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Former Montana Corrections official loses human-rights claim of retaliation

Had accused then-DOC director of sexual harassment
Posted at 3:08 PM, Nov 09, 2021

HELENA — A state hearings officer has rejected a human-rights complaint from former Corrections Department employee Adrianne Cotton, who said her high-level job was eliminated in 2018 as retaliation for her sexual harassment claim against the agency’s then-director.

In a 63-page decision issued late last week, the Department of Labor hearings officer ruled that Cotton did not show a “causal link” between her sexual-harassment claim and the elimination of her job as a government-relations director several months later.

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.

Cotton, who now works in Helena as a public-relations consultant, declined Tuesday to comment on the ruling. She still has a pending wrongful-discharge lawsuit against the state in District Court in Helena.

In the lawsuit, filed in late 2019, she 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.

The lawsuit has been on hold while Cotton’s human-rights complaint against the state proceeded. Last week’s decision also can be appealed to state District Court.

Her human-rights complaint had a four-day hearing last December before hearings officer Caroline Holien, who wrote last Thursday’s order.

Holien said in her order while Cotton’s $94,000-a-year position was eliminated in the 2018 reorganization, Cotton did not show that the Department of Corrections 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.

However, 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 sexual-harassment complaints, Holien said.

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 Corrections Department unveiled its reorganization in the wake of the review initiated by Bullock’s office in the fall of 2018.

Cotton’s job as government-relations director was eliminated by the reorganization and some other employees who had supported or made harassment claims had their positions or duties changed.

Some former DOC employees, including Cotton, told MTN News in 2018 that they felt the reorganization targeted those who supported the complaints against Michael.

State officials said the reorganization was meant to improve communication and efficiency at the agency and “was in no way” targeting any specific employees.