Top 5 law stories of 2010

In a year’s worth of legal news, the most-read story online was only published on our website last week. Other stories that led in 2010 were about a “wrongful birth” lawsuit, whether or not alcohol can create adequate suspicion and a settlement from Jos. A. Bank.

1. Settlement terms revealed in wrongful arrest case – Brendan Kearney

On the morning of Nov. 29, 2007, Yakov Shapiro was preparing for a day of family and music — his two great loves — when there was a knock at the door of his Germantown home.

When he opened it, three Montgomery County police officers asked the 60-year-old immigrant his name and then announced, to his shock, that he was under arrest.

On the way to jail, he learned the charges: child sexual abuse.

2. Parents file $20M lawsuit for wrongful birth – Danny Jacobs

A Baltimore couple filed a wrongful birth lawsuit Monday after a sonogram showing fetus abnormalities was sent to a doctor with the same name as the treating obstetrician.

Jessica Young only learned of her baby’s problems days before Antonio Jesse McLeod was delivered prematurely last July with a hole in his diaphragm, among other complications. A lawyer for Young and Antoine McLeod, the baby’s father, estimated Antonio’s “lifetime of care” could cost the couple more than $20 million.

3. Smell of alcohol alone created adequate suspicion – Steve Lash

A “moderate” aroma of alcohol emanating from a driver provided a sufficient basis for a police officer to conduct sobriety tests, Maryland’s top court held unanimously, overturning a judge’s conclusion that the smell alone did not arouse reasonable suspicion.

The Court of Appeals said Baltimore County Circuit Judge Timothy J. Martin erroneously engaged in a constitutional analysis of whether the officer had “reasonable articulable suspicion” that motorist Adam Leigh Shea had too much to drink in ordering field-sobriety and breathalyzer tests, which found he was over the legal limit.

4. Debt collector to pay $330K settlement – Caryn Tamber and Brendan Kearney

In a victory for consumer protection advocates, a major Maryland debt collector has agreed to drop 10,000 lawsuits against people who, in turn, alleged they were pursued illegally by the then-unlicensed company.

Midland Funding LLC will also pay the class $200,000 and its lawyers $130,000.

5. Jos. A. Bank to pay $4M to end share-price litigation – by Brendan Kearney

Jos. A. Bank Clothiers Inc. has agreed to pay $4 million to settle securities litigation over certain public statements about its sales and inventory made in late 2005 and early 2006.

The Hampstead-based menswear chain reached an agreement in principle in late October to settle the 3-year-old putative class action with the plaintiffs, led by the Massachusetts Labor Annuity Fund, but only filed the particulars in a stipulation on Friday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

Law blog roundup: Ben Matlock offers the best defense

Still wish you were on vacation? Most of your co-workers out for week? Here’s some “work” you can do to pass the time:

Top 5: ‘This whole case was a tragedy of cataclysmic dimension’

Brendan Kearney’s story on the Baltimore County music teacher wrongfully arrested on child sexual abuse charges dominated last week’s list of the most-read stories by The Daily Record’s legal team.

1. Settlement terms revealed in wrongful arrest case
On the morning of Nov. 29, 2007, Yakov Shapiro was preparing for a day of family and music — his two great loves — when there was a knock at the door of his Germantown home.

2. Senate confirms Hollander, Bredar to U.S. District Court
“It’s the fulfillment of a dream from my days as a law clerk,” said Ellen L. Hollander, who in the mid-1970s worked for U.S. District Judge James R. Miller Jr. of Baltimore. James K. Bredar, when he takes the judicial oath, will become the first former federal public defender to sit on the federal bench in Maryland — a slice of history he deeply appreciates.

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Updates on the secret Shapiro settlement

Keith Merryman

Keith Merryman

While Baltimore City Solicitor George A. Nilson and Steven Kupferberg, the attorney for mistakenly arrested violinist Yakov Shapiro, still differ as to the origin of the confidentiality of their settlement, allow me to offer a few updates related to the case.

There’s been a strong reader reaction to the story of Shapiro’s travail — which started when a detective investigating claims of child molestation by Yisroel Shapiro posted a warrant for Yakov Shapiro — and the city’s efforts to keep it quiet. While many Baltimore elected officials have kept to themselves about the questions the case raises about government transparency and training at the police department, a few city council members have spoken up:

  • Baltimore City Councilwoman Belinda Conaway, who has taken an interest in the costs of police negligence, said last summer she understood the need for such a confidential settlement “under extraordinary circumstances, once in a blue moon.” But, she said, “this should not happen again anytime soon.” Last week, after finally hearing the details of the Shapiro case, her first reaction was “Oh my God.”

“It’s a terrible, terrible thing to happen and I would hope the necessary steps are taken so something like this doesn’t happen again,” she said. “A settlement is nice but there’s no way that that settlement can undo the damage that was done.”

“If we could all walk away from this with one lesson learned, I would hope that it would be a shared recognition of the importance of transparency in government proceedings,” Henry wrote in an e-mail Wednesday evening. “Perhaps the Board of Estimates needs to develop a better policy of how to deal with confidentiality concerns when allocating City funds. Perhaps we should be trying to record and broadcast not only the actual Board of Estimates proceedings, but the mini-meetings ahead of time when more detailed briefings are given for many of the issues before the Board.

“The Administration has claimed to be supportive of this initiative of the Council President’s (recording and broadcasting B/E meetings, Liquor Board hearings, and BMZA hearings),” Henry continued, “but also claims to be unable to come up with the operating funds needed – less than $50K – leading to the reasonable suspicion that they must be sufficiently comfortable with the status quo.”

Mr. Kupferberg has shielded Yakov Shapiro from press inquiries but he described his client’s reaction to the stories published in yesterday’s paper.

“Yakov was in here today, and I asked him if he wanted to speak to you and he started to cry,” Kupferberg said by phone from his office. “I showed him the story, and he just teared up.”

One detail I wasn’t able to determine before we published Tuesday evening was the identity of the judge who presided over Shapiro’s bail review that November morning three years ago. Well, it seems the voice on the recording was that of C. Yvonne Holt-Stone. According to an e-mail from Baltimore City District Court Administrative Judge John R. Hargrove Jr., Judge Holt-Stone was on the schedule for that morning at Central Booking, where Hargrove says Shapiro’s bail review took place. Holt-Stone, who has been on the city district court bench since 1991 is on leave through the end of the year and could not be reached to confirm her part in the case.

The other person I’ve yet to hear from is Baltimore City Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III. He was at the White House yesterday and is out of the office through Christmas, according to his spokesman.

I’m less optimistic about ever hearing from Detective Keith Merryman (who posted the warrant for Yakov Shapiro instead of the real offender, Yisroel Shapiro) or police lawyer Neal M. Janey Jr., who negotiated the settlement, but stay tuned on those fronts.

Artist's court sketch of Yisroel Shapiro (left, with glasses and Kippah)

Finally, if you’re interested in learning more about Yisroel Shapiro and how his misdeeds came to light in the generally close-knit and tight-lipped Orthodox Jewish community, have a look at Standing Silent, a documentary that will premier at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival in February. Phil Jacobs, the executive editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times who has covered the topic extensively, stars in the film.

Thanks for reading and Happy Holidays!

Law blog roundup

Good morning! Here are some law links for your pre-Solstice perusal:

Top 5: ‘It’s another step in getting this horrific experience behind us’

The Daily Record’s top stories this week were led by our legal affairs reporters, and included several cases. One article told the story of a school aide who contracted the HIV virus after being bitten by a student; another dealt with the ex-CFO of Maryland Legal Aid, who was sentenced this week for embezzling from the nonprofit.

1. Lawyer charged with criminal conflict

Federal prosecutors in Maryland have charged a former government lawyer with criminal conflict of interest and another crime for not disclosing he had an outside law practice and representing a company seeking a government contract.

Jeffrey Ross Williams, a Potomac resident, faces a maximum of 10 years in prison and a $500,000 fine if convicted on both counts, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office.

2. Ex-CFO of Maryland Legal Aid sentenced to 30 months

A tearful Benjamin L. “Bennie” King Jr. apologized to his family and former employer Legal Aid before being sentenced to 30 months in prison Tuesday for embezzling more than $1 million from the organization over a decade.

A federal judge in Baltimore sentenced the former chief financial officer of the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau to the shorter end of the 30-37 month guideline range, based on a recommendation from federal prosecutors.

King asked the court for mercy in his sentence.

3. 4 Aces Bail Bonds’ owners to plead guilty

The father-and-son team behind one of Baltimore’s largest bail bond services will plead guilty next week to federal charges filed against them, their lawyers confirmed.

Milton Tillman Jr. and Milton Tillman III of 4 Aces Bail Bonds Inc. are scheduled to be in U.S. District Court in Baltimore on Wednesday afternoon, according to a notice of a hearing filed Thursday. The Tillmans were indicted in February on multiple counts of tax, insurance and wire fraud 18 months after federal agents raided their homes and offices.

4. Bitten HIV-positive aide sues school after termination

A child care provider fired from a private Eastern Shore school for the disabled has sued the facility under the Americans with Disabilities Act, saying administrators terminated him after he disclosed he has HIV.

In papers filed by his attorney in federal court, Teran Goldsborough said he made the disclosure in February 2009 after he was bitten on the hand by a student with a mental disability at The Benedictine School for Exceptional Children.

5. Maryland’s top 10 verdicts of 2010

Maryland’s largest verdicts in 2010 vaulted over most of the biggest from 2009.

But none came close to the size of last year’s No. 1 verdict — a $150 million award to 88 Jacksonville families who sued ExxonMobil Corp. for a massive gas leak at their local gas station.

In fact, despite the increased size of 2010’s verdicts, altogether the top ten don’t add up to that $150 million payout.

A season of ‘light’ for the Court of Appeals

During this holiday season, Marylanders can perhaps rejoice in the fact their top court is a “point of light” and not a “judicial hellhole,” according to a national organization that seeks to rein in what it considers runaway jury awards.

In its annual report, the American Tort Reform Association praises the Maryland Court of Appeals for its Sept. 24 decision upholding the state’s statutory cap on noneconomic damages. By contrast, ATRA scorns the Illinois and Georgia supreme courts for striking down their state laws limiting awards for pain and suffering.

In contrast to the “reasonableness” of Maryland’s high court, justices in those two “judicial hellholes” replaced “the policy judgments of elected legislators and governors with their own,” ATRA’s report says.

The Maryland Court of Appeals, in DRD Pool Service Inc. v. Freed, said the state legislature had a”rational basis” for enacting the cap on noneconomic damages. The General Assembly limited awards for pain and suffering to achieve the “legitimate legislative objective” of keeping insurance costs down for companies and individuals, as the cap enables insurers to better predict their financial exposure in litigation, the court said.

“In our view, the cap continues to serve a legitimate government purpose,” Judge Clayton Greene Jr. wrote for the court’s 6-judge majority.

Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr., the sole dissenter, argued for a stricter standard. He said the cap’s defenders should have to show that it is substantially related to an important legislative objective.

Maryland’s noneconomic damages cap, which increases by $15,000 every Oct. 1, is currently $740,000.

Do you regard the court’s decision as a point of light?

Tuition holds the line at UM Law

It seems students at the University of Maryland School of Law have already gotten a great present this holiday season: no tuition increase next year. This despite other schools within the University of Maryland, Baltimore seeing an average tuition increase of 4 percent for the 2011-2012 year.

UPDATE 12/17/10: A UMB spokesman reminded me that a tuition freeze does not happen just because the law school announces it. Tuition rates have to be approved by the Board of Regents, a vote that follows the General Assembly’s approval of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s budget.

In a memo to all UMB students about tuition and fees, published yesterday at Above the Law, President Jay Perman said the one-year freeze at the law schools was made “due to unique and striking changes in the economic environment for the legal profession.”

Law school Dean Phoebe Haddon, in a subsequent memo to law students also in ATL, elaborated:

Holding tuition at the current level in the upcoming academic year has been a top priority for me. The impact of the economic downturn on the legal employment market, combined with the large amount of debt many of you carry, has caused the faculty and administrators of the Law School great concern. Relative to the other professions, the legal sector has been especially hard hit, with tens of thousands of law jobs lost. Many of us also believe that this downturn is resulting in a fundamental restructuring of law practice that will require careful financial planning for all of us going forward.

Haddon added that the law school will make-up its shortfall to UMB by dipping into its short-term savings.

“I have been actively meeting with supportive alumni, friends and foundations seeking financial support so that the fund balance will be replenished,” Haddon wrote.

Calling UM Law alumni: Does the tuition freeze make you more likely to donate to your alma mater? Less likely? Or does it not affect your decision at all?

Denise Whiting, meet Pat Riley

Most of us basketball fans know Pat Riley as the former head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks and Miami Heat. Think Armani suits, hair gel, “Showtime” and a decidedly less elegant brand of hoops once he moved east. He’s also the current Heat team president, the man responsible for luring LeBron James and his talents to South Beach.

The guy’s also won five NBA titles and is in the sport’s Hall of Fame, so even an avowed Boston Celtics fan like me pays him his proper respects.

What does this have to do with Denise Whiting and “Hon,” the local term of endearment she’s trademarked to the consternation of many around town? Well, Riley’s also behind a corporate entity known as Riles & Co. Inc. that first trademarked the phrase “three-peat” back in 1989 and continues to hold the trademark today. It’s active for shirts, jackets and hats, meaning anyone selling memorabilia with the phrase needs to kick some coin to Riles & Co.

Its attorney, David R. Shaub of Los Angeles-based Shaub & Williams LLP, will no doubt see to that. Shaub’s bio describes him as an experienced intellectual property and business litigator and has a sub-speciality in patent and transnational litigation, having litigated over 1,000 cases and tried over 100.”

Riley’s move set off similar derision in sports circles back in the late 1980s.

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Law blog roundup: Malpractice, salmonella and stop signs

This week looks like it’s going to be Maryland’s coldest yet this fall. Stay warm and toasty by your computer reading these heartwarming law links.