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Montana commission backs former Corrections official's claim of retaliation

Had accused then-DOC director of sexual harassment
Posted at 4:48 PM, Mar 21, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-22 10:25:26-04

HELENA — A state commission has reversed an earlier decision and ruled in favor of a former Montana Department of Corrections employee who claimed her high-level job was eliminated as retaliation after she made a harassment complaint against the department’s then-director.

On Friday, the Montana Human Rights Commission held a lengthy hearing on a discrimination complaint from Adrianne Cotton. The members eventually voted 4-1 in her favor, overturning a November decision by a state hearings officer, who had ruled Cotton didn’t show a “causal link” between her sexual harassment claim and the elimination of her job of government-relations director several months later.

Commissioners disagreed with the hearings officer’s findings, pointing to what they saw as inconsistent justifications for the department’s reorganization.

“I’m grateful to the Human Rights Commission for their careful review,” Cotton said in a statement to MTN Monday.

The case will now be sent back to the hearings officer, who will be tasked with calculating damages.

Cotton’s job position was eliminated in an agency-wide reorganization in the fall of 2018. She was one of several female DOC employees who alleged that then-Director Reginald Michael had sexually harassed or acted inappropriately toward them in the prior year.

In a lawsuit, filed in late 2019, Cotton said Michael suggested in late 2017 that she could advance her career at the department by providing sexual favors. Michael denied the accusations, and an investigation by state personnel officials in 2018 said there “were no legally supported grounds” for disciplining those accused of harassment at DOC.

Hearings officer Caroline Holien said in her November order that, while Cotton’s $94,000-a-year position was eliminated in a 2018 DOC reorganization, Cotton did not show that the reorganization had any link to the sexual harassment complaints against Michael.

The office of then-Gov. Steve Bullock initiated a review of the agency in 2018 in response to concerns about “problems within (the agency’s) leadership team that negatively impact the agency as a whole,” Holien wrote. She said the person who led the review and made recommendations to reduce the size of the leadership team, which included Cotton, did not know about the harassment complaints.

Cotton said those who made the decision about the reorganization did know about her earlier complaint, and that she believed eliminating her job was a form of retaliation.

The Department of Corrections released a statement on the commission’s decision Monday.

“The department has vigorously denied the allegations contained in the case before the Human Rights Commission and continues to do so,” they said. “We are in the process of evaluating our next steps.”

If DOC wants to challenge the commission’s decision, they could appeal it to state district court.