GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The Michigan Court of Appeals has decided that Ottawa County’s Administrative Health Officer Adeline Hambley was correctly appointed as health officer, but the Board of Commissioners can still fire her if it complies with Michigan law.
In February, Hambley sued the seven county commissioners who moved in their first meeting in January to oust her. Her suit argued that state law prohibits the firing of a health officer without cause to prevent the health officer from doing her duties and said that the commissioners did not show evidence that she was not doing her job.
Oral arguments Wednesday centered on two main issues: whether Hambley had been correctly appointed as administrative health officer in the first place and whether to reinstate all the requirements of a previous injunction barring Hambley’s firing or dissolve it in full.
In an opinion released Thursday morning, the Michigan Court of Appeals said Hambley had been properly appointed as health officer: On Dec. 13, 2022, the Board of Commissioners approved her appointment by unanimous vote, and the board chair signed a resolution “memorializing the action of the Commission appointing Hambley.”
The attorney for the current Board of Commissioners, David Kallman, argued that based on the meeting minutes, Hambley’s appointment actually required a second approval from the board — which never took place. But the court ruled that after Hambley passed a background check and was confirmed by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, her appointment did not require another approval from the commission. Therefore, Hambley was rightfully appointed, according to the court.
The language of the 2022 resolution was “unambiguous,” the court wrote in its opinion.
“We view defendants’ invitation to parse and favor the meeting minutes and video recording in the face of unambiguous language in the 2022 Resolution (as) a recipe for chaos,” the court said.
In the second part of its opinion, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that Hambley could be fired if the Board of Commissioners showed sufficient cause.
In April, a trial court issued a preliminary injunction ordering Ottawa County not to fire Hambley until her lawsuit went to trial. The Michigan Court of Appeals later threw out part of the injunction. On Wednesday, Hambley’s attorney asked for the injunction to be reinstated, while the commission’s attorney requested that it be thrown out altogether.
Although the Court of Appeals acknowledged the importance of “some injunctive relief,” it ultimately ruled Thursday that the “sweeping” initial injunction “deprives the Commission of authority granted to it by Michigan law” — namely, the ability to terminate Hambley if she proved to be “incompetent” in the position or “guilty of misconduct, or habitual and willful neglect of duty.” Thus, the court upheld its June decision to throw out part of the injunction.
The Court of Appeals remanded the case back to trial court, allowing it to proceed there.
A panel of three judges — Judge Michelle Rick, Judge Christopher Yates and Judge Douglas Shapiro — made the decision.
Later this month, the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners will hold a special meeting to discuss removing Hambley from her job. The hearing was initially scheduled for Oct. 19 but has been rescheduled for Oct. 24.
Kallman, the board’s attorney, told News 8 in a statement that the board was “pleased” that the decision “reaffirmed the Board’s authority to conduct a hearing regarding Ms. Hambley’s status.”
But Kallman said the board intended to appeal the other part of the ruling, in which the Court of Appeals decided Hambley had been rightfully appointed as health officer, to the Michigan Supreme Court.
“We are disappointed in the Court’s decision regarding her status as Interim Health Officer.,” Kallman said. “We will be appealing that part of the ruling to the Michigan Supreme Court.”
Hambley’s attorney, Sarah Howard, said they were “grateful” for the Court of Appeals’ opinion issued Thursday morning agreeing with the trial court’s decision and that the appeals court sent the parties back to trial court, which would allow them to “update the judge on recent fact developments,” Howard wrote.
“We plan to ask the trial court to protect Health Officer Hambley’s employment under the statute, including the right to be terminated only if ‘just cause’ exists and only with the required elements of fairness and due process at any upcoming hearing. We will immediately be going back to the trial court for that purpose,” wrote Howard.