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Reinlasoder v. City of Colstrip

United States District Court, Ninth Circuit

November 14, 2013

CITY OF COLSTRIP, and MAYOR ROSE HANSER, in her Individual and Official Capacity, Defendants.


CAROLYN S. OSTBY, Magistrate Judge.

The Court addresses herein a motion for partial summary judgment filed by Defendants City of Colstrip ("Colstrip") and Mayor Rose Hanser ("Hanser"). ECF 21. [1] The motion seeks summary judgment on Plaintiff Larry Reinlasoder's ("Reinlasoder") third cause of action, which asserts claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The remaining claims in Reinlasoder's Amended Complaint are wrongful termination, defamation, state due process violations, malice, negligence, and abuse of process. ECF 18.


Colstrip is a Montana municipality utilizing a mayor/council form of government. Aff. Richards (ECF 27) at ¶ 3. John Williams ("Williams") served as Colstrip's first mayor from 1999 through 2011. Colstrip created its police department in 2004, and Reinlasoder was hired as Colstrip's first Chief of Police in May 2004. Aff. Williams (ECF 24) at ¶ 3. Colstrip also formed its Police Commission ("Commission") during this time. Id. at ¶¶ 4-5.

On September 25, 2009, Williams issued to Reinlasoder a letter of reprimand for forwarding "inappropriate material to subordinate officers... utilizing the City's owned computer system." ECF 24-3. Williams states in his affidavit that the email contained pornographic material. ECF 24 at ¶¶ 9-10. Reinlasoder disputes this, stating that Williams "never classified the email as pornographic, " and Reinlasoder instead contends it was "a cartoon type email... that was a play on words." Aff. Reinlasoder (ECF 34) at ¶¶ 11, 15. The reprimand letter placed Reinlasoder on probation for two years, providing that the letter would be removed from his file upon successful completion of the probation period. ECF 24-3. Reinlasoder did not appeal this reprimand letter to the Commission.

Reinlasoder also received reprimand letters in 2010 and 2011. The 2010 letter questioned Reinlasoder's reported work times and also alleged that he had improperly taken city-owned dog food for personal use. See ECF 24-4. Reinlasoder successfully appealed this reprimand letter, and the Commission ordered it removed from his file. ECF 27-9 at 3. The 2011 reprimand letter alleged that Reinlasoder had violated the City's policy regarding purchasing authority and limits. See ECF 24-7. Reinlasoder also appealed this letter to the Commission. The Commission affirmed the reprimand, but shortened the time in which the reprimand letter would remain in Reinlasoder's file by six months, until March 29, 2012. ECF 27-11.

Hanser was elected mayor of Colstrip in 2011 and took office in January 2012. Aff. Hanser (ECF 28) at ¶ 2. She states in her affidavit that Mayor Williams advised her of "all pending matters when [she] took office, including the possible adoption of rules and procedures for the Colstrip Police Commission." ECF 28 at 2, ¶ 3. In early January, Hanser discussed with Colstrip City attorney Gary Ryder ("Ryder") the need to reorganize Colstrip's Commission, and Ryder began work on an ordinance to that effect. Aff. Ryder (ECF 26) at ¶¶ 3, 5. The City Council passed the ordinance reconstituting the Commission (Ordinance 2012-01) on second reading on March 27, 2012, and it became effective April 27, 2012. ECF 27 at 2, ¶ 7.

Hanser recommended three persons for appointment as Police Commissioners. On May 8, 2012, the City Council approved these recommendations and made the following appointments: Janetta Dudley for a one-year term, Roy Dolbear for a two-year term, and Rod Benner for a three-year term. ECF 27-7 at 2. Rod Benner is the pastor of Hanser's church. Depo. Hanser (ECF 33-11) at 11. Janetta Dudley and Hanser have attended ladies prayer meetings together for approximately five years, often at Dudley's home. Id.

In March 2012, three additional complaints were made against Reinlasoder. On March 15, 2012, Officer Kris Egan claimed that Reinlasoder had left work early the previous day, and submitted a note to Hanser stating that she claimed an extra hour of "call out pay" "because Chief Reinlasoder left at 7:00 which leaves the time from 7:00 to 7:30 uncovered for back up." ECF 25-1 at 18. Hanser then sent an email to Reinlasoder stating that, because of the incident, Reinlasoder "failed to perform duties in a satisfactory manner" in violation of Colstrip's Policy and Procedures Manual. ECF 25-1 at 19. [2] This March 15, 2012 email also stated that "before any formal disciplinary action is taken, you may personally present your side of the story and evidence orally or in writing to my office." Id. Reinlasoder responded by email the same day, stating that he "was on overtime and at home for dinner, " and had come to work early and did not authorize anyone to claim on-call pay. ECF 25-1 at 20.

Two days later, on March 17, 2012, Hanser received an email complaint from dispatcher Lisa Demaniow stating that she felt that Reinlasoder had verbally and physically intimidated her. See Email dated March 17, 2012 (ECF 28-7). Demaniow stated that a dispute on March 12, 2012, escalated into a loud verbal argument. She stated that she "no longer felt comfortable in dispatch with [Reinlasoder] there without someone else being present." Id. She submitted her email "to begin the grievance process." Id. Hanser's deposition testimony indicates that she had discussed Demaniow's concerns with Demaniow in Hanser's office on March 15, 2012. ECF 33-11 at 19.

In response to the complaints, on March 19, 2012, Hanser wrote a letter to Reinlasoder placing him on administrative leave on March 20, 21, 22, 29, and April 4-6, 2012. ECF 28-8. Hanser indicated that the administrative leave was "necessary to investigate a complaint made to my office" and that Reinlasoder would "be apprised of the matter as to whether or not the complaint is substantiated." Id. The letter did not disclose the nature of the complaint.

On March 21, 2012, Hanser received a "written complaint for sexual harassment" submitted by dispatcher Mercedes Kroll. ECF 28-9. Kroll alleged that on March 6, 2012, Reinlasoder approached her in her dispatch area and asked whether Kroll would like to "come see my porn in my office." ECF 28-9. Kroll alleged that Reinlasoder stated "you look like a freaky kind a girl that would like porn." Id. Kroll also alleged that on March 13, 2012, Reinlasoder approached her, looked at her "chest/cross necklace" and stated "I see you have a cross on, does that make you better then (sic) us? So I guess that means now you will go down to the Mayor's office and become friends." Id. Kroll's complaint states that Sergeant Cory Hert and Officer Hayes were present, and Hert generally corroborated these events in a to-whom-itmay-concern letter dated March 21, 2012. ECF 28-10.

Later that day, Hanser sent Reinlasoder a letter placing him on administrative leave "until further notice." ECF 28-11. This March 21, 2012 letter stated that the "reason for the administrative leave is that it is necessary to investigate the complaints made to my office[, ]" but did not further disclose the nature of the complaints. Id.

Colstrip engaged Billings attorney Heather Sather ("Sather") to investigate the complaints against Reinlasoder. ECF 28 at ¶ 11. On March 28, 2012, Sather interviewed the complaining parties and other witnesses. Aff. Sather (ECF 25) at ¶ 4. After meeting with Sather, Ryder sent a letter dated April 5, 2012, to William D'Alton ("D'Alton"), Reinlasoder's attorney, summarizing the complaints made by Demaniow, Kroll, and Egan . See ECF 26-1.

Sather interviewed Reinlasoder, with D'Alton present, on April 10, 2012. ECF 25 at ¶ 4. Sather thereafter prepared a report detailing her investigation and her conclusions, and sent it to Hanser via email and hard copy on April 30, 2012. See ECF 25-1. Although Sather's affidavit states that a copy was provided to Reinlasoder's counsel ( ECF 25 at 2, ¶ 5), the report does not so indicate. See ECF 25-1 at 1, 13. [3]

In a letter dated May 14, 2012, Hanser sent Reinlasoder a fourpage letter to notify him of her intent to terminate his employment. See ECF 28-12. The letter referenced Sather's report and noted that Sather "gave [him] an opportunity to give [his] side of the story at the office and in the presence of [his] attorney." Id. at 1. The letter indicated that she had reviewed Sather's report, his personnel record, the transcript of a 2010 Police Commission Hearing, documents concerning his prior employment with the Billings Police Department, and "related issues." Id. It summarized her findings with respect to the complaints made by Demaniow, Kroll, and Egan. It also cited Reinlasoder's September 29, 2011 purchase order reprimand. Id. at 3. The letter concluded:

Before I make the final decision, I am setting up a meeting with you at my office on May 21st, 2012 at 2:00 p.m. o'clock. You will be afforded an opportunity to discuss this letter and the investigative report. You may also have the meeting recorded. You may have your attorney present if you wish, however his participation will be limited to that as an observer. You may also waive this meeting.

D'Alton notified Hanser by letter dated May 17, 2012, that Reinlasoder was not available on May 21 because he would be in South Dakota for an "event that was scheduled months ago." ECF 28-13. The letter did not ask Hanser to reschedule the meeting, but requested a hearing before the Commission pursuant to MCA § 7-32-4155. Reinlasoder did not attend the meeting with Hanser on May 21.

In her affidavit, Hanser states that she later learned that the "event" that created the conflict was Reinlasoder's plans to speak at a conference in South Dakota as Chief of Police for the City of Colstrip, and further states that she had not authorized that engagement. ECF 28 at ¶ 15. Hanser also states that Reinlasoder was on paid administrative leave, but had not sought permission to be unavailable during his regular hours of employment while on leave, nor did he have permission to travel on "City time" to South Dakota on May 21, 2012. Id. at ¶¶ 14, 16.

Reinlasoder's affidavit counters that "[m]onths prior to [his] administrative leave" he "made arrangements" to give a training presentation in South Dakota. ECF 34 at 25, ¶ 94. He does not state what arrangements were made, with whom he made these arrangements, or when these arrangements were made. Reinlasoder also states in his affidavit that Hanser refused to change the May 21 meeting date, but again he provides no further details. Id. at ¶ 93.

On May 22, 2013, Hanser sent Reinlasoder a letter of termination of employment, effective May 24, 2012. ECF 28-14. The termination letter referenced Sather's report, the prior 2009 reprimand, and the Kroll, Demaniow, and Egan complaints. The letter advised Reinlasoder that he had the right, under MCA § 7-32-4155, to have the termination reviewed by the Police Commission, and noted that the appeal procedure is set forth in Ordinance 2012-03, effective May 10, 2013 ( ECF 27-8 ).

On June 6, 2012, D'Alton wrote to Hanser requesting a hearing before the Commission. ECF 27-13. Hanser responded that D'Alton's notice of appeal did not comply with City Ordinance 2012-03, and her letter to him included a copy of said ordinance. She also stated: "Due to the procedural change the City will allow an additional thirty (30) days from the date of your request, June 6, 2012, to file the required written appeal...." ECF 33-5. D'Alton timely complied on June 28, 2012, filing a more detailed request for a Police Commission hearing . ECF 27-14.

On July 17, 2012, Hanser sent to the Police Commissioners Colstrip's response to Reinlasoder's appeal. She requested the Commission to proceed to review Reinlasoder's written appeal and response of the City. ECF 26-2. On July 25, 2012, Ryder sent a letter to the Commission (with copies to Hanser and D'Alton) stating that, because termination of employment was at issue, the City believed that a hearing should be held. ECF 26-4. The letter also stated:

D'Alton indicated they may not pursue the Police Commission Hearing. Until such time, however, that there is a formal notice withdrawing their previous request, the City submits that the Police Commission should ...

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