The owners of a Cambridge construction company may have had the right to have a former employee's minivan seized over a debt he owed them, but they crossed the line when they told his ex-wife, who was using it, to make him stop a discrimination claim against the company if she wanted to see the vehicle again, the Massachusetts Appeals Court ruled today.
"Extortion is not protected petitioning activity," the court said.
The case started with $8,000 Slive & Hanna of Cambridge, doing business at the time as S&H Construction, had loaned the employee. After he failed to show up for work for three straight days, they fired him. Unlike with other discharged employees, whose debts they had simply canceled and reported on their taxes as bad debt, the company demanded the money back.
He filed a discrimination claim with the state, alleging he'd been fired because he has a hearing problem. The company in turn went to court and got an order for repayment of the loan, overdrawn vacation time and insurance payments.
Using the order and a "writ of execution," the company had county sheriffs seize a minivan that was registered to the man, but used by his ex-wife to transport their three children. The company did not go after the truck the former worker also owned and which he alone used.
According to the court's summary of the case:
When the ex-wife saw that the minivan was towed, she called Shanahan "in a panic," and they determined that its seizure was likely the result of the unpaid loans.
The ex-wife called Slive the next day, "hysterical" (in her words), to tell him she needed the minivan to transport her children. According to the ex-wife, Slive explained to her that Shanahan owed the employer money and that it was Slive's right to seize the minivan. Slive told the ex-wife that, "if she wanted the car back, Shanahan should drop his MCAD claim." "He ultimately presented her with an ultimatum that he would release the vehicle only if she convinced [Shanahan] to drop his MCAD law suit." Because of this, Shanahan "was under pressure from his ex-wife to drop his MCAD claim and he suffered the wrath of his family and his in-laws, who all put pressure on him to resolve the matter."
The company ultimately won its battle with the ex-employee before the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination over the hearing issue - the commission ruled the company did not fire the man because of his hearing issues. But in today's ruling, - as it had before the commission and a Middlesex Superior Court judge, it lost over the minivan.
The court said that while people have a constitutional right to petition government, in this case, to fight the discrimination claim, they don't have the right to resort to extortion to get their way. The court rejected one of the company principal's word that they seized the minivan only to recoup some of its $8,000 in unpaid debts even aside from the ex-wife's story because the company did not immediately sell off the minivan but instead held onto it - forcing the ex-wife's family to pay a fairly large storage bill to get it back.
Both the MCAD and a Middlesex Superior Court judge concluded the way the minivan was seized and held was retaliation against the worker for bringing his own Constitutionally protected claim, the latter after the company sued. The MCAD awarded the worker $30,000 in damages for the retaliation.
The appeals court noted that the law that allows "writs of execution" to seize property sets time limits by which the property must be sold to satisfy a debt.
Rather than sell the minivan and apply the proceeds to the judgment, the employer demanded that Shanahan's ex-wife convince him to drop his MCAD claim. When this failed, the employer returned the minivan to the ex-wife, requiring her parents to pay storage fees without reducing the judgment debt. Similarly, although the employer could have levied on the writ of execution in a manner that would have had a realistic expectation of collecting on the judgment, the employer instead held the minivan while demanding that the MCAD claim be dropped and released the minivan (without satisfying the judgment) once it became clear that this gambit had failed. Based on the hearing officer's findings, the employer's actions in using the seizure of the minivan to pressure Shanahan to drop his discrimination claim were not a bona fide attempt to collect on the judgment and thus were constitutionally unprotected.