Thursday, October 27, 2022

Multiple lawsuits against Wayne continue

City of Wayne attorneys have had a bad few weeks in court recently as multiple judges continue to rule against their efforts.  Lawyers representing the city have been attempting to have lawsuits dismissed and to disallow evidence in several connected cases. 

John Peters, a Rochester Hills attorney representing Wayne Police Ofc. Abraham Hughes in his suit alleging breach of implied contract and tortious interference in the promotion of a police chief, recently issued a statement regarding decisions in multiple matters before various courts. Peters said that while he generally refrains from commenting on any of his ongoing cases, recent actions of Wayne city officials prompted him to publicly comment.

Peters offered a timeline of legal efforts by attorneys for the city in efforts to prevent disclosure of an independent report submitted to members of the city council in August of 2018. The report, compiled by an outside legal firm, was based on interviews with the entire staff at city hall, including department managers and employees. In addition, law firm representatives interviewed past employees and elected officials and discovered an emphasis on the conduct of City Manager Lisa Nocerini.

The conclusion of the investigators was a recommendation that Nocerini be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including termination of her employment with the city. In the 100-page report, investigators detailed multiple examples of Nocerini's conduct as the basis for the recommendation that she be disciplined or terminated. City of Wayne attorneys have been attempting to prevent disclosure of the Hurford Report, as the independent findings are referred to in court filings, in multiple connected lawsuits in various court jurisdictions.

The report is cited as an issue in the February lawsuit City of Wayne attorneys filed against former Councilman Anthony Miller. Court filings reportedly claim that Miller made portions of the 2018 Hurford workplace investigation public during a deposition with the Michigan State Police. The city sought an injunction to prevent the disclosure of the report as part of the court procedure claiming malfeasance in office by Miller. Reportedly, Miller was interviewed by state police investigators in connection with Hughes' lawsuit and the city claims Miller's responses citing findings in the Hurford report during the interview were a violation of his fiduciary obligation as an elected official. A countersuit against the city filed by Miller's attorney was dismissed by the court.

While Hughes' initial lawsuit was dismissed on March 7, Peters filed a notice of appeal with the U.S. District Court and also refiled Hughes' claims against the city, Nocerini and other officials in Wayne County Circuit Court.  Hughes alleges in his lawsuit that Nocerini interfered with the promotion of Police Chief Ryan Strong to his current rank and that she personally circumvented the announced hiring procedures by using the arrest of city resident Mark Blackwell as a moving inducement for promotion to the chief's position. Blackwell was a public critic of Nocerini at city council meetings and demanded her termination following the Hurford workplace report findings. 

Attorneys for the city attempted to thwart those allegations and others in Hughes' lawsuit and filed to have his claims dismissed, but on May 9, a magistrate rejected the city arguments and found both legal and factual support for Hughes' claims. On May 25, U.S. District Court Judge Steven Murphy also denied the city motion to dismiss the officer's suit. 

Peters also filed a legal brief on Hughes' behalf with the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals on Aug. 22. The city legal brief in response was due Oct. 21, and then the case will be scheduled for arguments, Peters said.

Wayne County Circuit Court Judge John A. Murphy on Sept. 15 also denied the city motion to dismiss Hughes' claims for breach of implied contract and tortious interference by Nocerini in the promotion process, noting, among other points that, “Non-reliance on a paid-for assessment bears the risk of possibly appearing to misuse government funds.”  The city had contracted with an outside law enforcement personnel recruitment and testing agency to determine the top candidate for the chief's job and Hughes claims that Nocerini altered the evaluation criteria to favor Strong. 

Attorneys for the city have filed a motion asking for the right to appeal that ruling, Peters said.

City attorneys have also attempted unsuccessfully to prevent the disclosure of the independent report regarding Nocerini's conduct as an exhibit in an ongoing lawsuit filed by Blackwell. In this suit, Blackwell has sued Nocerini, Strong and Wayne Police Det. Lt. Finley Carter, among others, claiming police were instrumental in having him falsely charged with misdemeanor offenses of stalking and disturbing the peace.  He was subsequently cleared of all charges in district court. His attorney alleges that Blackwell was charged with the crimes as retaliation for his public criticism of Nocerini and that both his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated by the defendants.  

In a Sept. 23 ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Shalina Kumar denied the city request to strike the Hurford Report from Blackwell's suit. Her ruling established both the non-confidential nature of the report paid for with public funds and the right of the public to know the contents, Peters said. 

“This ruling also effectively destroys the city's case against Anthony Miller as there can be no unauthorized publication of the report,” Peters said. He added the outcome of all the lawsuits is unknown.

 “The city's radio silence about the developments, their relentless campaigns to prevent city officials from being deposed under oath and their now failed efforts to keep the Hurford report from the very people who paid for it suggests that they are their first priority, not the citizens of Wayne,” Peters said.

Wayne Mayor John Rhaesa declined to comment on the ongoing lawsuits.