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Federal judge approves Annapolis housing discrimination consent decree, including a $900,000 settlement

A federal judge has approved a consent decree between Annapolis and dozens of public housing residents, mandating the city pay a $900,000 settlement in a discrimination lawsuit and pass a range of housing policy reforms.

U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake approved the agreement Thursday, which was accepted in principle last year by city representatives and the plaintiffs’ attorneys, The Donahue Law Firm. The Annapolis City Council unanimously approved the consent decree in September.

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“The clock starts running for the obligations that the city has to undertake,” said Joe Donahue, lead attorney for the plaintiffs. “We’re glad that we were able to reach an agreement with them. We believe that the city can do more and should do more for the residents of public housing in Annapolis.”

The city will pay $900,000 out of its self-insurance fund under the agreement, city officials said. A portion of that sum will be paid to 52 public housing residents named as plaintiffs.

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”The priority of the City was never to be involved in protracted litigation with our residents,” said City Attorney Mike Lyles. “The terms of the consent decree will help the City of Annapolis hold the housing authority to account for the conditions of public housing, in the same manner we do for all residential property owners.”

The city has also racked up substantial legal costs from the case. As of November, Karpinski, Cornbrooks and Karp — a Baltimore law firm hired to represent the city — had charged $204,997.46 in legal fees, photocopying costs and telecommunication charges, according to copies of invoices obtained by The Capital. Additional invoices from the law firm have come in since November, Lyles said.

Earnest “Skip” Cornbrooks IV, a firm partner, referred questions about the case back to the city’s Law Office.

A second consent decree between the plaintiffs and the Housing Authority of the City of Annapolis, a separate entity from the city, is still outstanding. The authority’s Board of Commissioners approved the agreement, which includes a $900,000 settlement separate from the city’s payout. It remains under review by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees the housing authority.

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The city consent decree requires it to continue inspecting and licensing housing authority properties like any other private rental property. The Planning and Zoning Department has been doing so since late 2019. It also calls on the City Council to pass more affordable and workforce housing legislation, hire new staff with low-income housing development expertise and create a manual of rental licensing policies and procedures to conduct rental inspections and train inspectors.

Members of the City Council have hailed the agreement as an opportunity for the city to make improvements to its public housing properties.

The lawsuit was originally filed in May 2019 by Annapolis attorney Joe Donahue on behalf of more than two dozen residents alleging decades of racial discrimination. Another 22 plaintiffs were added later.

They claimed that for decades the housing authority and the city failed to provide safe, adequate housing for its majority-Black residents. The alleged neglect led to hazardous living conditions, which amounted to racial discrimination and a violation of their civil rights, according to the lawsuit.

Former Annapolis Mayor Mike Pantelides called the lawsuit “another failure of city leadership.” Pantelides, a Republican who was unseated by Mayor Gavin Buckley in 2017, began inspecting public housing properties during his administration.

“The city never should have been involved. They never should have stopped inspecting public housing units,” he said. “It’s a disaster. We could be using that money to fix potholes in the road, you know, to be helping out our citizens or extending rec programs, things like that. It’s just a huge waste of money.”

Last February, Blake rejected efforts by the attorneys for the city and housing authority to dismiss the discrimination complaints. She did, however, toss out a handful of other claims and dismissed Buckley and a former housing authority director as defendants.

Soon after, attorneys for both parties began months of mediation, including several meetings via video conference because of the coronavirus pandemic. The negotiations culminated in two separate settlement agreements late last summer.

Legal costs

In all, Karpinski, Cornbrooks and Karp billed about 1,164 hours for services related to the lawsuit from June 2019 to October 2020, according to the firm’s invoices acquired by The Capital through a Maryland public information request.

Cornbrooks, three other attorneys and a law clerk have billed hours on the case, with Cornbrooks billing about 594 hours during that time. At a rate of $200 an hour, he has accounted for $107,157 in legal expenses, more than half of those accrued in the case, the invoices show.

The other attorneys who have billed hours are Michael Rynd, another partner; two associates Matthew T. Healy and Jason C. Parkins; and Jack Karpinski, a law clerk. Rynd amassed 386 hours, some for $150 an hour and others for $200 an hour, totaling $64,830.

Healy reported 103 hours at $150 an hour, and Karpinski 76 hours at $60 an hour. The pair accounted for $15,465 and $14,800, respectively. Parkins worked on the case for a little more than five hours at $150 an hour, at a cost of $840.

Other expenses, such as photocopying, and telecommunication costs, amounted to a little more than $1,900, the invoices show.

The specific tasks Cornbrooks and his fellow attorneys completed have been redacted because the information is deemed privileged and/or confidential, according to the City Law Office. However, an agreement signed by representatives for the city and the law firm outlining the firm’s scope of work shows that attorneys on the case will “attend meetings; research, draft and file appropriate court documents; attend court appearances; handle matters related to discovery as applicable; attend mediations and similar services related to full and final resolution of this case.”

The city’s Law Office has spent substantial time working on the case as well. According to the Law Office, Assistant City Attorney Kerry Berger spent 10.5 hours on the matter prior to Lyles’ hiring in December 2019. Lyles has spent 49.5 hours on the case. Assistant City Attorney Joel Braithwaite spent 198 hours on the case.

The city has also separately retained Karpinski, Cornbrooks and Karp for Annapolis Police Department law enforcement officers bill of rights, or LEOBR, prosecutions, according to two outside legal counsel agreements obtained by The Capital.

For the fiscal year 2020 — spanning July 1, 2019, to June 30, 2020 — the city agreed to pay no more than a combined $93,165.46 for the public housing lawsuit and LEOBR prosecutions. A review of the firm’s invoices shows all but about $10,000 of that sum was spent on the public housing lawsuit.

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In the current fiscal year, the city has agreed to pay no more than $150,000 to Karpinski, Cornbrooks and Karp for the public housing lawsuit and an additional $15,000 for LEOBR prosecutions.

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