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By Jake Nichols, Cowboy State Daily
The Town of Jackson will have to answer to a wrongful termination lawsuit brought by a former police lieutenant who claims he was forced out of his job as a result of a hostile work environment.
Lt. Roger Schultz, who served on the Jackson Police Department for 23 years before his resignation on August 21, 2020, is arguing he was denied due process by the town after an insensitive post he made on an official social media police blotter resulted in his termination.
Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge for the District of Wyoming Kelly Rankin recently denied the town’s motion for summary judgment filed on Jan. 4, finding merit in the original complaint. The judge’s decision opens the door for a federal trial, scheduled for May 22-26 in Cheyenne.
Afton-based attorney John Bowers argued the town never terminated Schultz because the officer quit of his own accord.
Judge Rankin did not agree that Schultz freely chose to resign.
“Plaintiff has presented evidence and testimony that he was told he would be fired if he did not resign, and that his resignation was due ’immediately,’” the judge wrote in his order dated Feb. 15. “There is a genuine issue of material fact that Plaintiff’s due process rights were violated.”
Rankin also disagreed that town manager Larry Pardee, also named in the suit, should enjoy qualified immunity because he never directly communicated with Schultz at any time.
“Plaintiff offers evidence that Defendant Pardee was advised, on multiple occasions, that there was a process and procedure that needed to be followed before disciplining Plaintiff for posting the blog. Plaintiff further argues Defendant Pardee’s response to such advisements was that only his policy mattered, and that no one could tell him what to do,” Rankin wrote.
Winds Of Change Already Blowing
Schultz tendered his resignation August 21, 2020 after an insensitive blotter post on Facebook went viral. Fallout over the post came at the height of a nationwide climate of #MeToo movement combined with a ‘defund the police’ public outcry connected with George Floyd protests, and ongoing demonstrations by local activists Act Now JH.
In the months leading up to the insensitive post that cost Schultz his job, some elected officials in Jackson echoed anti-law enforcement sentiments reverberating across the nation.
“It’s pretty rare to see even the smallest, most meaningless kind of accountability for cops, who’ve been getting away with murder and everything else under the sun for as long as they’ve been around. I don’t know why we’d expect anything else from people to whom you give nearly absolute power,” wrote then-Mayor Pete Muldoon on his Facebook page.
Under Muldoon’s direction, the town council scrutinized every aspect of the Jackson Police Department that summer following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020. The council called for reform and retraining within the police department.
Chief of Police Todd Smith was eventually pressured into endorsing a Black Lives Matter manifesto. Soon after, headed off to an early retirement, which he announced abruptly during that period. The chief was gone by August 23, 2020.
During Muldoon’s 4-year reign from 2016-2020 there was more housecleaning. Town manager Bob McClaurin departed in 2018 after 17 years at the post, and town attorney Audrey Cohen Davis tendered her resignation May 2020 with 14 years under her belt.
Good Cop, Bad Cop
As part of Schultz’s duties with the department he authored a community information and outreach blotter which highlighted various calls responded to by the Jackson Police Department (JPD). Schultz offered a jocular and informal style meant to humanize police officers and their duties.
If fallible is to be considered a prime example of humanness, the lieutenant was wildly successful.
On one such occasion, Schultz published a blotter post related to a call to investigate a possible sexual relationship between an over 18-year-old and an individual who was not 18. Upon investigation, it was found no crime had occurred. In reporting the incident, Schultz published the following report:
On August 13, 2020, at 12:26 p.m., we responded to a report of an underage female having sex with adult. We will be investigating the case to determine if a crime has been committed and if we can prove that crime. You would think having sex with an underage juvenile would always be a crime. Not necessarily. There are a number of factors involved in deciding whether to file charges to include the age of those involved. Fortunately, determining the age difference of those involved doesn’t involve complex math, so we should be able to figure it out without too much trouble. Just as long as we have coffee and donuts (the ones with the little sprinkles on top) to get us through.
Schultz and his attorney, Kevin Gregory, contend the remarks were a brand of self-deprecating humor, poking fun at cops’ stereotypical love of donuts. Cancel culture detractors in Jackson Hole didn’t see it that way. Schultz would surrender his gun and badge in under a week.
Act Now JH fired off a letter of complaint to the town. The police department pulled the post and issued an apology stating, “Like everyone, we sometimes make mistakes. We learn from those and strive to do better.”
It wasn’t nearly enough.
Blotter Blunder Hits The Fan
In the ensuing blowback, Pardee first had interim chief Michelle Weber issue Schultz a stern verbal reprimand on August 18, 2020.
But pressure continued to mount.
Social media vitriol was feverish, beginning with sitting town councilwoman Jessica Sell Chambers who took to Facebook to blast Schultz’ apology:
“An apology has been issued by the police department—an inadequate apology when compared to what these people did to the experience of this woman who was sexually assaulted. Disgusting, classless, and unprofessional. Now another white man, a police officer, has turned himself into a victim instead of owning his wrongdoing. I’m truly abhorred.”
Act JH chimed in as well.
“The apology states that the blotter exists to provide transparency to what is happening in our community. In reality it serves as a way for law enforcement to ridicule citizens who find themselves in trouble, and make light of serious and dangerous situations,” Act Now JH wrote in a letter to town officials. “This incident should not be seen as a mistake, but rather the outcome of a culture that finds this behavior funny and acceptable.”
Mayor Muldoon joined the fray, telling the Jackson Hole Daily, “The Facebook post, which trivialized and made light of the alleged rape of a child, should make anyone very concerned…”
By August 19, Schultz began to fear for his job after the News&Guide published an article eliciting “very negative” feedback from the public. Schultz contended Weber told him town officials were not satisfied with his public apology. As a result, Weber retracted the publication of the apology.
Lawyers for Schultz said Smith warned Pardee that his officer could not be terminated without due process. Pardee allegedly responded that the “only policy that mattered was his own.”
Then on August 20, 2020, Pardee issued a public apology on behalf of the town.
“The Town of Jackson and its staff want to be a part of the solution,” Pardee wrote. “We are starting to see how systemic these issues are, and even before this incident, the town was in discussion with the Jackson Hole Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Collective about leading dialogues and trainings.”
According to the lawsuit, later that day Weber called Schultz and informed him that he would not need to resign and instead he would likely be suspended without pay.
The next day, August 21, outgoing Chief Smith, along with acting interim Chief Weber reversed course. They told Schultz he would be fired if he did not resign immediately. At one point, waiting to hear whether Schultz had indeed resigned, Pardee reportedly texted Weber: “Why is this not done yet?”
Later that day, Schultz submitted a four-word letter stating, “I resign, effective immediately.”
Schultz added, “There was no internal affairs investigation, there was no administrative hearing or opportunity for appeal. No process was followed, and I was told that none would be, or that even if it was, I would be terminated. Even people who commit crimes get a fair trial and chance for appeal. With no other choice, I resigned.”
In The Aftermath
Pardee has since departed Jackson for Eagle, Colorado, where he serves as town manager.
Muldoon’s reelection bid failed to reseat him in office on November 3, 2020. The ex-mayor blamed his last-place finish for town council, in part, on leaked news of his own brush with the law.
A 2018 police report into sexual assault allegations brought by a local woman against the mayor was circulated widely and eventually made news headlines on October 2020.
Muldoon’s response during his last days in office was to call for a full investigation of the Teton County Sheriff’s Office. After losing the election, Muldoon told newspapers the incident was nothing more than a “political hit job.”
In March 2022, Muldoon announced his own lawsuit against Teton County law enforcement officers and attorneys.
In his suit Muldoon claims cops saw him as a political enemy who was “publicly critical of law enforcement.”
“[T]he sheriff’s office committed a crime in order to illegally influence an election because they were afraid I was a threat to their funding and power,” the ex-mayor argued.
Not every local official agreed on how things were handled. Teton County commissioner Wes Gardner commented on the controversy in Jackson as Schultz was being run out of town.
“My question is, why was a man with 23 years of exemplary service, an officer who was the conduit between the Community Safety Network and the Police Department asked to resign over this mistake?” he wrote. “To be clear, what the lieutenant wrote was wrong, and it caused significant damage to past, present, and future victims. I’m just not convinced terminating/forcing an otherwise exemplary officer to resign is the appropriate response.”
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