Cass County: Sheriff: Restructuring reason for demotion

The demotion of a jail employee in the Cass County Sheriff's Office was part of an overall restructuring effort, not politically motivated discrimination, lawyers for the county and Sheriff Tom Burch contend.

The demotion of a jail employee in the Cass County Sheriff's Office was part of an overall restructuring effort, not politically motivated discrimination, lawyers for the county and Sheriff Tom Burch contend.

Burch and Cass County denied almost all of the claims made by employee Mary Tennis in a civil lawsuit, which alleges Tennis was retaliated against because her husband, Wayne Tennis, ran against Burch for county sheriff in 2010 and 2014.

Tennis is seeking damage for lost income, lost benefits, mental anguish and emotional distress she said derived from five years of actions that violated her First Amendment rights, constituted discrimination based on marital status under Minnesota law and led to the exposure of private personnel data about her. These alleged actions included a series of promotion denials and an eventual demotion after a nearly 30-year career in the jail.


Cass County: Sheriff's employee claims political retaliation - Click to read ---


"Any and all decisions and actions taken with regard to plaintiff (Tennis) and her employment with defendant Cass County were the result of legitimate and non-discriminatory actions, were appropriate and justified, and were in no way related to plaintiff's exercise of any protected right or activity or any protected class status," the court document filed on behalf of Burch stated.

Tennis began working for the Cass County Sheriff's Office in 1988 as a corrections officer. In 2003, she was promoted to jail program coordinator, a position she held until August 2015 when she was demoted back to corrections officer. Burch began his full-time career in Cass County in 1987 and was the chief deputy when he announced his candidacy for sheriff in 2010. Burch was elected sheriff in 2010 and again in 2014.

Sheriff, board evaluate need in jail

According to Burch's answers to Tennis' claims, a limited population in the Cass County Jail and a resulting lack of necessity for a jail program coordinator position was what led to a restructuring. Burch denied any of his actions stemmed from retaliation for Tennis' marriage to one of Burch's opponents in the election for sheriff.

This included a promotion of another employee, Lt. Joel Norenberg, to jail administrator after Tennis expressed interest in the position. Burch acknowledged he and Tennis discussed her interest in the position and that she was asked to train Norenberg in after having served as interim administrator on three occasions. The training was only on jail billings, Burch said, not the position as a whole.

In her lawsuit, Tennis claimed immediately following the 2010 election Burch told her he did not trust her. He also apparently said three separate times she might be required to take a leave of absence if her husband chose to run in the 2014 election.

Burch admitted both of these things in his response, although he contended these discussions took place because of inappropriate behavior on the part of Tennis.

"Defendant Burch told Plaintiff (Tennis) that he was concerned about her ability to refrain from engaging in inappropriate behavior in the workplace relating to the election, including improperly bringing the election contest into the workplace and pressuring fellow employees regarding the candidate they were supporting as she had done in the prior election," Burch's response stated.


Although Burch acknowledged no one within the sheriff's office-including himself-was required to take a leave of absence for a connection to an election, he said they were not required because "no conflicts of interest existed in such circumstances."

Tennis said Burch denied a request by Norenberg for budget approval to move Tennis into an administrative sergeant position. She also said Burch told her the Cass County Board wanted to fire Tennis to eliminate her position, but that Burch told the board he did not want to do that for fear of its appearance as a "political move."

Burch said the reason Norenberg's request was denied was because "there was no need to add a supervisor position in the jail due to the limited inmate population." Burch admitted he told Tennis the county board was evaluating the necessity of Tennis' position, but denied he worried about the perception of political retaliation.

  Appropriate workplace behavior requested

With the 2014 election on the horizon, Tennis alleged Burch stepped up efforts to alienate her through exclusion from meetings and internal communications. Burch acknowledged Tennis' exclusion from meetings, although he said this was because Tennis was not a member of "command staff," and this was who the meetings were intended for.

Wayne Tennis again filed to run for sheriff in 2014, and Mary Tennis said she began to discuss her leave of absence with Norenberg. Norenberg apparently offered to speak with Burch about the leave of absence after expressing surprise at the requirement. In his response, Burch acknowledged these conversations took place and that he called Tennis directly to discuss the matter.

"Defendant Burch again reiterated to Plaintiff (Tennis) that as long as she continued to do her job and refrained from engaging in inappropriate behavior in the workplace related to the election," she would not be asked to take a leave of absence, the response stated.

  Restructuring continues


Burch was again elected sheriff in 2014, and Tennis alleged this marked an escalation in discrimination against her in the workplace. Burch denied this and maintained the series of changes in the sheriff's office that followed were structural-and impersonal-in nature.

A reassignment of Tennis' duties in the sentence-to-serve program to Deputy Chad Emery was a result of Emery's promotion to a full-time licensed patrol deputy, Burch said. Perks Emery received with the promotion-including a raise, overtime pay and a take-home vehicle-were associated with Emery's pay grade and his full-time licensure, Burch added, not due to retaliation against Tennis.

"Defendant (Burch and Cass County) admits that Plaintiff (Tennis) was not eligible for overtime pay or a take-home squad car because she is not, and never has been, a full-time licensed patrol officer," the response stated. "Defendants further maintain that other than some limited scheduling, Plaintiff did not work directly with the STS (sentence-to-serve) crew and did not actually perform the duties assigned to Deputy Emery."

Tennis' lack of a full-time license was also the reasoning behind her ineligibility for promotion to sergeant to supervise staff in the corrections division, Burch said. Deputy Chris Thompson was promoted to this position and Tennis alleged she was not given an opportunity to apply despite 12 years of supervising in the jail. Burch said Thompson's assignment "was part of the overall plan to place full-time licensed deputies in supervisory positions to provide for cross training and succession planning in the office."

Two weeks after Thompson's promotion, Tennis said a union representative approached her about Burch's plans to change Tennis' job and lower her pay. Burch admitted to meeting with the union representative to discuss the elimination of the coordinator position and agreed to freeze Tennis' pay and wait until the next contract negotiations.

Demotion next step, pay maintained

Over the summer of 2015, Tennis was first moved from her regular shift and then was allegedly required by Burch to complete log sheets detailing the work she completed all day. Burch said the schedule change was applied to both Tennis and Norenberg, who were informed they would no longer be able to "flex" their schedules to take Friday off, and the log sheets were not a requirement unique to Tennis.

On Aug. 5, 2015, Tennis met with Burch, who informed her the jail program coordinator position was eliminated and Tennis would again serve as a corrections officer. Burch said this announcement was made to Tennis "because it was determined that the position was no longer necessary in the jail." As discussed with union representation, Burch said he told Tennis her pay would not change despite the change in position.


Tennis said she later asked Norenberg how long Burch was working to eliminate her job, and Norenberg allegedly replied the plan was ongoing for "some time." Burch did not deny this in his response, although he said he "had been working on the restructuring of the entire sheriff's office for several years."

A request by Tennis to receive shift differential pay and supervisory pay was met by a response from Burch acknowledging if Tennis wished to receive that pay, it would alter the arrangement with her union contract and would reduce her pay to grade 21, the grade applied to all other corrections officers.

  Personnel data exposure 'inadvertent'

Tennis' claims of exposure of her private personnel data were not denied by Burch. Two incidents described by Tennis in her civil lawsuit were both acknowledged to have occurred by Burch in his response, although these exposures were inadvertent, he said.

The first was a memo between Thompson and the sheriff describing Thompson's solicited opinion on the restructuring, left in the central control room by Norenberg. A co-worker of Tennis' read the document, which discussed Tennis' demotion and pay. Burch said the memo reflected Thompson's opinion-including the belief that the restructuring was "what would be best for the county and that it was not meant to be a disciplinary move"-and that Thompson was not instructed on what to write in the memo.

Burch added Tennis was not given a copy of the memo because it was meant to be confidential communication between Thompson and Burch.

The second incident involved a written record of a reprimand of Tennis, read by a co-worker from a printer in the office. Although Burch acknowledged an employee picked up a document from a printer in the booking room and gave it to Tennis, assuming it was hers since her name was on it, he denied it was printed to a "public printer and available for co-workers to read." Burch also denied the subject of the reprimand was "pretextual in nature," as Tennis claimed in her suit. Thompson reprimanded Tennis for switching televisions in the jail, according to both documents.

  Sheriff requests lawsuit dismissal


In defense of the county and Burch, the response to Tennis' suit states there are no claims described upon which relief should be granted. A statute of limitations was exceeded, the response goes on, and doctrines of immunity shield the defendants from liability for Tennis' claims. The county and Burch allege none of the actions described in Tennis' suit represent a violation of her statutory or constitutional rights and a pattern cannot be established in the claims presented by Tennis.

The response demands dismissal of Tennis' lawsuit and payment by Tennis of the costs incurred by the county and Burch for defending against the suit.

The lawsuit, originally filed in Cass County District Court in November 2015, was removed to federal court, where all subsequent actions from both the plaintiff Tennis and defendants Cass County and Burch will take place.


CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or . Follow on Twitter at .

Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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