O'CONNOR v. Baltimore County

Decision Date26 July 2004
Docket NumberNo. 124,124
Citation382 Md. 102,854 A.2d 1191
PartiesJulianne O'CONNOR, et al. v. BALTIMORE COUNTY, Maryland.
CourtMaryland Court of Appeals

Robert L. Pierson (Pierson & Pierson, Baltimore, on brief), for appellants.

Paul M. Mayhew, Asst. Cty. Atty. (Edward J. Gilliss, Cty. Atty., John E. Beverungen, Deputy Cty. Atty., Towson, on brief), for appellee.

Argued before BELL, C.J., RAKER, WILNER, CATHELL, HARRELL, BATTAGLIA and GREENE, JJ.

GREENE, J.

Appellants Julianne O'Connor, Julianne Uehlinger, Janice Zimmerman, and Gail Jett ("the Employees") seek review of an Order of the Circuit Court for Baltimore County, dated July 25, 2003, granting a declaratory judgment and summary judgment pursuant to a motion filed by Baltimore County ("the County").

The question before this Court is whether the Circuit Court erred by deciding as a matter of law that the Employees' job classifications do not violate the County Charter and personnel law.

FACTS

The Employees are four part-time workers in the County's Department of Social Services. Their positions are classified by the County as exempt or non-merit positions.1 On November 1, 2002, the Employees filed a complaint in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County seeking declaratory and injunctive relief, alleging that their employment violates the Baltimore County Charter ("Charter") and the Baltimore County Code ("County Code"). Specifically, the Employees sought; (1) a declaratory judgment that designating permanent employees as "part-time" based on a 34 hour or 39 hour work week violates the Charter, and (2) an order from the court directing the County to classify plaintiffs' positions as non-exempt merit positions.

The Employees' complaint includes allegations that they have been doing the same work for virtually the same number of hours per week as merit system employees, but that they are denied merit status because they are classified by the County as part-time or hourly workers. The Employees argue that the Charter did not intend to create a class of permanent part-time workers who are exempt from the merit system. Rather, they argue, the Charter intended to exempt only employees who work occasionally or temporarily.

The County did not answer the complaint but instead filed a motion for summary judgment. The County argued that in order to obtain injunctive relief against a municipality, the Employees must show "grave and irreparable injury." The County asserted that the Employees had not met that burden. The County also contended, among other things, that the classification of the Employees as non-merit did not violate the Charter.

In addition, the County listed a series of material facts that are not in genuine dispute. Those facts include, among other things, that:(1) the Employees are employed by the County; (2) all four of the positions are funded exclusively by the State or federal government; (3) the four positions are not merit positions; (4) all four positions are part-time; and (5) each employee signed a statement upon accepting his or her positions with the County, that stated "I fully understand that the position I am accepting with Baltimore County is of a part-time nature and does not entitle me to benefits received by full-time employees of the Merit System...." These facts are supported by the affidavit and attachments also filed by the County.

Antony J. Sharbaugh, Director of the Baltimore County Office of Human Resources, signed the affidavit, which describes the Employees' job classifications. He stated that the Charter expressly calls for the creation of non-merit or exempt positions in order to provide flexibility to meet the County's staffing needs. Mr. Sharbaugh's affidavit also states that the Office of Budget and Finance must approve merit positions based on sufficient funding, and that the County Council must approve each merit position. In addition, Mr. Sharbaugh notes in his affidavit that the two supervisory workers are part-time, professional consultants under Charter Section 801(5) and that the other are non-supervisory, part-time workers under Charter Section 801(9) and Regulations 1.03 and 1.04 of the County Personnel Law.2 In response to the motion for summary judgment, the Employees filed two affidavits on February 5, 2003. Julianne Uehlinger filed an affidavit stating that she was a social worker who supervised the School Based Services Program, that her position was supervisory, and that she was designated as a part-time, non-classified employee. She also stated that she was never informed that she was a consultant and that Sharbaugh's affidavit was the first written document she had seen referring to her as a consultant. W. Michel Pierson,3 the Employees' attorney, also filed an affidavit stating that the Employees needed an opportunity to conduct discovery concerning the assertions made in Sharbaugh's affidavit.

On March 13, 2003, the parties deposed Sharbaugh. Sharbaugh stated that non-merit employees have fewer holidays, vacation days, and personal leave days than merit employees. He also noted that when a merit position is eliminated, the merit employee is entitled to replace or "bump" an employee with less seniority in another position, so that the replaced employee is terminated.

The parties appeared before the Circuit Court for a hearing on the motion for summary judgment on July 11, 2003. The Circuit Court granted the County's motion, deciding that there was no factual dispute and that, as a matter of law, the Charter did not prohibit the County from classifying the workers as non-merit exempt employees. Specifically, the Court said:

There is no factual dispute of the fact that the Plaintiffs are working for Baltimore County ... after they agreed to work for Baltimore County. And in fact, their employment contract indicated, and each of them knew at the time they began working for Baltimore County that they were to be designated as part-time employees [and] that they were not members of the merit system. There is no factual dispute that these employees work somewhere between 35 and 39 hours a week.... There is no factual dispute that they are not merit system employees, as clearly their employment contract indicated and as they understood. There is no factual dispute that they are paid on an hourly basis. Quite frankly, it seems to me that the facts that are material to the resolution of this matter are really not disputed. The argument really comes down to a matter of law. It's a question of whether the Baltimore County Charter prohibits such a designation of an employee as part-time, given the undisputed facts of these employees' employment.
* * *
Well, it's this court's view that whether the County Charter calls it hourly or part-time is really kind of irrelevant as, in fact, these people are being paid hourly, as the charter indicates that there is that class of employee.... But quite frankly, I don't see any prohibition for the County doing and classifying these employees as they have and according them the benefits that they have.
This is something that is open. It's not hidden. It hasn't been kept from these employees. They began working, began accepting money under this employment agreement. I don't think it's something that, quite frankly, they are prejudiced because they began their employment and they continue their employment under that understanding. I don't see why the County can't do this. I don't see why the charter prohibits it.

On July 25, 2003, the Circuit Court signed an order granting summary judgment and declared that, "[t]he designation and employment of the plaintiffs as part-time, exempt employees does not violate the Baltimore County Charter and personnel law." Judgment was entered on July 29, 2003, and on August 19, 2003, Petitioners filed an appeal in the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland. Before the Court of Special Appeals could decide the appeal, this Court granted certiorari on its own initiative. O'Connor v. Baltimore County, 379 Md. 225, 841 A.2d 339 (2004).

DISCUSSION

Maryland Rule 2-501(e) provides, in relevant part, that "the court shall enter judgment in favor of or against the moving party if the motion and response show that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the party in whose favor judgment is entered is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." As we said in Remsburg v. Montgomery, 376 Md. 568, 831 A.2d 18 (2003), "[w]hen reviewing a grant of summary judgment, we must make the threshold determination as to whether a genuine dispute of material fact exists, and only where such dispute is absent will we proceed to review determinations of law." Remsburg, 376 Md. at 579, 831 A.2d at 24. We also noted that "[a]n appellate court reviews a trial court's grant of a motion for summary judgment de novo. `The trial court will not determine any disputed facts, but rather makes a ruling as a matter of law. The standard of appellate review, therefore, is whether the trial court was legally correct.'" Id. (quoting Williams v. Mayor & City Council of Baltimore, 359 Md. 101, 114, 753 A.2d 41, 48 (2000)) (other citations omitted).

Before turning to the questions of law, we must first decide whether the Circuit Court properly determined that no genuine dispute of material fact exists. We construe the facts properly before the court, and any reasonable inferences that may be drawn from them, in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Todd v. MTA, 373 Md. 149, 155, 816 A.2d 930, 933 (2003) (citing Okwa v. Harper, 360 Md. 161, 178, 757 A.2d 118, 127 (2000)). We have held that "mere general allegations which do not show facts in detail and with precision are insufficient to prevent summary judgment." Beatty v. Trailmaster, 330 Md. 726, 738, 625 A.2d 1005, 1011 (1993) (citing Lynx, Inc. v. Ordnance Products, Inc., 273 Md. 1, 7-8, 327 A.2d 502, 509 (1974)). To properly oppose a motion for summary judgment, the facts presented...

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