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Rassier v. Sanner

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

November 30, 2017

Daniel A. Rassier, and Rita Rassier, Plaintiffs,
John L. Sanner; Pam Jensen; Stearns County, Minnesota; and Ken McDonald; Defendants.

          Devon M. Jacob, Esq., Jacob Litigation, and Michael B. Padden, Esq., Padden & McCollister PLLC, counsel for Plaintiffs.

          Jason M. Hiveley, Esq., and Nathan Midolo, Esq., Iverson Reuvers Condon, counsel for Defendants Sanner, Jensen, and Stearns County.

          Janine Wetzel Kimble, Esq., Noah Lewellen, Esq., Office of the Minnesota Attorney General, counsel for Defendant McDonald.




         The issue in this case is what remedy exists for a person wrongfully accused of a heinous crime? Particularly, what remedy exists when the accusation is the result of the ineptitude and retaliatory animus of state actors?[1] One of the plaintiffs in this case was labeled a person of interest for an infamous child kidnapping, and the plaintiffs' property was subject to numerous searches. The plaintiffs filed suit against Stearns County, John Sanner (the county sheriff), Pam Jensen (a sheriff's captain), and Ken McDonald (an investigator for the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (“BCA”)) for various state-law and constitutional claims. The defendants now move to dismiss. For the reasons discussed below, the Court grants BCA Agent McDonald's motion in full, and the Court grants in part and denies in part the Stearns County Defendants' motion.


         The facts of this case begin more than twenty-eight years ago when Jacob Wetterling was kidnapped, sexually assaulted, and murdered by Danny Heinrich. Jacob Wetterling was abducted at the end of the driveway on Plaintiffs'[2] 168-acre farm (the “Rassier Property”). The case remained unsolved until 2016 when Heinrich confessed. In late 2016, Madeleine Baran from American Public Media published a nine-part podcast (Into the Dark) tracing the time line and failures of the Wetterling investigation. The Amended Complaint in this action references and closely traces the reporting by Baran. (See, e.g., Doc. No. 29 (“Am. Compl.”) ¶ 203 n.12.)[3]

         The events giving rise to this action start long after Jacob Wetterling was kidnapped, when Defendant John Sanner was elected sheriff of Stearns County in 2003. Sanner ran for sheriff promising to solve the Wetterling kidnapping. Defendants Sanner, Pam Jensen (Captain in the Sheriff's Office), [4] and Ken McDonald (Investigator for the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (“BCA”)) all took part in the investigation starting in 2004 (collectively, the “Individual Defendants”). While reviewing the evidence, the Individual Defendants quickly focused in on Plaintiff Dan Rassier. The Individual Defendants' reasons for suspecting Dan Rassier were surprisingly thin, including that Dan's dog did not bark when Heinrich parked at the end of the Rassiers' driveway and that Dan did not have much of a love life. Meanwhile, Plaintiffs allege, a mountain of evidence existed against Danny Heinrich, who was a serial predator in the area: After his arrest, Heinrich admitted to sexually assaulting another young boy in the area just nine months before the Wetterling kidnapping. In that case, Heinrich took the boy's clothes after the assault. When Heinrich was arrested, police recovered several bins of boys' clothes from Heinrich's home.

         This action focuses on events in 2010 when Defendants searched the Rassier Property, and Defendant Sanner labeled Dan Rassier as a person of interest in the Wetterling kidnapping. In 2010, BCA Agent McDonald applied for search warrants for the Rassiers' farm. The first application occurred on June 28, 2010. As a result, Defendants obtained a search warrant for Plaintiffs' farmland and several outbuildings. During the search, two police canines independently alerted their handlers that human remains were buried on the farmland. (The canines were trained to distinguish between human remains and animal remains.) (Doc. No. 29-2 (Second search-warrant application documenting the ability, training, and certifications of the dogs).) Additionally, the canines identified a wooden box, which appeared to be able to fit a small person, as possibly once containing human remains. In 2010, the Rassiers had owned the wooden box for 30 years and until 2004 had kept it in their home. McDonald concluded that based on the box's dimensions, Jacob Wetterling could have been kept in the box. Accordingly, McDonald applied for and received a search warrant for the Rassiers' home. Plaintiffs contend that Defendants made false statements and omitted material facts in their application for the search warrants. As a result of the search, Defendants seized dirt and the wooden box from the Rassier Property. Plaintiffs allege that the wooden box and dirt were subsequently destroyed.

         Plaintiffs also contend that Defendants focused on Dan Rassier because he had been critical about the investigation and the Sheriff's Office. For instance, during the 2010 search, Dan Rassier allegedly asked Sheriff Sanner why he was searching the Rassier Property. Sanner allegedly responded, “This is what happens when you talk.” (Am. Compl. ¶ 214.) Then on July 2, 2010, Sanner told the St. Cloud Times that Dan Rassier was a person of interest. Dan Rassier was the only person labeled a person of interest until Danny Heinrich in 2015 after his home was searched. In an interview for Into the Dark, Sanner stated that he called Rassier a person of interest after Rassier talked about the Wetterling kidnapping with the St. Cloud Times.[5]

         The Rassiers filed an amended complaint alleging nine causes of action stemming from the 2010 searches and Dan Rassier being labeled a person of interest: Counts I-IV are 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claims against the Individual Defendants based on the searches and seizures in 2010; Count V is a § 1983 claim against the Individual Defendants for First Amendment retaliation; Count VI is a § 1983 claim for denial of procedural due process against the Individual Defendants associated with the stigma of being labeled a person of interest; Count VII is against Stearns County for municipal liability under § 1983; Count VIII is against all Defendants for intentional infliction of emotional distress (generally, “IIED”); and Count IX is against all Defendants for defamation. Plaintiffs also allege that they are entitled to punitive damages. Defendants have moved to dismiss on the grounds that Plaintiffs' claims are time-barred or that Plaintiffs have failed to state a claim.


         I. Legal Standard

         In deciding a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), a court assumes all facts in the complaint to be true and construes all reasonable inferences from those facts in the light most favorable to the complainant. Morton v. Becker, 793 F.2d 185, 187 (8th Cir. 1986). In doing so, however, a court need not accept as true wholly conclusory allegations, Hanten v. Sch. Dist. of Riverview Gardens, 183 F.3d 799, 805 (8th Cir. 1999), or legal conclusions drawn by the pleader from the facts alleged, Westcott v. City of Omaha, 901 F.2d 1486, 1488 (8th Cir. 1990). A court deciding a motion to dismiss may consider the complaint, matters of public record, orders, materials embraced by the complaint, and exhibits attached to the complaint. See Porous Media Corp. v. Pall Corp., 186 F.3d 1077, 1079 (8th Cir. 1999).

         To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). Although a complaint need not contain “detailed factual allegations, ” it must contain facts with enough specificity “to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Id. at 555. As the Supreme Court reiterated, “[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, ” will not pass muster under Twombly. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). In sum, this standard “calls for enough fact[s] to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of [the claim].” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556.

         II. Statute of Limitations

         At the outset, the Court must address Defendants' argument that all of the Rassiers' claims are barred by the applicable statute of limitations. For the purposes of the statute of limitations, the Rassiers' claims can be divided into two groups: the § 1983 claims and the state-law claims. Here, Defendants' statute-of-limitations defense presents three issues: (1) the length of the limitations period; (2) when the claims accrued; and (3) whether equity tolled the running of the limitations period.

         Section 1983 does not contain a statute of limitations; instead, courts apply the state statute of limitations for personal-injury torts. Wallace v. Kato, 549 U.S. 384, 387 (2007). In Minnesota, the statute of limitations for personal-injury torts is six years. Minn. Stat. § 541.05; United States v. Bailey, 700 F.3d 1149, 1153 (8th Cir. 2012) (“The statute of limitations on claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Bivens . . . is six years in Minnesota.”). For the Rassiers' state-law claims-IIED and defamation-the statute of limitations is two years. Minn. Stat. § 541.07(1); Songa v. Sunrise Senior Living Invs. Inc., 22 F.Supp.3d 939, 942 (D. Minn. 2014). Here, Plaintiffs filed their initial complaint on March 29, 2017, for conduct that occurred in 2010 or earlier. Thus, facially, the Rassiers' claims appear untimely.

         Nonetheless, the Court must determine when the Rassiers' claims accrued to determine when the statute of limitations began to run. For the §1983 claims, federal law applies, and for the state-law claims, state law applies. See Wallace, 549 U.S. at 388. The claims under § 1983 accrue when the plaintiff has “a complete and present cause of action”-in other words, when “the plaintiff can file suit and obtain relief.” Id. In this case, Plaintiffs' claims related to the search accrued on the date of the searches in 2010. See, e.g., Smith v. McCarthy, 349 F. App'x 851, 857 (4th Cir. 2009) (concluding that the claim for an illegal search accrued on the date of the search); Pearce v. Romeo, 299 F. App'x 653, 655 (9th Cir. 2008) (“An injury from an illegal search and seizure accrues when the act occurs.”). Similarly, Plaintiffs' claims related to being named a person of interest accrued when Defendant Sanner named Dan Rassier a person of interest in 2010. See Gekas v. Vasiliades, 814 F.3d 890, 894 (7th Cir. 2016) (“Generally, the statute of limitations clock begins to run on First Amendment retaliation claims immediately after the retaliatory act occurred.”) For defamation, the claim accrued on the date of publication in 2010. McGovern v. Cargill, Inc., 463 N.W.2d 556, 558 (Minn.Ct.App. 1990). Similarly, Plaintiffs' claim for IIED accrued on the date of the tortious act, again in 2010. See Krause v. Farber, 379 N.W.2d 93, 97 (Minn.Ct.App. 1985).

         Even if a claim has accrued and the statute of limitations has facially run, Courts sometimes find that the statute of limitations was tolled for the sake of equity. State law governs the tolling of the statute of limitations for both § 1983 claims and state-law claims. See Wallace, 549 U.S. at 394. Minnesota recognizes the doctrine of equitable tolling, which tolls a statute when “a litigant establishes two elements: ‘(1) that he has been pursuing his rights diligently, and (2) that some extraordinary circumstance stood in his way and prevented timely filing.'” Menominee Indian Tribe of Wis. v. United States, 136 S.Ct. 750, 755 (2016) (quoting Holland v. Florida, 560 U.S. 631, 649 (2010)); see also Sanchez v. State, 816 N.W.2d 550, 560 (Minn. 2012) (applying Holland test for equitable tolling for state post-conviction relief).

         Here, the Court concludes that Plaintiffs have adequately pleaded that the statute of limitations was tolled under the doctrine of equitable tolling. First, Plaintiffs have demonstrated that an extraordinary circumstance prevented the filing of this suit: Plaintiffs were unaware of the false statements in the warrants until they were unsealed, and Plaintiffs were unaware of the evidence against Danny Heinrich until his arrest. Similarly, Plaintiffs have adequately alleged that they acted diligently given the circumstances: Dan Rassier called in 2010 asking for the warrant but was told that the warrant was under seal. Shortly after the warrant was unsealed in September 2016, Plaintiffs filed suit. Similarly, Plaintiffs could not learn of the evidence about Danny Heinrich until he was arrested in 2016, and Plaintiffs cannot be expected to exercise more diligence investigating Heinrich than the Sheriff's Office. As a result, the Court concludes that Plaintiffs have adequately pleaded tolling of the statute of limitations.[6]The Court therefore denies Defendants' motions to dismiss based on the running of the statute of limitations.[7]

         III. ...

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