United States District Court, D. Minnesota
E. Hart, Esq., and Nathan R. Sellers, Esq., Fabyanske Westra
Hart & Thomson, PA, counsel for Plaintiff.
Jessica E. Schwie, Esq., Tal Aaron Bakke, Esq., and Tessa M
McEllistrem, Esq., Jardine Logan & O'Brien PLLP,
counsel for Defendants.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
DONOVAN W. FRANK United States District Judge
plaintiff in this case was a sheriff's deputy who
resigned in early 2016 after being placed on administrative
leave pending an investigation into whether he lent his squad
car to be filmed in a movie against a direct order from his
supervisor. The plaintiff filed suit alleging that Defendants
retaliated against him for supporting a challenger sheriff
candidate in 2014 and for reporting possible violations to a
state oversight agency. The defendants moved for summary
judgment. For the reasons discussed below, the Court grants
the defendants' motion.
March 1997, Plaintiff Troy Ugrich joined the Itasca County
Sheriff's Department (“Sheriff's
Department”) as a sheriff's deputy. In November
2010, Defendant Victor Williams was first elected sheriff.
The other three defendants in this case are Itasca County,
Chief Deputy Denise Hirt, and Supervisor Albert Morse. In
2014, Ugrich backed a challenger candidate for sheriff,
Deputy Bryan Johnson. Ugrich served as Johnson's campaign
manager. In his role as campaign manager, Ugrich contends
that he made a number of critical statements regarding
Williams and the Sheriff's Department. Specifically,
Ugrich alleges that he published criticism about the Sheriff
Department's budget at the Itasca County Fair and on
Facebook. In addition, Ugrich helped write a letter to the
Grand Rapids Herald Review on behalf of the Johnson Campaign
claiming that the Sheriff's Department was allowing
employees to use county-issued credit cards to pay for
gasoline consumed for personal use (“Herald
Letter”). (Schwie Decl., Ex. 30.) In the end, Williams
and after the election, Ugrich claims that Defendants
retaliated against him for his role in the Johnson campaign.
Ugrich first claims that Defendants retaliated against him by
excluding him from the execution of a search warrant. On June
26, 2014, a few days after the Johnson campaign published its
criticism of the Sheriff's Department's budget,
officers from the Sheriff's Department participated in
the execution of a search warrant on a house in Taconite,
Minnesota, as part of a multijurisdictional drug operation.
Around this same time in Taconite, Ugrich was attempting to
serve civil process papers for an unrelated matter. Ugrich
claims that he was purposely not informed about the search
being executed nearby and felt that he was unnecessarily
placed in danger. Ugrich and his wife each tried to raise the
issue with Williams, but Williams apparently refused to speak
with either of them. Ugrich claims that he suffered emotional
distress as a result of the incident and no longer feels safe
working for the Sheriff's Department.
Ugrich contends that he was retaliated against in the form of
two unwarranted verbal reprimands. The first reprimand (in
October 2014) was the result of Ugrich refusing to respond to
a possible emergency situation involving a suicidal person
because Ugrich was escorting someone to retrieve property.
(T. Ugrich Dep. at 209.)The reprimand was for failing to
prioritize the more serious situation. (Morse Dep. at 79-81.)
Ugrich's second reprimand (in September 2015) was for
failing to show for his scheduled shift. Ugrich filed a
grievance over the second reprimand, and it was removed from
his record. Defendants concede that, with minor exception,
Ugrich had performed his job satisfactorily. (Defs.'
Memo. at 2.)
Ugrich alleges that Defendants retaliated against him by
suspending him pending an investigation into whether he lent
his squad car to movie producers. In August 2014, a
movie-production manager contacted Chief Deputy Hirt
requesting permission to use one of the Sheriff
Department's squad cars in a movie. Hirt told the
production manager that the Sheriff Department could not lend
the squad car due to possible liability issues. (Hirt at 75;
see also Schwie Decl., Ex. 54 (“Admin.
Investigation Final Report”) at 2.) Then, later in
August 2014, Ugrich called Hirt requesting permission to use
his squad car in the movie. Hirt again said no. (Hirt Dep. at
75; Admin. Investigation Final Report at 2.) Over a
year later, in late August 2015, Williams and Hirt learned
that a Sheriff's Department squad car was used in filming
the movie. On September 22, 2015, Ugrich was placed on
administrative leave pending further investigation. This
suspension came on the heels of Ugrich filing a formal
complaint with the Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards
and Training (“Post Board”) regarding the
Sheriff's Department's rules for part-time officers.
investigation into Ugrich's misconduct contained two
components: an administrative and a criminal investigation.
The criminal investigation was referred to Crow Wing County.
(Hirt Dep. at 19.) Crow Wing County has not recommended any
criminal charges, but the investigation has not yet been
closed. (Id. at 25.) For the administrative
investigation, Itasca County hired Attorney Frank J. Madden
to perform an internal investigation. (Williams Dep. at 124.)
Despite repeated requests, Ugrich refused to be interviewed
for the investigation. Instead, on January 25, 2016, Ugrich
resigned, claiming that he had been constructively
discharged. (Doc. No. 71 (“Ugrich Aff.”) ¶
16, Ex. B.)
filed his complaint on April 18, 2016, alleging that
Defendants: (1) violated his First Amendment rights by
retaliating against him for supporting a challenger candidate
for sheriff; (2) violated his right to equal protection under
the 14th Amendment by treating him differently than other
deputies who exercised their free-speech rights; and (3)
retaliated against him in violation the Minnesota
Whistleblower Act, Minnesota Statute §§
181.931-.932. Defendants now move for summary judgment.
I. Legal Standard
judgment is appropriate if the “movant shows that there
is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant
is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”
Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Courts must view the evidence, and the
inferences that may be reasonably drawn from the evidence, in
the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Weitz
Co., LLC v. Lloyd's of London, 574 F.3d 885, 892
(8th Cir. 2009). However, “[s]ummary judgment procedure
is properly regarded not as a disfavored procedural shortcut,
but rather as an integral part of the Federal Rules as a
whole, which are designed ...