The cities of Huntington Woods, Pleasant Ridge and Oak Park, and the 45th District Court recently reached a settlement over a lawsuit revolving around how the communities fund the court.

The cities of Huntington Woods, Pleasant Ridge and Oak Park, and the 45th District Court recently reached a settlement over a lawsuit revolving around how the communities fund the court.

Photo by Deb Jacques

Cities come to settlement terms in 5-year lawsuit

By: Mike Koury | Woodward Talk | Published November 8, 2017

OAKLAND COUNTY — A settlement has been reached between the cities of Huntington Woods, Pleasant Ridge and Oak Park, and the 45th District Court revolving around how the communities fund the court.

For the last five years, Huntington Woods and Pleasant Ridge together were engaged in a lawsuit against Oak Park and the 45th District Court. The case had been ongoing, but recently the municipalities reached a settlement that each governing body will have to approve.

Huntington Woods approved the settlement at a special meeting Nov. 1, Oak Park met Nov. 6 to vote — after this story went to print — and Pleasant Ridge will meet Nov. 8.

In the terms of the settlement, Huntington Woods will receive $145,000, Pleasant Ridge will get around $30,000 and Oak Park will receive around $218,000, all coming from the district court’s building fund.

According to Huntington Woods City Commissioner Jules Olsman, the lawsuit came about because Huntington Woods and Pleasant Ridge believed the 45th District Court was reimbursing itself in amounts greater than what the statute applicable to court funding allows.

Pleasant Ridge City Manager James Breuckman added that the genesis of the lawsuit was a question of whether or not certain fees that are levied by the court are subject to a one-third, two-thirds distribution formula.

“What was the question that was being, I guess, contested in that suit was whether or not our contribution of two-thirds of our ticket revenue, which is per state law, satisfied our requirement to fund the operations of the court,” he said. “We said it did. Oak Park said no, that it didn’t, and that we had independent obligation to fund the court over and above the one-third, two-thirds revenue share.”

Breuckman said what happens is for every ticket that Huntington Woods and Pleasant Ridge write, when a fine is assessed at the court, most of the revenue is kept by Oak Park — as the court operates in Oak Park — and the cities get a portion of that revenue. 

“The money that Oak Park keeps from our ticket revenue is our contribution towards the funding of the operations of the court,” he said. “So, in state statute and state law, it’s set forth that split is one-third, two-thirds, just for one specific part of the fines and cost.”

After the initial lawsuit was filed, Oak Park countersued, with City Manager Erik Tungate saying the suit claimed that Oak Park was not only funding the majority of the court beyond what it thought was its responsibility, but that Oak Park thought the other communities needed to pay a larger proportion of that responsibility.

The case went through the court system for five years before the Michigan Supreme Court vacated two prior court decisions that were in favor of Oak Park and the court, but made no decision on the case. From there, the city managers of each city, whom all sides credited with helping get the job done, were able to finally come to a conclusion with settlement terms.

Olsman said the court was the holdout in it, and that one big issue was how much money the cities would receive back.

“Squaring that, the court’s concern obviously is maintaining its funding, which we’re fine with. Nobody objects to that. What we object to is paying more than we’re required to by law. That’s what happened here. They were cutting off a much bigger piece than they were entitled to without telling us about it,” he said.

From the perspective of Huntington Woods, Olsman said what he was interested in was revenue due to the city. 

“We need the money too,” he said. “I’m not worried about whether the chambers at the 45B District Court are baronial or not. … What I’m interested in is that we get the money that we’re entitled to from the tickets, and I’m interested in making sure that Oak Park gets, the district court gets, what they’re entitled to get. No question.”

He continued, “My focus in this case, from day one: that this is taxpayer money, and there would be absolutely no discussion about our not being reimbursed, because when we first started this facilitation process last fall, the position was, ‘You can forget about (it).’”

Breuckman said it’s been a long process and he feels the agreement gives everybody a little bit of something, but doesn’t give all parties all they wanted. 

“Huntington Woods and Pleasant Ridge, what we get out of this is cost certainty,” he said. “We continue the one-third, two-thirds split of revenue, and that’s how we fund the court. We won’t be liable for any additional payments. Oak Park gets certainty that they definitely get to keep 100 percent of all of those fees that are on tickets to go towards those specific things that the court needs for operations.”

Tungate said Oak Park doesn’t believe it was wrong in the case, but now that’s irrelevant because of the settlement. 

“The settlement was a fair settlement in that each party got their proportionate share equally. So no party walks away from it without something in it,” he said.

Tungate said his hope from all of this is that all the cities — including Royal Oak Township, which the court also serves — now can sit at the same table and take on the responsibility for the district court.

“My hope will be that there’ll be a greater partnership and we can work together as four different municipal entities, and then the district court, to make sure that not only are taxpayers getting the best bang for their buck, but we’re also operating our court (as) efficiently as possible,” he said.

The court couldn’t be reached.