BILLINGS - A Yellowstone County sheriff's deputy who repeatedly clashed with his former superiors has agreed to settle all claims against the county in exchange for $400,000 and a series of policy changes in the sheriff's department.
The settlement agreement with Deputy John Smith is on the county commissioners' agenda for Tuesday morning, even though Commissioner Jim Reno has already signed the agreement and the Montana Association of Counties has agreed to pay $150,000 of the $400,000 settlement. MACO is the county's insurance carrier.
Smith, who is still working as a deputy, ran into problems with former Sheriff Jay Bell, Capt. Bill Michaelis and other commanders over the past few years. Smith had filed several human rights complaints, a grievance and a federal lawsuit against the county, and the settlement ends all remaining cases.
As part of the deal, Smith will be paid $400,000 and the county agreed to implement numerous policy changes first suggested by an independent review of the department's employment practices. Each side will pay its own legal fees.
The independent review was triggered by another settlement between Smith and the county, but none of the changes were ever implemented, Smith contended.
The policy changes are subject to approval by Sheriff Mike Linder. Linder couldn't immediately be reached for comment, but in a deposition in the case last month, Linder said he hoped to make significant changes in his first six months in office.
Smith supported Linder when Linder ran unsuccessfully against Sheriff Chuck Maxwell in 2006 and when Linder defeated Bell in 2010.
Smith ran into trouble in 2008, when he agreed to testify in a federal discrimination lawsuit brought by three Hispanic deputies against the department. After the lawsuit had been filed, Smith said he heard Michaelis refer to the plaintiffs as "the three Mexicans." Michaelis punished Smith shortly after a newspaper article revealed that Smith would testify in the case.
After a weeklong jury trial last year, the three Hispanic deputies won a $945,000 judgment against the county in federal court.
After his run-in with Michaelis, Smith filed a human rights complaint against the department because of his punishment. The county later agreed to settle the case by bringing in Helena attorney Mike Meloy to review the department's employment policies. Meloy submitted his report, but the county never implemented the changes, and Meloy had to sue the county to get paid for his work.
Later in 2008, Smith was suspended for 40 hours after he and another deputy responded to an incident at a rural mobile home court. The other deputy was cleared, but commanders determined that Smith had violated department policies. An arbitrator later tossed out the disciplinary order. Smith then filed a human rights complaint, claiming retaliation.
In 2010, Smith filed a federal lawsuit, claiming repeated retaliation and First Amendment violations. The lawsuit encompassed many of the previous problems that Smith had had with top commanders.
The settlement agreement on Tuesday's agenda ends all of Smith's claims against the county. It is on the commissioners' consent agenda, which means it is likely to pass and won't be discussed unless the commissioners move it to the main agenda.