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7th Circuit: County didn’t violate rights of paralegal fired for refusing to attend funeral

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Trempealeau County District Attorney’s Office did not violate the rights of a paralegal who was fired for refusing to attend a funeral.

On Wednesday, Judges Kenneth F. Ripple,  Michael S. Kanne and David F. Hamilton affirmed a decision from the Western District granting summary judgment to Trempealeau County and its former district attorney, Taavi McMahon.

In 2017, McMahon decided to close his office to allow employees to attend the funeral of Gerald Fox, the Jackson County district attorney who had died unexpectedly. Nancy Knudtson, a paralegal who had worked for the county for more than 45 years, told McMahon that she and two other employees would rather work than attend the funeral. She said she did not want to use her vacation time to attend and had a meeting with a law enforcement officer at the same time.

After the county’s corporation counsel told McMahon he must keep the office open, McMahon told the three employees he was still going to close the office. Two of the employees agreed to go to the funeral, but Knudtson refused. She was placed on administrative leave and then terminated.

“Mr. McMahon took issue with Ms. Knudtson’s decision and both dug in their heels for what became a bitter dispute,” Ripple wrote in the 7th Circuit’s opinion.

Knudtson filed a complaint in the Western District alleging a violation of her rights under the Establishment Clause because the funeral took place at a church and involved a religious service. The district court rejected the claim under her proposed theories of the coercion test and the primary effect prong of the Lemon test.

The judge decided neither the county nor McMahon had coerced her to participate in a religious activity because she had the choice to attend the funeral or be placed on administrative leave. She also never objected on religious grounds. As for the primary effect argument under the Lemon test, the district court concluded that McMahon’s and the county’s actions did not have the primary effect of establishing or inhibiting religion.

Knudtson appealed, and the 7th Circuit heard arguments in the case on Oct. 2. The judges evaluated the claim under the two Establishment Clause frameworks. Ripple wrote that the county’s agents never pressured Knudtson to attend the funeral and McMahon’s pressure on the employees to attend the funeral “stemmed from their challenge to his authority to close his office.”

“In short, that Mr. Fox’s funeral took place at a Methodist church had nothing to do with Mr. McMahon’s actions,” Ripple wrote. “This case is an ordinary employment dispute about business hours and leave; it does not invoke the concerns central to the Establishment Clause.”

The judges said Knudtson’s claim also failed under the Lemon test because no reasonable observer would conclude that McMahon encouraging staff to attend the funeral was an endorsement of religion.

“The reason why Ms. Knudtson’s claim fails, as the district court astutely realized, is that religion played no part in Mr. McMahon’s entreaty to his staff to attend the funeral,” Ripple wrote. “At bottom, his dispute with his staff, including Ms. Knudtson, was over the closure of the office.”

Gov. Scott Walker appointed McMahon as Trempealeau County district attorney in 2012. He was elected in the same year and re-elected in 2016. McMahon had been the subject of complaints from other local officials in the years that followed. The Wisconsin Elections Commission ordered a recall election for him in 2018 following news of his decision to suspend Knudtson. John Sacia defeated McMahon in the recall primary and went on to win in the November 2018 general election. Sacia is still the county’s district attorney.

About Michaela Paukner, mpaukner@wislawjournal.com

Michaela Paukner is the legal reporter for the Wisconsin Law Journal. She can be reached at (414) 225-1825 or by email at mpaukner@wislawjournal.com.

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