Wayne County executive loses immunity claim; court refuses to dismiss wrongful termination suit
Turkia Awada Mullin is the highest appointive executive of Wayne County's Department of Economic Development Growth Engine. She attempted to parlay her position into a claim of absolute immunity from liability for allegedly wrongfully terminating Taylor Segue.
The Michigan Legislature and Supreme Court have delineated a level of absolute immunity for the highest ranking executive at all levels of government. This is a sad holdover from the English Common Law, under which the King of England refused to recognize any lawsuit against himself in the courts that "he" created and sponsored. Then it was called "sovereign immunity:" now it is merely one facet of governmental immunity. How it maintains vitality in a democracy created of, by and for the people is a mystery, and why the victim of governmental misconduct should be singled out and excluded from fair compensation is a mystery to us.
Nevertheless, the doctrine exists, and as with all facets of governmental immunity, its breadth has been expanded under the decisions of the Republican majority of the Michigan Supreme Court. The statutory duty to maintain "reasonably safe" roads has been reduced to a duty to repair the asphalt surface, excluding bridges, traffic control devices, shoulders, rights of way or reasonable design principles. The right to recover for a loved one's death has been reduced to the decedent's anticipated economic support; the threshold for suing any governmental employee has been increased from "aggravated negligence" to "wanton misconduct;" and the liability for negligent operation of a vehicle has been limited to the actual operational control of the vehicle, excluding negligent maintenance or decision-making. These are just a few examples of the Republican re-structuring of governmental liability for injuries it causes to individual citizens. But we digress...
In Segue v. Wayne County, Ms. Mullin argued that simply because she was the executive of a particular department, she also should have absolute immunity from her mistakes or illegal actions. Finding that her Department was not an autonomous entity, the trial judge and the Court of Appeals agreed that Mullin's complete immunity argument had no justification in Michigan law.
Segue cross-appealed the trial judge's decision holding that his retaliation claim was preempted by the Whistleblower Protection Act. Segue had reported to Mullin that she could not "divert" funds from one project to another, and the trial judge ruled that his "advice" constituted protected activity under the WPA. The Court of Appeals agreed with the plaintiff that Segue's actions were not in the nature of "reporting" a violation, but rather refusing to perform an illegal action (since he prepared paperwork for the fund transfer to be approved by the proper Board, allegedly precipitating his firing). Therefore, his claim of illegal retaliatory termination was not preempted by procedures outlined in the WPA.