Deputy who offered to testify vs. sheriff prevails in court

Friday, December 30, 2011

A former deputy sheriff in Osceola County, Iowa, had a First Amendment right to offer to testify in support of two people suing the sheriff in a federal lawsuit, a federal district judge has ruled.

Daniel Minten served for 21 years as a deputy sheriff but lost his job in February 2010 after his boss — Sheriff Douglas L. Weber — learned that Minten had told Emily Dorr that he would be willing to testify in support of her father and brother.

Paul and Alexander Dorr had sued Weber after the sheriff denied their applications for handgun permits in retaliation for criticizing local government policies, including the sheriff’s office. In July 2010, U.S. District Judge for the Northern District of Iowa Mark W. Bennett ruled in favor of the Dorrs in his opinion in Dorr v. Weber. (The opinion was noteworthy for its First Amendment analysis.)

Minten made the offer to testify after he pulled Emily Dorr over for speeding in August 2009. After giving Emily Dorr a verbal warning for speeding, Minten said he would be willing to testify in the case on the Dorrs’ behalf if subpoenaed.

When Weber heard the conversation on a dashboard video of the traffic stop, he viewed it as an act of insubordination and fired Minten. He also opposed Minten’s request for unemployment compensation. During a hearing, Weber said Minten “wanted to take an active role to undermine the office of sheriff and undermine his employer and that speaks for itself.”

In January 2011, Minten filed a federal lawsuit, contending that he was fired in retaliation for his protected speech — the offer to testify in the Dorr lawsuit. Weber countered that Minten had no free-speech right when he spoke to Emily Dorr in a traffic stop. Both sides filed motions for summary judgment.

Weber contended that Minten’s speech was job-related speech that receives no First Amendment protection under the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Garcetti v. Ceballos (2006). In that decision, the Supreme Court ruled that employees have no First Amendment rights when they make statements in connection with their official job duties.

However, on Dec. 22, Federal District Judge Bennett — who had ruled in the Dorr lawsuit — also ruled in Minten’s favor against Weber in Minten v. Weber. Bennett held that Minten had a First Amendment right to speak to Emily Dorr about the lawsuit during the traffic stop.

Weber had argued that Minten’s speech was job-related because he was in uniform, driving his patrol car, working his regular shift and performing his duties when he encountered Emily Dorr. But Bennett ruled that “Minten’s official duties did not include sharing his views with Emily on Weber’s rejection of her father’s and brother’s applications for nonprofessional permits to carry weapons.” He reasoned that “Minten made his offer to Emily in his capacity as a private citizen rather than a deputy sheriff.”

The next level of analysis under Garcetti in such a public-employee claim is whether Minten spoke on a matter of public concern — a matter of importance to the community — or simply a private, personal matter. Public employees retain First Amendment rights to speak out on important issues, but do not receive free-speech protections for much other expression.

Bennett found that Minten spoke on a matter of public concern, as the Dorr lawsuit involved alleged misconduct by the sheriff. Bennett cited a host of decisions in explaining why public employee speech about police misconduct touches on matters of public importance.

Then Bennett had to determine whether Minten’s speech on a matter of public concern outweighed Weber’s right to an efficient, disruption-free workplace. The sheriff had argued that Minten’s insubordination damaged the sheriff’s department’s effectiveness. Bennett acknowledged that “law enforcement agencies have a strong interest in maintaining order and discipline in their ranks.” Nonetheless, he found that “the law has long afforded certain protections to witnesses in order to encourage their full and truthful testimony.”

Ultimately, Bennett struck the balance in favor of Minten’s right to free speech because “Weber has failed to offer any evidence of any actual or possible workplace disruptions resulting from Minten’s speech.” He added: “The importance of safeguarding a witness from harassment is particularly acute when the witness is a law enforcement officer whose testimony is combating the pernicious problem of police misconduct.”

Having concluded that Minten had engaged in protected speech, Bennett then had to determine whether Minten’s protected speech was a substantial factor in Weber’s decision to fire him. Weber claimed he had several reasons for discharging Minten, including one incident of allegedly excessive force in September 2009.

However, Bennett found that the real reason for the discharge was the offer to testify on behalf of the Dorrs. The judge noted that Weber’s stated reason for firing Minten was insubordination and he later told several other deputy sheriffs that it was inappropriate for Minten to offer to testify. During Minten’s unemployment-compensation hearing, Weber’s sole reason for opposing benefits for Minten was the Emily Dorr traffic incident. Bennett concluded that “no reasonable juror would find that Minten’s offer to testify in the Dorr Lawsuit was not a motivating factor in Weber’s decision to fire him.”

Bennett said in his opinion that the issue of damages would proceed to trial.

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