one person on the committees that hear lawyer complaints. He would need to convince others to vote with him. However, it turns out to be a plot by Donner to catch the Huntress, Frank’s daughter. The Huntress comes, takes hostages in the courthouse, and is eventually captured. In the aftermath, DA Spencer tells Laurel that Donner wasn’t authorized to rehire her, but Laurel manages to keep her job by pointing out that Spencer wouldn’t want the fact that Donner was behind the hostage crisis to get out. Whether this is realistic depends on the rules governing rehiring.

If Starling City is in a state with laws like California and Washington, then this part of the plot would not be realistic unless Laurel had gone through a due process hearing to get her job back after her termination. In San Francisco county, a termination could affect the ability to be rehired. San Francisco County Civil Service Rule 122.1.4. If she were to reapply, she would have to go through the examination process after completing a year of service outside the county, and her appointment would have to be approved by the Human Resources Director. San Francisco County Civil Service Rule 122.3.   Donner would not have the ability to rehire her. If she was properly fired and didn’t challenge it, then she would not be able to be rehired quickly given these rules.

Similarly, in King County, Washington, prosecuting attorneys are subject to a competitive process because they are not career employees. KCC 3.12.090. Laurel would not be able to be rehired unless she either challenged her dismissal or went through the competitive process again. Since the episode shows Donner offering her the job without a competitive process and without a challenge of the dismissal, then getting the job back quickly is not realistic. Depending on who is the appointing authority within the King County prosecuting attorney’s office, Donner may have had the ability to rehire her. But the process wouldn’t be as easy as shown on the show.

On the other hand, if Starling City is in a state like Illinois, then she would be able to get her job back without going through a competitive process because state’s attorneys control their offices. The state’s attorney is in charge of the office and can hire and fire assistants. 55 Ill. Comp. Stat. Ann. § 5/3-9006. However, a bar investigation would be a hindrance because it would reflect poorly on the state’s attorney. Donner said he hired her in the first place, so Laurel might have an argument that he had apparent authority through agency principles to re-hire her. In a state like Illinois, getting rehired quickly is more believable even if unlikely given the investigation.

 

IV. Conclusion

Arrow season 2 looks at Laurel’s professional descent and drug addiction. It skips some steps that would be required if it took place in some states (notice and a hearing before being fired, notice of an investigation, rehiring steps). These could have been mentioned, but not shown, if they were required, depending on state law. The writers may have had to ignore some things and not show them because it is not the main plot. The beauty of not defining which state Arrow takes place in is that the law might not be wrong because state law differs on this topic. In the real world, though, she would probably not be able to get her job back that easily, assuming her firing was proper. If the state bar investigation is beyond the initial phase, Laurel would know about it and would not find out from a colleague. Unless the person hiring her is okay with hiring someone under investigation, then the investigation would render her unemployable. And Donner should not imply that he can fix it with a friend on the committee. As a device to show character growth and continuing corruption in Starling City, it works.