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October 2, 2013

Whistle-blower case delayed as mayor builds legal team

By Brian Louwers
C & G Staff Writer

WARREN — A mid-September deadline came and went without a response from lawyers representing the city of Warren and its mayor in a federal whistle-blower lawsuit brought by a former administration appointee.

That’s because Warren Mayor Jim Fouts’ legal team — which now includes at least three attorneys representing Fouts personally and as mayor, and the city of Warren — was reportedly again given more time to answer the original complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Detroit July 19 by former Warren CitiStat Coordinator James Hartley.

The federal lawsuit claimed Fouts violated Hartley’s rights under state and federal law earlier this year when Hartley was allegedly the target of “constructive termination.” The lawsuit alleged Hartley was relieved of his professional duties at City Hall and banished to count parts by hand in a city garage in reprisal for his decision to take audio recordings of the mayor’s violent, profanity-filled tirades about two former city employees — statements recorded during private phone conversations between Fouts and Hartley — to Michigan State Police investigators in April.

Before he left City Hall and filed the lawsuit, Hartley said he was motivated by genuine concern over the mayor’s outbursts that were filled with expletives and violent statements. Macomb County prosecutors, however, eventually declined to file charges after the State Police investigation ended.

During Warren’s observance of the National Day of Prayer in May, Fouts openly apologized for the remarks.

But in the lawsuit, Hartley alleged he was made to count parts in a city garage by making hash marks on scraps of paper and that he was no longer allowed to perform the duties previously assigned under his $66,933-a-year position with the city after the reactions regarding the recordings.

Hartley left City Hall in June and submitted a letter to Fouts that he said served three purposes.

“First, it recognized the separation of employment you have brought about,” Hartley stated in the letter.

He also asked for his personnel file and announced his intention to file a lawsuit while requesting that Fouts “invoke legal counsel in immediately preserving all possible evidence” relating to his employment.

While the deadline for the mayor’s lawyers to respond to the lawsuit passed Sept. 16, court records showed who would represent him in the case both personally and in his official capacity as Warren’s mayor. Attorney Sharon S. Almonrode, of the Miller Law Firm P.C., filed to represent the city of Warren Aug. 30. Warren City Attorney David Griem filed Sept. 4 to represent the city as co-counsel. Attorney Sheryl A. Laughren filed Sept. 11 to represent Fouts both personally and in his official capacity.

Laughren and Griem could not be reached for comment at press time. 

Fouts, who has said little since the lawsuit was filed and would not name Hartley as the source of the recordings, previously declined to discuss the case other than to say it was “media-driven.”

He also stated on the record that he never fired Hartley and that Hartley kept his salary.

But Hartley’s attorney, Sarah Prescott of the Deborah Gordon law firm, said the law regarding “constructive termination” is clearly on her client’s side.

“If it’s a legal debate, he’s wrong on the law. You don’t have to say to someone, ‘You’re fired,’” Prescott said. “Any reasonable juror is going to see that they were pushing Hartley out — they were sending him a message — and that’s the basis of our case.”

The case has been assigned to U.S. District Court Judge Robert H. Cleland in Detroit.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Brian Louwers at brianlouwers@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1089.