Foley Hoag Represents Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice in Civil Rights Case

December 19, 2016

Lawsuit Seeks Records Showing Impact of Trial Court Employment and Promotion Practices on Diversity

Foley Hoag LLP filed a public records lawsuit on December 14, 2016 directly with Massachusetts’ highest court on behalf of pro bono client, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice (“Lawyers’ Committee”). The filing asked the Supreme Judicial Court to order the release of information on the impact of the Trial Court’s employment practices on employees of color. The lawsuit cites the recent Probation Department scandal and ongoing concerns about non-merit based employment practices in the Trial Court. It asks for records showing the race and gender of individuals hired and promoted as court security officers over the past several years, as well as information on hiring and promotion practices.

The Lawyers' Committee request for records on the Trial Court’s demographics and employment practices in June 2016 was rejected by the Trial Court, which stated that as part of the judicial branch it does not have to comply with the public records law.

Foley Hoag attorneys Julia Huston, David Kluft and Zachary Gerson are representing the Lawyers’ Committee in the case.

“There is a strong public interest in permitting access to these records,” Huston said. “The records requested by the Lawyers’ Committee are clearly administrative, rather than judicial, in nature, and are expected to show the extent to which factors other than merit may be infecting the hiring of court officers. This issue is particularly important given the recent efforts to bring greater transparency to the Trial Court following revelations of problems in the hiring of probation officers.”

The lawsuit comes on the heels of a criminal investigation into the Probation Office of the Trial Court, in which top officials were convicted of mail fraud, racketeering, and conspiracy. Although those convictions were later vacated, the appeals court noted that "the actions of the defendants may well be judged distasteful, and even contrary to Massachusetts's personnel laws." An independent counsel appointed by the Supreme Judicial Court found “a systemic abuse and corruption of the hiring and promotion processes of the Probation Department.” A Task Force appointed to comprehensively review hiring and promotion procedures in the judicial branch found a problem that extended beyond the Probation Department and was rooted in a lack of transparency. The Legislature also responded to the revelations. In 2011, it restricted the role of recommendations in hiring and promotions; set forth a detailed process for the hiring and promotion of court officers; and increased the Supreme Judicial Court’s oversight of the Court Administrator.

“With this lawsuit, we seek to remove the shroud of secrecy that currently keeps the Trial Court’s employment practices hidden from public view,” said Oren M. Sellstrom, Litigation Director of the Lawyers’ Committee. “We are particularly concerned that minority women are not being hired and promoted at rates that would be expected under a fair and equitable process.”

The Trial Court has not yet formally responded to the lawsuit, but two days after the filing voluntarily disclosed some of the documents requested while maintaining its position that the Trial Court is not covered by the public records law. Sellstrom called the release “inadequate” and said that the fact that it came only after the lawsuit was filed “underscores the problem.”

In a move reflecting the importance of transparency and accountability at the Trial Court, the case has been filed directly with the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.  The case is Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice v. Harry Spence, Office of Court Management of the Massachusetts Trial Court, and Executive Office of the Massachusetts Trial Court, SJC No. SJ-2016-503.

This case exemplifies Foley Hoag’s commitment to pro bono service directed to the preservation of civil rights and diversity. In April 2016, a lawsuit filed by Foley Hoag, Justice in Aging and GLAD on behalf of two plaintiffs and a proposed nationwide class resulted in improvements to overpayment collection practices by the Social Security Administration for LGBT couples receiving Social Security income. The firm strives to provide a workplace where lawyers and staff of all orientations, races, ethnicities, and gender identities are welcomed and poised for advancement. The firm’s promotion of five women to partner was the focus of a Boston Globe column this month. In addition, the Foley Hoag Foundation supports community programs addressing inequality in its various forms, including racial, ethnic and gender disparities in Greater Boston and metropolitan Washington, D.C., and raises awareness about these issues.

About the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice is a private, non-profit, non-partisan legal organization that provides pro bono legal representation to victims of discrimination based on race or national origin. Our mission is to provide a safeguard for the civil, social, and economic liberties of residents in Greater Boston and throughout Massachusetts. For more information, visit