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Judge reverses Human Rights Commission ruling on DOC employee termination

Montana Department of Corrections
Posted at 4:19 PM, Dec 15, 2023
and last updated 2023-12-15 18:20:15-05

HELENA — A Montana District Court judge has made a ruling in the dispute between the state and a former Department of Corrections employee, siding with the state.

On Wednesday, Judge Michael McMahon overturned a 2022 decision from the Human Rights Commission which found in favor of the former DOC employee Adrianne Cotton.

Cotton has said she was terminated from her job after reporting that then-Director Reginald Michael had sexually harassed her. Several female DOC employeesmade similar claims against Michael.

The state contended her job was eliminated due to restructuring.

In 2021, a state hearings officer rejected Cotton’s complaint saying she did not show a link between the former director’s alleged conduct and the elimination of her position.

Then in 2022, the Human Rights Commission overturned the hearings officer and ruled in favor of Cotton, awarding her four years of lost wages.

The state appealed that decision to district court with Judge McMahon granting DOC’s judicial review petition. In his ruling, McMahon said the Human Rights Commission errored in its ruling and exceeded its authority by rejecting the hearing officer’s findings.

“HRC may not implicitly overturn Findings, but rather is required by statute to “state with particularity in the order that the findings of fact were not based upon competent substantial evidence,” wrote McMahon in his ruling. “DOC’s substantial rights have been prejudiced by HRC because its Remand Order exceeded HRC’s statutory authority and was arbitrary, capricious, and characterized by abuse of discretion.”

DOC provided MTN the following statement regarding the decision:

“The department appreciates the well-reasoned District Court decision in this case, supporting the Hearing Officer’s finding that no retaliation took place. We are disappointed that the state had to waste valuable taxpayer resources defending this claim.”

Cotton can appeal the district court decision to the Montana Supreme Court if she chooses.