District 2 Commissioner Thomasina Coates (D) has been permanently barred from voting on the employment contract of the current county administrator following a circuit court order issued Thursday afternoon.
In granting the request by District 3 Commissioner Amanda M. Stewart (D) and District 1 Commissioner Gilbert Bowling III (D) for a permanent injunction that would prevent Coates from participating in any votes related to County Administrator Mark Belton’s employment — or even from communicating directly with him — Judge Leo E. Green Jr. brought to an end a lawsuit that has lasted more than nine months and cost county taxpayers more than three-quarters of a million dollars so far.*
As TLR first reported back in January, the lawsuit arose from a contentious closed session of the Board of Charles County Commissioners in December 2022, during which Coates, Commissioners’ President Reuben B. Collins II (D), and newly elected District 4 Commissioner Ralph E. Patterson (D) attempted to vote to fire Belton, despite the fact that the board had voted in June 2020 to bar Coates from voting on Belton’s contract following a confidential investigation by outside counsel that found she had discriminated against Belton and created a hostile work environment.
As the recently unsealed minutes of the closed session revealed, County Attorney E. Wesley Adams III declared the vote was illegal because of the board’s previous decision to enjoin Coates from voting on Belton’s contract, and the board’s then-counsel, attorney Eric Paltell, warned the board that such a vote “could have substantial seven figure exposure to the County and to the Commissioners.”
The commissioners agreed to allow Stewart and Bowling to file a motion in the Circuit Court of Charles County seeking a declaratory judgment to determine Coates’ authority to vote on employment actions related to Belton. Shortly after filing the motion, Belton joined Stewart and Bowling as a co-plaintiff.
Injunction Formalizes Limits in Place Since 2020
Saying that he could not recall having been presented with a harder civil case during his 20-plus years on the bench, Green ruled that the restrictions placed on Coates in June 2020 following the investigation — called the “prompt and remedial action” or “PRA” for short — would remain in place as long as either Coates remained in office or Belton remained employed as county administrator.
According to the terms of the PRA, Coates is:
“a. “[E]xcluded from having any input in any decision making, performance evaluations contract negotiation or any other employment decisions concerning [Mr. Belton];
“b. Required to ‘communicate policy initiatives and staff requests [to Mr. Belton] through the Commission[ers’] President or Vice President’ and not to Mr. Belton directly; and,
“c. Required to ‘refrain from directing, contacting, emailing or calling [Mr. Belton] directly.’”
In their original complaint, Stewart and Bowling also asked the court to prevent Coates from:
Participating in any vote to (a) undo or otherwise modify the June 9, 2020, Prompt and Remedial Action, or (b) rescind the June 9, 2020, amendment to the Commissioners’ Rules of Procedures [which require county commissioners to refrain from “intimidating and disruptive workplace behaviors” to ensure a workplace “free from discrimination and harassment in any form”].
In his Thursday ruling, issued during a hybrid hearing that lasted just over 45 minutes, Judge Green noted that he found it “troubling” that the PRA, the events leading up to it, and the consequences to Commissioner Coates were all kept hidden from the public for over two years. He also expressed concern that the PRA, as written, was open-ended.
“Simply put, the PRA was flawed, in the court’s opinion, for two reasons,” Green said. “One, . . . it lacked a sunset, and two, it lacked any sunshine.”
Judge Explains How He Reached Decision
Green began his summation by addressing an argument made by Coates’ attorneys that Stewart, Bowling, and Belton do not have “standing” — that is, they haven’t been injured by the alleged actions and therefore don’t stand to gain or lose anything from the judge’s decision.
He found that Belton had standing because “his job is on the line” as a result of the court’s decision, and that Stewart and Bowling also had standing for three reasons: the fact that the board authorized them to seek the court order; that as county commissioners they are obligated to protect the best interests of the county as well as those of their colleagues and themselves; and that they are also obligated to protect the county from violations of federal discrimination law.
A more challenging issue, Green said, was determining whether the board’s decision to impose the PRA represented a legislative act or an administrative one. Coates’ attorneys had argued that since the plaintiffs had claimed the PRA was enacted pursuant to the local government statutes of the Maryland Code, it therefore represented a “law or regulation,” which a court cannot block by issuing an injunction like the one being sought by the plaintiffs.
Green concluded that the PRA was in fact an administrative action because it revolved around the hiring and firing of a county employee — namely, the county administrator — rather than an action involving the passing of a law or adoption of a policy. Although Coates’ attorneys had argued that Belton was actually an appointee rather than an employee, Green pointed to language in Belton’s contract specifically identifying him as an employee to support his interpretation.
Another argument advanced by Coates’ attorneys was that the PRA violated her First Amendment right to free speech because it singled out an individual commissioner, which a law — as Coates’ attorneys contend the PRA is — cannot do. However, Judge Green dismissed that argument by noting that elected officials have constraints placed on what they can say as a matter of course, if only because of their obligation to uphold high standards — including non-discrimination. Furthermore, he argued, the PRA only restricted her ability to interact with one person; it imposed no other constraints on her speech.
Green explained that for a court to issue a permanent injunction, plaintiffs have to demonstrably meet four criteria:
- If the case were to go to trial, are the plaintiffs likely to succeed based on the merits of their arguments?
- Will more harm be caused by not granting the injunction than by granting it?
- Will the plaintiffs suffer irreparable injury if the injunction is not granted?
- Is granting the injunction in the public interest?
Green answered all questions in the affirmative:
- The plaintiffs are likely to succeed because the PRA is backed by the findings of the investigation by a highly respected attorney, Bernadette Sargeant of the Washington, DC, law firm Stinson, LLC (the so-called “Sargeant report“).
- There would be no convenience in allowing Coates to vote to fire Belton because doing so would likely result in an “expensive and distracting” lawsuit by Belton for employment discrimination.
- Belton would experience injury through the loss of his job, and the county would would likewise experience “great financial peril” from the resulting employment discrimination lawsuit.
- An injunction is in the public interest because it is Charles County Government policy to not tolerate racial discrimination, which the Sargeant investigation determined had taken place.
The plaintiffs’ arguments having cleared those four hurdles, Green then ruled that a permanent injunction should be granted. The plaintiffs’ attorneys have 10 days to draft and submit an order for Green to sign to officially document the ruling for the record.
“This has been a difficult case,” Green said in conclusion. “It’s one of those cases that . . . will have lasting effects.”
In February, Commissioner Coates’ attorneys filed an appeal with the Appellate Court of Maryland asking the higher court to determine whether the temporary restraining order that Judge Green imposed on Coates in January was illegal. Green imposed the order as a way to preserve the status quo until he could issue a ruling in the case. Now that the ruling has been issued, it is unclear whether the appeal is moot since the TRO has been replaced by the permanent injunction. On the other hand, Coates’ attorneys may argue that if the TRO was in fact invalid, then the written order for the permanent injunction — which is likely to use identical language — must similarly be invalid, and Green’s ruling should therefore be overturned.
As of press time, oral arguments before a three-judge panel — consisting of the Hons. Kathryn Grill Graeff, Kevin F. Arthur, and Michael W. Reed — are still scheduled for Monday, Oct. 2 at 9 a.m. in the Robert C. Murphy Courts of Appeal Building in Annapolis. The Appellate Court does live-stream its oral arguments; TLR will post the link on its Facebook page, which readers are encouraged to follow for interim updates.
Another issue that the board must face is the risk of continuing liability. As TLR exclusively reported, county employees have filed at least five complaints against unnamed county commissioners since the board adopted an anti-harassment policy immediately following the imposition of the PRA. TLR learned that four of those complaints were investigated by Bernadette Sargeant. Although the report of that investigation has not been made publicly available, a careful reading of court documents suggests that Coates may have been a subject of that investigation as well. TLR has been unable to determine what, if any, action the board has taken in response to that report. As such, it is not known whether the county faces potential additional litigation from the county employees who filed the complaints.
Download the Court Documents Discussed in This Post
1: Copy of Sargeant Investigation Report (plus Appendix A, “Materials Reviewed”), May 25, 2020
2: Minutes of the Closed Session of the County Commissioners, Tuesday, June 9, 2020
3: Minutes of the Closed Session of the County Commissioners, Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022
5: “Memorandum in Support of Defendant Commissioner Thomasina O. Coates’ Motion to Dismiss the Complaint,” Jan. 13, 2023 (REDACTED)
* The final amount won’t be known until all the attorney’s invoices have been submitted and paid in full. According to the most recent publicly available estimates, dating from late July, the county has transferred $1.35 million from the general fund to the county attorney’s office to cover expenses related to the case, and at that point had already paid over $790,000 to the attorneys representing all the parties in the case. (go back)