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Judge dismisses police officer’s defamation suit against city of Crosby

The defamation suit was dismissed with prejudice, meaning it can never be brought back to court. Jesse Smith was placed on paid administrative leave two times in a four-year period. Both times he was fired and both times he got his job back through arbitration.

Crow Wing County Judicial Center Exterior
Crow Wing County Judicial Center Saturday, April 10, 2021. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

A defamation lawsuit filed by former Crosby Police Officer Jesse Smith against the city of Crosby and the police department's top two ranking officers was dismissed in its entirety.

Ninth Judicial Judge Erik J. Askegaard submitted his ruling on the case Wednesday, April 28, in Crow Wing County District Court in Brainerd. The case was dismissed with prejudice, meaning it cannot be brought back to court.

Smith filed the civil lawsuit in April 2019 against the city of Crosby and Crosby Police Chief Kim Coughlin and Lt. Kevin Randolph — both of whom have since left their posts. The lawsuit came after Smith was fired twice from his job, but then reinstated both times through arbitration before voluntarily resigning from the Crosby Police Department in July 2017.

In the lawsuit, Smith claimed his reputation was harmed and also claimed the city violated the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act numerous times. Smith was seeking monetary damages in amounts in excess of $50,000 per defendant, or $150,000 total from the three defendants in his lawsuit.

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Jesse Smith
Jesse Smith

History

Smith, who currently serves as chief of the Cuyuna Police Department and as an officer with the Deerwood Police Department, was placed on paid administrative leave by the city of Crosby two times in a four-year period. The first leave was for alleged officer misconduct in August 2012 and he was terminated January 2013. Smith got his job back in 2014 after an arbitrator through the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services ruled in his favor.

RELATED: Crosby officer resigns - after getting his job back twice
Smith was terminated a second time in October 2016. According to the arbitration document, the city of Crosby terminated Smith for performing work on the Crosby computers for the Cuyuna and Deerwood police departments while he was on duty and being paid as a Crosby officer.

Kim Coughlin
Former Crosby Police Chief Kim Coughlin. Brainerd Dispatch file photo

The city hired an outside investigator with the Cass County Sheriff’s Office who found during the time period of July 2014 to February 2016, Smith had three payroll timesheet discrepancies where Smith was paid by both cities while on duty with the Crosby Police Department. The investigator could not find evidence indicating Smith created the report for the purpose of trying to be paid from both cities for the same time, the court ruling stated.

Coughlin then determined she would not pursue criminal charges but would instead have an internal affairs investigation of Smith’s conduct. Randolph conducted the investigation from April to September 2016 and handed in a 25-page report that found Smith was doing work for Cuyuna while on duty with Crosby. Smith claimed he only did it while on his break times.

RELATED: Crosby Officer Jesse Smith gets job back, again
Randolph stated his opinion was Smith’s behaviors revealed a wide variety of policy and contract violations and most likely state and federal laws. Randoph’s opinion was Smith repeatedly lied during his interviews and had “repeatedly shown an ‘I can do what I want attitude,’ and see(s) no conflicts in performing work for one entity while actually being paid by another.”

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The Crosby City Council met in a special meeting in October 2016 to discuss potential disciplinary action against Smith. The council went into a closed session with Smith and his labor union representative with Teamsters Local No. 346 and then into an open session, when it voted to terminate Smith. While not working for Crosby, he still worked at Cuyuna and Deerwood police departments.

Kevin Randolph
Kevin Randolph

Smith filed a grievance, protesting his termination and a second case — between the city of Crosby and the Teamsters Union — again went through arbitration. An arbitrator issued a decision May 2017 overturning Crosby’s decision to terminate Smith and ordering the police officer to be reinstated to his previous position.

The arbitrator ruled the city did not have just cause to terminate Smith and it violated the union’s labor agreement. The city was forced to pay Smith full back pay and benefits and all city records that reference his termination would be expunged.

A second issue with Smith during this time frame, according to the city of Crosby, was an investigation of Mayor James Hunter in 2017. The Crosby Police Department was investigating him for alleged criminal activities. Hunter was later acquitted for some of the charges associated with this investigation, while other remaining charges were dismissed.

RELATED: Former Crosby police officer files lawsuit against city, police officials
According to the court ruling on Smith’s lawsuit, police executed a search warrant at Hunter’s home during the investigation and searched a safe that turned up empty. This raised suspicions for Randolph, who thought someone might have tipped off Hunter about the search warrants.

Another internal affairs investigation began to determine whether any Crosby police officer improperly informed Hunter about the search warrants. As part of the investigation, Hunter’s phone records and all the police officers’ phone records were examined. The phone records showed Hunter and Smith spoke to each other before the search warrants were issued. Randolph believed Smith contacted Hunter and tipped him off.

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Around that time, the arbitration proceedings for Smith’s grievances challenging his termination occurred and Smith got his job back. The court ruling stated all indications in the internal investigation about whether any officers tipped off Hunter was not at issue in the arbitration and it is likely the arbitrator didn’t even know about it.

RELATED: The Regional Report: Hiring of Jesse Smith stalls in Deerwood; Mille Lacs County hires attorneys
At issue in the lawsuit were statements made by Randolph on a radio show on multiple occasions, which Smith claims were defamatory against him. These comments included:

  • “... When you get into administration, you cannot get rid of your bad cops. I mean, we saw that here locally. We have, you know, we have these situations where these cops are actually committing crimes on duty. We try to fire them and the arbitrators give them their jobs back.”

  • “... In every department I’ve worked in. You can have one bad guy and he just drags the whole group down with him.”

  • “... One of the, the ironies of this situation is ... as I leave the city here at the end of the month ... I give up a lot of the restrictions that I’ve had in talking about these cases. And fortunately for me, the one case here ... they’ve made very public all the information. So I don’t need to worry about the privacy on that. But I intend to make ... the case that I have been through and join it with the other cases and start saying ... Enough is enough. This is ridiculous in ... how the state treats criminal cops.”

The ruling

Askegaard denied Smith’s motion for partial summary judgment and his claims for punitive damages. The judge granted the city summary judgement and dismissed the case in its entirety, and with prejudice. The ruling also stated the city is entitled to seek an award of their taxable costs and disbursements.

The judge concluded:

  • Because Smith is and was a public official, the First Amendment bars him from prevailing in this action, unless he can show a particular statement about him was made with actual malice. Smith cannot make such a showing.

  • Smith cannot prove any of the city representatives made any false statements with knowledge the statements were false, or with reckless disregard of whether they were true or false.

  • Smith has no basis, other than inadmissible hearsay, to support his claim that Randolph said, in June 2017 and September 2017, “None of the guys in the Department want him to come back to work,” or “There was corruption in the (Crosby PD), but we got rid of him.” Further, the alleged statements are statements of opinion versus fact or were too limited and vague to convey defamatory information.

  • The statements made by Coughlin and Randolph to the internal investigator were protected by qualified privilege, and Smith authorized them to convey the information they conveyed.

  • The city properly retained the private personnel data of Smith after the arbitrator ordered it be expunged “to the extent permitted by law.”

  • None of the complaints of statements made by the city representatives violated the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act.

  • Smith waived his privacy rights under the data practices act by making the 52-page arbitration decision available to the public.

RELATED: A look at the arbitration ruling

The attorney representing Crosby was Anna Yunker, whose office is based in Rosemount. Patrick Tierney, whose office is based in St. Paul, represented Smith. Calls were made to the attorneys Friday, but they were unavailable.

JENNIFER KRAUS may be reached at jennifer.kraus@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5851. Follow me at www.twitter.com/jennewsgirl on Twitter.
Related Topics: CENTERPIECE
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