Panel Hears Fired Town Official’s Bid for New Trial

ST. LOUIS (CN) – Lawyers for a man who claims he was fired by a small Missouri town for political reasons argued Tuesday before the Eighth Circuit that he should be given a new trial because a black potential juror was struck on the basis of race.

The Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse in St. Louis, home of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. (Photo via U.S. General Services Administration)

Bradley Landwehr sued the city of Gerald in 2016 after he was fired as the city’s public works director for supporting his brother in a contentious mayoral election. He claims his brother’s opponent was heard at the polls saying that Landwehr’s support for his brother was grounds for termination. He was fired shortly after his brother was defeated.

A federal jury decided in favor of the city. Landwehr’s request for a new trial was denied, prompting his appeal to the Eighth Circuit.

Gerald is 70 miles west of St. Louis and had a population of just 1,323 as of 2014. Its population is over 97% white and the median household income was $44,000 in 2016, $7,000 below the reported state average.

Landwehr’s attorney, Lynette Petruska of Pleban & Petruska, argued before a three-judge panel Tuesday morning that city’s striking of a man identified in court records as “venireperson No. 7” – the only black person in the pool of potential jurors – was racially motivated.

Petruska is bringing the challenge under Batson v. Kentucky, a 1986 U.S. Supreme Court decision holding that a juror cannot be struck solely based on race.

Central to the arguments are two questions posed to the potential juror. In one instance, he expressed dissatisfaction with how a previous lawsuit was handled. The other line of questioning related to whether he could follow all of the directions given by the court and be impartial, to which he answered, “I’ll try.”

The city’s attorney, Michael Berry of Berry & Associates, argued those responds were enough warrant a strike.

Petruska said the potential juror testified during screening that he was an employer and believed in an employer’s right to hire and fire at will. She admitted he was a wild card and that she and co-counsel had a “heated” discussion on whether to strike him, but she won out because she felt the defendants would strike him regardless because of race.

The judges asked Petruska why she would not just strike him herself if he seemed to be in favor of the city of Gerald’s position.

“He was the only African-American on the panel,” Petruska replied. “That was my only reason. I’m sorry to say that, but it’s true.”

Berry countered that the black potential juror was not the first one the defense team struck and there were reasons based on his testimony that prompted their decision, not his skin color.

“We weren’t exactly sure how this guy was going to take in the instructions” and apply them to the case, the attorney told the panel Tuesday.

The judges panel asked Berry if the plaintiff’s race matters in the context of a Batson challenge. Landwehr is white.

“Typically, exclusion exited a person on the grounds that they might have a racial affinity to a party in the case,” Berry said. “We don’t have that.”

During her rebuttal, Petruska again attempted to show race was the motivating factor behind the juror strike, citing the defense’s arguments that they had concerns about several other jurors.

“The defendants only used two strikes,” Petruska said. “If they were struggling on who or who not to strike, why not use all three?”

U.S. Circuit Judges Raymond Gruender, Morris Arnold and David Stras sat on the panel. It is unclear when they will issue a ruling in the case.

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