Michigan Supreme Court denies suit over prison officer pay cuts

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Michigan Supreme Court Justice Stephen Markman was among the justices who denied an appeal of a state Court of Appeals decision affirming a Michigan Civil Service Commission ruling that let the state reclassify nearly 2,500 corrections workers to lower-paid jobs in 2012.

Lansing — The Michigan Supreme Court on Friday declined to revisit a lawsuit alleging the state Department of Corrections unfairly slashed pay for residential housing unit officers by giving them a new title for the same job.

The decision upholds a Court of Appeals ruling that had affirmed a Michigan Civil Service Commission decision authorizing the state to reclassify nearly 2,500 corrections workers to lower-paid jobs in 2012.

The Michigan Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the case in January but on Friday denied an application for appeal, saying justices “are not persuaded that the questions presented should be reviewed by the court.”

The Department of Corrections in 2012 abolished 2,415 “resident unit officer” positions and simultaneously create 2,415 new “corrections officer” posts. The department also cut 57 “medical unit officer” positions and created 57 new “medical officer” positions, bumping employees to the new jobs.

The new corrections jobs paid less and cost the affected employees a combined $8 million a year in wages, according to attorneys for officer William Henderson and the Michigan Corrections Organization union.

“This, despite the fact that the employees continued on April 2, 2012 to do precisely what they had done on April 1, 2012,” attorneys argued in a 2017 filing. “Nothing changed but the position titles and the rates of pay.”

Supreme Court arguments focused on what power courts have to review or reverse decisions by the Michigan Civil Service Commission, which has constitutional authority to oversee state employment and approved the job reclassifications. 

The Ingham County Circuit Court had reversed the commission decision, calling it “arbitrary and capricious” and not justified by the evidence. But the appeals court said judicial review was limited because the agency decision was “authorized by law.”

Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel inherited the case when she took office on Jan. 1 and continued to defend the state against the union challenge. But her office in January backed off a broader argument seeking a precedent-setting decision by Michigan's highest court. 

Justice Stephen Markman, in Friday’s order, noted that Nessel, “as is her prerogative, expressly abandoned” an argument made under former Attorney General Bill Schuette that constitutional authors did not expect decisions authorized by law would be subject to the "arbitrary and capricious" review.

The court does not indicate how justices voted in such orders, but Markman and Justice Megan Cavanagh both penned concurring statements explaining their rationale and thoughts on the debate.

Chief Justice Bridget McCormack signed onto Cavanagh’s statement, while Justice Richard Bernstein indicated he would have remanded the case back to the Court of Appeals for additional consideration.

The United Auto Workers union, Service Employees International Union Local 517M and the Michigan State Employees Association filed legal briefs backing the corrections officers in the case.

By reclassifying nearly 2,500 corrections officers to positions with lower pay, the state “effectively” demoted them, UAW attorneys argued.