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Sonnleitner v. York

September 12, 2002


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin. No. 00-C-1046--Rudolph T. Randa, Chief Judge.

Before Cudahy, Diane P. Wood, and Evans, Circuit Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Cudahy, Circuit Judge


Harold Sonnleitner is a nurse at the Winnebago Mental Health Institute, a state-run psychiatric facility. In 1995, Sonnleitner was charged with a series of work rule infractions. A predisciplinary hearing was held, and shortly thereafter he was demoted to a non-supervisory position. On appeal, the Wisconsin Personnel Commission determined that there was only evidence to support one work rule violation and that a five-day suspension was the appropriate discipline. After the Institute implemented the suspension but failed to reinstate him to a supervisory position, Sonnleitner commenced an action in Wisconsin state court to enforce the Commission's ruling. He also filed a claim for damages, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, against the Institute and various state officials, alleging the violation of his procedural due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. The defendants then removed this matter to fed eral court.

During summary judgment proceedings, Sonnleitner conceded that his state law claim was barred on procedural grounds due to his failure to comply with a service of process requirement of Wisconsin law. The district court subsequently ruled that the individual defendants were entitled to qualified immunity and that Sonnleitner could not state a valid claim under § 1983 because he no longer had a right to be reinstated under state law. Sonnleitner now appeals only adverse judgments on the federal law claims. For the following reasons, we AFFIRM.


The Winnebago Mental Health Institute is located in Winnebago, Wisconsin, and is operated by the Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services (WDHFS). Sonnleiter has been employed by the Institute since 1980. In 1988, he was promoted to the position of "Nursing Supervisor 1/Nurse Manager" in charge of the Forensic Behavior Treatment Center. On October 25, 1994, Sonnleitner was given a three-day suspension for making inappropriate sexual remarks about a patient in the presence of a female co-worker, who found them offensive, unwelcome and harassing. Sonnleitner appealed this action to the Wisconsin Personnel Commission.

On December 4, 1995, when the appeal of the first disciplinary action was still pending, three incidents occurred which form the basis for Sonnleitner's eventual demotion. First, Sonnleitner placed gum balls in the dayroom of the unit. Although there was no formal policy on gum balls, this action was considered problematic because it could interfere with patient discipline and medication. Second, Sonnleitner permitted a "Level 1" patient to attend a special luncheon for occupational therapy patients. Third, Sonnleitner escorted three patients to a laboratory for DNA testing under a newly enacted state sexual predator law. Patients had a right to refuse to take the test, and two of the patients tended to be very resistant to the test. Sonnleitner briefly explained the test to the three patients and promised them a "treat" if they agreed to cooperate. Before returning to the unit, Sonnleitner took the three patients to the "Big Canteen" and bought them ice cream. Indulging the patients in this way allegedly interfered with the Institute's behavior treatment program, which allowed privi leges commensurate with a patient's acceptable behavior.

On the following day, these incidents were reported to Kathleen Bellaire, Director of Nursing. Bellaire subsequently began a formal inquiry, which included a written statement of events from the Program Director who reported the incidents, a fact-finding meeting and the logging of detailed complaint notes. On December 13, 1995, Sonnleitner received three memoranda from Bellaire (each corresponding to one of the three incidents we have described) notifying him he was being charged with violations of Work Rule #1 and that a predisciplinary meeting would be held in her office on December 18.

According to a formal, contemporaneous summary prepared by Bellaire, four people attended the December 18 predisciplinary meeting: Sonnleitner, Bellaire, Kathy Karkula (Director of Human Resources) and Dan Leeman (Management Support). Sonnleitner was given the opportunity to address each of the three specific charges. However, Bellaire ultimately found his reasons for his actions unpersuasive. After discussing Sonnleitner's statements, the summary concludes:

Clearly work rule one was violated when Sonnleitner bought three patients a treat at the canteen with his own money. It also appears that his decision making in these situations is in violation of the program and set up an untherapeutic atmosphere on the unit where he is the "Good Guy" and his fellow staff are the "Enforcers."

The summary also stated that "[i]t appears that he has been unable to resolve his negative feelings about the program director and is purposely thwarting her authority to the detriment of the patients and his own staff." Following the meeting, Sonnleitner was immediately suspended with pay.

During the next several days, Bellaire conducted additional fact-finding meetings and interviewed various other staff members. On December 19 and 20, Bellaire logged notes of her interviews with three Institute employees, which generally corroborated her earlier findings and were, according to her summary notes, partially at odds with the statements made by Sonnleitner two days earlier. Another fact-finding meeting was held on December 28, which was attended by Bellaire, Karkula and Mary Howard, the Program Director who initially reported the three incidents. In a formal, contemporaneous summary of this meeting, Bellaire recounted Howard's version of the three incidents at issue as examples of the corrosive effect Sonnleitner was having on her unit. In addition to the three specific incidents, Howard complained that Sonnleitner's involvement with activities in the unit was minimal, that he rarely attended treatment conferences and, when he did, his participation was minimal, and that he appeared to spend an inordinate amount of time in the day-room watching television.

Upon completing her investigation, Bellaire prepared a disciplinary recommendation report (Bellaire report) that enumerated four specific work rule violations. The first three offenses involved the three patient incidents we have discussed. The report concluded that these three incidents violated Rule #1, which prohibits all employees from engaging in the following acts: "Disobedience, insubordination, inattentiveness, negligence, or refusal to carry out written or verbal assignments, directions, or instructions." The fourth offense was based on allegedly inaccurate and incomplete information that Sonnleitner had provided during his predisciplinary hearing. The report concluded that this conduct violated Rule #7, which requires an employee to provide "accurate and complete information" whenever required to do so by management.

However, below the specification of the four violations, the Bellaire report included a paragraph that referenced three potentially more serious examples of misconduct, which seemed to echo the allegations made by Mary Howard during the December 28, 1995, fact-finding meeting. According to this paragraph, Sonnleitner had: (a) "neglect[ed] his duties as nursing supervisor to the point where staff found it necessary to go to the program director for information and decisions which they had previously gone to their nurse manager for"; (b) "failed to participate in treatment activities on the unit such as patient review and treatment conferences"; and (c) "spent much of his time daily in the day room area watching TV." The report went on to read, "Many of these performance issues were addressed in a focussed [sic] PPDR during 1995. The focussed [sic] PPDR also included working cooperatively with the program director in unit decision making[,] which he clearly has not done." *fn1 The report then concluded with a recommendation that Sonnleitner be involuntarily demoted to a staff nurse position.

On January 2, 1996, this report was forwarded to Stanley York, Director of the Institute, who concurred in the decision to demote Sonnleitner. The following day, Sonnleitner was informed in person of this action. He was also given a letter from York, which stated that he was being demoted for "failure to meet supervisor and administrative duties and violations of DH&SS Work Rules #1 and #7." (emphasis added). *fn2 The thrust of Sonnleitner's procedural due process claim is that he was only accorded a predisciplinary hearing for the three Rule #1 violations, but not for the Rule #7 offense or for the unenumerated ...

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