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VOL. 122 | NO. 228 | Friday, November 30, 2007

Motion to Dismiss Lawsuit Against Sheriff Denied

By Andy Meek

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Mark Luttrell

A federal judge has denied in part a motion by attorneys for Shelby County Sheriff Mark Luttrell to dismiss a federal lawsuit filed against him by Shelby County Sheriff's deputies.

The judge also granted part of that same motion, which included dismissing claims against Luttrell in his official capacity.

The Shelby County Deputy Sheriffs Association argues Luttrell has unfairly prevented the group from reaching a new labor contract and filed suit earlier this year in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee. Judge Jon McCalla's ruling on the motion filed by Luttrell and his co-defendants to dismiss that case came Nov. 14.

As part of his ruling, McCalla granted a request to dismiss claims against Luttrell and Danny Kail, chief negotiator for the sheriff's office, in their official capacities.

"There was an initial motion to dismiss filed by the defendants that's been denied in large part, so we're moving forward," said attorney Sam Morris, who represents the deputies in the lawsuit.

County involvement

When filed in June, the lawsuit came a little more than a year after the expiration of the employee protection agreement between the sheriff and his deputies. The agreement was extended temporarily but never renewed. Kail, Luttrell, Shelby County and the county sheriff's office all were named as defendants in the lawsuit.

As a result of McCalla's ruling, Kail and Luttrell are now only part of the suit as individuals and not in their official capacity. The county sheriff's office is no longer part of the suit.

The deputies voted last January to form an association with the Teamsters Law Enforcement League. Luttrell refused to acknowledge the Teamsters affiliation.

Once the lawsuit was filed in June, the court action apparently kept both sides away from the bargaining table.

"I know that we're still working without a contract at this point, and I guess as long as that court action ensues then there won't be any negotiations going on," said Steve Shular, spokesman for the sheriff's office.

Earlier this year, members of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners appeared ready to wade into the conflict between the sheriff and his deputies, perhaps by brokering a compromise or by enlisting a third party to help. But the commission now has its plate full with another law enforcement matter - namely, whether to promote a merger of the crime-fighting role of the county sheriff's office with the Memphis Police Department.

Luttrell and his co-defendants filed a motion to dismiss the case against them Aug. 6. The plaintiffs filed a response Oct. 5, after which the defendants filed another motion to stay discovery in the case while the motion to dismiss was pending.

McCalla's ruling about two weeks ago also denied the motion to stay discovery.

No end in sight?

The deputies union contends that Luttrell has refused unfairly to negotiate a new labor agreement since the last one expired. Louis Britt and Emily Pera, attorneys for the defendants in the lawsuit, countered in their motion to dismiss that the plaintiffs are
" ... improperly attempting to use the federal courts as a vehicle to force an elected official to recognize and negotiate with a union that has no claim for recognition under federal, state or local law."

Dan Chapman, president of the Shelby County Deputy Sheriffs Association, said the still-unresolved dispute has taken a toll on staff morale.

"I don't know of any time in our history when our morale has been this low," he said. "Between the sheriff not being willing to discuss the issues with us - he refuses to sit down and discuss a new memorandum of understanding with us - there's that, plus the chronic under-funding we've been experiencing for a while. They refer to city police as the thin blue line. On the county side, we're the thin green line."

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