Donajkowski v. Alpena Power Co.

Decision Date30 June 1999
Docket NumberDocket No. 108468, Calendar No. 2.
PartiesChristina DONAJKOWSKI, Beth McDonald, and Deedra Duranceau, Plaintiffs, v. ALPENA POWER COMPANY, Defendant/Third-Party Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Local 286, Utility Workers of America, Third-Party Defendant-Appellant.
CourtMichigan Supreme Court

The Fishman Group (by Steven J. Fishman, Paul D. Kramer, Donald H. Scharg and Thomas A. Pinch), Bloomfield Hills, for plaintiffs.

Sachs, Waldman, O'Hare, Helveston, Bogas & McIntosh, P.C. (by Mary Ellen Gurewitz, John R. Runyan, and Marshall J. Widick), Detroit, for third-party defendant-appellant.

Jordan Rossen, General Counsel, and Georgi-Ann Oshagan, Associate General Counsel, Detroit, for International Union, UAW.



We granted leave in this case to address the scope of the Michigan contribution statute, M.C.L. § 600.2925a; MSA 27A.2925(1). Specifically, we are presented with the question whether an employer being sued for sex discrimination based upon the terms of a collective bargaining agreement may seek contribution from a union that was a party to that labor agreement. We hold that Michigan law permits an employer to bring such a contribution action.

I Facts and Procedural History

Plaintiff Christina Donajkowski began working for defendant Alpena Power Company in 1985. In 1986, she became a meter reader, and the first female member of Local 286, Utility Workers of America, AFL-CIO.1 Plaintiff Beth McDonald joined Donajkowski as a meter reader and member of the union in 1989. Later that year, Alpena Power and the union negotiated a three-year collective bargaining agreement that created a new classification entitled "general labor/meter reader." Donajkowski and McDonald were placed in this new classification. Pursuant to the agreement, the wage range for the new classification was between $7.50 and $10.50 an hour. Because the members of the new classification, which included two men, had been making more than $10.50 an hour before the agreement, the agreement froze their wages. The two men in the general labor/meter reader classification moved into other classifications before the agreement took effect, leaving only plaintiffs Donajkowski and McDonald in the general labor/meter reader classification. The agreement provided pay increases for the other union classifications. There were no women in these other classifications.

Alpena Power hired plaintiff Deedra Duranceau into the general labor/meter reader classification in 1990. Duranceau started at $7.50 an hour and received regular increases until she reached the $10.50 maximum.

When Alpena Power and the union could not agree on a new contract in 1992, Alpena Power instituted the terms of its last best offer and union members worked without a contract. Defendant's last best offer maintained the basic structure of the 1989 collective bargaining agreement insofar as it maintained the maximum wage for the general labor/meter reader classification while providing increases for the other classifications. The effect of these terms was to freeze the wages of the three female union members—all of whom were in the general labor/meter reader classification—while granting increases for the remaining classifications, which were populated by male union members. However, nonunion female employees also received pay increases during this period.

In 1993, plaintiffs and the union filed suit against Alpena Power alleging sex discrimination in violation of the Civil Rights Act, M.C.L. § 37.2101 et seq.; MSA 3.548(101) et seq., and the Equal Pay Act, 29 U.S.C. 206(d)(1). After the union was dismissed as a party-plaintiff pursuant to stipulation, defendant filed a third-party complaint seeking contribution from the union in the event defendant was found liable to plaintiffs. Defendant argued that the union should be jointly liable for any discrimination stemming from the collective bargaining agreement because that agreement was the result of negotiation between defendant and the union. The trial court allowed the third-party complaint, over the union's protest.2 Eventually, the trial court also granted summary disposition for defendant on plaintiffs' claims. Plaintiffs and the union then appealed. The Court of Appeals reversed the grant of summary disposition, but affirmed the decision allowing the third-party complaint against the union.3 Alpena Power and the union both sought leave to appeal. We denied Alpena Power's application, but granted leave to the union.4 Thus, the merits of the underlying claims are not at issue here, and we only concern ourselves with the propriety of defendant's third-party complaint against the union.

II The Parties' Arguments

The parties correctly assert that a claim for sex discrimination sounds in tort. See Stimson v. Michigan Bell Telephone Co., 77 Mich.App. 361, 366, n. 3, 258 N.W.2d 227 (1977). Our Legislature has declared that there is a right of contribution among joint tortfeasors:

Except as otherwise provided in this act, when 2 or more persons become jointly or severally liable in tort for the same injury to a person or property or for the same wrongful death, there is a right of contribution among them even though judgment has not been recovered against all or any of them. [MCL 600.2925a(1); MSA 27A.2925(1)(1).]

The defendant employer contends that, to the extent it is liable to plaintiffs for sex discrimination, the union is liable as a joint tortfeasor under the statute. For its part, the union contends: (1) an intentional tortfeasor may not seek contribution, and (2) the Civil Rights Act should be construed as prohibiting any attempt by an employer to seek contribution from a union.

As explained below, we are not persuaded by the union's arguments, and we conclude, as did the trial court and the Court of Appeals, that the plain language of the contribution statute permits defendant to pursue a third-party claim against the union.

III Standard of Review

We review questions of statutory construction de novo. McAuley v. General Motors Corp., 457 Mich. 513, 518, 578 N.W.2d 282 (1998). In construing a statute, our purpose is to ascertain and to give effect to the Legislature's intent. Reardon v. Mental Health Dep't, 430 Mich. 398, 407, 424 N.W.2d 248 (1988). If the language of a statute is clear and unambiguous, the plain meaning of the statute reflects the legislative intent and judicial construction is not permitted. Tryc v. Michigan Veterans' Facility, 451 Mich. 129, 135, 545 N.W.2d 642 (1996). We must give the words of a statute their plain and ordinary meaning. Turner v. Auto Club Ins. Ass'n, 448 Mich. 22, 27, 528 N.W.2d 681 (1995).

IV Analysis
A. The Contribution Statute

At common law, courts have often drawn distinctions between intentional and nonintentional tortfeasors vis-a-vis their right to seek contribution.5 Indeed, Michigan common law prohibits an intentional tortfeasor from seeking contribution.6 However, our Legislature has not seen fit to maintain that common-law distinction in our statutory scheme. Thus, unlike a number of other states, our contribution statute does not include any limitation or prohibition concerning intentional tortfeasors.7 Whatever the policy arguments for or against such a rule,8 we conclude that the Legislature has unambiguously provided that contribution may be had between tortfeasors without regard to the intentional character of their acts, and we are not at liberty to ignore the plain language of the statute.

The union relies upon a number of cases addressing the distinction between intentional and nonintentional tortfeasors. Most of those cases dealt with the common law. See Moyses v. Spartan Asphalt Paving Co., 383 Mich. 314, 174 N.W.2d 797 (1970), overruled in part on other grounds in Hapner v. Rolf Brauchli, Inc., 404 Mich. 160, 182, n. 5, 273 N.W.2d 822 (1978); Caldwell v. Fox, 394 Mich. 401, 231 N.W.2d 46 (1975); Fidelity & Deposit Co. of Maryland v. Newman, 109 Mich.App. 620, 311 N.W.2d 821 (1981); Johnson v. Bundy, 129 Mich.App. 393, 342 N.W.2d 567 (1983). In addition, the facts in Moyses, Caldwell, and Johnson involved negligence, breach of warranty, or products liability, rather than intentional torts. Thus, to the extent that any of these cases suggest that the contribution statute does not apply to intentional tortfeasors, they do so only in dicta.

The only Michigan case that directly addresses the statutory contribution rule is Hunt v. Chrysler, 68 Mich.App. 744, 747-750, 244 N.W.2d 16 (1976), where the Court concluded that an intentional tortfeasor may bring an action for contribution under the statute. The union does cite one federal case, In re Air Crash at Detroit Metropolitan Airport, 791 F.Supp. 1204, 1226 (E.D.Mich., 1992), wherein the federal district court stated that "Michigan courts have ruled that an intentional tortfeasor may not recover contribution under the [contribution statute]." However the court in In re Air Crash was mistaken; no Michigan court has so held. The court in In re Air Crash confused the Michigan common-law rule with that established in the Michigan contribution statute, and essentially relied on dicta from the cases it cited for this proposition.9 We conclude that, on the basis of its plain and unambiguous terms, the Michigan contribution statute, with specific exceptions,10 authorizes an intentional tortfeasor to seek contribution.

B. The Civil Rights Act

The union also argues that the Civil Rights Act should be read to preclude an action for contribution brought by an employer against a union. The union does not point to any language in the act requiring or even hinting at such a result. Instead, the union relies on a case involving title VII, the federal counterpart to our Civil Rights Act. In Northwest Airlines v. Transport Workers Union of America, 451 U.S. 77, 90-95, 101 S.Ct. 1571, 67 L.Ed.2d 750 (1981), the United States Supreme Court...

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