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By LIAM DILLON
Sunday, January 6, 2008
Two decisions by Michigan courts in December have brought civil suits against Michigan-based Ave Maria entities closer to trial.
The Michigan Supreme Court weighed in on a lawsuit filed by a former employee at Ave Maria College, the now-defunct, Ypsilanti, Mich., predecessor to Collier County’s Ave Maria University.
The former employee, Kate Ernsting, held a variety of positions at Ave Maria College before she was terminated in July 2004. In the suit, Ernsting alleges she was fired for reporting the school to the U.S. Department of Education during an investigation of Ave Maria’s financial aid practices.
Ernsting had argued her firing was a violation of the state’s Whistleblower’s Protection Act. A Washtenaw County Circuit Court threw out the case, saying the Department of Education was not a “law enforcement agency” and therefore not subject to protection under the whistleblower law.
An appeals court reversed the ruling and on Dec. 14 the Michigan Supreme Court upheld that decision. Now the suit, more than three years old, will go forward.
The Michigan Supreme Court ruling also allowed for some legal pontificating, with one justice referring to a 1584 English high court decision as precedent setting in this case.
Ave Maria’s attorney, Paul Farnsway, said in Dec. 28 statement responding to a Daily News request for comment that the college terminated Ernsting as part of its “planned wind-down” in moving Ave Maria from Michigan to Florida and that certain positions, including Ernsting’s, were no longer needed in Michigan.
“It is pertinent to note that no decision has been made regarding the merits of her claim,” Farnsway said. “Thus, we continue to maintain that the actions taken in relation to Ms. Ernsting’s employment with the College were both legal and appropriate.”
The next step is for both parties to go before state-mandated mediation, but Ernsting’s attorney, Joseph Golden, believes the suit will eventually see the inside of a courtroom.
“There are enough factual disputes here that we have all confidence the case is going to a jury,” Golden said.
Attorneys for three Ave Maria School of Law professors who filed a wrongful termination and whistleblower’s lawsuit against the school in October are readying to receive discovery by a Jan. 9 deadline and depose high-profile figures after a Washtenaw County Circuit Court judge rejected a defense motion for a more definite complaint last month.
“I think the judge has made it clear this case should move forward,” said Sarah Prescott, an attorney for the three professors Stephen Safranek, Ed Lyons and Phil Pucillo.
This case has attracted much hoopla with more high-profile figures and volatile allegations surfacing as it moves forward. The number of lawyers directly involved in the case — not counting law school employees — currently is eight.
Despite both being founded by Tom Monaghan and sharing the same name, Ave Maria School of Law and Ave Maria University have no official relationship.
Prescott said her firm planned to depose Monaghan and law school Dean Bernard Dobranski as soon as this month.
Dobranski said the school’s attorneys are readying discovery in the case.
“Our attorneys are working on it and it is our present intention to respond by Jan. 9,” he said.
Prescott added that her firm, Michigan-based Deborah Gordon PLC, also hoped to depose Barron Collier Cos. CEO Paul Marinelli. Barron Collier has partnered with Monaghan to develop Ave Maria town in Collier County and allegations in the suit state that Monaghan wanted to move the law school to Ave Maria town — planned for 2009 — for his personal financial gain.
Barron Collier officials were unaware of deposition requests.
“Paul nor anybody else has heard anything about that so we have no comment at this time,” Barron Collier Vice President Blake Gable said last week.
Attorneys for the law school have filed a response to the professors’ complaint and attorneys for Monaghan and his charitable organization are preparing their own reply, Monaghan attorney Paul Fink said.
The law school’s attorneys denied all allegations of improper business dealings by Monaghan or law school representatives. Instead, the school maintained that Lyons and Pucillo were rejected for tenure based on Dobranski’s recommendation that the two professors did not meet the school’s standards.
For Safranek, an already tenured professor, the school has argued his suspension was based on “acts of misconduct (that) amounted to an unrelenting effort on Safranek’s part to injure and harass AMLS (sic) and its leadership and staff.”
Last week, the school’s attorneys filed another motion asking the court to dismiss parts of the complaint because the motion states the three professors did not exhaust internal remedies relating to their employment status before filing suit.
Safranek, Lyons and Pucillo have been critical of the school’s administration and reported the school to a variety of law enforcement and legal agencies both before and after the school made a formal decision to move to Florida. The suit contends that involvement compromised their employment at the school.
In response, the school’s attorneys maintain actions taken by the three professors “were in fact designed to do whatever was possible in order to prevent a relocation, including, if necessary, destruction of the law school.”