UofM research assistants file suit against MERC

Three of the graduate student research assistants who wished to join the Graduate Employees Organization at the University of Michigan filed suit in U.S. District Court this morning.

The GSRAs are challenging the constitutionality of Public Act 45, a law that was hurriedly passed earlier this year, which that research assistants are not state employees, and cannot then petition the Michigan Employment Relations Commission to hold an election to organize.

The law was passed and signed by the governor before MERC had rendered its decision.

According to the complaint, filed by Mark H. Cousens for the plaintiffs, the statute deprives the research assistants of their constitutional right to organize and bargain collectively, and it does so “without a rational basis. The classification of a single group of individuals is a discrimination that is not justified in fact.”

Bill halts research assistants’ unionization efforts

Michigan Senate Republicans, frustrated that Democrats had blocked their bill to prohibit graduate student research assistants from deciding on whether or not they could join a union, added language to another bill in order to push the legislation through yesterday.

The bill was rushed through in an apparent effort to stop the University of Michigan research assistants, who are currently awaiting word on whether or not their election will be ordered. For more on that, read Michigan Lawyers Weekly’s story here. (Subscription required.)

The Senate added the language, originally in Senate Bill 971, to House Bill 4246, the “Local Government and School District Accountability Act.”

The bill passed on March 7, with votes along party lines, over Democrat objections — 26-12 in the Senate and 63-47 in the House.

The bill is awaiting Gov. Rick Snyder’s signature; it would have immediate effect.

MSC denies AG request in U of M grad student union case

The Michigan Supreme Court has denied to hear a request from Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette to stop a hearing to determine if graduate assistants at the University of Michigan can unionize.

According to the order, released this afternoon, MCL 24.301 only allows interlocutory appeals in contested cases. Chief Justice Robert P. Young noted that “While the proposed intervenors [Schuette and a group opposed to the research assistants organizing] present nonfrivolous arguments rejecting that claim, the Court of Appeals does  not have jurisdiction in this particular matter … .”

Justice Stephen J. Markman concurred even though he said he shares the “unsuccessful intervenors’ concerns regarding the manifest unfairness of the fact-finding hearing now underway before the administrative law judge as a result of [Michigan Employment Relations Commission]’s denial of the two motions to intervene … . ”

He said that because the university and the Graduate Student Research Assistants agree that the assistants are public employees, “there is no party to represent the alternative legal position that GSRAs do not constitute ‘public employees’ under [Public Employee Relations Act].”

MERC denied a motion to intervene, stating: “We must carry out our statutory responsibility … without interference from non-parties opposed to the very rights provided to public employees by PERA.”

However, Markman wrote that “It would seem that in carrying out its statutory responsibility, MERC might have viewed it as helpful, rather than as a matter of ‘interference,’ that it be presented with arguments on both sides of an issue under consideration.”

Lifetime U-M bans to be lifted for some

Been banned from the University of Michigan’s campus? Good news, you soon may be able to go  back and get banned all over again:

U-M has revised its policy that allowed U-M police officers the discretion to ban people from campus for life. Under the new policy, which takes effect next month, those bans will only last for a year. After the year, the university’s police chief will have the ability to either let the ban lapse or extend for another year.

Because of the change, U-M police are in the process of reviewing the 1,800 adults and 200 juveniles currently on the list. Interim Police Chief Joe Piersante said he expects about 900 people to be notified by the end of the summer that they have been dropped from the list.

The changes were made in the wake of two high profile cases involving the university. One involving former assistant AG Andrew Shirvell, whose sordid story you can relive here, here, here, here, and here, and the other involving a former member of its pediatrics/cardiology department.

U-M practice of banning citizens from campus faces scrutiny

When the hullabaloo erupted over Andrew Shirvell essentially stalked University of Michigan student president Chris Armstrong last year, one of the punishments Shirvell faced for his conduct was banishment from the campus.

Shirvell, a Michigan undergraduate alum, eventually was reinstated under the condition that he leave Armstrong alone after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) threatened a lawsuit.

The banishment should have been more controversial in the news, and might have been if Shirvell’s conduct left any room for him to be even the slightest sympathetic figure. After all, aside from circumstantial evidence suggesting that he may have used his position at the Attorney General’s office to illegally review the criminal records of Armstrong and his associates, Shirvell didn’t do anything illegal. And last time I checked, U-M was a public university (Not for long if the Mackinac Center has anything to say about it!) banning citizens from public property without review.

The Detroit Free Press reported that over 2,000 people have been banned from Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus over the last 10 years – far more than any public university in the state. Apparently, all that is required to be banned is a “trespass notice” by Department of Public Safety i.e. campus police. The officers issue the bans before any review is taken, so it’s up to the discretion of the department, rather than a judge or impartial authority. The DPS director does say bans can be reviewed by “the department’s civilian oversight committee, or up to the university president.”

The conduct of what receives a trespass notice is pretty broad. According to the story, a ban can be issued for “committing or being suspected of committing a crime on campus, refusing or failing to comply with university rules, disrupting the operation of the university or demonstrating a risk of physical harm or injury.”

For example, the Freep story said, if you are the chief operating officer of a company that makes “bioengineered medical devices” looking to meet up with one of your researchers, you’d better make an appointment first:

It was after hours on Oct. 14 when Deborah Buffington tried to enter an off-campus building leased by the University of Michigan to speak with a technician her company was working with on a study. She banged on the locked door.

The technician let her in, but the director of the program didn’t know her or the work she was doing there, according to Buffington. He asked her to leave. The next day, a University of Michigan police officer came to her office to discuss the incident and give her a trespass warning.

That’s how Buffington, chief operating officer of Innovative Biotherapies, an Ann Arbor company that develops bioengineered medical devices, became one of about 2,000 people issued trespass warnings since 2001, effectively banning her from the campus.

Buffington said she has no quibbles with U-M. She said the university has to look out for the safety of its community, and she believes it was miscommunication that led to the warning. “I completely understand why they did what they did,” said Buffington, who immediately appealed and on Oct. 29, the ban was modified to allow her on campus as long as she’s invited.

What crime Buffington was “being suspected of” is unclear. The employee let her in, the director said she couldn’t stay. She left. There’s no indication of misbehavior in the story.

This could simply be anecdotal. Later in the story, the Director of Public Safety said most bans are the result of criminal activity. But not all. In fact, in at least one instance, it was used against a former employee virtually moments after he was fired.

One of the more high-profile trespass warnings was issued in 2008 to Dr. Andrei Borisov, a 15-year employee of U-M who had been raising questions about how some grant money was being used in the pediatrics/cardiology department.

Following a meeting in which his superiors asked for his resignation, Borisov said he was escorted to his office by police officers who read a trespass warning to him and then arrested him when he attempted to take his briefcase. Borisov was acquitted of the charges he faced as a result of the incident, said his attorney, Deborah Gordon of Bloomfield Hills. He has subsequently filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against U-M, he said.

The ban from campus has since been modified, allowing Borisov back on campus, but not at the medical school.

Borisov described the trespass warning as “nonsense.”

“I was at my office legally as a faculty member and an employee of the University of Michigan,” Borisov said.

U-M officials declined to comment about Borisov’s case because of the lawsuit.

The story doesn’t say much about how the policy is being reviewed other than to say that is. Maybe the policy will change. Or maybe it’s the type of review that gets the ACLU off your case until it focuses on something else and nothing ever changes.