Court approves sanctions against attorney who pursued frivolous handicap civil rights claim against Ferris State
Mary Lou Bonacci sued Ferris State University. A tenured professor, Bonacci argued that her Traverse City classes were reassigned to other professors as a result of age and handicap discrimination and in retaliation against her for filing union grievances. When she later testified that she was incapable of working during the relevant period because of unrelated medical problems, the Mecosta County judge refused her attorney's attempt to voluntarily dismiss the case and awarded more than $290,000.00 in attorney fee sanctions to Ferris State jointly against Bonacci and her attorneys.
The attorneys, Cummnings, McClorey, Davis & Acho appealed, arguing that the claims they pursued were not frivolous; that the amount awarded was excessive; that the award should not have been "joint and several" against them and the client; and that any error they made was caused by their reliance upon their client's representations to them. The Court of Appeals rejected all of these arguments, holding that the attorneys failed in their duty to conduct a reasonable investigation into the validity of the claims they had pursued. The Court did agree with the attorneys that the sanctions should be reduced by the fees and costs the University incurred in seeking sanctions after the case was dismissed.