STATE OF MARYLAND, ET AL.
G & C GULF, INC
Argued March 11, 2015.
Certified Question from the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland (Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County, Maryland, Case No. 02-CV-12-172778), Philip T. Caroom, JUDGE.
CERTIFIED QUESTION ANSWERED AS SET FORTH HEREIN. CASE REMANDED TO COURT OF SPECIAL APPEALS WITH INSTRUCTIONS TO REMAND THE CASE TO THE CIRCUIT COURT FOR ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY FOR DISMISSAL. COSTS IN THIS COURT AND THE COURT OF SPECIAL APPEALS TO BE PAID BY RESPONDENT.
ARGUED BY Bradley J. Neitzel, Assistant Attorney General (Douglas F. Gansler, Attorney General of Maryland of Baltimore, MD) on brief FOR APPELLANTS.
ARGUED BY Fredric J. Einhorn (of Rockville, MD) on brief FOR APPELLEES.
ARGUED BEFORE: Barbera, C.J. Harrell, Battaglia, Greene, Adkins, McDonald, Watts, JJ. Opinion by Battaglia, J.
[442 Md. 718] Battaglia, J.
We are called upon in this case, seminally, to address justiciability, which has been defined as, " [t]he quality, state, or condition of being appropriate or suitable for adjudication by a court." Black's Law Dictionary 997 (10th ed. 2014). The doctrine has been " 'developed to identify appropriate occasions for judicial action.'" State Center, LLC v. Lexington Charles Ltd. Partnership, 438 Md. 451, 498, 92 A.3d 400, 427 (2014), quoting 13 Charles Alan Wright, et al., Federal Practice and Procedure § 3529, at 611 (3d ed. 2008). Issues of justiciability may encompass unripe and moot controversies, abstract or hypothetical disputes, collusive lawsuits and
claims by disinterested plaintiffs. John A. Lynch, Jr. & Richard W. Bourne, Modern Maryland Civil Procedure 2-8 (2d ed. 2004, 2014 supp.). " When a court believes a litigant's claim is somehow unfit for judicial determination, it dismisses the claim under the rubric of 'justiciability.'" Id. at 2-3. The rationale for the doctrine is that " addressing non-justiciable [442 Md. 719] issues would place courts in the position of rendering purely advisory opinions, a long forbidden practice in this State." State Center, LLC, 438 Md. at 591, 92 A.3d at 483-84 (internal quotation marks omitted).
Ripeness is the issue in the present declaratory judgment action, which pits G & C Gulf, Inc. (" G & C Gulf" ), Respondent, a towing company located in Montgomery County, Maryland, the victor at the trial level, against the State, with respect to towing statutes enacted by the General Assembly in 2012, currently codified as Sections 21-10A-01 through 21-10A-06 and 27-101(c)(25) of the Transportation Article of the Maryland Code. The contested provisions provide:
(a) In general. -- Unless otherwise set by local law, a person who undertakes the towing or removal of a vehicle from a parking lot:
(3) Shall notify the owner, any secured party, and the insurer of record by certified mail, return receipt requested, and first-class mail within 7 days, exclusive of days that the towing business is closed, after towing or removing the vehicle, and shall provide the same information required in a notice to a police department under item (2) of this subsection;
(7) May not employ or otherwise compensate individuals, commonly referred to as " spotters", whose primary task is to report the presence of unauthorized parked vehicles for the purposes of towing or removal, and impounding;
[442 Md. 720] Md. Code Ann., Transp. § 21-10A-04(a)(3), (a)(7). A violation of Section 21-10A-04(a) is a criminal offense and subjects the violator " to a fine of not more than $500 or imprisonment for not more than 2 months or both" . Md. Code Ann., Transp. § 27-101(c)(25).
With respect to the purpose of the ripeness doctrine, we have said it is " to ensure that adjudication will dispose of an actual controversy in a conclusive and binding manner." State Center, LLC, 438 Md. at 591-92, 92 A.3d at 484 (internal quotation marks omitted). An action for
declaratory judgment is not treated differently than any other suit for purposes of ripeness. Hatt v. Anderson, 297 Md. 42, 45, 464 A.2d 1076, 1078 (1983) (" [T]he existence of a justiciable controversy is an absolute prerequisite to the maintenance of a declaratory judgment action." ). " Generally, an action for declaratory relief lacks ripeness if it involves a request that the [442 Md. 721] court declare the rights of parties upon a state of facts which has not yet arisen, or upon a matter which is future, contingent and uncertain." State Center, LLC, 438 Md. at 591, 92 A.3d at 484. In Hamilton v. McAuliffe, 277 Md. 336, 339-40, 353 A.2d 634, 637 (1976), we summarized the necessity of a justiciable controversy to a declaratory judgment action; we opined:
That the existence of a justiciable controversy is a prerequisite to the maintenance of a declaratory judgment in Maryland is well settled. Prince George's Co. v Bd. of Trustees, 269 Md. 9, 304 A.2d 228 (1973). A controversy is justiciable " 'when there are interested parties asserting adverse claims upon a state of facts which must have accrued wherein a legal decision is sought or demanded.'" Patuxent Co. v. Commissioners, 212 Md. 543, 548, 129 A.2d 847 (1957). It is thus clear that the declaratory judgment process is not available to decide purely theoretical questions or questions that may never arise, Prince George's Co. v. Chillum-Adelphi, 275 Md. 374, 340 A.2d 265 (1975); Liss v. Goodman, 224 Md. 173, 167 A.2d 123 (1961), or questions which have become moot, Eberts v. Congress'l Country Club, 197 Md. 461, 79 A.2d 518 (1951), or merely abstract questions, Davis v. State, 183 Md. 385, 37 A.2d 880 (1944). That the declaratory judgment process should not be used where a declaration would not serve a useful purpose or terminate a controversy is equally well settled. Liss v. Goodman, supra ; Bachman v. Lembach, 192 Md. 35, 63 A.2d 641 (1949); Staley v. Safe Deposit & Trust Co., 189 Md. 447, 56 A.2d 144 (1947).
The present action arose when G & C Gulf filed a complaint in the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County and requested a declaratory judgment, a temporary restraining order, a preliminary injunction and a permanent injunction against the State of Maryland, the Governor of Maryland, the Acting Secretary of the Maryland Department of Transportation [442 Md. 722] and the Attorney General of Maryland, challenging the constitutionality of Sections 21-10A-04(a)(3) and 21-10A-04(a)(7); the State's Attorney for Montgomery County and Montgomery County were later added as defendants. The complaint was amended again to reflect that, in 2013, the Legislature
amended Section 21-10A-04(a)(3) to extend from three days to seven days the requirements for towing companies to inform " the owner, any secured party, and the insurer of record" .
In its complaint, G & C Gulf alleged that its " rights, duties, status and legal relations are affected by" the statute, and further, that it is " in jeopardy of being charged with criminal offenses under provisions of [the contested statute]" . G & C Gulf's factual allegations were sparse, reflecting mainly G & C Gulf's business practices and ...