Federal 6th Circuit dismisses defamation, other claims

by Kaitlin Heinen

Rondigo, LLC, Dolores Michaels v. Township of Richmond, Michigan
(Federal 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, March 28, 2013)

Rondigo, LLC is a Michigan limited liability company in Macomb County owned by Dolores Michaels. Rondigo and Michaels (the plaintiffs) have operated a farm in Richmond Township since 2004. In February 2006, the plaintiffs began composting on the farm and started constructing a driveway to assist with the composting. The Supervisor of Richmond Township, Gordon Furstenau, issued a stop-work order. The Township filed suit in state court in regards to the  driveway’s construction, which they claimed violated several zoning ordinances.

The Michigan Department of Agriculture also received complaints from neighbors about the farm’s odor. So the Department inspected the farm in October 2006 and ordered the plaintiffs to submit a compost operations plan by December 2006. The Department inspected the farm again in January 2007 and found that the plaintiffs had been stockpiling leaves. The Department advised them to remove the piles because runoff from the leaves could negatively impact groundwater in the area. The plaintiffs did not remove the piles, allegedly because they could not do so without the driveway. The Department sent a letter in April 2007, saying it would refer the matter to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) if the leaves were not removed. So the plaintiffs filed an emergency motion with the state court to remove the bar on the driveway’s construction. The court granted the motion, but the plaintiffs did not remove the leaves. So the matter was referred to the MDEQ.

In January 2008, the plaintiffs filed this suit against Richmond Township, Furstenau, Four Township Citizens’ Coalition, more than 20 Macomb County residents, 2 Department employees, and 3 MDEQ employees. “The plaintiffs asserted five claims: (1) a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim that the defendants violated the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights; (2) a 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3) claim that the defendants conspired to deprive the plaintiffs of their constitutional rights; (3) a 42 U.S.C. § 1986 claim that the defendants knowingly failed to prevent the violation of the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights; (4) a civil-conspiracy claim under Michigan state law; and (5) a defamation claim under Michigan state law.” The plaintiffs also asserted that the Township’s zoning ordinances were unconstitutionally vague. The district court dismissed all these claims, so the plaintiffs appealed to the 6th Circuit.

First, the plaintiffs argued that the district court erred in holding that “res judicata” bars their claims against the Township and Furstenau. Under Michigan law, “res judicata” bars an action if it involves the same parties as a prior action and if the matter could have been resolved in that prior action. The plaintiffs could have asserted their claim against the Township and Furstenau in state court. The plaintiffs did not pursue many of the claims they used as defenses against the Township’s complaint. The claims previously brought before the state court and the claims presented in this case arose from the same events. So “res judicata” precludes the plaintiffs from asserting their claims against the Township and Furstenau because these claims could have raised in a prior state action.

Next, the plaintiffs argued that the district court erred in dismissing their § 1983 claims against the Four Township’s Citizens’ Coalition and the Macomb County residents. The plaintiffs cannot maintain these claims against these defendants, however, because they are not state actors. Also, the plaintiffs did not appeal the dismissal of their § 1985(3) or § 1986 claims against these defendants. Therefore they waived these claims. The plaintiffs do appeal the dismissal of their state-law claims, but they failed to develop their argument against the dismissal. So the plaintiffs waived these claims as well.

Finally, the plaintiffs argued that the district court erred in dismissing their defamation and civil-conspiracy claims against the Department and MDEQ employees. In regards to the defamation claim, “the plaintiff must allege that the defendant made a false and defamatory statement about the plaintiff. But a qualified privilege protects the defendant from the defamation claim if the defendant had an interest or duty to make the statement to someone having a corresponding interest or duty.”  The plaintiffs alleged that the defendants made defamatory statements to state employees and to the plaintiffs’ neighbors. But these statements were made while investigating complaints about the farm. The defendants had an interest in communicating with their co-workers and the plaintiffs’ neighbors to facilitate the investigation. And the employees and neighbors had a shared interest in the investigation. So the plaintiffs did not overcome the qualified privilege, which protects the defendants from the plaintiffs’ defamation claims. Additionally, a civil-conspiracy claim cannot “exist in the air.” So the plaintiffs cannot maintain civil-conspiracy claims because there were no other claims left in this case.

The 6th Circuit Court affirmed the dismissal of the plaintiffs’ claims by the district court.

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