04 May MICHIGAN SUPREME COURT CLARIFIES SUMMARY DISPOSITION STANDARD AGAINST THE INTERESTS OF EMPLOYERS IN EMPLOYMENT DISCRIMINATION CASES
Recently, the Michigan Supreme Court issued an opinion in an age discrimination case which further clarified the summary disposition standard in Michigan. Under MCR 2.116(C)(10), a court’s role in deciding a motion for summary disposition is limited. More specifically, courts can only consider whether a reasonable juror could find, as a matter of fact, that the evidence supports each element of a plaintiff’s case. When deciding a motion for summary disposition, courts must view the evidence presented in the light most favorable to the plaintiff as the non‑moving party. Speculation on the plaintiff’s part, however, is insufficient to create a question of fact ripe for jury review.
In Doster v. Covenant Medical Center, Case Number 17-034216-CD, defendants appealed the trial court’s decision to deny its motion for summary disposition following a jury verdict in favor of plaintiff of over half a million dollars. On appeal, the defendants argued that plaintiff failed to present any evidence that plaintiff’s age was a motivating factor in its decision to select a different applicant. More specifically, the parties disputed the meaning and importance of the phrase “being young” contained in the interview notes. Plaintiff claimed it was evidence that defendant was motivated by a discriminatory intent. Defendant disagreed, claiming the phrase originated from the hired applicant’s innocuous response to an interview question regarding his experience. The Court of Appeals agreed with the defendant’s interpretation, finding plaintiff’s explanation speculative at best. As such, the Michigan Court of Appeals held the trial court should have granted defendant’s motion and dismissed the case before trial.
In reviewing the Court of Appeal’s opinion, the Michigan Supreme Court determined the appellate court veered outside its lane. In doing so, the Michigan Supreme Court stated that a reviewing court’s “job is not to determine the best understanding of competing evidence” or to “choose between competing interpretations of facts.” Rather, its task is solely to determine “whether the trial court was correct that there was a question of fact that merited a jury trial.” According to the Michigan Supreme Court, that task is limited to consideration of whether reasonable minds can differ as to whether discrimination factored into a defendant’s decision. Applying this standard to the Doster case, the Michigan Supreme Court held that reasonable minds could differ as to which party’s interpretation of the “being young” note was more credible and, therefore, the trial court was correct in denying defendant’s motion.
The Michigan Supreme Court’s decision in Doster is a powerful reminder of the limited role of an appellate court reviewing trial court rulings on motions for summary disposition. Additionally, the Doster decision is important in that it begs the question as to when a plaintiff’s evidentiary argument constitutes mere “speculation” (which is insufficient to preclude summary disposition) versus a “competing interpretation of facts” (which is sufficient to preclude summary disposition). While context no doubt matters—as the three dissenting justices stated—it appears the Michigan Supreme Court has made it more difficult for employers to attain summary disposition by raising the bar on what constitutes discountable speculation.
Notably, the decision in Doster would likely have been decided differently had it been analyzed under federal law. Under Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, a plaintiff must prove a defendant’s discriminatory animus was a “substantial” or “motivating” factor in a decision. In contrast, in order for a plaintiff to state a claim for age discrimination under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the plaintiff bears the ultimate burden to demonstrate that age was the “but-for” cause of their employer’s adverse action. In Doster, even giving plaintiff every benefit of the doubt as to the meaning of the “being young” note, it is beyond dispute that the “being young” comment was not the “but-for” cause of the defendants’ decision to select another candidate over the plaintiff.
Employers seeking more information about appellate review standards, or any other employment matters, should contact the Masud Labor Law Group with any questions.