By BOB OLIVER
DEARBORN — The attorney for the former court administrator who sued 19th District Judge Mark Somers for the termination of her employment is challenging the city’s announcement that it is no longer obligated to pay the $1.17 million settlement awarded to his client.
Attorney Joel Sklar said the decision handed down by U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan Judge David Lawson Aug. 16 did not clear the city from having to pay back the settlement, but merely changed the level of the court involved from federal to state.
The city released a statement on Aug. 19 that said it was no longer obligated to pay the settlement based on the Lawson decision. The city has said throughout the process that it should not be liable to pay the judgment because Somers was sued in his personal capacity, not his official capacity as chief judge.
Sklar said that he does not agree with the city’s announcement.
“Judge Lawson simply concluded that he didn’t have the jurisdiction to make a decision for one party or the other,” Sklar said. “The matter has to be taken before a judge in the state court who could still rule that the city is liable to pay the settlement.”
He added that he was not “disappointed or surprised” by Lawson’s decision.
“I understand where the judge is coming from,” Sklar said. “The judge did not have the jurisdiction to rule and he felt it was better to have the state decide on the matter.”
In his decision, Lawson stated that the city could quash the writs of garnishment served to it to pay the settlement, but also stated that the federal court “has no ancillary jurisdiction to adjudicate the legal issues raised by the writs of garnishment” and that “the questions raised must be addressed by a state court.”
The writ of garnishment was filed against the city by Sklar for the judgment last year, but the city has fought it claiming that although it is the funding agent for the 19th District Court, Somers is a judicial officer of and an employee of the state of Michigan.
Julie Hultgren, the plaintiff in the case, agreed that the issue of who will pay the settlement — the city or Somers — is far from decided. She said the city paid more than $600,000 to settle two other judgments filed by former court employees against Somers around the same time as her case.
According to published reports, former probation officer Simone Calvas settled for over $460,000 in 2011 and former court administrator Sharon Langen settled for $150,000 in 2012.
Calvas was let go from her job while Langen filed her suit after being demoted from the administrator position. Both settlements were paid for by the city.
“The city has paid for these settlements in the past, so why not this one?” Hultgren said. “It has been the same defendant in all three cases.”
Sklar said he plans to file a declaratory action in Wayne County Circuit Court within the next two weeks.
Sklar represented Julie Hultgren (formerly Pucci), a former 19th District Court administrator, in court during a civil case brought she against Somers, then chief judge after the termination of her position and her employment.
Hultgren claimed that in 2007, Somers violated her right to due process when he eliminated her position and did not promote her to the position of court administrator when the job became available due to a retirement. She also claimed that Somers was retaliating against her for complaining that he used religion from the bench and on court documents and that she was discriminated against because of her gender.
Hultgren also stated that she felt that Somers disapproved of her relationship with fellow 19th District Court Judge William Hultgren, whom she was dating at the time of her dismissal. They later married.
Somers claimed that he eliminated the court administrator position as a means of budget control and that he was implementing a plan enacted by his predecessor at the chief judge position, 20th District Court Judge Leo Foran.
Somers stated Hultgren was not released because of her relationship with Judge Hultgren, but that he was against a promotion because he felt that it could create a conflict and would be considered nepotism.
A 10-person jury ruled in favor of Hultgren, except on the gender discrimination issue. They awarded her $734,361, which, with the addition of attorney fees and prejudgment interest, has become $1.17 million.
(Bob Oliver can be reached at [email protected])