The Leelanau County Board of Commissioners will not dispute a workman’s compensation settlement reached with one of the deputies who sued the county, its sheriff and undersheriff in federal court.
Former deputy Sgt. Michael Lamb walked away from his job in the sheriff’s department in May 2009, three months after he and three other deputies sued the sheriff for violating their civil rights. Lamb claimed that he could no longer work for the sheriff due to psychological stress; he began receiving disability payments.
Lamb and the three other deputies are expected to be awarded an undisclosed sum of money early next year following last month’s settlement of their federal lawsuit. Now Lamb is expected to receive an additional, undisclosed amount to settle his disability claim as well.
This week, a federal court recorder in Grand Rapids sold the Enterprise a transcript of an Oct. 10 hearing in which U.S. District Judge Janet Neff expressed concern that the Leelanau County Board of Commissioners could run afoul of public disclosure laws by keeping secret the amount of money to be paid to the four deputies.
At the Oct. 10 hearing, attorneys for both sides in the federal lawsuit asked the judge to keep the amount of the settlement out of a court document that might automatically become available to the public once it is signed by her in January.
“I’m not going to do that,” Neff replied, according to a transcript of the proceedings. “The number has got to be in the document because I do believe that even though your settlement may be subject to discovery via (the Freedom of Information Act), that doesn’t mean that it is necessarily available to anybody who wants to look at it who happens to be a taxpayer in Leelanau County or some other member of the public.
“And so the number is going to have to be in the document.”
“Just trying to process what that means with respect to the record and — can I have just a few minutes to talk to my client on that?” asked the county’s attorney Christopher K. Cooke.
Also present in the courtroom during the settlement hearing were Sheriff Michael Oltersdorf, Undersheriff Scott Wooters, county administrator Chet Janik, county board chairman Tom Van Pelt, and a representative from the county’s insurance carrier, the Michigan Municipal Risk Management Agency (MMRMA).
In addition, the four plaintiffs — Lamb, Sgt. James Kiessel, Deputy Mike Bankey and Deputy Duane Wright — were present in the courtroom with their three attorneys.
Following an off-the-record discussion in the courtroom, the parties and the judge agreed that a settlement agreement signed by her after June 2 would contain “the payment of X amount of dollars to the plaintiffs from the defendants, and other terms and conditions that have been agreed to by the parties.”
The judge asked whether the need to delay a final settlement of the case until January 2013 had anything to do with the county’s and its insurance carrier’s fiscal year.
The response from Cooke was “yes.”
Earlier this week, Cooke was still listed as a partner in the law firm Cummings, McClorey, Davis & Acho on the firm’s website. However, a receptionist working for the firm said Tuesday that Cooke “is no longer with us,” that he now operated out of his own law office, and that she did not have a phone number for him.
Another attorney with the firm who assisted Cooke in the case, Haider Kazim, did not immediately return a phone call from a reporter. The firm is retained by the county’s insurance carrier, MMRMA.
As for Sgt. Lamb’s disability claim, the Leelanau County Board of Commissioners went into a closed session at its regular monthly executive committee meeting on Nov. 13 to discuss the issue with an attorney from the Accident Fund of Michigan, Michael Wagner.
Following a half-hour closed session, commissioners emerged from behind closed doors. District No. 7 commissioner Melinda Lautner moved that “Leelanau County not dispute the workman’s compensation settlement in regards to Michael Lamb, as proposed by the Accident Fund of Michigan, pending final proposed language,” according to minutes of the meeting.
Lautner’s motion carried 4-0 with District No.2 commissioner James A. Schaub Sr., District No. 3 commissioner Richard A. Schmuckal and District No. 5 commissioner David W. “Chauncey” Shiflett absent.
The board subsequently approved its executive committee’s recommendation at the regular monthly county board meeting last week.
“This decision doesn’t mean the County Board endorses the settlement agreement with Sgt. Lamb,” county administrator Janik noted. “It just means we won’t dispute it.”
Dollar amounts to settle both the federal court case and Lamb’s workman’s compensation claim are expected to be released in early January.
In the federal lawsuit, the deputies alleged that the sheriff violated their civil rights by recording and listening to “private” phone conversations they made on government phone lines in the county Law Enforcement Center during duty hours. The deputies also alleged that the sheriff retaliated against them for speaking out against him and for their police union activities.
Two of the plaintiff deputies in the federal lawsuit against the sheriff, Kiessel and Wright, are themselves currently the targets of a federal court lawsuit alleging that they violated the civil rights of two Leland residents during a drunken driving arrest at their home in 2009. The suit was filed last month just before the statute of limitations would have rendered the issue moot. There has been almost no activity in the new federal case since it was filed.