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Sullivan v. State

Court of Appeals of Michigan

May 7, 2019

DONALD SULLIVAN, JR., Plaintiff-Appellant,
STATE OF MICHIGAN, Defendant-Appellee.

          Court of Claims LC No. 17-000265-MZ

          Before: Swartzle, P.J., and Cavanagh and Cameron, JJ.

          Cameron, J.

         Plaintiff, Donald Sullivan, Jr. (Sullivan), filed this lawsuit for compensation based on the Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act (WICA), MCL 691.1751 et seq., after his murder conviction was vacated and the charges were dismissed. Sullivan appeals the order of the Court of Claims granting summary disposition in favor of defendant, the State of Michigan, and dismissing Sullivan's case. On appeal, Sullivan challenges the Court of Claims's determination that he was not entitled to compensation under the WICA because he failed to show "new evidence" that satisfied the requirements of MCL 691.1755(1)(c). Finding no error, we affirm.


         In 1975, Sullivan was sentenced to life in prison after a jury convicted him of first-degree felony murder for his role in the robbery of a jewelry store and the murder of its owner. A codefendant, Lawrence Patton, entered into a plea agreement with the prosecution and provided trial testimony that was the primary evidence used to support Sullivan's conviction.

         Several years later, Patton recanted his trial testimony. He executed two affidavits in 1981, admitting in both that he lied about Sullivan's involvement in the robbery and murder of the jewelry store owner. In December 1981, Sullivan filed a motion for new trial based on Patton's recantation. In support of his motion, Sullivan provided Patton's two affidavits, and the trial court granted an evidentiary hearing. Patton testified at the evidentiary hearing, authenticated his affidavits, and reiterated that his trial testimony offered against Sullivan was false. The prosecution questioned Patton's veracity and argued successfully to the trial court that Patton take a polygraph examination administered by Michigan State Police regarding the truthfulness of his recantation. During the polygraph examination, Patton reaffirmed that Sullivan was not involved in the crimes. In the opinion of the examiner, the test results indicated that Patton was not deceptive in his exoneration of Sullivan.[1] Thereafter, the trial court granted Sullivan's motion for a new trial.

         The prosecution, apparently unpersuaded of Sullivan's innocence, took steps to prosecute Sullivan again for the robbery and murder. However, after the trial court denied the prosecution's motion to use Patton's prior trial testimony as evidence against Sullivan for his retrial, the prosecution conceded that "without the use of [Patton's] previous testimony from the previous trial, we cannot proceed at this time in this case." Accordingly, the trial court dismissed the charges against Sullivan, and he was released from custody.

         In September 2017, Sullivan filed a WICA complaint seeking compensation for the approximate seven years that he was imprisoned. The Court of Claims granted the State of Michigan's motion for summary disposition and, in turn, denied Sullivan's cross-motion for summary disposition. In doing so, the Court of Claims concluded that Sullivan failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence "new evidence" that demonstrated that he did not perpetrate the crime, which resulted in the reversal or vacation of the charges in the judgment of conviction, and ultimately resulted in the dismissal of the charges. MCL 691.1755(1)(c).

         II. ANALYSIS

         On appeal, Sullivan argues the court erred when it granted the State of Michigan's motion for summary disposition and denied Sullivan's cross-motion for summary disposition. We disagree.

         We initially note that the State of Michigan filed its motion for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(7), and Sullivan filed his cross-motion for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(7) or (C)(8). The Court of Claims, however, specified in its order that summary disposition was granted under MCR 2.118(C)(8) and (C)(10). Importantly, a tort action against a governmental entity generally raises two issues: (1) whether the plaintiff has pled in avoidance of governmental immunity, and (2) whether the plaintiff can establish the elements of his or her claim. Glancy v City of Roseville, 457 Mich. 580, 588; 577 N.W.2d 897 (1998). We do not construe the State of Michigan's motion as one brought under MCR 2.116(C)(7) because Sullivan's claim concerns whether he can establish the elements under the WICA. "A trial court is not necessarily constrained by the subrule under which a party moves for summary disposition." Computer Network, Inc v AM Gen Corp, 265 Mich.App. 309, 312; 696 N.W.2d 49 (2005). Furthermore, because the court ruled on the motion for summary disposition before the commencement of discovery, we analyze the motions for summary dispositions under MCR 2.116(C)(8).

         A trial court's decision regarding a motion for summary disposition is reviewed de novo. Old Kent Bank v Kal Kustom, Inc, 255 Mich.App. 524, 528; 660 N.W.2d 384 (2003). A motion brought under MCR 2.116(C)(8) tests the legal sufficiency of the complaint solely on the basis of the pleadings. Dalley v Dykema Gossett PLLC, 287 Mich.App. 296, 304; 788 N.W.2d 679 (2010). "When deciding a motion under (C)(8), this Court accepts all well-pleaded factual allegations as true and construes them in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party." Id. at 304-305.

         We also review de novo issues of statutory interpretation. In re Mich. Cable Telecom Ass'n Complaint v Mich. Pub Serv Comm, 239 Mich.App. 686, 690; 609 N.W.2d 854 (2000). When interpreting a statute, our goal "is to ascertain and give effect to the intent of the Legislature." Portelli v IR Constr Prod Co, Inc, 218 Mich.App. 591, 606; 554 N.W.2d 591 (1996). Undefined terms in a statute "must be given their plain and ordinary meanings, and it is proper to consult a dictionary for definitions." Halloran v Bhan, 470 Mich. 572, 578; 683 N.W.2d 129 (2004). This Court must avoid interpreting a statute ...

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