After a grueling 3 1/2-hour hearing Tuesday, Judge Leo E. Green, Jr. ruled on the 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, to seek a ruling 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.
Judge Green ruled that the unnamed commissioner will remain bound by the terms of the Prompt and Remedial Action (commonly referred to as “the PRA”) and may not participate in any actions regarding Belton’s employment, at least until an evidentiary hearing could be scheduled or (unlikely as it may seem) the parties agree to seek mediation.*
In his ruling, Green also dismissed Board of Charles County Commissioners’ President Reuben B. Collins II (D) and District 4 Commissioner Ralph E. Patterson (D) from the lawsuit without prejudice, meaning that they could be recalled as defendants at a later date if necessary. District 2 Commissioner Thomasina Coates (D) and the Board of County Commissioners as a whole will remain as defendants.
In order to place into context the arguments made by all parties and the reasoning behind the decision to find for the plaintiffs in granting a temporary restraining order, Judge Green’s ruling merits analysis.
It’s Time to Name the “Unnamed Commissioner”
Before we look at the ruling in detail, a side note: Following Tuesday’s ruling, it truly is a distinction without a difference to continue referring to “the unnamed commissioner” now that there is only one remaining individual defendant. Although it is a distinction that TLR had intended to continue observing as long as the court did — and although Judge Green agreed on Tuesday to continue using the pseudonym in court proceedings — TLR will no longer observe the distinction.
The reason is that TLR understands that county staff have now officially been made aware of the identity of the commissioner in question. Given that the commissioner’s identity has been released by a representative of the county government, TLR now joins the county in identifying Commissioner Coates as the commissioner who was censured in June 2020 and who continues to be enjoined from having anything interaction with County Administrator Belton or any say in his tenure.
With that out of the way, let’s get back to looking at Judge Green’s ruling in detail.
A Narrow but Clear Ruling
For all the wide-ranging discussion of legal theories that included the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment and the “political question doctrine,” among others (covered in detail here), Judge Green’s ruling was ultimately very narrow, focusing strictly on the enforcing the terms of the PRA that the board of commissioners adopted in June 2020.
As previously reported, the PRA was drafted in response to a report prepared by outside counsel whose investigation found Coates had “subjected [Belton] to an abuse [sic] hostile work environment” and had made “disparaging and false comments about him to county government employees[,] county residents and state officials.” The report also concluded that “Commissioner Coates’ actions have exposed the county to a serious risk of liability and may have exposed [them] individually, and possibly others to civil liability as well.” Furthermore, the county’s risk of potential liability was made greater by the fact that Coates’ violations “were so flagrant and recognized by the Board” before action was taken.
The commissioners convened a closed session on June 9, 2020, to hear the findings of the outside counsel, after which Commissioners’ President Collins said that the Board was “left with no other choice, based on the facts presented in th[e] investigation, but to adopt prompt and remedial measures necessary to protect both the County and ourselves as individuals.” The other four commissioners voted to impose restrictions on Coates recommended by the outside counsel, specifying that Coates would be:
- “[E]xcluded from having any input in any decision making, performance evaluations contract negotiation or any other employment decisions concerning [Mr. Belton];”
- Required to “communicate policy initiatives and staff requests [to Mr. Belton] through the Commissioner’s President or Vice President,” not directly to Belton; and,
- Required to “refrain from directing, contacting, emailing or calling [Mr. Belton] directly.”
Tuesday’s ruling continues to prevent Coates from taking any of the actions specified in the PRA.** The other commissioners remain free to vote on Belton’s continued employment, but given the current makeup of the board any vote would almost certainly result in an unresolvable deadlock.
Judge Green said the fact that four out of the five commissioners had voted to impose the PRA was the compelling factor in deciding to keep it in place.
“When the board has already made a determination that the censured commissioner has placed the county in peril, and put remedial action in there to assist them to make sure that they do not [take] any further discriminatory actions . . . they’ve spoken eons [sic],” Judge Green said.
Stressing his intention not to make a ruling that would curtail the board’s legislative prerogatives, Judge Green did not grant the plaintiffs’ request to order the board to refrain from voting to rescind the PRA or from allowing Commissioner Coates to participate in such a vote, though he did issue a clear warning about the consequences of doing so.
“I’m not telling [Coates] whether she can vote or not vote, but she does so at her own peril, and the county commissioners do it at their own peril too,” Green said.
The attorneys for both sides will meet with Judge Green on Tuesday, Feb. 14 to discuss their progress toward mediation or, failing that, to schedule a hearing to review evidence and hear testimony from the plaintiffs and defendants, called an evidentiary hearing. Unlike Tuesday’s hearing, when attorneys for both sides argued legal theories for why the case should (or should not) be allowed to proceed, this is when Judge Green will ultimately rule on “the rights and obligations of the [county commissioners] with respect to [Coates’] authority to participate in decisions regarding Mr. Belton’s employment,” as presented in Stewart’s and Bowling’s original complaint.
The attorneys for both sides will submit evidence and testimony related to the key events outlined in the complaint, likely including:
- The June 2019 complaint of racial discrimination and mistreatment filed by Belton (who is white) by Coates (who is a woman of color)
- Coates’ counter-complaint against Belton
- The investigation by outside counsel that validated Belton’s claims and warned that Coates’ actions and the board’s subsequent inaction had left the board legally vulnerable
- The June 9, 2020, closed session of the Board of County Commissioners at which they heard a summary of the investigation report, drafted the PRA enjoining Coates from taking any further action against Belton, and voted 4-1 to adopt it
- The Dec. 13, 2022, board closed session during which the commissioners agreed to pursue a judge’s ruling on whether Coates could be allowed to vote to fire Belton
The report of the investigation by outside counsel and the minutes of the June 9, 2020 closed session were both submitted as evidence with the original complaint under seal, meaning that they are not available for public scrutiny. During Tuesday’s hearing, Judge Green declined to rule on the plaintiffs’ request to unseal those documents; it’s possible that he may decide to do so during the evidentiary hearing, if he believes it is warranted.
During Tuesday’s hearing all parties agreed to waive the standard 20-day time limit for the temporary restraining order, which means that the evidentiary hearing could take place weeks, or even months, from now.
When Judge Green began his summing-up, he stated that while TROs should be ruled from the bench — that is, verbally during the proceedings — he would have preferred to write a long opinion on the matter before him. However, his ruling was as thorough, systematic, and comprehensive as any written opinion could — and should — be. Not only did his ruling make clear what the county commissioners are and are not allowed to do, it also sounded a clear and unambiguous warning about the dangers to the community when elected officials are not held publicly accountable for their misdeeds. Whether the citizens and the elected officials of Charles County heed Judge Green’s warning, only time will tell.
TLR continues to follow this story.
Download the Court Documents Discussed in This Post
1: “Verified Complaint for Temporary Restraining Order, Permanent Injunction, and Declaratory Judgment, or, Alternatively, Writ of Mandamus and/or Prohibition“
2: “Consolidated Opposition to Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss“
3: Revised and minimally redacted “Coates Motion to Dismiss“
* The Maryland Independent’s recap provides a good review of the salient points of the hearing; you can read it here (subscription required). (back to story)
** The report of the outside counsel’s investigation has never been publicly released, and for over two years the investigation, the events leading up to it, and the consequences to Commissioner Coates were all kept hidden from the public — accountability and transparency concerns that are well beyond the scope of Judge Green’s ruling, but which certainly merit their own scrutiny. (back to story)