Maryland Court of Special Appeals throws out developer’s $25 million lawsuit against Clipper Mill residents

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Clipper Mill. Photo by Ethan McLeod.

Residents of Baltimore’s Clipper Mill community won’t have to pay a developer $25 million for testifying against its development plans at public hearings, according to a ruling issued Thursday by Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals.

In its ruling, the Court of Special Appeals affirmed a lower court’s dismissal of a suit filed by attorneys for VS Clipper Mill LLC and developer Larry E. Jennings, who was seeking $25 million and other damages from the Clipper Mill residents.

“We’re very pleased. It’s a good opinion,” said Thomas Minton of Goldman and Minton P. C., one of two law firms that represented the Clipper Mill residents in the case.

“This is terrific. This is a great Christmas present” for the residents, said Baltimore attorney John C. Murphy, who has represented the residents in other matters.

Murphy said the decision likely will be of interest to residents in other Baltimore neighborhoods who have followed the Clipper Mill case and had concerns about speaking up about developments where they live.

“Neighborhood groups and individuals were aware of the filing of the $25 million suit and were concerned that something like that would be filed against them if they participated in land use proceedings,” he said.

The court’s decision is now case law that sets a precedent for future cases, he said. “This is the first appellate case in Maryland addressing this issue.”

Jennings, the co-founder and senior managing director of ValStone Partners, originally sued the Clipper Mill residents in 2020, arguing that he lost money when Clipper Mill residents testified against his proposed development projects at meetings of Baltimore’s Planning Commission and Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, and then appealed Planning Commission decisions approving his proposals.

Jennings’ lawyers, David Applefeld and Richard Goldberg of Shapiro Sher Guinot & Sandler, argued that the residents’ actions delayed the projects and forced Jennings to spend money to revise designs. They said Jennings wanted $25 million to punish them for speaking up at public hearings and to deter such conduct in the future.

The suit was brought against two homeowners’ boards, The Council of Unit Owners of the Millrace Condominium and the Homes at Clipper Mill Homeowners Association, and five individuals who live at Clipper Mill.

Goldman and Minton represented the condominium owners and Michael Burgoyne of Thomas, Thomas & Hafer LLP represented the homeowners association. They argued that Jennings’ suit was a textbook example of a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, also called a SLAPP suit, intended to silence criticism and stifle free speech. They said such litigation is illegal in Maryland and many other states, which have anti-SLAPP statues on the books.

The Circuit Court for Baltimore City agreed with the defendants, dismissing Jennings’ $25 million suit in the fall of 2020. Jennings then appealed the Circuit Court decision in the Court of Special Appeals, whose 31-page page ruling affirmed Circuit Court decision.

The opinion, by Senior Judge Glenn T. Harrell Jr., said the lower court was right to dismiss the developer’s suit because it was “without merit and expressly aimed at quashing the defendant’s continued opposition” to Jennings’ projects.

One wrinkle in the case is that Jennings and ValStone Partners reportedly sold their interest in properties at Clipper Mill earlier this year to another developer, a group led by David Bramble and Peter Pinkard of MCB Real Estate.

In October, an entity called MCB Woodberry Developer LLC, was substituted for Jennings’ group, VS Clipper Mill LLC, as the appellant. Today’s ruling to affirm the lower court’s decision was a defeat for MCB Woodberry Developer, even though the oral arguments earlier this year were made when Jennings was still the lead developer and VS Clipper Mill was the property owner.

Minton said MCB Woodberry Developer has 45 days to file an appeal with Maryland’s Court of Appeals if it wants to pursue the case further. But as of now, he said, the Clipper Mill residents aren’t obligated to pay any part of the $25 million that Jennings and then MCB were seeking.

Ed Gunts

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