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Posted on Mon, Jun 14, 2010 : 10:34 a.m.

University of Michigan settles Open Meetings Act lawsuit, pays $5,380 in legal fees to alumnus

By Juliana Keeping

The University of Michigan paid $5,380 in legal fees to the alumnus who sued the school's governing body over the state Open Meetings Act, the law that spells out circumstances under which public bodies can hold closed meetings. filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the settlement agreement, which was reached in April.


U-M President Mary Sue Coleman and football Coach Rich Rodriguez listened while Athletic Director David Brandon spoke during the Michigan NCAA media briefing on Feb. 23. U-M officials never said why they called a closed-door meeting Feb. 3. But an alumnus sued the school, alleging it was held to discuss the NCAA probe into the school's football program and should have been public under the state's Open Meetings Act.

Angela J. Cesere |

Robert Davis, a Highland Park resident, sued the U-M Board of Regents in Washtenaw County Circuit Court on Feb. 18, alleging violations of the act over a special session held Feb. 3. Citing media reports, Davis claimed the meeting was called to discuss an NCAA probe into the school's football program. He argued in the lawsuit that the meeting should have been public.

In their response to the lawsuit, University of Michigan attorneys wouldn't say why the university called a special session and stated that the school doesn't have to.

The settlement agreement provides no further details on that meeting but stipulates that Davis and his attorneys can't disclose the settlement amount or discuss the case with a third party.

The agreement was reached, "to avoid the expense and inconvenience of defending against claims by Robert Davis and for no other reason," the agreement states, and it is not an admission of guilt on the part of the university.

The U-M Board of Regents often holds closed-door meetings; the university, a $5.2 billion-dollar-a-year-operation, has defended the practice as legal.

University governing boards and the Open Meetings Act

The governing boards of Michigan's 15 public universities enjoy a measure of autonomy far above that of other governmental bodies, like the Ann Arbor City Council. Most public boards must hold all meetings with a quorum present in public. The extra independence for universities stems from the Michigan Constitution that created them and two court rulings that favored universities in challenges to closed proceedings.

Regents are only required by law to vote during a "formal" session, and each board gets to decide what a formal meeting is. At U-M, it's the monthly board meeting. Boards also decide what constitutes an informal meeting and whether those meetings are private or public.

Just over a decade ago, two court decisions cemented the rules for university governing board meetings.

In 1999, the Lansing State Journal and the Detroit News sued the Michigan State University Board of Trustees, alleging violations of the Open Meetings Act in a 1993 presidential search. The newspapers lost the case, and the Michigan Supreme Court ruling held presidential searches could remain private - in addition to other university business.

Oakland Sails, Oakland University's student newspaper, sued the OU Board of Trustees over the Open Meetings Act in 2005. The paper filed suit after the a majority of university trustees met in a closed session with the president and a lobbying firm to talk strategy leading up to anticipated funding cuts. The newspaper lost the case and the challenge extended the holding in the MSU case from presidential searches to all meetings, legal experts say.

Juliana Keeping covers higher education for Reach her or 734-623-2528. Follow Juliana Keeping on Twitter.



Wed, Jun 16, 2010 : 11:14 a.m.

The Michigan OMA defines a meeting as "the convening of a public body at which a quorum is present for the purpose of deliberating toward or rendering a decision on a public policy." Don't try to tell me that that Board of Regents just sat there listening to the report and didn't have any discussion over the report. In my opinion, there is no distinction between "discussing" university business and "deliberating" towards a decision. By settling the lawsuit, the Board does not have to have the court rule that the meeting was illegal. This perpetuates the Board and administration's illegal behavior. Paying the occasional attorney's fees is a small price to pay to continue the practice. Having public meetings is one of the requirements that comes with using taxpayer dollars at the university.


Tue, Jun 15, 2010 : 7:01 p.m.

The Attorney General is clear - "Minutes must be kept for all meetings and are required to contain specific information. Minutes for a closed session must state clearly what the meeting was about." "U-M attorneys say the school doesn't have to say what the meeting was about". So, UM may puff out their chest and say they don't have to follow federal and state laws, but they are still a state institution, not a private corporation. UM played that gamble well - don't spend more of our tax money trying to defend a lawsuit they would surely lose.


Mon, Jun 14, 2010 : 10:26 p.m.

Conspiracy or no conspiracy... whatever. In the end, there was no genuine reason for the meeting in question to be held in secret behind closed doors. As the article indicates, this behavior represents nothing unusual for U of M. The University can be notoriously paranoid and controlling over how decisions are made, which includes wider awareness of the process among both employees and the general public. Where the slightest controversy exists, the inclination of the 'U' is to restrict information sharing on a very narrowly-defined, "need to know" basis. To the extent their status as a state institution requires openness, that obligation generates internal resentment. In comparison, our City Council and DDA look like bumbling amateurs in their attemps to emulate this type of behavior.


Mon, Jun 14, 2010 : 6:54 p.m.

What prevents any other citizen from re-filing the complaint?


Mon, Jun 14, 2010 : 6:45 p.m.

Express you displeasure with secrecy and a rubber stamp board at the ballot box. Andrea Fischer Newman and Andrew C. Richner are up for re-election in November. Vote the bums out and tell your friends to vote the bums out.

David Cahill

Mon, Jun 14, 2010 : 3:39 p.m.

Thanks for the link, Juliana! That was very nice.


Mon, Jun 14, 2010 : 3:17 p.m.

Chetly, The only truth I'm seeing here is that the UofM didn't want to give him more publicity by allowing the suit to go on. Without knowing the content of the meeting, we are unable to determine whether it violated the open meetings act.

Juliana Keeping

Mon, Jun 14, 2010 : 2:19 p.m.

Sure, just added a link to the second paragraph. Click "settlement agreement" to download.

David Cahill

Mon, Jun 14, 2010 : 1:50 p.m.

Juliana, could you please put up a link to the settlement agreement?


Mon, Jun 14, 2010 : 1:37 p.m.

The fact that he was running for office is independent of whether his cause was just or not just, and whether he was seeking publicity or not is not relevant to the public service he did by calling the university out on this one. Sure, it's a drop in the bucket for U-M to settle - but a tiny little bit of truth was exposed here, and truth accumulates. It's a non-ending battle of those that build upon the bricks of truth and the bureaucracy that builds a wall around the nest of fibers embedded its web to conceal it.


Mon, Jun 14, 2010 : 1:08 p.m.

When this story first broke, I remember Davis being a Mayoral candidate for Highland Park. It's disappointing that Mr. Davis felt the need to file a lawsuit simply for the purpose of generating campaign publicity.

Anonymous Due to Bigotry

Mon, Jun 14, 2010 : 1:05 p.m.

How shocking that something sleazy might be going on at U of M, especially with regard to football.


Mon, Jun 14, 2010 : 11:32 a.m.

Lets see..."the university, a $5.2 billion-dollar-a-year-operation"..."The University of Michigan paid $5,380 in legal fees"....the settlement isn't even a rounding error. I hope Mr. Davis doesn't think he taught the U of M anything...sounds like a big waste of everyone's time.

Juliana Keeping

Mon, Jun 14, 2010 : 10:48 a.m.

David, We filed a Freedom of Information Act request to see the settlement agreement.

David Cahill

Mon, Jun 14, 2010 : 10:40 a.m.

Sorry, I'm having trouble following this story. Ordinarily if legal fees are to be paid they will be set forth in the settlement agreement. Since the story says the agreement provides that the settlement amount is not to be disclosed, how did find out about the legal fees?