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Knudtson v. County of Trempealeau

United States District Court, W.D. Wisconsin

October 10, 2019




         In an unfortunate series of events reflecting poorly on all concerned, defendants placed plaintiff Nancy Knudtson on administrative leave and eventually terminated from her job as a paralegal/office manager with the Trempealeau County's DA office after she refused to attend a funeral for a district attorney from a neighboring county. In this lawsuit, Knudtson claims that defendants' actions violated her rights under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Before the court are defendants' motions for summary judgment. (Dkt. ##24, 29.) For the reasons that follow, the court concludes both that the undisputed facts foreclose an Establishment Clause claim and, were this not so, no reasonable jury could find in plaintiff's favor. Accordingly, the court will grant both defendants' motions for summary judgment and direct entry of judgment in their favor.


         A. Background

         Defendants Trempealeau County and its District Attorney, Taavi McMahon, terminated plaintiff Nancy Knudtson's employment on March 9, 2018. Having worked for the County for some 47 years at that point, Knudtson worked most recently (from 1990 until the date of her termination) in the Trempealeau County District Attorney's office as a paralegal/office manager.

         The County of Trempealeau is organized under Chapter 59 of the Wisconsin Statutes and located north of La Crosse and west of Jackson Counties, abutting the Mississippi River. It has a county board of supervisors and at least three sub committees, including the Executive/Finance Committee, the Personnel/Bargaining Committee, and the Law Enforcement/Emergency Management Committee. Defendant Taavi McMahon was the Trempealeau County District Attorney from October 2012 to November 2018. McMahon was an elected official.

         The DA's office, the Trempealeau County Circuit Court and the Human Resources Department are all housed in the municipal building in Trempealeau, Wisconsin, with the HR office located about 30 feet down the hall from the DA's office. Amy Spriggle is the Director of Human Resources for Trempealeau County. She has held that position since June 2017 and reports to the Personnel/Bargaining Committee. Becca Zaccaria is employed by the County as a Human Resources Generalist and reports to Spriggle. Rick Niemeier is the County's Corporation Counsel. He has held this position since July 2017 and reports to the Executive/Finance Committee. John Sacia is the current Trempealeau County District Attorney, and he was the Assistant District Attorney from 2015 to 2018. Robin Leonard is the Victim/Witness Coordinator, working for the District Attorney and employed by the County. She has held that position for five years. Carol Betthauser is currently employed by the County as a paralegal in the district attorney's office, and has been in this position since May 2018. Before that, she had been a legal assistant in the DA's office since 2000.

         During Knudtson's time working in the DA's office, the DA gave her work instructions. Knudtson never received assignments or directives from anybody at the County. Both she and her DA colleagues, Leonard and Betthauser, physically worked in the DA's suite. However, as a County employee, Knudtson was required to follow County procedures, rules and regulations adopted by the County Board.

         B. Colleague's Death and DA's Plan to Close the Office for September 7, 2017, Funeral

         On Monday, September 4, 2017, Jackson County District Attorney George Fox passed away unexpectedly at the age of 56. Before Fox became the DA, he was a public defender who saw the Trempealeau County DA's staff on a daily basis; even after Fox became the Jackson County DA, the two county offices would work together on cases approximately three or four times per year. His funeral was scheduled to be held on Friday, September 8, 2017, at the Black River Falls Methodist Church.

         Defendant McMahon had also known Fox since about 2005 and considered him both a friend and mentor. Accordingly, on Thursday, September 7, 2017, he sent the following email to the Trempealeau County DA staff, including Knudtson:

I know that some of you will want to attend the funeral/and or visitation. I am approving this for everyone. I don't want you to worry about hours, we will work it out.
Out of respect for DA Fox I am going to close our office tomorrow starting at 10:00 am for the rest of the day. I will be available via my work cel[l . . .] for emergency law enforcement.
It is my preference that we all go to pay our respects but I will not require attendance, I will only encourage it.
I will advise the appropriate parties[.]

(McMahon's PFOFs (dkt. #52) ¶ 22.)

         A couple of hours later, Knudtson responded:

I have spoken to staff and they plan on working tomorrow. Robin will be going to the wake tonight and I am trying to cancel my appointment and so I can be there too. We are required to use our vacation in order to attend according to HR's handbook. Carol indicated that she does not want to use her vacation and has very little. Robin indicated [] if you require someone from the office to attend, she will take vacation.
I have already arranged to meet with JJ to compile a criminal complaint for you on the two defendants. I wasn't aware that you wanted me to do the criminal complaint on them and it has been difficult to get this done with his schedule. Tomorrow will work fine w/no distractions.

(Id. ¶ 23.)

         As described in that email, neither Knudtson nor Leonard and Betthauser wanted to attend Fox's funeral, although Leonard and Knudtson planned to attend his wake that evening. All three also preferred to work the following day. In particular, Knudtson had also planned to meet with a DNR warden on Friday, September 8, from 1:00 p.m. until 4:30 p.m. to work on a criminal complaint, which required her to access a software program used by DA offices statewide. At her deposition, Knudtson testified that she made the decision not to attend the funeral before she knew the nature or the type of service that was going to be held or that it was going to be a religious service. (Knudtson Dep. (dkt. #19) 36-37.)

         Also on September 7, Knudtson spoke with Becca Zaccaria in the HR Department about McMahon's plan to close the DA's office for the funeral and request that staff attend the funeral. Zaccaria agreed to pass along her questions to HR Director Spriggle. Later that day, Spriggle went to the DA's office and told the staff that McMahon could not force the staff to attend the funeral; he could not close the office; and she would speak with Corporation Counsel Neimeier about both issues. ...

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