Case Summaries: Maryland Summaries

September

Maryland’s Court of Appeals Reverses Denial of Whistleblower Complaint

Lawson v. Bowie State Univ., 2011 Md. LEXIS 515 (Md. Aug. 16, 2011).

A state employee wrote a letter disclosing potential abuses in the defendant university’s police department. The employee sent the letter to the university’s vice president, after which the vice president notified the Chief of the University Police Department about the information in the letter. The Chief then fired the employee. The former employee then filed a complaint under Maryland Whistleblower’s Act. The complaint was denied, and an administrative law judge affirmed the denial. The Circuit Court for Prince George’s County affirmed the denial, holding that whistleblower protections did not extend to employees who disclosed possible violations due to personal motivations to make changes in the department. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the statute requires only that an employee have a reasonable belief that the information disclosed evidences a violation, but not that the employee possess a purely altruistic motive for the disclosure.

September

Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals Reduces Award of Attorney’s Fees and Costs

Friolo v. Frankel, 2011 Md. App. LEXIS 123 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. Sept. 7, 2011) (See Leizer Goldsmith’s summary above).

Joy Friolo filed a complaint against her former employers, a doctor and his medical practice, including claims for violation of the Maryland Wage Payment and Collection Law and the Maryland Wage and Hour Law. After a jury awarded Friolo damages, Friolo sought her counsel fees and costs pursuant to Maryland wage law, which awards fees only to a prevailing party. The Montgomery County Circuit Court awarded Friolo her attorney’s fees and costs and ordered her to pay one-half of the special master’s fee. Friolo appealed these orders. The Court of Special Appeals found that the trial court erred in computing the fee award by straying from the parties’ stipulated rate schedule; by basing the fees on what a hypothetical plaintiff would willingly pay to recover the judgment obtained; by reducing the fees claimed to align with those in cases with judgment of similar amounts; and by demanding proof of appellant’s liability to counsel. Instead, Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals adopted the lodestar analysis. COSA held that the lodestar approach, with its adjustments, is the presumptive methodology to be used where an award of attorney’s fees is warranted under Maryland wage law. COSA then held that where a plaintiff obtains relief under Maryland wage law and then obtains an award for attorney’s fees which is later successfully increased on appeal, then the attorneys’ fees incurred during the appeal should be considered as a part of the lodestar analysis. COSA then stressed that Maryland wage law conditions fee awards on recovery, but it does not require a fee award wherever the plaintiff recovers. COSA went on to say that “it would be unreasonable to award fees where the defendant tenders the plaintiff’s entitlement but the plaintiff refuses to accept that offer and seeks and unjustified amount.” COSA went on to explain that “a defendant’s failure to offer settlement can be in full or in part. In the simple case, a defendant may offer $0 only to have a verdict entered in favor of the plaintiff for the entirety of the claims. If, however, a plaintiff demands $100,000 and obtains a judgment of $50,000 against a defendant who never offered any settlement - - which is to say the defendant ‘offered’ $0 - - both parties will have contributed equally to litigation costs.” After considering Friolo’s degree of success in the case, her relative contribution to causing unnecessary litigation, her overstatement of damages, the former employers’ settlement offer, and the amount of the verdict, COSA held that her degree of success was 88% and reduced her award of counsel fees and costs accordingly. Finally, COSA held that the employers failed in their Answer to deny Friolo’s allegation in her complaint that they withheld her pay “not as a result of a bona fide dispute,” and accordingly the employers admitted the issue as a matter of law.

September

Maryland’s Highest Court Clarifies the Ministerial Exception

Prince of Peace Lutheran Church v. Linklater, 2011 Md. LEXIS 574 (Md. Sept. 21, 2011).

Mary Linklater, a former employee of a church, sued the employer church, along with a synod, a pastor, and a bishop. Linklater filed a number of claims against the defendants, including sexual harassment, discrimination, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Linklater filed her sexual harassment and discrimination claims pursuant to the Montgomery County Code. The trial court dismissed the discrimination and sexual harassment claims pursuant to the ministerial exception of the First Amendment. The Court of Appeals affirmed the Court of Special Appeals’ holding that the ministerial exception does not operate to bar every claim of sexual harassment asserted against church officials by a former ministerial employee. The Court of Appeals also adopted the reasoning of COSA’s opinion in finding that the continuing violation doctrine applied to the sexual harassment, hostile work environment, and gender discrimination claims. In holding that the continuing violation doctrine applied to the plaintiff’s claims, the Court relied upon a case from the Supreme Court of California, Richards v. CH2M Hill, Inc., 26 Cal. 4 th 798, 111 Cal. Rptr. 2d 87, 29 R. 3d 175 (Cal. 2001), which held that an employer’s persistent failure to reasonably accommodate a disability, or to eliminate a hostile work environment targeting a disabled employee, is a continuing violation if the employer’s unlawful actions are (1) sufficiently similar in kind – recognizing that similar kinds of unlawful employer conduct, such as acts of harassment or failures to reasonably accommodate disability, may take a number of different forms; (2) have occurred with reasonable frequency; (3) and have not acquired a degree of permanence. However, the Court also held that the some of the plaintiff’s state tort claims, her retaliation claim, and her contract claims “would necessarily involve judicial inquiry into church governance, and such an inquiry is prohibited by the First Amendment.”

September