When we wrote “Wireless One Misses by 157 Years” in the February 2019 issue of Relating to Real Estate about the Court of Special Appeals’ (CSA) decision in Wireless One, Inc. v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, 239 Md. App. 687 (2018), we noted that after Wireless One was advised it would not fit into the plans for the redeveloped Cross Street Market and it should pursue other options, Wireless One vacated the Market. It then filed a complaint in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, alleging it was a “displaced person” under the Relocation Expenses Act, Maryland Code, Real Property Article (RP) §12-201(e)(1), and was entitled to receive relocation expenses as compensation under RP §12-205(a). The circuit court granted the City’s motion to dismiss the claim, and the CSA affirmed in a brief opinion. Wireless One, Inc. v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, 239 Md. App. 687 (2018), cert. granted, 462 Md. 556 (2019).
The CSA pointed out that RP §12-201(e)(2) provides that a “displaced person” does not include “a person who leases from the displacing agency after the displacing agency takes title to the real property.” Baltimore City has owned and operated Cross Street Market since 1847. Wireless leased its property starting in 2004, a century and a half after the City came into title of it. The CSA held that Wireless was, therefore, not entitled to any moving and relocation expenses.
Since our February 2019 article, the Court of Appeals granted a writ of certiorari in response to Wireless One’s petition, and the Court affirmed. Wireless One, Inc. v. Mayor & City Council of Baltimore, 465 Md. 588, 214 A.3d 1152 (2019), reconsideration denied (Sept. 30, 2019). One would have thought that in light of the foregoing, this would have been a short, straightforward opinion; on the contrary, it took the Court of Appeals 61 pages, including a dissenting opinion, to reach its result.
The Court of Appeals asked the Attorney General’s (AG’s) Office to file an amicus brief, and the AG’s office provided detailed legislative history about the State Relocation Expenses Act in relation to federal Uniform Relocation Assistance Act. Of particular interest to this case was the question of whether under the statute Baltimore City did not become a displacing agency until it had plans to develop the Market. The two dissenters on the Court of Appeals — Judge Robert N. McDonald wrote the dissent and Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera joined it — bought this argument, but the majority stuck with the rule that plain language in statutes must be read without reference to outside sources.
On the facts, the majority found that Wireless One was not a displaced person, because it voluntarily terminated its lease by leaving the Market before it received a written notice evicting it.
In his dissent, Judge McDonald makes a very interesting case that “plain meaning” may be in the eye of the beholder, and that following the literal meaning of a statute may result in a consequence that was not intended by the drafters. The Attorney General’s brief in this case referred to a “latent ambiguity” in the statute in question. The point is that context is often vitally important. Yet, the majority clung to the bromides that plain language controls the interpretation of a statute, and that legislators presumably meant what the words they enacted say. So, according to the majority, when a statute appears to have a plain meaning, it is not necessary to look at its legislative history even though the majority did just that to back up the decision that it reached.
For questions, contact Edward J. Levin.