A federal judge on Friday dismissed Ramsey County from a lawsuit in which two former deputies claim they lost their jobs because they campaigned against Sheriff Matt Bostrom.

In 2010, Bostrom won a heated race against the incumbent sheriff, Bob Fletcher.

Plaintiffs Joseph Miller and Alexander Graham were non-sworn sheriff's department employees when they campaigned for Fletcher by door-knocking, putting up yard signs and towing a float in a parade. He hired them as deputies just before leaving office, but Bostrom's chief deputy soon terminated them.

The two claim they were singled out for intense scrutiny and fired before their probationary periods ended out of retaliation and in violation of their First Amendment rights.

Bostrom and the county say those claims are false and that the men failed background investigations.

Claims are thrown out

On Friday, U.S. District Judge Richard H. Kyle threw out the men's claims against the county and Bostrom in his official capacity but also ruled that Bostrom can still be sued as an individual for alleged retaliation.

The judge found the plaintiffs were never told that they had failed to meet expectations of a deputy or why they would not have passed the probation period. Nor had they received any warnings before they were fired in their first quarter of probation.

"There is adequate evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude that plaintiffs' background investigations were merely a pretext for terminating them," Kyle said in denying Bostrom's motion for summary judgment.

The judge went on to rule, however, that Bostrom produced sufficient evidence showing that he had a legitimate reason to terminate the two.

Though Miller and Grady were department employees already, Fletcher hired them as deputies after he lost the election but was still in office. They were sworn in on Dec. 27, 2010, and Jan. 1, 2011. Fletcher testified that they had passed background checks.

Terminated within weeks

Miller and Graham began one-year probationary periods during which they could be terminated for any lawful reason. Then Bostrom took office and several weeks later, both men received termination letters saying they had not met "expectations of a Ramsey County sheriff's deputy." They claim that they had been "re-backgrounded" with second, unnecessary checks.

Attorneys for Bostrom and the county contend the two were terminated "due to facts uncovered during their background investigations, not for their political activities."

Miller, Graham and about 10 other deputies, including others hired by Fletcher, hadn't had background investigations completed when Bostrom took office on Jan. 3, 2011. Within days, Cmdr. Brad Camitsch brought this to the attention of Chief Deputy John Kirkwood, and Kirkwood ordered him to complete the checks, the judge wrote.

'Failed' background checks

Kirkwood testified that Graham "failed" three previous background checks for other law-enforcement positions, was investigated for failing to follow orders as a Roseville community service officer, incorrectly counted razors he distributed to inmates and received poor reviews from supervisors as a temporary correctional officer for Ramsey County. He also had "cautionary notes" in his psychological examination, as did Miller.

Miller had been arrested or cited for misdemeanors four times, including two juvenile arrests, and he "failed" the psychological examination for Ramsey County twice before.

Kirkwood testified that he alone made the decision to fire the plaintiffs. He acknowledged that before terminating the plaintiffs, he checked with or "informed" Bostrom, who told him to first run it by the Ramsey County Attorney's Office and Human Resources.

On Feb. 7, 2011, Kirkwood sent letters terminating the plaintiffs -- less than six weeks after they were sworn in.

A trial is expected by April in U.S. District Court in St. Paul.

Joy Powell • 651-925-5038