(CN) - A Minnesota police force must face claims that they ousted an officer after it learned he was gay, a federal judge ruled.
Before he went public about his homosexuality, the St. Cloud police department ranked Sean Alan Lathrop as an "excellent officer," recognizing him with multiple letters of commendation for his work on a community crime impact team and other duties.
Lathrop says that treatment changed when he requested permission in May 2009 to do community outreach at the Twin Cities Pride Festival.
Police Chief Dennis Ballantine allegedly refused permission after throwing Lathrop's letter requesting such in the trash. He said Lathrop could not even attend the pride festival, even on his own time, adding, "There are no gay people in St. Cloud,"
Sgt. James Steve also denied Lathrop's vacation request to attend the gay pride festival, assigning him to work the similarly timed Granite City Days festival, according to the complaint.
Over the next six months, the department allegedly disciplined Lathrop five separate times, subjecting him to three internal investigations. It removed him from state fair duty, placed him on a performance improvement plan and secretly recorded his conversations.
After Lathrop asked a fellow officer to perform a pat-down search on a male suspect in August or September 2009, Steve allegedly advised Lathrop that his sexuality was getting in the way of his career.
When Lathrop complained of disparate treatment, the brass failed to investigate his claims and told him he was being overly sensitive.
In December 2009, four months before he resigned, Lathrop complained to the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, saying the force reduced his seniority, suspended him and gave him the lowest possible score on his performance evaluation.
The subsequent federal lawsuit alleges retaliation claims under Minnesota law and several constitutional violations under the equal protection clause and First Amendment.
U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank dismissed Lathrop's First Amendment claims on Monday, disagreeing that the Granite Days assignment amounted to a pretext that kept Lathrop away from the Pride Festival.
Lathrop's conspiracy claim also failed to persuade the court. The officer allegedly overheard Sgt. Steve saying, "We're going to make him so bored with his job that he'll quit." But Frank said Lathrop presented no evidence to support his assumption that Steve was talking about him, or that the defendants had reached an agreement to deprive him of a constitutional right.
The civil rights and state-law discrimination and retaliation claims fared better, however.
"It appears to the court that the turning point in this case was in May 2009, when plaintiff disclosed his sexual orientation to the department," the 25-page decision states. "Before May 2009, plaintiff's superiors recommended him to a master's degree program, awarded him the school resource officer position, and consistently gave him favorable performance reviews. After May 2009, plaintiff was subject to almost constant disciplinary actions. Defendants argue that the increased disciplinary measures taken against plaintiff were unrelated to plaintiff's sexual orientation.
"It seems to the court, however, that an overnight metamorphosis is unlikely, and the court concludes that a reasonable jury could find that defendants discriminated against plaintiff as a result of his sexual orientation," Frank added.
Lathrop can proceed with his claims under the equal protection clause and the Minnesota Human Rights Act.
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