Debano-Griffin v. Lake Cnty., Docket No. 143841.

CourtSupreme Court of Michigan
Citation828 N.W.2d 634,493 Mich. 167
Docket NumberDocket No. 143841.,Calendar No. 6.
Decision Date08 February 2013

493 Mich. 167
828 N.W.2d 634


Docket No. 143841.
Calendar No. 6.

Supreme Court of Michigan.

Argued Oct. 10, 2012.
Decided Feb. 8, 2013.

[828 N.W.2d 636]

Mark Granzotto, P.C., Royal Oak (by Mark Granzotto), and Parsons Law Firm, PLC, Traverse City (by Grant W. Parsons), for Cheryl Debano–Griffin.

Abbott Nicholson, P.C., Detroit (by John R. McGlinchey and Kristen L. Baiardi), for Lake County and the Lake County Board of Commissioners.

Michael F. CAVANAGH, J.

[493 Mich. 171]This case requires us to determine whether plaintiff, Cheryl Debano–Griffin, provided sufficient evidence to create a genuine issue of material fact regarding the causation element of her claim under the Whistleblowers' Protection Act (WPA), MCL 15.361 et seq. We hold that plaintiff presented evidence that showed more than a temporal relationship between the protected activity and defendants' adverse employment action. See West v. Gen. Motors Corp., 469 Mich. 177, 665 N.W.2d 468 (2003). Also, because plaintiff must rely on circumstantial evidence to overcome defendants' motion for summary disposition, the framework set forth in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 93 S.Ct. 1817, 36 L.Ed.2d 668 (1973), is applicable. In this case, we hold that plaintiff provided sufficient evidence to establish her prima facie case of unlawful retaliation under the WPA.

Additionally, we must determine whether plaintiff's claim, which questions defendants' proffered reason for the elimination of her position by asserting that the proffered reason was a pretext for retaliation, violates either the business-judgment rule, see Hazle v. Ford Motor Co., 464 Mich. 456, 475–476, 628 N.W.2d 515 (2001), or the separation of powers. We hold that it does not violate the separation of powers because judicial review of plaintiff's statutory claim merely examines whether the county board of commissioners acted outside its constitutionally and legislatively granted powers. Additionally, plaintiff's challenge to defendants' budgetary justifications does not implicate the business-judgment rule because plaintiff does not question[493 Mich. 172]whether the economic decision was “ ‘wise, shrewd, prudent, or competent.’ ” See id. at 476, 628 N.W.2d 515 (citation omitted).

Moreover, in addition to adequately rebutting defendants' facially legitimate budgetary grounds for eliminating plaintiff's position, plaintiff presented sufficient evidence to conclude that reasonable minds could differ regarding defendants' true motivations for eliminating her position. Therefore, plaintiff created a triable issue of fact and defendants were not entitled to summary disposition. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals and reinstate the trial court's denial of defendants' motion for summary disposition.


In 1998, plaintiff began working as the director of Lake County's 911 department. Before her hiring, county voters had passed a millage for the purpose of operating Lake County's ambulance service. Lake County then contracted with Life EMS to provide two ambulances a day to service the county. In 2002, plaintiff discovered that Life EMS was using one of the ambulances to transport residents of other counties in nonemergency circumstances. She informed the county board of commissioners (hereinafter “the board”) and other county officials that Life EMS was in breach of the contract, which posed a threat to the health and safety of county residents.

Additionally, on September 28, 2004, as authorized by the board, $50,000 was transferred from the ambulance account to

[828 N.W.2d 637]

a 911 account to use for a “mapping project.” Plaintiff testified that on November 1, 2004, during a mapping meeting, plaintiff objected to the transfer, claiming that it violated the millage proposal and explaining that she had obtained a grant to cover [493 Mich. 173]the cost of the mapping project. She further stated that she had previously made similar objections regarding the transfer to the board and at a county finance committee meeting. Later, the board voted to return the funds to the ambulance account, which occurred on November 12, 2004. Also, on November 10, 2004, the board voted to merge two county employment positions. As a result of the merger, plaintiff's position was eliminated. Plaintiff received official notice of her termination on December 22, 2004, which explained that her position was eliminated because of “budget problems” and that the county was “forced to take cost cutting measures in order to balance its budget.” However, according to the proposed county budget as of October 29, 2004, the position of 911 director was fully funded at that time.

In January 2005, plaintiff filed a whistleblower claim under MCL 15.362, 1 asserting that she was terminated as result of her complaints regarding the funds transfer and Life EMS's ambulance service. Defendants filed a motion for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(8) and (10), arguing that plaintiff had not met her burden of establishing a prima facie case under the WPA because plaintiff did not engage in “protected activity” and had not provided sufficient evidence to [493 Mich. 174]support causation. The trial court denied defendants' motion, and the jury returned a verdict in plaintiff's favor. Defendants appealed, and the Court of Appeals, holding that plaintiff was not engaged in protected activity under the WPA, reversed the trial court's denial of defendants' motion and remanded the case to the trial court for the entry of an order granting summary disposition to defendants. Debano–Griffin v. Lake Co., unpublished opinion per curiam of the Court of Appeals, issued October 15, 2009 (Docket No. 282921), 2009 WL 3321510.

Plaintiff sought leave to appeal, and, in lieu of granting leave to appeal, this Court reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remanded the case to that Court for consideration of the argument raised by defendants but not addressed by the Court of Appeals during its initial review of the case. Debano–Griffin v. Lake Co., 486 Mich. 938, 782 N.W.2d 502 (2010). On remand, the Court of Appeals held that plaintiff had failed to establish a genuine issue of material fact on the causation element of her claim, relying primarily on West, and again reversed the trial court's order denying defendants' motion for summary disposition. Debano–Griffin v. Lake Co. (On Remand), unpublished opinion per curiam of the Court of Appeals, issued August 25, 2011 (Docket No. 282921), 2011 WL 3760907. We granted plaintiff's application for leave to appeal to consider “(1) whether the plaintiff established a causal

[828 N.W.2d 638]

connection between her protected activity and the adverse employment action” and

(2) whether a whistleblower may challenge an adverse employment decision, which is claimed to be a matter of business judgment that was based on a fiscal or budgetary reason, as a mere pretext over the defendants' assertion that the separation of powers principle prevents the judiciary from examining the budgetary decisions of a legislative body. [Debano–Griffin v. Lake Co., 491 Mich. 874, 809 N.W.2d 570 (2012).]


We review de novo a trial court's ruling on a motion for summary disposition. Chandler v. Dowell Schlumberger Inc., 456 Mich. 395, 397, 572 N.W.2d 210 (1998). Because defendants focused their argument supporting their motion for summary disposition on MCR 2.116(C)(10), we must ask whether a genuine issue of material fact exists when, viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party, the “record which might be developed ... would leave open an issue upon which reasonable minds might differ.” Shallal v. Catholic Social Servs. of Wayne Co., 455 Mich. 604, 609, 566 N.W.2d 571 (1997) (citations and quotation marks omitted). Likewise, this Court reviews de novo constitutional questions, including those concerning the separation of powers. People v. Garza, 469 Mich. 431, 433, 670 N.W.2d 662 (2003).


Under the WPA, a plaintiff may establish a prima facie case by showing that (1) the plaintiff was engaged in protected activity as defined by the act, (2) the defendant took an adverse employment action against the plaintiff, and (3) “a causal connection exists between the protected activity” and the adverse employment action. Chandler, 456 Mich. at 399, 572 N.W.2d 210.2 However, the only issue that we must decide in this case is causation. Because whistleblower claims are analogous to other antiretaliation employment claims brought under employment discrimination statutes prohibiting various discriminatory animuses, they “should receive treatment[493 Mich. 176]under the standards of proof of those analogous [claims].” Shallal, 455 Mich. at 617, 566 N.W.2d 571. Specifically, this case requires application of the burden-shifting framework set forth in McDonnell Douglas. See, e.g., Hazle, 464 Mich. at 462–466, 628 N.W.2d 515 (applying the McDonnell Douglas framework in the context of alleged discrimination in employment).

Absent direct evidence of retaliation, a plaintiff must rely on indirect evidence of his or her employer's unlawful motivations to show that a causal link exists between the whistleblowing act and the employer's adverse employment action. See Hazle, 464 Mich. at 462–463, 628 N.W.2d 515. A plaintiff may “ ‘present a rebuttable prima facie case on the basis of proofs from which a factfinder could infer that the plaintiff was the victim of unlawful [retaliation].’ ” Id. at 462, 628 N.W.2d 515, quoting DeBrow v. Century 21 Great Lakes, Inc. (After Remand), 463 Mich. 534, 537–538, 620 N.W.2d 836 (2001). Once a plaintiff establishes a prima facie case, “a presumption of [retaliation] arises” because an employer's adverse action is “more likely than not based on the consideration of impermissible factors”—for example, here, plaintiff's protected activity under the WPA—if the...

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