In its recent decision, Hindelang v. City of Grosse Pointe, the Michigan Court of Appeals (“Court”) has offered clarification and some helpful reminders for compliance with the Open Meetings Act (“OMA”).
In a case involving city approval for a residential lot split, the city council initially rejected the proposal but later reconsidered and granted approval. Plaintiffs, in opposing the decision to split the lot, filed suit in Wayne Circuit Court against the City of Grosse Pointe. Among several alleged violations, plaintiffs brought 11 counts under the OMA and one count alleging a violation of Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”). After filing a number of dispositive motions in response to plaintiffs’ complaints (including an amended and second amended complaint), the circuit court granted the city’s motion for summary disposition on the OMA claims.
In affirming the circuit court’s findings, the Court first ruled on the FOIA issue and clarified that FOIA’s civil-action exemption should be given its plain meaning. While plaintiffs asserted that they made their FOIA request before the filing of the complaint and were therefore entitled to disclosure – the Court emphasized that the material question under MCL 15.243(1) is not the time of the request but whether the public body was a party to the civil action at the time of its decision regarding disclosure.
The Court’s opinion also includes analysis and clarification of key features of the OMA:
OMA Does Not Require: Signed Minutes, Minutes To Be Posted, or Approval of Minutes
Plaintiffs argued that the city violated the OMA when it failed to sign its city council meeting minutes and post them. While the city’s code required that minutes be signed, the Court emphasized that the OMA does not require city councils to sign or post-meeting minutes. Additionally, when plaintiffs argued that the minutes from a prior meeting should have been approved at the city council’s subsequent meeting, the Court summarily rejected this. While under MCL 15.269(1), the OMA requires that corrections to meeting minutes take place at a subsequent meeting, the Court provided a clear reminder that “this is not the same as requiring minutes be approved at the public body’s next meeting.”
With a Request To Move Into Closed Session, the City Council Was Not Limited to Only One Justification
In its request to move into closed session during the city council meeting, the city provided the following reason: “to review an attorney memorandum subject to attorney client privilege.” Plaintiffs asserted that this reasoning was inadequate because the city should have cited the pending litigation it was actively engaged in as well. The Court rejected this reasoning. Looking to the OMA’s 12 enumerated reasons for moving into closed session, consulting with an attorney in regard to specific pending litigation was only one option under MCL 15.268(1)(a)-(l). The Court simply looked at a different enumerated reason, such as MCL.268(1)(h)(“consider material exempt from discussion or disclosure by state or federal statute”), and found that this would apply, given the attorney-client memorandum would be exempt from FOIA disclosure. The Court also relied on recent precedent that similarly rejected identical arguments alleging that more detail was required to describe a document for review in closed session. Thus, the language referring to the attorney memorandum sufficed.
Only Certain OMA Violations May Invalidate a Decision of a Public Body
For actions to invalidate decisions made by a public body under MCL 15.270, the Court provided a clear reminder that this is limited to defects in notice or a failure to make meetings open to the public under MCL 15.263. Further, in addition to invalidating a decision, the Court reiterated that the OMA’s only additional avenues for relief are injunctive relief and monetary damages for intentional violations. Rather than raising issues with notice (as an attempt to invalidate the city council’s decision for the lot split), plaintiffs only raised complaints related to the meeting minutes. Because of this, the Court held that any alleged violation of meeting minutes requirements “does not allow for the invalidation of a public body’s action” and was therefore, “not actionable.”