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Trenton Jay Danielson v. James I. Hess

December 7, 2011

TRENTON JAY DANIELSON, PLAINTIFF AND APPELLANT,
v.
JAMES I. HESS, JAKE J. JANSEVICS, AND MINITMAN, INC., A SOUTH DAKOTA CORPORATION, DEFENDANTS AND APPELLEES.



APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE FOURTH JUDICIAL CIRCUIT LAWRENCE COUNTY, SOUTH DAKOTA THE HONORABLE JOHN W. BASTIAN Judge

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Zinter, Justice

#25879-a-SLZ

CONSIDERED ON BRIEFS ON AUGUST 23, 2011

[¶1.] Trent Danielson was prosecuted for theft from his employer's auto repair business, but he was acquitted by a jury. He later commenced this action for malicious prosecution against his employer. The circuit court granted summary judgment in favor of the employer. The court ruled that Danielson did not establish legal causation between the employer's report of theft and the criminal prosecution. The court also concluded that Danielson failed to establish the absence of probable cause to prosecute. On appeal, Danielson acknowledges that the decision to prosecute was made by the state's attorney and grand jury following investigations by the police and state's attorney. Nevertheless, Danielson contends that his claim is actionable because his employer did not give full and correct information to the authorities. We affirm the circuit court.

Facts and Procedural History

[¶2.] In 2006, Danielson was employed as a mechanic and auto painter at Rocket Lube, a vehicle lubrication and repair business owned by Minitman, Inc. Dr. Thomas Cox was a customer of Rocket Lube and minority shareholder of Minitman, Inc. In early September 2006, Dr. Cox complained to James Hess - the President and a majority shareholder of Minitman, Inc. - about poor workmanship on his cars and about being overbilled. The dispute was resolved, and it was agreed that Dr. Cox's cars would be fixed at the expense of Rocket Lube.

[¶3.] Sometime after this agreement, Danielson went to Dr. Cox's residence and requested a $300 check for repair work done on one of Dr. Cox's cars. Dr. Cox acquiesced, but he complained to Hess in light of the agreement that Rocket Lube would fix Dr. Cox's cars at Rocket Lube's expense. Hess subsequently learned that Danielson had obtained a total of seven checks from Dr. Cox over sixteen months but had not remitted the checks to Rocket Lube. Hess suspected that Danielson was stealing from Rocket Lube. Days later, Hess fired Danielson because Danielson did not turn over Dr. Cox's $300 check. Hess and Jake Jansevics, the manager of Rocket Lube, then reviewed Rocket Lube's records. They compiled a report of parts, tools, and money they believed Danielson had stolen from Rocket Lube during his employment.

[¶4.] Hess and Jansevics turned their report over to Spearfish Police Department Officer Darin Pedneau. Pedneau subsequently conducted his own investigation, which included interviews of Danielson, Hess, Jansevics, Dr. Cox, employees of auto-part stores, and employees of Rocket Lube. Pedneau also collected invoices from auto-part stores that had done business with Rocket Lube and Danielson. Upon completion of his investigation, Pedneau concluded that theft had been committed, and he requested the Lawrence County State's Attorney's Office to issue a warrant for Danielson's arrest. Lawrence County State's Attorney John Fitzgerald made the decision to prosecute. Fitzgerald presented his case against Danielson to a grand jury. The grand jury indicted Danielson for felony grand theft.

[¶5.] Months later, Danielson's private investigator informed Pedneau and Fitzgerald that he thought Hess and Jansevics retained auto parts at Rocket Lube that they had previously alleged were stolen by Danielson. Pedneau and Fitzgerald both investigated the private investigator's allegation. Following the investigation, Fitzgerald decided to proceed with the prosecution.

[¶6.] A jury trial was held in July 2008. Danielson moved for judgments of acquittal at the close of the State's case and after all the evidence had been submitted. Both motions were denied. The court ruled that there was sufficient evidence to submit the case to the jury. The jury, however, acquitted. See State v. Danielson, 2010 S.D. 58, 786 N.W.2d 354 (providing further background).

[¶7.] Danielson then commenced this suit against Hess, Jansevics, and Minitman, Inc. for malicious prosecution, defamation, and retaliatory discharge (involving a workers' compensation claim). Appellees moved for summary judgment on all claims. The circuit court granted summary judgment against Danielson on the malicious prosecution and defamation claims. Danielson appeals the dismissal of his claim for malicious prosecution.

Decision

[¶8.] "In reviewing a grant or a denial of summary judgment under SDCL 15-6-56(c), we determine whether the moving party has demonstrated the absence of any genuine issue of material fact and showed entitlement to judgment on the merits as a matter of law." Lindskov v. Lindskov, 2011 S.D. 34, ¶ 7, 800 N.W.2d 715, 717-18. "The circuit court's conclusions of law are reviewed de novo." Johnson v. Sellers, 2011 S.D. 24, ¶ 11, 798 N.W.2d 690, 694. "All reasonable inferences drawn from the facts must be viewed in favor of the non-moving party." Gail M. Benson Living Trust v. Physicians Office Bldg., Inc., 2011 S.D. 30, ¶ 9, 800 N.W.2d 340, 342-43. However, "[e]ntry of summary judgment is mandated against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the ...


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