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Denhof v. Challa

Court of Appeals of Michigan

July 28, 2015

STANLEY G. DENHOF, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
JENNELL L. CHALLA, Defendant-Appellee

Ottawa Circuit Court. LC No. 13-003420-CZ.

For JENNELL L CHALLA, Defendant-Appellee: DOUGLAS W VANESSEN, GRAND RAPIDS MI.

Before: MARKEY, P.J., and MURPHY and STEPHENS, JJ.

OPINION

Page 267

[311 Mich.App. 502] William B. Murphy, J.

Plaintiff Stanley G. Denhof appeals as of right an opinion and order issued by the trial court granting summary disposition in

Page 268

favor of defendant Jennell L. Challa, who is the Ottawa County Friend of the Court.[1] Acting in propria persona, Denhof initiated a civil action against Challa, alleging multiple counts of fraud and a single count of obstruction of justice. Denhof's complaint was based on statements made and actions taken by Challa during family division proceedings concerning Denhof's payment of child support to his ex-wife. Denhof commenced the lawsuit from prison, where he is serving a 14- to 75-year term of imprisonment for convictions of three counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct (CSC-I), MCL 750.520b(1)(a) (victim under 13 years of age), after sexually abusing his young daughter.[2] The trial court determined that Challa was shielded from liability on the basis of quasi-judicial, absolute immunity, and summarily dismissed the lawsuit. We affirm.

[311 Mich.App. 503] I. BACKGROUND

A. UNDERLYING CHILD SUPPORT LITIGATION

Denhof and his ex-wife had two children, a boy and a girl. The Denhofs divorced in 2003. Denhof was ordered to pay child support for the two children. In March 2008, Denhof was arrested on the CSC-I charges. In July 2008, he went to trial in the criminal case and was convicted by a jury. Denhof was sentenced in August 2008. In September 2008, he notified the FOC by letter about his incarceration. In light of Denhof's imprisonment, an order was entered in November 2008, with the FOC's endorsement, suspending Denhof's child support obligation.[3] There was an existing balance due and owing for past unpaid child support, and in March 2009, Denhof's federal income tax refund was garnished, covering most, if not all, of the arrearage. The record also contains a December 2010 order to remit prisoner funds for child support, directing the Department of Corrections (DOC) to " collect 50% of all funds received by the prisoner [311 Mich.App. 504] [Denhof] over $50.00 each month." It does not appear that any child support was collected by the DOC under this order.

In February 2011, the court amended the November 2008 order to provide that the suspension of child support should

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have commenced even earlier, in September 2008, shortly after Denhof's conviction and sentencing. The FOC proceeded to notify Denhof that given the amended order, Denhof's ex-wife had effectively been overpaid child support in the amount of $558, but the FOC demanded that Denhof still pay $218 in FOC fees. A court order was entered shortly thereafter requiring Denhof's ex-wife to reimburse him the $558, and requiring Denhof to continue paying " the amount of $0 per week for support" in light of the suspension of child support due to his incarceration. The order was silent regarding the $218 in FOC fees, and the FOC continued to seek payment of the fees. In August 2011, Denhof filed a grievance with Challa complaining that two FOC employees had made various errors with respect to calculating Denhof's child support obligation, and that one of the employees had intentionally supplied the family court with false information regarding support. Challa rejected the grievance, but she agreed to seek a court order authorizing the FOC to take steps to obtain reimbursement from Denhof's ex-wife for the $558 support overpayment. And, if and when payment was obtained, the FOC would forward the funds to Denhof, minus the $218 in FOC fees that Denhoff still owed.

Unhappy with Challa's position, Denhoff allegedly sent letters about the matter to the family court, the Michigan Attorney General, and the Governor. Subsequently, in September 2011, Challa informed Denhof that the FOC fees actually amounted to only $134, not [311 Mich.App. 505] $218, the result of an error associated with calculating the suspension period tied to Denhof's imprisonment. And Challa agreed to waive the $134 FOC fees, leaving Denhof with no debt related to child support. In November 2011, it appears that $300 was garnished from the paycheck of Denhof's ex-wife to reimburse Denhoff for overpaid child support. However, the FOC ceased efforts to obtain further payment from Denhof's ex-wife because Challa came to the conclusion, as she conveyed to Denhof, that child support " suspensions [due to imprisonment] are not provided if the underlying offense is criminal sexual conduct against a child upon which the child support obligation is established." However, this Court did not carve out such an exception in Pierce v Pierce, 162 Mich.App. 367; 412 N.W.2d 291 (1987). Challa believed that the FOC had been mistaken in agreeing to the suspension of child support based on Denhof's imprisonment.

Given the change in Challa's stance, the FOC petitioned the family court for reinstatement of suspended support. Denhof alleged that his attorney, in order to prepare for the hearing on the FOC petition, sought to review the entire FOC file concerning the family law litigation between Denhof and his ex-wife, but Challa denied his attorney access. A hearing was conducted over two days, April 23 and 30, 2012, on the petition for reinstatement of suspended child support and on a motion by Denhof seeking an order requiring the FOC to allow Denhof access to the FOC file. Denhof alleged that Challa falsely informed the family court that Denhof's counsel had been able to review the FOC file on two occasions before the hearing, and that she falsely told the court that she had just recently learned of the nature of Denhof's convictions.[4] Denhof further alleged [311 Mich.App. 506] that Challa, during the hearing in family court, trumpeted Pierce, 162 Mich.App. at 370, and insisted that it had been unnecessary to suspend child support payments during Denhof's incarceration, and that the court could continue

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to assess child support at a minimum monthly threshold, considering that Denhof's conviction involved the commission of CSC against a child who was the beneficiary of the support.

In May 2012, the family court entered an order indicating that the court did not agree with Challa and the FOC's new position. The order provided that Denhof's support obligation would " not be retroactively modified and [would] remain suspended." The order additionally provided that Denhof's ex-wife's " obligation to repay . . . [Denhof was] set to zero." The order did not speak directly to the issue of Denhof's effort to access the FOC file. Denhof acknowledged that several weeks later, his attorney was finally permitted to view the FOC file, at which time Challa advised his counsel that a document concerning a June 2002 meeting had been destroyed because the issue that formed the subject matter of the meeting had been resolved. Denhof maintained that the destroyed document had indicated that he had taken " his children to counseling at the YWCA," information that, according to Denhof, would have assisted him in proving his innocence in the CSC prosecution.

B. DENHOF'S CIVIL LAWSUIT -- FRAUD AND OBSTRUCTION OF JUSTICE

In August 2013, Denhof filed the instant lawsuit against Challa. In count I of his complaint, Denhof alleged that Challa committed fraud when she misrepresented to the family court that Denhof's attorney had viewed the FOC file before the April 2012 hearing. [311 Mich.App. 507] Denhof claimed that the fraud confused the court into believing that his attorney " was well-prepared." In count II of his complaint, Denhof alleged that Challa committed fraud when she misrepresented to the family court in April 2012 that she had just recently learned of Denhof's CSC-I convictions, when she had actually been aware of the nature of the convictions three years earlier. In count III of his complaint, Denhof alleged that Challa committed fraud by essentially misquoting Pierce to the family court and by otherwise presenting legally inaccurate arguments during the April 2012 hearing. Finally, in count IV of his complaint, Denhof alleged that Challa engaged in obstruction of justice under MCL 750.483a(5) by withholding and destroying the June 2002 FOC document, which purportedly constituted exculpatory evidence relative to the CSC case.[5]

After Denhof filed his civil complaint against Challa, the judges of the Ottawa Circuit Court recused themselves and entered an order of disqualification because Challa was employed by the Ottawa Circuit Court.[6] The State Court Administrative Office (SCAO) assigned a judge of the Kent Circuit Court to serve as a judge of the Ottawa Circuit Court for purposes of presiding over Denhof's suit against Challa. Subsequently, Challa filed a motion for summary disposition pursuant to MCR 2.116(C)(7). Challa initially argued [311 Mich.App. 508] that there were " numerous pleading problems with the Complaint," including the failure to allege (1) that monetary damages

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flowed from the alleged fraud, (2) that the June 2002 FOC document was not destroyed in the normal course of business, (3) that the information in the document could not have been established by way of other evidence at the criminal trial, and (4) how that information could possibly have established Denhof's innocence in the criminal case. However, Challa's primary argument was that Denhof had failed to plead in avoidance of " governmental and quasi-judicial immunity." Challa argued that, for purposes of governmental immunity and the alleged intentional torts, Denhof had failed to allege any conduct on Challa's part that was objectively unreasonable. Challa additionally contended that her role as head of the FOC provided her with quasi-judicial, absolute immunity. Challa further maintained that the alleged wrongdoing pertained to matters within a judicial proceeding--the family court support litigation--and therefore the judicial proceedings privilege shielded her from liability. Challa argued that Denhof's lawsuit was ill-conceived and a wrongful attempt to relitigate the child support and criminal cases.

Denhof filed a response to Challa's motion for summary disposition; in addition, Denhof filed motions to adjourn the summary disposition hearing, for change of venue, and to disqualify the SCAO-appointed trial court. The trial court conducted a hearing on all of the motions and denied Denhof's adjournment, disqualification, and venue motions in short explanatory orders.[7] The trial court granted Challa's motion for summary disposition in a written opinion and order. [311 Mich.App. 509] The trial court had been able to review transcripts of the family court hearing that took place in April 2012.[8] The trial court ruled that quasi-judicial, absolute immunity applied and barred Denhof's suit. The trial court noted that, at the ...


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