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Judge won’t halt public information requests in suit against Baltimore Co.

U.S. District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow in 2010. (The Daily Record/Rich Dennison)

U.S. District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow. (The Daily Record/File photo)

GREENBELT — A federal judge declined Wednesday to involve herself in a records dispute between Baltimore County and plaintiffs to a lawsuit alleging the police improperly handle sexual assault investigations.

The county alleged in letters to the court earlier this year that the plaintiffs were filing Maryland Public Information Act, or MPIA, requests as a way to obtain documents relevant to their claims before the discovery process starts in the lawsuit.

After receiving 37 requests in a single day in March, the county contacted its attorney and stopped responding to requests, prompting an MPIA lawsuit to be filed in Baltimore County Circuit Court.

At a hearing at U.S. District Court in Greenbelt on Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow encouraged the parties to work together to resolve the dispute but said she would not issue any order banning the requests.

“My view is that a wholesale ban on MPIA requests because it’s a substitute for discovery that is not timely would be wrong,” she said. “I’m not going to get involved.”

The lawsuit was filed in September and contends that the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and local law enforcement have a “systematic, institutionalized indifference to crimes of sexual violence, coupled with bias against women.”

Chasanow has not yet issued a scheduling order. Under a local rule in U.S. District Court in Maryland, the parties cannot engage in discovery — the disclosure of requested documents and information between the parties — until such an order is issued.

Neil E. Duke, an attorney for the county defendants, told Chasanow he learned of the MPIA requests made to his clients, which include the Baltimore County Police Department, only in March, when they received the 37 requests and were concerned about their ability to respond in the time frame set out in the law.

“My clients, I think justifiably, had a mild anxiety attack,” Duke said.

At least 71 MPIA requests were made by April, including six before the lawsuit was filed. Duke said he was concerned that he was being left out of the loop because the requests were made directly to the county and, he said, because federal cases interpreting the Freedom of Information Act prohibit using the records law as a supplement to discovery.

“Communications with my clients without me even knowing about it is problematic,” he said.

But Rignal Baldwin V, counsel for the plaintiffs, said the MPIA and federal discovery are completely separate processes governed by different rules.

“I understand counsel’s concern and I’m willing to bring him into the loop, but to restrict my client’s right (of MPIA access) is not right,” he said. “I could not find a single case that said because there’s a lawsuit in federal court, one loses one’s right (under the MPIA).”

Baldwin said that unless there is a compelling reason to withhold the documents, they are public.

Chasanow said it was for the circuit court to determine if the documents needed to be turned over and deferred to a ruling in the MPIA case now pending there.

“I’m not going to enter any order that puts a halt to the plaintiff’s MPIA efforts because I don’t think I should,” she said.

Chasanow also noted that motions to dismiss the case were currently pending before her and, based on her review of pleadings so far, she is considering dismissing some of the claims. She said the plaintiffs may ask to be allowed to amend to shore up their case.

“My guess is some of what they’re seeking may inform whether they (seek) to amend,” she said. “They need to do all that they can to see if there are other bases for factual assertions they may need to make.”

After the hearing, Baldwin said he looked forward “to getting the public records the members of the public are entitled to.”

Duke declined to comment.

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