Sunday, November 15, 2015

How to sue someone in the digital age when you don't know where they live.

In every lawsuit the Plaintiff has the obligation to notify all defendants that they are being sued. When a lawsuit is filed the court issues a summons which must be served (usually with a complaint) on every defendant. Massachusetts and probably all other states prefer that the person be served in hand or at least by leaving documents at their home. What happens if you don't know where they live or work? How do you serve them?

Every state has laws that allow a substitute form of service of documents on a person who can't be located. In Massachusetts, a motion must be filed to serve by an alternate form of service. If nothing else works, the court can order service by publishing in a newspaper. Of course, most people don't read the legal notices in newspapers so service by publication usually results in no notice at all but would be satisfactory to a court. In Massachusetts, the courts prefer that a different form of notification be used. Massachusetts courts now require detailed affidavits explaining how the Plaintiff searched for a Defendant including details of searches on the internet. As one clerk told me internet searches are required unless the Defendant's name is Smith.

A search for a missing Defendant should start with a search for a telephone number. A telephone information request with the telephone company is generally a first step. If this doesn't work, a similar search on the internet using multiple search engines (Google, Bing, etc.) should be made. If the person has a driver's license or professional license then the state data banks may show a current address for the person. All of these search methods may show a residence for a missing Defendant. A lawyer can request confirmation of addresses or forwarding address information from the post office. A non-lawyer probably would need a court order authorizing the post office to provide this information from the post office.

If, after using all of the methods just described, the person still can't be located, then social media should be searched. There are too many social media sites to search them all. At a minimum, Facebook, Linkedin, Instagram, and GooglePlus should be searched. If a social media page is located for the individual then print the contents of the page. A judge may need information that the person currently uses the social media site.

If after all of these methods, the person still can't be found, try to locate a close relative: parent, child, ex-spouse, or sibling. These people may be in contact with the person and may be used for service.

After all methods to research have been used and if you still don't have a work or residential address, then file a motion with the court for alternate service. In Massachusetts, and probably other states, the judge will want to use the best method of service that is calculated to actually reach the Defendant. Service can be made by email, text messaging, messaging through social media, or by relatives. The motion should be accompanied by a detailed affidavit showing all of the internet research and any relevant web pages.

If after all of these steps, the person can't be located, service by publication may be approved by a judge. Service by publication is expensive and usually ineffectual. However, it may be the only method available. Alternate service can be complicated for individuals. A local attorney can guide you through the process and help you locate your defendant.   

Sunday, October 18, 2015

October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month

By presidential proclamation, October was declared to be National Violence Awareness Month. Nobody should be subject to domestic violence. If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship you need to get help. You can get information about domestic abuse from the Frequently Asked Questions about abuse at my web site. You can talk to an attorney or even call the police. Understanding your options may help you take steps to protect yourself. The courts can issue restraining orders to protect against violence and, in certain circumstances, can make orders of child custody and support. If you are in an abusive situation there are people and services who can help you.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

You can commit criminal acts by owning or using surveillance and security systems.

The cost of home security and surveillance systems has decreased so that now everybody can afford a system. Internet providers offer home security systems. Some people use hidden cameras like nanny cams to keep an eye on babysitters. The news contains stories of people who use home security systems to catch burglers in the act. While such security systesm have many benefits they can also cause people to commit criminal acts.

Most states have laws that prohibit recording of voice communications without permission or a court order. These are generally called wiretapping laws. While we usually think of wiretapping as meaning telephone calls the laws are usually written broadly to cover all voice communications. Some states allow recording of such conversations if one person to the conversation gives permission. Other states, including Massachusetts, require all parties to the conversation to grant permission before the conversation can be recorded. Recording a conversation without permission is a crime in most states. In Massachusetts, making an unathorized voice recording is a felony. This means that making a recording of a person's voice without their permission can result in person being sentenced to imprisonment in the state prison. The Massachusetts wiretapping law goes even further and makes it a crime to possess hidden equipment that is capable of making voice recordings. Mass.Gen.L. c. 272, § 99.

Hidden cameras as part of a home or office security system do not violate any laws. However, microphones are probably not lawful as they can record voices. Merely having microphones as part of a home security system can result in a criminal conviction. Of course, you can have microphones as part of the security system as long as you obtain permission from the person you are recording. You may be able to have the equivalent of permission by using signs that disclose the recordings. Such disclosures would probably defeat the purpose of having the microphones in the first place but would be adequate to prevent commission of a crime.

If you own or want to purchase a security system you should consult an attorney to find out what is permitted for recordings in your state.







Monday, September 7, 2015

Prepare for a divorce—create a household inventory

In most cases, people anticipate a divorce before it happens. While some actions taken before a divorce can receive an adverse reaction from a spouse, creating an inventory should not. Creating an inventory can be helpful in case you suffer an insurance loss such as fire, theft, or flood. An inventory can also be helpful in a divorce.

In a divorce the two spouses will have to divide the household belongings. Sometimes this occurs leisurely and sometimes in a rush. An inventory will make a split easier. If a court issues an order removing one party from the house having an inventory will make it easier for that person to receive a fair distribution of the household assets. If you are dividing items from memory you are likely to forget items that you care about.

Another benefit of having a household inventory is to reduce the potential for items to disappear. After a person who is out of the house takes their initial list of items it is much more difficult to obtain items from the house. That book that you received from your grandmother is likely to be thrown out if you don't retrieve it in the initial group of items. With digital photography you can incorporate photographs into your inventory.  By having a list you can designate items to retrieve later and avoid having them thrown out or sold.


The earlier you start the inventory the better off you are. It is also helpful to consult an experienceddivorce lawyer as early as possible. Both an inventory and a divorce lawyer can help you work through the difficult times created by a divorce.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Natick Judge enjoins Macy's for shoplifting fines

Judge Douglas Stoddard, a District Court Judge in Natick, Mass. has enjoined Macy's from demanding that shoplifters pay a $500.00 civil fine to Macy's when they are caught by the store.  Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 231, Section 85R-1/2 states that shoplifters ". . . shall be liable in tort to the merchant for damages for not less than fifty nor more than five hundred dollars. . ."  Many stores claim that this law means that a shoplifter owes the store $500.00 if they are caught by the store.  The stores are wrong.  The law means that if the store sues shoplifters in court a judge may award civil damages of up to $500.00.  Macy's has no right to collect $500.00 until after a Judge awarded them damages.

Macy's had a practice of detaining shoplifters and telling them that "if they paid the $500 fine, they would not be civilly sued in court and some said they were told they would not be arrested."  In some cases, people paid the $500.00 and were then turned over to the police who arrested them.  When the cases came before Natick District Court, Judge Stoddard learned of the practices of the store and issued an injunction against the store.The Judge stated “I’m not sure if I have the legal authority to do what I’m doing, but I believe I do have the power to right what’s wrong.  I don’t think I’m asking for much.”

What Macy's was doing was not only wrong, it was criminal.  Massachusetts is a common law state.  This means that crimes exist that were created by English judges before the American Revolution.  Some of these crimes are still in existence.  Macy's actions constituted the common law crimes of compounding a crime and misprision of a crime.  In addition, their actions also constituted the statutory crime of extortion.  

Compounding a crime occurs when a person enters into  an agreement for one person to pay money in exchange for an agreement to not prosecute the crime.  In Massachusetts only the District Attorney or the Attorney General can agree that a crime won't be prosecuted.  Any other person who agrees that a crime won't be prosecuted is committing a criminal act.  If Macy's accepts money and agrees that a shoplifter won't be prosecuted then Macy's has committed the crime of compounding.

If Macy's, having agreed that a crime shall not be reported to the police fails to report the crime then they have committed the crime of misprision of a crime.  Every citizen has the duty to report crimes to the government.  In our society we don't prosecute people who merely fail to report crimes.  However, if a person has received money and then fails to report the crime then they may be prosecuted for misprision.  Compounding is the crime of making the agreement not to prosecute.  Misprision is the act of failing to report the crime.

When Macy's asked for money in exchange for not prosecuting the shoplifter, they committed the crime of extortion.  The elements of extortion are (1) a malicious threat (2) made to a named person (3) to accuse someone of a crime or to injure someone's person or property (4) with intent to extort money. Mass.G.L. c. 265, § 25.  This means that Macy's committed three separate and distinct criminal acts.  When they asked form money the committed extortion.  When they agree to not prosecute they committed compounding of a crime.  If they took the money and then failed to report the shoplifter they committed the crime of misprision.  

When settling a civil case that has the potential for criminal charges, parties want to eliminate the ability to be criminally prosecuted.  This can't be done without violating criminal laws.  When I have encountered this problem in my practice I have agreed to a "gag order" as part of the settlement.  A gag order typically states that neither party can talk about the facts of the case or the settlement without creating civil penalties.  However, I always include language that states that the gag order shall not apply if there is a duty to disclose the information including, but not limited to, disclosure to law enforcement officials.  This exception means that the gag order does not violate any criminal laws.  An attorney who understands the common law crimes should always include language of this nature.  

Macy's practice of demanding a civil penalty without a judgment from a court should cease immediately.  Since the cost of going to court is more than the potential $500.00 recovery this means that it is unlikely that any shoplifters will ever pay the civil penalty.  However, it also means that Macy's will stop violating criminal laws.   




Sunday, May 31, 2015

Cyber harassment can be very expensive.

The internet and social media has created new opportunities for people to harass and harm others. One person who used the internet to harass a neighbor found it very expensive as a Massachusetts court has issued a judgment of 4.8 million dollars for cyber harassment and another court found him and his wife guilty of criminal harassment and sentenced them to jail.

Two neighbors, Johnson and Lyons had a real estate dispute about Johnson's plans to build a 4,500 square foot house. Johnson and his wife used the internet to harass Lyons. He placed a false ad on craigslist which falsely stated that he had a deceased son. The craiglist ads were designed to have people respond late at night so that it interfered with the Lyons's sleep. Johnson caused emails and letters to be sent falsely alleging that Lyons had molested his own son and an underage employee. Johnson subscribed Lyons to a number of organizations including organizations for nudists and gays.  Lyons sued Johnson for intentional infliction of emotional distress. After a jury trial, Lyons was awarded $4.8 million dollars in damages. The Johnsons were also prosecuted for criminal charges of harassment. This resulted in convictions for both Johnson and his wife and they were both sentenced to jail terms.

It is safe to assume that not every cyber harassment case will result in multi-million dollar verdicts and jail terms. However, this case shows that existing laws can address criminal behavior that uses new technology. If you are a victim of cyber harassment you should go to the police. You may also find it helpful to consult a Massachusetts attorney to advice you about your rights and how to protect yourself.  




Saturday, March 28, 2015

Death and Facebook. The Legacy Feature.

A friend of mine died and his wife posted his death and funeral arrangements on his Facebook page. In this era of social media, Facebook is a natural and expected forum to notify friends and relatives of such information. Unfortunately, use of his Facebook account was unauthorized by Facebook and constituted criminal behaviour under both Massachusetts and Federal law. At the time of his death, his wife had no other way to use his Facebook account to provide notice. Since that time, Facebook has changed its policies and now has a Legacy feature for memorization of Facebook pages after death.

Facebook's Terms of Service states: “You will not share your password let anyone else access your account, or do anything else that might jeopardize the security of your account.” In other words, the only authorized user of a Facebook page is the registered owner. There is no exception for family members after death. Authorization is important because both Massachusetts and Federal law make it a crime for any person who is not an authorized user to access a computer. Since using Facebook means that a user accesses Facebook's computer, any person who is not authorized by Facebook and uses another person's account is committing a crime. Massachusetts General Laws chapter 266, section120F punishes unauthorized computer access by up to thirty days in jail and a one thousand dollar fine. United States Code Title 18Section 1030 punishes unauthorized computer access by up to twenty years in prison and fines. Permission to use a Facebook account by the registered owner of the account is still a crime because Facebook doesn't allow such permission. A widow posting information about her husband's death is unauthorized and a criminal act.

Facebook has recognized people's desires to use Facebook accounts after death and has created a new feature called Legacy. During a person's life, they can designate a person as a “Legacy Contact.” This person will have limited rights to access a Facebook account after a person dies. The Legacy Contact can post a final message and Memorialize the account. Memorialization freezes the account, indicates that the owner died and may allow others to share memories on the account.

Every individual with a Facebook account should consider a legacy contact. This should become part of estate planning and become just as routine as writing a will or making pre-death funeral arrangements. Unauthorized computer access can have serious criminal consequences. A lawyer can help understand how to avoid violating the law and still enjoy social media.



Sunday, March 15, 2015

Civil remedies for spying with technology

In the past I have blogged about using technology to spy on a spouse the potential consequences. I have written about criminal penalties, and civil lawsuits. A recent case, Tinory v. DePierre, Mass.App.Div. No. 14-ADMS-4022 (2015), involved a GPS device planted on a car. This resulted in a claim for trespass. Trespass is normally thought of as the unpermitted, illegal entry onto a person's real property. However, Massachusetts law does allow trespass to personal property. In the Tinory case, the wife in a divorce action hired a private investigator to place a global positioning system device (GPS) on her husband's truck to monitor his whereabouts. This resulted in a lawsuit for trespass because there was an unpermitted, illegal touching of personal property (the truck.)

It is clear that society does not want people to spy on their spouses with technology. While people think that they will get an advantage in a divorce is they get information by spying, it rarely works that way.  There are a number of laws with criminal penalties for spying and people may sue in civil court for damages when such spying occurs.  In addition, Family Court judges don't want to encourage spying by allowing such evidence to be used.  


If you are the victim of electronic spying you should consult a lawyer who can advise you about the law and your options.  

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Can an out of state divorce decree be modified by a Massachusetts Court?

In a recent case, Cohen v. Cohen, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that Massachusetts had no jurisdiction to modify a California divorce decree to order college expenses and child support. This case is easily misunderstood as the decision is limited to a particular type of case.

In the Cohen case, the parties were divorced in California and the Wife and child continued to live in California. The husband moved to Massachusetts. This meant that the Wife had to use the Massachusetts Courts to enforce the California divorce judgment. She could have hired a Massachusetts lawyer to collect her child support or she could have used the California child support agency to collect the money. She selected the California child support agency.

Every state has an agency which collects child support for residents of the state. In the Cohen case, the California agency initiated an interstate child support collection action under the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (UIFSA.) Both Massachusetts and California (and probably all other states) have enacted UIFSA into their state law. While it was California in this case it could have been any state. Under UIFSA, California asked Massachusetts to file a case to enforce the California divorce decree and California law. An action was filed in Massachusetts by the Department of Revenue (DOR.) to enforce the judgment. While the Massachusetts Court had all of the powers under Massachusetts law to enforce the judgment, it had no power to modify the judgment. In the Cohen case, the divorce decree made no provisions for college education or medical bills of the child. The Massachusetts Court was unable to make any orders relating to payment of college education or medical bills.

This case doesn't mean that the Wife in the Cohen case could never ask a Massachusetts Court to modify the California Judgment. It only means that she couldn't modify under UIFSA. She could have hired a Massachusetts lawyer to enforce the California decree and modify the judgment. Had she proceeded in this manner, she would have enabled the Massachusetts Court to use all of its powers and authority including the power to modify the California judgment. If the Wife had filed an action in Massachusetts it would have been very expensive. She would have had to pay for a Massachusetts lawyer instead of having DOR represent her for free. She would have had to travel to Massachusetts for the trial and possibly for a pre-trial conference instead of staying in California. Of course, there is no guarantee that a Massachusetts court would apply Massachusetts law and modify the judgment. Instead, the court could have ruled that the Wife must file a modification in California or that Massachusetts would apply California law. As a general rule, using UIFSA for interstate child support enforcement is a better choice.

Interstate child support enforcement is a complicated area of law. If you have a case that crosses state lines you should consult an experienced family law attorney.




Monday, February 9, 2015

Pre-Nuptial Agreements are not automatically enforced.

Pre-Nuptial Agreements are not automatically enforced.

Pre-nuptial agreements in Massachusetts are enforced if they are fair at the time of the execution of the agreement and fair at the time of the enforcement of the agreement. Fairness at the time of the execution means that there was complete financial disclosure, had the ability to obtain advice of counsel, the agreement was free of duress, misrepresentation, and fraud and the terms are fair. Since the agreement must also be fair at the time of enforcement, the Courts take a “second look” at the agreement and view it in the context of the financial circumstances at that time. The agreement will be enforced unless the court finds that it is unconscionable. This means that the agreement will be enforced unless the agreement would leave the contesting spouse without sufficient property, maintenance, or appropriate employment to support herself.

In a recent case, Kelcourse v.Kelcourse, Mass.App.Ct. (Jan. 21, 2015), the court refused to enforce a pre-nuptial agreement. The agreement on its face appeared fair. The agreement gave the
Wife a house and alimony as part of the settlement. The problem was that the house needed over $300,000.00 in repairs and had negative equity. The Wife lacked funds to repair the house and, due to the negative equity, was unable to sell the house. The Court found that the condition and finances of the house rendered the agreement unconscionable and unenforceable.


The Kelcourse case means that in Massachusetts the second look is a real and substantial examination. The Court won't enforce the agreement if the spouse won't be able to support herself. In other words, disclosure and lack of duress is not enough to make an agreement enforceable. The second look must examine the circumstances to see if the facts and enforcement would shock the conscience.

If parties want a pre-nuptial agreement they should consult family law attorneys to advise them. This is not an area where parties should do-it-yourself. When the parties seek to enforce the agreement it may be too late to fix any problems.



Sunday, February 8, 2015

In Massachusetts, home improvement contractors need to follow the rules.

Massachusetts legislation protects homeowners from the unscrupulous contractor. They regulate
Violation of any of these requirements can result in criminal charges or, in a civil case, payment of treble damages and attorney fees of the homeowner.  A recent case, Groleau v Russo-Gabriele (Norfolk Superior Court No. 2012-1818) (Nov 26, 2014), the court found that writing a contract that took away the homeowner's right to arbitration was an unfair or deceptive act. As a result, the contractor had to pay the damages the homeowner incurred to finish the construction and pay treble damages and attorney fees.

This case shows that contractors have to comply with the state regulations and that homeowner's can't contract away their protections. It is a complicated area of the law. Contractors should consult an attorney before soliciting business from homeowners. Homeowners should consult an attorney before signing a contract for home repairs.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The New Massachusetts Alimony Law – A Deal is a Deal

In 2011 Massachusetts enacted an alimony reform law. This law changed many aspects of alimony including imposing termination of alimony when the payor reaches the maximum retirement age and when the payee cohabits. Since enactment of this law, lawyers and Judges have been struggling with the question of how do these changes affect prior alimony agreements and judgments. On January 30, 2015 the Supreme Judicial Court answered this question by stating in essence that a deal is a deal. The Court held that the limits for cohabitation and retirement do not apply retroactively to alimony agreements and judgments that pre-date the enactment of the new law.

This interpretation of the new law does not apply to all alimony judgments. When parties enter into a separation agreement, they have the ability to specify that the agreement merges into the divorce judgment or survives as an independent agreement. If the agreement merges with the divorce then the agreement may be modified in the future if certain conditions are met. If the agreement survives as an independent contract, then the agreement can't be modified by a judge. It may be modified by agreement of the parties. The new alimony law does not give the courts the power to change any prior separation agreements that survive. This new interpretation only applies to separation agreements that merged into the decree of divorce.

In three cases, Chin v. Merriot, Doktorv. Doktor, and Rodman v. Rodman, the court held that with one exception, all alimony judgments that pre-date the new law are subject to modification as if the new law never went into effect. This means that alimony can change if the terms of the separation agreement or divorce judgment state conditions that will change or terminate the alimony or if there is a material change of circumstances. Reaching retirement age or the recipient of alimony cohabitating only constitutes a material change of circumstances if the agreement specifically states so. Otherwise, there can not be a modification for these reasons.

These decisions indicated that the new law does allow termination of alimony for what is known as “durational limits.” For marriages less than twenty years, alimony is limited to a percentage of the length of the marriage. The longer the marriage, the higher the percentage. Prior alimony awards that had no termination date that are merged into the decree of divorce and the length of the marriage is less than twenty years are subject to these durational limits. As a result, a modification may be filed to terminate alimony under these circumstances.



The new alimony law is very complicated. If you have questions about the application of this law you should consult an experienced family law attorney for advice about your particular situation.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

What can a parent do when they are the victim of parental alienation?

There is no perfect answer to this question. As long as one parent keeps fueling the alienation flames, the alienation will continue. Every case of parental alienation is different but the cause is the same. One parent uses the children as weapons to hurt the other parent. In essence, the parent is sacrificing the children's well being to fulfill their own selfish desires. The following suggestions may make no difference or may solve the problem.
  1. Keep a diary. This should detail all of your attempts to maintain a relationship with the children and the children's responses. Whenever possible, backup the diary with documents that corroborate the information you note. Emails, telephone bills, and receipts from stores and restaurants should be preserved. Use an email program that documents when the emails are read by the recipient.
  2. Take advantage of all contacts permitted by the court. Don't miss any visits. Make telephone calls or Skype calls every day if allowed by the court. Use texting to communicate with the children but not excessively. Send gifts or cards for every occasion possible. Cards are created for many holidays such as New Years, Valentine's Day, Independence Day, and many others. Make sure you have copies of the cards and enter the mailing of the cards and the gifts in your diary. Of course, make sure you send gifts for major holidays or events like birthdays or Christmas.
  3. Attend every event in your child's life. Don't miss a dance recital, a little league, a concert, or any other event in which your child is a participant. Contact the school and obtain information about events, parent teacher conferences, and make sure the school has your contact information. Do the same for the child's pediatrician, dentist, and other doctors. Make sure you are on time for each event.
  4. Do everything that the court orders. If the court orders counseling, make sure you go to counseling. If the court orders drug tests, make sure you avoid using drugs and take every test ordered. Continue counseling and drug tests even if the children or the other parent stop attending.
  5. Take a parenting class. You may be the best parent in the world but the court will be impressed by your efforts to improve yourself.
  6. Never ever use physical force to discipline your children. The law may permit use of reasonable force but you are under a microscope and can't afford the luxury of using physical force. The exception is that you may have to restrain (but not hit) a child to prevent harm to another child, yourself, or someone else.
  7. Avoid discussions with your child about the alienation, child support, or any issue you have with the other parent. Make sure the children can't hear when you have discussions with other people about these matters.
  8. Be careful about use of social media. You should assume that everything you post on social media will be reported to the Court. Never say anything critical or negative about your children, the other parent, the attorneys, or the Court. Social media can be used to make positive statements about the children but do so sparingly. Don't comment on every posting by your children. It will make you look like a stalker.
  9. Tell your children that you love them. Tell them this at the end of every phone call and every visit. Don't overdo this. Once a day is fine. Four times a day makes you look crazy. Don't ask the children to respond in kind. Pressuring the children for affection is certain to hurt you.
  10. Be persistent and consistent in your efforts to maintain your relationship with your children. Don't give up hope no matter how frustrating it becomes.
  11. Retain a family law attorney and regularly discuss the parental alienation and your efforts to maintain the relationship. In many cases, only court action can stop the abuse to the children. An experienced family law attorney should be able to advise you about when to resort to the courts. Like everything else in regards to parental alienation, it may take a number of court actions before you start to see results.  In the most severe cases of parental alienation the court can  change custody.



Saturday, January 10, 2015

Cyberharassment is still harassment

The internet provides new opportunities to commit criminal acts. However, in many instances, laws that were not designed for the internet provide remedies. A recent case illustrating use of a traditional law to punish internet conduct is Commonwealth v. Johnson, 470 Mass. 300 (2014).

In this case, a husband and wife harassed their next door neighbors through a third person. They placed false ads on Craig's list so that potential buyers of goods would bother the family day and night. They filed a false claim of child abuse with the state resulting in an investigation of the family. In addition, threatening emails were sent.

Massachusetts G.L. c. 265, § 43 punishes as a criminal act causing a pattern of conduct or series of acts over a period of time directed at a specific person which seriously alarms or annoys that person. The statute does not mention internet, computers, or cyberspace. However, the court found that this statute was sufficient to convict a person who used the internet and computers to harass someone.

Just because computers and the internet became household items after most criminal laws were created doesn't mean that they are not governed by the laws that predated the internet. If you are the victim of harassment you should consult an experience lawyer who can advise you concerning the laws that are available to protect you.