In 2013, Kathy Dennis alleged in a lawsuit that the Wexford County Animal Shelter was euthanizing animals without proper sedation and said there were also financial irregularities going on. She also alleged that the Sheriff’s Office violated provisions of the Whistleblower Protection Act after she reported these activities. She said that after reporting issues at the animal shelter, her hours were cut, her duties were reduced and her access to the shelter was limited.
Dennis was hired to be a Shelter Attendant but expressed an interest in becoming an Animal Control Officer. Because of this, Animal Control Officers Michelle Smith and Jessica Williams allowed Dennis to participate in additional duties beyond those stated in her job description, including supervising jail trustees and other volunteers, assisting with animal euthanasia, answering phones, inputting information into the computer system, collecting adoption fees and managing the Petfinder adoption website.
After Dennis accompanied other animal control professionals as part of her effort to become an Animal Control Officer, she began to suspect that the shelter’s staff was improperly euthanizing animals. She spoke to Smith & Williams about her concern that the animals were not being euthanized properly and they told her they would euthanize animals on their own from there on out. On December 6, 2012, Dennis reported her suspicions along with her belief that the shelter might be mishandling the shelter’s funds to Undersheriff Trent Taylor.
According to the State of Michigan Court of Appeals decision, Dennis testified that on December 19th, 2012, she met with Lieutenant Richard Denison, who served as the day-to-day Administrative Supervisor for the shelter. She said that Denison restricted her duties at the shelter and specifically told her that she was only to be in the back dealing with pets and trustees. As a result of that and other changes, she said she ended up working fewer hours. Denison had sent Williams to get Dennis’ keys back to the building. Because of that, Dennis met with Denison again on December 31st, 2012 and recorded the meeting. They discussed what Dennis believed to be retaliatory conduct directed at her. Because she was angry about the treatment she was receiving, Dennis turned in her keys and quit.
In February, 2013, Dennis sued the Department, the County and the Sheriff, Gary Finstrom. She alleged that the Department, the County and the Sheriff retaliated against her by reducing her job responsibilities to the more basic duties of caring for the shelter animals, restricting her access to some shelter areas, no longer allowing her to enter shelter records on the computer and by cutting her work hours after she reported what she believed were irregularities with the shelter’s method of euthanization and possible mishandling of shelter funds. She alleged that the changes to her condition of employment were made in violation of the Whistleblower Protection Act.
Wexford County won in the lower court but Dennis filed an appeal. The Michigan Appellate Court Judges reversed part of a previous judgment made by the trial court. In their ruling, they said, “the trial court did not err when it dismissed Dennis’ claim against Finstrom because there was no evidence that he participated in the events at issue or could be vicariously liable for another’s participation. The trial court erred, however, when it determined that the Department could not be an employer under the WPA. Finally, the trial court erred when it determined that there was no question of fact as to whether Dennis suffered an adverse employment action and whether there was a causal link between any adverse employment action and Dennis’ decision to engage in protected activity. For that reason, the trial court erred when it granted the motion for summary disposition by Wexford County and the Department. For the same reason, it did not err when it denied Dennis’ motion for summary disposition.” A summary disposition asks for a dismissal of or judgment on all or part of the claim.
According to the Court of Appeals decision, they wrote that, “although it is undisputed that Dennis was engaged in protected activity when she reported her concerns about the euthanasia procedures and possible misuse of shelter funds on December 6, 2012, the trial court determined that Dennis failed to present evidence from which a reasonable jury could find that she suffered an adverse employment reaction.” However, the Appellate Court said that Dennis presented evidence that, if believed, would permit a reasonable jury to find that Denison altered her hours – or authorized Smith to alter her hours – because Dennis engaged in protected activity. The transcript of the recorded conversation with Denison showed that while Denison said she wasn’t being punished, he also agreed that her duties had been altered because of the investigation and told her that the changes would last for the duration of the investigation. Denison’s statement that the changes were related to the investigation is an admission that the changes to her duties directly arose from Dennis’ decision to engage in protected activity. The court continued, “Moreoever, Dennis presented evidence that she alone suffered adverse consequences as a result of the investigation even though the investigation ostensibly encompassed a review of the other employees’ conduct.” They also stated that, “The Department and Wexford County did not offer a business reason for limiting Dennis’ hours; instead they denied that her hours had been reduced.”
At the end of the Appellate Court’s decision, Judge Gleicher, Sawyer and Kelly concluded, “Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. We do not retain jurisdiction.”
The case will be heard by Judge Larry Nelson out of Leelanau County.
Click here for the entire Appellate Court decision.