Weak Maryland anti-SLAPP law enables noisy bar to preserve its liquor license

by Paul Alan Levy

Last month, a Fells Point restaurant was able to use an apparently baseless threat of defamation litigation to secure a vote renewing its liquor license by the liquor control board despite considerable neighborhood complaints. Baltimore attorney Scott Marder apparently a demand letter to every one of the 15 neighbors who objected, alleging that they had made false statements, stating Choptank’s intention to sue them, and threatening them with spoliation sanctions if they failed to preserve all evidence of their statements about his client

The neighbors’ lawyer, Becky Witt, told me that her clients were intimidated, but that, when she called Marder and asked just that the alleged falsities where, Marder couldn’t remember any specifics. Marder denied Witt’s account of their conversation, but he refused say just what Witt had recounted incorrectly, just as he declined to tell me what alleged false statements had been made about his client. I conclude that his demand letters to the neighbors were baseless.

But Marder’s exercise in baseless intimidation appears to have been effective representation of his client: only three neighbors showed up at the license renewal hearing, and the objections were rejected for lack of substantial evidence.

There is not likely any legal remedy for baseless intimidation, but the Maryland legislature is currently considering a pair of bills, HB 308  and SB 162, which would upgrade Maryland’s anti-SLAPP statute to provide firm protection against baseless defamation litigation in such cases. If this statute passed, lawyers will at least be able to reassure their clients receiving such demand letters that they can count on being able to afford to defend themselves against baseless defamation claims, of the sort that appear to have been threatened in this case. And that might give members of the public more confidence in stepping forward to defend their neighborhood.

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