The concept of sovereign immunity is a long-standing – many would say antiquated – belief that a state cannot be sued unless it agrees to be. The Maryland Tort Claims Act (MTCA), gives this permission for certain cases. A new case, Williams v. Morgan State, looks at if the MTCA’s agreement to let the state be sued applies to federal cases.
Facts of Williams v. Morgan State
The case started when a woman sued her former employer, Morgan State University, and her old boss, Dean DeWayne Wickham. She said they wrongly fired her for revealing that the University exaggerated some costs and tried to sway the 2016 Baltimore mayor’s race.
Let’s dig a little deeper into the facts because they are interesting.
- Williams, the Director of Broadcast Operations at Morgan State University (MSU) from 2014-2017, organized a debate for the 2016 Baltimore mayoral election.
- The Democratic Party candidate, Catherine Pugh who, fun fact, just got out of jail last year, couldn’t attend. Following this, the dean instructed the cancellation of the debate at Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake’s request.
- Williams then allowed Republican and Green Party candidates interviews as compensation for the canceled debate, leading to the dean’s disapproval.
- Williams filed a lawsuit accused MSU and the dean of tons of bad behavior, including inflating expenses to get more grants from state and federal agencies.
- Williams gets fired and files a lawsuit that ends up in federal court claiming she got fired due to her complaints.
The big legal question here is whether the MTCA’s permission for the state to be sued includes federal cases, especially ones where someone claims they were fired for whistleblowing (revealing wrongdoing).
The federal court judge asked for an advisory opinion from the Maryland Supreme Court on this questions. How does that work? When U.S. courts aren’t sure about a state’s law, there are procedures in most states, including Maryland, where the federal court can ask the state’s court for clarity. That’s what happened here. The U.S. court asked the Maryland court to clarify Maryland law on this topic. The Maryland court took the question, reviewed the facts given by the U.S. court, and answered the question based on its understanding of Maryland law.
Williams’ lawyers made four core arguments that the MTCA applies in federal court:
- The phrase “tort action” in the MTCA is comprehensive and encompasses all federal statutory claims.
- The MTCA should be interpreted widely to ensure remedies for injured parties, implying the State’s sovereign immunity waiver for federal claims.
- There are previous court decisions to emphasize that “tort” covers all civil wrongs, including statutory ones, not just those recognized in common law.
- Past amendments to the MTCA indicate the General Assembly’s intent to include federal statutory claims within “a tort action.”
Maryland Supreme Court’s Ruling
The Maryland Supreme Court disagreed with Williams. It ruled that the Maryland Tort Claims Act does not waive the State’s sovereign immunity for federal statutory claims. In making this decision, the court applied its standard principles for interpreting statutes, focusing on the MTCA’s explicit language, its overall structure, and its historical amendments. The court emphasizes that the General Assembly did not aim to cover federal statutory claims under the MTCA’s limited waiver. They further argue that the Appellant’s interpretation would be inconsistent with the MTCA’s main objectives.
Courts often grapple with the balance between strict interpretation and equitable outcomes. Should Morgan State really be able to fire this woman if her allegations are true? Can anyone really make the argument that the school should be able to fire someone for exposing its wrongdoing (allegedly, of course).
I would argue that the spirit of the MTCA is to provide a remedy for those wronged by state actions. By not interpreting “tort action” to include federal statutory claims, the court is limiting the avenues available for individuals like Williams to seek justice. But I get where the court is coming from, too. Ultimately, the Maryland legislature should step in and right wrongs like this. Will it? Of course not.