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A Better Partnership
December 20, 2013

COA calls for a special panel to consider when a successful OMA plaintiff is entitled to his attorney fees

A plaintiff may obtain attorney fees where he successfully obtains a declaratory judgment that a public body has violated the Open Meetings Act (“OMA”).  In Speicher v. Columbia Township Board of Trustees, on a motion for reconsideration, the Court of Appeals vacated its prior denial of attorney fees to the plaintiff.  In its previous decision the Court had held that the Board had “technically” violated the OMA; therefore, the plaintiff was entitled to declaratory relief, but not an injunction.  Following what it viewed as the plain language of the OMA, the Court had denied the plaintiff attorney fees because he had not obtained injunctive relief.  On reconsideration, the Court stated that it was compelled to vacate its attorney-fee decision and to follow precedent that allowed a successful declaratory-judgment plaintiff to recover his fees—even though it viewed that precedent as contrary to the OMA’s plain language. The Court called for a special panel pursuant to MCR 7.215(J)(3) to reconsider the existing state of the law.
 
The Court began by noting that to recover attorney fees the plaintiff must:  (1) prove a public body was not complying with the OMA; (2) file suit against the public body seeking an injunction; and (3) successfully obtain relief.  The Court stated that under the plain language of MCL 15.271(4) the third element is only satisfied when the plaintiff obtains injunctive relief, i.e. it is not satisfied merely by obtaining any relief.  Regardless, the Court noted that a long line of Court of Appeals cases had read the requirement of obtaining injunctive relief out of the statute.  Instead, according to this line of decisions, a plaintiff could recover attorney fees if the court awarded declaratory relief. Thus, the Court was forced to grant the plaintiff’s motion and vacate its denial of attorney fees.  However, the Court strongly stated its disagreement with the previous decisions, advocated a plain reading of the OMA, and called for a “special panel of [the] Court [of Appeals] pursuant to MCR 7.215(J)(3)” in order to reconsider the existing state of the law.

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