A Michigan statute generally forbids public employers from having residency rules. However, the statute provides an exception if the residency rule requires an employee to have his or her home at “the specified distance of 20 miles or another specified distance greater than 20 miles.”
Joseph Lash applied to be a police officer with the City of Traverse City, Michigan. In March 2004, Lash was offered conditional employment, contingent on his passing the physical examination, a physical endurance test, and a psychological examination.
As part of the City’s background investigation, the City discovered that Lash’s residence was 23 road miles from the nearest city limit. The City’s residency requirement mandated residence within a 15-mile radius, or 20 road miles, from the nearest city limit.” Citing this residency rule, the City refused to hire Lash.
Lash filed a lawsuit against the City, seeking damages for the City’s withdrawal of its offer of employment. The case eventually wound up in the Michigan Supreme Court, which was called upon to determine what the phrase “20 miles” in the Michigan state statute meant.
The Court found that the use of the word “miles” was an unambiguous expression of a straight-line distance. As the Court analyzed it, “the plain meaning of the word ‘mile’ is a measurement of a distance totaling 5, 280 feet. Nothing in the ordinary definition of the word indicates that this distance is to be measured along available routes of public travel. Certainly, had the Legislature desired that the permissible residency restriction be measured in ‘road miles’ or along roadways it surely could have said so. We presume that the Legislature intended the common meaning of the words used in the statute, and we may not substitute alternative language. Because inserting the word ‘road’ before ‘miles’ in the statute subverts the plain meaning of the statute,” the City’s residency rule violates the law.
The Court stopped short of awarding Lash any damages. The Court found that the residency statute did not contain a specific provision allowing the recovery of damages. Because of this, the Court found that Lash could seek a declaratory judgment or injunction against the City’s rules, but could not seek money damages.
Lash v. City of Traverse City, 735 N.W.2d 628 (Mich. 2007).
This article appears in the October 2007 issue