And v. City of N. Liberty

Decision Date31 March 2020
Docket Number3:18-cv-00102
Parties Adam OLSON and, Jennifer Olson, Plaintiffs, v. CITY OF NORTH LIBERTY, Diane Venenga, individually, Christopher Shine, individually, and Tyson Landsgard, individually, Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Southern District of Iowa

Benjamin Granfield Arato, Steven P. Wandro, Wandro & Associates, P.C. Des Moines, IA, for Plaintiffs.

Terry J. Abernathy, Bradley J. Kaspar, Pickens Barnes & Abernathy, Cedar Rapids, IA, for Defendants.

ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT AND DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION TO AMEND

ROBERT W. PRATT, Judge U.S. DISTRICT COURT

Before the Court is the Motion for Summary Judgement filed on September 13, 2019, by Defendants Diane Venenga, Christopher Shine, and Tyson Landsgard, all in their individual capacities, as well as the City of North Liberty ECF No. 26. Plaintiffs Adam Olson and Jennifer Olson, his wife, filed their resistance to Defendants' motion on October 11. ECF No. 31. Defendants replied on October 18. ECF No. 32. Plaintiffs moved to amend on January 29, 2020. ECF No. 43. Defendants filed their resistance to Plaintiffs' motion on February 6. ECF No. 47. The Court held oral argument for both motions on February 7. See ECF No. 49. The matters are fully submitted.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Adam Olson (Olson) worked in the small, suburban police force of North Liberty, Iowa, for fifteen years. ECF No. 26-3 at 3; ECF No. 32-1 ¶ 6. In 2013 he was shot in the line of duty. ECF No. 31 at 18. As would be revealed years later, this led to a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). See id.

In 2017, Olson, then a sergeant, did not get along with his supervisor, Defendant Tyson Landsgard, a lieutenant. ECF No. 26-3 at 4. Landsgard's grievances were performance-related, mostly. See id. In February 2018, the North Liberty Police Department issued Olson a written reprimand for releasing an injured suspect to a hospital despite an outstanding warrant from a nearby jurisdiction. Id. at 8. Olson challenged the reprimand. Id. at 10.

Heads butted again that month following Olson's less-than-stellar annual performance review. See ECF No. 31-1 ¶¶ 6–7. Landsgard said Olson needed to better supervise his subordinates, write more tickets, make more arrests, produce more internal reports, hold more training events, better plan special events (such as "shop with a cop"), report his location more often, and avoid his "slump[s]." ECF No. 26-3 at 13–14. In sum, Landsgard wrote that "[this] is a needs[-]improvement evaluation.... I expect a long[-]term[,] consistent change from Olson[,] and if there is not an improvement then a different option might have to be utilized." Id. at 15–16. Olson appealed the review after the City cited it in limiting his 2018 raise. Id. at 17. The City Administrator Ryan Heiar and Human Resources Director Deb Hilton affirmed. Id. at 17–18, 20. That summer, the Department also placed Olson on a performance recovery plan. ECF No. 31-1 ¶ 8. In a July conversation with Defendant Christopher Shine, another officer, Olson referred to Landsgard as "fearless leader" in frustration. ECF No. 28 at 4. Shine found the comment insubordinate and reported it to Landsgard, who gave Olson another written reprimand. Id. ; see also ECF No. 32-1 ¶¶ 13–14.

On July 14, 2018, Olson was involved in the traffic stop of a car that, reportedly, had a window shot out. ECF No. 26-3 at 25. Shine complained to Landsgard about Olson's conduct during the stop, prompting another investigation. Id. Meanwhile, the Department placed Olson on administrative leave. ECF No. 31-1 ¶ 11.

Landsgard concluded Olson (1) was slow to respond to the traffic stop, which Olson denied; (2) failed to use protective cover, which Olson denied; (3) failed to have his sidearm pulled to protect himself and others, which Olson admitted; (4) failed to pat down the suspects before handcuffing them, which Olson admitted; (5) failed to give the suspects Miranda warnings before questioning them, which Olson admitted; and (6) relayed incorrect information to other responding officers, which Olson denied. Id. ¶ 9.

On September 12, the Department sent Olson and his attorney notice of a September 13 due process hearing "concerning his numerous performance deficiencies and potential termination of his employment." Id. ¶ 13. Then things became complicated.

Shine called Landsgard. ECF No. 28 at 8. He said he wanted to alert him of concerning information regarding Olson before the hearing. Id. Shine said that his wife, Tiffany Shine, told him that Jennifer told her that Olson "had been acting differently than what [Shine] had ever known him to." Id. Shine said he heard Olson "had pretty much shut down and wouldn't speak to anyone." Id. He heard there were family disputes, that Olson had stopped talking to Jennifer, and that Olson "was currently on medication[,] which[,] from what I was told[,] treated symptoms of persons not being in touch with reality."1 Id. He also said that twice that week Olson had driven by his house, which was common, but did not acknowledge Shine, which was not. Id. Shine said he wanted Landsgard to know about all of this for safety during the meeting.2 Id.

Landsgard then called the chief, Defendant Diane Venenga. ECF No. 32-1 ¶ 27. Landsgard repeated what Shine told him, id. , and said "[Landsgard] and the Chief needed to take safety precautions prior to the hearing." Id. ¶ 28. Citing Shine, Landsgard also said Olson had "gone off the deep end" and was experiencing "a loss of reality." Id. ¶ 30; ECF No. 28 at 16. Landsgard had not seen Olson for more than a month. ECF No. 32-1 ¶ 35.

Venenga then called Shine. Id. ¶ 29. Shine said he was concerned for "everyone's safety," including Olson's. Id. Venenga said she then called the nearby Marengo police department from her cell phone to ask an officer to drive by the Olson residence. ECF No. 28 at 16. Her cell phone records show no call to the publicly listed phone number for the Marengo department on September 12. ECF No. 32-1 ¶ 43–44.

Venenga then called Heiar, the city administrator. Id. ¶ 47. Venenga said some of Olson's reported actions caused her concern and said that she heard that Shine and Landsgard heard that they caused Jennifer concern, too. ECF No. 28 at 87–88. She then asked whether she should still hold Olson's due process hearing at City Hall, as planned. Id. at 88. Heiar argued she should not, and the two discussed holding the hearing over a Skype video call. Id. Heiar then called the City's director of human resources, its attorney, and mayor. Id.

The next day, the city attorney e-mailed Olson's attorney. ECF No. 32-1 ¶ 52. The city attorney outlined the story that had relayed through Shine, Landsgard, Venenga, and the City's officials. Id. This story raised safety concerns, the city attorney said, and the due process hearing would be held over a video call instead of in-person. Id. Nothing else was expected to change, the attorney said, and Olson was barred from the City's property until further notice. Id.

Landsgard was upset the city attorney shared so much information with Olson. Id. ¶ 53. That day, Landsgard received an irate all from Tiffany Shine. Id. ¶ 50. She urged Landsgard to take "[her] name" out of his mouth, using an expletive for emphasis; accused him of spreading hearsay; and insisted she did not want to be involved in the Olson affair. Id. Landsgard did not take this to mean that anything he told Venenga was inaccurate. Id. ¶ 51. Meanwhile, Christopher Shine felt "sick" about the affair. Id. ¶ 54. He also felt his original report to Landsgard had been "twisted." Id. ¶ 65.

The tele-hearing was short. See ECF No. 26-3 at 71. Olson spent five minutes giving his side of the story on the long-simmering performance issues. Id. Then the City asked about the mental health concerns. Id. at 9:13. They gave him the option to respond during the hearing or to follow up in writing. Id. at 9:42. Either way, they wanted "to have Sergeant Olson's side of the story so that we are able to make a decision based on that." Id. at 10:20. Olson and his attorney agreed to discuss some of the new accusations during the hearing and to discuss others in a follow-up e-mail. Id. at 11:00; ECF No. 32-1 ¶ 57.

The City fired Olson on September 20, 2018. ECF No. 31-1 ¶ 19. The termination letter cited the ongoing performance issues as the reason for termination. ECF No. 26-3 at 72–73. It made no mention of mental health concerns.

In a text message sent after the due process hearing, Venenga questioned the credibility of the "wives club," although it is unclear to what exactly she referred. See ECF No. 32-1 ¶ 61. Regardless, at least one city official still believed the allegations regarding Olson's mental health. Id. ¶ 60. Furthermore, Heiar testified the new allegations would have been relevant if he considered overriding Venenga's decision to fire Olson. Id. ¶ 59.

Olson then applied for disability benefits. ECF No. 31-1 ¶ 21. He cited a PTSD diagnosis and certified a "total and permanent incapacity for duty" as a law enforcement officer. Id.

On October 5, 2018, Plaintiffs filed a state court action alleging (1) defamation, (2) abuse of process, (3) civil conspiracy, (4) due process violations under the Iowa constitution, and (5) a civil conspiracy under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. ECF No. 1. Defendants removed the case to this Court. Id. Following Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment, Plaintiffs moved to withdraw their abuse-of-process claim. ECF No. 31 at 7.

II. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

"[S]ummary judgment is an extreme remedy, and one which is not to be granted unless the movant has established his right to a judgment with such clarity as to leave no room for controversy and that the other party is not entitled to recover under any discernible circumstances." Robert Johnson Grain Co. v. Chem. Interchange Co. , 541 F.2d 207, 209 (8th Cir. 1976). The purpose of summary...

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