City of Kalispell, Retired Police Officer Settle Discrimination Suit

Michelle O’Neil accused department of unfairly denying her a promotion to sergeant and refusing to accommodate her during a pregnancy; city says it ‘in no way’ discriminated against O’Neil

By Andy Viano
Kalispell Public Safety building as seen on August 14, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The City of Kalispell has settled a discrimination lawsuit filed by a former police officer who accused the Kalispell Police Department of creating a hostile work environment, refusing to accommodate her while she was pregnant and passing her over for promotions in favor of her male counterparts.

Michelle O’Neil filed suit in Flathead County District Court in November 2018, and the contentious legal battle that ensued wound to a close last month when the two parties agreed to settle, weeks before a trial was to begin. O’Neil’s attorney, Jason Bryan, did not disclose the terms of the settlement and did not respond to requests for comment in this story. O’Neil retired from the department in 2019.

The City of Kalispell, meanwhile, vigorously defended the police department’s behavior in legal filings, and City Attorney Charlie Harball said the city refutes any claim of discrimination against O’Neil during her career.

“The city’s insurer determined that settling the matter outside of trial would be fiscally the most prudent course to take over continuing the very expensive course of further litigation,” Harball said. “The city maintains that it, in no way, discriminated against this employee and believes its processes for hiring, paying and promoting its employees meets or exceeds those required by law and expected by its taxpayers.”

O’Neil joined the Kalispell Police Department in 1999, becoming just the second female officer ever hired by the department, and in both court filings and a complaint filed with the Montana Human Rights Bureau (HRB) she describes three primary concerns: that she was made to feel uncomfortable at work because of inappropriate behavior and comments of a sexual nature, that she was not allowed certain accommodations during a pregnancy, and that she was not promoted because she is a woman.

In August 2018, the HRB denied O’Neil’s complaint, ruling solely on the third issue regarding a failure to be promoted. HRB Investigator Josh Manning noted that the statute of limitations had expired on any harassment O’Neil faced since claims must be made with the HRB within 180 days of their occurrence, and that O’Neil’s claims of pregnancy-related disability discrimination were likewise untimely.

The details of O’Neils complaint with HRB and subsequent court filings describe a workplace where she was made to feel uncomfortable or unwelcome from the beginning of her tenure. The HRB’s Final Investigative Report includes allegations by O’Neil that her initial training officer believed women should not serve in law enforcement and that other officers made clear she was not wanted.

O’Neil also describes several instances of alleged harassment and discrimination, including that male officers made frequent “inappropriate sexual comments” in common areas, that she received emails “of a sexual nature” from a shared office computer and that a bible verse stating “I do not permit a woman to teach or assume authority over a man; she must be quiet” was left in her locker. The city noted that O’Neil did not file formal complaints about the incidents.

The filings also accused KPD of violating disability laws when the department refused, initially, to accommodate a move to light duty work when O’Neil became pregnant in 2012. At the time, her doctor recommended she not wear the heavy belt that patrol officers are required to wear because it could lead to complications with the pregnancy. The City of Kalispell countered that O’Neil was initially denied because no such policy existed, as the situation had never arisen prior to 2012. The city did, eventually, allow her equipment to be altered and created a policy specifically for pregnant officers on patrol duty.

O’Neil further alleged that KPD denied her a promotion to sergeant on multiple occasions because she is a woman. At the time, no woman had ever achieved the rank of sergeant at KPD. O’Neil highlighted an application for sergeant she completed in late 2017 as an example, charging that she had the highest score of any applicant on the written portion of her test and was the most experienced applicant. In a summary of the investigation compiled by the HRB, the city responded to this claim by noting O’Neil tested second-to-last on the department’s leadership assessment and said O’Neil “is a competent and technically proficient officer but (she) lacks the leadership skills the department desires for sergeants.”

Several current and former KPD officers and administrators were deposed as part of the lawsuit and/or the HRB investigation, and a number of them praised O’Neil as an officer, a fact that was cited by the HRB when issuing its final analysis. Some officers also acknowledged that others within the ranks did, at times, hold negative opinions of O’Neil in part because of her position as a woman in a male-dominated field.

In the end, however, the HRB ruled O’Neil did not “prove by a preponderance of evidence” that her failure to be promoted was the result of discrimination or retaliation. And after months of legal wrangling, the parties opted to settle the lawsuit instead of presenting evidence to a jury.

The City of Kalispell will not make any out-of-pocket payments related to the settlement or legal fees, all of which are covered by the Montana Municipal Interlocal Authority, a self-insured pool of Montana municipalities that includes Kalispell.

The settlement resolution does, however, mark the first time the city has agreed to pay any amount as part of a discrimination lawsuit in at least the last 20 years. O’Neil is the eighth person to lodge a discrimination complaint against the city with the HRB since 2000 and only the second to file a lawsuit. The other suit, filed in 2009 in U.S. District Court, resulted in summary judgment in favor of the city.

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