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Annapolis housing authority appeal of thrown out rent cases delayed to March due to filing error

In this file photo LaDawn Camp, 40, describes deplorable living conditions in her Newtowne 20 apartment as she and 27 other Annapolis public housing residents joined forces to sue the City and Housing Authority in federal court. A judge has delayed an appeal by Annapolis housing authority lawyers in a case involving Camp because of an error they made in filing the appeal.
In this file photo LaDawn Camp, 40, describes deplorable living conditions in her Newtowne 20 apartment as she and 27 other Annapolis public housing residents joined forces to sue the City and Housing Authority in federal court. A judge has delayed an appeal by Annapolis housing authority lawyers in a case involving Camp because of an error they made in filing the appeal. (Capital Gazette)

A judge has delayed an appeal by Annapolis housing authority lawyers in a failure to pay rent case because of an error they made in filing the appeal.

Judge Mary Beth McCormick, a visiting associate judge on the Sixth Circuit Court for Montgomery County, ruled Wednesday that the appeal by lawyers representing the Housing Authority of the City of Annapolis should have been filed on-the-record, meaning all of the records from a district court case in August would be relevant in the appeal. Instead, HACA lawyers filed what is known as a “De Novo" appeal, meaning the attorneys essentially argue the case all over again. The new appeal date is March 16.

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The appeal stems from an August ruling by an Anne Arundel County district court judge that the housing authority was ineligible to use an expedited eviction process because it is not a licensed landlord. Judge John McKenna’s ruling tossed hundreds of pending failure to pay rent cases against tenants of HACA properties, including that of Newtowne 20 resident LaDawn Camp, whose case led to the mass dismissal.

While those cases have been dismissed due to lack of licensing and inspections, the housing authority recently announced it had completed initial inspections in Robinwood and Blum apartments. And since the end of October, the housing authority has filed failure to pay rent claims against 27 housing authority residents, all from Robinwood, according to online court records.

Camp was present at the Wednesday hearing. Her attorney, Lisa Sarro, a Maryland Legal Aid advising attorney, argued that Maryland dictates appeals with more than $5,000 at stake have to be filed on the record.

The amount in question is closer to $850,000, the estimated total rent for the remainder of Camp’s life, said Sarro who cited a host of case law with similar circumstances to back up her claim. HACA attorneys argued the issue was over a much smaller amount but eventually relented and said the case has a value of more than $5,000.

After deliberating, McCormick agreed. “A technicality shouldn’t triumph over justice," she said, quoting that case law.

“It’s going to be an on-the-record appeal, the way that it should have been in the first place,” Sarro said. “It was just a straight-up mistake. It just was. So we’ll argue it based on all of the stuff that we argued below.”

Carrie Blackburn Riley, an attorney representing the housing authority, called the error “essentially harmless” and easily remedied by requesting the records from the district court.

“We weren’t trying to outsmart anyone,” Riley said.

McKenna initially ruled in favor of HACA in June citing a section of Maryland housing law that allows local jurisdictions to exempt public housing authorities from certain health and sanitation standards, and Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley had legally exempted them.

But after Camp’s Maryland Legal Aid attorneys filed a motion for reconsideration explaining that only the City Council — not the mayor alone — could exempt the housing authority from licensing and inspections, McKenna sided with Camp and threw out hundreds of pending failure to pay rent lawsuits against housing authority residents like her.

Camp is also one of 28 public housing residents suing HACA and Annapolis in federal court. Riley also represents HACA and the city in that case. Sarro is a co-counsel for the residents on the wide-ranging discrimination lawsuit that claims decades of racial discrimination against those communities that have resulted in deplorable living conditions.

Capital staff writer Alex Mann contributed to this story.

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