DNR warden ordered to be reinstated

Case stems from Suring man’s firing in 2018
By: 
Kevin Murphy
Correspondent

Andrew Dryja, of Suring, was a conservation warden in Langlade County for 19 years before the Department of Natural Resources fired him in 2018 for three work rule violations, including transporting his children in an agency vehicle.

Dryja contended he was wrongfully terminated and contested his dismissal before the Wisconsin Employee Relations Commission, in Oconto County Circuit Court and, finally, before the District IV Court of Appeals.

Meanwhile, he was hired as a deputy by the Oconto County Sheriff’s Office.

Dryja’s case suffered some setbacks and victories along the way, before an appeals decision Feb. 1 upheld his reinstatement as a warden with back pay, interest and attorney fees.

Dryja was alleged to have violated work policies involving not reporting hours, transporting his children in a state vehicle and storing personal items at work. In 2018, the WERC initially upheld his termination but that was overturned by Oconto Circuit Judge Jay Conley.

The DNR appealed Conley’s decision, which the District IV Court modified and returned the case to Conley.

Conley had previously agreed with the WERC that there was only sufficient evidence to support a violation of unauthorized transportation policy, that a three-day suspension, not termination, was the appropriate penalty.

While Dryja’s case was pending, the DNR continued to maintain two warden stations in Langlade County but only one was staffed. However, in June 2020, three months before Conley ordered Dryja’s reinstatement, the DNR consolidated the two stations into one with only one warden.

Conley’s order to reinstate Dryja to his position in Langlade County was grounds for further appeal by the DNR. Conley dismissed the DNR’s assertion that a court order couldn’t dislodge someone already in the warden’s job stating, “that’s the DNR’s problem,” according to documents filed with the appeal.

The DNR had responded to the court’s reinstatement order by offering Dryja a similar position some 140 miles away in Jackson County or about 100 miles away at High Cliff State Park in Calumet County.

The DNR requires wardens to live within 10 driving miles of their administrative area boundary, or 15 driving miles of their assigned city.

Dryja’s attorney, Alan C. Olson, couldn’t comment on the timing of the consolidation of the warden stations. The DNR explained in court documents that warden stations are consolidated due to limited resources, which occurred when Dryja was not an employee.

On appeal, the DNR asked that Conley be reversed because it was “procedurally improper” to boot out someone in an office to comply with a court-ordered reinstatement of a former employee.

Instead, the District IV Court found that to comply with the reinstatement order, the DNR had to offer a job that Dryja could realistically accept.

“Here, the positions offered by the department would require that Dryja, a divorced father, uproot his life and relocate his residence across the state. Thus, those are not positions that Dryja could have realistically accepted,” wrote Appellate Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg in the 29-page opinion.

Dryja must be offered a position that doesn’t require him to relocate his residence, Kloppenburg added.

Olson said his client was processing the decision after the lengthy legal ordeal.

In a written statement, Olson credited his client for standing up to a powerful agency.

“The DNR cannot thumb its nose and abuse its governmental powers for purposes of crushing the employee’s will to persist,” Olson wrote. “In Mr. Dryja’s case, he has shown the character and fortitude necessary to overcome any bullying or abusive tactics by the DNR.”

Olson and Dryja have been discussing with the DNR and the state Department of Justice whether Dryja would return to the DNR or continue as a deputy.

The Attorney General’s Office, which represented the DNR in the case, wasn’t available Feb. 1 for immediate comment.