Michigan Supreme Court sends 2 lawsuits against attorney Morse back to trial courts
Lansing — The Michigan Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that two sexual assault claims by former employees against attorney Mike Morse can proceed to court, saying the circuit courts will determine whether the cases go to arbitration.
Morse's attorney had argued that alleged victims' employment contracts required that they appeal their cases directly to Morse.
Deborah Gordon, Morse'sattorney, said it still is to be determined if the cases will fall into a category of employment claims, which may be decided out of court in arbitration.
Attorney Geoffrey Fieger, who is representing two of the alleged victims with attorney Sima Patel, said the cases “cannot be forced into secret arbitration" and declared the ruling a "landmark decision."
Gordon said Fieger has mispresented the ruling.
“What the Supreme Court decided is that these cases should go back to the state trial courts,” said Gordon. One case is in Wayne County and another in Oakland County.
“In those respective jurisdictions, it may be ultimately decided that they are employment cases, which under agreements signed by the employees, should go into arbitration,” she said.
“There is nothing secret about arbitration and arbitration clauses in employee contracts, including law firms, is pretty routine,” Gordon said. “And we are confident when all is done, these claims will be determined to be without merit.”
Samantha Lichon, a former receptionist at Morse’s office from 2015-17, alleged in an Oakland Circuit Court complaint that Morse verbally abused her and groped her on several occasions.
In a Wayne Circuit Court complaint, Jordan Smits alleged Morse grabbed her breast at a December 2015 office Christmas party. Smits, a paralegal at the Morse firm, filed a complaint with the firm’s human resources department and resigned rather than accept a two-week severance package in exchange for signing a nondisclosure agreement. Both women had signed mandatory dispute resolution procedures at the firm, agreeing to arbitration in disputes.
Morse has repeatedly denied any improper conduct, Gordon said.
Judges in Oakland and Wayne counties had ruled the claims against Morse should be handled privately through arbitration. In March, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled that an arbitration clause for workers at Morse’s law firm doesn’t fit the cases involved.
In a news release Tuesday from Fieger’s office, Fieger and Patel said: “No victim of sexual assault should ever be forced to appeal to her abuser for justice, no matter what an employment contract states.”
Patel and Fieger argued at the state Supreme Court that sexual assaults are not related to employment and should not be controlled by an “arbitration agreement.”
“Secret arbitration serves only to shield abusers from consequences," Fieger said. "Secrecy protects perpetrators. The Michigan Supreme Court’s decision today will allow victims of sexual assault, in the employee context, to hold their assailants accountable and obtain justice. The court’s decision today also brings Michigan into line with a majority of states.”
The ruling states: “This threshold question of whether a dispute is subject to arbitration is for a court to determine … As we have said 'a party cannot be required to arbitrate an issue which it has not agreed to submit to arbitration.'”
Four justices jointly concluded: “We vacate the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remand these cases to their respective circuit courts where the courts may analyze defendants’ motions to compel arbitration by analyzing which of plaintiffs’ claims can be maintained without reference to the contract or relationship at issue.
"Plaintiffs may seek to amend their complaints in light of this new direction.“
Joining in the ruling were Justices Megan Cavanagh, Bridget McCormack, Richard Bernstein and Elizabeth Clement.
Justice Viviano wrote a dissenting opinion, which was joined by Justice Brian Zahra.
Justice Elizabeth Welch did not participate in Tuesday's ruling. Welch did not take office until this past January months after the court heard arguments in the matter.