By J. PATRICK PEPPER
DEARBORN — U.S. District Judge David Lawson ordered the city to pay $7,400 in sanctions to former 19th District Deputy Court Administrator Julie Pucci for failing to follow facilitation orders in a settlement conference.
The settlement conference in March 2008 was ordered by Lawson to try to resolve the gender discrimination lawsuit filed by Pucci against her former boss, 19th District Court Judge Mark Somers. She filed the lawsuit in 2007, when her position was eliminated in a court restructuring and Somers allegedly prevented her from advancing to the court’s administrator position.
At the conference were Pucci and her attorneys, Somers and his counsel, Michigan Assistant Attorney General Karen Kuchek, and the mediator, Judge Peter Houk.
Kim Craig, the chief labor negotiator for the city, did not attend the facilitation despite a written request from Kuchek, but reportedly was available by telephone. Court documents say the facilitation lasted nearly eight hours, and that a tentative settlement agreement of $360,000 over 25 years and $50,000 in attorney’s fees was reached and signed.
But days later in a closed meeting, Craig presented the settlement to the City Council, which subsequently rejected it. It then was revealed to Pucci that the council, not Craig, was the only municipal entity with settlement authority in the city, leading her to file the motions for sanctions.
Lawson said that by not having someone at the conference with settlement authority, Somers and his attorneys had violated the conditions of his facilitation order.
“It is plain … that the defendants entirely disregarded this court’s order for them to have decisionmakers present at the mediation session,” Lawson wrote.
“When coupled with the apparent policy that the city of Dearborn will not settle a case until dispositive motions are decided, the conclusion is unavoidable that the defendants did not participate in the mediation in good faith, and the session ultimately was a waste of time and expense by the plaintiff.”
Lawson also denied three motions filed by Somers’ attorneys. The first, a motion for summary judgment, was dismissed because of a pending appeal in the 6th Circuit Court on a previously denied motion for summary judgment.
The other two related to Somers’ attempt to have the settlement agreement sealed from court records.
A motion for sanctions against Pucci for revealing the existence of the settlement to the Times-Herald in October 2008 was denied because Lawson didn’t believe it violated the confidentiality provision of the facilitation orders, which protects “information disclosed during the facilitative mediation session, including the conduct” of the parties involved.
Lawson concluded that the confidentiality provision does not include the terms of the settlements that are reached, or the information that a settlement exists.
The final motion denied was one to strike the settlement agreement from court records. Calling it “perhaps the most serious aspect” of Somers’ motions, Lawson said public access to the records outweigh Somers’ interest in keeping the matter sealed.
“If the recent misadventures of Detroit’s former mayor has taught us anything,” wrote Lawson, “it is that the public is not served by the suppression of evidence of settlements in cases involving public bodies and officials.”
In an e-mail to the Times-Herald, Somers wrote: “As reflected in the proposed settlement agreement, all parties fully understood that any settlement proposal was subject to approval by the City Council and, if approved, we all knew that any settlement would be a matter of public record.”
“It was not feasible for the City Council to have participated as a body in the actual facilitation meeting, nor could they have given us ‘blank check’ approval to enter into a binding agreement. The judge’s opinion does not find any bad faith or willful violations on our part …The order requiring payment of attorney fees will be the subject of a request for reconsideration and/or appeal.”