Baltimore City Council has power to ban non-disparagement clauses in police misconduct cases

If passed, Baltimore City Council Bill 19-0409 will ban the practice of requiring people alleging police misconduct or unlawful discrimination to sign a confidentiality agreement preventing them from publicly criticizing the city or members of Baltimore Police Department (BPD) as a condition of receiving money to settle their claims. City Solicitor Andre Davis advised the City Council in a letter that members lack the legal authority to enact the bill. He is wrong.

Let’s make the following clear right up front: The decision to prohibit a claimant from speaking ill of the city or its police officers as a condition of a settlement is not a legal decision. It has nothing to do with the legal sufficiency of a settlement agreement. The use of such “non-disparagement clauses” is purely a matter of public policy.

Given the importance that this issue has assumed in Baltimore, who better to establish the city’s policy on non-disparagement clauses: an appointed city solicitor or a legislative body elected by the citizens?

Mr. Davis contends that the bill violates provisions of the city charter giving the city solicitor the “sole charge and direction of the preparation and trial of” suits and other legal actions to which the city is a party and the “authority to institute, defend or discontinue” such actions. He argues, in effect, that the council cannot stop him from including any provision in a settlement agreement that he deems appropriate, as long as the provision is consistent with state and federal law.

To begin with, the city solicitor will remain solely responsible for preparing and trying lawsuits and other legal actions and will retain the authority to discontinue them. Nothing in the bill changes that. The bill simply renders it unlawful to make settlement of a claim contingent on the waiver by a claimant of his or her right to disparage the city or its employees.

Then, when Mr. Davis’ argument is taken to its logical conclusion, we see just how preposterous it is. The city charter provides that the council “shall have power to pass all ordinances, not inconsistent with the Charter, necessary to give effect and operation to all powers vested in the City.”

The charter allocates implementation of the powers vested in the city among various city officials, including the city solicitor. Does Mr. Davis really believe that the manner in which those powers are implemented is not subject to regulation by the City Council, and that all officials to which the city’s powers are assigned perform their duties free from legislative control?

Mr. Davis goes so far astray in his letter because he overstates his role in the governance of the city while failing to acknowledge the status and scope of the legislative powers conferred on the City Council by the Maryland Constitution. The council has the “full power” under the constitution to enact laws governing the exercise of the powers delegated to the city by the General Assembly.

The scope of the council’s authority also extends to passing laws for the “general welfare,” meaning the council may enact any ordinance it deems proper “in maintaining the peace, good government, health and welfare of Baltimore City.” The Maryland Court of Appeals describes general welfare clauses as “granting extremely broad power to a municipal corporation,” stating they must be “liberally construed to accord a municipality wide discretion in the exercise of the police power.”

There is no need to resort to a “liberal construction” of the council’s powers to conclude that the council has the power to decide that the interests of good government are best served by banning non-disparagement clauses. That conclusion is compelled by even the most restrictive interpretation.

Although the condition is stated as a prohibition, Bill 19-0409 simply places a condition on the expenditure of city money. That is a fundamental part of what the City Council does. It passes laws regulating and placing conditions on the expenditure of city funds for purchasing goods and services, making grants, etc. If it wishes, it may place conditions on the use of city money for the payment of claims.

The fact that city money is involved disposes of Mr. Davis’ last argument. He states that Bill 19-0409 is an impermissible attempt by the council to assert control over the BPD, a state agency. The bill is not about controlling the police department. It is about ensuring that city money is not used to buy the silence of victims of police misconduct or unlawful discrimination.

[Published as an op ed by the Baltimore Sun on Sept 23, 2019 but not posted to my blog until December 18, 2019. The date of posting that appears above was backdated to place all posts in the order in which they were written.]

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