The importance of non-pattern jury instructions

By Brad McCullough

Maryland’s appellate courts strongly encourage lawyers and trial judges to rely on pattern jury instructions, observing that pattern instructions “have been put together by a group of distinguished judges and lawyers who almost amount to a ‘Who’s Who of the Maryland Bench and Bar.” Green v. State, 127 Md. App. 758, 771 (1999). Thus, “generally the pattern jury instructions suffice and trial judges usually may rely on them.” Bayne v. State, 98 Md. App. 149, 160 (1993). But lawyers should not be complacent and simply rely on pattern instructions without thinking whether other non-pattern instructions could buttress their cause. In an opinion by Judge Stuart Berger, writing for a panel that included Judge Kevin Arthur and Senior Judge Robert Zarnoch, the Court of Special Appeals reversed a judgment where the trial judge refused to give requested non-pattern jury instructions that correctly stated the law, were supported by the evidence, and were not fairly covered by instructions the court actually gave. Six Flags America, L.P. v. Gonzalez-Perdomo, Case No. 1620, Sept. Term 2019 (Dec. 16, 2020).

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Court of Special Appeals Bats .500 in Appeal of Planning Board Actions

By Alan B. Sternstein

At some time during their ownership, real property owners are likely to be concerned with local or state regulatory proceedings related to nearby property. These proceedings take various forms, from rezoning requests, to requests for variances from zoning requirements or special zoning uses, to requests for approval of preliminary subdivision or development plans. This blog writer has had first-hand experience with many of these actions, as a member for years of a board of zoning appeals and, at other times, as counsel representing property owners.

Two administrative law aspects of the decision of the Court of Special Appeals in West Montgomery Co. Citizens Ass’n v. Montgomery Co. Planning Bd., No. CSA-REG-0579 2019 (“West Montgomery”), bear comment, at least from the perspective of this blog writer’s experience. First is the content of the written support that regulatory bodies are required to provide by statute, regulation or law for their decisions approving or disapproving the administrative actions they take. Second, in the case of real property proceedings, is whether these regulatory bodies have the authority to require, as a condition of approvals within their jurisdiction, compliance with private agreements between applicants for actions and nearby property owners related to such administrative actions.[1]

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Can Maryland Courts Affirm Summary Judgment on Alternative Grounds?

By Derek Stikeleather

Law is complicated. I often need to remind myself that, if law was easy to understand and apply, no one would need attorneys. To efficiently analyze legal problems and resolve cases, courts and practitioners naturally rely on general legal rules and principles. Such analytical shortcuts are invaluable—when they fit the case—because they provide clear, correct guidance. But for any general legal rule, the proverbial devil is not so much in the details as in the exceptions to the rule.

Practitioners must be able to not only recognize and recite general legal rules but also identify each rule’s limits to know when to ask appellate courts to reject the general rule and apply an exception. This article examines one general rule that shapes Maryland appeals from orders entering summary judgment: Do not affirm summary judgment on grounds different from those the trial court relied on.

Maryland’s appellate courts are quick to cite the general rule that they will not affirm summary judgment on grounds that differ from the trial court’s reasons. The general rule aligns with the principle of limiting appellate courts to reviewing final judgments rather than preempting trial courts and creating their own alternative final judgments. The reasoning holds that if a trial court improperly granted summary judgment, any alternative basis for summary judgment should initially be resolved by the trial court. Affirming summary judgment on alternative grounds would effectively end a plaintiff’s case without an affirmed adverse ruling from the trial court.

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January 2021 Maryland Certiorari Grants

Yesterday, the Court of Appeals of Maryland granted certiorari in two civil cases, both involving unreported Court of Special Appeals opinions. The two cases, with links to the opinions under review, are below.

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Judge Laura Ripken Appointed to Court of Special Appeals

Today, Governor Larry Hogan appointed Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Judge Laura Sue Ripken to the Court of Special Appeals. She was one of four nominees forwarded by the Appellate Courts Judicial Nominating Commission to fill the vacancy created by the retirement of Judge Timothy Meredith.

Governor Hogan’s press release states:

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The Court of Appeals Addresses When Rap Lyrics are Evidence of Crime in Montague v. State

By John Grimm

Two weeks ago, the Court of Appeals decided Montague v. State, which presented the question of whether rap lyrics that allegedly bore a resemblance to the facts of a murder could be admitted as substantive evidence against the defendant. The Court held that when lyrics bear a sufficient nexus to the facts of the case, the risk of unfair prejudice does not outweigh their probative value, and they can be admitted as evidence of the defendant’s guilt. While on some levels the Court’s decision reflects a pretty standard application of the abuse-of-discretion standard and basic principles of relevancy, Judge Watts’ dissent points out some significant flaws in the majority’s holding.

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Four Nominated to fill Court of Special Appeals Vacancy

This afternoon, the Appellate Courts Judicial Nominating Commission interviewed the applicants seeking to fill the vacancy created by Judge Meredith’s retirement from the Court of Special Appeals. The Commission nominated these four:

Jeremy Mark McCoy (Assistant Attorney General, General Assembly Counsel)
William Edward Nolan (U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division)
Honorable Laura Sue Ripken (Anne Arundel County Circuit Court)
Edward Hutchinson Robbins, Jr. (Miles & Stockbridge)

The Commission’s Nominees Pool list is posted here. Our prior post, introducing all of the applicants for this vacancy, is here.

Maryland’s COA and COSA should become SCOA and COGA

By Steve Klepper (Twitter: @MDAppeal)

Before COVID cut the 2020 Session short, the Maryland General Assembly was once again considering a constitutional amendment to change our highest court’s name from the Court of Appeals of Maryland to the Supreme Court of Maryland. As for our intermediate appellate court, the Court of Special Appeals, proponents were considering one of two alternatives—the Maryland Appellate Court or the Appellate Court of Maryland. The name-change movement appeared to be gaining real traction, and I would expect to see renewed proposals.  

The legal historian in me likes the link to the Court of Appeals’ storied past, just like I love the judges’ red robes. But the name is confusing. In nearly all states, the highest court is called the “Supreme Court of [state],” and the intermediate appellate court is called the “Court of Appeals of [state].” Those names are descriptive and intuitive.

Our courts’ names, while nowhere near as confusing as New York’s, are confusing to Marylanders and non-Marylanders alike. There’s nothing intuitive about a system where we call our highest court the Court of Appeals and our intermediate court the Court of Special Appeals. I often have to remind my clients (lawyers and laypeople alike) which court is which. My very first post on this blog collected instances of Maryland federal courts accidentally referring to the Court of Appeals as the Maryland Supreme Court. And when I Tweet about Maryland appeals, I usually refer to the Court of Appeals as the “Maryland high court,” largely to avoid confusion.

But I have concerns about the proposed names, as a matter of practice and historical continuity. My proposal would be to rename them as follows:

  • The Supreme Court of Appeals of Maryland
  • The Court of General Appeals of Maryland
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COSA holds church trustees could fire pastor

By Brad McCullough

The Supreme Court, in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrisey-Berrau, recently addressed religious institutions’ authority to make personnel decisions, and the extent to which those decisions are subject to government regulation, secular law, and ultimately judicial oversight. Last month, in Vaughn v. Faith Bible Church of Sudlersville, Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals faced similar issues. James Vaughn was the pastor of a newly-formed Baptist Church—until the church’s board of trustees fired him, due in part to his leaving a gun unattended at the church, his opposition to forming a church school and camp, and his lack of organizational skills. Vaughn responded by suing the church, but the Circuit Court for Queen Anne’s County sided with the church, concluding that the trustees acted within their authority when they voted to fire him. Vaughn pressed on, appealing that decision. He fared no better, however, with the appellate court in Annapolis than he had with the trial court in Centreville.

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December 2020 Maryland Certiorari Grants

Yesterday the Court of Appeals granted review in three civil cases and one criminal case. The civil appeals run a wide range: family law, administrative law, and local governments’ tort liability. The list is below, with the questions presented and links to the Court of Special Appeals opinions.

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