Baltimore County to hire private attorneys to defend itself in lawsuit over UMBC students' sex assault claims

Baltimore County government is poised to pay a private law firm up to $600,000 to help defend the county against a federal class-action lawsuit that claims police failed to properly investigate sexual assaults involving students at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

County officials plan to retain the Baker Donelson law firm for legal services in the case.

The lawsuit was filed this fall in U.S. District Court by former UMBC students who say they reported alleged rape cases to university and county police — and that authorities humiliated and intimidated them in an effort to cover up complaints of sexual assault on campus.

The plaintiffs sued UMBC, the University System of Maryland’s Board of Regents, Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger, the Baltimore County Police Department and several individuals, including the current and former county police chiefs, detectives and police officers.

In a briefing Tuesday, county attorney Michael Field told members of the Baltimore County Council: “This is going to be a difficult and expansive case. We decided that we really need help from outside the Office of Law.”

Council members are scheduled to vote Monday on whether to approve the contract.

Since the initial lawsuit was filed, more women have joined the suit as plaintiffs, including one who said she was raped by four UMBC basketball players on campus in 2014 and another who said she was assaulted by three baseball players at a home. The women say their claims were not taken seriously or investigated fully by university and county officials.

“Defendants treat victims with indifference and disrespect, intimidating female victims, frequently downplaying to victims and the public the seriousness of sexual violence, discouraging women from reporting sexual assault or seeking justice, holding women to outdated stereotypes, and minimizing or excusing the culpability of the men who commit sexual assault,” the women wrote in the lawsuit.

They are claiming the defendants violated federal civil rights laws in multiple ways, and also violated their First Amendment right to free speech and their Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

In response to the lawsuit, UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski said the university would implement mandatory, in-person training on sexual assault prevention and reporting for students, faculty and staff.

Baltimore County’s legal defense is geared only toward its own liability in the case; UMBC and Shellenberger’s office are represented by the Maryland office of the attorney general.

In hiring Baker Donelson, Baltimore County would have help shouldering what is expected to be a heavy workload in defending the case. The company is a large firm with offices in 10 states, including locally in Towson and downtown Baltimore.

Under terms of the proposed contract, Baker Donelson would be paid $350 per hour for work performed by attorneys and $255 per hour for work done by paralegals on the case, as well as for expenses incurred. The contract would run for an initial term of two years, with options for one-year extensions for four years beyond that. The maximum compensation of $600,000 would be renegotiated prior to any extensions.

Baltimore County Council Chairman Julian Jones questioned how much the county might have to pay the plaintiffs if it loses the case. The Woodstock Democrat said he was concerned that the county might “spend more litigating something than we would if we just settled.”

Field declined to give an estimate of how much a losing verdict might cost the county.

Earlier this year, a county jury awarded more than $38 million to the family of Korryn Gaines, a woman fatally shot by county police after a standoff. The county has appealed the ruling.

The Office of Law selected Baker Donelson for the sexual assaults lawsuit without going through a competitive bidding process. Field said time is of the essence, so the county could not go through a standard request for proposals process that can take months.

“We didn’t have the time, obviously, to bid this out like we normally would,” Field said.

He added: “Initial responses are due pretty much now or very soon. So we asked around and we settled on a pretty well-known national firm.”

Attorneys for Baker Donelson entered their appearance in the case on behalf of the county’s defendants Tuesday, and asked a judge to give them until Dec. 17 to file initial responses to the lawsuit. That request was granted.

If the council does not approve the contract, Baker Donelson would be allowed to withdraw from the case, and would be paid under rules that allow agencies to pay contractors up to $25,000 without council approval.

Rignal Baldwin, the attorney for the plaintiffs, declined to comment.

Baltimore County also is planning to hire private attorneys to help address another issue: four federal lawsuits brought by religious congregations who lost zoning cases.

All four congregations — Hunt Valley Baptist Church, Hunt Valley Presbyterian Church, Jesus Christ is the Answer Ministries and ARIEL Russian Community Synagogue — have alleged that the county violated the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act by denying their requests to build new worship facilities.

For the religious lawsuits, the county issued a request for proposals from law firms that were due Nov. 2. An award of a contract usually takes 60 days after that.

pwood@baltsun.com

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