Judge: Whistleblower suit against Spranger, Macomb Co. can go forward
A federal judge on Monday declined to dismiss a whistleblower lawsuit filed by two former Macomb County Clerk Karen Spranger appointees, who claim they were fired in retaliation for filing complaints with the county’s ethics board.
Paul Kardasz, the ex-chief deputy clerk, and Erin Stahl, former deputy register of deeds, sued Spranger and the county within weeks of their termination in March 2017.
The ex-aides allege that shortly after taking her post, Spranger administered the oath of office to two non-employees and gave them “unfettered access” to the Clerk’s Office, including confidential county records and personnel files. The lawsuit also claims Spranger allowed one of the non-employees to draft meeting minutes and use her county-issued work computer. As a result, the county banned Spranger’s computer use.
Both aides described a contentious working environment and allege Spranger harassed them. They believe the firings violated their First Amendment rights and the Michigan Whistleblower Protection Act.
But in court filings, Spranger argued the pair could not prove an adverse action was taken against them or the ethics complaints prompted the terminations.
In his order Monday, U.S. District Judge Mark Goldsmith wrote: “The question is not whether Plaintiff was deterred from engaging in the protected activity as a result of the adverse action. Rather, the question is whether a future person would be deterred from engaging in the same protected activity as a result of the adverse action. Termination certainly qualifies.”
Macomb officials also had argued the First Amendment did not protect the staffer’s ethics complaints and that “there was a governmental interest in terminating their employment” due to a perceived lack of support for Spranger. The aides, they said, couldn’t rebut a “legitimate, non-discriminatory reason” for their firing.
Goldsmith said the aides had been speaking as citizens when they made the ethics complaints. “It would be harmful to the public interest if public employees were forced to choose between bringing actual or potential ethical violations into public view and keeping their jobs," he wrote. "Accordingly, the court finds that the plaintiffs’ interest is greater than the governmental interest in this case."
The judge also noted that Kardasz and Stahl had “testified that Spranger
made comments to them that would indicate she was going to take disciplinary action against them due to their ethics complaints. … Because a reasonable jury could conclude that plaintiffs’ protected activity was a motivating factor for their terminations, the court denies Macomb’s motion …”
An attorney listed as representing Spranger, who was ousted in 2018 after an investigation found evidence that she had falsified her residence on election filing papers, could not be reached Monday night.
County representatives did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday night.
A status conference on the case is scheduled for May 30, court records show.