The United States District Court for the District of Maryland Tackles a Host of COVID-19 Related Cases in Late 2020, From Evictions to Compassionate Prisoner Release to Restrictions Imposed by Governor Hogan’s Executive Orders

Effective November 11, 2020, the United States District Court for the District of Maryland suspended all in-person proceedings and closed its doors to the public.  The restrictions extend, for now, through January 15, 2021.  Unsurprisingly, the Court remains busy, including with a host of COVID-19-related matters.  This article provides an overview of several notable recent decisions from Maryland’s federal bench arising from the COVID-19 pandemic and attendant public health crisis and the restrictions put in place by state officials to stem the pandemic’s tide.

1. Court Denies Landlord’s Request for Default Rent Judgment, Citing State and Federal Eviction Moratoriums and Risk of Homelessness Exacerbating Pandemic Conditions.

In Meade Communities, LLC v. Walker, No. 20-200, 2020 WL 5759762 (D. Md. Sept. 28, 2020), Meade Communities, which operates a housing unit at the Fort Meade, Maryland military installation, filed a complaint for breach of contract and eviction against Walker, a tenant.  Meade alleged that Walker owed unpaid rent and late fees in excess of $5,000, had missed rent payments on multiple occasions, and was refusing to vacate the property despite written notice.  Meade served Walker, who failed to answer.  After the clerk granted Meade’s request for default, Meade moved for default judgment.  While that motion was pending, Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera issued an emergency order that stayed eviction proceedings statewide through July 25, 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Meade agreed to comply with that order.  Then, on September 4, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) issued an order under the Public Health Service Act temporarily halting residential evictions through December 31, 2020 for the stated purpose of preventing further spread of COVID-19.  The CDC’s order prevents a landlord from evicting a tenant who provides a declaration affirming that he or she: (1) has undertaken best efforts to secure government assistance; (2) satisfies certain income requirements; (3) cannot pay full rent due to loss of income; (4) is making best efforts to timely pay rent; and (5) would be rendered homeless if evicted from his or her current housing.

The Court denied Meade’s motion for default judgment without prejudice, finding that entering default judgment during the ongoing pandemic would be “unduly harsh.”  The Court noted CDC findings indicating that a nationwide homelessness crisis could worsen pandemic conditions, increasing the spread of disease as evicted tenants are forced to move and often into close quarters, whether in shared housing with loved ones or in “congregate settings” like homeless shelters. Acknowledging Meade’s compliance with Maryland’s prior eviction moratorium, the Court asked Meade to again “forbear judgment” given the ongoing crisis.  In so doing, the Court balanced interests, noting that the “great” risk posed to Walker should he face eviction (and the risk to others with whom he might come into contact) and the “overwhelming public need” to stop the spread of the virus outweighed the hardship and inconvenience that would result to Meade, particularly given the relatively low amount in controversy, and weighed in favor of postponing entering judgment against Walker.  The Court did not leave Meade without options.  Rather, the Court explained that Meade could renew its motion either: (1) after giving Walker adequate notice of the CDC order and declaration process and affording reasonable time for Walker to provide a declaration; or (2) when the CDC order expires at year’s end (or presumably later, if renewed).

2.  Court Focuses on the CDC-Identified Risk Category Associated with Various Preexisting Conditions Presented as the Basis for Compassionate Release Under 18 U.S.C. § 3582.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Maryland’s federal court, like its sister courts across the country, has seen a high volume of motions from federal prisoners seeking a sentence reduction under the compassionate release statute, 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i), for vulnerability to serious illness related to COVID-19.  A comparison of two recently-decided compassionate release cases, one granted and one denied, provides some insight into the Court’s current approach in this area.

In December 2018, Congress enacted the First Step Act, empowering federal trial courts, on motion filed by either the Director of the Bureau of Prisons or the defendant (after exhaustion of administrative rights or passage of 30 days from the prison warden’s receipt of the defendant’s administrative request for compassionate release), to reduce a federal prisoner’s term of imprisonment where “extraordinary and compelling reasons warrant such a reduction” and the reduction is “consistent with applicable policy statements issued by the [U.S.] Sentencing Commission.”  The Fourth Circuit has held that, in the absence of an applicable policy statement, district courts may consider any extraordinary and compelling reason the defendant might raise.  Under the First Step Act, courts must also consider the factors listed in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) “to the extent that they are applicable.”  Those factors, generally considered in imposing an original sentence, include (among other things) the nature and circumstances of the underlying offense, the history and characteristics of the defendant, the need for the sentence to protect the public and achieve aims of deterrence and respect for law, and the kinds of sentences or ranges available.

United States v. Fields, No. 08-241, 2020 WL 7263528 (D. Md. Dec. 10, 2020), involved the case of Thomas Fields, a 49-year-old prisoner who had served 150 months of his 188-month sentence for drug trafficking (about 80% of his sentence).  Fields argued that underlying health conditions, including chronic kidney disease and high blood pressure, left him particularly susceptible to serious illness should he contract COVID-19, a fact Fields argued presented an extraordinary and compelling reason for his release.  The government, which opposed the motion, argued that Fields’ health conditions were not a valid reason for his release because he was being treated for both conditions and his high blood pressure could be improved by diet and exercise.

The Court found the government’s arguments unpersuasive, noting that the CDC identifies chronic kidney disease of any stage as a condition that places individuals at risk for severe illness from COVID-19, a risk that is even further heightened by hypertension.  Fields’ medical records, the Court stated, indicated that he has had hypertension for at least 10 years and kidney disease for at least six and that, despite treatment, both are persistent in negatively impacting Fields’ health.    The “mere fact of [Fields’] incarceration,” the Court held, only compounded his risk.  In the week before its ruling, FCI Cumberland, the facility housing Fields, reported what the Court described as an “alarming increase in the number of inmates currently positive for COVID-19”: an increase from 19 active cases on December 1 to 200 cases on December 8.  Finding that Fields’ health conditions, and particularly his chronic kidney disease, increase his risk of severe illness, the Court held that there were extraordinary and compelling reasons present supporting Fields’ release.

The Court rejected the government’s argument that the Section 3553(a) factors weighed against compassionate release.  “Without minimizing [his] prior criminal conduct” (which included a series of offenses in the 1990s pre-dating his 2008 arrest for drug trafficking), the Court focused on Fields’ post-sentencing conduct, which (it stated) gives the most up-to-date picture of his “history and characteristics.”  According to the Court, Fields had “demonstrated nearly ten years of non-violence” in prison, during which time he received no discipline.  He obtained his GED, completing 17 courses while imprisoned, and maintained support from his family during his incarceration.  He had served “the vast majority” of his sentence and was scheduled to be released in less than a year, in November 2021.  Fields agreed to serve the first year of a four-year term of supervised release in home confinement.  Given these facts, the Court was persuaded that “accelerating Fields’s release by less than a year poses a minimal risk to the community and is sufficient to provide just punishment for the offense and to deter further criminal conduct.”  Combined with the “extraordinary and compelling” risk of severe illness posed to Fields should he contract COVID-19, the Court found these factors sufficient to support compassionate release.

Contrast Fields with United States v. Ford, No. 10-336, 2020 WL 7336882 (D. Md. Dec. 14, 2020), decided just four days later.  Roger Ford, a 41-year-old prisoner, had completed nearly 108 months of his 180-month drug trafficking sentence (about 60%). Ford, like Fields, argued that his health conditions (in Ford’s case, hypertension and sleep apnea) placed him at increased risk of serious illness from COVID-19. While Ford tested positive for COVID-19 in July 2020 and ultimately recovered, he argued that his incarceration still presented a risk of re-infection. Like in Fields, the government argued that Ford was being treated for his conditions while in prison.

The Court denied Ford’s motion, finding that his medical conditions, while undoubtedly impacting his life, did not present an “extraordinary and compelling reason” for a sentence reduction.  The Court again turned to the CDC’s guidance, which draws a distinction between conditions where the available data is strong and consistent enough to conclude that individuals with that condition are at “increased risk” should they contract COVID-19 and those where the current data is “limited or mixed” and can thus only indicate that a person with that condition “might be at an increased risk.” High blood pressure, the Court stated, falls in the latter group (possible increased risk) and sleep apnea is in neither.  Indeed, the Court explained, the CDC’s data about the impact of hypertension alone on COVID-19 is, at present, “mixed.” The CDC has not published any data that demonstrates an affirmative link between sleep apnea and COVID-19.

Comparing Fields and Ford makes plain a key focus in the Court’s analysis: Does the medical condition presented as the “extraordinary and compelling reason” for release fall within the conditions identified by the CDC, based on adequate available data, as placing a person at increased risk should they contract COVID-19?  If yes, compassionate release is more likely (subject to the 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) factors).  If not, and the condition falls in the possible increased risk category (or in no data-supported category at all), compassionate release is less likely.  As the Court noted in a summertime case cited in Ford, the mere presence of one underlying condition that could elevate a prisoner’s risk for severe illness from COVID-19 does not automatically entitle the prisoner to compassionate relief.  Instead, the “underlying medical conditions must compellingly increase [the prisoner’s] risk for severe illness, or death, if he were to contract COVID-19.”  United States v. Brown, No. 10-0344, 2020 WL 3833284 (D. Md. July 8, 2020).

3. Court Rejects Constitutional Challenge to Governor Hogan’s Executive Orders.

In May 2020, a group of plaintiff-citizens, business owners, and religious leaders filed suit, challenging the constitutionality of a series of executive orders issued by Maryland Governor Larry Hogan in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, including orders that placed restrictions on social gatherings, closed non-essential businesses, and imposed mask mandates.  They sought declaratory and injunctive relief.  In May, the Court denied the plaintiffs’ motion for preliminary injunction.  Then in November, it granted the state defendants’ motion to dismiss the complaint.  Antietam Battlefield KOA v. Hogan, No. 20-1130, 2020 WL 6777590 (D. Md. Nov. 18, 2020).

Applying a test first set forth in Jacobson v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (1905), the Court held that, to overturn Governor Hogan’s orders, plaintiffs would need to show that the orders: (1) have no real or substantial relation to protecting public health; or (2) are “beyond all question, a plain, palpable invasion of rights secured by the fundamental law.”

The Court found neither element satisfied.  First, plaintiffs failed to plausibly allege, the Court held, that the Governor’s orders lacked a real and substantial relationship to public health.  In fact, the opposite was true: The orders’ stated objective was to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and to “protect and save lives,” goals the Governor sought to achieve by limiting the size of indoor gatherings and imposing a stay-at-home order.  Because these restrictions limit in-person contact likely to spread disease, the Court held that they were substantially related to the objective of protecting the public.  Plaintiffs’ allegation that the orders went too far (by, e.g., failing to use less restrictive available options and closing some businesses but not others) did not demonstrate, the Court found, that the order lacked any real or substantial relationship to public health goals.

Second, the Court held that plaintiffs failed to allege facts showing a “plain, palpable invasion” of fundamental rights “beyond all question.”  Plaintiffs’ free exercise, free assembly, free speech, and Commerce Clause claims, the Court stated, failed because the Governor’s orders are neutral, generally applicable, rationally related to the legitimate interest in reducing virus spread, and not facially discriminatory against interstate commerce or having clear discriminatory purpose or effect.  The Court rejected the religious group-plaintiffs’ Establishment Clause claim because the challenged executive orders initially limited gatherings of more than 10 people at all locations and venues (not just churches, mosques, and temples) and later permitted religious facilities to run at 50% capacity, the same percentage allowed for retail shops.  Plaintiffs’ Equal Protection Clause claim was likewise rejected because, the Court explained, stores like Lowe’s and Walmart are not “similarly situated” to churches and religious facilities: People do not tend to congregate in large groups or remain in close proximity for extended periods of time in retail stores the way they do in a church or temple.  Article IV and Takings Clause claims were rejected as well, the former for lack of justiciable controversy and the latter because, the Court reasoned, an alleged inability to sell goods or services for a limited period of time, resulting in claimed lost revenue, was not demonstrated to constitute a constitutional “taking” of plaintiffs’ property.

It’s worth noting that, in invoking Jacobson as the standard, the Court noted that a recent plurality opinion by the United States Supreme Court did the same when it denied an application for injunctive relief against a COVID-19 executive order issued by California Governor Gavin Newsom.  S. Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom, 140 S. Ct. 1613 (May 29, 2020).  The effect of the Supreme Court’s November 25 decision in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, and its dueling opinions addressing the invocation of Jacobson, remains to be seen.  On December 7, 2020, plaintiffs appealed the Court’s ruling to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Heather L. Williams is a Partner in our Maryland office.