The footing drain disconnection lawsuit filed against the city of Ann Arbor in late February has taken several procedural turns over the last six months, with virtually no issues on the merits of the case yet resolved.
The latest procedural issues now appear set to be decided on Aug. 27, 2014 – judge Donald Shelton’s final motion day before his retirement.
The case involves a claim of unconstitutional takings – inverse condemnation. Plaintiffs in the case, Yu v. City of Ann Arbor, are three Ann Arbor residents who had their footing drains disconnected under the city FDD program.
The procedural issues that could be decided next week include a motion to disqualify the city attorney’s office from representing the city due to conflicts; a motion to sanction city attorneys for filing documents with statements that plaintiffs allege are not well-grounded in fact; and a motion to reassign the case to a judge other than Timothy Connors. All three motions were filed with the court on Wednesday, Aug. 20.
A dispute about whether those Aug. 20 filings were properly served upon the city is one of the issues Shelton could decide at the start of the hearing.
By way of background, the case was originally filed in the Washtenaw County 22nd circuit court and assigned to Shelton in late February. The city then removed the case to federal court. However, the plaintiffs moved for remand from the federal court back to the circuit court – a motion that was granted by judge Avern Cohn in late May.
When the case returned to the circuit court, plaintiffs filed a motion for a preliminary injunction, which was heard and denied by Shelton in early July. The city had filed a motion for summary disposition on June 9, which was originally scheduled for July 30. It was subsequently rescheduled by the city for Aug. 13, and then shifted by the city again to Sept. 18 – which is after Shelton’s scheduled retirement.
According to the court administrator’s office, the case will not officially be reassigned to a different judge until Sept. 2. However, when The Chronicle inquired with the 22nd circuit court’s central scheduling office, the staff indicated that the plan was to reassign all of Shelton’s civil cases to Connors. So the city’s paperwork scheduling of the Sept. 18 hearing specifies Connors as the judge.
Motion on Reassignment
The Sept. 18 hearing date on the city’s motion for summary disposition could change if Shelton grants the motion to reassign the case to a judge other than Connors.
The motion to reassign is based on the fact that attorney Mark Koroi is co-counsel for the plaintiffs. According to the brief in support of the motion to reassign the case away from Connors, Koroi has filed four Judicial Tenure Commission grievances against Connors, two of which have been upheld. Koroi’s brief also notes that he has engaged in “vigorous public advocacy against political candidacies of both Timothy Connors and his wife.”
The plaintiff’s brief notes that Michigan court rules stipulate that it is the challenged judge who must make an initial ruling on a motion for disqualification, so the motion to reassign is a proactive measure to eliminate the need to file a motion in front of Connors, which would asked that Connors disqualify himself. [Aug. 20, 2014 Yu v. City of Ann Arbor brief on reassignment]
The city’s response brief argues that the motion is actually a motion for disqualification, and as such the motion is premature and should be heard by Connors. The city also argues explicitly against the idea that Connors should be disqualified, noting that if political speech critical of a judge were adequate grounds for disqualification, then an attorney could engage in such speech specifically so that the attorney would never have to appear in front of that judge.
The city also argues that the brief in support of the motion to reassign doesn’t provide any evidence that Connors is aware of Koroi’s political advocacy or that Connors is actually biased against Koroi. [Aug. 22, 2014 Yu v. City of Ann Arbor response brief on reassignment]
Motion for Sanctions
A second motion filed on Aug. 20 for hearing on Aug. 27 is to sanction the city attorney’s office for filing papers that are “neither well-grounded in fact nor warranted by existing law or a good faith argument for the extension, modification or reversal of existing law.” The papers in question are the city’s brief in support of its motion for summary disposition. [June 9, 2014 Yu v. City of Ann Arbor brief on summary disposition]
Included in the plaintiffs’ claims asking for sanctions to be imposed are that some of the key arguments in the city’s motion for summary judgment are frivolous. Plaintiffs assert that the city’s argument that the plaintiffs’ complaint is time-barred is frivolous. The plaintiffs then argue that one of the city’s positions – that the plaintiffs’ federal claims should be dismissed – is crucially based on the city’s contention that the claims are time-barred.
The plaintiffs’ brief in support of sanctions also asserts that the city has mischaracterized the plaintiffs’ position, highlighting instances where the city states that the plaintiffs have “recognized” or “conceded” some key aspect of the city’s legal position. The plaintiffs argue that the plaintiffs have not recognized or conceded the things that the city claims in its brief. [Aug. 20, 2014 Yu v. City of Ann Arbor brief on sanctions]
For example, the city claims in its brief that [emphasis added]:
Plaintiffs recognize that they own the sump pumps they installed and that the sump pumps and footing drain system operate as an integral part of their houses; in other words that neither the city nor a third party owns anything located in their homes, occupies their properties, or has otherwise taken their properties.
The claim is presented in the “introduction” section of the city’s brief, a section of pleadings where recitations of uncontroversial fact are typically presented. The question of pump ownership and occupation of residents’ homes by the third party are central points of dispute in the case. The plaintiffs’ brief in support of sanctions argues that the citations by the city to the plaintiffs’ pleadings – in support of the claim of “recognition” – do not in fact support a claim of “recognition.”
Another claim by the city – presented in the “background facts” portion of its brief in support of summary disposition – is that [emphasis added]:
“Plaintiffs concede that Sec. 1.1 [the footing drain disconnection ordinance] was adopted by the City to address the public health, safety and welfare issues of sanitary sewer back-ups in basements and sanitary overflows.”
The portion of the plaintiffs’ brief cited by the city in making that characterization does not, according to the plaintiffs, provide any support for the city’s contention that a concession has been made. And elsewhere in the plaintiffs’ brief, they state [emphasis added]:
Upon information and belief, the Ordinance was not enacted in response to emergency conditions or some other imminent threat to public health, safety or welfare. Rather, the Ordinance was enacted by the City in order to facilitate a solution to long-standing and self-created conditions in the least expensive and/or most expedient way possible.
Based on the city’s descriptions of the plaintiffs’ statements, the plaintiffs contend that the city is distorting the record. From the plaintiffs’ brief in support of sanctions:
This level of mischaracterization goes beyond zealous advocacy: it is misleading and is unfair to both the Court and to the Plaintiffs, whose lawyers are forced to ferret out mischaracterizations and distortions of the record when they should be responding to a “fair presentation of the issues” by opposing counsel.
The city’s response to the plaintiffs’ brief in support of sanctions deals with the part involving plaintiffs’ frivolous legal arguments by arguing for the merit of those arguments.
In its brief opposing sanctions, the city responds to the plaintiffs’ contention that their statements have been misrepresented to the court by insisting that the city’s characterization is based on the plaintiffs’ recitation of facts – and an attachment to the complaint of the city’s written “homeowner’s package” for sump pump install-ees.
The city’s position appears to be that whatever factual claims and characterizations that are made in the “homeowner’s package” were recognized and represented to the court by the plaintiffs as true – by dint of the attachment of the “homeowner’s package” to the plaintiffs complaint as an exhibit. So the city is not analyzing the plaintiffs’ exhibit merely as a representation by the plaintiff as to what the city itself claims to be true (via public documents produced by the city), but also what the plaintiff is recognizing to be true. [Aug. 22, 2014 Yu v. City of Ann Arbor response brief on sanctions]
The city blames any misunderstanding on the plaintiffs, arguing that the plaintiffs wrote poorly worded filings. From the city’s response brief, opposing sanctions:
[T]he City has not mischaracterized Plaintiffs’ Complaint, but has simply analyzed it as written by Plaintiffs. Plaintiffs’ dissatisfaction with the City’s reading of their Complaint arises from Plaintiffs’ own failure to draft a well-pleaded Complaint.
Motion on Disqualification
A third motion filed by the plaintiffs for hearing on Aug. 27 is one that would disqualify assistant city attorney Abigail Elias, and thereby the city attorney’s office, from representing the city in this lawsuit. [Aug. 20, 2014 Yu v. City of Ann Arbor brief in support of disqualification]
The brief arguing for disqualification cites an email sent by plaintiffs’ counsel in early February notifying Elias that she would likely be called as a witness in the case:
I am advising that your non-privileged testimony and evidence will likely be required in connection with litigation over the FDDP, which is now in preparation for filing. The case will include a claim for inverse condemnation. You are a necessary witness on both liability and relief, which probably comes as no surprise.
The plaintiffs argue partly on grounds that they need to depose Elias as a reason to disqualify her as the city’s representation.
In its brief in opposition to the motion on disqualification, the city contends that there is no testimony that Elias is in a unique position to provide other than testimony that would be subject to the attorney-client privilege. [Aug. 22, 2014 Yu v. City of Ann Arbor brief opposing disqualification]
The city also contends that disqualification of its city attorneys would be prejudicial to the city, because “Ms. Elias has been involved with the FDD program since its inception 13 years ago. Her familiarity with and knowledge of the issues in this case from those years cannot be replicated easily or quickly.”
The next hearing is currently scheduled for Aug. 27 at 1:30 p.m. in front of judge Donald Shelton at the 22nd circuit courthouse, 101 E. Huron in downtown Ann Arbor.