Jan. 23, 2014 – Governor Scott Walker and his spokesperson recently won a federal appeal against a plaintiff who said they violated the law by not appointing her as interim county register of deeds and publicly stating that she once entered bankruptcy.
Becky Chasensky was serving as chief deputy register of deeds in Marinette County when Marinette’s elected register announced her mid-term retirement. In this situation, the governor is authorized to appoint an interim register to finish the term.
Chasensky applied for the appointment. But a Walker official later notified her that she would not be appointed. According to Chasensky, Walker spokesperson Cullen Werwie made public statements that Chasensky would have been appointed but was bypassed based on information that she was involved in a personal bankruptcy proceeding.
Chasensky filed a lawsuit against Walker and Werwie. Chasensky complained that the administration’s public statements about her bankruptcy and personal finances were derogatory and harmed her personal and professional reputation. Specifically, Chasensky said the defendants violated her privacy and equal protection rights.
Walker and Werwie filed a motion to dismiss based on a qualified immunity defense, but the district court ruled that defendants waived that defense. The defense was submitted in response to an amended complaint, but not earlier, the district court had ruled.
The defendants appealed. In Chasensky v. Walker, No. 13-1761 (Jan. 2, 2014), a three-judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled that defendants did not waive the qualified immunity defense and were immune.
“That the defendants did not raise qualified immunity earlier in response to Chasensky’s original complaint is irrelevant because the defendants raised the defense of qualified immunity at the very first opportunity after Chasensky filed her amended complaint,” wrote Judge Daniel Manion, noting that amended complaints erase prior pleadings.
Defense established, the panel also ruled that Walker and Werwie were immune from suit on the privacy claim. Qualified immunity “protects government officials from liability for civil damages when their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”
The privacy claim failed because Chasensky did not state a viable privacy claim, the panel ruled. That is, Chasensky’s bankruptcy was public information and she signed a waiver authorizing disclosure of financial information to be considered for the job.
“Here, all the defendants allegedly did was publicize the already-published fact that Chasensky had filed bankruptcy,” Judge Manion wrote. “For Chasensky’s privacy allegations to defeat defendants’ defense of qualified immunity, ‘existing precedent must have placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate.’”
Chasensky’s equal protection claim also failed, the panel ruled, because “it is unreasonable to suggest that gubernatorial consideration of an applicant’s bankruptcy – a component of her personal history – could not be rationally related to legitimate governmental interests,” Judge Manion wrote.
Chasensky also claimed that Walker and Werwie violated her employment rights and claimed the government cannot engage in “bankruptcy discrimination” relating to employment under 11 U.S.C. section 525(a). Those claims were not at issue on appeal, and the appeals panel ordered those claims to be dismissed on remand.