Veenstra v. Washtenaw Country Club

CourtSupreme Court of Michigan
Citation645 N.W.2d 643,466 Mich. 155
Docket NumberDocket No. 117985, Calendar No. 8.
PartiesBrent VEENSTRA, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. WASHTENAW COUNTRY CLUB, Defendant-Appellant.
Decision Date29 May 2002

Green, Green, Adams & Palmer, P.C. (by Thomas L. Kent), Ann Arbor, MI, for the plaintiff-appellee.

Miller, Canfield, Paddock & Stone, P.L.C. (by Charles A. Duerr, Jr. and Linda O. Goldberg), Ann Arbor, MI, for the defendant-appellant.

YOUNG, Justice.

Defendant Washtenaw Country Club declined to renew plaintiff's contract as the club's golf professional, following plaintiff's apparently notorious and public separation from his wife and cohabitation with another woman. The trial court summarily dismissed plaintiff's breach of contract and marital discrimination claims. The Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of the contract claim, but held that, under our decision in McCready v. Hoffius, 459 Mich. 131, 586 N.W.2d 723 (1998) (McCready II),

vacated in part 459 Mich. 1235, 593 N.W.2d 545 (1999), discrimination on the basis of "unmarried cohabitation" violated the Civil Rights Act, M.C.L. § 37.2101 et seq.

We granted leave to appeal to consider whether the Civil Rights Act extends to discrimination against an employee on the basis of the employee's conduct, in this case adultery. We hold that an employee discharged solely because of conduct such as adultery is not protected by the Civil Rights Act; the statute prohibits an employer only from making decisions because of race, sex, marital status, and the other protected statuses enumerated in the statute. In opposition to defendant's motion for summary disposition, plaintiff has arguably introduced some evidence that defendant considered his marital status in addition to his unprotected conduct. However, because the trial court did not explain why this evidence was insufficient to meet plaintiff's burden under MCR 2.116(G)(4), we vacate the holding of the Court of Appeals and remand this matter to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiff was employed as defendant's golf professional from 1991 through 1996. His employment was based on a yearly contract.

Plaintiff's then current contract expired on its own terms in December 1996. In January 1996, plaintiff, who was married, began having an adulterous affair with a married woman. In April 1996, plaintiff moved out of his marital home. A few weeks after leaving the marital home, plaintiff began cohabitating with his mistress and escorted her to club events. All these activities became well known to members of the Washtenaw Country Club and were the subject of discussion.

In June 1996, board member Russo prepared and distributed a survey to the general membership of the country club asking members to evaluate certain key personnel, including plaintiff. The surveys revealed that a number of members were dissatisfied with plaintiff's performance as the club golf professional. Plaintiff received far more negative reviews than the other three personnel who were also the focus of the performance survey.

In September 1996, plaintiff's wife instituted formal divorce proceedings. Two months later, defendant informed plaintiff of its decision not to renew his yearly employment contract. The employment contract expired at the end of 1996. Plaintiff's divorce from his wife became final in May 1997.

In December 1997, plaintiff filed suit, alleging marital status discrimination and breach of contract. Regarding the discrimination claim, plaintiff alleged that his termination "was motivated in part if not entirely because of his status as a divorced person."

The trial court granted summary disposition for defendant on both counts of the complaint pursuant to MCR 2.116(C)(10). Relying on McCready v. Hoffius, 222 Mich.App. 210, 564 N.W.2d 493 (1997) (McCready I), the trial court ruled that cohabitation was not a protected status under the Civil Rights Act. Viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to plaintiff, the trial court concluded that "if there was discrimination against plaintiff, it was not based on his pending divorce but on his cohabitation with his mistress." In granting summary disposition to defendant, the trial court did not address an affidavit plaintiff submitted that arguably supported a claim that his pending divorce was a factor in the decision not to renew his contract.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals affirmed in part and reversed in part.1 The panel affirmed the granting of summary disposition on the breach of contract claim.2 However, the panel reversed the order granting summary disposition regarding the marital status discrimination claim. McCready I, relied on by the trial court in granting summary disposition for defendant, had been reversed by this Court in McCready II. Citing the Court's decision in McCready II, the Court of Appeals concluded that plaintiff had a valid claim for marital discrimination "to the extent that plaintiff establishes discrimination on the basis of his unmarried cohabitation ...." In concluding that plaintiff presented direct evidence sufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact, the Court of Appeals cited the affidavit of defendant's outside operations manager who stated that three of the board's eight members specifically expressed their disapproval of plaintiff's divorce, stated that the situation was "disgusting," referred to plaintiff as a "slut," and stated that they "had to get rid of him."

Defendant sought leave to appeal, which was granted. 464 Mich. 874, 630 N.W.2d 623 (2001).

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

The decision to grant or deny summary disposition is a question of law that is reviewed de novo. Van v. Zahorik, 460 Mich. 320, 597 N.W.2d 15 (1999). This case also presents the issue whether plaintiff's adulterous behavior is protected under the Civil Rights Act. The interpretation and application of a statutory provision is a question of law that is reviewed de novo by this Court. People v. Webb, 458 Mich. 265, 274, 580 N.W.2d 884 (1998).

III. PRINCIPLES OF STATUTORY CONSTRUCTION

When interpreting statutory language, our obligation is to discern the legislative intent that may reasonably be inferred from the words expressed in the statute. Wickens v. Oakwood Healthcare System, 465 Mich. 53, 631 N.W.2d 686 (2001). When the Legislature has unambiguously conveyed its intent in a statute, the statute speaks for itself and there is no need for judicial construction; the proper role of a court is simply to apply the terms of the statute to the circumstances in a particular case. Turner v. Auto Club Ins. Ass'n, 448 Mich. 22, 528 N.W.2d 681 (1995). In construing a statute, the words used by the Legislature must be given their common, ordinary meaning. M.C.L. 8.3a.

IV. ANALYSIS
A. THE STATUTE

Plaintiff's claim for marital status employment discrimination is premised upon M.C.L. § 37.2202(1), which provides in relevant part:

An employer shall not do any of the following:

(a) Fail or refuse to hire or recruit, discharge, or otherwise discriminate against an individual with respect to employment, compensation, or a term, condition, or privilege of employment, because of religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, or marital status.

While the term "marital status" is not defined in the statute, this Court has historically defined the term as "whether a person is married." Miller v. C.A. Muer Corp., 420 Mich. 355, 363, 362 N.W.2d 650 (1984); Whirlpool Corp. v. Civil Rights Comm., 425 Mich. 527, 530, 390 N.W.2d 625 (1986); McCready II, supra at 137, 586 N.W.2d 723.

The clear, unambiguous language of the statute protects status, not conduct. As a result, if an employer takes adverse action against an employee for conduct, without regard to marital status, the Civil Rights Act simply provides no redress. Thus, a discrimination claim premised merely on an employer's consideration of an employee's adultery would provide no basis for recovery under the act.3

B. THE APPLICABILITY OF MCCREADY II

In McCready II, defendants, who owned residential rental property, refused to rent their property to unmarried couples. In doing so, defendants stated "that the units were available only to married couples" and that they usually "did not rent to unmarried couples." 459 Mich. at 134, 586 N.W.2d 723. Plaintiffs, two unmarried couples who intended to cohabit, brought suit after being denied the opportunity to rent the property. Defendants maintained that any discrimination was premised upon "their perception of plaintiffs' conduct" rather than the plaintiffs' marital status. Id. at 138, 586 N.W.2d 723.

The issue to be resolved in McCready II was whether a claim for marital status discrimination could be stated where the claim was premised on defendant's rejection of plaintiffs because of their unmarried cohabitation. The statutory provision at issue in McCready II, M.C.L. § 37.2502(1), states in pertinent part:

A person engaging in a real estate transaction, or a real estate broker or salesman, shall not on the basis of religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, familial status, or marital status of a person or a person residing with that person:

(a) Refuse to engage in a real estate transaction with a person. [Emphasis added.]

In determining that the plaintiff had stated a claim for marital status discrimination, this Court attempted to distinguish status from conduct, concluding that "[p]laintiffs' marital status, and not their conduct in living together, is the root of the defendants' objection to renting the apartment to the plaintiffs." Id. at 140, 586 N.W.2d 723. We further noted that the case was "complicated" by a statute forbidding lewd and lascivious cohabitation by unmarried couples, M.C.L. § 750.335. Id., at 136, 586 N.W.2d 723. However, the opinion held that there was "insufficient evidence that the plaintiffs intended to engage...

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