Court finds no grounds upon which to resolve case without trial
By Aimee Eaton
In the fall of 2014, two men ran for the position of Gunnison County Sheriff: Richard Besecker, the incumbent, and Scott Jackson, a deputy within the sheriff’s department.
Besecker won the election, then roughly four months later fired Jackson, stating in a letter to Jackson at the time that, ”Your continued employment as a Deputy Sheriff undermines the effective discharge of my duties as Gunnison County Sheriff, negatively impacts morale of the employees of the Sheriff’s Office, and overall impedes the efficient performance of this Office’s obligations.”
Upon his termination, Jackson filed charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for age discrimination and retaliation. Besecker responded to the charges, stating that he had fired Jackson because of performance issues.
Things began to escalate.
Jackson said he was fired because he sought to run against the sheriff and his first amendment rights had been violated; he then dropped the charge of age discrimination. Besecker countered that Jackson had created a disruptive environment within the sheriff’s office. It was a case of one man’s word against the other’s, and it was headed for a jury trial.
But then Besecker filed a request in district court for summary judgment—a request for the court to rule that Jackson had no case because there were no facts at issue. In requesting summary judgment, Besecker was claiming that the case should not go before a jury, or if it did, the jury could only rule in his favor.
The request was denied, with the ruling judge stating, “It is difficult to imagine a case less appropriate for summary judgment on the constitutional claim. The record is replete with disputed facts regarding the grounds for Mr. Jackson’s termination and the shenanigans that led up to it.”
Shortly after the decision was made, Besecker filed an appeal to the ruling based on a few different grounds in the United States Court of Appeals Tenth Circuit. Last week that appeal was denied.
“There are genuine issues of material fact regarding any potential or actual disruption at the sheriff’s office,” wrote the ruling judges in their July 5 decision. “These factual disputes prevent resolution of this matter [at this level].”
The court went on to write, “Our reading of the district court’s orders is that a reasonable jury could find there was no disruption in the sheriff’s office, and the termination was therefore motivated by Mr. Jackson’s decision to run against Sheriff Besecker.”
One of the three ruling judges did write a dissenting opinion to part of the decision. The judge also confirmed that after taking it upon himself to review all the available facts in the case, “a fact-finder could reasonably find facts supporting the violation of a clearly established constitutional right.” The judge then wrote that he would “affirm the district court’s denial of summary judgment…”
Besecker has 14 days from the day of the decision, July 5, to ask the court to reconsider the order. Should that not happen, the case will be sent back to a trial court for a jury trial.
Besecker and the legal representation for Jackson respectfully declined to comment on the case, as it is still active.