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Overbey v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore

United States District Court, D. Maryland

November 28, 2017

ASHLEY AMARIS OVERBEY, et al. Plaintiffs


          Marvin J. Garbis United States District Judge

         The Court has before it the Motion to Dismiss of Baltimore Police Department [ECF No. 10], Defendant Mayor and City Council of Baltimore's Motion to Dismiss or for Summary Judgment and to Strike Jury Demand [ECF No. 11], and the materials submitted relating thereto. The Court has held a hearing and has had the benefit of arguments of counsel.

         I. Background

         A. Procedural History

         The instant case, filed June 30, 2017 [ECF No. 5] pertains to the settlement of a police brutality claim that Plaintiff Ashley Overbey (“Overbey”) asserted against the Mayor and City Council Of Baltimore (“the City”). The underlying case was settled when Overbey and the City entered into a settlement agreement that was approved by the City's Board of Estimates on September 10, 2014. See Settlement Agreement and Release (“Agreement”), Def.'s Mot. Ex. 3, ECF No. 11-4.

         Overbey now alleges that, in regard to the Agreement, the City of Baltimore unlawfully penalized her protected speech rights and breached the Agreement. She seeks to challenge the validity of the non-disparagement clause in the Agreement as violative of Maryland public policy. Plaintiff Baltimore Brew, an independent daily news website, challenges the non-disparagement clause as a violation of Maryland public policy and alleges that the non-disparagement clause in the Agreement impinges on its right to a free press.

         Defendants Baltimore City Police Department (“BPD”) and the Mayor and City Council of Baltimore (“the City”) filed motions to dismiss on July 27, 2017 [ECF Nos. 10 and 11, respectively]. By Order of October 4, 2017 [ECF No. 25], Judge Motz granted the dismissal motions and entered judgment in favor of Defendants. On October 13, 2017, Chief Judge Bredar reopened the case as to Plaintiff Baltimore Brew by Order [ECF No. 26].

         On October 31, 2017 the undersigned Judge held a teleconference with the parties and requested that the Plaintiffs file a motion to reconsider so that all pending issues may be adjudicated. Following the teleconference, the Court issued a Procedural Order [ECF No. 28] stating that “[u]pon the filing of Plaintiffs' motion to reconsider, the Court will consider all issues presented by the aforesaid dismissal motions.” On November 2, 2017, Plaintiffs filed the requested motion [ECF No. 29].

         A hearing in this case regarding all issues presented by Defendants' motions was held on November 16, 2017.

         B. Alleged Facts

         Plaintiffs alleged in the Amended Complaint (“AC”) that between 2009 and 2017, the City of Baltimore paid more than 33.4 million dollars “in settlements and court judgments for lawsuits alleging brutality and other police misconduct.” AC ¶ 28. About 95% of these settlements contain a non-disparagement clause. AC ¶ 19. Plaintiff Overbey, a police brutality claimant, was a party to one of these settlement agreements. AC ¶ 53. Plaintiff Baltimore Brew alleges that these settlements agreements have “severely limited [its] ability to fully and accurately report on the issue of police brutality and abuse of power in Baltimore.” AC ¶ 76.

         The AC contains allegations regarding the substance of Plaintiff Overbey's police brutality claim, set against the backdrop of many recent police brutality cases in Baltimore City. On April 30, 2012, around 9:40 PM, Overbey contacted the BPD to report a burglary. AC ¶ 33. Allegedly, police arrived in response to her call and, without provocation, several of the officers became violent towards her: they “grabbed [her] by her hair, twisted her arm behind her back, and violently slapped and punched her, ” “violently and maliciously beat[] [her] with clenched fists” causing eye injury, struck her with a Taser, “restrained her and cut off her airway by placing [a] knee on her throat, ” and finally arrested her. AC ¶¶ 37-44.

         Overbey, through an attorney, filed a Complaint in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City against the City and the officers, alleging false arrest and false imprisonment, battery, violation of the Maryland Declaration of Rights, and malicious prosecution. She pursued pretrial proceedings for approximately two years before she was presented with the Agreement. AC ¶¶ 46-48.

         Pursuant to the Agreement, the City agreed to pay Overbey $63, 000 “within sixty (60) days of the approval of this Agreement by the Baltimore City Board of Estimates.” Agreement § 2, ECF No. 11-4. The Agreement included Section 9, entitled “Non-Disparagement/Limitation on Public Statements, ” which states:

It is understood and agreed by the Settling Parties that in exchange for the payment of the Settlement Sum by the Released Parties, the Releasing Party and that party's agents, representatives and attorneys shall strictly refrain from and avoid any attempt at defaming and/or disparaging the Released Parties, including each of the Released Parties' employees or agents regarding any matter related to, or arising from the Litigation or the Occurrence. Further, in exchange for the payment of the Settlement Sum by the Released Parties and because the allegations of the Occurrence and Litigation are disputed, the Settling Parties agree that the Releasing Party and his or her agents, representatives and attorneys, shall limit their public comments regarding the Litigation and the Occurrence to the fact that a satisfactory settlement occurred involving the Parties. It is understood and agreed by the Settling Parties that this limitation on public statements shall include a prohibition against discussing any opinions, facts or allegations in any way connected to the Litigation or the Occurrence, or substance of any prior settlement offers or discussions with the news media, except that the Releasing Party's counsel may indicate that the Litigation has been settled to avoid the cost, time, expense and uncertainties of protracted litigation.
The Settling Parties agree and understand that a breach of the obligations set forth in this Paragraph 9 is deemed by the Settling Parties to be a material breach of this Agreement for which the City is entitled to a refund of fifty percent (50%) of the Settlement Sum ($31, 500.00) from the Releasing Party. The remainder of the Settlement Sum and all other obligations of this Agreement shall remain in force. If it is necessary for the City to pursue recovery in litigation of the refund it is entitled to under this paragraph, the City will be entitled to recover all reasonable attorney's fees, costs and expenses of such litigation from the Releasing Party.

         Agreement § 9, ECF No. 11-4.

         Overbey had been represented by counsel during the negotiation of the Agreement, and signed the Agreement upon advice of counsel in August 2014. AC ¶¶ 52-53. She alleges that she misunderstood Section 9 to bind both her and the City, and to only prohibit her from speaking to the media (and not to the public at large). AC ¶ 54.

         Overbey received her settlement funds on October 8, 2014. AC ¶ 64. However, before that date, The Baltimore Sun published a story about her case, including her mug-shot photo and her settlement amount. AC ¶ 59. Overbey became upset after reading the Sun story and corresponding reader comments, and responded to them:

“I am the woman who this article is talking about AND THE POLICE WERE WRONG!! This article doesn't come close to WHAT REALLY HAPPENED or tell how three men over 200 lbs. each beat me (115 lbs) bruises all over my body a black eye AND tased twice all in front my 2 yr old daughter so before you decide to put ur MEANINGLESS opinion in on something FIND OUT THE FACTS FIRST! IF I were wrong my charges wldntve ben thrown out and i wldntve received a dime. Its people like you who make this cite the ****it…”
“I pay my taxes and support myself like everyone else but unlike a lot of other people I KNOW MY RIGHTS and I refused to let them get away with this AGAIN!!”

AC ¶ 63. The City determined that these comments violated the Agreement's Section 9 Non-Disparagement/Limitation on Public Statements and withheld payment of one-half of the $63, 000 settlement. AC ¶ 64. Thus, on October 8, 2014, Overbey received a check from the City in the amount of $31, 500, which is half of the $63, 000 agreed settlement amount. Id. The accompanying letter stated that she was only receiving half of the agreed-upon amount because of her above public comments regarding The Baltimore Sun article. Id.

         II. The Motions and ...

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