A police officer employed by the City of St. Cloud, Minnesota, maintains that the city discriminated against him after he revealed his sexual orientation.
What happened. In September 2006, the city hired “Paul” as a police officer. Over the next couple of years, he was recognized by management as an “excellent officer,” who earned high marks on monthly performance reports. He also received letters of recognition and commendation for various accomplishments.
Until May 2009, only a small group of Paul’s friends in the police department knew that he was gay. Management did not learn of his sexual orientation until the Minneapolis Police Department sent a letter to the St. Cloud chief (at Paul’s request), asking that Paul work at a community outreach booth at the Twin Cities Pride Festival. The St. Cloud department declined to let Paul do so, and it denied Paul’s request to take vacation time so he could attend the festival on his own time.
Paul said the department started engaging in a “concerted effort” to fill his personnel file with disciplinary documents to try to get him to resign. For example, he was disciplined for tardiness and problems with a traffic report, and on May 15, 2009, a backdated disciplinary report was placed into his file for an alleged scheduling violation.
In July 2009, he left his position as a school resource officer, but he maintained it was not a voluntary move. On July 15, 2009, an assistant police chief and a police sergeant, who initiated a conversation with Paul about his mental well-being, recorded the conversation without Paul’s knowledge.
Among other things, Paul alleged that the department initiated unfounded internal investigations against him, removed him from doing Drug Talks at St. Cloud State University, removed him from a project he had initiated, removed him from his position on the neighborhood outreach committee, removed him from his State Fair duty, removed him from scheduled training opportunities, began altering his schedule weekly, refused to recognize him for assistance he provided to a stab victim, denied him leave to attend funerals in uniform, and put him on a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP), which required him to document every minute of his day on a Daily Activity Report.
He also contends that his repeated requests for the department to investigate or act upon his complaints of disparate treatment were ignored. The department said disciplinary actions taken against Paul were unrelated to his sexual orientation.
Paul said that, after filing a charge of discrimination with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, he was suspended and retaliated against in other ways. He resigned in April 2010, withdrew his complaint, and filed suit. He alleged violation of the Equal Protection clause; conspiracy to deprive him of his constitutional rights; violation of the First Amendment freedom of expression, association, and assembly; and sexual orientation discrimination and retaliation under the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA).
What the court said. The court granted summary judgment to Paul on the MHRA and Equal Protection claims.
Paul’s “treatment before his decision to be an openly gay police officer was starkly different than his treatment after his decision to be open about his sexuality,” the court said. “After May 2009, … [Paul] was subject to almost constant disciplinary actions,” the court said, adding “that an overnight metamorphosis is unlikely” and concluding that a reasonable jury could find that the defendants discriminated against Paul because of his sexual orientation.
Paul argued that he was constructively discharged, and the court said he presented enough evidence to proceed with his retaliation claim. “A reasonable jury could find that the ‘avalanche of internal investigations, disciplinary actions, negative performance evaluations, surreptitious tape recording, removal from various positions, and suspension’… amounted to an environment that would force … [Paul] to quit.” Lathrop v. City of St. Cloud, Minnesota, U.S. District Court, District of Minnesota, Civil No. 10-2361 (1/23/12).
Point to remember: Under the Minnesota Human Rights Act, employers are prohibited from discriminating against employees on the basis of their sexual orientation.