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Turppa v. County of Montmorency

April 28, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Honorable Thomas L. Ludington


Plaintiff Bonnie Turppa believes that her employment was terminated because of her age, and that she is entitled to relief under state and federal law. 29 U.S.C. §§ 621--629; Mich. Comp. Laws §§ 37.2101--.2804. To obtain relief from this Court, however, she must first identify her employer or employers. For most employees that is a simple task. But for Ms Turppa, it is complicated by the structure of the Michigan Judiciary and the relationship between the state's trial courts and the local government units that fund their operation. Because this is an important question that has surfaced with increasing regularity in this District, it deserves considered attention.

Defendant Montmorency County filed a motion to dismiss [Dkt. # 4] on November 17, 2009, contending that it was never Plaintiff's employer, and as a result, it cannot be liable for age discrimination under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA") or the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act ("ELCRA"). Plaintiff filed a response and a separate motion for sanctions [Dkt. # 8] on December 14, 2009, contending that the motion to dismiss, grounded on the assertion that Defendant was not Plaintiff's employer, was filed in bad faith and that Plaintiff is entitled to attorney fees and costs associated with contesting the motion.

The Michigan Constitution of 1963 provides for three branches of government, and declares that persons "excising powers of one branch" shall not "exercise powers properly belonging to another branch." Mich. Const. art. III, § 2. The legislative branch consists of a house and senate, and is charged with enacting laws governing everything from taxes to public health. Mich. Const. art. IV. The executive branch consists a governor, lieutenant governor, and various department heads, such as the secretary of state and attorney general, who are empowered to administer the state's government. Mich. Const. art. V. The judicial branch consists of "one court of justice," which is divided into a supreme court, court of appeals, circuit courts, probate courts, and other courts created by a two-thirds vote of the legislature. Mich. Const. art. VI. The supreme court maintains "general superintending control" over all the state's courts. Mich. Const. art. VI, § 4.

The state constitution also provides for the organization of counties, townships, and other forms of local government. Mich. Const. Art. VII. Local governments, despite their constitutional standing, are not always treated equally to their state-level counterparts. For example, the State of Michigan is generally immune from suit in federal courts under the doctrine of sovereign immunity. See Alden v. Maine, 527 U.S. 706 (1999). Local government units, like counties and townships, are not. See Cady v. Arenac County, 574 F.3d 334, 345 (6th Cir. 2009). There are exceptions to the doctrine of sovereign immunity. In the context of employment discrimination, for example, the Michigan Court of Appeals has noted that immunity does not bar suits against the state under ELCRA. See March v. Dep't of Civil Serv., 142 Mich. App. 557, 569 n.10 (1985). Similarly, Congress has largely waived the defense of sovereign immunity in the context of a Title VII suit both as to federal government defendants and state government defendants. See Loeffler v. Frank, 486 U.S. 549 (1988); Cox v. Shelby State Cmty. College, 48 F. App'x 500 (6th Cir. 2002).

Several courts have previously considered whether the Michigan trial courts' administrative employees work for the court or the county. Each of those courts have held that an employee of a Michigan state court, whether a probate, circuit, or district court, is an employee of the court and not an employee of the county where the court is located. However, those decisions are not binding authority and do not foreclose consideration of the specific issues and factual circumstances presented in this case. Defendant may be, as Plaintiff contends, her "employer" within the meaning of the ADEA and ELCRA. On the other hand, the Montmorency County Probate Court or the State of Michigan could be her "employers" too. There is simply insufficient information in the record to make that determination at this time.

Accordingly, the motion for sanctions will be DENIED because the motion to dismiss was not filed in bad faith or for an improper purpose, and the assertions in the motion are supported by existing law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 11(b). The motion to dismiss will not be resolved until several unanswered questions have been briefed.


Plaintiff was hired as the "Deputy Probate/Juvenile Register in the Probate Court Office in Montmorency County" on July 17, 1995. Def.'s Answers to Interrogatories at 4; [Dkt. # 7-10]. She was elevated to the position of "probate register" in 1998 by then-Montmorency County Chief Probate Judge Robert P.M. Norstrom. Pl.'s Compl. ¶ 10. A "probate register" is a statutorily defined position with specific powers and duties. Mich. Comp. Laws §§ 600.833--.834. She served as probate register until October 29, 2007 when her employment was terminated by Montmorency County Chief Probate Judge John E. Fitzgerald. Pl.'s Resp.; [Dkt. #7-6]. Plaintiff was more than forty years old when her employment was terminated. Pl.'s Compl. ¶ 6.

From 1998, when she was appointed probate register, until 2000, Plaintiff served without the assistance of a deputy register. Id. ¶ 13. In 2002, while the probate court was still under the direction of Judge Norstrom, Montmorency County approved funding to hire a deputy probate register to work two or three days per week. Id. ¶ 14. Judge Nordstrom retired in July 2003, and he was replaced by Judge Michael G. Mack that fall. Id. ¶¶ 15--16. In March 2006, Judge Mack resigned, and the deputy register also left for a different position. Id. ¶¶ 19--20. After Judge Fitzgerald was appointed to fill the vacancy in May 2006, Jodi Gordon was hired to fill the vacant deputy probate register position in October 2006. Id. ¶¶ 21--22. Plaintiff was responsible for training Gordon, who was 39 years old, as she had been for training both of the previous deputy probate registers. Id. ¶¶ 22--26.

Plaintiff asserts that in August 2007, Judge Fitzgerald started asking Plaintiff about retirement, "in light of her age," suggesting that he would like her to retire. Id. ¶¶ 27--28. Plaintiff asserts that Judge Fitzgerald never questioned her ability to do her job, and that concerns about her performance were not raised until her employment was terminated. Id. ¶¶ 28--30. On October 27, 2009, Plaintiff had a discussion with Judge Fitzgerald and Montmorency County Coordinator Robert Goodall in the Judge's office. Id. ¶ 32. She was asked to resign, and when she refused, her employment was terminated. Id. ¶¶ 33--35. Gordon, the former deputy probate register, was appointed probate register in December 2007. Id. ¶ 37.


"A pleading that states a claim for relief must contain . . . a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief . . . ." Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2). The requirement is meant to provide the opposing party with " 'fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.' " Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 42, 47 (1957)). If a complaint does not meet that standard, the opposing party may move to dismiss it for failure to state a claim at any time before filing an answer. Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6).

"While a complaint attacked by a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss does not need detailed factual allegations, a plaintiff's obligation to provide the 'grounds' of his 'entitle[ment] to relief' requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (2007) (citations omitted). "Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above a speculative level, on the assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are true . . . ." Id. at 555--56 (citations omitted). "To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.' " Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570)). "Facial plausibility" requires the plaintiff to include sufficient "factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id.

Here, Defendant Montmorency County asserts that as a matter of Michigan law, Plaintiff is not entitled to relief from the County because it is not her "employer" under the ADEA or ELCRA. Plaintiff's response includes thirteen exhibits to supplement the allegation in paragraphs one and five of her complaint that the County is her "employer" within the meaning of the ADEA and ELCRA. The question is one of law, but it depends on the specific facts of the case. See, e.g., McCarthy v. State Farm Ins. Co., ...

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