Md. Attorney General Can Now Bring Civil Actions Against Commercial Property Owners for Alleged Civil Rights Violations

Miles & Stockbridge P.C.

A new Maryland law allows the attorney general to seek equitable relief and fines of up to $25,000, as well as fees, against civil rights violators. The Maryland General Assembly passed during its recent session SB 540, creating a new Part III of the Enforcement subtitle of Title 20, Maryland’s Human Relations law. Gov. Wes Moore signed SB 540 into law Tuesday, and it goes into effect Oct. 1.

Previously under Title 20 of the Maryland Code, an individual alleging discrimination by a commercial property owner had to file a complaint with the Commission on Civil Rights in an administrative law proceeding. Once that complaint was filed with the commission, the commission could file a civil action on the individual’s behalf. Likewise, the individual could later bring a civil action under the law. These procedures for individuals and the commission remain in place under Title 20, but now, under the new law, the attorney general also can bring an action against civil rights violators directly.

The new Part III, titled “Enforcement by the Attorney General” (sections 20-1040 through 20-1048), defines a civil rights violation, among other things, as a discriminatory act under Title 20, Subtitle 5, “Discrimination in Leasing of Commercial Property.” This section, 20-501, makes it a civil rights violation for any owner or operator of a commercial property or their agents or employees to “discriminate against an individual in the terms, conditions, or privileges of the leasing of property for commercial use, or in the provision of services or facilities in connection with the leasing of property for commercial use, because of the individual’s race, color, religion, sex, age, disability, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity, or national origin.”

Pursuant to the new sections 20-1040 through 20-1058, the attorney general may bring an action against a commercial property owner if the attorney general has reasonable cause to believe a commercial property owner is engaged in a discriminatory act. The attorney general may also intervene in a civil action against a commercial property owner if the attorney general timely applies and certifies that the case is of general importance. The attorney general may bring an action within three years of discovery, occurrence, or termination of the discriminatory act, whichever is later.

If the attorney general brings an action under Section 20-1045 of Title 20, the attorney general may seek an injunction against a commercial property owner that is allegedly engaging in a civil rights violation to prevent the owner from continuing to engage in the alleged violation. This new section of Title 20 also lowers the standard typical for injunctions under Maryland law, allowing for attorney general to obtain an injunction against a commercial property owner more easily. The attorney general may seek an injunction without having to post a bond, to allege or prove that no adequate remedy at law exists or to allege or prove that substantial or irreparable damage would result from any conduct alleged.

An action brought under section 20-1046 of Title 20 allows for the attorney general to obtain both equitable relief and a civil penalty to vindicate the public interest. The equitable relief can come in the form of a permanent or preliminary injunction, a temporary restraining order, or any other order. Civil penalties can be up to $10,000 for a first violation or up to $25,000 for a second or subsequent violation. The attorney general also may obtain additional restitution requiring a commercial property owner to reimburse the costs of the investigation and litigation, make restitution to the aggrieved person, pay economic damages to the aggrieved person or post a performance bond or other security.

Opinions and conclusions in this post are solely those of the author unless otherwise indicated. The information contained in this blog is general in nature and is not offered and cannot be considered as legal advice for any particular situation. The author has provided the links referenced above for information purposes only and by doing so, does not adopt or incorporate the contents. Any federal tax advice provided in this communication is not intended or written by the author to be used, and cannot be used by the recipient, for the purpose of avoiding penalties which may be imposed on the recipient by the IRS. Please contact the author if you would like to receive written advice in a format which complies with IRS rules and may be relied upon to avoid penalties.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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