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Baltimore judge keeps PIA suit against Salisbury alive, transfers case to Eastern Shore

The ACLU of Maryland and the Real News Network have alleged the City of Salisbury failed to disclose information about the resolution of lawsuits alleging police misconduct brought by Salisbury University students. City officials said they did not possess documents about the litigation. (File photo)

The ACLU of Maryland and the Real News Network have alleged the City of Salisbury failed to disclose information about the resolution of lawsuits alleging police misconduct brought by Salisbury University students. City officials said they did not possess documents about the litigation. (File photo)

A Baltimore city judge denied a motion to dismiss a Maryland Public Information Act lawsuit against Salisbury on Friday but granted the city’s request to transfer the matter to Wicomico County Circuit Court.

Judge Charles H. Dorsey said citizens in Wicomico County have a greater interest in the lawsuit, filed by the ACLU of Maryland and the Real News Network, than the citizens of Baltimore and the interest of justice requires the transfer despite the strong deference afforded to the plaintiff to file suit in the venue of their choice.

The plaintiffs, both based in Baltimore, filed the suit in June alleging Salisbury failed to disclose information about the resolution of lawsuits alleging police misconduct. An MPIA lawsuit can be filed in the jurisdiction where either the records sought or the requesting party is located.

Sara Anne Helmers, a Washington-based attorney for the plaintiffs, said her clients would be inconvenienced by travel to the Eastern Shore and citizens throughout the state have an interest in the outcome of an MPIA case. But an attorney for Salisbury said the factors weighed in favor of transfer because the defendants are located there as are the majority of the witnesses.

“It is highly unusual for a local government to be sued or brought into court outside of its local jurisdiction,” said E. I. “Skip” Cornbrooks IV of Karpinski, Colaresi & Karp P.A. in Baltimore.

The parties agreed to dismiss the Salisbury Police Department as a defendant because it is not a separate entity that can be sued.

Joinder argument

Salisbury had also moved to dismiss the case because the plaintiffs did not join all necessary parties. The documents sought by the plaintiffs pertained to a lawsuit filed by Salisbury University students against the local police that settled last year.

In response to the MPIA request, the city’s public information officer said the city did not have any documents about the litigation in its possession and noted it was represented in the lawsuit through an insurance trust. The plaintiffs filed suit, alleging the city never cited legal authority for the failure to produce responsive documents.

But in its motion to dismiss, the city claims the plaintiffs from the underlying police misconduct lawsuit need to be included in the MPIA lawsuit because they have an interest in whether a confidential document should be produced for inspection.

“When (the Salisbury University students) entered into the agreement, they assumed both obligations and rights flowing out of the contract,” the motion states. “One of those rights would be to have the agreement remain confidential.”

Cornbrooks said the city will have inconsistent obligations if it must maintain the required confidentiality of the contract and disclose the requested documents, which he reiterated the city does not possess.

“Even if we get to that point and the city were to have to provide the settlement agreement, which it can’t, because it doesn’t have it, the requested relief can’t be granted,” he said.

But attorney Charles D. Austin, who also represented the plaintiffs, said the city is claiming confidentiality to require joinder of the other plaintiffs when confidentiality was not cited as the reason for denying the MPIA request.

The “crux” of the complaint is the city’s improper response to the request and the underlying lawsuit is not relevant, according to Austin, of Crowell & Moring LLP in Washington. If the defendants would provide a valid response, he added, the plaintiffs could determine whether to challenge the grounds for denying access to the documents.

Cornbrooks told Dorsey if the case was not dismissed, the next step for the city would be to file a more comprehensive motion for summary judgment or dismissal. The complaint as initially served was missing pages and not properly served until relatively recently, he said.

The case is American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Maryland et al. v. City of Salisbury et al., 24C17003485.


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