Sanilac County News

Township must pay huge legal fees

GREENLEAF TWP. — This Sanilac County township must pay more than $137,000 in legal bills connected to violations of the Open Meetings Act that won the plaintiff only $500.

Ironically, the purpose of the township meeting in 2016 where the Open Meetings Act violations occurred was to approve another large legal settlement.

On June 15, the U.S. Sixth Court of Appeals upheld a federal district court’s ruling that Greenleaf Township “must pay over $137,000 in attorney’s fees after Christina Gibbard won a mere $500 on claims under Michigan’s Open Meetings Act,” according to the appeals court records.

Township officials had challenged the district court award, arguing both that it includes fees for work unrelated to the Open Meetings Act and that it is clearly excessive as compared to Gibbard’s limited success in this suit,” the records state.

“On appeal, however, these township officials simply assert that the attorney’s fees must have included unrelated work without challenging any specific billing entry or citing any supporting facts. This conclusory argument does not suffice under our differential clear-error standard of review. And while the fees may be gargantuan in relation to the small amount ($500) that Gibbbard recovered, the Open Meetings Act itself caps a plaintiff’s damages at $500. So the statue requires courts to grant an award of “actual” (not ‘reasonable’) attorney’s fees in order to ensure the attorneys will accept these types of cases despite the small potential recovery. We thus must affirm the award.”

Gibbard and another township resident, Shelly Cook, filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Detroit stemming from the October 2016 meeting of the township board that erupted in verbal and physical confrontations.

In December 2019 a federal jury handed down verdicts in the lawsuit, awarding damages for battery and Open Meetings Act violations but denying claims of assault and First Amendment violations.

Defendants named in the lawsuit, in addition to the township, included Clerk Judy Keller and her husband, Dave; Trustees Ken Brown and Randy Schuette; and Treasurer Rosie Quinn.

The allegations were in connection with a special township board meeting on Oct. 28, 2016 to consider approving a $187,500 settlement of a federal lawsuit against the township filed by local businessman and former township supervisor Kirk Winter.

“This case stems from a contentious township board meeting in Greenleaf Township, Michigan,” the appeals court records state. “For years Christina Gibbard and Shelly Cook, attended nearly every board meeting. On October 18, 2016, the board held a special meeting to consider settling a suit by the township’s former supervisor. State law required a majority of the board to authorize this meeting in writing. Gibbard questioned the township clerk, Judy Keller, about whether a majority had done so.

“After the meeting, Keller told Gibbard to accompany her to her office purportedly to retrieve a document showing that the board had properly called the meeting. When they got there, Keller started berating Gibbard instead. Gibbard began recording her. The recording showed Keller get close to Gibbard at one point. Gibbard alleged that Keller made physical contact. Gibbard decided to leave without the document. As she left, the township treasurer sought to forcibly turn off her camera. Keller also noticed that Gibbard had been recording her. She ran toward Gibbard to grab the camera. Gibbard thought that Keller was going to tackle her, but a man stepped between them.

“Hearing the ruckus,” the court record continued, “Cook arrived on the scene in time to see Keller rushing Gibbard. Cook claims to have watched Keller’s husband then grab Gibbard’s hand to pry away her camera. Cook began to record the encounter too. As Keller’s husband confronted Gibbard, Keller quickly approached Cook, told her to ‘shut that damn camera off,’ and tried to slap it away.”

The district court jury found in favor of Gibbard for her Open Meetings claims against Keller and Schuette and awarded her $250 in damages from each defendant. The jury also found in favor of Gibbard and Cook on their battery claims against Keller and her husband, awarding Gibbard $750 in damages and Cook $1,000 in damages from each of the two defendants.

The district court also found that “all of Cook’s and Gibbard’s claims were ‘directly related’ to the same confrontation after the October 18 board meeting…So it found that ‘virtually all of the time devoted to the matter’ related to Gibbard’s Open Meetings Act claims.”

The court awarded Gibbard $137,724.50 in legal fees, which the township board appealed and lost.