Court of Appeals panel overturns trial judge; summarily dismisses wrongful termination claim despite "just cause" provision
Charles Melki sued his employer, Clayton Charter Township in Genesee County, for wrongful discharge. Melki had been the Chief of Police. The Township sought summary disposition before trial. The trial judge granted partial disposition but also found that since Melki had a "just cause" provision in his contract, he was entitled to a jury trial on that issue. The Township appealed the trial judge's decision, seeking complete summary disposition. Melki cross-appealed the grant of governmental immunity to the Township Supervisor, Bruce Beatty.
The higher court overturned the trial judge's decision awarding immunity to Beatty, concluding that when he fired Melki, he was acting outside his authority as Township Supervisor. Therefore it reinstated Melki's claim against Beatty for tortious interference with a contractual relationship. With regard to the claim against the Township, however, the appellate panel ruled that Melki could not enforce his "just cause" contract protections.
According to the factual record, in 2007, Melki began investigating complaints against two individuals who had allegedly abused the public trust while employees of the Township. One of these men worked on Beatty's campaign for Supervisor, and when Melki informed Beatty that he would likely be continuing his investigation of the campaign worker--the Deputy Treasurer of the County--Beatty sought reevaluation of Melki's employment contract and his suspension. Beatty argued that the contract was void because the term of the contract exceeded the elected term of the Board that contracted with Melki.
The Board as then constituted voted to suspend Melki, and eventually voted to void his contract and put it out for competitive bidding. Melki sued, alleging that the actions violated the language in his contract that limited termination to situations involving "just cause." The Township argued that since its Ordinance included a provision that the Chief of Police would serve "at the pleasure of the Board," the "just cause" limitation in his contract was illegal and void. The trial judge disagreed, but did grant the dismissal of the claims against Beatty and the Deputy Chief who had allegedly disabled the office security cameras and removed evidence from Milke's desk.
As noted above, the higher court reversed all of these decsions, except the grant of immunity to the Deputy. It held that since the contract violated a Township Ordinance it was void. Nevertheless, it also held that Beatty exceeded his authority when he fired Melki after the contract was voided, since the Board had not actually terminated Melki's employment when it voided the written contract.