Citing “progress,” parties seek to continue mediation in Stewart et al. v Commissioners

Two orders handed down Friday morning in the Circuit Court for Charles County represent important developments in the four-month-long case over District 2 Commissioner Thomasina Coates’ (D) authority to vote on the employment contract of the county administrator. TLR will review each order, and its implications for the future of the lawsuit, in separate stories. Today, we look at Judge Leo E. Green’s order to pause the case following last week’s long-anticipated mediation.

The brief, 60-word order was in response to a request made in February by the plaintiffs — District 3 Commissioner Amanda M. Stewart (D) and District 1 Commissioner Gilbert Bowling III (D) — and the other defendant in the case — the Board of County Commissioners as a corporate entity. At the time, both parties sought the stay as a way to “serve the interest of judicial economy and prevent the parties from unnecessarily expending further resources” following Coates’ unexpected decision to file an appeal seeking the removal of a temporary restraining order, or TRO, imposed by Judge Green.

However, documents filed in the Appellate Court of Maryland on Friday by Coates’ attorneys indicate that Judge Green granted the stay for a different reason — namely, because the participants in last Tuesday’s mediation session were optimistic that an agreement could be reached outside of the courtroom.

Nevertheless, the attorneys for Coates — who did not participate in the mediation — instead asked Judge Green to dispense with further mediation and proceed to a hearing to decide whether Coates would be allowed to participate in decisions regarding the employment of County Administrator Mark Belton, despite being banned from doing so by the board in 2020 following an investigation that found she had “subjected [him] to an abusive hostile work environment” and “made disparaging and false comments about him to county government employees and to county residents and state officials.”

Documents Reveal First Details of Mediation Outcomes

At a preliminary hearing in late January, Judge Green “implore[d]” the parties involved in the case to seek mediation as an alternative to a long — and expensive — legal process.* The mediation took place on Tuesday, March 28. Very little information about the mediation was shared publicly beforehand, and TLR understands that the participants signed nondisclosure agreements prohibiting them from discussing the proceedings afterward. However, thanks to Friday’s appellate filing by Coates’ team, we now have more details about how the mediation went — and what comes next.

The mediation, which was conducted by William G. Connelly, a retired Chief District Court Magistrate Judge, lasted for nine hours and included Stewart, Bowling, Belton, and their attorneys, the board’s legal counsel, and also Commissioners’ President Reuben B. Collins II (D) and Commissioners’ Vice President Ralph E. Patterson (D) and their attorneys. (Collins and Patterson had originally been named as co-defendants along with Coates and the board as a corporate entity, but were dismissed from the case by Judge Green at the January hearing.) As TLR previously reported, Coates and her attorneys declined to participate in the mediation “[f]or several reasons, including her inability to participate at the mediation given the terms of the TRO.”**

Following the meeting, Andrew Levy, the attorney for Stewart and Bowling, wrote to Judge Green that “while no agreement was reached, progress was made.” A second mediation session has been scheduled for Monday, May 8, and in the meantime the attorneys for all the participating parties will continue discussions.

“Plaintiff Commissioners’ view is that the matter should remain stayed until after the May 8 session,” Levy wrote. “Doing so is consistent with the mediating parties’ interest in conserving the County’s resources.”

The attorneys representing the board and Belton concurred with Levy’s assessment.

“Defendant Charles County is very concerned about the expense associated with an evidentiary hearing,” added Kevin Karpinski, the board’s counsel in the case. “I concur with Mr. Levy’s observation that the mediation session was productive and that I believe that continued good faith efforts by the parties will result in a resolution.”

Given the nondisclosure agreements signed by all the participants, TLR has been unable to learn what such a resolution might include.

Coates Asks State Appeals Court to Lift TRO

Citing the lack of a definitive outcome in the mediation, on Wednesday morning Coates’ attorney John Perry asked Judge Green to proceed with the hearing. However, on Friday the judge issued the order to stay the case and invited the attorneys to participate in a status conference in order to pick a date for a hearing should the mediation fail.

Following the issuance of the order, Perry filed an emergency notice with the state appeals court asking them to expedite a ruling on Coates’ request to lift the TRO to “enable her to adequately respond to the findings in the Sargeant Report,” the 2020 investigation by outside counsel into Coates’ behavior that led to her being barred from contact with, or any administrative actions about, Belton.

“By issuing the order staying further proceedings without ruling on the [suspension of the TRO], the Circuit Court has, in effect, denied that motion, in the very least, rendered it ‘impracticable to seek the relief’ requested,” Perry argued.

Coates’ attorneys have argued that the terms of the TRO are unfairly stricter than the terms of the administrative sanctions imposed by the board. Stewart’s and Bowling’s legal team has argued that lifting the TRO will allow Coates to vote to fire Belton despite those sanctions.

TLR will continue following the progress of the mediation and the appeal to lift the TRO and will provide updates here and on Facebook as needed. To read TLR’s complete coverage of the circuit court and appellate cases, click here or select “Stewart et al. v Commissioners” from the “Categories” menu at right.

Download the Court Documents Discussed in This Post

1: “Order [to Stay the Circuit Court Proceeding],” March 31, 2023
2: “Order [to unseal Defendant Thomasina 0. Coates’ Memorandum in Support of her Motion to Dismiss and Exhibits 1 and 2 to Plaintiffs’ Complaint],” March 31, 2023
3: “Joint Motion to Stay the Circuit Court Proceedings Pending Outcome of the Appeal,” February 8, 2023
4: “Defendant Commissioner Thomasina O. Coates’ Opposition to Joint Motion to Stay the Circuit Court Proceedings Pending Outcome of the Appeal,” March 13, 2023
5: “Emergency Renewed Motion to Suspend the Temporary Restraining Order and Unseal Minutes of Closed Sessions and Request for Expedited Hearing,” March 31, 2023
* Exhibit 1, email from counsel for defendant to Judge Green
* Exhibit 2, emails from counsel for appellees
* Exhibit 3, email from Judge Green to counsel for plaintiffs and defendants

* At a town hall meeting on Wednesday, March 29, Stewart acknowledged that the attorneys’ fees for all parties in the case — all but a fraction of which the county must pay from its own coffers — have reached approximately $500,000. (go back)

** Coates’ attorneys did not offer this explanation until after they had already withdrawn from the mediation. Their original notice of withdrawal stated only that the decision was “due to a recent development.” Furthermore, they offered this explanation only to the appellate court, not to Judge Green. (go back)