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Warmbold v. MINACT, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

October 24, 2017

Roy Warmbold, Plaintiff,
v.
MINACT, Inc. d/b/a Hubert H. Humphrey Job Corps Center, Defendant.

          Matthew A. Frank, Esq., and Steven Andrew Smith, Esq., Nichols Kaster, PLLP, counsel for Plaintiff.

          Megan L. Anderson, Esq., and Neil S. Goldsmith, Esq., Gray Plant Mooty, counsel for Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          DONOVAN W. FRANK UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         INTRODUCTION

         This matter is before the Court on a Motion for Summary Judgment by Defendant MINACT, Inc. (Doc. No. 51.) For the reasons set forth below, the Court grants the motion.

         BACKGROUND

         On January 3, 2013, Plaintiff Roy Warmbold began working for Defendant as a Security Officer at the Hubert H. Humphrey Job Corps Center (the “Center”) in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Doc. No. 56 (“Goldsmith Aff.”) ¶ 2, Ex. A (“Warmbold Dep.”) at 68:21-69:2, 73:24-74:6, 80:3-11.) Job Corps Centers are federally regulated facilities that provide education and training services to help disadvantaged young adults secure employment. (Goldsmith Aff. ¶ 2, Ex. B (“Ealy Dep.”) at 10:8-11, 29:23-30:2; Warmbold Dep. at 77:3-7.) Defendant is a private government contractor that operates Job Corps Centers in various states across the country. (Ealy Dep. at 10:3-6, 12-15.) Defendant operated the Center at all relevant times. (Id. at 10:16-11:2.) Plaintiff's role included conducting investigations, preparing detailed and accurate reports of incidents, and reporting violations of the law.[1] (Warmbold Dep. at 82:23-83:13 & Ex. 9.) Plaintiff participated in training and education specific to conducting searches, reporting to the St. Paul Police Department (“SPPD”), and the Center's active shooter policy. (Id. at 97:1-22, 99:21-100:4, 202:9-203:7.)

         After midnight on October 16, 2015, Plaintiff and fellow Security Officer Charles Ammons responded to an incident involving suspected drug use by a student. (Id. at 118:17-119:3; Doc. No. 67 (“Frank Decl.”) ¶ 3, Ex. 3.) It had been reported that a student (the “Student”) appeared to be under the influence, and that the Student's room smelled like what was believed to be marijuana smoke. (Id.) Plaintiff and Ammons arrived and conducted a visual search of the room (“Search One”). (Warmbold Dep. at 120:13-121:1, 292:11-14.) During the search, Plaintiff noted an unidentifiable smell and observed a cigar wrapper on the floor, but did not find any marijuana. (Id. at 119:3-5, 121:2-5.) Center Director Debbie Hoppe testified that a Residential Advisor (“RA”) informed her of the situation, and Hoppe verbally authorized a targeted search of the Student's room and person. (Goldsmith Aff. ¶ 2, Ex. C (“Hoppe Dep.”) at 8:2-6, 62:20-64:21, 65:21-66:9.) Plaintiff stated that he was never instructed to conduct a targeted search, and that neither he nor Ammons sought permission to conduct one.[2](Warmbold Dep. at 292:24-293:14.)

         At around 7:00 a.m. on October 16, 2015, Plaintiff was informed of a situation on Campus involving a student with a gun-the Student involved in the prior incident. (Doc. No. 67 (“Frank Decl.”) ¶ 3, Ex. 4 (“Warmbold Statement”) & Ex. 7.) Ammons told Plaintiff that an RA had observed a gun in the Student's room, and Ammons instructed Plaintiff to call 911. (Warmbold Dep. at 131:11-132:4; Frank Decl. ¶ 3, Ex. 6.) According to Plaintiff, he immediately proceeded toward Building 6, where the Student's room was located. On the way, Plaintiff passed RA Amidu Oduloye, who also instructed Plaintiff to call the police. (Warmbold Dep. at 132:5-133:24; Warmbold Statement.) Plaintiff called 911 as he headed toward Building 6, and he remained on the phone until police arrived. (Warmbold Dep. at 136:5-137:16, 140:16-20; Frank Decl. ¶ 3, Exs. 20 & 21.) Plaintiff then greeted the officers and escorted them to Building 6. (Frank Decl. ¶ 3, Ex. 10.)

         Hoppe testified that around this time she learned there was a gun in Building 6. Hoppe asserts that shortly after, she encountered Plaintiff in a stairwell as she was exiting Building 1 which is on the opposite side of Campus from Building 6. (Hoppe Dep. at 84:10-15, Ex. 22 (“Hoppe Statement”); see also Frank Decl. ¶ 3, Ex. 2 (“Campus Map”).) According to Hoppe, she asked Plaintiff to accompany her, but he refused, allegedly stating that he would not go where there was a gun. (Hoppe Dep. at 84:21-25; Hoppe Statement.)

         Following the Student's arrest, Hoppe convened Center staff and students to explain the events that had transpired. (Hoppe Dep. at 75:12-16, 89:10-24.) According to Plaintiff, Hoppe singled him out at the assembly, stating that, “Officer Roy did what he was supposed to do. . . . He did the right thing.” (Warmbold Dep. at 152:15-153:5.) Hoppe, on the other hand, testified that she praised the residential and security staff, collectively, for getting the police there so quickly. (Hoppe Dep. at 90:5-11.) According to Hoppe, she did not have enough information at that time to know who to single out. (Id. at 90:16-91:4.)

         Sometime after the assembly that day, Hoppe asked Security to check in and around the Student's room to see if the gun had been discharged on Center property. (Id. at 93:5-8, 96:21-24.) Plaintiff and RA Bennedict Slobert returned to the room to investigate the area (“Search Two”). (Warmbold Dep. at 154:7-155:24; Warmbold Statement.) Plaintiff testified that he found a bullet hole on the inside of the solid-wood door that had not gone all the way through. (Warmbold Dep. at 157:5-159:7.) He reported his findings to Hoppe. (Id.) Plaintiff then completed an incident report and provided copies to Hoppe and his supervisor. (Id. at 160:6-161:7.) The report stated that Plaintiff was the one who called 911 and referenced both Ammons's and Oduloye's directions to call the police. (Frank Decl. ¶ 3, Ex. 7.)

         Later on October 16, 2015, Hoppe contacted Human Resources Manager Maranda Williams and requested that Plaintiff be relieved of duty. (Goldsmith Aff. ¶ 2, Ex. D (“Williams Dep.”) at 12:23-13:1, 58:24-59:2, 63:9-15.) Hoppe ultimately provided three reasons for requesting Plaintiff's suspension: (1) Plaintiff's inadequate Search One of the Student's room and person; (2) Plaintiff's refusal to accompany Hoppe and asserting that he would not go where a gun was; and (3) Plaintiff had provided false information regarding the bullet hole, which she believed had, in fact, gone through both sides of the door.[3] (Frank Decl. ¶ 3, Ex. 13.) On October 17, 2015, Williams called Plaintiff to inform him that he was officially relieved of his duties as a Security Officer, pending investigation and without pay. (Warmbold Dep. at 173:19-174:4; Frank Decl. ¶ 3, Ex. 12.)

         Over the next few weeks, Williams worked with Vice President of Human Resources Kabah Ealy to collect and review additional information regarding the incidents in question. (See Ealy Dep. at 9:16-22; 54:2-17; 59:24-61:5; 73:25-75:17 & Ex. 15; see also Williams Dep. at 67:4-77:20.) Ealy's investigation entailed reviewing written statements, the police report, and MINACT's search policy. (Id.) After initial review, Ealy determined that Hoppe's reasons did not justify suspension. (Frank Decl. ¶ 3, Ex. 14.) Ealy then sought input from other employees, including one of Defendant's Vice Presidents of Operations, to gain a better understanding of the search policy and Plaintiff's conduct. (Ealy Dep. at 75:11-17, 77:5-80:21.) Upon review of such information, Ealy concluded that all of Plaintiff's actions that day, when looked at together, justified termination. (Id. at 79:4-10.) On November 5, 2015, Defendant decided to terminate Plaintiff's employment effective November 6, 2015.[4] (Id., Ex. 14.) According to the termination letter, Defendant's decision resulted from Plaintiff's “violation of MINACT Policy: 880:3 #1 Failure to follow supervisor's instructions, perform assigned work or otherwise comply with applicable MINACT, Inc. or facility written policy; failure to follow proper procedures for dorm search, and [his] inability to perform [his] role as Security Officer.” (Id.)

         At the time of the October 16, 2015 incidents, MINACT was under a short-term contract to operate the Job Corps Center which was under consideration for renewal. (Hoppe Dep. at 69:10-70:17.) Hoppe began her role as Center Director in August 2015, and she was aware that MINACT was under scrutiny for its failure to meet expectations regarding the Center's operation. (Id. at 69:10-72:13.) In August 2015, a new Active Shooter Policy had been issued, and Hoppe had failed to implement this policy by the time the October 16, 2015 incidents took place. (Id. at 47:9-52:2.) Hoppe admitted that she was embarrassed by this failure and explained that she was to blame for the incidents. (Id. at 53:10-21, 124:7-8.) MINACT ultimately lost the contract to operate the Job Corps Center, resulting in Hoppe losing her job at the end of February 2016. (Id. at 8:13-18, 124:9-12.) Hoppe believed the October 2015 incident “was a big part of the reason why” MINACT lost its contract. (Id. at 124:10-12.)

         Plaintiff commenced this action in Ramsey County, Minnesota District Court in February 2016. (Doc. No. 1-1 (“Compl.”).) The Complaint alleges a single claim for unlawful retaliation under the Minnesota Whistleblower Act, Minn. Stat. § 181.932 (the “MWA”). (Compl. ¶¶ 50-55.) Defendant removed the case to this Court on March 3, 2016. (Doc. No. 1.) On March 9, 2017, Defendant filed the Motion for Summary Judgment currently before the Court. (Doc. No. 51.) Plaintiff opposes the motion. (Doc. No. 66.)

         DISCUSSION

         I. ...


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