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Judge gives state until March to respond to Flint suit

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

A federal court judge has agreed to give the state until March 2 to respond to a civil lawsuit filed by Flint residents over lead-contaminated drinking water.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge John Corbett O’Meara issued an order granting a 30-day extension requested by the Michigan Attorney General’s Office for more time to respond to the case filed Nov. 13 against Gov. Rick Snyder, former and employees of the Department of Environmental Quality and Flint officials.

On Friday, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette said his office cannot legally defend both Snyder and individual DEQ employees in the case because of a potential conflict of interest.

The judge did not address Schuette’s concerns over legal representation in his order issued Monday.

In a brief filed Friday in U.S. District Court, Schuette said: “As the issues surrounding the situation in Flint have unfolded, particularly in the last week, it has become apparent that there is a potential conflict of interest between the governor and state of Michigan on the one hand, and the individual MDEQ employees on the other.

“Given this conflict, counsel have determined it is likely they cannot effectively represent both sets of clients.”

Schuette requested an extension of the filing deadline to allow his office to withdraw as the attorney for individual MDEQ defendants and to allow separate counsel to be found.

Four Flint families filed a federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court on Nov. 13 against the governor, state officials and Flint, seeking class-action status.

In that 30-page civil complaint, the families allege that tens of thousands of residents have experienced and will continue to experience “serious personal injury and property damage” caused by the “defendants’ deliberate decision to expose them to the extreme toxicity of water.”

The federal lawsuit names Snyder; former DEQ director Daniel Wyant, who stepped down amid the controversy; and five staff members at DEQ, including the former chief of the Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance, Liane Shekter Smith, who was reassigned in October.

The others are a water quality analyst, a district supervisor, a water treatment specialist and an engineer.

It also names Flint’s former emergency managers, its former mayor as well as its director of public works, two city administrators and the city itself.

The lawsuit alleges Snyder and the other defendants, “acting under the color of law, deliberately deprived” Flint residents of the rights and guarantees secured by 14th Amendment when they “took safe drinking water from them and replaced it with what they knew to be a highly toxic alternative solely for fiscal purposes.”

“For more than 18 months, state and local government officials ignored irrefutable evidence that the water pumped from the Flint River exposed the plaintiffs and the Plaintiff Class to extreme toxicity, causing serious and dire injury and health hazards, and property damage to the Flint water users,” the lawsuit says.

State and local officials regularly assured the Flint water users the water supplied from the Flint River was being properly treated, monitored and tested and was safe to consume and use, the lawsuit states.

Information obtained through the Freedom of Information Act establishes that many of these assurances were known to be false, the complaint continues.

“State and local officials were not properly monitoring or sampling the Flint River water and delayed in notifying the public of serious safety and health risks in a knowing and deliberate effort to conceal the truth from those who were being poisoned,” it says.

“The deliberately false denials about the safety of the Flint River water was as deadly as it was arrogant.”

The lawsuit alleges the defendants violated due process of Flint residents by creating a dangerous situation and violated substantive due process and rights to bodily integrity.

The families are asking O’Meara to certify the case as a class action, to issue an order declaring the conduct of the defendants unconstitutional and an order of equitable relief to cover repairs and property damage, to establish a medical monitoring fund and to appoint a monitor to oversee water operation in Flint for a period of time determined by the court.

They are also seeking compensatory damages, punitive damages and attorney fees

JChambers@detroitnews.com