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Slee v. Woodhull Township

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

February 6, 2018

WOODHULL TOWNSHIP, et. al., Defendants.



         I. Introduction

         Pamela and David Slee are suing Woodhull Township and several of its officials, employees and attorneys for allegedly violating their civil rights by bringing a malicious retaliatory lawsuit against them and by unlawfully searching their home and seizing their property. Dkt. 1. Woodhull Township is a political subdivision of Shiawassee County, Michigan. Pamela Slee was formerly the elected Supervisor of Woodhull Township and now serves as its elected Treasurer. This civil action raises claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and several state law causes of action against the following thirteen defendants:

. Woodhull Township
. Diana Hasse, Supervisor of Woodhull Township
. Kay Nickols, formerly Supervisor of Woodhull Township
. Carol Maize, Clerk of Woodhull Township
. Tom Jelenek, Trustee of Woodhull Township
. Rick Betts, Trustee of Woodhull Township
. Jim Cribbs, Trustee of Woodhull Township
. Bill Dodge, Trustee of Woodhull Township
. Jim Brehm, Trustee of Woodhull Township
. Ken Young, “IT Expert” employed by Woodhull Township
. Deputy Keith Hansen, a Shiawasse County Deputy Sheriff [1]
. Helen Mills, an outside attorney for Woodhull Townhip, with the law firm Fahey Schultz Burzich Rhodes, PLC.
. The law firm of Fahey Schultz Burzich Rhodes, PLC.

         According to the Complaint, the Defendants violated Plaintiffs' civil rights by filing a lawsuit against Ms. Slee after she had resigned from her position as Township Supervisor and by wrongfully attempting to serve a temporary restraining order requiring her to return certain Township records and property. Dkt. 1.

         Defendants divided themselves into four groups, each of which filed a Motion to Dismiss the § 1983 and pendent state law claims against them. Dkts. 13, 14, 16 and 17. For the reasons discussed below, their motions are GRANTED.

         II. Background

         Plaintiff Pamela Slee served as the Woodhull Township Supervisor, an elected position, for at least eight years before resigning on May 5, 2016. Dkt. 13-1 at Pg ID 74; Dkt 13-3 at Pg ID 101; Dkt. 13-3 at Pg ID 109 (Ms. Slee's resignation letter). After she resigned from her position the Township made two written requests that Ms. Slee return “all records, documents, and property” in her possession that belonged to the Township. Dkt. 13-3 at Pg ID 126, 130. The first letter on May 24, 2016, from the new Township Supervisor, Defendant Diana Hasse was returned unclaimed. Dkt. 13-3 at Pg ID 130. Ms. Slee received the second, July 5, 2016, letter from Stephen Delie, an attorney for the Township who works at the Defendant law firm Fahey Schultz Burzych Rhodes PLC. Dkt. 13-3 at Pg ID 130. Ms. Slee replied on Thursday July 7, 2016, stating that she had already turned over all the Township property when she resigned, including anything she had in her home office. Dkt. 13-3 at Pg ID 132. She also stated that she had already forwarded to the Township's clerk any emails concerning Township business that had been received in her personal email account. Id.

         On September 9, 2016, Defendant Township filed a civil complaint against Ms. Slee in the 35th Circuit Court for the County of Shiawassee, Michigan. Dkt. 13-3. Defendant Helen Mills, attorney at Defendant Fahey Schultz Burzych Rhodes PLC, represented the Township in that State Court Action. Dkt. 13-3 at Pg ID 107. The Township alleged that Ms. Slee had used several home computers purchased in whole or part with Township funds to conduct most of her work as Township Supervisor, and also used a private email address, fax number, and home telephone number for Township business. Dkt. 13-3 at Pg ID 101-102. The Township further alleged that following her resignation Ms. Slee had returned neither the devices themselves-which were Township-owned property-nor any of the Township records that she maintained on those devices, despite repeated demands. Dkt. 13-3 at Pg ID 101-102. The Township claimed this conduct violated Ms. Slee's legal duty under MCL 41.62 to deliver Township records upon demand to her successor. Id. The Township requested that the state court judge grant an emergency ex parte temporary restraining order (TRO) that would: 1) enjoin Ms. Slee from destroying, damaging, or altering the records and other Township property she had until the Township could make copies; 2) authorize the information technology firm “IT Right” to make and preserve copies of data and software on the hard drives of any computers Ms. Slee used to conduct Township business; and 3) order Ms. Slee to immediately deliver to the Township: a) any correspondence from her time as Township supervisor including what she sent from her private email accounts, b) any other documents or materials she had created, received, or maintained in her capacity as Township supervisor, and c) any Township property or records she created, received, or maintained as Township supervisor, including several specifically identified items. Dkt. 13-3 at Pg ID 105-106.

         The state court granted the Township's request for the TRO the same day it was filed on September 9, 2016, and ordered, verbatim, the relief the Township had requested. Dkt. 13-4 at Pg ID 141-42. The TRO also required Ms. Slee file a report within 14 days summarizing her progress complying with the TRO. Dkt. 13-4 at Pg ID 143.

         The TRO issued at 4:24 pm on September 9, 2016. Dkt. 13-4 at Pg ID 143. Around 6:00 pm that evening Defendant Mills, the Township's Attorney, Defendant Ken Young, the IT specialist from IT Right, and two deputy sheriffs-one of whom (Keith Hansen) was previously a defendant in this case until he was dismissed per a stipulation between the parties, Dkt. 46-went to Ms. Slee's home, which she shares with her husband David Slee, to serve the TRO. Dkt. 1 at Pg ID 3; Dkt. 13-1 at Pg ID 76.

         Ms. Slee claims that Defendant Mills, at some unspecified time, misrepresented to the deputy sheriffs who ultimately accompanied her to the Slees' home that she had a search warrant for their home and personal computers. Dkt 1 at Pg ID 4, ¶¶ 23-24. Ms. Slee further claims that Defendant Mills “used the TRO and the two Deputy Sheriffs to gain access and entry” into her home. Id. It is unclear from these allegations whether Defendant Mills or the deputy sheriffs told the Slees that they had a search warrant when they went to their home on September 9, 2016.

         Defendant Mills does not offer much clarification in terms of what happened leading up to the alleged search. Her Motion to Dismiss states only that she, the deputy sheriffs, and Defendant Young (the IT specialist) “went to the Slee house for service of the TRO.” Dkt. 13-1 at Pg ID 75.

         After Defendants executed the TRO the parties continued to litigate the case. Ms. Slee filed her Verified Answer to the Township's Complaint for Temporary Restraining Order on September 28, 2016, in which she accused the Township of filing the complaint against her as a “political ploy.” Dtk. 13-5 at Pg ID 150. Ms. Slee also filed a response to the Township's motion for summary disposition on January 20, 2017, in which she accused the Township of using the TRO as an unlawful pretext for invading her home. Dkt. 13-6 at Pg ID 157.

         Eventually, Ms. Slee and the Township settled the State Court Action. The parties executed a Settlement Agreement on March 9, 2017, Dkt. 13-8 at Pg ID 173-75, and stipulated to dismissal of the State Court Action with prejudice on March 13, 2017. Dkt. 13-9 at Pg ID 177-79. Under the terms of the Settlement Agreement Ms. Slee agreed that the Township Supervisor would be allowed to review the hard drive copied from her computer during the September 9, 2016 execution of the TRO. Dkt. 13-8 at Pg ID 173. She also agreed that the Settlement Agreement “may be pled as a complete defense to any past, present or future claim that either party has asserted or may subsequently assert in any suit or claim against the other party.” Id. at Pg ID 174.

         On June 28, 2017, several months after the stipulated dismissal with prejudice of the State Court Action, Plaintiffs filed this 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action. Dkt. 1.

         In their Complaint Plaintiffs make the following “common allegations”:

. “Defendants” filed the State Court Action against Ms. Slee as retaliation for her public criticism of their management of Township funds. Dkt. 1 at Pg ID 3, ¶ ¶19-20.
. Defendant Mills misrepresented to Deputy Sheriff Hansen, and another deputy whose name was unknown that the TRO was a search warrant, and then “used the TRO and the two Deputy Sheriffs to gain access” to Plaintiffs' home on September 9, 2016. Dkt. 1 at Pg ID 4, ¶¶23-24.
. Defendant Mills and Deputy Sheriff Hansen had Defendant Young, the IT expert, search Plaintiffs' computers, including Mr. Slee's personal computer, which did not include any Township business records. Dkt. 1 at Pg ID 4 ¶25.
. Defendant Mills and Deputy Sheriff Hansen questioned Plaintiffs in their home for several hours and made Plaintiffs feel like they could not leave. Dkt. 1 at Pg ID 4 ¶26.
. Defendant Mills, Defendant Young, and Deputy Sheriff Hansen “seized” Plaintiffs' personal computers and monitors and removed them from Plaintiffs' home. Dkt. 1 at Pg ID 4 ¶27.
. As a result of this “search and seizure” Plaintiffs experienced extreme emotions distress, damage to their professional reputations, loss of job benefits, and economic loss in the form of attorneys' fees. Dkt. 1 at Pg ID 4-5.

         Plaintiffs then make the following claims against “Defendants” without specifying whether that includes all named Defendants or a particular group: 1) Fourth Amendment Violation for unlawful search of Plaintiffs' home and seizure of their computers (Dkt. 1 at Pg ID 7-9; 2) Class One Equal Protection Violation under Village of Willowbrook v. Olech for singling Plaintiffs out for “retribution and punishment” by filing the State Court Action against Ms. Slee and then illegally searching her home and seizing her property without a warrant (Dkt. 1 at Pg ID 9-11); 3) First Amendment Retaliation against the Plaintiffs-who spoke publicly about Township's mismanagement of funds-by filing the State Court Action against Ms. Slee and unlawfully searching the Slees' home (Dkt. 1 at Pg ID 11-13); 4) Fifth Amendment violation for seizing Plaintiffs' personal property without payment (Dkt. 1 at Pg ID 13-14); 5) state law trespass in Plaintiffs' home (Dkt. 1 at Pg ID 15); 6) false imprisonment through questioning Plaintiffs in their home and making them feel as though they could not leave (Dkt. 1 at Pg. ID 16-17); 7) malicious prosecution for filing the State Court Action and continuing the litigation “beyond the point” that it should have continued (Dkt. 1 at Pg ID 17-18); 8) abuse of process for failure to dismiss the State Court Action after there was nothing else to be gained from it, and for Defendant Mills' alleged misrepresentation to the deputy sheriffs that the TRO they were effectuating in searching Plaintiffs' home computers was in fact a search warrant (Dkt. 1 at Pg ID 18-19); 9) false light invasion of privacy for falsely claiming that Ms. Slee stole Township property, and disclosing private information about Mr. Slee. (Dkt. 1 at Pg ID 19-20).

         Defendants responded with four motions to dismiss. (Dkts. 13, 14, 16 and 17).

         For the reasons discussed below the Court GRANTS each of these motions to dismiss.

         III. ...

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