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Business & Developmentby Fern Shen7:34 amJun 28, 20240

Hit by SLAPP suit, Clipper Mill residents punch back

In a stunning twist, the individuals and entities Baltimore developer Larry Jennings sued for $25 million in 2020 have filed a class action suit against him, saying courts should send a message against lawsuits designed to intimidate

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

In 2020, Jeffrey K. Pietrzak, Jessica Meyer, Jared Block and Dan Cashman had a grim experience that, as they came to realize, was endured by others in Baltimore and around the country – a developer whose project they had criticized at public meetings coming after them with lawyers.

“It was 9:30 at night. I was home with my wife and kids, and they were knocking at the door to serve me,” said Pietrzak, who owns a townhome in Clipper Mill and spoke out at at city Planning Commission meetings against developer Larry E. Jennings’ projects in their North Baltimore neighborhood.

For condominium owner Cashman, the late night visit by a process server armed with a $25 million lawsuit naming him and several of his neighbors was a horror.

“I had to tell my wife, ‘Hey, you know that little thing I agreed to do as a volunteer? Taking notes at some meetings? It’s maybe going to drastically change our whole financial situation. Sorry!’” said Cashman, a board member of the Council of Unit Owners of the Millrace Condominiums.

Jennings’ lawsuit also named that condo council (representing 62 condominiums) and the Homes at Clipper Mill Homeowners’ Association (representing 71 homeowners).

What followed, as the four tell it, was a year and a half of angst and fear as a complaint seeking an astronomical amount of money and accusing them of being a “subversive” group hung over their heads.

As part of the lawsuit, Jennings’ lawyer, David B. Applefeld, sent “demand for preservation” letters, one of them 11 pages long, warning they would be required to turn over emails, texts, memos, audio recordings, voicemail messages, personal financial records and more, and to provide access to cell phones and other electronic devices as well as computer hard drives.

Tensions flared among neighbors and between spouses as the 133 owners suddenly found their properties encumbered by $187,000 each. The individuals singled out by name weren’t sure what they might have to pay, should the legal action prevail.

Some Clipper Mill residents argued they should capitulate to the politically connected Jennings, a former Baltimore Housing Authority commissioner tapped by newly elected mayor Brandon Scott to serve on his transition team. Could the lawsuit’s claim be correct, that the residents gave up their rights to object when they signed the deed or lease to their residences?

“People were scared, they were afraid to come to meetings, they were afraid to speak,” Pietrzak recalled.

In the end, the defendants stuck it out and won decisive legal victories.

First a Circuit Court judge, then an appeals court judge, declared Jennings’ lawsuit a “vexatious” and illegal SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) action, brought in bad faith and designed to punish and intimidate. On December 16, 2021, the suit was tossed out.

Now in a stunning twist, the individuals and entities that Jennings attacked have filed a class action suit against him.

Developer Larry Jennings (holding cellphone) confers with Marty Cadogan, Mayor Jack Young's campaign treasurer, during last November's Planning Commission meeting. (Ed Gunts)

Larry Jennings, holding cellphone, confers with his lawyer Martin Cadogan during a 2019 Planning Commission meeting. (Ed Gunts)

“Malicious use of process”

Coming before a Circuit Court judge today, their complaint names Jennings, Applefeld, his law firm, Shapiro Guinot and Sandler, and two LLC’s controlled by developer P. David Bramble, MCB Woodberry Parent and MCB Woodberry Developer.

(Bramble’s company acquired the Clipper Mill properties in 2021.)

UPDATE: Anti-SLAPP court testimony targets two prominent Baltimore developers 6/28/24)

Accusing the parties of “malicious use of process” and infringing on the residents’ constitutional rights to free speech, the 21-page complaint seeks a jury trial, $75,000 in compensatory damages and undetermined punitive damages.

“The defendants sought to use the lawsuit as an improper means of intimidation against all class members, to cause anxiety and concern throughout the class, and to seek or threaten to seek intrusive, abusive discovery of personal and confidential business communication,” the suit charges.

While the Jennings lawsuit was on the docket, property values were diminished, insurance rates increased significantly and some sales fell through as a result of what was “effectively a freeze on class members’ assets,” the residents say.

To Pietrzak, what he and his co-plaintiffs really want from their suit is for the court to send a message discouraging others from filing SLAPP suits like the one they endured.

“We did nothing wrong. I went to a couple of meetings. I represented my neighbors in a constructive way. And I got hammered for it,” Pietrzak said, speaking with The Brew earlier this month.

“We did nothing wrong. I went to a couple of meetings. I represented my neighbors in a constructive way. And I got hammered for it”  – Clipper Mill resident Jeffrey Pietrzak.

“Once you take this off the table – the ability for peoples’ voices to be heard – you’re taking away what we’re about as a country,” he continued. “It’s horrible how things in this city and state are set up – deep pocketed people can intimidate you.”

He and his neighbors had to turn to the courts, Block said, “because these city boards and elected officials were being absolutely no help to us.”

“What was done to us was just so egregious. Just so far out there,” he continued. “We don’t think a developer should be able to do this to any community.”

The now-vacant Tractor Building of the onetime manufacturing giant Poole & Hunt. The popular Woodberry Kitchen is located across the street and nearby are upscale townhouses and condominiums. (Ed Gunts)

The historic Tractor Building in Clipper Mill, part of a onetime major Jones Falls Valley employer, the Poole & Hunt Foundry. (Ed Gunts)

MCB: “Suit has no merit”

Pietrzak and others named in the original $25 million dollar suit spoke with a reporter recently outside the 108-year-old Tractor Building at 2001 Clipper Park Drive, which Jennings had wanted to gut and convert to a multi-story structure with 98 residential units, offices and a parking garage on a nearby lot.

Nearby was another location in the community where Jennings had sought permission to build – the Poole & Hunt lot, where a 30-unit “stacked townhouse” development was envisioned

The residents had opposed both those proposals before the Planning Commission and in court.

By jamming too many people and cars in the historic community, the projects flew in the face of its Planned Unit Development restrictions and should be rejected, they argued. (The commission’s approval of both projects was overturned by appellate court decisions.)

A spokeswoman for Bramble, whose office is across the street from the Tractor Building, said MCB has reviewed the class action complaint “and believes it lacks any merit.”

“MCB did not initiate the underlying lawsuit that is the focus of plaintiffs’ claims – MCB was only included as a result of becoming the record owner of the Clipper Mill development,” her emailed statement continued.

“MCB is committed to continuing to work as a partner with the entire Clipper Mill community, including the plaintiffs, to continue to build this community as an example of how great every neighborhood in Baltimore can be.”

Not addressed were The Brew’s question as to Bramble’s plans for the property or the lawsuit’s claim that his company “had an opportunity to end the SLAPP suit voluntarily” while it was still pending, but failed to do so.

Jennings: “Malice not shown”

Jennings has not returned several messages seeking comment on the class action suit, but a filing by his lawyers seeking dismissal outlines his arguments.

It argues the allegation of “malicious use of process” is not backed up by evidence that Jennings acted with “malice” or without probable cause.

Jennings’ lawyers could not be expected to have known what they were filing was a SLAPP suit, the defendants say, because at the time “there was no meaningful legislative history” concerning the scope of Maryland’s anti-SLAPP law.

They say no evidence was offered for the plaintiffs’ claims that Jennings publicly stated on multiple occasions that he would “ruin” them for challenging his plans, or their contention that he personally “ordered the suit filed.”

Residents claim that Jennings had vowed to “ruin” them.

The plaintiffs” description of the anxiety and stress caused by the $25 million suit is exaggerated, according to the filing, which also disputes their claim it inflicted financial harm.

Whatever measures Applefeld undertook were “indisputably the actions of a litigator carrying out ordinary litigation responsibilities,” the legal filing argued.

It points out that Applefeld agreed to suspend discovery and that despite the demand for records, cell phones and computer hard drives, no records were actually turned over.

Noting that Maryland’s anti-SLAPP law provides a remedy – legal fees, which the Clipper Mill residents were awarded – Jennings’ lawyers argue “that should be the end of the matter.”

In 2019, a developer tears down two 1840s stone millworker houses in Woodberry after promising to preserve them. (@sevensixfive)

In 2019, a developer illegally tore down two historic millworker houses in Woodberry. Larry Jennings later acknowledged a role in the demolition. (@sevensixfive)

Nationwide Trend

To the Clipper Mill residents and their attorneys, much more public push back is needed.

“What’s the special harm here? The fact that you can be sued for going to a zoning hearing! It’s off the wall. Outrageous,” exclaimed one of the attorneys representing the residents, John C. Murphy.

Developers with multi-million-dollar projects can easily afford the cost to hire a lawyer to write a letter threatening citizens with a legal action, he pointed out. Even if the threat never escalates into a lawsuit, such letters can achieve their true purpose of scaring off critics.

While his clients were lucky enough to belong to homeowners’ associations with insurance coverage to pay for legal defense, Murphy said, most small community associations in the city do not have such resources.

“Mine probably has $100 in the bank and that’s it,” Murphy said, pointing out recent cases in Baltimore where complaining residents have received chilling letters from business owners.

Atlas Restaurant Group CEO Alex Smith (hand raised) at yesterday's Liquor Board hearing. (Fern Shen)

Atlas Restaurant Group’s Alex Smith (hand raised), whose attorney wrote a threatening letter to people who signed a petition criticizing one of his projects in Fells Point. (Fern Shen)

In 2021, for example, more than a dozen Fells Point residents scheduled to speak at a Liquor Board hearing about excessive noise from The Choptank restaurant received threatening letters from a lawyer for its owner, the Atlas Restaurant Group.”

“The Choptank intends to take all necessary steps to protect its legal rights, including filing suit against you,” the letter said.

In the end, only three people showed up at the hearing, and the liquor board ruled unanimously in favor of the restaurant, which was seeking a license renewal.

Three months ago, an Atlas attorney sent a similar letter to residents objecting to one of the company’s other projects in Fells Point.

In 2021, an attorney for La Cité Development threatened opponents of the firm’s plans for redeveloping the Poppleton neighborhood with litigation for allegedly making false statements about the project.

Across the country, retaliatory SLAPPs against activist groups, media organizations and individuals have proliferated, prompting efforts in state legislatures, including in Maryland, to pass and strengthen anti-SLAPP laws.

The attorney for the Cross Street Market merchants, John Murphy, said the city has

Attorney John Murphy in 2017, speaking on behalf of Cross Street Market merchants being displaced by redevelopment there. (Fern Shen)

A Basic Right

To Murphy, allowing such actions to be brought with impunity undermines a basic right of citizens to speak out in a public forum on matters of public interest.

In court today he plans to invoke principles dating back to medieval jurisprudence that affirm a person’s right to speak out in court and before government zoning panels without fear of being sued for it.

He pointed to the strongly worded Maryland Court of Special Appeals opinion issued in the case by Judge Glenn T. Harrell Jr.

Jennings’ $25 million suit was “a killer asteroid” intended to “make extinct the complaints and complainants” who had exercised their right to speak out against his plans, Judge Harrell said, in the first appellate case to address the state’s anti-SLAPP law.

“The developer did not allege any facts showing that the residents acted with malice in making any communications” and could not plausibly claim they had violated a community association pact, he wrote.

Class action plaintiff Jessica Meyer, who has lived in Clipper Mill since 2007, said she is “incredibly hopeful” that the courts will recognize what is at stake.

“I don’t want anyone else to go through what we went through,” she said. “But look at Atlas, they’re using the same tactics right now.”

The fact that lawyers continue to threaten Baltimore residents who speak out, even after Harrell’s opinion, convinces her their class action efforts are needed.

“Other developers are going to attempt this until there is a major judgment against them.”

To reach a reporter: editors@baltimorebrew.com

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