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Pace v. Edel-Harrelson

Court of Appeals of Michigan

February 24, 2015

BARBARA PACE, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
JESSICA EDEL-HARRELSON, CHRISTY LONG, and SIREN/EATON SHELTER, INC., Defendants-Appellees

Eaton Circuit Court. LC No. 12-000454-CZ.

Before: SHAPIRO, P.J., and GLEICHER and RONAYNE KRAUSE, JJ.

OPINION

Page 746

[309 Mich.App. 258] Douglas B. Shapiro, J.

In this employment termination case, plaintiff Barbara Pace appeals by right the trial court order granting summary disposition in favor of defendants under MCR 2.116(C)(10) (no genuine issue of material fact) on plaintiff's two claims: (1) that her employment was terminated in violation of the Whistleblowers' Protection Act (WPA), MCL 15.361 et seq, and, alternatively, (2) that her discharge was against public policy. For the reasons discussed in this opinion, we reverse the trial court's grant of summary disposition on the WPA claim, but affirm the trial court's grant of summary disposition on the claim of discharge against public policy.

I. FACTS

Defendants in this action are: SIREN/Eaton Shelter, Inc. (SIREN), an organization devoted to helping domestic violence victims and the homeless in Eaton County;

Page 747

Jessica Edel-Harrelson, SIREN's executive director; and Christy Long, a SIREN caseworker, who was one of plaintiff's former coworkers. In January 2012, plaintiff was terminated from her position as a domestic violence transitional supportive housing coordinator and advocate with SIREN. In this position, plaintiff was responsible for using state grant funds to assist domestic violence victims in finding permanent housing as well as providing other services. Plaintiff was allowed to use grant funds to purchase housing items for SIREN clients. Plaintiff testified that when she purchased a housing item for a client using grant funds, she wrote the client's name on the back of the receipt and submitted the receipt to Long. Plaintiff [309 Mich.App. 259] stated that Long was in charge of tracking the expenditures related to each grant.

Plaintiff testified that, in August 2011, she became concerned about what she viewed as discrepancies in grant records; she believed that grant money was being used to make unauthorized purchases. Plaintiff claimed that she discussed her concerns with Edel-Harrelson. However, Edel-Harrelson testified that no such discussion ever took place. She did acknowledge that plaintiff asked her for " clarification" concerning alleged grant discrepancies.

Plaintiff testified that, on December 9, 2011, Long came to her and stated that she knew there was money remaining in a certain grant fund. Plaintiff stated that Long told her that Long's daughter needed a new stove but could not afford one. Plaintiff claimed that Long then told her she was going to use grant money to purchase the stove for her daughter; plaintiff felt that Long implied that plaintiff should document the transaction in an attempt to cover up the unauthorized purchase. At her deposition, Long denied ever using grant funds for this purpose, or indeed ever discussing such a purchase with plaintiff.

Plaintiff testified that, following this conversation with Long, she immediately contacted Nancy Oliver, Edel-Harrelson's predecessor as the director of SIREN, to discuss the situation. Oliver suggested that plaintiff contact her supervisors, Carol Chandler and Martha Miller. According to plaintiff, she called Chandler and spoke with her for approximately 45 minutes, after which Chandler stated that she would report the matter to Miller and take care of the situation. Plaintiff stated that this procedure observed SIREN's chain of command for reporting such issues.

[309 Mich.App. 260] Plaintiff testified that she was unsatisfied with the lack of action and so, in late December 2011 or early January 2012, she reported her suspicions directly to Edel-Harrelson. She stated that, at that time, she believed that Long had already purchased the stove with grant funds. Plaintiff claimed that Edel-Harrelson told her that she would look into the matter and discuss it with Chandler and Miller. However, in her deposition, Edel-Harrelson claimed to have no recollection of this discussion with plaintiff. Edel-Harrelson also testified that she had not been approached by Chandler or Miller regarding plaintiff's claim; indeed, she stated that she had no knowledge of the alleged conversation between plaintiff and Long. Edel-Harrelson did eventually investigate plaintiff's claim against Long and found no wrongdoing; however, that investigation occurred only after plaintiff filed her complaint in the instant action in April 2012.[1]

Page 748

On January 18, 2012, plaintiff's employment with SIREN was terminated after ten years of what she characterizes as " loyal service and a spotless employment record . . . ." In this action, plaintiff alleges that her employment was illegally terminated for reporting Long's violation or planned violation of law to Edel-Harrelson. Plaintiff also claimed that her reporting resulted in harassment, which she identified as " snide comments" and " eye piercing dirty looks" from a former SIREN employee who had returned to volunteer, and Long being rude to her when she asked about vision insurance.

[309 Mich.App. 261] SIREN's stated reason for terminating plaintiff's employment was plaintiff's own allegedly harassing and intimidating behavior toward a fellow employee. A letter addressed to plaintiff from Edel-Harrelson, dated January 22, 2012, states in relevant part:

I regret to inform you that you are released from employment with SIREN/Eaton Shelter effective January 21, 2012.
The reason for your termination is as follows: On Thursday, January 12, 2012, you engaged in behavior that resulted in fear and intimidation in co-workers, and which was witnessed by three employees. This behavior is in direct violation of SIREN/Eaton ...

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