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Estate of Buol v. Hayman Co.

Court of Appeals of Michigan

April 17, 2018

ESTATE OF CHERYL ANN BUOL, by KAREN ROE, Personal Representative, Plaintiff/Counter-Defendant-Appellant,
v.
HAYMAN COMPANY, Defendant/Counter-Plaintiff-Appellee.

          Oakland Circuit Court LC No. 2015-145255-CD

          Before: Boonstra, P.J., and Beckering and Ronayne Krause, JJ.

          Boonstra, P.J.

         Plaintiff, the personal representative of the estate of Cheryl Ann Buol, appeals by right the judgment of the trial court entered in favor of defendant in the amount of $104, 611.41 plus costs and attorney fees yet to be determined. We vacate and remand for further proceedings.

         I. PERTINENT FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         In 1991, Buol applied to work for defendant, an apartment management and commercial real estate company. In her application materials, Buol falsely represented that she had earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Wisconsin. Buol worked for defendant for the next 23 years, ultimately achieving the position of Chief Operating Officer (COO). Buol received numerous promotions, pay raises, and bonuses over the years, including title enhancements and pay raises between 2011 and 2014. Buol left defendant's employ in 2014; the parties dispute whether she was terminated or resigned. Buol filed a complaint alleging age, gender, and religious discrimination and wrongful termination under the Eliot-Larsen civil rights act (ELCRA), MCL 37.2101 et seq. Defendant filed a counterclaim alleging that Buol had violated the authentic credentials in education act (ACEA), MCL 390.1601 et seq., enacted in 2005, by virtue of her fraudulent claim that she possessed a bachelor's degree. See MCL 390.1604(2). The trial court granted summary disposition in favor of defendant on Buol's ELCRA claims. The trial court also granted summary disposition in favor of defendant on defendant's counterclaim, finding that Buol had violated MCL 390.1604(2). The trial court entered judgment in favor of defendant in the amount of the $100, 000 statutory minimum damages amount provided by MCL 390.1605.[1] This appeal followed.[2]

         II. APPLICABILITY OF THE AUTHENTIC CREDENTIALS IN EDUCATION ACT

         Plaintiff[3] argues that the trial court erred by finding that the ACEA applied in this case, because it only applies to the issuance or manufacture of false academic credentials by "diploma mills, " and does not apply to the exaggeration of academic credentials that are otherwise legitimate. We disagree. Although plaintiff did not preserve this issue below, we nonetheless review it as an issue of law for which all the relevant facts are available. Vushaj v Farm Bureau Gen Ins Co of Michigan, 284 Mich.App. 513, 519; 773 N.W.2d 758');">773 N.W.2d 758 (2009).[4] We review de novo questions of statutory interpretation. Brackett v Focus Hope, Inc, 482 Mich. 269, 275; 753 N.W.2d 207 (2008).

         The goal of statutory interpretation is to discern the intent of the Legislature. See Spectrum Health Hosp v Farm Bureau Mut Ins Co of Michigan, 492 Mich. 503, 515; 821 N.W.2d 117 (2012). The first step in this Court's interpretation of a statute is to review the language of the statute itself; if the language is unambiguous, we must give the language its plain and ordinary meaning, without judicial construction. See id.

         Plaintiff argues that the ACEA does not apply in this case because she did not use a "false academic credential" as defined by the act. Plaintiff is correct to the extent that there was no evidence presented that she used a false academic credential. A "[f]alse academic credential" is defined in the statute as an academic credential that is "issued or manufactured by a person that is not a qualified institution, " MCL 390.1602(b). A "qualified institution" is defined by MCL 390.1602(c). No party argues that the University of Wisconsin is not a qualified institution. But plaintiff's argument ignores the plain language of MCL 390.1604, which states:

(1) An individual shall not knowingly use a false academic credential to obtain employment; to obtain a promotion or higher compensation in employment; to obtain admission to a qualified institution; or in connection with any loan, business, trade, profession, or occupation.
(2) An individual who does not have an academic credential shall not knowingly use or claim to have that academic credential to obtain employment or a promotion or higher compensation in employment; to obtain admission to a qualified institution; or in connection with any loan, business, trade, profession, or occupation.

         While MCL 390.1604(1) addresses the use of a "false academic credential, " MCL 390.1604(2) addresses the use of a non-existent "academic credential" to obtain employment or a promotion or higher compensation in employment. An "academic credential" is defined in the statute as "a degree or a diploma, transcript, educational or completion certificate, or similar document that indicates completion of a program of study or instruction or completion of 1 or more courses at an institution of higher education or the grant of an associate, bachelor, master, or doctoral degree, " MCL 390.1602(a). The plain, unambiguous language of MCL 390.1604(2) indicates that the Legislature intended to proscribe false claims, in an employment context, that an individual possesses an academic credential that he or she does not possess.

         Notwithstanding the plain language of MCL 390.1604(2), plaintiff asserts that this subsection was "intended to mimic the remainder of the statute" by placing "liability on the person knowingly taking advantage of [a] fake diploma." But that is precisely the conduct that is proscribed by MCL 390.1604(1). We must give meaning to every word of a statute and avoid constructions that render statutory language surplusage or nugatory. Ammex, Inc v Dep't of Treasury, 273 Mich.App. 623, 649; 732 N.W.2d 116 (2007). Plaintiff's proposed construction is not only contrary to the plain language of the statute but would render MCL 390.1604(2) largely surplusage. We decline to adopt such a construction. And although plaintiff seeks to bolster her argument by reference to the ACEA's legislative history, "the language of the statute is the best source for determining legislative intent." City of Fraser v Almeda Univ, 314 Mich.App. 79, 98; 886 N.W.2d 730 (2016). As in Fras ...


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