by Nathan Willner
Government Affairs Officer
The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in many court systems throughout the United States shutting their doors. Pursuant to the Administrative Order issued by the Maryland Judiciary, court offices, administrative offices, units of the Judiciary, and the Offices of the Clerks of the Circuit Courts, and the clerks’ offices of the District Court were closed beginning on March 17, 2020 through June 5, 2020. During this time, the District Court matters to be heard included matters that were absolutely necessary, including bail reviews/bench warrants, emergency evaluation petitions, and quarantine and isolation violations. But as all other civil matters were to be stayed during this time, many members of NCBA's state creditors bar association (SCBA) affiliate Maryland-DC Creditors Bar Association were surprised to see that Affidavit Judgments continued to be entered by the Baltimore City District Court.
Many attorneys would have taken the position that this is a court issue; if the court feels it appropriate to enter these judgments, who are they to be concerned? In Maryland, after service of the complaint, should the consumer not file a Notice of Intention to Defend, the complaint is forwarded to a Judge for review. In most cases, the uncontested matter results in the routine entry of an Affidavit Judgment. Once a judgment is entered, the plaintiff can exercise further collection actions through garnishment or attachment as prescribed by Maryland law.
The problem that immediately jumped out at the Maryland attorneys was, what if the reason the consumer didn’t contest the matter was, they didn’t think they had to. Courts were closed, matters stayed, and deadlines extended, so it would seem reasonable for someone to think that they could wait to take action to deal with the lawsuit once the courts reopened.
The lawyers reached out to the Court and asked if maybe the entry of these judgments was just an oversight, or they were left over from matters that were to be decided before the pandemic’s full affect was reduced to an Administrative Order. What they discovered, however, was that this local court felt that since these cases were uncontested, they might as well deal with them administratively now, before the massive influx of new cases starts to bog the court systems down. One response the lawyers received was, if consumers felt that the judgments were entered in error, they could always file a motion with the court to vacate the judgment. This would, however, put the burden to deal with the judgment on the consumer, many who may not know what their rights are especially during the unprecedented pandemic-related court closures.
Feeling that consumers should not be placed in this situation, NCBA members under the leadership of the Maryland-DC Creditors Bar Association, were not satisfied by the rationale being given to them. They took their concerns to the Chief Judge of the District Court of Maryland. Joining with traditionally consumer-centric pro bono legal service groups, they explained that the entry of these judgments - even where uncontested - was just not the right thing to do. Basic due process and fairness are the cornerstone of our judiciary and entry of civil judgments at this time seemed to be in direct contravention of these cherished principles.
As a result of the local SCBA’s advocacy, partnering with consumer groups, the Chief Judge agreed, this was not the time to enter Affidavit Judgments even if procedurally allowed. The Court announced that all of the judgments entered will be vacated and reset in the ordinary course once the Maryland Court system resumes normal operations.
NCBA could not be prouder of the actions taken by the MDCBA leadership. While attorneys have the obligation to zealously represent their clients, they also have the ethical and moral obligation to make sure there is a fair and transparent system that all litigants can adhere to. It would have been understandable to just take no action and let the Court deal with the concerns, but that’s not who our members are. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. NCBA members adhere to a code of conduct that mandates strict adherence with the law and the highest level of professionalism. There is never a wrong time to demonstrate good judgment.