Posted on May 05, 2021
By: Lily Crespo Esq.
Quick takeaway: Be sure the reasons for terminating an employee are genuine and not pretextual. The employee in this case faced termination because his employer could not deal with what they termed “unnecessary drama”. Employers can avert lengthy legal battles with timely consultation and staff training to ensure that an organization does not commit, condone, or otherwise allow acts of discrimination.
In 2019 we reported on this employee’s case with the Montana Human Rights Bureau. (Outland v. Montana Department of Corrections, Montana State Prison, HRB Case No. 0170316). In that case, the Bureau found the combination of timing and MSP’s own admissions are enough to show that the adverse action of extending Outland’s probation was taken in response to both his protected activity of requesting further accommodation and also because of his disability.
What happened: In late April, the state of Montana reached a record $250,000 settlement with an employee of the Montana Dept. of Corrections. William Outland, a former corrections officer, said he faced discrimination and retaliation when prison officials extended his probationary period and ultimately terminated him from the Department of Corrections.
Outland had been a correctional officer for four years at Montana State Prison and four years in the Arizona prison system. He developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when he helped another officer restrain a violent inmate in 2016 and all three were injured.
Events leading to litigation: Records from the Montana Department of Labor and Industry Office of Administrative Hearings note Outland left his prison job to pursue a career in information technology and then applied in 2016 to come back to the prison as a correctional officer.
He was rehired as a new employee and would have a one-year probationary term. A few months later the human resources department said Outland would be placed on “modified duty,” and the only comment about his work ability was the note “hx PTSD” (post-traumatic stress disorder), according to hearing documents.
- He was placed into the mailroom, hearing documents said, adding it was not part of the normal job for corrections officers, but it was also not a hardship for the prison.
- There were meetings with Outland, sometimes with his wife, in early 2017, and it was ultimately agreed that his light duty, as recommended by a doctor, would continue. Associate Warden of Security Tom Wood sent a letter in March 2017 extending Outland’s probation, hearings records noted.
- On March 29, 2017, the same day he received the letter, Outland drove a private vehicle to the Martz Diagnostic Intake Unit on the prison grounds to pick up his wife, who worked there. He was later told personal vehicles were not allowed to do that, according to hearing records.
- The hearing document stated that Outland told a staff sergeant that other people do the same, and the sergeant said that Outland was the one who got caught.
- An incident report was filed and Outland asked for a copy.
- It was noted later in the hearing documents that it was common practice for employees to be picked up at the unit. The prison has since implemented a formal policy.
- Outland sent an email March 31, 2017 to human resources regarding the parking incident. Prison officials decided to terminate Outland “without cause” because he was a probationary employee.
- One prison official said he was loud, angry and confrontational during a Jan. 27 meeting, but no one else at the meeting supported that claim. The hearing officer found that the prison’s reasons for terminating Outland were “pretextual,” meaning there was a false reason covering up the true motive. However, it said there may have been reasons for the probation extension and termination. The hearing officer relieved the prison of any liability for damage, but awarded affirmative relief.
- “Outland has shown that, regardless of MSP’s legitimate reasons to terminate him, they ultimately amounted to pretext,” the hearing officer wrote.
- That decision was reversed by the Human Rights Council and allowed for damages.
As you consider these and other issues, we recommend you speak with your school lawyer or contact Bea, Kevin, Megan, Beth, and Lily by email or at 406-542-1300 to discuss these issues.