A wrongful termination lawsuit former Municipal Court Judge Marie Andersen filed against the city of Missoula is in its discovery phase, with a final pretrial conference set for Jan. 16, 2015, according to the U.S. District Court of Montana’s civil docket.
In a preliminary statement, Andersen alleges city officials and staff undermined her authority, criticized her health-related absences and arbitrarily changed her work schedule. On Oct. 11, 2012, Judge Kathleen Jenks fired Andersen without warning at a meeting with the court administrator, the lawsuit alleges.
“At this meeting, Plaintiff was advised that she needed to clean out her office,” reads the court document. “In response to Plaintiff’s verbal request for the rationale for her termination, Judge Jenks said that it was because of the newspaper articles in the Missoulian regarding Judge Jenks’ decision to discontinue participation in Co-Occurring Court.
“Other than the continued and contradictory references to absenteeism and the accrual of compensatory time by Plaintiff, Judge Jenks did not reprimand Judge Andersen for any performance-related conduct, verbally or in writing,” reads the filing.
The lawsuit names as defendants the city of Missoula and John Does 1-10. In its response, the city of Missoula offers a different version of the meeting held Oct. 11, 2012, among Andersen, Jenks and court administrator Tina Schmaus.
“Judge Jenks informed Andersen she would not be reappointed upon expiration of her term on Dec. 2, 2012,” the city’s document states. “Judge Jenks informed Andersen she intended for her to continue working through Dec. 2, 2012 and that she wanted to meet the following day to work out the details of that work and Andersen’s transition out of the Assistant Municipal Judge position.”
Andersen was among five candidates who filed this year to run for the open Missoula County justice of the peace position in Justice Court No. 1. Andersen, currently a substitute justice of the peace, and Matthew Lowy, a deputy prosecutor for Missoula County, received the most votes and will face off in November’s general election.
Andersen did not return calls seeking comment for this story, and her lawyer, Peter Lacny of Datsopoulos, MacDonald and Lind, declined to comment since the case is pending. On behalf of the city of Missoula, lawyer Jill Gerdrum, with Axilon Law Group, did not return a request for comment.
Andersen enters the campaign season as she mounts a case against city officials with allegations of wrongful discharge, interference with economic advancement, defamation, infliction of emotional distress, and other charges. She is seeking four years of lost wages and damages from breach of contract.
Missoula Municipal Court has one elected judge who has the authority to appoint an assistant municipal judge, and Andersen’s suit revolves around her 2006 appointment by former Judge Donald Louden and subsequent dismissal by Jenks.
The most recent allegations in her complaint against the city include the following, according to the court document:
n Andersen was a part-time employee working 30 hours a week, but after Louden was granted an extended leave of absence, Andersen’s job changed: “Plaintiff’s workload became heavier and entailed job duties which should have otherwise been performed by the elected municipal judge.”
n She was injured and hospitalized in July 2011, and her surgery and complications from surgery “necessitated her absence from work” until August 18, 2011.
n Louden announced his retirement in October 2011 with an effective date of Nov. 18, 2011. “Plaintiff was informed that she would likely be appointed to fill the retiring judge’s seat by a number of sources, including the City Attorney, at least one City Council member, and other representatives of the City.”
n “As a result of her observations regarding wrongful arrests resulting from the issuance of bad warrants, Plaintiff commenced working on a project to quash warrants which were legally invalid,” reads the court filing. According to the court document, Andersen tried to get the court administrator to help, but the court administrator resisted.
n On Oct. 7, 2011, in response to a question, Andersen said she would not allow defendants to plead guilty by telephone as the elected judge did, but she would continue her practice of requiring them to appear in person to contest citations.
n One week later, Andersen was “cautioned against making ‘permanent changes’ to court operations in a letter from the mayor of the city of Missoula.” “Executive officers of the city did not have the authority to discipline or reprimand Plaintiff ... further, executive officers of the city did not have a valid basis for ... implying to others that she had engaged in misconduct or insubordination ... ,” reads the filing.
n In October 2011, Andersen applied to finish Louden’s elected term. Jenks also applied, and she told Andersen if Jenks was appointed, she would keep Andersen as assistant judge, the complaint alleges. She also said so in her written response to questions from the Missoula City Council.
n The council appointed Jenks.
n In November 2011, Andersen was hit by a car and injured while at a court conference in Helena. “Plaintiff reported the injury to the court administrator due to the fact that the injury occurred in the employment context and plaintiff was required to report the injury if it was subject to workers’ compensation.”
n As a result of her injuries, Andersen was required to work limited hours. “The court administrator made derogatory comments regarding plaintiff’s need for leave to recover from her injuries in front of Judge Jenks. The court administrator additionally pressured plaintiff to work eight hours per day.”
n “The court administrator and Judge Jenks excluded Plaintiff from court-related meetings, disregarded her requests for administrative assistance, and unfairly and nonsensically criticized Plaintiff both for her absence and for her accrual of compensatory time.”
n “The court administrator and Judge Jenks blamed Plaintiff for newspaper articles which reflected poorly on Judge Jenks’ administration of Municipal Court, despite the fact that Plaintiff did nothing to trigger the writing of the articles by the Missoulian or a Letter to the Editor written by a former Co-Occurring Court employee.”
Subsequently, Jenks fired Andersen, according to the allegations.
In its own preliminary pretrial statement, the city of Missoula does not explicitly deny Jenks fired Andersen. However, the city does state Jenks “informed Andersen she would not be reappointed,” and the city defends Jenks’ decision to not reappoint based on the “judicial immunity” afforded by state statute.
“Andersen’s claims all fail because Judge Jenks enjoys judicial immunity and her decision not to reappoint Andersen as her part-time Assistant Municipal Judge is covered by that immunity,” reads the city’s statement.
The city notes Montana law grants government entities “qualified immunity” in cases where an official acts “‘in good faith, without malice or corruption.’” “Judge Jenks acted with good faith and without malice in electing not to reappoint Andersen ... as she did not believe her actions were in violation of clearly established statutory or constitutional rights.”
In its statement, the city defends any speech made about Andersen as well. It states city officials’ comments about her were “true,” “privileged or constitutionally protected free speech,” and not defamatory.
“Any statements the city made about Andersen were of the nature of fair comment upon a matter of general public and concern and published in good faith and without malice,” reads the court document.
The city also argues the Wrongful Discharge from Employment Act does not apply in this case because Andersen was an employee working under a written contract for a specific term. But the city argues that if the court determines the act does apply, Andersen’s claim fails anyway because she failed to first “exhaust her internal remedies” and file a grievance.
“The Municipal Judge had exclusive authority to choose her Assistant Municipal Judge and acted in good faith and without malice in deciding not to renew Andersen’s appointment,” reads the court document.
Pretrial statements from both the plaintiff and defendant note the parties have not engaged in settlement discussions.