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Crow Wing County Board: Invasion of privacy lawsuits a public concern

Crow Wing County Attorney Don Ryan (far right) talks at Tuesday's board meeting about lawsuits against the county regarding alleged improper accessing of private information by county employees. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

Crow Wing County Administrator Tim Houle wants to handle settlements involving county employees accused of inappropriately accessing private driver's license information.

Houle requested at Tuesday's county board meeting that he, Sheriff Todd Dahl and County Attorney Don Ryan be allowed to deal with such lawsuits that involve settlement agreements.

"Crow Wing County has access to a lot of private information. One of the areas of private information that we have access to is driver's license data," Houle told the board.

"About four years (ago), counties around the state of Minnesota started to get lawsuits brought forward ... alleging that a particular access might be an inappropriate access."

Crow Wing County carries insurance through the Minnesota Counties Intergovernmental Trust, or MCIT, so if there is a settlement agreement and damages awarded, the county's insurance company pays unless the county chooses to appeal.

"The term 'ambulance chaser' kind of comes to mind," Commissioner Paul Koering said about attorneys for plaintiffs suing the county for a violation of privacy. "I found it distasteful and really unethical on their part because it seems just a money grab."

Houle said settlement agreements typically include retraining within a specific time frame the county employee who allegedly accessed private information without a legitimate business reason.

"If you think about the elements that we are agreeing to do, they are much more administrative in nature, and so it doesn't seem to make sense to me that we would go towards the trouble of having the board approve each one of those individual settlement agreements," Houle said.

Ryan told the board, "We can expedite that process. You just won't have to sit here through another closed session. ... We can bring you the settlement and it'll all be signed off on already."

Therefore, Houle requested a board motion during the senior management team report portion of the meeting authorizing himself and Dahl to sign such agreements on behalf of the county contingent upon Ryan's approval.

"I think we can streamline the process. We also run into circumstances where—because the board only meets twice a month—that we are delaying anything that might be coming along, so I'm asking for a board resolution to do that," Houle said.

"I don't believe that approving what I'm requesting today will affect MCIT's coverage in any way. They are the ones who are making a determination as to how to proceed legally in a case. They have been very vigorous in defending counties throughout the state in these kinds of lawsuits."

Ryan told Koering the "vast majority" of lawsuits alleging invasion of privacy and/or abuse of power have gone in favor of counties and states sued.

"We only have three cases that proceeded through the summary judgment motions, which a lot of other people filed suits just because for a while it was a hot topic to do that across the state," Ryan said.

In June, Mike Davis of Pequot Lakes voluntarily resigned as a Crow Wing County sheriff's deputy after an investigation by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to determine if he abused his authority as a law enforcement officer.

Davis was questioned as to whether, as a sheriff's deputy, he ran license plate numbers last year at the request of an individual he became associated with through Facebook, who thought he was being followed by federal agents because of his political beliefs.

Ryan submitted a letter to the investigating agency and to Paul Rogosheske of South St. Paul, Davis' attorney, stating the county attorney's office would not prosecute the case.

Ryan said of driver's license information, "Those who are more social media savvy than others—like myself, who aren't—don't even see it as a big issue because people have way more of their life out there on social media than a driver's license picture."

The Driver's Privacy Protection Act is a federal statute governing privacy and disclosure of personal information gathered by state departments of motor vehicles.

Rep. Jim Moran of Virginia, a Democrat, introduced it after an increase in opponents of abortion rights using public drivers' license databases to track down and harass abortion providers and patients.

But Koering took to task attorneys representing plaintiffs suing the county over privacy issues.

"They're the ones who are really gaining by this ... using people that have had their information looked up just as a way or means to gain money, and it just seems kind of sleazy to me, but that's just my opinion ... my south Crow Wing County, St. Mathias kind of opinion," Koering said.

In a 2014 lawsuit—one of many filed across the state concerning improper access to license records—Misty Kay Myers, a Brainerd attorney, said personnel responsible for accessing her information violated the federal Driver's Privacy Protection Act, along with her civil rights.

The board approved a settlement agreement in July with Myers, who sued several cities and counties over wrongful access of her driver's license information. MCIT paid Myers $65,000 in damages and attorneys' fees as part of the settlement.

"When I was in the state senate, I did sign onto a bill that said if you are a going to file a 'frivolous lawsuit'—or lawsuit—and you lose, you actually pay for both of the lawyers' fees, which I think is a great idea," Koering said, but not in reference to the Myers case.

As both an attorney and the wife of a police officer, Myers was known to those in the legal system. According to Myers' complaint, law enforcement personnel, public employees and others viewed and obtained her information about 84 times between 2007-13.

Crow Wing County "denied any violation of the law and continues to deny any such violation." The terms of the settlement release the county and the plaintiff from future claims pertaining to actions up to the date of the agreement.

Houle told the board privacy issues are taken seriously by his administration as well as lawsuits involving alleged abuses by county workers who inappropriately access restricted information.

"We have made sure that all employees are trained properly in what is and is not a legitimate business purpose. And it is no heartburn on our part to agree to retrain any alleged offending parties again because it's always good idea to refresh the memory," Houle said at the meeting.

The county also agreed to provide Myers' attorneys with certification of training on the laws through the Driver and Vehicle Services division and BCA of two employees believed to have improperly accessed information: Jessica Turner, 911 dispatcher, and Scott Heide, 911 communications specialist.

Ryan assured Koering the county board would still be kept in the loop regarding such settlements if the board granted Houle's request at Tuesday's meeting to handle settlements.

Commissioner Rosemary Franzen made the motion to approve Houle's request. Koering seconded her motion, and the commissioners, with the exception of Thiede, voted in favor of it.