District 2 Commissioner Thomasina Coates (D) is appealing last month’s circuit court ruling barring her from voting on County Administrator Mark Belton’s employment contract, and both sides have requested that the circuit court case be paused until the appeals court issues its decision — which might not happen before this fall.
As TLR previously reported, the January 24 ruling by Judge Leo E. Green, Jr. upheld a June 2020 vote by the Board of County Commissioners to impose restrictions on Coates based on recommendations by an outside counsel who had investigated claims filed by Belton and Coates against each other in 2019. The so-called “Prompt and Remedial Action,” or PRA, taken by the board specified 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.”
For over two years, the outside counsel’s investigation, the events leading up to it, and the consequences to Commissioner Coates were all kept hidden from the public until, last December, District 1 Commissioner Gilbert Bowling III (D) revealed them during the new board’s first open session. As TLR reported, Bowling and District 3 Commissioner Amanda M. Stewart (D) believed Coates and the other two commissioners — Board of Charles County Commissioners’ President Reuben B. Collins II (D) and District 4 Commissioner (now Commissioners’ Vice President) Ralph E. Patterson (D) — intended to convene a closed session where they would vote to fire Belton. Bowling and Stewart argued that such a vote would be illegal because the PRA prevented Coates from participating in it.
Instead, during the December 13 closed session, the board voted unanimously to allow Bowling and Stewart to seek a judge’s ruling, called a declaratory judgment, on whether the other three commissioners could vote to fire Belton if the terms of the PRA expressly barred one of them from participating in such a vote.
In his January 24 ruling, Green ordered that the PRA remain in place until an evidentiary hearing could be scheduled to review evidence and hear testimony from the plaintiffs and defendants. In most court cases, litigants can’t appeal a ruling to a higher court until after the conclusion of the lower-court case. However, Maryland code does provide a few exceptions to this rule, one of which is when a judge orders a party to cease an action — called a preliminary injunction — as Judge Green did.
Dueling Requests to Stay the Circuit Court Proceedings
The granting of an appeal doesn’t automatically mean a freeze on the progress of the circuit court case. For that to happen, Judge Green would have to agree to pause, or stay, the proceedings pending the outcome of the appeal. Late last week, the parties in the case filed two separate motions to do just that. While both motions asked for a stay, their reasons for requesting one were markedly different.
On Thursday, the plaintiffs in the circuit court case, Stewart and Bowling, and one of the defendants in that case, the Board of County Commissioners as a corporate entity, jointly submitted a motion asking Judge Green for a stay on the grounds that it would be “wasteful (at worst) for the parties to continue litigating” while waiting on the Appellate Court of Maryland (or ACM) to decide whether it can and should hear the appeal. A stay, they argued, would “serve the interest of judicial economy and prevent the parties from unnecessarily expending further resources,” especially since Coates’ defense team has apparently requested the other two parties turn over significant amounts of documentation — a process called discovery — for use in the evidentiary hearing.
The next day, the attorneys for Coates filed a separate motion in the appellate court asking it to suspend Judge Green’s temporary restraining order keeping the PRA in place along with “any written order of that ruling.” (TLR has been unable to confirm whether Judge Green’s ruling was ever issued as a formal written order to the litigants.) They also requested that the ACM issue a stay on the circuit court proceedings, laying out their arguments in a legal memorandum that, at least for the time being, is
restricted from public access unavailable through the Maryland Electronic Courts system.
According to a source familiar with the operations of the ACM who spoke with TLR, appeals arising from an order granting an injunction are put on the court’s docket and heard “in the normal course,” meaning the court is not obligated to treat it urgently. Typically, that could mean up to seven or eight months before the case is heard, following which the three-judge panel would require additional time to draft and issue their decision. If the judges remand the case back to the circuit court for further action, then the clock on the original case would resume, guided by the appellate judges’ instructions.
In practice, the source said, when addressing preliminary injunctions the ACM often makes a final decision on the merits of the arguments before the appeal is finalized. If that happens, the litigants — and the public — may not have to wait as long for an answer.
As of press time, the conference scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 14 to schedule the evidentiary hearing has not been canceled. It’s possible that Judge Green will use that meeting to announce his decision on the requests to stay the circuit court case.
TLR will continue to report on major developments as they occur.