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Judge: Spranger retaliated against union employee

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Mount Clemens — A Macomb Circuit judge on Friday ruled County Clerk Karen Spranger violated an order forbidding her from retaliating against union employees but declined to impose penalties against her — for now.

Judge Richard Caretti, in a 15-page written opinion, said evidence presented during a Wednesday hearing over the alleged violation clearly established that Spranger had placed an employee on administrative leave last month in retaliation for participation in union activity.

AFSCME Local 411 had argued Spranger and her deputy clerk violated an employee’s collective bargaining rights when it put Kristanne Feliciano, who is a union steward, on a paid administrative leave Nov. 17. The move came after Feliciano threatened she could file a grievance against Spranger for having a supervisor perform union work.

The incident unfolded after the union had requested a temporary restraining order the month prior on claims Spranger engaged in unfair labor practices in violation of the Public Employment Relations Act and county’s collective bargaining agreement.

Caretti’s Friday ruling comes two days after attorneys for the union sparred with Spranger for about 5 1/2 hours in court over the complaint.

Spranger’s actions, Caretti ruled, show she moved to put Feliciano on leave right after she expressed her intent to file a grievance. The proper resolution, he noted, would be to reinstate Feliciano, which already took place during Wednesday’s hearing.

“Despite the court’s conclusion that defendant did commit a violation of the (temporary restraining order) by placing Feliciano on administrative leave in retaliation for Feliciano’s engagement in union activity, the court does not believe that the imposition of additional contempt penalties would serve any purpose at this time,” the judge wrote.

But Caretti further warned if violations of the bargaining agreement arise, it could result in penalties for Spranger.

“Though the court has elected not to impose sanctions against defendant for her current violation of the TRO, the court strongly notes its authority to impose such sanctions should further violations be established,” Caretti added. “The court stresses that the preliminary injunction must be scrupulously followed.”

Bruce Miller, an attorney for AFSCME Local 411, told The News Friday night that he’s satisfied with the judge’s order that puts Spranger on “serious notice.”

“I think the court has put her on very serious notice that she better behave, and if she doesn’t behave, we will be back in court very quickly,” he said. “We think for the first round this is a total vindication for the union and its right to represent the workers. If she steps out of line again, we will come down on her like a ton of bricks.”

Spranger could not be immediately reached Friday for comment. In court Wednesday, she defended her office from the allegations, saying they stemmed from a confrontation between Feliciano and a supervisor, and Spranger contends she diffused the situation by sending the Feliciano home for the day.

However, there had been confusion about when Feliciano was to return to work.

On Nov. 17, Feliciano, a union steward who is employed by the Register of Deeds as a clerk typist, had been away testifying in court regarding the restraining order litigation.

When she returned to work that day, she found her direct supervisor performing cashier work in the Vital Records Department. Feliciano then argued that the work is to be performed by an AFSCME member, not a UAW supervisor.

The supervisor, the court ruling notes, was improperly logged into the system under an AFSCME employee’s login and Feliciano told her she’d “probably have to file a grievance.”

The threat led to a disagreement and ultimately to her being sent home for the day by Spranger and placed on leave.

Since taking office in January, Spranger has been embroiled in a series of political fights and has long clashed with the county workers’ union over work rules for the 85 employees she supervises.

On Thursday, the clerk spent hours before the Macomb County Board of Commissioners addressing questions about backlogs, staffing issues and other concerns surrounding the operations of her office.

Spranger sued Macomb County in June to have the “no firearm zone” status removed from the two buildings that house her county offices. She’s also claimed Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel and other county officials are interfering with her management of her office.

The county filed a counterclaim on Aug. 1, seeking to remove Spranger from office because she allegedly falsified her residency in paperwork filed in her bid for public office. A judge earlier this week ruled the counterclaim may proceed.

On Monday, the county filed a lawsuit seeking a court order to compel Spranger to perform her duties as clerk, including processing legal filings used by the county’s courts and law enforcement agencies.