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February 4, 2012

Court: Leelanau sheriff, undersheriff don't have immunity

Ruling means suit by group of deputies may move forward

SUTTONS BAY — A federal appeals court determined Leelanau County's sheriff and undersheriff don't have immunity from some legal claims made by a group of deputies.

Meanwhile, a federal district judge ruled that an attorney representing the county can continue his work.

Both decisions came this week as part of a long-running lawsuit against Leelanau County, Sheriff Mike Oltersdorf and Undersheriff Scott Wooters. The suit, filed by a group of sheriff's deputies in March 2009, alleges invasion of privacy, retaliation and other counts.

U.S. District Judge Janet Neff last year denied a motion that sought to give Oltersdorf and Wooters immunity from some of the complaints because the two are government employees. The county appealed, but the U.S. Court of Appeals this week upheld Neff's decision.

"It's huge," said Bill Rastetter, an attorney for the deputies. "The deputies now will have their opportunity to take their claims to a jury and have the jury decide."

Neff this week decided Christopher Cooke, an attorney representing Oltersdorf, Wooters and the county, shouldn't be removed from the case. Neff considered his removal after a "threatening" Aug. 15 letter Cooke sent to Leelanau Prosecutor Joseph Hubbell and Assistant Prosecutor Doug Donaldson.

The letter appeared to instruct Donaldson and Hubbell to alter or avoid testimony in the lawsuit, and Neff had harsh words for Cooke at a September hearing.

"I'm grateful for the judge's decision, and I'm looking forward to remaining on the case," Cooke said.

The case, marked by intense bickering and legal maneuvering, finally could head to trial this year, Rastetter said.

The suit stems from allegations that Oltersdorf and Wooters listened to conversations on what employees believed to be private lines at the sheriff's department on several occasions dating to 2006. They then retaliated against employees who publicly criticized the practice, the suit alleges.

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