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Doe v. Department of Transportation

Court of Appeals of Michigan

May 8, 2018

JANE DOE, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION, Defendant-Appellant.

          Court of Claims LC No. 17-000149-MZ

          Before: Shapiro, P.J., and M. J. Kelly and O'Brien, JJ.

          PER CURIAM.

         Defendant appeals as of right the opinion and order of the Court of Claims granting plaintiff's motion to transfer the case back to the circuit court, denying as moot defendant's motion for summary disposition, and denying plaintiff's motion for sanctions. Defendant only appeals the order with respect to its granting plaintiff's motion to transfer and denying defendant's motion for summary disposition. We affirm.

         Plaintiff filed her original complaint on August 31, 2015, in circuit court alleging that, while employed by defendant, she was sexually harassed by her manager in violation of the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA), MCL 37.2101 et seq. On April 21, 2016, plaintiff filed a first amended complaint alleging sexual harassment and illegal retaliation by defendant in violation of the ELCRA. Both complaints included a jury demand. On May 25, 2017, defendant filed a notice of transfer to the Court of Claims, "effective immediately, " pursuant to MCL 600.6404(3). On the same day, defendant filed a motion for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(7) arguing it was entitled to summary disposition because plaintiff failed to comply with the requirements for filing in the Court of Claims.

         On June 5, 2017, plaintiff filed an emergency motion to transfer the case back to the circuit court, arguing that the jury-trial exception in MCL 600.6421(1) to the exclusive jurisdiction of the Court of Claims applied. In response to plaintiff's motion, defendant argued that the jury-trial exception did not apply because plaintiff was not entitled to a jury trial in an action under the ELCRA against a state defendant.

         On June 20, 2017, the Court of Claims issued its opinon. The court found that it was "well established in this state's jurisprudence that [plaintiff] enjoys" the right to a jury trial in an action under the ELCRA and that Michigan's appellate courts had extended this right "to claims against the state or state agencies." The Court of Claims concluded that, because a jury-trial right existed in this case, the circuit court and the Court of Claims had concurrent jurisdiction. Accordingly, the court granted plaintiff's motion for transfer to the circuit court and denied as moot defendant's motion for summary disposition.

         This appeal followed.

         Defendant argues that the Court of Claims erred by transferring the case back to the circuit court because the Court of Claims had exclusive jurisdiction. MCL 600.6419(1) states, "Except as provided in sections 6421 and 6440, the jurisdiction of the court of claims, as conferred upon this chapter, is exclusive." If an exception does not apply, then the Court of Claims has exclusive jurisdiction over this action pursuant to MCL 600.6419(1)(a).[1] The only exception that may apply to the Court of Claims's exclusive jurisdiction is MCL 600.6421(1), which provides in pertinent part as follows:

Nothing in this chapter eliminates or creates any right a party may have to a trial by jury, including any right that existed before November 12, 2013. Nothing in this chapter deprives the circuit, district, or probate court of jurisdiction to hear and determine a claim for which there is a right to a trial by jury as otherwise provided by law, including a claim against an individual employee of this state for which there is a right to a trial by jury as otherwise provided by law. Except as otherwise provided in this section, if a party has the right to a trial by jury and asserts that right as required by law, the claim may be heard and determined by a circuit, district, or probate court in the appropriate venue.

         If plaintiff had the right to a jury trial in her case against defendant, defendant does not contest that transfer back to the circuit court was otherwise proper.

         On appeal, defendant concedes that a right to a jury trial exists under the ELCRA, but argues that this right does not extend to state defendants. Defendant contends that, because a plaintiff does not have an established right to a jury trial in an action under the ELCRA when the state is the defendant, the Court of Claims had exclusive jurisdiction. This argument fails because the question is not whether a plaintiff enjoys the right to a jury trial against a state defendant in an action under the ELCRA; plaintiffs already enjoy the right to a jury trial under the ELCRA. The proper inquiry is whether the Legislature waived the state's immunity from jury trial in the ELCRA.

         A challenge to the jurisdiction of the Court of Claims requires interpretation of the Court of Claims Act, which presents a statutory question reviewed de novo. Parkwood Ltd Dividend Housing Ass'n v State Housing Dev Auth, 468 Mich. 763, 767; 664 N.W.2d 185 (2003). The availability of governmental immunity presents a question of law that is reviewed de novo. Norris v Lincoln Park Police Officers, 292 Mich.App. 574, 578; 808 N.W.2d 578 (2011). "Issues of statutory interpretation are questions of law that are reviewed de novo." Klooster v City of Charlevoix, 488 Mich. 289, 295; 795 N.W.2d 578 (2011).

         " 'The State, as sovereign, is immune from suit save as it consents to be sued, and any relinquishment of sovereign immunity must be strictly interpreted.' " Ross v Consumers Power Co, 420 Mich. 567, 601; 363 N.W.2d 641 (1984), quoting Manion v State, 303 Mich. 1, 19; 5 N.W.2d 527 (1942).

         In addressing the issue before us, we find instructive our Supreme Court's reasoning in Anzaldua v Band, 457 Mich. 530; 578 N.W.2d 306 (1998).[2] Anzaldua involved the Whistleblowers' Protection Act (WPA), MCL 15.361 et seq. After finding that a plaintiff had a statutory right to a jury trial in an action under the WPA, the Michigan Supreme Court addressed the argument of the defendant Michigan State University (MSU) that "even if a jury right exists generally under the act, MSU is immune from suit before a jury because it is an arm of the state." Anzaldua, 457 Mich. at 550. Our Supreme Court rejected this argument, reasoning as follows:

Defendant has confused the test we use to determine whether the state is immune from liability with the test used for determining whether the state is immune from suit. As the Court noted in Ross v Consumers Power Co (On Rehearing), the state's sovereign ...

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