United States District Court, W.D. Wisconsin
OPINION AND ORDER
WILLIAM M. CONLEY DISTRICT JUDGE.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Colleague's Death and DA's Plan to Close the Office
for September 7, 2017, Funeral
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
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
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.)
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
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.)
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.)
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. ...