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Appeals Court of Massachusetts.



Decided: October 07, 2021

By the Court (Desmond, Sacks & Grant, JJ.1)


The taxpayer appeals from a Superior Court judgment dismissing his complaint for lack of jurisdiction. On appeal, the taxpayer argues that “[n]o court has the authority to ignore the laws set forth in the U.S. Constitution.” We affirm.

Background. The taxpayer filed requests for abatement of his Massachusetts income tax liability for tax years 2006, 2008 to 2012, and 2014 with the Department of Revenue (department). After the department denied his abatement requests, he appealed to the Appellate Tax Board (board) by filing a petition under the board's small claims procedure, pursuant to G. L. c. 58A, § 7B (c). In accordance with that procedure, he signed a waiver specifying that “[t]he Appellant hereby waives the right to appeal to any court from any decision of the [board] issued under the small claims procedure.” Following a hearing, the board issued a decision affirming the taxpayer's tax liability.

The taxpayer then brought an action in the Superior Court against the Commissioner of the department (commissioner). He later filed a “Complaint Brief,” which we treat as an amended complaint, seeking both a refund of the taxes on wage income that he had paid to the Commonwealth and punitive damages in the amount of $50,000. The commissioner filed a motion to dismiss on the ground that the Superior Court lacked jurisdiction over the matter. A judge allowed the motion to dismiss, concluding that the court lacked jurisdiction because the board's decisions under G. L. c. 58A, § 7B, are not subject to judicial review. This appeal followed.

Discussion. We review the sufficiency of the taxpayer's complaint de novo, taking as true its factual allegations and drawing all reasonable inferences in his favor. Curtis v. Herb Chambers I-95, Inc., 458 Mass. 674, 676 (2011). “[W]e look beyond the conclusory allegations in the complaint and focus on whether the factual allegations plausibly suggest an entitlement to relief.” Id., citing Iannacchino v. Ford Motor Co., 451 Mass. 623, 635-636 (2008). In his complaint, the taxpayer seeks both a refund of his taxes and punitive damages against the commissioner. We review each basis for relief separately.

1. Tax refund. The taxpayer first seeks a refund of taxes paid on his wage income after the board denied him such relief. However, as the judge noted, he waived his rights to appeal the board's decision by utilizing the small claims procedure. General Laws c. 58A, § 7B, which establishes the board's small claims procedure, states in subsection (c) that any appellant in such a proceeding “shall ․ file a written waiver of the right to appeal to any court.” Subsection (g) of the same section additionally provides that “[a] decision entered in any case in which the proceedings are conducted under this section shall not be reviewed in any court.”

The taxpayer signed the waiver mentioned in G. L. c. 58A, § 7B (c), as required to use the board's small claims procedure, thus waiving his right to appeal the board's decision. He fails to make an argument as to why the Superior Court should nevertheless have jurisdiction to hear his refund claim. The statute makes clear that neither the Superior Court nor this court can review the board's decision. Therefore, his complaint seeking a refund of his taxes was properly dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.

2. Punitive damages. In what we construe as his amended complaint, the taxpayer additionally seeks punitive damages in the amount of $50,000. However, the taxpayer does not state any theory on which he is entitled to recover such damages. Nor are we aware of any.2

Under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, an individual may sue a person acting under the color of law for damages resulting from an alleged violation of the Federal Constitution or laws. However, money damages against State officials are available only if the officials are sued in their individual capacities. See Will v. Michigan Dep't of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 71 (1989). Additionally, in a § 1983 action, punitive damages are proper only when the defendant's conduct is shown to be “motivated by evil motive or intent, or when it involves reckless or callous indifference to the federally protected rights of others.” Smith v. Wade, 461 U.S. 30, 56 (1983). The taxpayer has neither sued the commissioner in his or her individual capacity nor alleged facts suggesting that the commissioner acted with malice. Therefore, the taxpayer is not entitled to punitive damages here under § 1983.

As for any State constitutional claims the taxpayer may have against the commissioner, the taxpayer may not recover damages in an official-capacity suit directly under the State Constitution, and he has not identified any statute authorizing him to assert such claims. See Doe, Sex Offender Registry Bd. No. 474362 v. Sex Offender Registry Bd., 94 Mass. App. Ct. 52, 64–65 (2018). To the extent the taxpayer asserts such claims against the commissioner in his or her individual capacity, the taxpayer cannot recover for State constitutional violations because he has not sued under any applicable procedural statute such as the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act (MCRA). See id. Even if the taxpayer had sued under the MCRA, punitive damages are not allowed in the Commonwealth absent explicit statutory authorization, Flesner v. Technical Communications Corp., 410 Mass. 805, 813 (1991), and the MCRA provides no such authority. See G. L. c. 12, §§ 11H, 11I.

Lastly, the taxpayer would likewise be unable to obtain relief under the Massachusetts Torts Claim Act, as it specifies that public employees shall not be liable for punitive damages for any injury caused while acting within the scope of their employment. See G. L. c. 258, § 2. Therefore, insofar as the taxpayer's complaint seeks punitive damages, the complaint was properly dismissed for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.

Judgment affirmed.


2.   Although the judge did not separately discuss the request for punitive damages, we are free to affirm on any ground supported by the record. See Rasheed v. Commissioner of Correction, 446 Mass. 463, 478 (2006).

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