Ingham County Judge Joyce Draganchuk issued two rulings in favor of East Lansing Info and ELi Publisher Alice Dreger yesterday in the lawsuit brought against them by real estate developer Scott Chappelle.
This suit will be handled in Draganchuk’s court, which is the business court of Ingham County’s 30th Circuit Court, and ELi and others will be protected from Chappelle’s demands for documents until Draganchuk rules on Oct. 27 on ELi’s request to have the suit dismissed.
The case had been filed by Chappelle in Washtenaw County, and ELi’s attorney had argued that this was to avoid Draganchuk’s court. The judge in Washtenaw transferred the case to Ingham County, where it was first assigned to Judge Wanda Stokes. The court then transferred it to Draganchuk’s business court.
One of Chappelle’s attorneys, Christopher Cataldo, argued that the case should be moved out of business court because it involved personal injury to Chappelle. He also argued that the case should not be before Draganchuk in business court because there had been no prior “business relationship” between ELi and Chappelle Development Company.
ELi’s attorney, Brian Wassom, countered that the case belongs in business court, citing several statutory reasons and one more basic one: The plaintiffs and defendants in this case are each, respectively, companies and one of their officers: ELi and Dreger as defendants; Chappelle Development Company and Chappelle as plaintiffs.
As for the lack of any business relationship between ELi and Chappelle Development Company, Wassom argued that it is “interesting, but irrelevant.”
After hearing arguments from both Cataldo and Wassom on the matter, Draganchuk briefly explained that she makes a point for her office to screen all the cases coming to business court to make sure they belong there. She also said a similar procedure is followed for all the other cases in the county, in reverse, to ensure they are brought to business court if that is the appropriate venue. That latter is what happened in this case.
Before ruling against the motion to move the case out of her business court, Draganchuk admonished the argument brought by Cataldo, saying it was “completely without merit.”
She continued, agreeing with Wassom that personal injury was not applicable in this case. If the plaintiffs want it out of business court, she said, they should withdraw Chappelle Development Company as one of the plaintiffs. Draganchuk also noted to Cataldo that she was puzzled by his argument, since he’s come before her in this court before and never made one like this.
“This smacks of judge shopping,” Draganchuk said. She noted that if the plaintiffs were doing this because they felt she’d be unfair to Chappelle due to prior judicial encounters, she wanted to assure them that she’d examine this case scrupulously and evenly. She said she will apply the law fairly and that she would get this right.
Draganchuk also ruled in ELi’s favor by putting a two-week-long stay on discovery and subpoenas, effectively pausing Chappelle’s demand for documents from ELi. Draganchuk also put a pause on Chappelle’s subpoena demands of other individuals not associated with ELi.
She noted that the two-week hold is “hardly prejudicial to anybody” after another one of Chappelle’s attorneys, Daniel Powell, argued that it would be. Powell argued against the motion, stating that the plaintiffs sought discovery materials to include in their filing for the upcoming hearing to potentially dismiss the case. He said these discovery materials were necessary to help prove “actual malice” — one of the burdens required under the law in a defamation suit of this type.
Draganchuk noted to Powell that she didn’t think they’d find much in discovery in the week between Wednesday’s hearing and when filings for the Oct. 27 hearing are due.
Wassom attempted to halt discovery for the time being, namely on First Amendment grounds. The burden of discovery alone — time and money spent finding and producing copies of various records — has an effect on ELi’s ability to do its work which is protected by the First Amendment, Wassom argued.
The hearing on ELi’s motion to dismiss the case is on Oct. 27 at the Ingham County 30th Circuit Court in Lansing.