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Nowacki v. Department of Corrections

Court of Appeals of Michigan

March 14, 2017

TOM NOWACKI, Plaintiff-Appellee,

         Court of Claims LC No. 15-000154-MZ

          Before: Ronayne Krause, P.J., and O'Connell and Meter, JJ.

          RONAYNE KRAUSE, P.J.

         In this class action lawsuit, defendant appeals by right the Court of Claims order granting plaintiff a voluntary dismissal of his claims for injunctive and declaratory relief. This action was originally filed in circuit court and was previously appealed. After remand, defendant transferred the equitable and declaratory claims to the Court of Claims pursuant to MCL 600.6404(3), leaving the claims for monetary damages pending and stayed in the circuit court pursuant to MCL 600.6421(2). Plaintiff sought to dismiss the equitable claims in order to continue the proceedings in circuit court, and the Court of Claims, in a thoughtful and thorough opinion, crafted a conditional dismissal along with, among other things, certain requirements for providing notice to the class. We affirm.

         The previous appeal to this Court concerned the circuit court's grant of class certification. We previously provided the following background to this case:

In this employment discrimination class action, plaintiff alleges that certain policies enacted by defendant at the Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility (WHV), defendant's only facility that houses women prisoners, discriminate against male correction officers in violation of the Civil Rights Act (CRA), MCL 37.2101 et seq.
* * *
Before 2009, several lawsuits were brought against defendant alleging that some of its staff were sexually abusing female prisoners. Settlement agreements were reached in these cases. In response, defendant sought, and the Michigan Civil Service Commission approved, the use of bona fide occupational qualifications (BFOQs), [1] which ensured that only women could be employed for certain positions at WHV. Plaintiff's lawsuit in the underlying action alleges that defendant applied these BFOQs over broadly, improperly denying him and other men opportunities for various job assignments and overtime work. [Nowacki v Dep't of Corrections, unpublished opinion per curiam of the Court of Appeals, issued August 19, 2014 (Docket No. 315969), p 1 (Nowacki I).]

         In Nowacki I, we affirmed the circuit court's grant of class certification, and our Supreme Court denied leave to appeal, Nowacki v Dep't of Corrections, 498 Mich. 859; 858 N.W.2d 28 (2015).

         After defendant transferred the equitable and declaratory claims to the Court of Claims, plaintiff moved to dismiss those claims in order to expedite resolution of the monetary claims, which plaintiff asserted were "the primary objective of the class." Over defendant's objection, [2]the Court of Claims conditionally granted that dismissal, requiring that the class notice in circuit court must inform the putative class members of the dismissal of the class's claim for that relief and of their right to seek that relief in the Court of Claims if they were to elect their right to be excluded from the class action. Except as to members who opted out of the class, the order was binding on the class and constituted a dismissal with prejudice of the class's claims for injunctive and declaratory relief.

         We review a grant of voluntary dismissal for an abuse of discretion. Mleczko v Stan's Trucking, Inc, 193 Mich.App. 154, 155; 484 N.W.2d 5 (1992). Under MCR 3.501(E), "[a]n action certified as a class action may not be dismissed or compromised without the approval of the court, and notice of the proposed dismissal or compromise shall be given to the class in such manner as the court directs." That language confers broad discretion on the court issuing notice, so we will also review the manner of notice chosen by the Court of Claims for an abuse of discretion. "An abuse of discretion occurs when the trial court chooses an outcome falling outside the range of principled outcomes." Edry v Adelman, 486 Mich. 634, 639; 786 N.W.2d 567 (2010). We review de novo the construction and application of a court rule. Kloian v Domino's Pizza LLC, 273 Mich.App. 449, 456; 733 N.W.2d 766 (2006).

         Defendant first argues that it was improper for the Court of Claims to approve dismissal of the class's claim for injunctive and declaratory relief when the putative class members had not yet been provided notice of the underlying action and their corresponding rights as required by MCR 3.501(C).[3] The language used by MCR 3.501(E) does appear to presume that notice of the initial action has already been provided to the class. However, nothing in MCR 3.501 expressly precludes a dismissal under MCR 3.501(E) when notice as required by MCR 3.501(C) has not yet been provided. The Court of Claims determined that it would "serve the interests of judicial economy and efficiency" to incorporate notice of the dismissal into the general notice of the action that would eventually be provided to the class members in the circuit court proceedings. We find no abuse of discretion in making the two notices contemporaneous. Indeed, as we will discuss further, in light of defendant's insistence on unnecessarily bifurcating this action, we find that the trial court arrived at the only solution defendant made possible.

         Defendant next argues that "post-dismissal notification" to the class members is inadequate to comply with MCR 3.501(E). MCR 3.501(E)'s requirement that the class be notified of a proposed order strongly suggests that prior notice was intended. Precedent from the federal courts[4] suggests that part of the purpose of MCR 3.501(E) is to afford class members an opportunity to object to a proposed dismissal or settlement. See Shelton v Pargo, Inc, 582 F.2d 1298, 1303 (CA 4, 1978) (interpreting the then similar Fr Civ P 23(e)[5]). Although the Court of Claims ordered that a member who elects to be excluded from the class action may file a claim for injunctive or declaratory relief, it clearly did dismiss the class's claims for that relief before providing notice to the class members of that proposed action. Therefore, at least in theory, a hypothetical class member who wishes to remain in the class and desires equitable relief has arguably been prejudiced by the lack of pre-dismissal notice.

         However, under the particular circumstances of this case, the decision to afford notice to the class members after dismissal was not an abuse of discretion. First, the court rules do not practically contemplate the procedural scenario at bar of a bifurcated class action. Consequently, the courts simply must be permitted the flexibility and latitude to manage the cases before them by exercising their "inherent powers" as consistent with the spirit of the Court Rules as practicable and appropriate to the situation. See Brenner v Kolk, 226 Mich.App. 149, 157-160; 573 N.W.2d 65 (1997). The Court of Claims reasonably determined that, defendant having ...

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