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148617 - Speicher v Columbia Twp Bd of Trustees

Kenneth J. Speicher,
 
John J. Bursch
 
Plaintiff-Appellee,
 
v
(Appeal from Ct of Appeals)
 
 
(Van Buren – Hamre, P.)
 
Columbia Township Board of Trustees and Columbia Township Planning Commission,
 
Mary Massaron Ross
 
Defendants-Appellants.
 

Summary

​The Open Meetings Act (OMA) authorizes a person to “to commence a civil action to compel compliance or to enjoin further noncompliance with the act.”  MCL 15.271(1).  In this case, plaintiff Kenneth Speicher filed a complaint alleging a violation of the OMA after two meetings of the local planning commission in Columbia Township were canceled without the notice required by the act.  Speicher sought a declaratory judgment stating that the planning commission violated the act, as well as an injunction barring the planning commission from committing further OMA violations.  Relying on MCL 15.271(4), Speicher also asked the court to grant him an award of attorney fees.  This provision of the act states that, “[i]f a public body is not complying with [the OMA], and a person commences a civil action against the public body for injunctive relief to compel compliance or to enjoin further noncompliance with the act and succeeds in obtaining relief in the action, the person shall recover court costs and actual attorney fees for the action.”  Id.  The trial court ruled that any OMA violation committed by the planning commission was merely technical and did not entitled Speicher to any of the relief that he requested.  It granted the township defendants’ motion for summary disposition and dismissed the lawsuit.

Speicher appealed this ruling to the Court of Appeals, which reversed in part in an unpublished opinion.  The Court of Appeals ruled that Speicher was entitled to declaratory relief, because the planning commission failed to comply with OMA’s notice requirements.  But it denied Speicher’s request for injunctive relief, noting that there was no history of prior OMA violations.  The appeals court also held that, given the technical nature of the violations, Speicher was not entitled to attorney fees or costs under MCL 15.271(4).

Speicher filed a motion for reconsideration, arguing that any relief under the OMA entitled him to an award of attorney fees and costs.  The Court of Appeals granted reconsideration and, in a published opinion, ruled in Speicher’s favor on this issue.  The appeals court concluded that it was bound by prior case law to award attorney fees, even though Speicher obtained only a declaratory judgment and failed in his attempt to obtain an injunction against the township defendants.  The panel concluded that earlier decisions, beginning with Ridenour v Dearborn Bd of Ed, 111 Mich App 798 (1981), compelled this result.  But the panel explained that, if it were free to decide the issue, it would have denied Speicher’s request for fees.  The panel concluded that the plain language of MCL 15.271(4) only authorizes an attorney fee award where a plaintiff prevails on a request for injunctive relief.  Here, Speicher only obtained a declaratory judgment; his request for injunctive relief was denied.  But because it was bound to follow the analysis set forth in the existing case law, the panel granted Speicher’s request for attorney fees and costs.

The defendant township board of trustees and township planning commission filed an application for leave to appeal to the Supreme Court.  In an order dated June 11, 2014, the Supreme Court directed the Clerk to schedule oral argument on the application.