Traverse City News and Events

Judge Dismisses Studio 8 Lawsuit Against City, Three Individuals

By Beth Milligan | March 21, 2024

A Thirteenth Circuit Court judge dismissed a lawsuit Wednesday filed by Studio 8 Hair Lab against the City of Traverse City and three individuals who submitted complaints about the salon. Among other findings, Judge Kevin Elsenheimer ruled that Studio 8 – a local salon that’s been embroiled in controversy since owner Christine Geiger posted last year that transgender clients aren't welcome at her business – appeared to have filed the lawsuit with the goal of harassing and intimidating individuals who complained about the salon and awarded the defendants sanctions for having been subjected to a “frivolous” case.

Geiger gained national attention last summer after posting comments on her salon page that went viral, stating she refused to serve transgender customers and that anyone who "identifies as anything other than a man/woman" should "seek services at a local pet groomer." Twenty-one individuals complained to the Michigan Department of Civil Rights (MDCR) about Geiger’s posts. MDCR filed a formal charge of discrimination in November against Studio 8.

Separately, Studio 8 filed a lawsuit in Thirteenth Circuit Court against the City of Traverse City and individuals Lee Maynard, Marley (Maddie) Harris, and Heather Spooner, all of whom complained to the MDCR. The lawsuit alleged those defendants deprived Studio 8 of its right to express its “sincerely held religious understanding that God created a man and a woman and that any other conception of a man and a woman violates God’s plan.” The lawsuit challenged both the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act – the state’s primary civil rights law – and Traverse City’s Non-Discrimination Ordinance. Studio 8 sought an immediate declaratory judgment in the case.

In response, Maynard, Harris, and Spooner asked to be dropped from the lawsuit because they’re not state actors. Studio 8 claimed its religious and free speech rights were being violated by the trio, but those constitutionally guaranteed protections only apply to the government.

Elsenheimer reiterated that in his ruling Wednesday, saying “there is no question that a private citizen independently reporting a claim of discrimination is a private, not a state actor.” 

Furthermore, the judge wrote that the law is “clear” about constitutional protections only applying to the government. Because Geiger did not even attempt to argue that the individuals were state actors, it appears her “primary purpose in initiating the action against Maynard, Harris, and Spooner was to harass, intimidate, threaten, and/or retaliate against the individual defendants as complainants in the MDCR' s matter,” Elsenheimer wrote. He said Studio 8’s claims were “devoid of arguable legal merit.” Accordingly, he determined the case was “frivolous” and that the defendants’ request for sanctions should be granted, with Maynard, Harris, and Spooner entitled to costs and fees.

Studio 8’s lawsuit had cited 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis, a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision along 6-3 partisan lines that ruled a Colorado website designer could not be compelled to create wedding websites for LGBTQ+ couples. The ruling, which was relatively narrow, determined the website designer was creating customized speech and was protected on First Amendment grounds. After reviewing the Supreme Court case, Elsenheimer said it was materially different than Studio 8’s situation. In 303 Creative, the plaintiffs “were providing a unique, customized good or service that involved expressive speech...in this case, plaintiff is providing hair services and products which do not contain images, words, symbols, or other modes of expression.”

Because Studio 8 failed to prove the city’s ordinance is clearly unconstitutional, the motion for immediate declaratory judgment was denied. Elsenheimer also denied injunctive relief, which is typically only used as an “extraordinary remedy.” The judge noted that the City of Traverse City hasn’t taken action against Studio 8 – only investigating and forwarding complaints to the MDCR, not prosecuting the business itself – and said there was “no danger (Geiger) will suffer irreparable injury” without an injunction. Elsenheimer agreed with the city that there’s no relevant controversy between Studio 8 and the city, and granted the city’s request to dismiss the case. “This decision and order resolves the outstanding claims and closes the case,” the judge concluded.

When reached for comment by The Ticker, Geiger disputed that the case had been dismissed. “It’s not that cut and dry,” she said, referring additional questions to her attorney, David Delaney. Delaney notes that one of the primary issues in the case – Geiger’s challenge of the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA) – was not actually resolved in Elsenheimer’s order. Indeed, the judge said he could not address that issue, because the Michigan Court of Claims has “exclusive jurisdiction” to hear claims against the state or its departments.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel has filed to dismiss Geiger’s case against the MDCR and the ELCRA for that same reason, arguing Circuit Court is the wrong venue for a challenge against the state. She also alleged Studio 8 is using the lawsuit to derail MDCR’s administrative hearings in its charge of discrimination against the business.

There are now two parallel tracks of proceedings from here, according to Delaney. The first is the MDCR discrimination charge against Studio 8, which is scheduled to go before an administrative law judge on April 3. That judge will make a recommendation on whether discrimination has taken place, and if so, what the penalty will be. Based on action so far, Delaney expects that ruling will likely go against Studio 8. From there, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission will review the judge’s recommendation and issue a final determination and order. Elsenheimer noted that after the Commission issues a final order, Studio 8 would then have the right to appeal in Circuit Court.

Nessel’s motion to dismiss is also set to be heard in April, according to Delaney. In those proceedings, he wants to challenge whether the ELCRA applies to the three individuals who complained to the MDCR. One complainant identifies as a woman – a class of customers Geiger said she would serve, according to Delaney. He also plans to challenge whether other defendants who identity as non-binary are covered by the ELCRA. While the act was recently expanded to add specific protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity, Delaney argues “non-binary” is not a defined group under the act.

“Does a Facebook post violate the state civil rights act, and within that, are (these defendants) a protected class?” Delaney asks. “That would answer the question of whether there’s been a violation of the law.” He also says no customers were actually denied service, they “just read a Facebook post.”  Delaney notes he doesn’t want to see proceedings unnecessarily drawn out. “Nobody wants this case to sit around,” he says.

For its part, the MDCR has reiterated that a business “does not have to deny someone services on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or expression to be in violation of the law.” MDCR Executive John E. Johnson, Jr. said in a statement: “While the First Amendment and the ELCRA incorporate religious freedoms, the posts made by Studio 8 fall outside these protections. (Geiger’s) blatant violation of the law cannot be allowed to continue without consequence.”

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