ANNAPOLIS — Maryland’s top judge lobbied legislators Thursday to impose a 20 to 25 percent surcharge on filing fees for civil cases, raising the cost by as much as $30.
Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera told a Senate panel that the surcharges are necessary to defray the Judiciary’s cost of enabling attorneys to file claims electronically.
The requested surcharges include $30 for circuit court filings, $11 for cases filed in Maryland appellate courts, up to $8 on civil claims filed in Maryland District Court and $3 for summary ejectment, or eviction, cases. The increases would bring in about $5 million annually, which would all go to Plano, Texas-based Tyler Technologies Inc., the vendor of the Judiciary’s fledgling e-filing system, Barbera said during brief testimony before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
“We are here to ask for your support,” said Barbera, who spoke on the state of the judiciary before a joint session Wednesday.
The committee hearing came as the Judiciary ends its fourth month of a pilot program requiring attorneys to file civil claims and related documents in Anne Arundel County courts.
The e-filing pilot, Maryland Electronic Courts, has been in effect since Oct. 14. Under MDEC, Anne Arundel County will be the only jurisdiction with e-filing for the next two months. Civil cases being appealed from the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court must be filed electronically in the Court of Special Appeals and the Court of Appeals.
MDEC will expand to the Eastern Shore in the spring and across the state over the next several years at a cost of about $75 million.
If approved by the General Assembly, the surcharges would go into effect July 1.
The $3 surcharge for ejectment filings drew opposition for attorneys for landlords and real-estate managers who say the cost would impose an onerous financial burden on their clients based on the volume of their ejectment filings.
Counsel for low-income tenants also criticized the $3 increase, saying that cost would be passed on to those who can afford it the least in increased rent or judge-assessed court costs.
“This is a tax on landlords, this is a tax on tenants and we urge you not to pass the law,” said attorney D. Robert Enten on behalf of the Maryland Multi-family Housing Association, which represents landlords. “This bill creates a 25 percent increase in the cost of evictions.”
Katherine Kelly Howard, general counsel at Baltimore-based Regional Management Inc., voiced concern that the proposed surcharge increase in Senate Bill 64 would not be the last as e-filing expands statewide.
“This is in my belief just the tip of the iceberg,” Howard said, adding that ejectment filing surcharges afflict low-income tenants as well as landlords. “I believe this is a real access to justice problem.”
Groups that provide free legal assistance shared Howard’s belief about the harm and objected to the proposed surcharge on summary ejectment filings.
“In the end, the tenant is the one who pays the extra $3” in increased rent or in being assessed the landlord’s court costs, said Matt Hill, an attorney at Public Justice Center in Baltimore. “We don’t think that makes a lot of sense.”
Maryland Legal Aid stated in written testimony, “though an additional $3 may not seem to be much, for families struggling to keep their homes it is an additional weight that threatens their ability to keep their family in a safe and secure environment.”
Bel Air lawyer Susan A. Bauer, of Abraham & Bauer LLC, did not limit her opposition to the ejectment surcharge. She called it unfair that the increased surcharge would be assessed only on the plaintiff’s filing and not on the defense’s answer.
But the Maryland State Bar Association said in written testimony that it fully supports the surcharges, saying they would fund an e-filing system that will provide “better access for all Maryland citizens” to the state’s courts.
“Like so many good legislative ideas, the most difficult part of implementation is finding the funding,” the MSBA stated. “Senate Bill 64 allocates the cost of e-filing to the users of our courts. Litigants, those who directly benefit from our judiciary, will be responsible for the expense of e-filing.”
The legislation was introduced in the Senate at the Maryland Judicial Conference’s request. The measure is cross-filed in the House of Delegates as House Bill 54.