LANSING The Michigan Court of Appeals slammed the Corrections Department for dragging out a class-action discrimination lawsuit brought by male corrections officers at the state’s only women’s prison in an opinion released Wednesday.
In a unanimous published opinion, a three-judge panel said the case, which was already moving slowly, was "even more unnecessarily prolonged" when the department, represented by the Attorney General's Office, went to the Court of Appeals to object to an order dismissing some of the claims made against the department, after the class members volunteered to withdraw those claims.
"The notability of a defendant objecting to the dismissal of claims against it(self) is not lost on us," wrote Court of Appeals Judge Amy Ronayne Krause, who was joined in the opinion by Judges Peter O'Connell and Patrick Meter.
The Court of Appeals upheld the voluntary dismissal of some of the claims and sent the case back to Washtenaw County Circuit Court for trial.
Male corrections officers at the Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility, who are excluded from working in many areas of the prison, sued the department in 2011 over certain aspects of the exclusion policy, which they said discriminated against them based on their gender and unfairly excluded them from overtime opportunities.
The policy barring male corrections officers from working in residential areas of the women's prison was introduced in response to multimillion-dollar jury awards in 2008 related to sexual abuse of female inmates by male corrections officers at other women's prisons in Michigan, which are no longer open.
The 80 to 90 male corrections officers in the certified class action are not arguing they should be allowed to work in the main residential areas of the prison, but they allege they've been unfairly excluded from jobs in areas such as the gym, food services, schools and gate control.
After the class-action was certified in Washtenaw County Circuit Court, the department appealed to the Michigan Court of Appeals, which upheld the certification, and then appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case.
The department, through the Attorney General's Office, then moved to transfer the case to the Michigan Court of Claims. The state could move the case there because the corrections officers were seeking not just monetary damages, but non-monetary relief such as a court order barring gender discrimination in overtime opportunities.
The plaintiffs, wanting to take the case to a jury trial in Washtenaw County Circuit Court, then moved to dismiss their non-monetary claims so the case could remain in Washtenaw County. In a conditional order, the Court of Claims agreed.
But the department objected to the dismissal of the non-monetary claims, sending the case back to the Court of Appeals.
In her opinion, Krause noted that the department has accused the corrections officers of engaging in obstruction and delay tactics in connection with the case. She dismissed that assertion as "presumptuous."
"If defendant has sustained any prejudice, which as noted we do not find, it has brought a great deal of that prejudice upon itself," she wrote.
Chris Gautz, a spokesman for the Corrections Department, did not immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment. Andrea Bitely, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Bill Schuette, declined comment.
Glen Lenhoff, a Flint attorney representing the corrections officers along with attorney James Fett of Pinckney, said he welcomes the opinion and hopes the department will not appeal the ruling to the Michigan Supreme Court.
"The approach employed by the state in this case has not been conducive to a just and speedy resolution," Lenhoff said.
"It shouldn't take this long."
In June, the U.S. Justice Department filed a federal lawsuit against the Michigan Department of Corrections, alleging the department discriminates against female corrections officers at the prison near Ypsilanti by designating too many positions as "women only." As a result, officials "required female employees at Huron Valley to work excessive overtime hours at a cost to their health," the suit alleges.
That case is ongoing.
Contact Paul Egan: 517-372-8660 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @paulegan4.