State teachers win right to sue

By Ed White

Associated Press Writer

DETROIT (AP) -- The Michigan Supreme Court has overturned a 2001 decision by its former conservative majority and loosened the standard for people who want to file some civil lawsuits.

In a 4-3 ruling, justices said Lansing teachers had a right to sue the school district over how it disciplined students. The case trumps a series of opinions over the last decade that had restricted the ability to go to court in a variety of disputes unless someone could show an actual injury.

"By reinstating the decades-old precedent ... we are restoring, not departing from, the fabric of the law and this court's fidelity to the Michigan Constitution," Justice Michael Cavanagh wrote in an opinion released Sunday night.

Four teachers and their union, citing state law, sued the Lansing School District, saying it should have automatically expelled four students, not suspended them, for violence. They were accused of throwing chairs at teachers, slapping one and striking another in the face in 2005 and 2006.

Lower courts ruled against the teachers. They said school boards had discretion in how to handle students and teachers had no standing to sue.

The Supreme Court did not rule on the merits of the case. But the majority said teachers have a "substantial interest" in how the district follows state law on student discipline.

"The statute is intended to not only make the general school environment safer but additionally to specifically protect teachers from assault and to assist them in more effectively performing their jobs," Cavanagh wrote.

He was joined by justices Marilyn Kelly, Diane Hathaway and Elizabeth Weaver. The case now returns to the appeals court for more work.

Dissenting justices Stephen Markman, Maura Corrigan and Robert Young Jr. criticized the decision, claiming it will lead to more lawsuits and a "complete destabilization of established law."

The ruling involves teachers but the ripple is larger. It will be embraced by environmental activists whose ability to sue had been greatly restricted since 2001 when the court's then-conservative majority adopted a strict test just to get past the courthouse door.

Activists, for example, couldn't sue over pollution or other environmental harm unless they could show it had a direct impact on their own well-being.

"They created a hurdle that the Legislature did not create and did not intend," said environmental lawyer Chris Bzdok of Traverse City. "It was keeping good cases out despite the merits."

The court's weekend decision is "quite important," Bzdok said.

Published: Wed, Aug 4, 2010