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Circuit Courts Have Jurisdiction Over Civil Rights Suits, No Matter What The Amount In Controversy

Posted on Monday, May 21, 2018

The Michigan Court of Appeals has reaffirmed that circuit courts have exclusive jurisdiction over civil rights claims brought under the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA), regardless of the dollar amount that’s involved.

In Reynolds v Hasbany (Docket No. 336933, published opinion issued 3/20/18), the Court of Appeals held the circuit court wrongly dismissed the plaintiff’s weight discrimination lawsuit against her former employer. According to the Court of Appeals, the circuit court erred in finding that it did not have subject-matter jurisdiction.

“We reaffirm that §801 of ELCRA takes precedence over the general jurisdictional grant set forth in MCL 600.8301, and we reaffirm that ELCRA provides for exclusive circuit court jurisdiction, regardless of the amount in controversy,” the Court of Appeals said.

 ‘Weigh Ins’ At Work

The plaintiff worked for the defendant at his medical office from 2010-2012. During that time, she lost 60 pounds. In 2015, she returned to work for the defendant, at which time she had gained much of the weight back.

According to the plaintiff, in August 2016, she reported for work and was told by the office manager that the defendant wanted her to weigh herself and meet him in his office. When the plaintiff refused, she was allegedly told that, if she did not weigh herself, she would be sent home and, if she went home, she could not return to work without a “doctor’s note.” The plaintiff asserted that she went to the defendant’s office and told him she was not going to weigh herself, to which he responded that she either weigh herself or get a doctor’s note to come back to work. The plaintiff claimed that she again objected, indicating she could not get a doctor’s note because she did not have health insurance and she was uncertain exactly what the doctor’s note would be for because she was not sick. The plaintiff claimed the defendant again insisted that she either weigh herself or get a doctor’s note, to which she allegedly responded, “then I take it you’re firing me.” The plaintiff alleged she left the defendant’s office and, on her way out, told her co-workers she assumed that she was fired because she refused to weigh herself.

The plaintiff sued the defendant in Oakland County Circuit Court. She claimed the defendant told her that she had to lose the weight, “regularly harassed” female employees about their weight and “regularly required” female employees to “weigh in” at his office and report the results to him. The plaintiff asserted the defendant’s actions violated the ELCRA by discriminating against her based on her weight and by retaliating against her for engaging in protected activity related to her weight.

About a month after the complaint was filed, the defense lawyer sent an “unconditional return to work letter” to the plaintiff’s attorney. The plaintiff’s lawyer sent the following reply: “I have conveyed your offer to my client, and she is understandably rejecting it. Given the circumstances of her prior employment with Dr. Hasbany, and the fact that a return to work would require that she work closely with Dr. Hasbany and potentially again endure his discriminatory, harassing and abusive conduct, it is not reasonable that she return to her former employment.”

The defendant moved for summary disposition, arguing that even if the plaintiff prevailed on her ELCRA claim, her maximum recovery would be $5,280 – and pursuant to MCL 600.8301(1), this gave the district court, and not the circuit court, jurisdiction over the lawsuit. The plaintiff responded by asserting that circuit courts have exclusive jurisdiction over civil rights claims, no matter what the amount in controversy.

The Oakland County Circuit Court granted the defendant’s motion for summary disposition and said: “From the allegations of the complaint, it appears to a legal certainty that the amount in controversy is not greater than the applicable jurisdictional limit of the Circuit Court. [The plaintiff] has failed to establish damages to a legal certainty more than $25,000.”

‘Special And Particular’

The Court of Appeals reversed the circuit court’s ruling. In its opinion, the Court noted that §801 of the ELCRA and §8301(1) of the Revised Judicature Act seemingly provide jurisdiction to different courts and, therefore, the conflict had to be resolved.

When a statutory jurisdictional conflict arises, the Court said it applies the following rule: “Where there are two acts or provisions, one of which is special and particular, and certainly includes the matter in question, and the other general which, if standing alone, would include the same matter and thus conflict with the special act or provision, the special must be taken as intended to constitute an exception to the general act, as the Legislature is not to be presumed to have intended a conflict.”

Next, the Court explained it is well-settled that §8301(1) is “general in its application.” The Court further noted that, in Baxter v Gates Rubber Co, 171 Mich App 588 (1988), the panel ruled that §801 of the ELCRA was a specific grant of jurisdiction. The Baxter panel wrote: “This Court has previously held that §801 is more than a venue provision, conferring substantive jurisdiction to the exclusion of other forums. The prohibitions against discrimination and the promotion of civil rights rise to the level of a clearly established public policy of this state. We discern a legislative judgment that the policies underlying the civil rights legislation are of such importance that resort to circuit court is mandated in every case, even when potential damages are less than $10,000. … Because §801 is a specific grant of jurisdiction, reflecting substantive policy concerns, we hold that it takes precedence over the more general jurisdictional provision of MCL 600.8301(1).”

The Court pointed out that, although Baxter is not binding because it was decided before November 1, 1990, its reasoning was still persuasive. As a result, the Court reaffirmed that §801 of the ELCRA takes precedence over the general jurisdictional grant in §8301, and the ELCRA provides for “exclusive circuit court jurisdiction, regardless of the amount in controversy.”

‘May’ Misconstrued

In an interesting footnote to the opinion, the Court of Appeals also rejected the defendant’s argument that the word “may” in MCL 37.2801(2) means the circuit court, under certain circumstances, can have jurisdiction over ELCRA claims while, under other circumstances, a district court may have jurisdiction.

“We disagree,” the Court wrote. “The statute provides that an action under ELCRA may be brought in the circuit court in one of three counties: (1) where the alleged violation occurred, (2) where the person who committed the alleged violation resides, or (3) where the person who committed the alleged violation has his or her principal place of business. … Nothing in the statute provides that a claim under ELCRA may sometimes be brought in district court. … Thus, given that the word ‘may’ plainly refers to the choice of counties, not courts, and given that the statute includes no provision providing for district-court jurisdiction, we find defendants interpretation of the statutory language unpersuasive and contrary to the plain meaning of the statute.”

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