Sotomayor denies officials' request to block lawsuit over Flint water crisis

The Detroit News
Defendants Liane Shekter-Smith, Corrine Miller, and Nancy Peeler.

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor on Friday denied a request from state officials wanting the High Court to block lower court rulings saying they could be sued over lead in the Flint water supply. 

Sotomayor, who handles these types of appeals from this region of the country, received it on Monday and denied the request without explanation Friday, according to the court docket

The four officials worked for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. They are:

  • Liane Shekter-Smith, chief of the DEQ Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance
  • Stephen Busch, Lansing district coordinator for the MDEQ’s Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance
  • Michael Prysby, MDEQ district engineer 
  • Bradley Wurfel, MDEQ communications director

Shekter-Smith, Busch and Prysby had reached plea deals with Special Prosecutor Todd Flood.

These officials argued they shouldn't be liable after Flint residents Shari Guertin and her child, Diogenes Muse-Cleveland, sued. 

Guertin claims in the suit that she and her daughter sustained injuries from drinking and bathing in the contaminated water during the Flint water crisis. 

In June 2017, U.S. District Judge Judith E. Levy dismissed many of the counts charged in Guertin’s lawsuit, but Levy agreed the “bodily integrity" of Guertin and her child were violated when city residents were unknowingly exposed to dangerous levels of lead in the city’s drinking water, which officials were aware of but hid from the public.

The judge refused to throw the suit out, so it was appealed. 

In January, a three-judge panel from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals said the "defendants created the Flint Water environmental disaster and then intentionally attempted to cover-up their grievous decision. Their actions shock our conscience.

"It is alleged that these defendants acted with deliberate indifference to the plaintiffs’ constitutional right to bodily integrity and at a minimum were plainly incompetent."

Judge Richard Griffin said DEQ employees Busch, Shekter-Smith, Prysby, and Wurfel "played a pivotal role" in the decision to distribute water from a river "rife with public-heath compromising complications" and "falsely assured the public" that the water was safe.

Meanwhile, Michigan Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud on Thursday dropped all pending criminal cases over the Flint water contamination crisis, a stunning move as she reboots a probe that began more than three years ago under a previous regime.

While they could be charged again in the future, former Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon and former Chief Medical Executive Eden Wells are no longer set to stand trial on involuntary manslaughter and other charges. Charges also were dropped against six other state and Flint officials.

The decision, announced by Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office, will give the department time “to conduct a full and complete investigation.” The dismissals were greeted with disappointment and dismay by many Flint lawmakers and residents as the state has spent more than $30.6 million and growing on a nearly three-and-a-half-year-old investigation.

The eight people who had charges dropped:

  • Nick Lyon, former director of the state health department
  • Dr. Eden Wells, former Michigan chief medical executive
  • Nancy Peeler of the state health department
  • Robert Scott of the state health department
  • Patrick Cook of the Department of Environmental Quality
  • Gerald Ambrose, former Flint emergency manager
  • Darnell Earley, former Flint emergency manager
  • Howard Croft, former director of Flint public works

Also listed on Guertin's suit are the four officials and Department of Environmental Quality Director Daniel Wyant.