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Stories of the year: Baltimore emerges as aggressive litigant

Opioid manufacturers, Trump administration among city law department's targets

From left, Assistant City Solicitor Elizabeth Ryan, Solicitor Andre M. Davis and Director of Affirmative Litigation Suzanne Sangree. (Heather Cobun / The Daily Record)

From left, Assistant City Solicitor Elizabeth Ryan, Solicitor Andre M. Davis and Director of Affirmative Litigation Suzanne Sangree. (Heather Cobun / The Daily Record)

From pharmaceutical companies to Big Oil to the Trump administration, Baltimore filed or joined a number of large lawsuits in 2018 under City Solicitor Andre M. Davis.

Davis, a former judge on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, became the city’s lawyer in September 2017. By January, he had placed attorney Suzanne Sangree in charge of pursuing causes of action on behalf of the city.

“We have a client and like any other lawyer, when you harm our client, we’re going to come after you, and that’s the ethos of the affirmative litigation practice group,” he said.

Almost immediately, Baltimore joined legions of local and state governments — including many in Maryland — suing opioid manufacturers and distributors alleging that deceptive marketing and misleading statements contributed to the addiction crisis. The city has also sued other pharmaceutical companies for inflating prices of prescription drugs. Baltimore is one of only a handful of municipalities attempting to sue fossil fuel companies over climate change.

But so far, the city’s favorite defendant for high-profile litigation has been the federal government, which it has sued over a funding cut for teen pregnancy prevention, administration of the Affordable Care Act and changes to immigration rules.

“The Trump administration is a target-rich environment because so much of what it does and says is so inimical to the well-being of cities,” Davis said.

Though Baltimore is also a defendant in a number of high-profile cases, including lawsuits over police misconduct and the consent decree aimed at reforming the department, Davis said he is confident in the affirmative litigation strategy and believes the department is properly allocating its resources.

“We’re going to be good advocates when we defend the city against claims, not least of which the Gun Trace Task Force claims, but we’re going to be good advocates when we go against those who have harmed the city,” he said.

Outside counsel

Davis said he is seeking low-risk opportunities for the city, which usually means his office serves as local counsel while a national firm takes the case on a contingency basis.

With no upfront costs or fees, the city is responsible for coordinating with local agencies and reviewing and advising on filings, according to Sangree.

“We are very substantively involved every step of the way, but the heavy lifting of the drafting and the collection and review of documents, which are voluminous in many of these cases, are done by outside counsel,” she said.

The affirmative litigation group consists of Sangree and attorney Elizabeth Ryan, who splits her time between affirmative litigation and other duties. Sangree said other attorneys from the office can be pulled in for assistance but they are busy with their regular caseloads, so that is not done lightly.

Davis said he is confident the small division is an effective use of the law department’s employees.

“I have no concern whatsoever that the city is in any way misallocating or misusing our excellent resources,” he said.

Building a reputation

Director of Affirmative Litigation Suzanne Sangree. (Heather Cobun / The Daily Record)

Director of Affirmative Litigation Suzanne Sangree. (Heather Cobun / The Daily Record)

Sangree said Baltimore filed — and prevailed in — some major lawsuits in the past, like a 2008 case against Wells Fargo where Baltimore was the lead plaintiff in a complaint about predatory lending. Still,  establishing a division dedicated to those kinds of lawsuits is new under Davis.

“There’s a division dedicated to affirmatively seeking out cases and developing them, vetting them and then litigating them,” she said.

Davis said when he was a federal judge, he saw cities like San Francisco and New York filing massive consumer protection lawsuits and challenging federal laws, and he thought Baltimore had the potential to be in that group.

“I wondered is there a way that we might be able to stand up as a more assertive, if not aggressive, affirmative litigation practice group,” he said.

The Wells Fargo case settled in 2012 brought millions in down-payment assistance and foreclosure-related initiatives to the city as well as injunctive relief to prohibit certain lending practices. Though the most recent spate of major lawsuits don’t put a dollar amount on the city’s damages, the opioid cases have been compared to the tobacco litigation, which has netted more than $2.5 billion for the state of Maryland alone.

Davis said he wants Baltimore to have the confidence to be a leader in this kind of litigation, like San Francisco and New York, despite not having the same resources and tax base.

“We have (the citizens’) interests at heart,” he said. “We are not shy or afraid. We are willing to take reasonable, low-cost risks in an effort to bring compensation to the city for wrong done to the city and injuries incurred by the city.”

Davis said gauging the effectiveness of these lawsuits can’t be done yet because they are complicated and still in relatively early stages.

“The real answer won’t come for, I would say, another year or two years, to actually measure success,” he said.

Davis hopes another facet of affirmative litigation will pay dividends sooner: the collections practice group, which seeks payment for torts that cause property damage or injuries to city workers.

“The city, frankly, leaves a lot of money on the table,” he said.

Attorneys are being instructed to identify opportunities to identify the person at fault and collect money in those cases where possible. The city also wants to pursue claims against city employees who commit fraud.

“When people file fraudulent claims against Baltimore city, the Baltimore City Law Department will come after you,” he said.

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