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Hearing next week on former Corrections employee’s human-rights complaint

Alleges `retaliation' for harassment complaint
Posted at 11:48 AM, Dec 09, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-09 19:44:41-05

HELENA — A multi-day hearing is scheduled next week on a human-rights complaint from former Corrections Department employee Adrianne Cotton, who said her job was eliminated in 2018 in retaliation for her sexual-harassment claim against the agency director.

The hearing, at which state Corrections Director Reg Michael and other state officials and former state employees are scheduled to testify, is slated to begin Monday in Helena, before a Labor Department hearings officer.

If the hearings officer decides in Cotton’s favor, Cotton could be awarded damages.

Cotton is one of several female employees who accused Michael in 2018 of sexual harassment or inappropriate actions toward women in the office.

In a wrongful-discharge lawsuit filed last year against the state, Cotton said Michael suggested in late 2017 that she could advance her career at the department by providing sexual favors.

Michael has 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.

Also that year, the department underwent an executive reorganization, in the wake of complaints by some employees about department management, including Michael.

Cotton’s job of 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.

Cotton, who works now as a public-relations consultant in Helena, filed her human-rights complaint after her position was eliminated. It said elimination of her job was illegal retaliation for her engaging in a “protected activity” – filing a complaint of being sexually harassed.

A state human-rights investigator determined last year that Cotton had been discriminated against, but was overruled by the chief of the state Human Rights Bureau.

Cotton then appealed that decision to the Montana Human Rights Commission, which, in an unusual step, voted last year to reinstate the complaint.

Most of the documents in the case are under seal, but in September, hearings officer Caroline Holien issued a public ruling that rejected Cotton’s and DOC’s requests for a summary judgment in their respective favor. That ruling sent the case to the full hearing next week, at which each side will present witnesses and evidence and cross-examine the other side’s witnesses.

Holien said Cotton had not shown, based on undisputed facts, that her dismissal was related to her sexual-harassment claim – and that the issue is best-resolved by a hearing where witnesses’ credibility can be determined.

In denying the state’s request, Holien said the state did offer a “legitimate business reason” for terminating Cotton. However, Holien said Cotton had offered enough evidence to indicate possible retaliation, and that she must now show that the reasons given for her dismissal are a merely a “pretext.”

The witness list includes Michael, Tom Lopach, who was Gov. Steve Bullock’s chief of staff during the DOC reorganization; Cotton; Cotton’s husband; former DOC official Cindy McKenzie, who resigned her DOC administrator post in 2018; and former DOC Deputy Director Lorraine Wodnik.