United States District Court, D. Minnesota
Daniel A. Rassier, and Rita Rassier, Plaintiffs,
John L. Sanner; Pam Jensen; Stearns County, Minnesota; and Ken McDonald; Defendants.
M. Jacob, Esq., Jacob Litigation, and Michael B. Padden,
Esq., Padden & McCollister PLLC, counsel for Plaintiffs.
M. Hiveley, Esq., and Nathan Midolo, Esq., Iverson Reuvers
Condon, counsel for Defendants Sanner, Jensen, and Stearns
Wetzel Kimble, Esq., Noah Lewellen, Esq., Office of the
Minnesota Attorney General, counsel for Defendant McDonald.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
DONOVAN W. FRANK UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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? 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.
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' 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.)
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),  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.
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
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
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.
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).
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.
Statute of Limitations
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.
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
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).
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).
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.The Court therefore denies
Defendants' motions to dismiss based on the running of
the statute of limitations.