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Overbey v. The Mayor And City Council of Baltimore

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

July 11, 2019

ASHLEY AMARIS OVERBEY; BALTIMORE BREW, Plaintiffs - Appellants,
v.
THE MAYOR AND CITY COUNCIL OF BALTIMORE; BALTIMORE CITY POLICE DEPARTMENT, Defendants - Appellees. AMERICAN SOCIETY OF NEWS EDITORS; ASSOCIATED PRESS MEDIA EDITORS; ASSOCIATION OF ALTERNATIVE NEWSMEDIA; BUZZFEED; GANNETT COMPANY, INCORPORATED; HOWARD UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF LAW CIVIL RIGHTS CLINIC; INTERNATIONAL DOCUMENTARY ASSOCIATION; INVESTIGATIVE REPORTING PROGRAM AT UC BERKELEY; INVESTIGATIVE REPORTING WORKSHOP AT AMERICAN UNIVERSITY; TAWANDA JONES; MPA- THE ASSOCIATION OF MAGAZINE MEDIA; MARYLAND D.C. DELAWARE BROADCASTERS ASSOCIATION; MARYLAND-DELAWARE-DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA PRESS ASSOCIATION; NATIONAL PRESS PHOTOGRAPHERS ASSOCIATION; NATIONAL WOMEN'S LAW CENTER; ONLINE NEWS ASSOCIATION; PUBLIC JUSTICE; PUBLIC JUSTICE CENTER; REPORTERS COMMITTEE FOR FREEDOM OF THE PRESS; SOCIETY OF PROFESSIONAL JOURNALISTS; THE BALTIMORE SUN; THE CENTER FOR INVESTIGATIVE REPORTING; THE E.W. SCRIPPS COMPANY; THE WASHINGTON POST; TULLY CENTER FOR FREE SPEECH; WASHINGTON LAWYERS' COMMITTEE FOR CIVIL RIGHTS AND URBAN AFFAIRS, Amici Supporting Appellant.

          Argued: January 30, 2019

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, at Baltimore. Marvin J. Garbis, Senior District Judge. (1:17-cv-01793-MJG)

         ARGUED:

          Daniel William Wolff, CROWELL & MORING LLP, Washington, D.C., for Appellants.

          Andre M. Davis, BALTIMORE CITY LAW DEPARTMENT, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellees.

         ON BRIEF:

          Deborah Jeon, Nicholas Steiner, AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION OF MARYLAND, Baltimore, Maryland; Charles D. Austin, Nkechi Kanu, Tyler O'Connor, CROWELL & MORING LLP, Washington, D.C., for Appellants.

          Suzanne Sangree, Senior Counsel, Lydie E. Glynn, Assistant Solicitor, Colin P. Glynn, Assistant Solicitor, Jason R. Foltin, Assistant Solicitor, Frederic Smalkin, Jr., Assistant Solicitor, BALTIMORE CITY DEPARTMENT OF LAW, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellees.

          Jennifer D. Bennett, PUBLIC JUSTICE, Oakland, California; Ajmel Quereshi, Civil Rights Clinic, HOWARD UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF LAW, Washington, D.C., for Amici Howard University School of Law Civil Rights Clinic and Public Justice. K'Shaani Smith, PUBLIC JUSTICE CENTER, Baltimore, Maryland, for Amici Public Justice Center, Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, National Women's Law Center, and Tawanda Jones. Bruce D. Brown, Katie Townsend, Caitlin Vogus, REPORTER COMMITTEE FOR FREEDOM OF THE PRESS, Washington, D.C.; Lisa B. Zycherman, DAVIS WRIGHT TREMAINE LLP, Washington, D.C., for Amici Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 19 Media Organizations.

          Before FLOYD, THACKER, and QUATTLEBAUM, Circuit Judges.

          FLOYD, Circuit Judge.

         When the city of Baltimore has settled civil-rights lawsuits alleging police misconduct, it has typically required settling claimants to agree to a "non-disparagement clause," under which they promise not to speak to the media about either their underlying allegations or the settlement process itself. Claimants who breach the non-disparagement clause are, by the terms of the clause, liable to Baltimore for damages equaling half of their settlement funds. Ashley Overbey, a police-misconduct claimant who settled her case but then spoke about it publicly, claims that Baltimore violated her First Amendment rights when it enforced the non-disparagement clause against her. Separately, a local news website, the Baltimore Brew (the Brew), claims that Baltimore's alleged practice of including non-disparagement clauses in virtually all settlement agreements with police-misconduct claimants violates the First Amendment on its face. The district court granted summary judgment to the City on both claims. For the reasons that follow, we reverse.

         I.

         Ashley Overbey sued three officers of the Baltimore Police Department (BPD), alleging that the officers had beaten, tased, verbally abused, and needlessly arrested her in her own home after she called 911 to report a burglary.[1] She brought various claims against the defendants under both state and federal law. Her case ground through the system for about two years, during which she and her children became homeless-partly because Overbey's arrest record made it difficult for her to find work.

         Eventually, following her attorney's advice, Overbey agreed to settle her suit for $63, 000. The parties to the settlement agreement included both the officers named in Overbey's complaint and the City itself. The City was a party to the agreement because, pursuant to Maryland law, it represents the BPD's interests in settling claims against BPD officers.

         As in 95% of settlement agreements between the City and persons alleging police misconduct, [2] Overbey's settlement agreement included what we will call a "non-disparagement clause." This clause required Overbey to "limit [her] public comments" regarding her lawsuit "to the fact that a satisfactory settlement occurred involving the Parties." J.A. 96. It prohibited her from "discussing [with the news media] any opinions, facts or allegations in any way connected to" her case, her underlying allegations, or the settlement process. Id. And it provided that if Overbey were to ever make a prohibited comment regarding her lawsuit, the City would be entitled to a refund of half of her settlement. The clause placed no restriction on the City's freedom to speak about the case.

         After Overbey signed the settlement agreement, the agreement went before the City's Board of Estimates for approval. While approval was pending, a local newspaper, the Baltimore Sun, published Overbey's name, her photograph, her address, and the amount of her proposed settlement in a report on payouts planned for police-misconduct claimants. The Sun's report quoted a statement made by the then-City Solicitor to the Board of Estimates in which the Solicitor characterized Overbey as "hostile" during her encounter with police-insinuating that Overbey, not the officers, had been at fault. J.A. 28.

         The Sun's story accumulated several anonymous, race-inflected comments implying that Overbey had initiated a confrontation with the police in hopes of getting a payout from the City. Overbey posted responses to several such comments, insisting that the police had been in the wrong and describing some of the injuries she had suffered.

         The City determined that Overbey's online comments on the Sun article violated the non-disparagement clause of the settlement agreement. Consequently, once Overbey's settlement was approved, the City remitted only half of the agreed payment-$31, 500- to Overbey's attorney.[3] It retained the other half as "liquidated damages." See Appellees' Br. at 3.

         Overbey, having obtained new representation, filed another lawsuit in which she named the City and the BPD as defendants. In this second suit, she sought to compel the City to pay her the other half of her settlement sum. She brought a variety of claims under federal and state law, only one of which is relevant to us now: that the City violated her First Amendment rights when it withheld half of her settlement because of her speech about her case.

         Overbey was joined in her second suit by the Brew, a local news website that, among other things, investigates and reports on how the City and its police department handle allegations of police misconduct. The Brew claimed that the City's policy of including non-disparagement clauses in its settlements with police-misconduct claimants violated the Brew's First Amendment interest in newsgathering. The Brew sought both declaratory and injunctive relief.

         The BPD moved to dismiss, arguing that neither Overbey nor the Brew had stated a claim against it. The district court granted the BPD's motion.

         The City moved to dismiss or, in the alternative, for summary judgment. It attached to its motion a number of exhibits pertaining to Overbey's settlement agreement and the online comments that had led the City to withhold half of her settlement funds. Overbey and the Brew filed a response; they attached to their response a declaration from Overbey in which she averred that she had not understood the scope of the non-disparagement clause when she signed the settlement agreement.

         After a hearing on the motions, the district court decided that because it had "relied upon supplemental affidavits and documents filed outside of the pleadings," it would treat the City's motion as one for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(d), even though the parties had not yet conducted discovery. J.A. 352-53. The district court then granted summary judgment to the City on Overbey's First Amendment claim, reasoning (1) that by signing the settlement agreement, Overbey had knowingly, voluntarily, and intelligently waived her First Amendment right to speak about her police-misconduct suit; and (2) that enforcement of the waiver was not contrary to public policy. The district court also granted summary judgment to the City on the Brew's First Amendment claim, concluding that the Brew lacked standing to challenge the City's practice of using non-disparagement clauses in virtually all settlement agreements with police-misconduct claimants. Overbey and the Brew now appeal.[4]

         II.

         We review de novo the district court's order granting summary judgment to the City. Wood v. Arnold, 915 F.3d 308, 313 (4th Cir. 2019).

         III.

         A.

         We begin with Overbey's First Amendment claim. Overbey does not dispute that the non-disparagement clause, on its face, permitted the City to withhold half of her settlement funds as liquidated damages.[5] But she argues that the non-disparagement clause was, and is, void, because it amounts to an unenforceable waiver of her First Amendment rights.[6] According to Overbey, since the clause is void, the City violated the First Amendment when it preemptively clawed back half of her settlement funds based on her speech about her case.

         The City, for its part, argues that the non-disparagement clause did not require Overbey to "waive" anything; rather, in agreeing to be bound by the non-disparagement clause, Overbey merely exercised her right not to speak in exchange for payment from the government. Alternatively, the City argues that even if the non-disparagement clause amounts to a waiver of Overbey's First Amendment rights, there is no reason for us to hold that the waiver is void; thus, the City's enforcement of the waiver cannot have violated the First Amendment.

         We hold that the non-disparagement clause in Overbey's settlement agreement amounts to a waiver of her First Amendment rights and that strong public interests rooted in ...


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