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Housing Auth. of Baltimore City v. Woodland

Court of Appeals of Maryland

March 26, 2014

HOUSING AUTHORITY OF BALTIMORE CITY
v.
AMAFICA K. WOODLAND

Argued October 4, 2013.

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Circuit Court for Baltimore City. Case No: 24-C-09-002708.

J. Marks Moore, III, Frak J. Mastro (Stephen S. McCloskey, Semmes, Bowen & Semmes, Balitmore, MD) on brief FOR APPELLANT.

Scott E. Nevin (William Beveridge, Jr., Law Offices of Peter T. Nicholl, Baltimore, MD; John Amato, IV, Goodman, Meagher & Enoch, LLP, Baltimore, MD) on brief FOR APPELLEE.

Barbera, C.J., Harrell, Battaglia, Greene, Adkins, McDonald, Watts, JJ. Opinion by Adkins, J. McDonald and Watts, JJ., concur and dissent.

OPINION

Page 383

[438 Md. 422] Adkins, J.

In this lead paint case we examine the nature and purpose of the " good cause" exception to the written notice requirement of the Local Government Tort Claims Act (" LGTCA" ). Md. Code (1987, 2013 Repl. Vol.), § 5-304 of the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article (" CJP" ). We do so in the course of reviewing a trial court's rulings that allowed the case to proceed to trial, over Appellant's objection, because the court found substantial compliance and good cause for the Appellee's failure to provide written notice of her intent to sue within 180 days of her injury.

FACTS AND LEGAL PROCEEDINGS

Although the Appellee is Amafica Woodland (" Woodland" ), the relevant facts pertain almost exclusively to her mother and grandmother. Woodland's maternal grandmother, Dale Williams (" Williams" ) moved into 127 Albemarle Street (" the Residence" ) in February 1987 as the tenant of record along with her daughter, Appellee's mother, Tanderlara Monterio (" Monterio" ). Appellee lived there from her birth in 1995 until she, along with her mother and grandmother, vacated the Residence in November of 1997. Appellant, the Housing Authority of Baltimore City (" HABC" ), owned and managed the Residence from its construction in 1957 to its demolition in 2001.

Woodland's blood-lead levels were tested twice during her tenancy at the Residence. On September 30, 1997, she demonstrated a blood-lead level of 13 micrograms per deciliter (µ g/dL), and on October 8, 1997 she demonstrated a blood-lead level of 11 µ g/dL. Following the second test, Monterio [438 Md. 423] visited the management office of the Residence and met with the property manager, Robin Mack[1] (" Mack" ) to discuss Woodland's recent blood test. After learning of Woodland's elevated level, Mack had Monterio complete a lead questionnaire and gave her copies of a lead information booklet. Following this meeting, Mack recorded the conversation in a " Summary of Interviews." [2]

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Following the meeting, Mack sent a message to William M. Peach, III (" Peach" ), a Management and Maintenance Analyst in HABC's Central Office. This message requested a modified risk reduction and lead dust test for the Residence, to be performed in an " expeditious manner." These tests were completed by Connor Environmental Services & Engineering Assessments (" Connor" ) on October 16, 1997. In its report, Connor explained that it found chipped stucco on the windowsills in the kitchen and living room, and chipped paint on all three bedroom windowsills and hallway doorframes. In summarizing its report, Connor recommended that HABC relocate the tenants. After Mack and an HABC safety officer visually inspected the Residence, HABC decided to relocate the family to a different unit. In November 1997, HABC moved Woodland and her family to a different HABC property.

Almost twelve years later, in April 2009, Woodland sued HABC in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, claiming injury [438 Md. 424] from her exposure to lead paint at the Residence, and asserting, alternatively, compliance with the notice requirements of the Local Government Tort Claims Act (" LGTCA" ),[3] and good cause for failure to comply or substantially comply. Before trial, HABC moved for summary judgment, claiming that Woodland had failed to comply with the LGTCA notice requirement, could not establish good cause to waive the notice requirement, and that Woodland's failure to comply had prejudiced HABC's ability to put on an adequate defense. Woodland responded that she had substantially complied with the LGTCA, and that HABC was on actual notice, thus satisfying the statutory requirement. After a pretrial hearing, the motions judge denied HABC's motion, finding " a genuine issue of material fact as to good cause for lack of formal notice[.]" Upon HABC's renewed motion for judgment at the close of Appellee's case, the trial judge denied the motion and found that Woodland had substantially complied with the LGTCA, and that, alternatively, her conduct satisfied the good cause exception, and that HABC's defense was not prejudiced.

The jury found in favor of Woodland, and after HABC's successful motion to reduce the verdict in accordance with the relevant caps on non-economic damages, the judgment came to $690,000. HABC noted a timely appeal to the Court of Special Appeals, and we granted certiorari on our own initiative before resolution by that Court.

Appellant presents the following questions on appeal:[4]

1. Did the Circuit Court err when it denied the HABC's pretrial motion for summary judgment, when Woodland offered no evidence that she provided the HABC with written notice of her intent to bring a tort claim for damages?
2. Did the trial judge err when he concluded that Woodland substantially complied

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with the notice requirement of the LGTCA?
[438 Md. 425] 3. Did the trial judge abuse his discretion when he found good cause to waive compliance with the LGTCA notice requirement based on his consideration of factors not previously recognized by this Court as relevant to good cause?
4. Did the trial court err when it refused to permit the HABC to present evidence that it acted reasonably by complying with the requirements of the Reduction of Lead Risk in Housing Act?[5]
5. Did the trial judge err when he admitted hearsay evidence referring to " Lead Paint" at the property at issue, where the statements were from an unknown declarant and lacked any circumstantial guarantees of trustworthiness?

For the reasons explained below, we conclude that the motions judge did not err in denying HABC's motion for summary judgment. Although the trial court did err in finding that Woodland had substantially complied with the LGTCA's notice requirements, its alternate finding that Woodland had good cause for failing to comply made this error moot. The trial court erred in considering material not in evidence as part of its ruling that Woodland met the good cause exception for non-compliance with the LGTCA notice requirement. Yet this error was harmless, as fully explained infra . Finally, we see no error in the two evidentiary issues Appellant raises.

DISCUSSION

Denial Of Summary Judgment

Appellant argues that the motions court erred in denying its pretrial motion for summary judgment. In HABC's view, because Woodland argued substantial compliance, rather than good cause, in its written response to HABC's motion, the pretrial court's consideration of good cause was improper. We first observe that although Woodland discussed substantial compliance rather than good cause in her written response, at [438 Md. 426] the hearing on HABC's motion, her counsel clearly said: " I appreciate the Court focusing on the good cause acts [sic] aspect." Counsel also pointed out that " it was their understanding that they were moved because of the lead in the house[,]" which highlights a group of facts that support good cause.

Appellant draws our attention to the following statement from the bench, made in ruling on the pretrial motion:

I am going to deny the motion for summary judgment because the circumstances described reflect a significant debatable issue about good cause to dispense with or to find substantial compliance with the notice requirement.
I am going to rely on and cite here on the record both the Rios [ v. Montgomery County, 386 Md. 104, 872 A.2d 1 (2005)] case and the Heron [ v. Strader, 361 Md. 258, 761 A.2d 56 (2000)] case for its discussion and description of the good cause factors. And the circumstances described by [Appellee] I think are more than enough to give us reason to deny the summary judgment motion.
I am not finding that there was good cause. I am finding that there is enough presented for an eventual finder of fact to find good cause.

As we held in Metropolitan Mortgage Fund, Inc. v. Basiliko, 288 Md. 25, 29,

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415 A.2d 582, 584 (1980), the denial of a pretrial motion for summary judgment should be reviewed for abuse of discretion. This is especially so in cases that " involve[] not only pure legal questions but also an exercise of discretion as to whether the decision should be postponed until it can be supported by a complete factual record[.]" Id. Additionally, we held that, presented with a pretrial motion for summary judgment, a court has discretion to " affirmatively . . . deny . . . a summary judgment request in favor of a full hearing on the merits; and this discretion exists even though the technical requirements for the entry of such a judgment have been met." Basiliko, 288 Md. at 28, 415 A.2d at 583.

Interpreting a good cause determination to be a pure question of law, Appellant asks that we depart from our usual [438 Md. 427] deferential abuse of discretion standard for reviewing a denial of summary judgment as a matter of law. We see no reason to depart from the holding and rationale of Basiliko . There, we were emphatic about our reluctance to overturn a denial of summary judgment in this context:

Thus, while Md. Rule 610(d)(1) states that when a movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, the court should render judgment forthwith, this does not mean that entry of judgment may not be delayed until after a trial on the merits, should, in the court's mind, the promotion of justice require it. It is our view that an appellate court should be loath indeed to overturn, on a very narrow procedural ground, a final judgment on the merits entered in favor of the party resisting the summary judgment motion. . . . To turn the tables in this manner would be nothing short of substituting a known unjust result for a known just one.

Basiliko, 288 Md. at 28-29, 415 A.2d at 584 (footnote and citations omitted). We decline to hold that the judge erred in denying summary judgment.

Substantial Compliance With The LGTCA

The LGTCA provides, in pertinent part:

(b) Notice Required.

(1) Except as provided in subsection[] . . . (d) of this section, an action for unliquidated damages may not be brought against a local government or its employees unless the notice of the claim required by this section is given within 180 days after the injury.

(2) The notice shall be in writing and shall state the time, place, and cause of the injury.
(c) (1) The notice required under this section shall be given in person or by certified mail . . . by the claimant or the representative of the claimant.
* * *
(4) [T]he notice shall be given to the corporate authorities of the ...

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