Rights panel’s denials of bias claims not appealable, Md. high court says

Steve Lash//April 7, 2023

Rights panel’s denials of bias claims not appealable, Md. high court says

By Steve Lash

//April 7, 2023

A sharply divided Maryland Supreme Court has ruled that the state’s appellate courts are closed to alleged discrimination victims when a judge upholds the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights’ dismissal of their bias claims.

In its 4-3 decision last month, the high court read the state’s administrative procedure law narrowly to bar appellate review of circuit court decisions affirming MCCR findings of no probable cause of discrimination.

By the slimmest of majorities, the justices upheld the intermediate Appellate Court’s conclusion this it lacked jurisdiction to review a judge’s affirmance of MCCR’s finding of no probable cause for Jennifer Rowe’s claim that a gym had canceled her membership because of her disability.

The Supreme Court held that § 20-1005 of Maryland’s State Government Article, which governs judicial review of MCCR decisions, does not provide for an appeal of a circuit court judge’s ruling.

“Section 20-1005(d)(2) is unambiguous,” Justice Jonathan Biran wrote for the majority.

“It expressly provides for judicial review in ‘the circuit court,’ not the Appellate Court,” he added. “Thus, the plain language of the statute indicates that the General Assembly intended to confine judicial review of no-probable-cause determinations to the circuit court.”

Biran was joined in the opinion by Justices Michele D. Hotten, Steven B. Gould and Angela M. Eaves.

In dissent, Chief Justice Matthew J. Fader stated § 20-1005 cannot be interpreted by itself but must be read in combination with other provisions of the State Government Article, such as § 10-223, which expressly provides a right of appellate review of circuit court rulings.

“Although the General Assembly admittedly could have carved a simpler path to establishing that right, as it has done in some other instances, that does not render the grant of that right any less express or any less valid,” Fader wrote.

“(A)lthough the General Assembly could have included in § 20-1005(d)(2) a reference to § 10-223 or to the entirety of Subtitle 2 of Title 10 (or even to the entirety of Title 10 of the State Government Article), I am not aware of any authority requiring it to do so,” Fader added. “Here, the express grant of authority is contained in § 10-223, which applies broadly to all circuit court judgments entered under the subtitle in which it appears.”

Justices Shirley M. Watts and Brynja M. Booth joined Fader’s dissent.

The Public Justice Center, which represented Howe, praised Fader’s dissent Friday and voiced disappointment that the center’s argument for a broad reading of the State Government Article fell one vote short.

“An explicit statutory right to appeal doesn’t have to be crystal clear in a single statutory provision,” said Debra Gardner, the Baltimore-based center’s legal director.

MCCR did not immediate return a message seeking comment Friday on the Supreme Court’s decision.

In her underlying claim, Rowe alleged that Krav Maga of Maryland, a mixed martial arts gym, canceled her membership because she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and its resulting anxiety. The gym countered the cancellation was based on Rowe’s rude behavior after the facility deleted what it believed was an inappropriate comment on the company’s website but which Rowe said was a simple statement that “some of us have mental/emotional disabilities.”

MCCR investigated and issued a no probable cause finding after concluding the gym “had a legitimate, non-discriminatory business reason, not based on (Rowe’s) disability, for terminating her membership.”

Baltimore City Circuit Judge John S. Nugent upheld the commission’s finding.

When the Appellate Court concluded it had no jurisdiction to hear her appeal, Rowe sought review by the Supreme Court.

Rowe’s high court appeal drew support from nearly a dozen civil rights organizations. In a brief to the justices, the groups stated that Maryland’s administrative procedure law should be read broadly to permit appellate review of circuit court decisions, which generally defer to MCCR, thus foreclosing potentially valid bias claims from being litigated.

The groups that supported Rowe in vain are the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, Asian Pacific American Bar Association of Maryland, CASA, Council on American-Islamic Relations, Disability Rights Maryland, Equal Rights Center, FreeState Justice, Homeless Persons Representation Project, National Alliance of Mental Illness Maryland, National Federation of the Blind, and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.

The Supreme Court rendered its decision in Jennifer Rowe v. Maryland Commission on Civil Rights, No. 17 September Term 2022.

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