On February 14 the House Judiciary Committee gave an unfavorable report on a bill that would have allowed a court to award attorney fees to a prevailing plaintiffs, increasing the liabilities and costs of local governments.
Proponents of HB 130 argued that the bill was about providing low-income individuals access to the justice system when their constitutional rights were violated. The bill, modeled after a California statute, authorized a Maryland court to award attorney fees to a prevailing plaintiff in a civil action to enforce a constitutional right or that has “resulted in the enforcement of an important right that has affected the public interest.” However, a court could only award attorney fees to prevailing defendants if the court found that the plaintiff’s claim was frivolous. Any award of attorney fees was outside of the local government damages cap provided by the Local Government Tort Claims Act.
MACo Legal and Policy Counsel Les Knapp was joined by representatives from the Local Government Insurance Trust and Baltimore City in testifying against the bill. Several other counties and MML submitted written testimony in opposition to the bill. They argued that the low-income defendants can already defend their constitutional rights (and be awarded attorney fees) in federal court and that there was no need to also create a right to sue in state court. Additionally, they argued that the types of claims allowed were to broad, that the bill contained no actual wealth or income-testing, and that the legislation created an uneven “playing field” for defendants.
The Senate cross-file of HB 130, SB 263, is scheduled for a hearing before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on February 19. Typically, one house in the General Assembly will not vote out a bill if the other house has killed the cross-file.