The debate over whether District 2 Commissioner Thomasina Coates (D) has the authority to vote on the employment contract of the county administrator given the restrictions that were placed on her three years ago is proceeding along three parallel tracks: in the Appellate Court of Maryland, in the Circuit Court of Charles County, and in confidential mediation. All three of these are nearing their final phases. We’ll look at each one in turn.
Appellate Court Case
On Tuesday, May 30 — the deadline set by the court in its April 18 scheduling order — the attorneys for District 2 Commissioner Thomasina Coates (D) filed their long-anticipated brief with the Appellate Court of Maryland, asking the court to address and answer a single question:
“Did the trial court abuse its discretion when it entered a temporary restraining order that, among other things, enjoined a commissioner on the Charles County Board of County Commissioners from participating in a vote to terminate the employment of the County Administrator?”
The 34-page brief spells out a variety of arguments for why the three-judge panel — consisting of the Hons. Kathryn Grill Graeff, Kevin F. Arthur, and Michael W. Reed — should rule in the affirmative, raising issues that Coates’ legal team had previously raised in its circuit court case filings (see for example here, here, and here).
The opposing parties in the lawsuit — District 3 Commissioner Amanda M. Stewart (D), District 1 Commissioner Gilbert Bowling III (D), the Board of County Commissioners as a corporate entity (i.e., as distinct from the five individual commissioners), and County Administrator Mark Belton — must now respond in writing to those arguments. Their response could take one of several forms: each party could submit its own independent brief; the parties could collaborate on a single consolidated brief; or one party (likely Stewart and Bowling) could submit the main brief with the other parties signifying their concurrence.
Whatever form the responding brief(s) take, they must be submitted “on or before the 30th day after the filing of Appellant’s brief,” or June 29. Once the appellees’ responses have been filed, TLR will do a deep dive into the various arguments and responses.
In their brief, Coates’ attorneys requested that the three-judge panel permit oral arguments before them at the Robert C. Murphy Courts of Appeal Building in Annapolis. However, the court could deny that request and simply issue a ruling — in court parlance, an “opinion” — based on its review of the opposing parties’ briefs. If the court does decide to hear oral arguments, they are typically scheduled for the first eight business days of each month, meaning it could be several more months after the June 29 deadline for appellee briefs before the oral arguments take place.
UPDATE (6/19/23): Following the submission of the appellant brief, the Appellate Court of Maryland notified Coates’ attorneys that the brief exceeded the court’s 9,100-word limit and instructed them to resubmit an amended brief. As a result, the deadline for appellee briefs has been pushed back to Monday, July 17.
Circuit Court Case
As TLR recently reported on its Facebook page — which readers are encouraged to follow for interim updates — Judge Leo E. Green has scheduled a one-day evidentiary hearing for Friday, July 28 at 9:30 a.m. at the courthouse in La Plata:
In order to allow the opposing parties to prepare for the hearing, Judge Green has also permitted a limited resumption of discovery:
Specifically, each party is entitled to issue:
- Four subpoenas requiring people to appear in court to testify and produce documents (called “subpoenas duces tecum”);
- Fifteen lists of questions requiring response (called “interrogatories”) to any other party in the case;
- Fifteen requests to produce documents or other evidence, in addition to requests that have already been served, to any other party in the case; and
- Three depositions.
Judge Green’s order also stated that no limits would be placed on the number of requests that one party could make of other parties to admit or deny statements under oath (called “requests for admission”).
While the parties are required to file notices for the public record whenever they issue a request for discovery, they are not obligated to publicly disclose the particulars of what they are seeking from other parties, or from whom they are seeking it. The public is therefore unlikely to learn the details until they are revealed during the evidentiary hearing at the end of July.
In addition to the cases in the circuit and appellate courts, an independent mediation process is also underway. Under the guidance of William G. Connelly, a retired Chief District Court Magistrate Judge, the mediation process has included Stewart, Bowling, Belton, counsel for the Board of County Commissioners as a corporate entity, and Commissioners’ President Reuben B. Collins II (D) and Commissioners’ Vice President Ralph E. Patterson (D), who had originally been named as co-defendants along with Coates and the board, but whom Judge Green dismissed from the case at the initial hearing in January.
Notably absent from the mediation has been Coates herself, who has offered several reasons for declining to participate including the restrictive terms of the temporary restraining order and the revelation that she was the subject of another investigation by outside counsel resulting from new HR complaints against her. Although Judge Green has since explicitly granted approval for Coates to participate in mediation without it violating the terms of the TRO, TLR has learned that due to uncertainty over whether she would be able to vote on settlement agreements in mediation or during county board meetings, it appears unlikely at this time that she will participate.
TLR understands that mediation is set to resume in June, though TLR was unable to ascertain the date(s). Because all participants have signed nondisclosure agreements, no details of the mediation have been shared publicly.
TLR plans to cover the circuit court evidentiary hearing on July 28, either virtually or in person, and if oral arguments are held in the appellate court case, TLR plans to cover those as well. Should the outcome of mediation moot either or both cases, TLR will report on that outcome to the extent that the terms of the settlement can be disclosed. In the meantime, continuing developments will be featured here and on TLR’s Facebook page.
Download the Court Documents Discussed in This Post
1: Scheduling Order, April 18, 2023
2: “Brief for Appellant,” May 30, 2023