News Story

Court Of Appeals Shuts Down Saginaw Administrator's Special $144K Union Deal

Judges school litigants on definition of ‘at-will’ managers: They can be dismissed at will

The Saginaw County prosecutor has the authority to dismiss an office manager hired by his predecessor, despite her having been granted special protection in a union contract negotiated before he was elected, the Michigan Court of Appeals has ruled.

The divided (2-1) appeals court panel found that a provision inserted in the contract between Saginaw County and its clerical workers conflicted with a state law that gives elected officials broad discretion over personnel. The contract had exempted former office manager Beth Bauer from being treated as an at-will employee who could be replaced by the prosecutor.

The Court of Appeals decision, issued April 16, is the latest in a string of legal setbacks for Bauer in both state and federal courts that stretch back nearly a decade.

At one point, an administrative law judge ordered the county to pay Bauer $144,707 in back pay and benefits, plus $50,000 in legal fees. That ruling was overturned by the Saginaw Circuit Court.

The county’s own legal bills in defending Bauer’s firing are not specified in the Court of Appeals opinion.

Neither Prosecutor John McClogan nor the county’s attorneys were available for comment.

Bauer’s attorney, Joshua Leadford, said he plans to seek a review of the ruling by the Michigan Supreme Court. He said that the majority mistakenly decided to “allow an at-will statute to trump civil rights law.”

McClogan defeated former prosecutor Michael Thomas in a 2012 election. After taking office in 2013, he dismissed Bauer, who had been hired by Thomas in 1989.

According to court records, in negotiations with the UAW in 2008, Thomas secured a special memorandum of understanding attached to the clerical workers contract that provided Bauer could be removed only for just cause.

Thomas testified that he did so because he was uncertain how long he would remain in office and wanted to provide Bauer with job security.

After the 2012 election, in which Bauer actively supported Thomas, McClogan notified her that he was bringing in his own office manager.

Bauer was offered continued employment as a “floater” clerical employee, but declined it. She subsequently filed a federal lawsuit, arguing that her participation in political activities were protected by the First Amendment and that McClogan had improperly interfered in a legal employment agreement.

Her claims were ultimately denied by the U.S. Sixth Court of Appeals.

In the state case, Bauer said state law protected her from retaliation for political activity, and that the memorandum attached to the union contract was legally binding on McClogan.

The appeals court found those protections were overridden by another statute that allows elected officials to fill key positions with patronage or political appointments.

Leadford said his client’s contractual arrangement was bargained for in good faith and is binding. He also said it is not unusual for elected officials to be constrained by union contracts for their employees, such as an elected sheriff with unionized deputies.

Leadford said he was unaware of other public employee contracts that contained special protection for a single employee. But he said he has represented public employers in the past who agreed to either add or remove just-cause protections for specific positions.