Cheryl Debano-Griffin was the director of Lake County’s 911 Department. Before Debano-Griffin was hired, the voters of Lake County passed a millage to raise funds for a countywide ambulance service. The ballot language stated that the funds raised by the millage would be used solely and “specifically for the purpose of operating the Lake County Ambulance Service.” The county contracted with Life EMS, Inc. to provide ambulance services. Life EMS was to provide two ambulances in the county 24 hours per day, seven days per week.
In 2002, Debano-Griffin learned that Life EMS was using one of the ambulances to provide services for residents of other counties; she reported this to the Lake County’s Board of Commissioners. She also objected to the board’s decision to transfer funds from the ambulance fund to another county account, contending that the transfer violated the terms of the millage proposal. The board voted to return the transferred funds to the ambulance fund – and also voted to eliminate Debano-Griffin’s position. According to Debano-Griffin, an earlier draft of the proposed budget – prepared before she expressed her concerns about the transfer of money from the ambulance fund – included her position. When she asked county officials why her position was eliminated, she was told that the action was “due to budgetary constraints.”
Debano-Griffin sued Lake County and its board of commissioners. She claimed that the defendants terminated her employment in retaliation for her reporting problems with Life EMS ambulance services, or because she raised concerns about the legality of the transfer from the ambulance fund. Debano-Griffin’s complaint alleged three causes of action, including a claim brought under the Whistleblowers Protection Act, MCL 15.361 et seq. The WPA protects an employee who has reported a violation or suspected violation of the law to a public body. MCL 15.362. To establish a claim under the WPA, a plaintiff must prove that (1) she was engaged in a protected activity; (2) she suffered an adverse employment action; and (3) there was a causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse employment action.
The defendants filed a motion for summary disposition, arguing that Debano-Griffin’s WPA claim should be dismissed. She had not engaged in protected activity under the WPA, the defendants contended. They also argued that Debano-Griffin could not establish a causal connection between the decision to terminate her position and her reporting of suspected improper conduct. The defendants maintained that Debano-Griffin’s position was eliminated because of the county’s fiscal crisis, but she disputed this, presenting evidence that, with one exception, the other employees in her department received a pay raise in 2005, and that new employees were hired.
The trial court denied the defendants’ motion for summary disposition. A jury awarded Debano-Griffin $350,000 in damages, finding that that the defendants had violated the WPA.
The defendants appealed and the Court of Appeals reversed, concluding that Debano-Griffin’s WPA claim failed as a matter of law because she was not engaged in protected activity. The Michigan Supreme Court reversed this ruling and remanded the case to the Court of Appeals, directing the Court of Appeals to consider whether Debano-Griffin could demonstrate a causal connection between her protected activity and the defendants’ decision not to fund her position. In a split unpublished decision, the Court of Appeals again reversed the trial court’s order denying the defendants’ motion for summary disposition, this time holding that Debano-Griffin failed to establish a genuine issue of material fact as to the causal connection element of her claim. The Court of Appeals majority concluded that Debano-Griffin’s evidence established only a temporal relationship between her complaints and the elimination of her job. She established that her job was eliminated after she complained about possible unlawful activity, but she did not present evidence that her job was eliminated because she complained about possible unlawful activity. The judges in the majority also noted that neither the courts nor a jury may second-guess an employer’s business judgment (in this case, the commissioners’ decision regarding how to address the county’s budgetary problems). The dissenting judge would have affirmed the trial court’s ruling that Debano-Griffin presented sufficient evidence to establish causation.