United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division
Arnette Rodgers Arnette Rodgers, Katrina Tate-Anderson, Laura Hill, Wendell Finley
Elizabeth P. Hardy, Esq. Noel D. Massie, Esq. Thomas G. Kienbaum, Esq.
OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART DEFENDANT’S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT
PATRICK J. DUGGAN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
In this federal civil rights action instituted pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, pro se Plaintiffs Arnette Rodgers, Katrina Anderson, Wendell Finley, and Laura Hill are suing Defendant Marilyn E. Atkins, the former chief judge of the 36th District Court (“36th District”) in Detroit, Michigan, seeking redress for the alleged deprivation of their vested property interests without due process in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Specifically, Plaintiffs claim that Defendant Atkins violated their procedural due process rights in connection with disciplinary employment actions taken against them by the 36th District. Plaintiffs maintain that under the collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”) in effect at the time of their terminations, “they could be discharged only for ‘just cause’ and that, as just-cause employees, they had the right to post-termination evidentiary hearings before a neutral decisionmaker, which they did not receive because the 36th District denied their demands for arbitration.” Rodgers v. 36th Dist. Court, 529 F. App’x 642, 644 (6th Cir. 2013) (unpublished). Since the case has been pending in federal court, however, three of the four remaining Plaintiffs – Anderson, Finley, and Hill – have received post-termination hearings in the form of arbitration, as provided in the CBA.
Presently before the Court is Defendant Atkins’s motion for summary judgment, which seeks the entry of judgment on the merits of Plaintiffs’ claims or, in the alternative, an order limiting Plaintiffs to recovering nominal damages. Each Plaintiff except for Finley responded to the motion. Having determined that oral argument would not significantly aid the decisional process, the Court dispensed with oral argument pursuant to Eastern District of Michigan Local Rule 7.1(f)(2). For the reasons set forth herein, the Court will grant in part and deny in part Defendant Atkins’s motion.
A. The Collective Bargaining Agreement and the State Court Litigation
Plaintiffs Anderson, Finley, and Rodgers are former employees and Hill is a reinstated employee of the 36th District. During their tenure with the court, Plaintiffs were members of a labor union, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 25 and its affiliated Local 3308 (“AFSCME”), which, at least at the time of the actions complained of, represented the 36th District’s clerical employees.
AFSCME, as the sole and exclusive bargaining representative of the 36th District’s clerical employees, entered into a CBA with the 36th District. This CBA contained several provisions relevant here, namely, (1) language in Article 12 providing that “[d]isciplinary action shall be imposed only for just cause” and (2) a five-step procedure set forth in Article 8 for the handling of grievance and arbitration procedures regarding employee claims. The Sixth Circuit previously described the grievance and arbitration procedure:
Article 8 described a five-step procedure by which employees could present grievances to the 36th District. Pursuant to Steps 1 through 3, employees could submit grievances, both orally and in writing, and meet with representatives from the 36th District to discuss their complaints. At Step 4, employees could submit their grievances to the Court Administrator or a designated representative, who would conduct a meeting of the relevant parties. In cases involving suspension or discharge, either party could request the other party to produce evidence, including witnesses, at the meeting or “as soon thereafter as practicable.” If a grievance remained unresolved after Step 4, Step 5 permitted a party to demand arbitration.
Rodgers, 529 F. App’x at 644-45. The CBA governed the relationship between the 36th District and AFSCME members for the stated period of July 1, 2003 through June 30, 2006. Article 50 of the CBA provided that it would continue in effect for successive one-year periods unless terminated as provided therein.
On March 1, 2006, the 36th District’s interim human resources director, James Meadows, wrote to AFSCME president Beverly Harris, notifying her
“of the Court’s intent to modify, amend, or terminate all or parts of the [CBA].” The 36th District and AFSCME later disputed whether Meadows’s letter was sufficient to terminate the CBA or whether the CBA remained in effect after June 30, 2006. The parties submitted this issue to an arbitrator and litigated the issue in Michigan courts. On February 28, 2012, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled that Meadows’s letter did not terminate the CBA. 36th Dist. Court v. AFSCME Local 917, 295 Mich.App. 502, 815 N.W.2d 494, 507 (Mich. Ct. App. 2012), rev’d in part on other grounds, appeal denied in part, 493 Mich. 879, 821 N.W.2d 786 (Mich. 2012).
Rodgers, 529 F. App’x at 645. As a result of the above-referenced state court litigation, “the parties . . . agree that the CBA . . . remained in full force from June 30, 2006 until June 30, 2009[, ]” Rodgers v. 36th Judicial District Court, No.10-11799, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 94715, at *2 (E.D. Mich. Aug. 24, 2011) (Cook, J.), three years longer than the term provided in the agreement itself.
Before the issue of the continued vitality of CBA was resolved in the Michigan courts, but after the 36th District’s letter to AFSCME purporting to terminate the CBA, the 36th District terminated Plaintiffs for engaging in a variety of dishonest conduct. The 36th District terminated Finley in February 2007, and Anderson, Hill, and Rodgers in early 2009. The factual circumstances surrounding each termination are addressed in Section I.C, infra.
Despite operating under the belief that it had effectively terminated the CBA, the 36th District continued to process some grievances in the manner provided by the CBA, including arbitration. During an April 2008 arbitration involving the June 2007 denial of a promotion to AFSCME member (and non-party) Keith Carter, the 36th District contested the arbitrator’s authority, arguing that the CBA had terminated in 2006. The arbitrator dismissed the 36th District’s objection as unfounded, explaining that the 36th District did not terminate the CBA in accordance with the relevant CBA provision. Based on this finding, the arbitrator issued an award in June 2008 to the grievant, which prompted the 36th District to file a lawsuit seeking to vacate the award in the Wayne County Circuit Court. AFSCME counterclaimed, seeking both the enforcement of the arbitration award and an order directing arbitration of the grievances of four other 36th District employees (not the four involved in the present action).
On March 26, 2009, Wayne County Circuit Court Judge John Gillis ruled that the 36th District’s March 1, 2006 notice had not terminated the CBA and that the grievances were therefore arbitrable. The 36th District appealed, and, on August 24, 2009, the Michigan Court of Appeals issued a ruling stating that the CBA had “expired.” In issuing this ruling, the Michigan appellate court reversed Judge Gillis. However, one month later, the state appellate court reversed itself when it granted AFSCME’s motion for reconsideration (on September 23, 2009) and vacated its August order. (8/24/09 Order, Def.’s Mot. Ex. 1 Tab J; 9/23/09 Order, Def.’s Mot. Ex. 1 Tab K.) The Michigan Court of Appeals ultimately affirmed Judge Gillis in an opinion issued on June 24, 2010, and the Michigan Supreme Court denied leave to appeal.
B. The Processing of Plaintiffs’ Grievances
Each of the remaining Plaintiffs’ grievances was processed through Step 4 of Article 8 of the CBA. AFSCME made demands for arbitration on behalf of Plaintiffs, which the 36th District refused to entertain. The 36th District explained its refusal to submit to arbitration, indicating that
“[i]t is the Court’s position that the March 1, 2006 letter to Local 3308 constituted an effective notice to terminate the Labor Agreement” and that “the Court has no obligation to proceed to arbitration on a termination case, where the termination occurred after the June 30, 2006 termination of the Labor Agreement.” The 36th District reiterated this position in its communications with arbitrators requesting that the plaintiffs’ grievances not be scheduled for arbitration.
Rodgers, 529 F. App’x at 645. As a result of the position taken by the 36th District, no Plaintiff received a post-termination hearing before September of 2011.
C. The Circumstances Surrounding Plaintiffs’ Terminations
1. Pertinent Facts Regarding the Discharge of Plaintiff Finley
Finley, a human resources receptionist, was terminated for falsely applying for bereavement leave by representing that his mother had died, and insisting that was true even after questioning by his supervisor. The decedent was, in fact, his aunt, who had raised Finley since the age of ten. He was discharged on February 2, 2007, and third and fourth step meetings ended in the grievance over his termination being denied. (Def.’s Mot. Ex. 2, Saperstein Aff. ¶ 10 & Tab C.) On August 16, 2007, the parties selected an arbitrator to hear the grievance, however, the 36th District – believing that the CBA had terminated – “resisted arbitrating this grievance along with other grievances during this time.” (Finley Arbitration Op. 1, Def.’s Mot. Ex. 16.) AFSCME did not press the matter, and it took until September 1, 2011 for Finley to receive an arbitration hearing. Following this hearing, the arbitrator upheld Finley’s discharge, rejecting AFSCME’s contentions that the grievance should be sustained based on the lengthy lapse between the fourth step of the grievance procedure and the arbitration. (Id.)
2. Pertinent Facts Regarding the Discharge of Plaintiff Hill
Hill, a court reporter, was terminated on January 16, 2009 for claiming employer-paid life insurance benefits based on the death of her former husband, Michael Smith, who died three days after a divorce decree was issued by a state court. A grievance was filed on Hill’s behalf on January 23, 2009, and the Step 4 denial was issued on October 7, 2009. On December 3, 2009, the 36th District declined AFSCME’s demand for arbitration based on the 36th District’s belief that the CBA had been terminated as of June 30, 2006. An arbitration hearing was eventually scheduled for April 10, 2012, and, in an opinion dated June 28, 2012, an arbitrator found that “there was just cause for disciplinary action against” Hill, but “that the penalty of discharge was excessive.” (Hill Arbitration Op. 12, 13, Def.’s Mot. Ex. 17.) Despite reinstating Hill to her position as a court reporter, the arbitrator found “no basis under which [Hill] should receive a make-whole remedy, or any back pay whatsoever.” (Id. at 13.) Thus, the arbitrator concluded that the period during which Hill was not working (a period of approximately three-and-a-half years) should be “treated as a suspension.” (Id. at 14.)
3. Investigation into Ticket Fixing at the 36th District
During the state court litigation involving the status of the CBA, the 36th District began an investigation into whether certain employees who served as courtroom clerks had engaged in improper handling of traffic tickets. Plaintiffs Rodgers and Anderson, along with four other clerks, were suspended on October 1, 2008. On February 27, 2009, after extensions of their suspensions to allow for further investigation, Rodgers and Anderson were terminated. (Def.’s Mot. Exs. 2, 3.) Each received a termination letter cataloging the misconduct the 36th District concluded each had committed.
During the months that followed, 36th District personnel and AFSCME representatives met for third and fourth step grievance discussions concerning the terminated clerks. The grievances were denied. On November 24, 2009, interim human resources director James Meadows advised AFSCME representatives that the 36th District would not agree to select arbitrators for the termination grievances of Rodgers and Anderson, because ...