Former Freeborn jail administrator files lawsuit against office

Published 10:25 am Thursday, February 27, 2014

A former Freeborn County jail administrator fired in 2012 has filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court seeking damages in excess of $200,000 from the Freeborn County Sheriff’s Office and its leaders.

Marcellino Peña filed the lawsuit on Feb. 18. It asks that Freeborn County re-employ him, pay for all of his unpaid overtime, plus interest and penalties, in addition to other costs incurred. It alleges the county violated the Fair Labor Standards Act.

The lawsuit alleges racial discrimination and interference with his First Amendment and due process rights.

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“As a result of defendant’s discriminatory treatment, plaintiff has suffered wage loss and emotional distress and is entitled to general, special, punitive and liquidated damages and attorney fees and costs,” the lawsuit states.

As jail administrator, Peña oversaw the food service and medical contracts for the inmates and at one time oversaw more of the Immigration and Custom Enforcement contract in the jail. He was promoted to jail administrator in 2010 under former Sheriff Mark Harig and then demoted to assistant jail administrator shortly after Sheriff Bob Kindler took office in January 2011. Kindler defeated Harig in the November 2010 election.

In July 2012, Peña was placed on suspension pending an investigation. He was ultimately terminated in September 2012.

The county’s investigation alleged former and current employees in the jail felt threatened, intimidated or sexually harassed by him.

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.

Peña has stated in earlier interviews with the Albert Lea Tribune that if the investigation were true, he would have taken responsibility for it.

“This situation and the dishonesty that has occurred in this investigation has cost me my livelihood and my reputation,” he said.

The lawsuit states Peña had difficulties getting copies of the investigation, and he questioned why an outside agency had not been brought in to investigate the claims as had been done previously by the county. He expressed concerns that the investigation may have been related to the fact he had opposed Kindler in the 2010 election.

Peña has already taken the case to the Minnesota Court of Appeals and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The Court of Appeals upheld the county’s decision to fire him, but Peña’s lawyer, Richard Williams Jr. of St. Paul, said in an earlier interview that the ruling was not the same as a trial appeal. That court only had access to evidence provided by Freeborn County.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on Dec. 17 issued Peña the right to take civil action. He has requested a jury trial.

Freeborn County Administrator John Kluever said it is county policy to not comment on any current or pending litigation.