Land Court to Board of Selectmen: put up or shut up

In a case of dueling boards–Selectmen versus Zoning Appeals–the Massachusetts Land Court filed a written ruling on the motion of another defendant, Chestnut Hill Realty. It seeks to disqualify Town Counsel Joslin Murphy and her staff from participating in the main challenge to a proposed Chapter 40B housing development at Hancock Village.

In an odd sort of process, that ruling has been posted to the online Docket Information page for the Land Court case, making it available to anyone without a trip to see the clerk of the court. As apparent before and at the Land Court hearing, the Board of Selectman and the town counsel look to be in a pickle.

In effect, the court wrote to that board: Put up (a lawyer for the Zoning Board of Appeals) or (we shall) shut up (the town counsel as your representative). Judge Piper’s docket entry reads a bit like George Ade on steroids, for those who remember the notable Chicago Record journalist (1866-1944). Text follows.

“09/03/2015, Event: Motion scheduled for 09/03/2015 10:00 AM

“Result: Hearing Held on Private Defendant’s Motion to Disqualify Brookline Town Counsel. Attorney Murphy Appeared for Municipal Plaintiffs. Attorney Talerman Appeared for Individual Plaintiffs. Attorney O’Flaherty Appeared for Private Defendant. No Counsel Appeared for Defendant Members of the Board of Appeals. Following Argument, Court Made its Ruling[s] from the Bench, Which Are Summarized Generally Below.

“Subscribing to the View That Courts Should Be Reluctant to Disqualify Counsel, That Clients Are Entitled to the Counsel of Their Choice, and Relying Greatly on the Ethical Awareness of Lawyers, Court Is Nonetheless Troubled by the Posture of this Litigation. Here, the Board and its Defendant Members Remain Unrepresented, the Court Is Unable to Know Their Level of Satisfaction (Or Not) with That Situation, and it Is Evident that those Who Control Municipal Plaintiff’s Prosecution of this Action Have Taken No Effective Steps to Provide These Defendant Board Members with Counsel. They Thus Are Left Unable to Defend, to Participate in, and to Be Heard in this Litigation.

“This Is Not the Common Situation Where a Municipal Board Stands down During Litigation to Allow the Private Defendant (The Permit Recipient) to the Mount a Defense of the Challenged Permit. Here, the Permit Has Been Challenged by the Town Itself, Acting Through its Board or Selectmen, Claiming an Injury to the Town’s Interest as an Abutting Landowner. All Parties Agree, as They Must, That If a Law Firm Represented the Applicant During the Permitting Process, and Then, Once a Permit Had Issued, Attempted to Represent an Abutting Landowner in Challenging the Same Permit, the Court Would Be Obligated to Disqualify that Law Firm Under Mass. R. Prof. C. 1.7 [because there is a concurrent conflict of interest under 1.7(a), coupled with a claim by one client against another under 1.7(b)(3)].

“Here, Counsel for Plaintiffs Attempts to Distinguish the Instant Case by Arguing, First, That Town Counsel Commonly Represents Multiple Municipal Interests Simultaneously, Which Interests Do Not Always Perfectly Align, and Second, That Notwithstanding this Broader View of the Role and Obligations of Government Lawyers, That Here the Defendant Board of Appeals Was Afforded Special Counsel During the Permitting Process So There Is No Conflict in Fact.

“Even Recognizing the Broader Latitude Given Government Lawyers When Analyzing Their Possible Conflicts, the Court Concludes That this Is One of Those Troubling Cases Where it Might Be Obligated to Disqualify Municipal Counsel. While There Has Been No Hard Showing That Town Counsel Possesses Some Confidential Information Gained Giving Earlier Advice to the Board, the Existence of Any Such Confidences Is Very Hard to Learn Because the Party That Would Normally Object (The Former Client) Is the Board of Appeals, Which Has No Ability or Opportunity to Make Such a Concern Known to the Court; the Private Defendant, Who Brings the Motion to Disqualify, Has No Way of Knowing Whether Confidences Have Been Exchanged or Not.

“The Record Does Make Clear That the Office of Town Counsel Previously Rendered Advice, Shared with the Zoning Board, about Two Important Legal Issues in Connection with the Comprehensive Permit: the Effect of the 1946 Agreements Between the Town and the Prior Owners of the Site, and the Validity of Site Eligibility Determinations for the Project. Those Issues Are Central to the Attack the Town, Now Represented as Plaintiff by Town Counsel, Makes Against the Comprehensive Permit in Both this Litigation and in the Superior Court Case Now Before the Appeals Court.

‘Without Diminishing the Court’s Concern That this Is a Case Where a Conflict May Exist, the Court Nonetheless Defers Ruling on the Motion to Disqualify at this Time, in the Hope That Some Attention Will Be Paid to Obtaining Separate Counsel for the Board of Appeals. If Separate Counsel Appears and Assures the Court That the Board of Appeals Does Not Object to the Ongoing Representation of the Plaintiff by Town Counsel, That Would Go a Long Way to Satisfy the Court That the Motion to Disqualify Ought to Be Denied.

“If, on the Other Hand, There Is a Continuing Inability to Hear from the Board, Court Would Be Inclined to Allow the Motion to Disqualify. Parties Are to File No Later than September 30, 2015 a Report on the Status of Representation of the Board of Appeals; If by That Date No Appearance on Behalf of the Board of Appeals Has Been Filed, the Court Will Proceed Either to Rule on the Motion to Disqualify Without Further Hearing, to Schedule Further Hearing, or to Make Other Appropriate Orders.”

So far, no funding to support legal counsel for the Zoning Board of Appeals has shown up on agendas for the Board of Selectmen. September 30 is a Wednesday. Before then, the Board of Selectmen scheduled two more meetings: on Thursday, September 24, and on Tuesday, September 29. Funding for a town board would clearly be public business. Trying to hide it in closed session, perhaps under a rubric of “litigation,” would not appear consistent with the state’s open meeting law.

– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, September 20, 2015

Town of Brookline and others v. Jesse Geller, Member of the Brookline Zoning Board of Appeals, and others, Massachusetts Land Court case 2015-MISC-000072, filed March 11, 2015 (click button to search public records, select Land Court Department and Case Number tab, enter case number “15 MISC 000072″ and click Search button, click any Case Number item for “15 MISC 000072″)

Massachusetts Rules of Professional Conduct, Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, 2015 (2 MB)

Massachusetts Rules of Civil Procedure, Massachusetts Trial Court Law Libraries, 2015 (2 MB)

Land Court: Dueling boards, Selectmen v. Zoning Appeals, Brookline Beacon, September 5, 2015

Craig Bolon, Hancock Village: development pressures, Brookline Beacon, February 22, 2015

Craig Bolon, Open meetings in government: groping toward transparency, Brookline Beacon, August 10, 2014

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