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Wickstrom v. City of Moose Lake

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

November 21, 2019

Bridie Anne Wickstrom and Jason Elmer Wickstrom, Plaintiffs,
v.
City of Moose Lake; Carlton County; Pine County; Bridget Karp, acting in her individual capacity as an employee of the Carlton County Sheriff's Office; Randy Roberts, acting in his individual capacity as an employee of the Carlton County Sheriff's Office; John and Jane Does acting in their individual capacities as supervisors, officers, deputies, staff, investigators, employees or agents of the Entity Defendants, Defendants.

          Jonathan A. Strauss, Esq., Lorenz F. Fett, Jr., Esq., Sonia L. Miller-Van Oort, Esq., Sapientia Law Group PLLC; counsel for Plaintiff.

          Jon K. Iverson, Esq., Stephanie A. Angolkar, Esq., Susan M. Tindal, Esq.; Iverson Reuvers Condon; counsel for Defendant City of Moose Lake.

          Joseph E. Flynn, Esq., Sharon Albrecht, Esq., Tal A. Bakke, Esq., Jardine, Logan & O'Brien, PLLP; counsel for Defendants Carlton County, Pine County, Bridget Karp, and Randy Roberts.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          DONOVAN W. FRANK UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         INTRODUCTION

         This matter is before the Court on Motions for Judgment on the Pleadings by Defendants City of Moose Lake (“Moose Lake”), Carlton County, Pine County (the “Counties”), Bridget Karp (“Karp”), Randy Roberts (“Roberts”), John and Jane Does (“Does”) (collectively, “Individual Defendants”) (altogether, “Defendants”). (Doc. Nos. 30, 41.) For the reasons set forth below, the Court grants Defendants' motions.

         BACKGROUND

         I. General Background and Procedural History

         Plaintiffs Bridie Anne Wickstrom (“Bridie”) and Jason Elmer Wickstrom (“Jason”) (collectively, “Plaintiffs”) are Minnesota residents who have lived in both Pine County, Minnesota, and Carlton County, Minnesota during the four years prior to the filing of their complaint. (Doc. No. 7 (“Am. Compl.”) ¶¶ 20-21, 132.) Bridie is employed at Grand Casino Hinckley, where she has worked for approximately 23 years.[1](Id. ¶ 42.) Jason is a pipeline inspector and works in the areas of Milaca, Minnesota, and Superior, Wisconsin.[2] (Id. ¶ 43.)

         Moose Lake is located in Carlton County, and in turn, both Counties are located in Minnesota. (Id. ¶¶ 22-24, 130.) The Counties share a border.[3] (Id. ¶ 131.) Defendants Karp and Roberts are Minnesota residents and employed by Carlton County as law enforcement officers, and it is Plaintiffs' belief that John and Jane Does are Minnesota residents and employed by Moose Lake and the Counties as law enforcement officers. (Id. ¶¶ 2, 26-28.)

         The Minnesota Department of Public Safety (“DPS”) maintains a Driver and Vehicle Services database of records for drivers licensed and vehicles registered in the state (“DVS Database”). (Id. ¶¶ 2, 30.) Following findings of pervasive misuse of the DVS Database, in 2014 DPS terminated law enforcement officers' access to the DVS Database in favor of access to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension's (“BCA”) database (“MyBCA”) which also provides access to the DVS driver and vehicle data, but DPS allowed other individuals and entities it had previously granted access to keep their access to the DVS Database. (Id. ¶¶ 2, 36-37, 39.) Moose Lake and the Counties provide their law enforcement personnel with access to state databases containing driver's license and vehicle registration information of Minnesota drivers for use in carrying out their duties. (Id. ¶ 2.) Both the DVS Database and MyBCA allow individual records to be accessed through queries by name, driver's license number, or license plate number. (Id. ¶ 32.)

         Plaintiffs began dating in March 2014, began living together around June 2014, and were married September 30, 2017. (Am. Compl. ¶ 44.) Plaintiffs started their romantic relationship while each was in the process of divorcing, with Jason's divorce from Rhonda Wickstrom (“Rhonda”) being “particularly acrimonious.” (Id. ¶ 45.) Jason obtained an Order for Protection against Rhonda in Carlton County (“OFP”) in December 2014. (Id. ¶ 46.) Before the OFP was issued, the Carlton County Sheriff's Officer was called to respond to disputes between Plaintiffs and Rhonda on “several occasions.” (Id. ¶ 47.) In 2015 and 2016, after the OFP was issued, Plaintiffs called the Carlton County Sheriff's Office to report possible violations “at least” twice. (Id.)

         Plaintiffs contend that starting in 2014, they were “frequently” being stopped by law enforcement when driving, “seemingly for no reason.” (Id. ¶ 48.) Although the officers would say they were being stopped for having a light out, when Plaintiffs checked their lights they found them to be functioning properly. (Id.) Plaintiffs went to the Carlton County's Sheriff's Office on or about September 5, 2014, where they spoke with Sergeant Brian Belich (“Sgt. Belich”) about the frequent stops. (Id. ¶ 49.) Sgt. Belich told Plaintiffs he “would call the BCA to check whether their information was being looked up.”[4] (Id. ¶ 7.) Sometime later, Sgt. Belich called Plaintiffs and told them “no one had looked them up, ” “nothing unusual was going on, ” and that they “should ‘just drop it.'” (Id.)

         Around December of that year, Bridie contacted the BCA herself and was told by Judy Strobel, Business Shared Services Manager, that “no one from Carlton County had ever called to obtain information regarding lookups of [Plaintiffs'] information.” (Id. ¶ 9.) Bridie also spoke with Gary Link, BCA Director of Training and Auditing, who told her that “he had never seen so many lookups.” (Id.)

         Plaintiffs allege that, through the employee access provided by Moose Lake and the Counties, Individual Defendants obtained Plaintiffs' private data without a legitimate law enforcement purpose and for personal reasons, thereby violating the Driver's Privacy Protection Act, 18 U.S.C. § 2721, et. seq. (“DPPA”). (Id. ¶¶ 1, 92-99.) Plaintiffs allege that Bridie's information was impermissibly accessed at least 28 times and Jason's at least 10 times within the statute of limitations period for this claim, and that these impermissible accesses were made using Plaintiffs' names, driver's license numbers, or license plate numbers. (Id. ¶¶ 3-6, 100.)

         Plaintiffs base their allegations on their personal relationships with several members of law enforcement. Sometime in the interim between their communications with Sgt. Belich and their communications with the BCA, Karp, who is “good friends” with Jason's ex-wife Rhonda, called Jason to tell him that “Rhonda had asked [Karp] to do different things for [Rhonda]” and to apologize for “getting mixed up with Rhonda, ” ending the call without giving details. (Id. ¶¶ 50, 53.) Plaintiffs believe Rhonda “also has a personal relationship” with Roberts, and “used her connections” to law enforcement “to harass Plaintiffs and gain advantage over them in the divorce” by having Karp look up their information “as a way of investigating Plaintiffs' assets.” (Id. ¶¶ 54, 55.) Plaintiffs also believe Individual Defendants were motivated to access Plaintiffs' information by curiosity about “a messy divorce that was a subject of gossip in their small community.” (Id. ¶ 61.) Plaintiffs point to additional connections to law enforcement personnel, noting that Bridie has been acquainted with the Moose Lake Police Chief Bryce Bogenholm since their high school days, when he and her boyfriend played football together.[5] (Id. ¶ 60.) Jason is connected to the police chief too, through Bogenholm's wife, a person Jason has known since grade school who is “best friends” with Jason's estranged sister. (Id. ¶¶ 56-59.)

         II. Accesses

         Plaintiffs requested audits from DPS of accesses to their information. (Id. ¶ 4.) Plaintiffs attached as exhibits to their complaint summaries of obtainments of Plaintiffs' driver's license records gleaned from audits furnished by the DPS. (Doc. No. 7-1, Ex. A (“Bridie Sum.”), Ex. B (“Jason Sum.”).) The accesses listed in these summaries total 78 accesses of Bridie's data and 28 accesses of Jason's data originating from Moose Lake and the Counties.[6] (Bridie Sum., Jason Sum.) The accesses within the statute of limitations period total 27 and 10, respectively. (Id.) Plaintiffs aver that their data was accessed “hundreds of times by employees of various law-enforcement agencies.” (Doc. No. 36 at 4.) It is not clear if Plaintiffs know what type of query was used-name, driver's license number, or vehicle plate number-because this information is not included in the summaries, but Plaintiffs contend that “it matters not” since it is a violation of DPPA to access data for any impermissible purpose.[7] (Id. at 12, n. 7.) Plaintiffs offer these summaries in order to “simplify the case for this Court.” (Doc. No. 53 at 15, n. 6.) Additionally, Plaintiffs state that accesses related to calls to the Carlton County Sheriff about possible OFP violations by Rhonda “are not at issue in this case.”[8] (Doc. No. 36 ¶ 47.) As Plaintiffs' counsel explains it, the exhibits list only accesses that Plaintiffs' “consider . . . as having been made for an improper purpose.” (Doc. No. 37 (“Strauss Aff.”) ¶ 3.) Plaintiffs excluded accesses that were, in their judgment, made for legitimate law enforcement or governmental purposes. (Doc. No. 36 at 4.) Plaintiffs do not know whose login credentials were used to make each access, but individual accessors can be identified through discovery. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 124-25.) The summaries list the entity, device, date, and start time for the obtainments, but some entries do not include a device.[9] (Bridie Sum., Jason Sum.)

         A. Moose Lake

         According to Plaintiffs' summaries, users from Moose Lake accessed Bridie's data seven times between January 13, 2012 and November 21, 2017. (Bridie Sum.) Six of these accesses occurred within the statute of limitations period. (Id.) The first access took place on October 12, 2013 at 1:52 a.m.; the next was over 15 months later on January 30, 2015 at 11:00 a.m. (Id.) This access was followed by an early-afternoon check of her records on July 1, 2015, another access on New Year's Day of 2016 at 3:13 p.m., then an access on April 5, 2016 at 5:30 a.m. that happened within one minute of an access by someone from Carlton County. (Id.) The last access by Moose Lake of Bridie's data occurred on February 18, 2017 at 10:18 p.m. (Id.) Moose Lake accesses are attributed to four different devices, but two of the seven accesses do not specify a device. (Id.)

         Users from Moose Lake accessed Jason's data five times between February 28, 2012 and March 8, 2018; three of the accesses were within the statute of limitations period. (Jason Sum.) The first access was New Year's Eve of 2012 at 11:40 p.m. (Id.) Jason's data was next accessed approximately 15 months later on April 27, 2014 at 4:27 p.m. (Id.) After that, Moose Lake users accessed Jason's data on February 23, 2015 at 3:56 p.m., July 3, 2015 at 3:34 in the morning, and on New Year's Day of 2016 at 2:59 p.m. (Id.) The last access happened around roughly the same time that the same device from Moose Lake accessed Bridie's data, and within four minutes of an access of Jason's data by someone from Carlton County. (Bridie Sum., Jason Sum.) Two separate Moose Lake devices accessed Jason's information. (Jason Sum.)

         B. Carlton County

         Users from Carlton County accessed Bridie's data six times between January 13, 2012 and November 21, 2017. (Bridie Sum.) Five of these accesses were within the statute of limitations period. (Id.) The first obtainment was on May 28, 2012 at 1:04 p.m., followed by an early-morning access over two years later on September 5, 2014 at 3:51 a.m. (Id.) The next access by Carlton County took place on March 29, 2015 at 1:11 a.m. (Id.) Several months later, on August 5, 2015, Bridie's data was accessed at 5:45 p.m., then another several months passed before the next access on April 5, 2016 at 5:31 p.m. at almost the exact same time someone from Moose Lake accessed Bridie's data. (Id.) The last access listed was on March 30, 2017 at 10:52 a.m. (Id.) Plaintiffs' summary does not list a device for two of the accesses, but for the remaining four, four separate devices are listed. (Id.)

         Carlton County users are responsible for the bulk of all accesses of Jason's data as summarized. (Jason Sum.) Jason's data was obtained between 14 and 16 times outside the statute of limitations and six times within the statute of limitations period, depending on whether certain accesses are counted together.[10] (Id.) The Carlton County accesses start on February 28, 2012, and end on March 8, 2018. (Id.) Accesses are credited to thirteen different devices, and for five accesses, no device is listed. (Id.) The latest access was at 11:14 p.m. on August 28, 2014, while the earliest in the morning took place at 4:51 a.m. on July 10, 2014. (Id.) These are the only two accesses made using Carlton County login credentials during late-night or early-morning hours. (Id.) As noted above, there was one access on New Year's Day of 2016 at almost the exact same time a single device from Moose Lake accessed both Jason and Bridie's data. (Id., Bridie Sum.) Except for accesses which are close enough in time to arguably count as one access, weeks or months ...


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