By ERIC FREEDMAN
Capital News Service
LANSING — A federal appeals court has rejected a racial discrimination suit by the former Inkster city attorney who claims officials in the predominantly African-American city replaced him because he’s white.
The 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that Milton Spokojny — who upset city council members by falling asleep at their meetings — failed to produce sufficient evidence that race was the reason he lost his long-time contract to provide legal services to Inkster, a city with a 73 percent black population.
He was city attorney for 29 years until 2011 when Inkster solicited bids and chose Allen Brothers Law Firm, a Detroit firm with an African-American attorney who became the city attorney.
Like most local governments in Michigan, Inkster retains private attorneys to represent it rather than having salaried lawyers on staff. They represent the municipality in civil matters, such as preparing contracts and handling lawsuits, and some also serve as prosecutors for traffic and other low-level offenses.
The method of selecting them varies, depending on the local charter, according to Lori Bluhm, president of the Michigan Association of Municipal Attorneys.
“The solicitation of bids for legal services occurs fairly frequently throughout the nation, but not every charter requires that, however,” said Bluhm, who is also Troy’s city attorney. Some leave it up to local officials to determine what’s in their municipality’s “best interests.”
William Mathewson, the general counsel for the Michigan Municipal League, said he’s seen an increase in the number of cities and villages that are soliciting competitive bids for legal services.
“It’s not unusual,” Mathewson said. “Municipalities in Michigan are financially stressed, and so they are looking at any possibility of managing their expenses.
“One of the things they look at is their professional services contracts. It’s an evaluation I’m sure they go through on a regular basis,” he said.
He and Bluhm said they’re unaware of any other cases where former outside attorneys sued their local governments after losing a contract.
In the Spokojny case, the appeals court said the city presented legitimate non-discriminatory reasons to choose Allen Brothers because it had more experience with municipal law and was less expensive than Spokojny.
Allen Brothers had represented a dozen other cities, as well as Wayne State University, banks and other major clients, according to the decision.
In addition, some city council members said Spokojny, who is from Farmington Hills, “was so comfortable in his job that he would fall asleep during council meetings and that they did not trust him to perform the city’s work,” appeals Judge David McKeague wrote for the unanimous three-member panel.
In his lawsuit, Spokojny claimed that Mayor Hilliard Hampton, who is black, illegally gave racial preference to Allen Brothers. The city council voted 5-2 to approve the contract.
But McKeague said Hampton’s alleged favoritism was “remote in time and unrelated to the decision to choose Allen Brothers. Ditto for the mayor’s alleged desire to award contracts on the basis of race.”
There also was no proof the mayor or city council “acted with an improper motive,” or that there was anything discriminatory about the city’s distributing information about “minority business participation” and “women-owned business participation,” he said.
“Putting minority and women-owned firms on notice of a possible job opening is a far cry from intentionally discriminating on the basis of race,” McKeague said.
Spokojny is out of town until late November and couldn’t be reached for comment.
By ERIC FREEDMAN