Appeals Court Upholds Ruling that Baltimore City Violated Evicted Tenants’ Constitutional Rights

Conor B. O'Croinin
Conor B. O'Croinin
Ariella E. Muller
Ariella E. Muller

A federal appeals court has unanimously upheld a lower court ruling that the City of Baltimore violated the constitutional rights of two former tenants of a rental home by enacting a housing ordinance that caused them to lose nearly all of their personal property immediately upon eviction. The decision is the result of a lawsuit brought by Zuckerman Spaeder LLP on behalf of Marshall and Tiffany Todman.

In a ruling issued June 10, 2024, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit stated that the City ordinance “commanded that the Todmans should forfeit their property with no notice requirement and no reclamation rights. There is thus a direct causal link between the City’s policy and the violation of the Todmans’ constitutional rights and the City can fairly be held responsible to them for the suffering and loss that resulted.”

The Todmans lost nearly all of their belongings through the execution of a Baltimore City ordinance when they were evicted by their landlord two days before their planned move. The eviction happened while the Todmans were at work without any ability to retrieve their personal property. As per Baltimore City’s ordinance, at the moment of eviction, the Todmans’ landlord took possession of everything the Todmans owned that was in or about the property.

“We cannot thank the Zuckerman Spaeder attorneys enough for their advocacy – throughout this case they have been a voice to the voiceless and stood by us when no one else would help,” stated Ms. Todman. “The outcome of this case has made a big difference for us, and we hope it will lead to a change in the law and benefit City residents.”    

The ordinance at issue, section 8A-4 of the City’s housing code, provides that, “[a]ll property in or about the leased premises at the time that the warrant of restitution is executed is abandoned.” While the intent of the ordinance is to keep city streets clean, in practice, it allows a landlord to take ownership of personal property that a tenant leaves in or about the leased property at the moment of eviction, even where a tenant has no intention of abandoning it.

“The appeals court’s emphatic agreement with the lower court leaves no doubt that the City violated our clients’ due process rights,” said partner Conor B. O’Croinin, who argued the appeal before the Fourth Circuit. “Both courts refused to accept the City’s argument that it cannot be held responsible for the way the process unfolded. The court’s ruling delivers a clear message that due process and property rights cannot be sacrificed in the name of a desire for clean streets. We hope that this ruling will cause the City to repeal its Abandonment Ordinance.”

The Zuckerman Spaeder lawsuit, filed pro bono in 2019, was considered by the U.S. District Court in Maryland in 2022. After that court ruled in favor of the Todmans, a federal jury in 2023 awarded them $36,000 for the loss of their personal property and $150,000 for their emotional distress. Baltimore City appealed the district court’s ruling that it had violated the tenants’ constitutional rights, though it did not contest the jury’s monetary award.

The appeal garnered amicus support from the Public Justice Center, Civil Justice, Inc., Homeless Persons Representation Project, Inc., and Maryland Legal Aid.

In addition to Mr. O’Croinin, the case team included Zuckerman Spaeder associate Ariella E. Muller and co-counsel Joseph Mack of the Law Offices of Joseph S. Mack. The case is Marshall Todman, et al. v. the Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, 1:19-cv-03296.

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Kalie Hardos
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