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Summary judgment for ex-Iowa deputy granted

By Justine Wettschreck, The Daily Globe, Worthington, Minn. –

Dec. 24–SIBLEY, Iowa — A memorandum opinion and order was filed Thursday with the federal court in the northern district of Iowa, granting the summary judgment requested by former Osceola County deputy Daniel Minten against Osceola County Sheriff Douglas Weber.

According to court documents, Minten filed a complaint against Weber in January, alleging his employment as a deputy was terminated in 2009 after he offered to testify in another lawsuit against Weber regarding First Amendment violations.

Minten, who served 21 years with the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office, offered to testify during a traffic stop with the plaintiff’s daughter. Several months after the incident, Weber allegedly watched the video of the stop while looking for a different video. He sent a letter to Minten requesting an interview regarding the stop and several other issues, informing Minten he could have legal representation at the meeting at his own expense if he so chose. At the meeting on Feb. 1, 2010, Weber fired Minten for insubordination. On an official form regarding the firing, Weber wrote, “(Minten) said he wanted to be part of the lawsuit but he wanted to be subpoenaed so it looks like he has to… I gave him the opportunity to resign and he said no it would mess up my unemployment so I fired him like he asked.”

Weber later stated at an Osceola County Board of Supervisors meeting, “(Minten) wanted to take an active role to undermine the office of sheriff and undermine his employer, and that speaks for itself.”

Weber and Minten both filed motions for summary judgments in the case, requiring a judge to decide whether Minten’s firing violated his First Amendment rights.

Weber argued Minten was not protected from discipline by First Amendment rights because he was acting in his official capacity as a deputy when he made the statements at issue, and that if Minten was speaking as a citizen at the time he made the statements, he had no constitutionally protected right to engage in purely private conduct while working as a deputy. Minten contended the summary judgment should be granted in his favor because his statements related to a matter of public concern and his firing was in retaliation, violating the First Amendment.

During consequent filings and legal responses, Minten argued his statements were made outside his official duties and did not interfere with his job performance. Weber argued Minten could not establish retaliation because he was not engaged in protected speech since he was speaking in his official capacity and not as a private citizen when he offered to testify. Minten disagreed.

The 30-page legal document written by Judge Mark Bennet breaks down essential pieces of case law.

Based on the record as a whole, Bennet wrote, he found that Minten made his offer to testify in his capacity as a private citizen rather than a deputy, then determined Minten was speaking on a matter of public concern. Weber failed to offer any evidence of workplace disruption resulting from Minten’s statements, Bennet states, adding that “it is clear from the summary judgment record that (Minten’s) protected speech was a motivating factor in the termination.” Although Weber claimed the alleged insubordination during the traffic stop was “combined with five other unresolved matters … the last straw,” Bennet found that Minten established his case of retaliation in violation to his First Amendment rights.

“This is now the second time Sheriff Weber’s actions have been held by this court to be unconstitutional and in direct violation of his oath of office,” Bennet wrote.

Minten’s motion for summary judgment is granted and Weber’s is denied, he added.

“Sheriff Weber, a serial, recidivist, First Amendment violator, must now face a jury trial on damages on Feb. 6, 2012,” the order concludes.

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