Blight removal contractor’s defamation suit dismissed

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Pontiac – An Oakland County judge dismissed a defamation lawsuit Friday against Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s chief of staff and seven other people a West Bloomfield contractor alleged had wronged him in the ongoing probe of the Detroit Land Bank.

Barry Ellentuck, 53, filed the lawsuit in Oakland County Circuit Court after being acquitted last July of attempted fraud involving Detroit demolition inspections. Ellentuck’s company, ADR Consultants, was contracted by the state to provide blight demolition management, oversight and inspections around Michigan, primarily in the Detroit area.

Judge Denise Langford Morris, who heard arguments in the case this week, said in her two-page ruling that “governmental actors are immune” from lawsuits providing their acts were “undertaken in good faith or were not undertaken with malice” and the acts were discretionary.

“All of the alleged acts by defendants were discretionary and undertaken during the course of employment,” Morris wrote. “Plaintiff has not identified any ill-will or animus ...

“As witnesses, defendants are entitled to immunity from civil liability for their testimony and everything leading up to providing testimony,” she wrote. “... This resolves the last pending claim and closes the case.”

If convicted of the attempted fraud charges, Ellentuck had faced penaties that carry up to 2 1/2 years in prison. Ellentuck declined comment Friday, deferring questions to his attorney, J. Paul Sugameli, who plans an appeal.

“... We have reviewed the Opinion and are very disappointed by the Court’s decision to dismiss the case,” Sugameli said in a statement. “We strongly believe that the ruling runs contrary to Michigan law, including law cited in our responses to the motions themselves, and fails to address numerous arguments made in support of the Complaint.

“The decision effectively, and inaccurately, concludes that no governmental official may be held liable for malicious prosecution. We note that nothing in the decision exonerates any of the parties or condones their behavior but instead merely excuses it due to it arising in the highest level of government, which should require greater scrutiny rather than a free pass.

“Mr. Ellentuck intends to appeal this decision and continue his battle to seek justice for the wrongs that have been committed against him,” Sugameli said. “This is a continuation of Mr. Ellentuck’s fight against corruption and malfeasance that has resulted in a state investigation and a federal criminal investigation.”

In the lawsuit, Ellentuck claimed Duggan’s chief of staff, Alexis Wiley, and others “engaged in a concerted effort to destroy” his reputation at all costs because of his criticism of the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, the Michigan Land Bank, the Detroit Land Bank and the Detroit Building Authority.

Others named in the lawsuit were Jeffrey Huntington of MSHDA; Michele Wildman, who has been employed by the MLB and MSHDA; James Wright, a former DBA deputy director; Mary Carolyn Lewand-Monroe, DLB director; Martha Delgado, a former compliance manager of the DLB; Brian Farkas of the DBA; and John Buck, a retired police officer who acted as an investigator for the state.

Lewand-Monroe is leaving her post with the Detroit Land Bank in May.

All eight had sought dismissals of Ellentuck’s lawsuit, claiming governmental immunity.

“We are pleased with the court’s decision to dismiss this case,” said the city of Detroit’s attorney, Melvin “Butch” Hollowell. “Despite the plaintiff’s meritless allegations, the court found that all officials named in this case acted in good faith and within the scope of their duties.”

An Oakland Circuit Court jury heard a week of testimony in the criminal trial and deliberated less than four hours before acquitting Ellentuck.

Ellentuck’s suit alleged the criminal charges against him were intended “to either silence Mr. Ellentuck from cooperating with state and federal authorities in relation to certain improprieties and fraud that he had identified” in the various Detroit and state agencies and blight demolition programs.

He had been charged in December 2015, just a few days after he had brought his concerns about millions of dollars in no-bid demolition contracts to the attention of officials in Detroit and Lansing, according to his attorney in the criminal case.

Detroit’s anti-blight and demolition programs are under investigation by federal officials.

Christine Ferretti contributed.