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Antonio v. SSA Security, Inc.

Court of Appeals of Maryland

March 2, 2015

JOSEPH ANTONIO, ET AL.
v.
SSA SECURITY, INC. d/b/a SECURITY SERVICES OF AMERICA

 Argued December 8, 2014

United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Case No. 13-1031.

FOR APPELLANTS: Ruthanne M. Deutsch (of Vienna, VA; Steven H. Schulman, Joseph L. Decker, Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, LLP of Washington, DC; Megan K. Whyte de Vasquez, Isabelle M. Thabault, Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs of Washington, DC) on brief.

FOR APPELLEE: Gary A. Bryant (Joseph P. Moriarty, Willcox & Savage, PC of Norfolk, VA; Gerry Hoban Tostanoski, Tydings & Rosenberg, LLP of Baltimore, MD) on brief.

Barbera, C.J., Harrell, Battaglia, Greene, Adkins, McDonald, Watts, JJ.

OPINION

Page 655

[442 Md. 69] Harrell, J.

The federal Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit certified to this Court the following question of law:

[442 Md. 70] Does the Maryland Security Guards Act, Md. Code Ann., Bus. Occ. & Prof. § 19-501, impose liability beyond common law principles of respondeat superior such that an employer may be responsible for off-duty criminal acts of an employee if the employee planned any part of the off-duty criminal acts while he or she was on duty?

We answer the certified question in the negative. For reasons to be explained, we hold that § 19-501 of the Maryland Security Guards Act is a codification of Maryland's common law doctrine of respondeat superior and does not broaden the scope of vicarious liability of the employers of security guards for their employees' acts beyond these principles.

I. Factual and Procedural Background.

A summary of the certified facts of this case deserve mention.[1]

Page 656

Two security guard employees of SSA Security, Inc. (" SSA" ), a security guard agency, and four of their confederates carried out a conspiracy to set fire during the early morning of 6 December 2004 to homes under construction in the Hunters Brook development in Charles County, Maryland. SSA had been hired previously by the builder/developer of Hunters Brook to provide security for the project while it was under construction. The arson was fueled by racial animus against Appellants and a desire to prevent them from moving into the neighborhood.[2] The resulting fires destroyed ten homes and damaged twelve others (some completed and some under construction), making it one of the worst residential [442 Md. 71] arsons in Maryland history. Fortunately, no one was killed or injured as a result of the crimes.

Aaron Speed, one of the arsonists, had been hired originally by SSA in November 2003, without the benefit of checking his references. Speed quit his employment with SSA in August 2004, after being reprimanded for " careless and aggressive conduct." One of Speed's supervisors placed a recommendation in Speed's personnel file that he not be considered for rehire. Despite this recommendation, Speed was rehired by SSA in November 2004.

As part of the conspiracy to set fire to the homes, Speed left his guard post at the development on 3 December 2004 in order to stash fuel that would be used by the others to set fire to the homes. While on-duty, Speed created also a map of the neighborhood, indicating which houses were owned or contracted for by racial minorities.

William Fitzpatrick, another SSA employee, was alleged also to have conspired to commit the arson.[3] Fitzpatrick was on-duty guarding the development from 6:00 PM until 5:00 AM on December 5-6, but, according to Appellants, left his post early to leave the properties unguarded so that Speed and the other conspirators could commit the arson.

Appellants asserted ultimately various civil claims in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland against SSA, two of its corporate affiliates, and the five convicted arsonists. One of Appellants' theories of SSA's liability contended that Maryland Code (2000, 2010 Repl. Vol.), Business Occupations & Professions Article, § 19-501 (hereinafter the Maryland Security Guards Act § 19-501) established a basis for SSA's strict liability.

Deciding a motion for summary judgment filed by SSA, Judge Alexander Williams, Jr. of the U.S. District Court held [442 Md. 72] that the Maryland Security Guards Act § 19-501 was merely a codification of the common law and did not expand the doctrine of respondeat superior, contrary to the plaintiffs' contentions regarding SSA's strict liability for Speed's and Fitzpatrick's intentional torts and civil rights violations. Antonio v. Sec. Servs. of Am., LLC, 701 F.Supp.2d 749, 766 (D. Md. 2010). After concluding that any intentional acts of Speed and Fitzpatrick were, considering the facts in the light most favorable to

Page 657

Appellants, outside the scope of employment, Judge Williams granted SSA's motion regarding its liability under the Maryland Security Guards Act § 19-501. Judge Williams would grant later SSA's renewed motion for summary judgment regarding liability arising from SSA's direct negligence and its vicarious liability for its employee's negligence.[4], [5]

On appeal, Appellants asked the federal Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit to reverse the District Court's decisions: (1) granting summary judgment in SSA's favor as to the negligence claims; (2) granting summary judgment in SSA's favor as to the claims premised on strict liability under the Maryland Security Guards Act § 19-501; and, (3) denying the request to certify to us the question regarding the interpretation of the Maryland Security Guards Act § 19-501. The federal appellate court, after affirming the District Court's grant of summary judgment as to the negligence claims, turned to the question requiring interpretation of the Maryland Security Guards Act.

[442 Md. 73] Appellants argued, as they do now, that the Maryland Security Guards Act extends the vicarious liability of security guard agencies beyond the Maryland common law doctrine of respondeat superior. The federal appellate court considered the text of the statute and, after applying Maryland's cannons of statutory construction, concluded that there were conflicting indications as to the meaning of the Maryland Security Guards Act § 19-501. Thus, the Court certified the question to us to resolve the uncertainty.[6]

II. Our Analysis

We may answer questions certified to us by a United States court or the appellate court of another state or of a tribe if the answer might be determinative of an issue before the certifying court and there is no controlling Maryland authority. Md. Code (1974, 2013 Repl. Vol.), Courts & Judicial Proceedings Art., § 12-603. The Maryland Security Guards Act § 19-501 has not been interpreted by Maryland's appellate courts before and its application could be dispositive of whether Appellants' strict liability contentions will allow certain of its claims to survive summary judgment.

The District Court dismissed several of Appellants' claims because the alleged torts and fair housing violations committed by SSA's employees were beyond the scope of their employment. Appellants argued before the federal District Court, the federal Court of Appeals, and now us that the Maryland Security Guards Act § 19-501 imposes liability on SSA for the actions of Speed and Fitzpatrick beyond those for which SSA would be liable under Maryland's common law doctrine of respondeat superior.

The relevant portion of the Act, § 19-501, provides: " A licensed security guard agency is responsible for the acts of each

Page 658

of its employees while the employee is conducting the business of the agency." Appellants contend that this section [442 Md. 74] of the statute creates strict liability for the " on-duty" acts of employees, including those outside the scope of employment. SSA argues that the statute merely codified the Maryland common law of respondeat superior.

When interpreting statutes, our overarching goal is to ascertain and implement the intention of the Legislature. Witte v. Azarian, 369 Md. 518, 525, 801 A.2d 160, 165 (2002). We turn first to the words of the statute. If, in pursuit of the North Star of intent, the words of the statute, given their common and ordinary meaning, are unambiguous and express a plain meaning, our inquiry stops normally and we interpret the statute as written. Oaks v. Connors, 339 Md. 24, 35, 660 A.2d 423, 429 (1995). If the text is ambiguous, however, we look to other evidence of the Legislature's intent, including the relevant statute's legislative history, the ...


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