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Speicher v. Columbia Twp. Bd. of Trs.

Supreme Court of Michigan

December 22, 2014

KENNETH J. SPEICHER, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
COLUMBIA TOWNSHIP BOARD OF TRUSTEES and COLUMBIA TOWNSHIP PLANNING COMMISSION, Defendants-Appellants

October 8, 2014, Argued, December 22, 2014, Filed

For KENNETH J SPEICHER, Plaintiff-Appellant: ROBERT W SMITH, KALAMAZOO, MI.

For COLUMBIA TOWNSHIP BOARD OF TRUSTEES, Defendant-Appellee: CHRISTINE D OLDANI, DETROIT, MI; MARY MASSARON, BLOOMFIELD HILLS, MI.

Chief Justice: Robert P. Young, Jr. Justices: Michael F. Cavanagh, Stephen J. Markman, Mary Beth Kelly, Brian K. Zahra, Bridget M. McCormack, David F. Viviano. CAVANAGH, J. (dissenting).

Page 52

OPINION

BEFORE THE ENTIRE BENCH

[497 Mich. 128] Viviano, J.

In this Open Meetings Act (OMA)[1] case, defendants Columbia Township Board of Trustees and Columbia Township Planning Commission appeal the Court of Appeals' decision holding that plaintiff Kenneth Speicher was entitled to an award of court costs and actual attorney fees based on his entitlement to declaratory relief under the OMA. The Court of Appeals reached this decision only because it was compelled to do so by Court of Appeals precedent.[2] If not for this binding precedent, the Court of Appeals would have denied plaintiff's request for court costs and actual attorney fees on the ground that the plain language of MCL 15.271(4) does not permit such an award unless the plaintiff obtains injunctive relief. We agree with the Court of Appeals that prior decisions of that court have strayed from the plain language of MCL 15.271(4). Therefore, we reverse the Court of Appeals opinion and order issued December 19, 2013, and reinstate the portion of its January 22, 2013 decision regarding court costs and actual attorney fees.

I. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

In early 2010, the Columbia Township Board of Trustees (the Board) adopted a resolution that fixed the regular monthly meetings of the Board and the Columbia Township Planning Commission (the Planning Commission) for the year 2010-2011. However, during the regularly scheduled October 18, 2010 meeting, the Planning Commission adopted another resolution that it would conduct quarterly, rather than monthly, meetings [497 Mich. 129] beginning January 2011. According to the Township Clerk, after the Planning Commission adopted the new schedule, she contacted a local newspaper, the South Haven Tribune, and requested publication of the new meeting schedule. She stated that she also posted a revised meeting schedule at the Township Hall entrance with the February and March 2011 meetings whited out.

Plaintiff is a property owner in the township. According to plaintiff, he had no notice of the new quarterly meeting schedule, and he appeared for the meetings in February and March 2011, seeking to raise a number of issues before the Planning Commission. Plaintiff claimed that the posted schedule did not reflect the change to quarterly meetings and no notices appeared in the South Haven Tribune prior to those previously scheduled meetings.

Plaintiff sued defendants, alleging that the decision to change the schedule was

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not made at an open meeting[3] and that the February and March meetings were canceled without proper notice in violation of the OMA.[4] Plaintiff alleged that, as a result of the meetings not being held, his right to present certain concerns to the Planning Commission was impaired.[5] Plaintiff [497 Mich. 130] sought a declaration that the Planning Commission's decision to cancel the regularly scheduled meetings was made in violation of the OMA, and he sought to enjoin the Planning Commission and the Board from further noncompliance with the OMA.[6] Plaintiff also cited MCL 15.271(4) and alleged that " if this Court grants relief as a result of this complaint, [plaintiff] shall recover court costs and actual attorney fees for this action."

Finding that defendants' conduct was not actionable, the trial court denied plaintiff's motion for summary disposition and granted summary disposition to defendants. The trial court also denied plaintiff's motion for reconsideration. The trial court ruled that defendants did not violate the OMA because plaintiff was not denied access to any meetings. To the extent that notice may not have been timely posted, this was a technical violation not entitling plaintiff to relief. The trial court acknowledged that the notice cancelling the February and March Planning Commission meetings " may not have been done in strict compliance with" the OMA, but the court concluded that any violations were " technical in nature, and did not impair the rights of the public in having their governmental bodies make decisions in an open meeting." Plaintiff had, at most, been inconvenienced by the failure to post timely notice of the meeting changes given that " [p]laintiff had the option [497 Mich. 131] of bringing his concerns to the Planning Commission at its next regularly scheduled meeting."

Plaintiff appealed in the Court of Appeals, which affirmed in part and reversed in part in an unpublished opinion.[7] The Court of Appeals concluded that while the meeting schedule change was properly made at an open meeting, defendants plainly violated the OMA by not timely posting the modified schedule. It therefore held that the trial court erred by failing to grant declaratory relief to plaintiff on that point. However, the Court of Appeals also held that the trial court properly denied injunctive relief for defendants' technical notice violation because " there

Page 54

was no evidence that the Commission had a history of OMA violations, there was no evidence that this violation was done willfully," and there was no evidence that the public or plaintiff was harmed in any manner.[8] The Court of Appeals therefore ruled that " given that the technical nature of this OMA violation resulted in no injunctive relief being warranted, plaintiff is not entitled to any attorney fees or costs under MCL 15.271(4) on remand." [9]

Plaintiff moved for reconsideration, arguing that because the Court of Appeals had held that he was entitled to declaratory relief under the OMA, he was entitled to an award of court costs and actual attorney fees under MCL 15.271(4). The Court of Appeals granted reconsideration and vacated the portion of its unpublished opinion regarding attorney fees.[10] In a [497 Mich. 132] published opinion, the Court of Appeals then held that plaintiff was entitled to court costs and actual attorney fees under existing case law because he established entitlement to declaratory relief.[11] However, the Court of Appeals reached this conclusion only because it was bound by court rule to follow prior published Court of Appeals decisions.[12] The Court explained that the rule that court costs and actual attorney fees were available whenever a plaintiff files a lawsuit seeking injunctive relief under MCL 15.271 and obtains some form of relief had developed from the misapplication of a prior Court of Appeals decision issued in 1981, Ridenour v Dearborn Bd of Ed.[13] However, the Court determined that this rule was unsupported by the plain language of MCL 15.271(4) and that the cases that developed this rule often did not provide any substantive analysis.[14] Were [497 Mich. 133] the Court of Appeals

Page 55

free to decide the issue as it deemed appropriate, it would have denied attorney fees and costs under MCL 15.271(4) because the statute permits such an award only when a plaintiff prevails on a request for injunctive relief, which did not occur in this case.[15]

Defendants sought review in this Court, asserting that the Court of Appeals erred by awarding plaintiff court costs and actual attorney fees but correctly reasoned that such costs and fees were improper because plaintiff did not obtain injunctive relief as required by MCL 15.271(4). Plaintiff responded, contending that MCL 15.271(4) expressly requires an award of court costs and actual attorney fees when a plaintiff obtains any relief, not just injunctive relief. In lieu of granting leave, we ordered oral argument on the application, directing the parties to address

whether MCL 15.271(4) authorizes an award of attorney fees and costs to a plaintiff who obtains declaratory relief regarding claimed violations of the Open Meetings Act (MCL 15.261 et seq.), or whether the plaintiff must obtain injunctive relief as a necessary condition of recovering attorney fees and costs under MCL 15.271(4).[16]

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Issues of statutory interpretation are reviewed de novo.[17] In interpreting a statute, we consider " both the [497 Mich. 134] plain meaning of the critical word or phrase as well as its placement and purpose in the statutory scheme." [18] As with any statutory interpretation, our goal is to give effect to the ...


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