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Ex-Cross Street Market tenant loses bid for compensation

High court calls move voluntary despite redevelopment

A former Cross Street Market tenant who left the Baltimore-owned landmark after being told the company was not in the facility’s redevelopment plans is not entitled to compensation from the city for moving and relocation expenses, a divided Maryland high court ruled Friday.

In its 5-2 decision, the Court of Appeals said Wireless One Inc. was not “displaced” under state law by the municipal landlord because the cellphone firm left before the city moved to terminate the lease and before redevelopment began.

In essence, the company left voluntarily – though it knew its days in the market were limited – and, therefore, does not qualify for compensation under Maryland’s Real Property statute, the high court held in affirming lower court decisions.

“In the complaint, Wireless One did not allege that rehabilitation or demolition of the Market had taken place, or that any other activity had been undertaken – for example, notice of termination of the lease, the institution of eviction proceedings, or notice that it was required to vacate the Market by a certain date,” Judge Shirley M. Watts wrote for the majority. “Walking away from the lease after being advised that it did not fit the plans for redevelopment of the Market falls far short of moving ‘as a direct result of rehabilitation, demolition, or other displacing activity’ under RP section 12-201(e)(1)(i)2.”

Baltimore Solicitor Andre M. Davis on Monday hailed the high court’s decision as “a big win” for the city, which he said faces nearly 10 similar lawsuits by other former Cross Street Market tenants. Davis predicted those cases will be dropped.

“It could have ended up costing the city a pretty penny” if Baltimore had been saddled with the ex-tenant’s moving expenses, said Davis, who added that he could not place a specific price tag on those costs.

“Who knows?” he said. “It’s pretty open-ended.”

Wireless One’s attorney, Baltimore solo practitioner John C. Murphy, did not return a telephone message Monday seeking comment on the decision.

Caves Valley Partners, and subsidiary CSM Ventures LLC, signed a management agreement in November 2016 with Baltimore to revamp the Federal Hill market that Baltimore has run since 1847.

Wireless One, which had been a Cross Street Market tenant since 2004, moved to a month-to-month lease and was told in December 2016 that the store did not fit the redeveloper’s plans for the facility. Wireless One asked to be released from the lease and moved from the market in February 2017.

The company subsequently sued the city seeking compensation for its moving and relocation expenses, losing in the Baltimore City Circuit Court and then in the intermediate Court of Special Appeals before taking its ill-fated case to the high court.

“In short, Wireless One voluntarily left the Market,” Watts wrote.

“No action had been taken by Respondents (city) or CSM to terminate the lease,” Watts added. “The plain language of RP section 12-201(e)(1)(i) is unambiguous in defining a ‘displaced person’ and, under the circumstances of this case, given that Wireless One unilaterally terminated its lease, Wireless One does not meet the definition of a ‘displaced person.’”

Watts added that Wireless One fell into a statutory exception to “displaced person” that applies to entities that lease from the displacing agency – in this case, Baltimore – after the agency has taken title to the property.

Watts was joined in the opinion by Judges Michele D. Hotten, Joseph M. Getty, Brynja M. Booth and Clayton Greene Jr., a retired jurist sitting by special assignment.

In dissent, Judge Robert N. McDonald said the case should have been remanded to the circuit court to determine the voluntariness of Wireless One’s departure from the market in light of its being told it was not in the redeveloper’s plans.

McDonald stated the voluntariness issue had not been addressed by the circuit court, which granted summary judgment for the city on the alternative, but flawed, ground that Wireless One was not a “displaced person” because it had leased from the displacing agency after that agency had taken title to the property.

“If it means that no person who leases property from the government (after the government takes title to the property) can be eligible for relocation expenses, then very few tenants will be eligible for relocation expenses under Maryland law,” wrote McDonald, who was joined in dissent by Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera.

The Court of Appeals rendered its decision in Wireless One Inc. v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore et al., No. 70 September Term 2018.

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