Judge dismisses lawsuit against county, sheriff, investigator

Gwen Chamberlain

A lawsuit filed by Yates County Deputy Kenneth Kamholtz in U.S. District Court against Yates County, the Sheriff’s Department, Yates County Sheriff Ronald Spike and Senior Investigator Michael Christensen was dismissed by U.S. District Judge Michael A. Telesca on Dec. 3.

“The decision speaks for itself,” commented Sheriff Ron Spike, adding, “The Court dismissed in its entirety, which is a solid statement.”

In a 22 page decision that covered several allegations, the judge wrote that Spike is entitled to qualified immunity for any claims, and that the sheriff’s department could not be sued in addition to the county.

Christensen commented, “While I’m pleased with the results, it’s disappointing that the ones who pay for these frivolous lawsuits are the taxpayers.”

But Kamholtz says he won’t give up on the issue, and he met with his attorney on Dec. 8 to plan an appeal. “The end goal is just. I’ll fight the good fight. Win, lose or draw,” he said before meeting with his attorney, Christine Agola.

Kamholtz called the decision by Telesca a “minor setback.”

Kamholtz is paying for the lawsuit on his own, but he says he’s getting a lot of support from others. “It’s money well-spent. It’s important,” he says, adding, “There’s a great swell of support from the community.”

Kamholtz filed the lawsuit in May, claiming that his civil rights, including his First Amendment right to free speech and his right to equal protection were violated in connection with a demotion from investigator to road patrol and related incidents that led to the duty changes. 

Kamholtz’s complaints also included malicious prosecution and negligent hiring.

The complaints are related to a series of incidents dating back to 2003, when Kamholtz was an investigator with the department.

In his decision, Telesca found that Kamholtz’s comments during a staff meeting in the summer of 2003 are not protected under the  First Amendment.

“Even when considering the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the allegations show that the plaintiff was speaking as an employee and not as a citizen when he complained at the staff meeting in 2003 that Christensen ‘directed him to withhold exculpatory evidence and alter police records concerning the sexual abuse allegations of a former police officer.’”

Telesca also said Kamholtz did not demonstrate that he was treated differently from other employees.

The sheriff’s department argued that there was probable cause to charge Kamholtz, as an investigator, with two counts of offering a false instrument.

Those charges led to an agreement reached in Penn Yan Village Court in which the charges were dropped and Kamholtz, who had been placed on unpaid administrative leave, agreed to return to duty as a road patrol officer.

Telesca said because Kamholtz agreed to those terms, the dismissal of those charges does not suggest that Kamholtz was innocent of the charges, so he could not claim malicious prosecution.

Kamholtz had filed a worker’s compensation claim and a personnel complaint against Christensen after a 2006 meeting, during which he claims Christensen struck him on the back at the base of the neck.

Telesca wrote, “However, (District Attorney Susan) Lindenmuth’s statement appears to contradict plaintiff’s statement when she notes that, ‘Christensen had a very calm demeanor, was sort of laughing and touched Inv. Kamholtz on the left shoulder. It appeared to me to be a very collegial type of touch. Inv. Kamholtz did not move, did not flinch and did not state anything.’”

Telesca also noted, “In addition, (Inv. Todd) Sotir’s statement noted that it was difficult to qualify the physical contact made by Christensen towards plaintiff. He  (Sotir) described it as ‘definitely not a punch nor did it impress me as a blow to cause an injury. It was also not what I would describe as a friendly pat on the back. I would characterize it as being somewhere in between the two.’”

Telesca said the allegations in the complaint and the documents demonstrate that the sheriff’s department had probable cause to prosecute Kamholtz.

The judge also found fault with Kamholtz’s claim that Spike and the county had a policy of encouraging retaliatory conduct.

Telesca wrote that Kamholtz did not demonstrate that Spike violated clearly established rights or acted unreasonably in the situation.

Spike issued a brief statement on Dec. 8 in response to the decision.

“The suit made allegations of first amendment retaliation, malicious prosecution, adverse treatment and constitutional rights violations demanding compensatory and punitive damages under U.S.?Code. The judge ruled, for several reasons spelled out in the 22-page decision to grant motions brought by the defendant and dismiss the complaint in its entirety,” he wrote in the statement.