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Md. high court will hear town’s appeal of national origin bias verdict

Maryland’s top court will consider whether a Prince George’s County town illegally discriminated against a Palestinian-American towing company owner in awarding a towing contract.

The Court of Appeals on Wednesday agreed to hear Riverdale Park’s appeal of a lower court’s reinstatement of a jury’s award of more than $250,000 to Mamoun Ashkar for the town’s violation of federal and state laws prohibiting national origin bias.

The jury’s May 2018 verdict was overturned by the trial judge, who said Riverdale Park gave a valid business-related reason for not awarding the contract to Ashkar’s company, Greg’s Towing Inc., and that Ashkar had not shown discrimination was the motivating factor for the town’s decision.

But the Court of Special Appeals reinstated the verdict last July. The intermediate court said the jury validly concluded that Riverdale Park’s stated reason for passing on Greg’s Towing was a mere pretext for the town’s desire not to award the contract to a company owned by someone of Arab descent.

The Court of Appeals is expected to hear arguments in Riverdale Park’s appeal this winter or spring and issue its decision by Aug. 31. The case is docketed at the high court as Town of Riverdale Park v. Mamoun K. Ashkar et al., No. 49 September Term 2020.

According to trial testimony, Ashkar bought Greg’s Towing Inc. in January 2015. The company had handled Riverdale Park’s towing for more than 30 years prior to Ashkar’s purchase.

Soon after taking over the business, Ashkar said he overheard members of the Riverdale Park Police Department refer to him as a “camel jockey” and discuss how to “get rid of him.” Greg’s Towing subsequently lost the towing contract to AlleyCat Towing & Recovery Inc., whose name was on the county’s list of approved companies.

The town defended what it called its sound business judgment, saying AlleyCat was as qualified as Ashkar’s company to perform towing services. The town added that the officers’ alleged derogatory comments could not be imputed to the town officials who decided to go with AlleyCat.

The Prince George’s County Circuit Court jury ruled for Ashkar and awarded him $259,212, including $244,212 in economic damages and $15,000 in noneconomic damages.

But Prince George’s County Circuit Judge Toni E. Clarke issued a judgment notwithstanding the verdict, or JNOV, ruling that Ashkar had neither provided “direct evidence” of discrimination by Riverdale Park nor established that the town’s stated business reason for choosing AlleyCat was a pretext to disguise illegal bias.

In reinstating the verdict, the Court of Special Appeals ruled that Riverdale Park’s motion for a JNOV should have been denied because deference was owed to the jury’s determination that illegal bias was the true reason for Gary’s Towing having been passed over.

“The question comes down to whether Ashkar, based on the evidence admitted at trial, satisfied the test (of) whether the claim that the use of the business judgment rule and the presence of AlleyCat on the county tow list was a pretext and that the (town’s decision) was a product of unlawful discrimination.” Judge Glenn T. Harrell Jr. wrote in the Court of Special Appeals’ unreported 2-1 decision.

“Viewing the facts of the record in the light most favorable to the non-moving party (Ashkar), a jury could come to the reasonable conclusion that use of the county tow list as a non-discriminatory basis for selecting AlleyCat was no more than a pretext for denying Ashkar the contract based on race,” added Harrell, a retired judge sitting by special assignment.

Harrell was joined in the decision by Judge Dan Friedman.

Judge Melanie M. Shaw Geter dissented, stating that the JNOV was proper because Ashkar’s evidence did not rise above “speculation, hypothesis and conjecture.”

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