Fired jailer still can file lawsuit

Published 10:55 am Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A decision made by the Minnesota Court of Appeals on Monday does not stop a fired jail administrator from suing Freeborn County if he chooses to.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals on Monday issued its decision to uphold the county’s decision to fire Marcellino Peña in 2012. Peña’s lawyer, Richard Williams, said the ruling is not the same as a trial appeal, so Peña will be able to file a lawsuit against the county if he wants.

“It’s not like taking a case on appeal,” Williams said. “It’s a fairly complicated area of law.”

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Williams said that because Peña worked for the county, part of the executive branch of government, he could file a special appeal with the judicial branch. That could increase the scope of evidence the judges look at. In its ruling issued this week, the Court of Appeals only had access to evidence provided by Freeborn County.

“The scope of its decision is by nature very limited,” Williams said.

If Peña decides to pursue a lawsuit, it could go to trial. There, all evidence from Peña and Freeborn County would be examined, Williams said. Williams also said he doesn’t know whether Peña will file a lawsuit, but going through the Court of Appeals is one necessary step anyway.

“One of the reasons we went through this process would be to try to minimize defenses for the county if a lawsuit was filed,” Williams said.

Peña also has a claim submitted to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Williams said. In a few months when they hear back from that claim, Peña can decide to file a lawsuit or not. The Court of Appeals ruling made on Monday can’t prevent him from doing so.

“Their decision does not in any way, shape or form, change or limit Mr. Peña’s ability to proceed with separate litigation with respect to his violation of constitutional rights,” Williams said.


About the issue

Peña was fired from his position as one of two Freeborn County jail administrators in September 2012. Freeborn County alleges that former and current employees in the jail felt threatened, intimidated or sexually harassed by Peña.

Peña’s lawyer alleges the Sheriff’s Office, and ultimately Freeborn County, did not comply with state statute in holding a hearing before Peña’s termination or give him the opportunity to confront witnesses against him.

As jail administrator, Peña oversaw the food service and medical contracts for the inmates and at one time oversaw more of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement contract in the jail. He started in Freeborn County in 2004 as a corrections officer.

In addition to allegations of harassment, several of the employees accused Peña of watching movies in his office while on the clock, gambling and campaigning while on duty, and directing other employees to complete his personal tasks — even helping him apply for new jobs.

Other female employees stated Peña would put his arm around them, making them uncomfortable, and that he would sometimes ask some of the employees personal questions about their marriages and sex lives.

In a previous interview with the Tribune, Peña denied harassing any of the employees but instead stated he simply held people accountable. He called the sexual harassment allegations an “outright lie” and described the investigation as a “witch hunt.”