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Southfield — The Michigan Court of Appeals has revived lawsuits against attorney Mike Morse, who is accused of sexually assaulting two women who worked at his Oakland County law firm.

Judges in Oakland and Wayne counties had ruled the allegations against Morse needed to be handled privately through arbitration. But the appeals court ruled that an arbitration clause for employees at Morse’s firm doesn’t fit these cases.

Morse is accused is grabbing the breasts of a paralegal, Jordan Smits, and a receptionist, Samantha Lichon, in separate incidents. He denies the allegations.

"With all due respect I disagree with the panel's decision," said Morse's defense attorney Deborah Gordon, who has practiced employment law for 40 years. "I expect it will be appealed. Arbitration is a common and an accepted practice in use in such cases since 1999. There is nothing unique about these accusations. 

"But if an appeal doesn't succeed we are prepared to go back in court on them," said Gordon. "I believe in my client and defense."

In its ruling, the appeals court said sending the complaints to arbitration “would effectively perpetuate a culture that silences victims of sexual assault and allows abusers to quietly settle these claims behind an arbitrator’s closed door.” Judges Kathleen Jensen and Jane Beckering were in the 2-1 majority. A third panel member, Judge Colleen O’Brien, disagreed.

Gordon said she doesn't believe the appeals court can "carve out one type of offense like sexual harassment from arbitration just because they aren't comfortable with it."

She noted the two women left employment with the Morse firm before another accuser, Renee Swain, filed her lawsuit in May 2017 claiming Morse had grabbed her breast during a "selfie" photograph in a Farmington Hills restaurant.

"They then jumped on the bandwagon and filed their own lawsuits a couple weeks apart claiming on-the-job sexual harassment claims," said Gordon. "They had never made such accusations when employed and one even wrote what a good place it was to work."

Both had signed employment forms agreeing to arbitration regarding any on-the-job disputes.

Oakland Circuit Judge Phyllis McMillen dismissed Swain's sexual assault lawsuit in December after finding Swain had perjured herself on the record, lied under oath. That case remains dismissed and is not affected by the appeals court ruling, Gordon stressed.

Attorney Geoffrey Fieger, whose firm represented all the accusers against Morse, was not immediately available for comment Friday.

Associated Press contributed.

mmartindale@detroitnews.com

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