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MI Supreme Court allows “indirect retaliation” workplace lawsuit

Wide exterior shot of state Supreme Court building
Lester Graham
Michigan Radio

The Michigan Supreme Court delivered a precedent-setting ruling Friday that allows civil rights claims alleging indirect workplace retaliation.

The lawsuit was filed by Michigan Department of Corrections employees Brent Whitman and Richard Miller, who say they were fired as an act of revenge directed against a close on-the-job friend of theirs. The friend had filed claims of racial discrimination and a hostile work environment, which she said continued after she was moved to a different facility. Whitman and Miller said they then became targets of harassment and retaliation.

Richard Miller’s wife, Brenda Miller, also filed a “loss of consortium” claim brought on by the stress which she said the situation caused.

Lower courts split on whether Michigan’s civil rights law allows discrimination claims in such attenuated cases. The Michigan Supreme Court, citing precedents set in federal civil rights cases, said it is no different than any other type of workplace discrimination.

“The United States Supreme Court has referred to it as ‘associational retaliation’ or ‘third-party retaliation,’” plaintiffs’ attorney Jonathan Marko told Michigan Public Radio. “So, an employer knows they can’t fire the target, so they try to get back at the person by firing those around them.”

The 7-0 unanimous decision sends the case back to the Genesee County Circuit Court.

“It means they’re going to get their day in court,” Marko said of his clients. “It doesn’t mean they’re even going to win. But it means they’re going to get their day in court.”

A Michigan Department of Corrections spokesperson had no immediate comment on the decision.

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.