By ZEINAB NAJM
DEARBORN — The Michigan Supreme Court ruled in favor of the city, deciding that 19th District Court Judge Mark Somers must pay a $1.1 million judgment to a former court employee.
The decision was announced by the court Jan. 12 which will let a 2016 ruling by the Michigan Court of Appeals stand, leaving Somers as a person responsible for paying the damages, not the city.
Somers is paying the $734,000 verdict plus the $400,000 in legal fees, but interest on the $1.1 million total is making it difficult to make much ground he told the Associated Press.
As part of the ruling, Somers’ wages will be garnished 25 percent every two weeks.
Somers said he is open to settlement talks with Julie Hultgren — then Julie Pucci — who first filed the lawsuit against Somers in 2007 when she alleged the violation of her due process rights and claims of religious, marital-status, and sex discrimination.
“I’m open to resolve something at any stage of the process,” he said.
Regarding the court’s decision, Somers said he found it unique that the case was accepted by the Michigan Supreme Court but a decision was not made by them.
“It’s tough to react to the ruling because the court did not reveal its thinking behind it.”
As for the court deciding Somers was acting in a personal capacity and not official role as judge and that the city of Dearborn does not have to pay the judgement, he questioned whether he was singled out or treated unfairly.
“The city just settled an unlawful case against them and police and took the liability of the police officer,” he said. “They also settled a case in 2013 against the mayor, police chief and 17 police officers. For those cases the distinction was made that parties involved acted as individuals and not in official capacity.”
Hultgren said that if Somers has any interest in trying to resolve his obligation he should contact her lawyer. She also said she was disappointed the court did not issue a full opinion or analysis.
“We are disappointed that the MSC did not issue a written opinion explaining why they decided to vacate an appeal they granted and heard oral argument on,” she saud. “With that being said, I am thrilled that I won the case and the judgment was upheld.”
Hultgren’s attorney Joel Sklar said he, too, was mystified that no reasoning, opinion or analysis was provided by the court after the application for leave to appeal was granted and oral arguments were heard.
“We’re going to continue the collection procedures from Somers,” he said. “Julie has collected wages for a few years now and we will continue until the judgement is satisfied.”
Dearborn Director of the Department of Public Information Mary Laundroche issued a brief statement on the city’ behalf regarding the case ruling.
“Throughout this case, the city was focused on protecting the taxpayers’ dollars, and with this decision, that has been achieved,” she said.
Hultgren worked as the deputy court administrator from 1996 through 2006, but now works in city’s human resources department as a senior human resources analyst.
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 Julie Hultgren’s promotion saying her relationship with Judge Hultgren would create a conflict.
Somers then began to push for Julie 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 court clerk 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.
The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals on Feb. 13, 2015, upheld a federal jury’s decision that Somers violated Hultgren’s constitutional rights to free speech and due process when he fired her in 2007.
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 needed to be reached regarding who would pay the judgement. David Lawson, U.S. District Judge for Eastern District of Michigan, ruled in 2013 the judgement needed to be decided and collected on a state level, not by the city.
This made the 19th District Court responsible for the payment, which led to the filing of an appeal with the Michigan Court of Appeals.
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.
(Zeinab Najm can be reached at [email protected].)