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First Circuit Finds a Right to a Jury Trial for Chapter 93A Claims

Although this blog focuses on BLS cases, a recent decision from the First Circuit merits attention here. The case highlights a key difference between federal and state practice on Chapter 93A claims, which are as commonly asserted in Massachusetts civil litigation as streets are jammed with traffic in Boston. In Full Spectrum Software, Inc. v. Forte Automation Systems, Inc., the First Circuit ruled that there is a right to a jury trial for Chapter 93A claims pending in federal court, at least in certain circumstances. The Supreme Judicial Court decided years ago in Nei v. Burley, in contrast, that no such right exists in connection with Chapter 93A claims pending in Massachusetts state courts.

The difference in practice arises from application of the Seventh Amendment of the United States Constitution, which provides that “[i]n Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved.” That amendment applies federally but not to the states, according to Minneapolis & St. Louis R. Co. v. Bombolis.

Full Spectrum held that the plaintiff’s Chapter 93A claim was sufficiently analogous to a common law claim for damages tried in a court of law (as opposed to a court of equity) in the late 1700s to bring the claim within the ambit of the Seventh Amendment. The First Circuit left the door open, however, for judges—not juries—to decide at least some flavors of Chapter 93A claims. “We leave for another day a fuller consideration of the extent to which the Seventh Amendment may apply to chapter 93A claims,” the First Circuit wrote. Exceptions could include cases where a plaintiff seeks only equitable relief or where the Chapter 93A conduct alleged sounds in equity (e.g., unconscionability), not law.

The Supreme Judicial Court decided Nei under Massachusetts law as opposed to federal law. The Nei decision concluded “there is no right to a trial by jury for actions cognizable under G.L. c. 93A.” The same decision further noted that, “[i]f this conclusion does not reflect the mind of the Legislature, it is free to change the law and to grant a right to a trial by jury.”

A successful Chapter 93A plaintiff can obtain multiple damages (double or treble) and recover its reasonable attorneys’ fees. In the wake of Full Spectrum, Chapter 93A plaintiffs may think harder about filing their cases in federal court (when filing there is an option), and Chapter 93A defendants may think harder about exercising their removal rights (when removal is an option).

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