Judge confirms Somers violated constitutional rights in firing
By ZEINAB NAJM
DEARBORN — The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals on Feb. 13 upheld a federal jury’s decision that 19th District Court Judge Mark Somers violated former deputy court administrator Julie Hultgren’s constitutional rights to free speech and due process when he fired her in 2007.
In 2007, Hultgren (formerly Pucci) filled a lawsuit against Somers, the 19th District Court and the city of Dearborn alleging the violation of her due process rights and claims of religious, marital-status, and sex discrimination.
In 2011, a federal jury found in favor of Hultgren on the first two counts and in Somers’ favor on the third of the original lawsuit filed. The jury also awarded Hultgren $734,361 in fees.
The jury concluded that Somers fired Hultgren and eliminated her position as retaliation for her complaints against him.
Somers filed an appeal which was dismissed on the grounds that Hultgren made the complaints as a citizen and not as an employee of the court.
On Feb. 13 Judge Julia Gibbons and the 6th Circuit Court issued a 28-page opinion affirming the jury’s decision from the 2011 verdict on which Somers filed his appeal.
With the circuit court’s decision made, a resolution needs to be reached regarding who will pay the judgement.
David Lawson, U.S. District Judge for Eastern District of Michigan, ruled in 2013 the judgement needs to be decided and collected on a state level, not by the city of Dearborn.
This made the 19th District Court responsible for the payment, which led to the filing of an appeal with the Michigan Court of Appeals.
Today, with the addition of attorney’s fees and interest, the judgement is about $1.2 million including the $734,361 already awarded to Hultgren.
Hultgren currently works in city’s human resources department as a senior human resources analyst.
She began working for the court as a typist in 1991, probation officer the following year, clerk of the court in 1994 and then assistant court administrator in 1998.
She filed a complaint with the court administrator alleging Somers was bringing personal religious beliefs into the court’s business and his judicial proceedings.
About the same time, former Chief Judge Leo Foran (from the 20th District Court) restructured the 19th District Court’s administration. He planned to have Hultgren replace the retiring court administrator and eliminate the deputy court administrator position.
Hultgren had been in a relationship with Judge William Hultgren — to whom she is now married — since 2001. Somers objected to Hultgren’s promotion saying her relationship with Judge Hultgren would create a conflict.
Somers then began to push for Hultgren’s termination as an employee in the court system but failed after she was named interim court administrator in May 2005.
The following year, Somers became chief judge and evaluated his administrative staff and suggested changing the personnel structure of the court.
Somers returned Sharon Langen to her clerk of the court position, replaced the court administrator and eliminated the deputy court administrator position at the start of 2007. Hultgren said she lost her position without a hearing or other review process.
She said Somers told her that her termination was because of her relationship with the judge and not due to budget concerns. Somers denied the claim and said she was fired due to his dissatisfaction with her job performance.
Hultgren said she is happy with the decision passed down by the 6th Circuit Court.
“This case was never about relationships, nepotism or corruption as Somers would want you to believe,” Hultgren said. “It was 100 percent about me speaking out about his impermissible use of religion from the bench and him eliminating my position because of it.”
Her attorney, Joel Sklar, said they expected the verdict and the judgement to be affirmed.
“I think it validates Julie’s position, it validates the jury’s decision and it validates District Court Judge Lawson’s decision.”
Somers questioned the decision made by the court.
“There are issues that may be raised in a request for rehearing of the appeal with the 6th Circuit,” he said. “Among those issues, the 6th Circuit acknowledged potential errors in the trial court regarding its failure to allow us to fully assert our key defense that the elimination of the plaintiff’s position was a business reorganization decision.”
(Zeinab Najm can be reached at [email protected].)