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Justices decline Md. homebuyers’, Baltimore killer’s appeals

The U.S. Supreme Court this week declined a request from counsel for more than 1,000 homebuyers that it revive their class-action lawsuit alleging they were harmed by an undisclosed kickback scheme between their Clarksville-based real estate agency and a Columbia title company.

The justices let stand a lower court decision that the homeowners lacked standing to sue because they suffered no “concrete” financial injury due to Lakeview Title Company Inc.’s alleged backdoor payments to The Creig Northrop Team PC for steering its customers to the title company.

The Supreme Court also declined a convicted murder’s request that it review and overturn his conviction because his attorney failed to request a jury instruction on the defense of alibi after four people testified at trial that he was most likely not at the 2003 Baltimore-area slaying.

Christopher Mann had argued through counsel that the alibi instruction would have ensured him a fair trial in the killing of Ricky Prince.

The justices turned aside both appeals without comment.

In the homebuyers’ appeal, both the U.S. District Court in Baltimore and the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled the homebuyers had not shown they were overcharged or paid an unreasonable fee to either Northrop or Lakeview.

The two companies have denied the homebuyers’ allegations of wrongdoing.

In their ill-fated petition for Supreme Court review, the homebuyers said the federal Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act does not require customers to prove they were overcharged in order to bring suit. Instead, the law presumes that a kickback scheme “inherently” injures customers because it “tends to increase prices and denies impartial and fair competition among settlement services providers for customers,” Gregory T. Lawrence, the homebuyers’ attorney, wrote in the petition.

The “prohibited, undisclosed compensation” Northrop allegedly received from Lakeview to steer customers resulted in the “denial of impartial advice” from the real estate agency, which the homebuyers had a statutory right to receive under RESPA, added Lawrence, of Lawrence Law LLC in Baltimore.

Northrop and Lakeview had waived their right to respond to the homebuyers’ petition for Supreme Court review unless the justices specifically asked for the companies’ response. The companies were represented at the high court by Jay N. Varon, of Foley & Lardner LLP in Washington.

The homebuyers alleged that Carla Northrop — Creig’s wife and a vice president of both the Northrop Team and Columbia-based Lakeview — served as the linchpin of the plan. The Northrop Team used Carla’s position, as well as a subsequent “sham” marketing agreement, to disguise kickbacks of $1.3 million Lakewood paid Northrop for funneling title work to it, alleges the lawsuit initially filed in March 2013.

According to the complaint, Carla was given a no-show position on Lakeview’s payroll as early as 2000.

U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett granted summary judgment for the companies in December 2018, saying the homebuyers had asserted “only a bare procedural violation (of RESPA), divorced from any concrete harm.”

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed in a published 3-0 decision last March, prompting the homebuyers’ unsuccessful request for Supreme Court review.

Their appeal was docketed at the Supreme Court as Patrick Baehr et ux. v. The Creig Northrop Team et al., No. 20-174.

Mann was appealing the Maryland high court’s December decision that the absence of an alibi instruction did not affect the jury’s guilty verdict for first-degree felony murder. The alibi witnesses’ testimony did not eliminate the possibility that Mann was at the murder scene, and the trial judge’s instruction that the state must prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt obviated the need for a special jury instruction on alibi, the Court of Appeals said in its 5-2 ruling.

In the unsuccessful request for Supreme Court review, Mann’s appellate attorney stated that having alibi witnesses helps the defense, but only if the judge specifically tells the jury that the defendant does not have to prove what they say is true but that the state must prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

“There is a strong risk that a jury will assume that a criminal defendant bears some burden of proof by introducing alibi evidence, even if no one uses the word ‘alibi,’” attorney William L. Welch III wrote to the Supreme Court.

“When the court gives the jury an alibi instruction, it addresses these concerns,” added Welch, a Columbia attorney. “With an alibi instruction to help the jury weigh credibility and the evidence, a jury could have determined that Mr. Prince was killed during the times accounted for by the alibi witnesses. Without that, even one juror could have incorrectly shifted the burden to the defense to prove what even one of the alibi witnesses said, and that is a reasonable robability that the verdict was affected.”

The Maryland attorney general’s office had waived its right to respond to Mann’s request for Supreme Court review.

The case was docketed at the Supreme Court as Christopher Mann v. State of Maryland, No. 19-8833.

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