Former Stevensville Town Clerk Audrey Tribbensee has filed suit in Ravalli County District Court alleging bullying, harassment and poor treatment to such an extent that the she had no choice but to resign. In her complaint, she asks for a jury trial on charges of constructive discharge and requests damages for lost past and future wages and fringe benefits in an amount to be proven at trial. She is also seeking punitive damages, to be determined at trial, and for costs of the suit including interest and attorney’s fees.
Tribbensee began working for the Town of Stevensville on July 9, 2018. She claims the work environment almost immediately became hostile and that “the behavior exhibited by the Town Council can only be described as severe, degrading bullying.” She claims that Councilor Bob Michalson had already vowed in an email to another council member that he would “make Mayor Dewey’s life miserable.”
She claims the hostile work environment became increasingly miserable and included hostile behavior towards both her and the mayor. She states that the work environment became increasingly “miserable” and eventually “so intimidating” that in October 2018, “after three months of unrelenting bullying,” she filed a formal grievance against the town.
As a result, an independent investigator in Missoula was hired to look into the allegations. What the investigator found was that “the communication situation in the Stevensville Town government could reasonably be characterized as a situation so intolerable that a reasonable person could not be expected to endure it. If one or more individuals on staff decides to leave the Town and sue for constructive discharge, the Town is likely to face significant liability. This intolerable situation must be recognized by both the Council and Mayor to improve their communications with one another and with staff.”
It was found after interviews of staff and council members that Council member Michalson’s behavior met the description of bullying and harassment contained in the town’s personnel policy, but that the policy contained no explicit prohibition or penalties related to the behavior. It was suggested that Councilor Michalson apologize to Tribbensee for his behavior.
Michalson did make an apology at the next council meeting, but he did not apologize for his actions, instead, he said he was sorry that Ms. Tribbensee had “misunderstood him.”
Tribbensee claims in her lawsuit that rather than improve Ms. Tribbensee’s work environment and change their behavior, the Town Council retaliated against her, “even going so far as to say that they could fire her because of her grievances.” She claims they also filed grievances against her and called 911 to file a report against her, all in retaliation for filing her original grievance. Tribbensee filed a series of grievances over all these issues but claims she was ignored and that the situation did not improve.
On April 11, 2019, the council voted to rescind the Mayor’s Reorganization Plan which had included a promotion for Tribbensee. Tribbensee resigned the next day.
Tribbensee states in her suit that she voluntarily terminated her employment because the situation created by an act or omission of the Town of Stevensville which an objective, reasonable person would find so intolerable that voluntary termination was the only reasonable alternative. She claims that the totality of circumstances establishes a constructive discharge as defined under Montana law. She goes on to ask for punitive damages because the “law provides that a wrongfully discharged employee may recover punitive damages if her employer engaged in actual malice in the discharge of the employee by retaliating against the employee for reporting a violation of public policy.” She claims she was constructively discharged in retaliation for her reporting of the Town’s bullying and hostile work environment.