DETROIT — The Michigan appeals court has overturned key rulings and reinstated lawsuits against a personal injury lawyer who is accused of sexually assaulting two women who worked at his firm.
Judges in Oakland and Wayne counties had said the claims against Mike Morse needed to go through private arbitration, under workplace rules at his firm. But the appeals court said arbitration doesn't fit the allegations.
"The court has just changed the law in the state of Michigan," said Deborah Gordon, an attorney for Morse.
Morse is accused of inappropriately grabbing a paralegal and a receptionist, and making sexual comments. He denies the allegations.
"Under no circumstances could sexual assault be a foreseeable consequence of employment in a law firm," judges Kathleen Jensen and Jane Beckering said in a 2-1 decision Thursday.
Sending the complaints to arbitration "would effectively perpetuate a culture that silences victims of sexual assault and allows abusers to quietly settle these claims behind an arbitrator's closed door," the court said. "Such a result has no place in Michigan law."
Judge Colleen O'Brien dissented, saying she must follow terms of the employment contract.
Morse promotes his work on TV and billboards in the Detroit area. He taunts insurance companies and even pokes fun at himself: A local Super Bowl ad showed him running behind an ambulance to return a lost wallet. In another ad, he opens a dictionary to the word "win" and finds his picture.
Gordon said handling workplace complaints through arbitration is common in Michigan.
"There's no way to carve out sexual harassment and not carve out other forms of discrimination," she said. "It's an opinion that's going to have some broad effect if it stands. It's going to affect all employers."
An appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court is possible.