By Stephen McKenney
The Michigan Supreme Court recently clarified the standard for evaluating motions for summary disposition based on the plaintiff’s failure to state a claim for relief (i.e., MCR 2.116(C)(8)). The July 10, 2019 opinion in El-Khalil v Oakwood Healthcare, Inc. (Docket No. 157846) made two important holdings regarding how trial courts should evaluate: (1) pleading the element of causation; and (2) attachments to a complaint.
First, the Supreme Court addressed the issue of whether the plaintiff’s complaint sufficiently pleaded the element of causation in a claim under the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA). In order to state a claim for unlawful retaliation under the ELCRA, a plaintiff must plead “that there was a causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse employment action.” In El-Khalil, the plaintiff’s amended complaint generally alleged that the adverse employment action “resulted from” the plaintiff’s protected activity. The trial court and the Court of Appeals held this allegation was not sufficient because “plaintiff provided no evidence to show that retaliation was a motivating factor in the adverse employment action.” The Supreme Court clarified that the analysis of the sufficiency of the “evidence” in support of an allegation was improper on a (C)(8) motion and that “[w]hile lack of an allegation can be fatal under MCR 2.116(C)(8), the lack of evidence in support of an allegation cannot. Plaintiff alleged that the adverse employment action resulted from his protected activity. That is enough to withstand challenge under MCR 2.116(C)(8).”
Second, the Supreme Court addressed the manner in which the trial court should analyze attachments to a complaint, when evaluating a motion under MCR 2.116(C)(8). In El-Khalil, the plaintiff attached several e-mails to his amended complaint to demonstrate the timeline necessary to show defendants retaliatory conduct. The defendants argued that the e-mails also contained statements made by the defendants describing plaintiff engaging in threatening behavior that, if true, would have negated the plaintiff’s claim for violation of his rights under the ELCRA. The Supreme Court held that because the plaintiff merely attached the e-mails to the complaint and did not allege that the defendants’ statements contained in the e-mail were true, the trial court should not have considered the substance of the e-mails in its (C)(8) analysis. The Supreme Court held that analyzing the substantive truth of the assertions contained in the e-mails exceeded the scope of review under sub-rule (C)(8).
The main take-away from the Court’s rulings in El-Khalil is that on (C)(8) motions the trial court should not engage in any substantive weighing of the evidence. Looking for evidence in support of an allegation, or looking into the substance of documents attached to a complaint are matters that should be resolved by the trial court under sub-rule (C)(10).