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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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Appellate Courts’ “Undying Appreciation” for Useful Record Extracts

By Steve Klepper (Twitter: @MDAppeal)

Maryland Court of Appeals Judge Robert McDonald is known for thorough, scholarly opinions, which earned him the MSBA Section of Litigation’s Harrell Award for Judicial Excellence in 2019. He is not known for hyperbole. As a result, this footnote in one of his recent opinions, MVA v. Geppert, was striking:

In presenting the relevant materials to us, the parties have distributed them over four separate appendices and a copy of the record extract that was filed in the intermediate appellate court. This suggests that there may have been a lack of cooperation between counsel. We will not attempt to assign blame for this situation and, in any event, we have reviewed the original record for purposes of this opinion. We simply note that future litigants will earn the undying appreciation of an appellate court if they can successfully consolidate relevant materials from the record in an agreed-upon record extract, as encouraged by Maryland Rule 8-501.

When Judge McDonald says litigants have an opportunity to earn an appellate court’s undying appreciation, he means it. And if you attend continuing legal education events where Maryland appellate judges speak, you’ll hear strong opinions from the judges regarding the record extract (our state-practice equivalent of the Joint Appendix). When I lectured alongside appellate judges in conjunction with the release of the fifth edition of Appellate Practice for the Maryland Lawyer, the judges often would perk up when I discussed the record extract.

Below I’ll address six key ways that advocates can make record extracts more helpful to appellate judges.

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Additional November 2020 Maryland Certiorari Grant

Following its November 19 conference, the Court of Appeals of Maryland granted review in one additional case. It is listed below, followed by two cases in which the Court of Appeals has accepted certified questions for review.

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