Fired Cloquet cop loses federal lawsuit, but will bring claims in state court
City officials sought to keep Scott Holman on the force, a judge said, but they were left with little choice other than to terminate him once he was unable to testify in cases he investigated.
CLOQUET — City officials did not violate the rights of a longtime police officer by firing him in 2019 amid concerns about his credibility, a federal court ruled this month.
Chief U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz granted summary judgment to the city of Cloquet, Councilor Kerry Kolodge and former Citizens Advisory Board member Lauri Ketola, dismissing the remaining claims in a federal lawsuit filed by former detective Scott Holman in January 2020.
Schiltz, who previously threw out claims against Carlton County, said Holman failed to establish that his termination was in retaliation for exercising his First Amendment rights, or that it was carried out without due process afforded by the 14th Amendment.
"Holman’s argument is akin to a criminal defendant arguing that his trial was unfair because the evidence against him was so overwhelming that a jury was bound to convict him," the judge wrote in an 18-page order. "It may have been likely that the City Council was going to terminate Holman, but that is because the city had little use for a detective who could not testify in court, and no amount of notice or hearing would change that fact."
But the case is not yet over, as Holman intends to proceed with four claims under Minnesota law in State District Court, according to attorney Mike Padden, of Lake Elmo, Minnesota.
Those claims, which were not considered on the merits by Schiltz, include defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent training and supervision, and negligent maintenance of an employee personnel file.
"We're very excited that we'll be proceeding forward on our defamation claim against Ms. Ketola, because, frankly, that was the crux of the case from the very beginning," Padden told the News Tribune.
Holman, a 22-year police veteran, was terminated by the Cloquet City Council in June 2019, after Ketola was elected Carlton County attorney and informed the police department that she would no longer prosecute cases that relied on his testimony.
Ketola, upon taking office, designated Holman as a "Brady" officer — a reference to the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case of Brady v. Maryland, which requires prosecutors to disclose material that could be favorable to defendants in criminal cases, including misconduct of law enforcement officers.
Holman was disciplined by former Police Chief Wade Lamirande in 2004 after he missed a mandatory cold-weather firearms training session. Holman claimed he was sick, but was later seen out consuming alcoholic beverages. Lamirande suspended Holman for one day with pay and required him to write a formal letter of apology to the force.
He was again disciplined in March 2018 after using a pseudonym to post critical comments about Ketola, Kolodge and former Cloquet Police Chief Steve Stracek on social media in July 2017. Then-chief Jeff Palmer issued Holman an oral reprimand.
But the Cloquet Citizens Advisory Board, a three-member panel that then included Ketola, sought a stiffer punishment. The board requested an unpaid suspension, but the City Council rejected that recommendation by a 5-2 vote.
Schiltz previously ruled that Carlton County and Ketola, in her official capacity, have legal immunity for the decision to label Holman as a Brady officer and decline to prosecute his cases. With that decision, the judge said, Cloquet had little choice but to fire a detective who could no longer perform a basic function of his job.
Further, Schiltz wrote, the record suggests Cloquet actually sought to protect Holman's job. The council had the opportunity to increase his punishment, but declined, and city officials tried to persuade Ketola to reverse her decision. Holman also received a hearing in which he and his union, both represented by attorneys, had an opportunity to argue for his ongoing employment.
"The record is clear that the city’s decision to terminate Holman had nothing to do with his two‐year‐old Facebook posts and everything to do with the fact that the county attorney had just announced that she would not prosecute any case in which he was involved," Schiltz wrote.
Because no federal claims remained, the judge said he lacked jurisdiction to consider the remaining state law claims. Padden said he doesn't anticipate appealing the ruling.
Instead, he will re-file the remaining claims in Carlton County in the near future. The attorney said Ketola will be the only named defendant in that suit, but she could commence a third-party action that brings the city and its employees back into the litigation.
Padden said he still doesn't believe Holman should have been terminated, even with the Brady designation, but the former officer now plans to focus on the allegation that Ketola, as a member of the Citizens Advisory Board, made false statements regarding Holman's attempts to "subvert" the investigation — namely by deactivating the fake Facebook account used to make the disparaging comments.
Attorneys for Ketola and the city have argued that her comments were privileged as part of an official proceeding, which occurred behind closed doors. Additionally, they have said the comments were consistent with an investigative report prepared by police administration and that Ketola lacked actual malice.