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Kentaft v. Laporte County Sheriff's Department

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana

August 26, 2014

RICHARD KENTAFT, Plaintiff,
v.
LAPORTE COUNTY SHERIFF'S DEPARTMENT and MICHAEL F. MOLLENHAUER, in his Official and Personal Capacities, Defendants.

OPINION AND ORDER

THERESA L. SPRINGMANN, District Judge.

The Plaintiff, Richard Kentaft, filed a Complaint against the Defendants pursuant to 42 U.S.C. ยง 1983 alleging that they retaliated against him for engaging in protected First Amendment speech. The Complaint also sets forth state law claims against Defendant Michael F. Mollenhauer for tortious interference with a business or employment relationship. The Defendants have moved for summary judgment on all claims. The Plaintiff, in response, does not oppose summary judgment on his tortious interference claims, but submits that genuine issues of material fact require a jury to determine whether Sheriff Mollenhauer engaged in such adverse conduct in response to the Plaintiffs' protected speech that would likely deter First Amendment activity. Because the Court agrees with the Defendants that the Plaintiff did not initiate this litigation within the applicable statute of limitations, the Court need not proceed to the merits of the First Amendment claim.

For the reasons stated in this Opinion and Order, the Defendants are entitled to judgment in their favor as a matter of law.

BACKGROUND FACTS

The following facts are derived from the parties' designated evidentiary materials: The Plaintiff was employed by Norfolk Southern Railroad as a railroad police officer. On October 8, 2010, the Plaintiff was having lunch with Kevin Scurlock, who was a Jail Deputy at the LaPorte County Jail. Scurlock told the Plaintiff about the contents of a letter that a former inmate sent to a female Jail Deputy.[1] The letter was troubling because it suggested a romantic relationship between the two. Sheriff Mollenahauer was in the midst of a re-election campaign, and Scurlock expressed his concern that the Sheriff was not aware of the letter. Scurlock and the Plaintiff believed that the Jail Commander, Scott Bell, was intentionally keeping the letter from the Sheriff. The Plaintiff offered to call the Sheriff to talk about the letter.

During the phone call, the Sheriff told the Plaintiff that he was not aware of the letter and asked the Plaintiff if he could get a copy of it for him. Based on this request, Scurlock sent the letter to the Plaintiff's email, and the Plaintiff later printed a hard copy and delivered it to the Sheriff. When the Plaintiff delivered the letter, the Sheriff inquired how the Plaintiff had come to know about and obtain the letter. The Plaintiff claimed he received it anonymously.

After Scurlock was discovered to be the person who leaked the letter, the Sheriff met with the Plaintiff to relay that he intended to discipline Scurlock for his actions. On October 16, 2010, the Sheriff terminated Scurlock's employment. The employee who provided the picture of the letter to Scurlock, and the employee to whom the inmate had addressed the letter also lost their jobs. The Plaintiff disagreed with Scurlock's termination.

After the Sheriff terminated Scurlock's employment, the Plaintiff gave an interview to a local reporter and provided her with a copy of the inmate's letter. His on camera interview aired on the morning of October 25. The Plaintiff criticized the Sheriff, saying that it was wrong for Scurlock to be disciplined for doing the right thing for the right reasons while it was Jail Commander Bell who committed a gross dereliction of duty.

The Sheriff saw the interview and held a press conference where he read from a press release prepared as a response. As background, the Sheriff noted the receipt of the letter and the consequent terminations. He stated his belief that his opponent in the election for Sheriff, along with the Plaintiff, exploited the investigation for political reasons. As support, he cited the fact that his opponent had made a formal complaint to the Indiana State Police requesting an investigation into a cover up, which was based on a false accusation against the Jail Commander, specifically that he had a sexual relationship with the deputy who was the subject of the letter. The Sheriff stated that the Plaintiff had violated the same ethical standards for which the three jail deputies were terminated, that the Plaintiff had attempted to strong-arm the Sheriff with threats and blackmail so he would not take action against Scurlock, and that he participated in illegal activity by assisting Scurlock in going outside the Sheriff's office and disseminating evidence. The Sheriff explained the investigative process that Jail Commander Bell had used, assured that there had been no attempt at a cover up, and stated that it was the Plaintiff who made a mistake by assuming that because Bell decided not to tell the Sheriff about the letter until he had investigated further and gathered more evidence, that he was attempting a cover up. The Sheriff stated that the Plaintiff had defamed Bell's good name and professional reputation, intimated that the Plaintiff had subjected himself to civil liability, and advised that he would be conferring with the prosecutor regarding criminal charges for the Plaintiff's role in interfering in the investigation.

Sometime thereafter, Sheriff Mollenhauer contacted the Plaintiff's employer, Norfolk Southern Railroad, and requested to speak with the Plaintiff's supervisor. Steven Kirkman met with the Sheriff. The Sheriff indicated that the purpose of the meeting was to make the Plaintiff's employer aware of the Plaintiff's inappropriate and unprofessional behavior by involving himself in a jail investigation, but the Sheriff declined to file a formal complaint. The Sheriff requested Kirkman's help in talking to the Plaintiff informally to get him to listen to reason, as the Sheriff's own communications with the Plaintiff had broken down completely.[2] After the meeting, Kirkman reported to his boss that no disciplinary action was warranted or needed. Kirkman was not aware of any documentation added to the Plaintiff's employment file as a result of the meeting, and none had been presented in the record to this Court.

The Plaintiff was on medical leave in 2010 when the events involving the jail letter took place. He returned to work a short time later, but went on paid leave in March 2011 following a car accident. On May 16, 2011, the Plaintiff's employer placed him on long term disability. In November 2011, the Plaintiff returned to employment with Norfolk, but not in the same position. He returned to his previous employment position in March 2012.

DISCUSSION

The Plaintiff filed his Complaint against the Defendants on January 25, 2013. The Defendants argue that the Complaint was filed outside ...


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