State pays $85M to settle lawsuits
LANSING — Michigan paid more than $85 million last fiscal year to people and companies that sued the state, ranging from $42 to mediate a case involving a lakeside road to a $41 million tax refund to General Motors.
The total payouts were $9.5 million, or 12 percent more, than in the previous budget year - mainly because a yearly settlement installment to female prisoners who alleged they were raped and groped by male guards went up, as did court-ordered tax refunds to companies.
Of 71 lawsuits that ended with the state paying, 27 - more than a third - came from the Corrections Department, according to a report released this month by the Senate Fiscal Agency. The agency's $20 million payment to current and former female inmates and their lawyers was part of a five-year, $100 million settlement reached in 2009 to resolve a class-action suit alleging hundreds of women were sexually assaulted and harassed by male prison staff.
The department also paid:
- $347,000 after a 64-year-old employee at the St. Louis Correctional Facility sued for age and disability discrimination when he was not allowed back to work supervising inmates in the prison's building trades program because of a back injury in 2007.
- $60,000 in back pay and benefits to a parole/probation manager at the since-closed Tuscola re-entry facility in Caro, who said he was demoted after filing a discriminatory harassment complaint against his female supervisor in 2011 for a profanity-laced tirade accusing him and other male staff of leaving the toilet seat up in a unisex bathroom.
- $53,000 in fees and costs to Michigan State University law school's civil rights clinic, which successfully represented a prisoner who alleged a First Amendment violation after being prevented from making overseas calls to family in Jordan and Romania.
- $47,000 in attorney's fees and costs after an inmate sued when the Michigan Parole Board discharged him from parole early and then, recognizing the mistake, reinstated his parole without a hearing.
- $10,000 after two inmates at an Upper Peninsula prison said they were put into segregation for talking with an Esquire magazine reporter who wrote about their escape attempt.
Corrections spokesman Russ Marlan said the department "is, and historically has been, the most-sued individual in the state of Michigan." If the $20 million sex-abuse payment is factored out, payouts were third-lowest in the past decade, he said.
Michigan's largest payout by far was $41 million to GM, which claimed a use tax refund paid on demonstrator vehicles that were later sold. A 2007 state law was enacted to keep automakers and dealerships from getting refunds dating back 11 years after they won court rulings, but the law's retroactivity was declared unconstitutional.
The smallest payout - $42.22 - was a court-ordered mediation payment from the Department of Natural Resources in a couple's suit to remove from a map private roadways that were never built near Silver Lake in Grand Traverse County.
The state also had to pay up after losing some higher-profile challenges to state laws or policies.
Secretary of State Ruth Johnson's department paid $103,000 in fees and costs to a coalition of advocacy groups that successfully sued in 2012 to stop her from putting a citizenship check-off box on ballot applications. Gov. Rick Snyder later signed a law requiring voters to sign a statement that they are a citizen.
The check box was "meant to ensure that only qualified voters were casting ballot ... to make sure we have secure and fair elections," said Johnson spokeswoman Gisgie Gendreau.
Attorney General Bill Schuette's office paid $80,000 in fees and costs unsuccessfully defending a state law that banned panhandling in public places.
Federal courts struck the anti-begging measure down as unconstitutional. Two Grand Rapids men sued with help from the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. James Speet was arrested for holding up signs seeking "work or help." Ernest Sims pleaded guilty to panhandling after asking for spare change.
"Jail time is a harsh price to pay for holding up a sign or simply asking for spare change," ACLU attorney Miriam Aukerman said last summer.