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Ramos v. Intercare Community Health Network

Court of Appeals of Michigan

January 30, 2018

JOEL RAMOS, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
INTERCARE COMMUNITY HEALTH NETWORK, Defendant-Appellee.

         Van Buren Circuit Court LC No. 16-066176-AA

          Before: Hoekstra, P.J., and Stephens and Shapiro, JJ.

          Shapiro, J.

         In this action involving the wages and fringe benefits act, MCL 408.471 et seq., plaintiff Joel Ramos filed an administrative employment wage complaint against his former employer, defendant Intercare Community Health Network (ICHN), alleging that he had been illegally discharged for engaging in a protected activity under MCL 408.483(1). The Wage and Hour Program (WHP) of the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA) ruled against him in a determination order, concluding that plaintiff has not been discharged for engaging in any of the protected activities listed in the statute. The circuit court affirmed the decision of the WHP and plaintiff now appeals to this Court as of right. We affirm the circuit court because we are bound by the precedent of Reo v Lane Bryant, Inc., 211 Mich.App. 364; 536 N.W.2d 556 (1995). Were we not bound by that opinion, we would reverse and remand for a new determination from the WHP based upon the scope of the statute as discussed herein. Accordingly, we call for a conflict panel per MCR 7.215(J)(2).

         Plaintiff worked for ICHN for approximately two years. He was discharged from his job on June 26, 2015. At the time of his termination, ICHN informed plaintiff that he was being discharged because he falsified his timesheet. Plaintiff filed an employment wage complaint with the WHP. He maintained that he correctly filled out his timesheet and that, by accurately filling out his timesheet, he was exercising a right to receive payment of his wages under the wages and fringe benefits act. Based on the assertion that he was exercising a right under the act, plaintiff contended that under MCL 408.483(1), he could not be discharged for correctly filling out his timesheet. He sought reinstatement and back pay under MCL 408.483(2).[1]

         MCL 408.483(1) prohibits an employer from discharging or discriminating against an employee who engages in certain activities. In particular, the statute provides that:

An employer shall not discharge an employee or discriminate against an employee because the employee filed a complaint, instituted or caused to be instituted a proceeding under or regulated by this act, testified or is about to testify in a proceeding, or because of the exercise by the employee on behalf of an employee or others of a right afforded by this act. [MCL 408.483(1).]

         The WHP did not make a substantive determination regarding whether plaintiff had falsified his timecard. Instead, relying in part on Reo v Lane Bryant, Inc., 211 Mich.App. 364; 536 N.W.2d 556 (1995), the WHP concluded that whether or not plaintiff's entries were accurate, filling out a timecard on one's own behalf did not constitute a protected activity because exercising a right on one's own behalf does not bring the individual within the purview of MCL 408.483(1).

         Plaintiff argues that the WHP and the circuit court[2] erred by misinterpreting MCL 408.483(1); specifically, that they erred by concluding that an employee's exercise of his own rights under the wages and fringe benefits act is not protected under the statute. Plaintiff argues that under the plain language of the statute, the exercise of his own rights under the act, is the exercise of rights on behalf of "an employee" because he is "an employee."

         Notably, this Court has previously addressed this issue and concluded that to fall within the plain meaning of MCL 408.483(1), "an employee must be exercising a right afforded by the act on behalf of another employee or other person. Simply exercising a right on one's own behalf would not bring an employee within the purview of [MCL 408.483]." Reo, 211 Mich.App. at 367. Under Reo, plaintiff's exercise of rights on his own behalf would not be protected under MCL 408.483(1).[3]

         While we are bound by the Reo decision, we conclude that it was wrongly decided. MCL 408.403(1) does not refer to "another" or "a different" employee; it refers to "an employee." The word "another" does not even appear in MCL 408.483(1). This substitution of one word for another is inconsistent with the principle that "[t]he statute's words are the most reliable indicator of the Legislature's intent and should be interpreted based on their ordinary meaning and the context within which they are used in the statute." Burleson v Dep't of Environmental Quality, 292 Mich.App. 544, 557-558; 808 N.W.2d 792 (2011) (quotation marks and citation omitted). Accordingly, this Court "may not substitute . . . a word chosen by the Legislature or mistakenly assume that the Legislature mistaken used one word or phrase instead of another." Id. at 558; Pohutski v City of Allen Park, 465 Mich. 675, 683; 641 N.W.2d 219 (2002) (holding that courts "may not assume that the Legislature inadvertently made use of one word or phrase instead of another") (quotation marks and citation omitted).

         "When a statute does not define a word, we presume the Legislature intended the word to have its plain and ordinary meaning, which we may discern by consulting a dictionary." Denton v Dep't of Treasury, 317 Mich.App. 303, 312; 894 N.W.2d 694 (2016). In relevant part, Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed) defines "a" as "used as a function word before a singular nouns when the referent is unspecified." The definition of "another, " the word substituted in Reo, is defined as "different or distinct from the one first considered."

         We also note that Reo stands alone in its holding. The first Court of Appeals' case to address the question, Cockels v Int'l Business Expositions, Inc, 159 Mich.App. 30; 406 N.W.2d 465');">406 N.W.2d 465 (1987), applied the protections to a situation in which an employee exercised a right under the act on behalf of himself. Cockels was decided before the adoption of MCR 7.215(J)(1), and so was not precedentially binding on Reo. However, the opinion in Reo offers little basis to have rejected Cockels. The entire discussion of the issue in Reo reads:

         We believe that in order to fall within the plain meaning of the above provision an employee must be exercising a right afforded by the act on behalf of another employee or other person. Simply exercising a right on one's own behalf would not ...


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