Articles Posted in Michigan Supreme Court

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Defendant operated a parochial school to which plaintiff was denied admission. When plaintiff sued on the basis of disability discrimination, defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing among other things that, under the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, the circuit court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over her claim. Central to defendant’s argument was Dlaikan v Roodbeen, 522 NW2d 719 (1994), which applied the doctrine to conclude that a circuit court had no such jurisdiction over a challenge to the admissions decisions of a parochial school. The circuit court denied defendant’s motion. The Court of Appeals, however, was convinced by defendant’s jurisdictional argument and reversed, thereby granting summary judgment in defendant’s favor. The Michigan Supreme Court disagreed with the appellate court’s determination: “[w]hile Dlaikan and some other decisions have characterized the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine as depriving civil courts of subject matter jurisdiction, it is clear from the doctrine’s origins and operation that this is not so. The ecclesiastical abstention doctrine may affect how a civil court exercises its subject matter jurisdiction over a given claim; it does not divest a court of such jurisdiction altogether. To the extent Dlaikan and other decisions are inconsistent with this understanding of the doctrine, they are overruled.” View "Winkler v. Marist Fathers of Detroit, Inc." on Justia Law

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Defendant, National Heritage Academies, Inc., was a company that owned and operated a number of public, independently operated schools, including Linden Charter Academy (LCA) located in Flint, Michigan. Plaintiff, Craig Hecht, was a white teacher who had been employed by defendant at LCA for approximately eight years, most recently serving as a third-grade teacher. The student body at LCA was predominantly black. This race discrimination case came about over the color of a computer table: an aide returned a brown table to plaintiff's classroom. Upon noticing her mistake, the aide asked plaintiff whether he'd prefer to have the brown table she brought, or the white table that had previously been in the room. Whether or not plaintiff's next statement in response to the computer table question was a "tasteless joke" with no racial animas ultimately lead to plaintiff's termination with defendant. Plaintiff sued under Michigan's Civil Rights Act (CRA), claiming that the employer's reason for firing him was racially motivated. The issue this case presented for the Supreme Court's review was whether the trial court erred by denying defendant’s motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV). After review, the Supreme Court held that the Court of Appeals did not err by affirming the trial court’s denial of defendant’s motion for JNOV on plaintiff’s claim of discrimination under the Civil Rights Act (CRA), "[t]his case turned on circumstantial evidence, on the credibility of plaintiff’s proofs that suggested there were racial reasons for his treatment and on the credibility of defendant’s nonracial justifications for firing him." The Court concluded based on the evidence presented and all the inferences that could be reasonably drawn from that evidence in favor of the jury’s liability verdict, that a reasonable jury could have concluded that defendant violated the CRA. The Court found error in the calculation of future damages and reversed the trial court on that ground. The Court remanded the case for further proceedings. View "Hecht v. National Heritage Academies, Inc." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Bruce Whitman had been employed by defendant City of Burton as the police chief from 2002 until 2007. Codefendant Charles Smiley, the Mayor, declined to reappoint plaintiff. Plaintiff then filed suit under the Whistleblowers' Protection Act (WPA), alleging that he was not reappointed because he had threatened to pursue criminal charges against the mayor if the city did not comply with a city ordinance and pay him for unused sick, personal and vacation time he accumulated in 2003. Defendants contended that plaintiff had agreed to forgo any payout for accumulated leave in order to avoid a severe budgetary shortfall and that plaintiff was not reappointed because the mayor was dissatisfied with plaintiff's performance as police chief. A jury returned a verdict in favor of plaintiff; the trial court denied defendants' motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict or a new trial. Defendants then appealed. The Court of Appeals reversed, concluding that plaintiff's claim was not actionable under the WPA because he had acted to advance his own financial interests and not out of an altruistic motive of protecting the public. Upon review, the Supreme Court concluded that nothing in the WPA's language addressed an employee's motivation for engaging in protected conduct, nor did any language mandate that the employee's primary motivation for pursuing a claim under the Act be a desire to inform the public of matters of public concern. Accordingly, the Court reversed the appellate court and remanded the case for consideration of remaining issues on which that court did not formally rule, including whether the causation element of the WPA had been met. View "Whitman v. City of Burton" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Cheryl Debano-Griffin sued Lake County and the Lake County Board of Commissioners alleging, in part, that she had been terminated from her position as the director of Lake County’s 911 department in violation of the Whistleblowers’ Protection Act (WPA) after she raised concerns about a potentially improper transfer of county funds from the county’s ambulance account and regarding the ambulance service provided to the county. Defendants moved to dismiss. The court denied the motion, and the jury returned a verdict in plaintiff’s favor. Defendants appealed. The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded for entry of an order granting summary judgment to defendants. In lieu of granting leave to appeal, the Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remanded the case for consideration of an additional argument that had been raised by defendants. On remand, the Court of Appeals, held that plaintiff had failed to establish a genuine issue of material fact regarding the causation element of her claim and again reversed the trial court’s order denying defendants’ motion for summary judgment. Upon review of the matter, the Supreme Court concluded that plaintiff presented sufficient evidence that reasonable minds could differ regarding the board’s true motivation for eliminating her position and raised a genuine issue of material fact regarding causation. Defendants were not entitled to summary judgment. View "Debano-Griffin v. Lake County" on Justia Law

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At issue in this case is the scope of an employer's vicarious liability for quid pro quo sexual harassment. Specifically, the Supreme Court considered whether Wayne County and its sheriff's department could be held vicariously liable for a civil rights claim under state law based on the criminal act of a deputy sheriff committed during working hours but plainly beyond the scope of his employment. In 2001, Plaintiff Tara Hamed was arrested for unpaid child support. Because she had outstanding warrants for probation violations in Wayne County, she was transferred to the Wayne County jail. When she arrived, the deputy sheriff subjected her to sexually charged comments and offers for better treatment in exchange for sexual favors. Plaintiff resisted these advances, but she was transferred into an area of the jail not subject to surveillance cameras where she was sexually assaulted. The circuit court dismissed Plaintiff's harassment claim on the basis that Defendants were not vicariously liable for the criminal acts of sheriff's department employees. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that Plaintiff had established a viable quid pro quo harassment claim. Upon review, the Supreme Court held that Defendants could not be held vicariously liable under the traditional principles of respondeat superior because Defendants had no prior knowledge of the deputy's sexually harassing conduct. The Court reversed the appellate court.