CADILLAC — The Michigan Court of Appeals recently ruled that an allegation of racial discrimination can move forward in a lawsuit against a Cadillac police officer, reversing a previous dismissal by a Wexford County judge.
On Oct. 1, the appeals court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs representing John Doe, who in 2018 filed a lawsuit against Thomas Wade, a police officer with the Cadillac Police Department.
The lawsuit claims that Doe — an African American minor who has not been identified by the court — was “lawfully riding his bicycle home from the store on the (White Pine Trail) in Cadillac‘ on Aug. 15, 2015, when Wade drove onto the trail in his cruiser and followed closely behind him, eventually forcing him off the trail.
The lawsuit claims the boy has suffered from a number of physical and psychological symptoms as a result of the incident, including sleeplessness, severe anxiety, fright, mortification, embarrassment, humiliation, shaking hands, nausea, headaches, crying spells, cold sweats, loss of appetite, depression, isolation from fear for safety and difficulty coping in social situations. It also states the boy has subsequently been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the incident.
According to a previous response to the lawsuit from the city, Wade and another officer were searching the area for a man with Alzheimer’s disease who was reported to be missing. They later found the man on the trail.
The five counts originally alleged in the lawsuit were assault, intentional infliction of emotional distress, gross negligence, violation of the Elliot-Larson Civil Rights Act, and ELCRA retaliation.
Blake K. Ringsmuth, with Ringsmuth Wuori PLLC, previously argued that while on the trail, Wade harassed John Doe based on his race.
“Contrary to the defense assertions, no racial slurs need to be uttered or alleged ...,‘ Ringsmuth stated. “Furthermore, Plaintiff is not alleging Defendant initially got on the trail for the purpose of harassing plaintiff as the defense suggests. However, once he did get on the trail it is alleged he harassed/discriminated against Plaintiff based on Plaintiff’s race.‘
The ELCRA retaliation count alleged that then-police chief Todd Golnick made statements that could be interpreted as threats against John Doe’s mother.
In February, Wexford County Circuit Court Judge William Fagerman dismissed the race-related charges, stating that not enough evidence was presented to show a connection between racist motives and Wade’s actions on the trail.
Ringsmuth asked Fagerman to reconsider this decision in light of some Facebook “memes‘ posted by Wade, as well as deposition that included an admission by Wade that some people might consider the posts to be racist.
Ringsmuth singled out a post from Wade that included a statement that could be interpreted as being anti-Muslim. In testimony from his deposition, Wade clarified this post was intended to criticize Muslim terrorists, not all Muslims. He admitted that some people may consider the posts to be racist but added anyone familiar with the kind of person he is knows he’s not a racist. He added that most of the posts highlighted by Ringsmuth as being arguably racist or borderline racist were merely critical of then-President Barack Obama.
Judge Fagerman said for the sake of argument, he would grant that the posts could be construed as racist but asked how that establishes a causal connection with what happened on the trail that day.
“How do you jump that gap?‘ Fagerman asked.
In their ruling, the appeals court disagreed: “Considering defendants’ motion on the pleadings alone and taking plaintiff’s allegations as true ... we find that plaintiff’s complaint contains sufficient allegations to support this claim,‘ the court order stated. “...allegation of discrimination based on race satisfied the first element of a claim of discrimination as to public accommodation.‘
The appeals court decision reverses Fagerman’s dismissal of the Elliot-Larson Civil Rights Act violation but the ELCRA retaliation count remains dismissed.
Ringsmuth told the Cadillac News that he was pleased with the appeals court decision and looks forward to proceeding with the case against Wade.
Homier told the Cadillac News his reading of the appeals court decision was that the allegations as presented should be considered by a jury, although he still doesn’t think sufficient evidence exists to support the allegations.
“I don’t think this lawsuit has any foundation in fact or in law,‘ Homier said. “It’s a fact issue at this point and the jury will decide the facts.‘
On Nov. 8, a settlement conference is scheduled in the case. If no settlement is reached at that point, a jury trial could be scheduled.