The Montana Department of Justice appealed a Park County case in which a jury found the department responsible for the early resignation of a Montana Highway Patrol trooper.
In May, a Park County jury awarded Shawn Fowler, who was hired as a Montana Highway Patrol Private in 2001, more than $114,000 after finding his supervisors had created an unreasonably hostile work environment by response to his professional performance during a DUI investigation in 2015.
Fowler sued the Justice Department and the Montana Highway Patrol in 2019 for wrongful discharge. He also sued the Montana Federation of Public Employees, the union for state employees, for failing to address his grievances against the agency.
The trial in May lasted four days. Fowler’s attorney, Karl Knuchel, said winning the jury meant showing that any reasonable person would have resigned under the terms his supervisors imposed on Fowler.
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Knuchel said Fowler brought the case, at least in part, to clear his name.
“I think Shawn did this more as a statement of his character and feeling like he was wronged by the department, even though he gave them 17 years of employment,” Knuchel said in a recent interview. .
The Department of Justice argued, however, that Fowler was subject only to the consequences of poor job performance and that the issues raised in Fowler’s complaints, such as scheduling, job duties and discipline, were at the discretion of the highway patrol in accordance with the collective agreement. with the MHP soldiers. Additionally, previous court cases have found employees covered by collective bargaining agreements to be excluded from wrongful dismissal claims, the DOJ argued.
A Justice Department spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on the call before press time.
According to his initial filings in district court, Fowler’s fallout with the state began in 2015 when he investigated a hit-and-run in Sweet Grass County. Fowler issued multiple citations: leaving the scene of an accident, hit-and-run, reckless driving, and possession of drugs because he suspected the driver had used marijuana. Fowler obtained a blood sample from the driver, but did not cite them for a marijuana-impaired DUI because he was waiting for the state crime lab to do a blood test, according to the complaint. He did not make an arrest and the driver was allowed to leave.
Fowler’s initial decision not to cite the driver for a DUI would be the source of harassment, criticism and belittlement for years to come, according to court documents. Supervisors gave preference to the schedules of more junior soldiers, repeatedly questioned Fowler’s drug-fighting methods, withheld him from training conferences, and sent him a disciplinary letter for the incident of the Sweet Grass County in 2017, two years after the incident. In the spring of 2018, Fowler was disciplined again for failing to charge the suspect with a DUI, and he was removed from managing K-9 with the patrol.
The situation became ‘so intolerable’ that Fowler refinanced his mortgage and used the money to buy his remaining active duty so he could retire, rather than be fired by the Highway Patrol, court documents say. . In legal parlance, it’s called a “disguised discharge” and a Park County jury found in late May that the MHP had created an environment such that any reasonable person would also have quit.
Fowler had filed a grievance with the MHP near the end of his tenure with the Highway Patrol, arguing against a 2-day suspension and removal from K-9 duties. Then-Col. Tom Butler, the head of the MHP, denied the grievance, which would send the matter back to the union to decide whether to take the matter to arbitration. But the union’s board of directors, after reviewing the grievance, decided not to take the complaint to arbitration.
According to correspondence within the union regarding Fowler’s grievance contained in court documents, then-union director Quint Nyman summed up: “In a nutshell, he allowed a driver to leave the scene of an accident. … In discussing this issue with several soldiers, I was informed that they were surprised at the result and that he had not been fired.”
In its response to the lawsuit, the MFPE said the decision not to pursue Fowler’s grievance was in line with union policies. The union eventually settled with Fowler and was removed from the case.
The Justice Department sought to dismiss the case in district court, pointing out that Fowler’s grievance did not focus on the hostile work environment, but on the suspension and his K-9 duties. Because Fowler did not file a hostile work environment complaint through the union, he was barred from doing so in district court, especially after the 6-month statute of limitations set for disputes unions.
District Court Judge Brenda Gilbert rejected that argument in court proceedings, and the department appealed the dismissal to the state Supreme Court. Again, the High Court dismissed the state’s petition, but wrote that the Ministry of Justice was strictly prohibited from doing so until the normal appeal process, once the case was resolved by the court of district.
The Department of Justice filed its appeal on Thursday. The Risk Management and Tort Defense Division handles the case for the Department of Justice.