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Lawmakers want protection from suits

January 17, 1997

By GUY FLETCHER

Staff Writer

ANNAPOLIS - Helping constituents with bureaucratic and legal problems can be politically and personally rewarding for a lawmaker, but it also can land a legislator in a courtroom.

That's why Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, has sponsored legislation that would grant General Assembly members and their staffs immunity from being sued for activity that takes place while they are handling constituents' problems.

"With the number of people who are suing each other these days, I have a great concern that I or my staff might be sued," said Munson, who said that 85 percent of the work his Hagerstown staff does is constituent service.

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The bill comes in response to a case in which Kevin Kelly, a former member of the House of Delegates from Cumberland, was sued in 1994. The plaintiff was a law firm that alleged that Kelly made defamatory statements about the firm.

Kelly told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee this week that the suit stemmed from his intervention on behalf of a constituent who was having difficulty with her health insurer over a medical bill.

Eventually the matter between the woman and the insurer was settled, he said. But a Virginia law firm, which had been acting as a collection agency for the insurance company, continued to threaten the woman, he said.

Kelly wrote Virginia's governor, its attorney general and the state Bar Association, describing the law firm's conduct at "unethical and possibly illegal."

The law firm sued Kelly for $49,975. The case was dismissed 20 months later after numerous hearings, depositions and trips to Virginia.

"This is something all of you are facing," Kelly told the senators on the committee.

The Maryland Bar Association, which generally opposes legislation that gives sweeping immunity, is opposing the bill (S.B. 15), said Albert Winchester III, the organization's legislative director.

"In this specific bill, the language in here is much too broad, we feel," Winchester said.

He said he had never heard of another case of a lawmaker or staff member being sued for constituent service.

Sen. Delores G. Kelley, D-Baltimore County/Baltimore City, had little sympathy for Winchester's argument.

"I'm glad you don't have a vote," she said.

Responded Winchester: "I entered into this with some trepidation, knowing you are looking for immunity for yourselves."

More information about this bill and other legislative action can be found online at (http://mlis.state.md.us),the General Assembly's site on the World Wide Web.

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