Court of Appeals decisions bring victories for workers’ rights and court transparency, mixed results for rental licensing enforcement

August 23, 2022

Decisions from the Court of Appeals have wide-ranging impact on Marylanders’ lives, affecting everything from workers’ rights to safe and healthy housing to the way our judicial system operates. As the Court’s current term comes to a close, the Court has issued several opinions in cases in which the Public Justice Center’s Appellate Advocacy Project submitted briefs. Read on to hear about victories concerning employers’ responsibility to pay employees for travel time and court transparency, and mixed results in cases affecting the enforcement of rental licensing laws.

Travel time is work under Maryland law

In an important victory in the fight against wage theft, the Court of Appeals ruled that employers must compensate employees for required travel time. The cases Amaya, et al. v. DGS Construction, LLC, et al. and Rojas, et al. v. F.R. General Contractors, Inc., et al. concerned the construction of the MGM National Harbor Resort and Casino, where the construction contractors required their workers (many of whom are Latine) to ride a shuttle a couple of miles from a parking lot to the construction site, but provided inadequate transport, so the workers often spent hours per day waiting for and riding the shuttle. The contractors refused to compensate the workers for that time, and the workers sued under Maryland’s wage statutes, arguing that this compulsory travel time was “work” under Maryland law. Amicus briefs written by PJC Murnaghan Fellows Dena Robinson, Olivia Sedwick, and Michael Abrams and joined by the Metropolitan Washington Employment Lawyers’ Association focused on the broader context of wage theft, explaining to the Court how the practice in this case was an example of that widespread problem, which disproportionately burdens people of color, women, and immigrants.

At the Court of Appeals, the central question was whether the federal “Portal to Portal Act” (PPA) – which applies to the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and states that travel time is not “work” – constrains these Maryland statutes. In a strong, undivided opinion, the Court made clear that “what constitutes ‘work’ under Maryland law is not limited to what is compensable work under the PPA and FLSA.” The ruling is a great outcome for workers and sets precedent for future cases that may turn on Maryland law giving broader protection than federal law.

A step forward for court transparency

The Court of Appeals’ ruling in Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) v. Abell Foundation calls for greater transparency in our court system, requiring the Administrative Office of the Courts to disclose the key to the codes it uses to identify judges in Baltimore City District Court records. The Maryland Judiciary’s public records access website, CaseSearch, used an alphanumeric code to identify the judges in Baltimore City District Court records. Although an “Edit Table” for decrypting the codes existed, it was not publicly available, so the judges’ identities were obscured in online public records. The Abell Foundation sued the courts, seeking access to the Edit Table. The Court of Special Appeals held that the Table did have to be disclosed, and the AOC appealed to the Court of Appeals. An amicus brief drafted by the PJC’s Appellate Advocacy Fellow Michael Abrams, and co-signed by the Clinical Law Program at the University of Maryland School of Law, the Civil Advocacy Clinic and the Legal Data & Design Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law, BALT, Common Cause Maryland, and the MDDC Press Association, called for the Court of Appeals to affirm the Court of Special Appeals’ decision. The brief provided history on the longstanding principle of judicial transparency and how it translates to the digital age.

The Court of Appeals ruled that the AOC does have to disclose the Edit Table. This provides valuable transparency in Baltimore City courts and beyond. The Maryland Judiciary is not subject to the Maryland Public Information Act, instead following its own parallel set of judicial records rules. In theory, this grants the courts more leeway to evade public scrutiny. But here, the Court embraced the Abell Foundation’s more functional argument about why, based on the spirit of the Judiciary’s policies, the Table must be subject to the disclosure. We hope this approach will be useful precedent in future cases.

Setbacks and victories in enforcement of rental licensing laws

This summer’s Court of Appeals decisions in the cases of Aleti v. Metro Baltimore LLC and Assanah-Carroll v. Law Offices of Edward J. Maher, P.C. both limit and protect tenants’ rights in the enforcement of Baltimore’s new landlord licensure law. In 2018, thanks to advocacy led in part by the PJC’s Human Right to Housing team, Baltimore overhauled its rental licensure framework, most notably by adding a prohibition against landlords collecting, or even just possessing, rental payments for any period in which the rental unit was unlicensed. In Aleti, residents of a high-rise in downtown Baltimore sued their landlord under the new law, seeking return of rent they paid during an extended period in which the apartments were unlicensed. The residents did not have any other injury based on the condition of their housing. In the related Assanah-Carroll case, the Court considered two similar questions: 1) Can tenants who paid rent to unlicensed landlords seek return of that rent under Maryland’s consumer protection and consumer debt collection laws? and 2) Does a landlord violate those laws by trying to collect unpaid rent, or pursuing ejectment based on unpaid rent, for an unlicensed period?

To support the interests of low-income tenants in these cases, the Public Justice Center, Civil Justice, the Homeless Persons Representation Project, and Maryland Legal Aid filed amicus briefs about the substandard housing crisis in Baltimore and the role that state-sanctioned segregation played in shaping the current Baltimore housing market. Written by Murnaghan Fellow Michael Abrams, the briefs explained that the new landlord licensure law was intended to remedy these longstanding, systemic failures.

The Court of Appeals’ decisions are mostly unfavorable, with some silver linings. In Aleti, the Court ruled that the new Baltimore law does not give tenants a private cause of action; in other words, even though the landlord violated the law, there is no legal claim upon which the tenants can seek return of the rent they didn’t have to pay, absent some additional injury from the unlicensed apartments. Likewise, on the first question in Assanah-Carroll, the Court ruled that Maryland’s consumer protection and consumer debt collection laws also do not provide a cause of action for tenants to seek return of such payments absent such an injury. The silver lining comes from the second question in Assanah-Carroll: The Court ruled that a landlord does violate Maryland law by trying to collect unpaid rent or bringing an ejectment action based on an unlicensed period. Furthermore, the prohibition on debt collection and ejectment for unpaid rent during unlicensed periods applies even after the landlord becomes licensed and applies in any community that requires rental properties to be licensed, including Baltimore City, Prince George’s County, Howard County, and Montgomery County. While we are disappointed that the rulings do not allow tenants to recover rent they’ve already paid to an unlicensed landlord, we anticipate that Assanah-Carroll will help protect tenants who withhold rent from unlicensed landlords and prevent evictions. And though the Court failed to recognize that the City intended to create a strong incentive for landlords to maintain licensure, which in turn requires them to keep properties habitable, tenants whose rental units have dangerous and hazardous defects, all too common when the property is not licensed, still have remedies under consumer protection and debt collection laws.