Judge clears whistleblower’s case against Nebraska Department of Agriculture
LINCOLN — A judge ruled Thursday that a lawsuit brought by an employee who inspects commercial dog and cat operations can be sued against the Nebraska Department of Agriculture.
Lancaster County District Judge Robert Otte denied the department’s motion for summary judgment in the case filed by longtime department employee Rick Herchenbach.
Herchenbach sued the department in March 2020, alleging he was denied a promotion to program director because he raised complaints within the department about his failure to enforce laws governing dog breeders. and cats and other pet-related businesses.
The lawsuit alleged that a less qualified person was chosen for the position and that Herchenbach’s complaints were raised in the hiring process.
The Department of Agriculture denied the allegations and sought summary judgment in its favor. The department argued that the officials had not failed to enforce the law, that the decision to promote was made before Herchenbach made a public complaint, and that the officials granted the promotion to another, more qualified employee. .
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In a brief, the department said Herchenbach was a disgruntled employee who was upset that he was ignored by someone more qualified.
But Otte dismissed the department’s arguments, concluding that Herchenbach had enough evidence on his side to demand a trial.
Herchenbach’s attorney, Jon Rehm, said his client is eager to pursue the case.
“Rick is a dedicated professional who strives to ensure that the laws protecting dogs and cats in this state are properly enforced,” he said.
The ministry did not immediately respond Thursday to a request for comment on the order.
Herchenbach filed the lawsuit at the same time he reported concerns about the commercial dog and cat program to the state ombudsman’s office.
A bureau report, released in 2020, said Herchenbach had raised concerns for years about the department’s repeated failure to enforce state laws meant to combat ‘puppy mills’ and protect dogs. and cats in animal shelters, pet stores and other settings.
The report concluded that agriculture officials failed to adequately act on wrongdoing in the operations they were tasked with overseeing. Specifically, he said the department failed to use its administrative tools to hold bad operators accountable. It has also not consistently referred complaints about operators abusing and neglecting animals to local authorities for possible criminal prosecution.
The report details specific cases from the previous three years involving seven operators. Some were dog breeders, operating without a license. Some were dog rescues or boarding kennels, with and without state licenses. The cases involved numerous instances of animal abuse and neglect.
The report also concluded that Herchenbach had rightly sought protection under the state’s whistleblower law.
At the time, State Agriculture Director Steve Wellman blasted the report, saying it was “full of factually inaccurate and self-serving biased information” and that the ombudsman staffer who wrote the report had done everything possible to give the department a bad image. .
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