Gay police officer’s First Amendment claim dismissed

Monday, January 30, 2012

A former police officer in St. Cloud, Minn., who alleged his supervisors discriminated against him after finding out he was gay can proceed with his equal-protection – but not his First Amendment – claims.

Sean Alan Lathrop began work with the St. Cloud Police Department in September 2006. For several years he received good employment reviews, earning either “excellent” or “competent” ratings. All that changed, he alleged, when his supervisors learned he was gay.

In May 2009, the deputy chief of the Minneapolis Police Department sent a letter to one of Lathrop’s bosses, asking whether Lathrop could work a community-outreach booth in the Twin Cities Pride Festival, an event celebrating sexual diversity. St. Cloud Chief of Police Dennis Ballentine denied the request and, according to Lathrop, said “there are no gay people in St. Cloud.” Ballentine, a defendant in the lawsuit, denied making any anti-gay remarks. Sgt. James Steve, another defendant, denied Lathrop’s request to use vacation time to attend the festival.

Lathrop contended that after he made his sexual orientation known in the workplace, Ballentine, Steve and other officers began a “concerted effort” to discipline him unfairly to try to get him to resign. He alleged that the officials initiated an unfounded internal investigation of him, stopped him from giving drug talks at a local university, altered his work schedule to disrupt his sleep patterns and engaged in various other retaliatory actions.

In December 2009, Lathrop filed a charge of discrimination with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights. He claimed that after he filed this charge, defendants disciplined him for tardiness, reduced his seniority and took other retaliatory actions. He resigned from the department in April 2010.

Lathrop sued in federal court, contending that various officials with the department violated his constitutional and statutory rights. Among his constitutional claims, Lathrop contended that the defendants violated his First Amendment free-speech, free-association and free-assembly rights when they denied him the opportunity to attend the Twin Cities Pride Festival.

U.S. District Judge Donovan W. Frank rejected the First Amendment claim in his Jan. 23 opinion in Lathrop v. City of St. Cloud. The judge wrote that Lathrop did not set forth enough facts showing that Defendant Ballentine and others had violated his First Amendment rights.

However, Frank found sufficient evidence for a jury to consider Lathrop’s equal-protection claim.

“Plaintiff has submitted evidence sufficient to create a material issue of fact surrounding whether Defendants treated Plaintiff differently once he became an openly gay police officer,” Frank wrote. The judge also ruled that Lathrop could proceed with his statutory claims under the Minnesota Human Rights Act for sexual orientation discrimination.

Lathrop’s attorney, J. Ashwin Madia, told the First Amendment Center Online: “While we respect the Court’s well-reasoned decision, we continue to believe that Defendants violated Officer Lathrop’s First Amendment rights by not allowing him to march in the Minneapolis Gay Pride parade on his own time and out of uniform.”

Madia added: “The Court recognized that Defendants’ position that Officer Lathrop magically transformed from an outstanding officer into a burden to his unit the day after the Department learned his sexual orientation strains the bounds of credulity.” Madia said he did not expect to appeal the ruling, because it allowed the equal-protection claims to go to trial.

Jana O’Leary Sullivan, attorney for the defendants, told the First Amendment Center Online, “We are pleased that the Court dismissed Plaintiff Sean Lathrop’s First Amendment claims. As the Court noted in its decision, Lathrop failed to establish any violation of his First Amendment rights.”

Sullivan said Lathrop was unable to attend the Twin Cities festival “because he was scheduled to work at the annual City-wide Granite City Days celebration, and schedules had been set for this event since early 2009.”

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