On Friday, Jan. 13, the four defendants in Stewart et al. v Commissioners — the Board of County Commissioners, District 2 Commissioner Thomasina Coates (D), Board of Charles County Commissioners’ President Reuben B. Collins II (D), and District 4 Commissioner Ralph E. Patterson (D) — filed motions to dismiss the complaint filed by District 3 Commissioner Amanda M. Stewart (D) and District 1 Commissioner Gilbert Bowling III (D) on Dec. 30 and subsequently joined by County Administrator Mark Belton.
Motions to dismiss are fairly routine in civil cases like this one, and are often made at the outset of the case in response to the original complaint. Basically, it’s an argument that the plaintiffs’ allegations are not legally valid. TLR is not going to go into detail on each of the motions; that can wait on the ruling of retired Circuit Court for Prince George’s County Judge Leo E. Green, Jr., who is presiding over the case. However, in the meantime, there are a few noteworthy points that are worth reviewing here.
To briefly recap: During a closed session on December 13, 2022, all five county commissioners agreed to allow Stewart and Bowling to seek a judge’s ruling (called a “declaratory judgment”) on whether the other three commissioners could vote to fire Belton if one of those three (unnamed in the complaint) had been previously barred from participating in any employment-related actions related to him. The means by which that commissioner was prevented from interacting with Belton is an administrative ruling called a Prompt and Remedial Action (PRA), which was enacted in June 2020 as a result of an investigation by outside counsel that found the commissioner had racially discriminated against and harassed Belton, and whose actions had left the county vulnerable to unspecified legal action.
The Board Asks to be Excused as a Defendant
In a short and succinct memorandum, the county’s attorney argues, essentially, that the Board of County Commissioners as an organizational entity can’t be a defendant in the case because the case pits two sets of board members against each other. “By operation of its duties, the Board is representative of both the Plaintiff and Defendant Commissioners in this action and cannot be considered a contending or adverse party to any of the Commissioners.” (motion, p1) Being a party to the lawsuit, accordingly, would create “an unavoidable and unwaivable conflict of interest.” (memorandum, p5)
Arguments to Dismiss for Failure to State a Claim
Each of the three commissioners argue that the plaintiffs “fail to state a claim upon which relief can be granted” for some or all of the counts in the complaint. In plain language, they’re saying the problem isn’t something that can be solved in court. Either the actions of the defendant were not illegal, or the plaintiffs didn’t offer enough evidence to prove that the actions were illegal, or the actions didn’t harm the plaintiffs, or the plaintiffs didn’t exhaust all other options available to them before turning to the court for help.
By arguing a failure to state a claim, however, the defendants leave an opening for the plaintiffs to amend their complaint to address the presumed omissions in their response.
Interestingly, Collins’ attorney does not argue that the first count of the complaint, the request for a declaratory judgment, should be dismissed. It’s possible that this is because Collins is tacitly acknowledging that the board had unanimously agreed to allow Stewart and Bowling to file their complaint specifically to get that ruling in the first place.
Coates’ Redacted Motion to Dismiss Argues Lack of Standing and Invokes the Political Question Doctrine
The publicly disclosed version of Coates’ motion has been heavily redacted — the only one of the motions so edited. As such, it’s hard to summarize some of the points being argued (and, for two sections that have been redacted in their entirety, it’s impossible). In the three-page background section, only two short paragraphs remain unredacted: one stating when Belton was hired, and one stating when the plaintiffs filed their complaint. The remaining five paragraphs, and accompanying footnotes, have been blacked out.
Coates’ attorney argues that Stewart, Bowling, and Belton do not have “standing,” which means they haven’t been injured by the alleged actions and therefore don’t stand to gain or lose anything from the judge’s decision — the reasoning being, essentially, that because Belton hasn’t been fired, the injury hasn’t happened yet.
Furthermore, to claim discrimination under state and federal laws, the alleged victims would have to be employees; Coates’ attorney argues that since the two commissioners are elected officials and Belton is an appointee of the commissioners, none of them qualify as employees.
Coates’ attorney also invokes the separation of powers, arguing that the court cannot rule on the complaint because to do so would be meddling in the affairs of the county’s legislative branch — making it a “political doctrine question” rather than a question of the violation of a law. The attorney argues, “Maryland courts cannot, consistent with a respect for separation of powers, restrain a Charles County Commissioner from voting on the appointment or removal of the County Administrator.” (memorandum, p8)
Coates’ motion also claims that the relief being sought by the plaintiffs violates the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, but the entire argument in support of that claim has been redacted.
Patterson Argues the Complaint Infringes on his Elected Duties
Patterson’s motion also invokes the political question doctrine and also claims the plaintiffs lack standing, but in addition Patterson’s attorney argues that he should not be included because he is demonstrably not the commissioner to whom the PRA applies — having been elected after the PRA was issued — and should not be prevented from participating in a vote related to Belton’s employment.
When a defendant files a motion to dismiss in a civil case, the plaintiff is required to respond to the arguments made in the motion before the case can proceed. It’s possible that Stewart’s and Bowling’s attorney will choose to respond to all four motions together, rather than prepare individual responses. Either way, the plaintiffs will likely want to refute each of the grounds for dismissal point-by-point.
While it’s not an ironclad rule, judges are often inclined to give plaintiffs the benefit of the doubt when considering the validity of the allegations and facts presented in their original complaints. Thus, motions to dismiss in civil cases are often unsuccessful. A lot will depend on the strength of the counterarguments in the response to the motions.
Lawyers often use motions to dismiss as a tactic to delay the proceedings and encourage the plaintiff to settle out of court. However, that doesn’t appear to be a factor here. For one thing, the plaintiffs aren’t seeking damages but rather a ruling on points of law, and are thus probably inclined to let the judge take the time he needs to consider the issue thoroughly.
A hearing on the motions is scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 24 at 2:30. TLR will review the plaintiffs’ response once it has been made publicly available, and offer an analysis of how Judge Green might rule based on all of the evidence and arguments submitted for consideration.