Following a Freedom of Information request from the Bitterroot Star, the Montana Municipal Interlocal Authority (MMIA) has released the settlement agreements related to complaints filed by former Stevensville town clerk Audree Tribbensee. Under the terms of the agreements, Tribbensee was awarded $35,000 for the release of the constructive discharge complaint against the Town of Stevensville and $50,000 for the release of the complaint alleging negligent infliction of emotional distress, intentional infliction of emotional distress and defamation by former council president Bob Michalson.
Tribbensee had claimed that from the time of her starting work in July 2018, she was subjected to “severe, degrading bullying” by members of the town council and in particular, council president Bob Michalson. She claimed she first addressed the council on August 13 regarding the existing hostile work environment that the council had created. She stated in the complaint, “Council member Michalson admitted that he wrote an email about making Mayor Dewey’s life miserable, but claimed that he did so in jest.
Some other statements in the complaint are:
“Councilmember Michalson also admitted that there had been a hostile work environment for three years…. He discussed the fact that part of the problem with the Mayor, Councilmembers, and Staff was his fault.”
“Audio recordings of the Town Council meetings reveal two councilmembers (Barker and Michalson) acknowledging the severity of the hostile work environment.”
“The Town Councilmembers exhibited the same behavior toward the Mayor of Stevensville, Brandon Dewey.”
Because of the alleged continuing hostile work environment and attacks against both her and the mayor, Tribbensee ended up filing a formal grievance with the town in October. Subsequently, an independent investigation took place and a report was issued that said, in part, “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 decided to leave the Town and sue for constructive discharge, the Town is likely to face significant liability…”
Tribbensee alleged that the town council retaliated against her and said “they could fire her because of her grievances…”
On April 12, 2019, Tribbensee formally resigned.
In her complaint against the Town, Tribbensee stated, “Mayor Brandon Dewey acknowledged that the bullying, harassment, and poor treatment of the Town Clerk by the councilmembers required him to refrain from hiring a new employee for that position and subjecting yet another Clerk to the terrible working conditions.”
Although Tribbensee voluntarily terminated her employment, she claimed that the situation was so intolerable that any reasonable person would find that voluntary termination was the only reasonable alternative, establishing a claim of “constructive discharge” which is treated as wrongful discharge under Montana law, making the Town liable for punitive damages.
In her complaint against Michalson, Tribbensee alleged that almost immediately after she was hired, Michalson “began to bully, harass, intimidate, and belittle” her and repeatedly made “false and defamatory allegations” resulting in “severe emotional distress… including shock, grief, sorrow, sleeplessness, PTSD, headaches, inability to focus, and inability to perform her job duties.”
Her complaint against the Town asked for damages for her lost past and future wages and fringe benefits in an amount to be proven at trial; punitive damages commensurate with the Town of Stevensville’s conduct in an amount to be determined at trial; for cost of suit; interest as allowed by law; attorney’s fees as allowed by law; any other relief that the court deemed just and proper.
The complaint against Michalson asked for compensatory damages for negligent infliction of emotional distress, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and defamation; punitive damages for negligent infliction of emotional distress, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and defamation; costs of suit and attorney’s fees as allowed by law; interest as allowed by law; any other relief that the court deemed just and proper.
However, the cases never went to trial and were settled out of court. As the Town’s insurer, MMIA covered the costs, which totaled $85,000 in insurance claims, and $93,649.28 in legal fees. The Town’s insurance premiums have jumped from $23,494 in Fiscal Year 19-20 to $32,049 in FY 20-21 and $73,383 in FY 21-22. The costs of litigating and settling these two cases have contributed to the Town’s insurance premium increase and will be considered in the insurance rate calculations for the next five years.The Bitterroot Star contacted Tribbensee for comment following the release of the settlement agreements. Here is her statement:
“When I submitted my resignation from my position as the Community Development Director for the City of Sedona, working in the public sector for over 30 years to take the position of Town Clerk for the Town of Stevensville in 2018, I never dreamed that I would soon after find myself subject to constructive discharge and filing two lawsuits against Stevensville Town Council, namely Bob Michalson, Stacie Barker, Robin Holcomb and Ray Smith. However, beginning with my very first day working for Stevensville, I found myself working in an extremely hostile environment, that is hard to describe as it is unlike anything I have ever seen or experienced in all my years as a public servant. I have worked with many Mayors and Council members, not all of them agreed with me or did I agree with them, but we were all able to agree to disagree and carry out our rules and responsibilities in a professional and respectful manner. This did not happen in the Town of Stevensville government during my employment.
“Mayor Dewey always tried to protect me and staff and minimize our exposure to Council’s rude and disrespectful behavior and that of their friends and family. I believe he honestly did everything he could do to address my situation but I recognize he could not force citizens or Council members to play nicely or act professionally. The tone, attitude and actions of Council President Bob Michalson was most always as nasty as one can get. He was dishonest, calculated and manipulative. Very early on, it became glaringly apparent that Bob Michalson intended to hold up his pledge to Council member Robin Holcomb to make Mayor Dewey’s life as miserable as possible to force him out of the office. It also became, unfortunately very apparent that Michalson would stop at nothing to achieve this objective, including running the Mayor’s staff out of the office as well.
“Although I submitted a formal complaint against Bob Michalson and the Town Council in October 2018, simply asking for the hostility and bad behavior to stop and that Council and staff work professionally together to address town business, Michalson and Council dismissed my claims and rather than stop their bad behavior chose instead to increase their pressure and deceitful activities and doubled down their efforts to make the environment as miserable as possible to force Mayor Dewey and staff out. After being subject to unbelievable treatment and hostility at the hands of Bob Michalson and Council for over nine months, I was left with no other option than to resign from my position, and file for constructive discharge with the State of Montana. Not surprisingly, after reviewing hundreds of pages of documented incidents, the State agreed that I was eligible for constructive discharge stating that no reasonable person should ever be subject to the horrendous behavior and actions that I was subject to every day while employed by the Town of Stevensville at the hands of Bob Michalson, Stacie Barker, Robin Holcomb and Ray Smith.
“Filing for constructive discharge led to the hardest decision of my life to hire an attorney and file a lawsuit against the Town of Stevensville Town Council and a second case singling out Council President Bob Michalson for the literal hell he put me, the Mayor and my co-workers through on a daily basis. The list of actions and activities against me personally is long, unbelievable and horrendous. These actions and activities also sufficiently supported my claims of abuse, harassment and hostility that MMIA worked hard to settle my claims out of court and willingly wrote two separate checks to settle both cases.
“Again, I never dreamed I would find myself in such an unconscionable and completely offensive hostile working environment, but I did. I never dreamed I would find myself making the decision to file legal cases against the Town Council and Bob Michalson, but I did. Ultimately, the decision to file the lawsuit came easy as I hoped to expose the longstanding offensive behavior of Bob Michalson and Council so that the current staff and future staff never have to suffer his intentional hostility, harassment and literally nasty tactics again.”
Bob Michalson is currently running for a town council seat (see story in this week’s paper). When asked whether he wanted to comment on the release of the settlement agreement, he said, “I feel like Audree got in the middle of a pissing match between the mayor and me. I was too forceful. Even though I thought I was helping her do her job, I was hurting her.”