Smith v. City of Inkster, 032516 FED6, 15-1585
|Opinion Judge:||GRIFFIN, Circuit Judge.|
|Party Name:||KEVIN SMITH, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. CITY OF INKSTER; HILLARD L. HAMPTON, JR.; BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF THE POLICEMEN AND FIREMEN RETIREMENT SYSTEM OF THE CITY OF INKSTER, Defendants-Appellees.|
|Judge Panel:||BEFORE: COLE, Chief Judge; MERRITT and GRIFFIN, Circuit Judges.|
|Case Date:||March 25, 2016|
|Court:||United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit|
NOT RECOMMENDED FOR PUBLICATION
ON APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF MICHIGAN
Plaintiff Kevin Smith claims defendants delayed and ultimately denied his application for disability pension benefits under the City of Inkster's Charter because he is Caucasian and in retaliation for engaging in protected activity in violation of Title VII and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The district court dismissed the complaint on the grounds of res judicata and collateral estoppel based on Smith's prior claim for Michigan workers' compensation benefits and prior litigation against Inkster for constructive discharge. It also treated Smith's § 1983 claims as arising under the Due Process Clause, and dismissed them for failing to identify an applicable constitutional violation. With the exception of the district court's ruling dismissing the § 1983 retaliation claim, we disagree. Accordingly, we affirm in part, and reverse and remand in part.
On June 18, 2008, the Inkster Police Department reassigned plaintiff from Detective Lieutenant to Road Patrol Lieutenant. Smith called in sick the next day, never reported to his new assignment, and has not worked for Inkster since. Instead, Smith took three actions. First, he filed a claim for workers' compensation benefits under Michigan law. Second, he commenced lawsuits alleging his reassignment was in retaliation for having engaged in protected activity and because he is Caucasian. Third, he sought disability retirement benefits under Inkster's Charter and upon his application's denial, he filed this litigation.
Smith filed for workers' compensation benefits under Michigan's Worker's Disability Compensation Act, Mich. Comp. Laws § 418.101 et seq., claiming that he sustained a work-related injury caused by "stress related to work." He "specifically alleged that physical exertion, as well as physical and emotional stress, related to [his] employment caused a cardiac disability." After an April 2010 hearing, a state magistrate concluded Smith suffered a work-related cardiac condition and that he was temporarily disabled from June 18, 2008, through November 30, 2008.
Smith filed lawsuits in Michigan state court (the "2008 state litigation") and the Eastern District of Michigan (the "2008 federal litigation") against Inkster and several of its employees. These lawsuits generally alleged that Inkster reassigned him (1) in retaliation for testifying against the city in a case brought by a fellow officer, Thomas Diaz, in violation of Michigan's Whistleblower Protection Act, Mich. Comp. Laws § 15.362, and (2) on account of his race in violation of Michigan's Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, Mich. Comp. Laws § 37.2101 et seq., and 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981 and 1983. The 2008 state litigation proceeded to trial in January 2011. A jury concluded that Smith's testimony for Diaz caused his reassignment and awarded both back and front pay to the tune of $700, 000, plus attorneys' fees. On March 30, 2011, the state court entered judgment for Smith and closed the case. The parties subsequently dismissed the 2008 federal litigation.
Inkster's Charter provides a variety of retirement and other benefits to its police and fire department employees, including benefits based on an employee's disability. Defendant Board of Trustees of the Policemen and Firemen Retirement System of the City of Inkster ("Board") oversees these benefits. The disability retirement benefits provision grants a disability pension to employees whose employment is terminated "because of duty total disability": "the inability of an employee . . . to perform the duties of his position because of accident sustained in or illness contracted in or arising from the discharge of any duty which said member officially owed the fire or police force of the City of Inkster . . . whether performed while on duty or leave." The Charter does not set forth a time by which an employee must apply for disability retirement benefits.
Section 18.4 of the Charter addresses the situation presented here-when there is conflicting evidence as to the applicant's disability entitlement:
The extent and continuation of disability shall in all cases of dispute be referred to a commission consisting of one reputable physician named by the board and one reputable physician named by the person claiming disability. The decision of such commission shall be made in writing and filed with the board. In all cases where there is a disagreement between the two physicians, they shall appoint a third physician whose decision on such matters shall be final. In all cases where there is a dispute as to the cause of disability, such dispute shall be referred to the board whose decision on such matters shall be final.
(Emphasis added.) The Board's physician disagreed with Smith's physician regarding Smith's ability to return to work, triggering the referral to a third physician for a "final" decision. Regrettably, this never occurred, and this failure forms the foundation of Smith's claims in this litigation.
Smith submitted a "request to apply for a medical retirement through the Inkster Pension Board" on January 4, 2011 (just before his jury trial in the 2008 state litigation). He did so after encouragement from one of the Board's trustees. Nonetheless, the trustee cautioned Smith that this would be an uphill battle, stating:
You know what the Mayor's position on you is, right? You ain't getting shit. You testified for Diaz and you sued his ass so, you know, he's pissed off and you're not going to get anything. But we can work around him. We've done it before.
The mayor, defendant Hampton, is also one of the Board's trustees.
On May 12, 2011 (almost two months after the state court entered judgment for Smith), Smith submitted physician letters in support of his disability retirement application. The three letters summarily concluded Smith could not return to work. Upon Inkster's request, Smith saw a cardiologist, Dr. Levinson. Dr. Levinson concluded in July 2011 that Smith's "cardiac and lung...
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