Briefs Filed in Appeal of Circuit Court Injunction (Part 1)

This story is the first of two parts. Part 2 will be published soon.

As TLR recently reported on Facebook, the Appellate Court of Maryland has agreed to hear oral arguments in the appeal filed in October 2023 by District 2 Commissioner Thomasina Coates (D) seeking to overturn the circuit court’s decision to permanently bar her from participating in votes related to the employment contract of County Administrator Mark Belton. As of last week, all the parties involved in the ongoing litigation have filed their arguments and counter-arguments with the court, allowing the case to proceed to oral arguments scheduled for October of this year.

For a quick refresher on the events leading up to the appeal, see this story.

Coates’ legal team is asking the appeals court to address and answer six questions:

  1. Did the judge err in issuing a permanent injunction that bars Coates from participating in any vote to terminate Belton’s employment?
  2. Was the evidence sufficient to support the judge’s decision to issue the injunction?
  3. Did the judge abuse his discretion in denying a motion by Coates to compel the county attorney to answer questions that had been posed to him in a contentious deposition at which he repeatedly claimed attorney-client privilege?
  4. Did the judge abuse his discretion when he granted a motion by counsel for the Board of County Commissioners to block two subpoenas that would have compelled the attorney who investigated Coates’ and Belton’s competing claims to testify?
  5. Did the judge abuse his discretion in denying requests by Coates’ attorneys to admit exhibits and testimony that they argued were relevant to her arguments?
  6. Did the judge err when he dismissed Coates’ counterclaim that Belton had actually been fired by a 3-2 vote taken during a closed-session board meeting in December 2022?

TLR is taking advantage of the lull in the proceedings to provide readers with a deep dive into the arguments for and against these questions in the opposing counsel’s briefs and how they might play out in court.

How the Appeals Process Works

The appellate stage of the legal process differs from the trial phase in several important ways. In an appeal, the court cannot hear any new evidence. Rather, the court’s job is to determine if there were any errors in the trial process — for example, if the judge excluded evidence, abused their power, or interpreted the law incorrectly.

The appeals process is straightforward but time-consuming. Briefs on both sides are strictly limited in length. They typically provide a summary of the case, followed by arguments supported by law on why the judge’s actions were in error and what action they wish the court to take. In addition to the briefs, the attorneys also submit key documents and transcripts from the circuit court case, called a record abstract, that the appeals court judges will refer to in deciding the case. The record abstract is submitted by the appellant, usually after reaching consensus with the opposing counsel as to what to include.

A three-judge panel will hear oral arguments, typically lasting no more than a day. After deliberations that can last weeks or months, the judges issue their decision in the form of an order. If either party is unhappy with the decision, they can appeal the case Supreme Court of Maryland. The Supreme Court has no legal obligation to hear appeals from the Appellate Court.

Is the Permanent Injunction Illegal?

The first question posed by Coates’ attorneys, over the legality of the permanent injunction, takes up the majority of their brief (approximately 15 of 26 pages). Accordingly, this article will focus on the arguments related to this contention.* Part 2 will examine the opposing parties’ arguments related to the remaining five questions and what we can expect at oral arguments in October.

In their brief, Coates’ attorneys offer several arguments for why Judge Leo E. Green Jr. was wrong to uphold the “prompt and remedial action” against Coates (commonly abbreviated as “the PRA”) approved by the rest of the board in June 2020:

  • The appellees haven’t been injured by Coates’ alleged actions;
  • When the judge dismissed one of the plaintiff’s complaints, he effectively mooted the need for a permanent injunction;
  • By preventing Coates from voting, the injunction represents a violation of the separation of powers;
  • The PRA was never valid in the first place;
  • The PRA and the court’s subsequent order violate the First Amendment;
  • Belton is not an employee, meaning he can’t file a claim of discrimination; and
  • The PRA is a piece of legislation that punished Coates without providing due process.

Let’s take each of these arguments in turn:

Were the Appellees Injured by Coates’ Alleged Actions?

First, Coates’ attorney argues that Stewart, Bowling, and Belton do not have “standing,” which means they haven’t been injured by the alleged actions and therefore don’t stand to gain or lose anything from the judge’s decision — the reasoning being, essentially, that because Belton hasn’t been fired, the injury hasn’t happened yet.

In his final ruling in September, Judge Green found that Belton had standing because “his job is on the line.” Stewart and Bowling likewise had standing, for three reasons:

  • The board authorized them to seek the court order;
  • As county commissioners, they are obligated to protect the best interests of the county as well as those of their colleagues and themselves; and
  • They are also obligated to protect the county from violations of federal discrimination law.

Coates’ appellate court brief argues that Belton doesn’t have standing because he “had not exhausted available administrative remedies” to address his complaint about Coates’ behavior before becoming a party to the circuit court case. With regard to Stewart’s and Bowling’s standing, Coates’ attorneys argue that the first of the three reasons offered by the judge is irrelevant and the other two don’t automatically qualify someone to have standing.

The appellees argue that their standing arises not from employee non-discrimination law, but from a different law — the Maryland Uniform Declaratory Judgment Act, which requires only that an “actual controversy” and “[a]ntgonistic claims” exist between the parties that indicate the likelihood of litigation. Furthermore, Stewart’s and Bowling’s attorneys argue, case law has established the authority of courts to conduct “justifiable, but limited, intrusion” upon corporate entities such as the Board of Charles County Commissioners to enforce compliance with its own policies and provisions, such as the PRA and employee nondiscrimination.

Additionally, Belton’s brief notes that under the terms of the Maryland Uniform Declaratory Judgment Act, Belton was actually required to be a party to the original lawsuit because his employment by the county could be affected by the outcome of the case. Furthermore, under the act, Belton was not required to exhaust all other administrative options for addressing the issue before resorting to adjudication in the courts.

“In her brief, [Coates] does not argue that Mr. Belton lacks standing under the Declaratory Judgment Act,” Belton’s attorney wrote. “Instead, she argues that Belton lacks standing under a doctrine applicable to an action for employment discrimination claims, which this is not.”

Did the Judge Moot the Need for a Permanent Injunction when he Dismissed one of the Plaintiff’s Complaints?

The fourth and final count of the original complaint filed by Stewart and Bowling in January 2023 claimed that when Coates, Commissioners’ President Reuben B. Collins II (D), and Commissioners’ Vice President Ralph E. Patterson (D) attempted to vote to fire Belton during a closed session in December 2022, their actions “made Charles County complicit in their unlawful conduct and exposed the County to significant liability.” They asked the court to find that the three commissioners had violated two sections of the Maryland Code “by acting in concert with one another and attempting to discriminate against Mr. Belton.”

When Judge Green issued his final ruling last September, he ruled in favor of the first two counts and agreed to dismiss the last two counts as moot.** Coates’ attorneys argue that by dismissing that fourth count, Judge Green essentially “negate[d] the purpose” of his own injunction barring Coates from participating in votes related to Belton’s employment. Because the applicable section of the Maryland Code refers to the unlawfulness of any “attempt . . . to commit a discriminatory act,” they argued that dismissing that portion of the code “undermined” the plaintiffs’ argument that Coates had discriminated against Belton, which was their contention in the original complaint.

Stewart’s and Bowling’s attorneys respond by saying that they dismissed Count IV because, as Judge Green noted, the investigation into Coates’ and Belton’s counter-claims of discrimination by outside counsel (commonly referred to as the “Sargeant investigation,” documented in the “Sargeant report”) found “many examples of direct racial bias and lack of credibility on the part of Commissioner Coates, and overwhelming evidence to substantiate Mr. Belton’s claims against Ms. Coates,” and so the additional count was not needed given the judge’s ruling.

Does the Injunction Represent a Violation of the Separation of Powers?

Coates’ attorneys also argue that the court cannot rule on the complaint because to do so would be meddling in the affairs of the county’s legislative branch — making it a “political doctrine question” rather than a question of the violation of a law.

“Not only is the Board’s power to remove county officials textually committed to the Board, but the authorities are legion that a court cannot, consistent with principles of separation powers, enjoin a legislator or legislature from voting,” they argue.

The attorneys for Stewart and Bowling pointed to a circuit court case that established injunctive relief of the kind sought by the plaintiffs is appropriate “when a government agency fail[s] to adhere” to its own policies. They further clarified that the PRA was not “an exercise of the Board’s legislative power” because it did not involve the making of a new law but instead was about enforcing existing non-discrimination law.***

Is the PRA Invalid?

Another argument offered by Coates’ attorneys is that the PRA was neither valid legislation nor an administrative action, and therefore can’t “serve as the legal basis for the Injunction.” Because the plaintiffs had claimed the PRA was enacted pursuant to the local government statutes of the Maryland Code, the argument goes, it represented a “law or regulation,” which a court cannot block by issuing an injunction like the one being sought by the plaintiffs. However, Judge Green ruled that the PRA was an administrative action because it addressed 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.

Stewart’s and Bowling’s attorneys point out that for the PRA to have been legislative rather than administrative, the board would have been required by law to hold at least one public hearing and potentially also a referendum, as well as a public vote. Furthermore, they note that the PRA does not appear in the county code, as a law would. In contrast, the board routinely conducts business related to personnel matters in closed session, as they argue was done in the decision to emplace the PRA against Coates.

“[T]he PRA did not legislatively punish Appellant’s conduct — it was an employment measure taken by the Board to comply with antidiscrimination laws,” they wrote.

Do the PRA and the Court’s Subsequent Order Violate the First Amendment?

Reiterating an argument they made during the circuit court case, Coates’ attorneys argue that the PRA violates her First Amendment right to free speech because it singles out an individual commissioner. If the PRA is a law, as Coates’ attorneys contend it is, then it would be illegal because of that. Judge Green dismissed that argument, noting that constraints are routinely placed on the speech of elected officials. Furthermore, Judge Green pointed out, the PRA only imposed constraints on Coates’ ability to interact with one person, not on the exercise of any other speech.

The attorneys for Stewart and Bowling reiterate that case law has long established that the free-speech rights of elected officials are not “unlimited, absolute, or unqualified.” They also point out that the board’s rules of conduct provide for restrictions on voting in cases of a conflict arising. The restriction on voting on Belton’s employment, they argue, “merely underscore that these are privileges attendant to her elected position.”

They also note that Coates herself has issued a public statement about Belton and given interviews to media outlets. These, they note dryly, “demonstrate that she is freely able to exercise her First Amendment rights.”

Is Belton an Employee?

Another argument that Coates’ attorneys had tried, unsuccessfully, to make in the circuit court case was that Belton was an appointee, not an employee, which would mean he is exempt from being able to bring an employment discrimination claim against Coates. Judge Green dismissed that argument by noting that Belton’s contract repeatedly referred to him as an “employee.” However, Coates’ brief argues, Belton’s duties are more closely aligned with the definition of an “appointee on the policy making level” as spelled out in a Supreme Court case, involving “the exercise of discretion concerning issues of public importance.”

Stewart’s and Bowling’s attorneys argue that the commissioners’ rules of procedure establish that the county administrator “lacks policymaking authority” and is responsible for executing the board’s decisions and policies, not making them. Furthermore, they note several instances in Collins’ deposition where he appears to confirm this. Belton’s brief concurs with this interpretation.

Does the PRA Punish Coates Without Providing Due Process?

Lastly, Coates’ attorneys argue, the PRA is a piece of legislation that was specifically designed to punish Coates without providing due process — an illegal law called a “bill of attainder.” To be considered a bill of attainder, a law would have to either be solely intended to punish someone, or to deprive a person of their liberties. By restraining Coates indefinitely from being able to “effectively carry out a core duty of her office” — namely, voting on Belton’s employment — the PRA should therefore be seen as unlawful.

The attorneys for Stewart, Bowling, and Belton counter this argument by reiterating that the PRA is not a legislative act, and that it was designed not to punish Coates, but to protect Belton, the board, and the county government from the legal consequences of her actions. Civil remedies such as the restrictions in the PRA, they argue, are not by definition punitive.

What’s Ahead in Part 2 of This Story

In the second installment of this two-part story, TLR will look at the remaining five arguments and counter-arguments raised in the appellate briefs and offer some thoughts about what is likely to happen next, and when. Look for that story soon.

Download the Court Documents Discussed in This Post

1: “Brief for Appellant,” March 24, 2024
2: “Brief of Appellee Commissioners Amanda M. Stewart & Gilbert O. Bowling, III, in Their Official Capacities,” April 3, 2024
3: “Brief of Appellee Mark Belton,” April 3, 2024
4: “Brief of Appellee Board of County Commissioners of Charles County,” April 3, 2024

* The brief for the Board of Charles County Commissioners responded only to the third and fourth questions raised in Coates’ brief (regarding whether Judge Green abused his discretion in denying Coates’ motion to compel the county attorney to answer questions and also in quashing their subpoenas of attorney Bernadette Sargeant and others in her law firm who worked on the investigation). Likewise, Belton’s brief did not address each of the contentions under the main question of the PRA’s legality discussed in this story. (go back)

** The third count of the original complaint was a fallback option should the judge decline to issue a temporary restraining order to maintain the status quo prior to a final ruling, or to order a permanent injunction against Coates. Should the judge agree to neither of those, they instead sought what is called a “writ of mandamus” requiring Coates to abide by the terms of the PRA and the Board’s rules of procedure prohibiting discriminatory actions. (go back)

*** This line of reasoning may be an interesting point of contention in the oral arguments, as technically at the time the board voted to pass the PRA in June 2020, the county arguably did not have an explicit non-discrimination policy that applied specifically to the county commissioners. The board voted to adopt anti-discrimination language in the commissioners’ rules of procedure immediately after the vote to apply the PRA. Therefore, those specific terms were not in force at the time Coates committed the acts she was alleged to have committed, as detailed in the Sargeant Report. Presumably, other federal and state non-discrimination law did apply, however. (go back)