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Business & Developmentby Fern Shen4:39 pmJun 28, 20240

Anti-SLAPP court testimony targets two prominent Baltimore developers

The lawyer for residents who filed a class action complaint in response to a $25 million lawsuit assailed Larry Jennings for initiating it and David Bramble for not dropping it

Above: Baltimore developers David Bramble and Larry Jennings, whose role in connection to a 2020 SLAPP suit came up in courtroom testimony today.

Lawyers for two prominent Baltimore developers – one who filed a discredited $25 million lawsuit and the other who inherited it – made their case in court today for why a judge should dismiss a class action complaint by city residents who were sued after they criticized a development project at zoning hearings and in court.

The plaintiffs have no grounds to seek more than the lawyers’ fees they won after a judge deemed the $25 million lawsuit a SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) and threw it out.

So said Peter Sheehan, representing developer Larry Jennings and two entities controlled by developer P. David Bramble, whose MCB Real Estate acquired the Clipper Mill properties in North Baltimore in 2021.

But as the residents’ lawyer described it, Jennings and others should be held accountable for launching “the worst abuse of  the judicial system I’ve ever seen” and “a paradigm of why we have malicious prosecution” as a cause of action.

“Mr. Jennings announced publicly that he would ‘ruin’ anybody who opposed his development plans, then Mr. Applefeld and Shapiro Sher Guinot and Sandler file a lawsuit for $25 million, in which they alleged no actual wrongs,” lawyer Thomas Minton said, addressing Circuit Court Judge Lawrence Fletcher-Hill today.

“They filed, drafted, crafted and pursued the lawsuit solely as a means to punish and intimidate people who oppose them,” said Minton, who represents four Clipper Mill residents personally named in the 2020 SLAPP suit as well as two homeowners’ associations that were also named.

Minton also highlighted Bramble’s role in the litigation, saying that the developer who acquired Jennings’ projects personally acknowledged his ability to terminate the still pending lawsuit in a conversation with his clients, but chose not to.

“So Mr. Bramble, the principal of MCB, walks into a meeting of my clients and says, ‘I own the lawsuit now, I can do what I want with it,’” Minton recounted.

Bramble, owner of Harborplace, was given exclusive rights last year to redevelop the waterfront properties by the Brandon Scott administration.

Class action plaintiffs Jeff Pietrzak, Jessica Meyer, Jared Block and Dan Cashman outside the Tractor Building in Baltimore’s Clipper Mill. (Fern Shen)

Class action plaintiffs Jeff Pietrzak, Jessica Meyer, Jared Block and Dan Cashman outside the Tractor Building at Baltimore’s Clipper Mill complex. (Fern Shen)

No Probable Cause

The testimony was part of an hour-long court hearing, conducted over Zoom, on the complaint filed by residents Jeff Pietrzak, Jessica Meyer, Jared Block and Dan Cashman and two entities representing 133 residents in their North Baltimore neighborhood.

At meetings of the Planning Commission and then in court, the residents had raised objections to plans by Jennings’ company to gut the historic Tractor Building on Clipper Park Road and convert it to a multi-story structure with 98 residential units, offices and a parking garage.

Another plan they opposed called for a 30-unit “stacked townhouse” development in a nearby parcel known as the Poole & Hunt lot.

The class action alleges the filing of the suit constituted “malicious use of process” and infringement of the constitutional right to free speech.

Attorneys for the developer argued today that the residents failed to show that the SLAPP suit inflicted the “special injury or special damages” that is required for a malicious use of process claim.

“They can’t allege they were dispossessed of property or enjoined from using their properties. Their properties were not seized, taken, attached, garnished or foreclosed upon,” Sheehan said.

“To the extent plaintiffs are arguing that it was harder for them to sell their properties during the very short pendency of the prior proceeding, that’s not a special injury either,” he claimed.

Seizing on an apparent contradiction by the developers’ attorneys, Judge Fletcher-Hill interjected, “Isn’t that circular?”

Residents argue that Jennings and his lawyers were well aware that there was no probable cause to bring the 2020 suit, which turned on the implausible legal premise that residents gave up their rights to object when they signed the lease or deed to their residences.

Sheehan, representing Jennings and Bramble’s companies, said “the attorney’s advice typically provides evidence of probable cause . . . so this court’s probable cause analysis can and should end there.”

Earlier in the hearing, the attorney representing the law firm that brought the $25 million SLAPP for Jennings said it, too, could not be held responsible.

“That the lawsuit may ultimately be determined to have been filed without probable cause or in bad faith does not form an inference that the lawyers themselves lacked probable cause or harbored malicious intent,” said attorney David Schuster.

Fletcher-Hill seized on the apparent contradiction, interjecting, “But isn’t that circular?”

“So the law firm defendants essentially say, you can’t impute the bad motives of the previous case to the lawyers,” he observed. “And then the party from the case says, I’m protected from bad motive because the lawyers told me it was okay.”

Financial Harm

Defending the class action complaint, Minton pushed back, reiterating the findings of Circuit Court Judge John Nugent and Court of Special Appeals Judge Glenn T. Harrell Jr.

“The only thing my clients were accused of doing was organizing, testifying and filing administrative appeals,” he said.

“Judge Nugent and Judge Harell both readily recognized that the claim for $25 million in punitive damages was an indication of bad faith, as were the excessive, abusive discovery requests.”

“Their hope . . . was that bad faith, which is an element of the SLAPP suit statute, would require an extended factual proceeding,” Minton continued. “Both Judge Nugent and Judge Harrell rejected it on the face of the pleadings.”

Minton noted that the residents and their associations were told not only to preserve a vast range of electronic documents, records, hard drives and personal financial records going back five years, but to produce the material.

The defendants’ lawyers also downplayed the plaintiffs’ claim of financial harm.

Minton responded by saying that he knew of two sales of Clipper Mill properties that didn’t go through while the SLAPP suit was pending. He cited another case where a buyer, discovering the potential liability attached to the litigation, asked for $25,000 back.

“We will prove that there was a loss of value across the entire development,” he said.

At the close of the hearing, Fletcher-Hill said he would render a decision within 30 days. In the meantime, there would be no discovery.

“I don’t want any unnecessary litigation expense in this continuing saga between and among these parties,” he remarked.

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