ISHPEMING – A settlement was announced Friday in the lawsuit filed by a former Ishpeming police chief against the city.
After a special meeting of the Ishpeming City Council Friday afternoon, the council and plaintiffs James and Holly Bjorne announced that the lawsuit, alleging violations of state and federal law, has been settled.
A joint press release stated: “While the Defendants do not admit any wrongdoing or failure to comply with any applicable law, all parties to this lawsuit are pleased to have resolved the matter amicably.”
Terms of the settlement were not disclosed.
James Bjorne was chief of the Ishpeming City Police Department until his termination for insubordination in September 2011. He then filed a lawsuit against the city and then-city manager Jered Ottenwess alleging that his First and 14th Amendment rights and several state laws had been violated. Bjorne alleged that the city and Ottenwess violated the 14th Amendment by failing to give notice and an opportunity to be heard prior to his termination; and that his termination was in retaliation for invoking his First Amendment rights in an email to Councilwoman Claudia Demarest.
In 2009, Bjorne submitted documents detailing medical problems and restricting his work to administrative duties. In April of the following year, Bjorne submitted a permanent administrative-duty-only work restriction. In early 2011, Bjorne attempted to retire from the city. He proposed combining his 22 years of service with the Ishpeming police with three years of service with the Marquette County Sheriff’s Office in order to get a full pension amounting to $37,243 per year.
The Ishpeming City Council rejected Bjorne’s proposal in February 2011. Bjorne was angry with the council’s decision and told Demarest, who had voted against the proposal, that he wasn’t surprised by her decision, given her low intelligence. He was reprimanded for this comment.
Despite Bjorne’s worsening medical condition and the implantation of a spinal cord stimulator in April 2011, he returned to administrative work four hours a day for two months. In August 2011, he filed a worker’s compensation claim.
Around this time, Bjorne made a complaint to Ottenwess regarding Demarest. Bjorne claimed Demarest was following him while he was working as police chief. Ottenwess said he would not get involved.
When the alleged harassment continued, Bjorne sent Demarest an email alleging that Demarest was stalking him and that he would take action against her if the behavior did not stop. The email – which was also sent to Ottenwess, the city attorney and the mayor – was ultimately the cause of Bjorne’s termination in September of 2011. Ottenwess said Bjorne had gone outside the chain of command by directly contacting Demarest and that, because of this – as well as the derogatory remark made to Demarest in February – Bjorne was being terminated.
Bjorne alleged his termination was in retaliation for his email to Demarest and consequently violated his rights provided under the First Amendment.
In May, U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Timothy Greeley dismissed Bjorne’s claim that the city and Ottenwess had violated his Constitutional rights. The remaining claims in Bjorne’s lawsuit alleged violations of Michigan’s Workers’ Compensation Act, which protects employees from retaliatory termination, and the Michigan Whistleblower’s Protection Act. These claims have now been settled.
After a closed session at the city council meeting Friday to discuss confidential attorney-client communication, Councilman Joe Juidici made a motion to accept Bjorne’s retirement benefits from the Marquette County Sheriff’s Office.
“The City of Ishpeming hereby agrees to perform all obligations required of it under the release and settlement agreement signed by James Bjorne and Holly Bjorne,” Juidici said. “Further, the city of Ishpeming hereby adopts a resolution to accept transfer of retirement benefits from the County of Marquette for James Bjorne … subject to the conditions … of said resolution.”
Councilman Mike Tonkin seconded the motion, and it was passed unanimously.
Ishpeming City Attorney David Savu said no more information would be released at this time.
Zach Jay can be reached at 906-486-4401. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org