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Former detective alleges harassment, discrimination at Butte-Silver Bow law enforcement

Former detective alleges harassment, discrimination at Butte-Silver Bow law enforcement

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A former Butte-Silver Bow police detective says she was harassed, singled out and verbally abused on the job because of her gender and was fired in retaliation for filing discrimination complaints.

Rhonda Staton filed a federal lawsuit against county officials last week making those and other claims and wants unspecified monetary damages for lost wages, medical expenses and emotional distress, as well as punitive damages.

The lawsuit lists numerous instances of alleged harassment, including tampons being left in her mailbox and other offensive acts, but does not tie them to named officers or superiors. It says some names will be revealed as they are ascertained.

Sheriff Ed Lester issued a brief statement Monday.

“Butte-Silver Bow has not had an opportunity to review the lawsuit and does not wish to comment on any pending litigation,” it said.

Lester fired Staton last August, a move county officials rarely take without legal advice from the county attorney.

Staton says she first lodged complaints with the county’s Human Resources Department in 2018 and 2019, was later put on “punitive leave” and was then fired by Lester on Aug. 24 after she filed discrimination charges with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Her lawsuit was filed last Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Butte and names as defendants the Law Enforcement Department, the city-county, its commissioners, Lester and 10 “Does” — people she believes are liable whose true names she does not yet know.

In the lawsuit, Staton says she was hired as a Butte police officer in 2001, was promoted to detective in 2008 and throughout her 18-and-a-half years with the department, received pay raises and accolades for her work.

But it says she was also subject to continuous “severe and pervasive” workforce harassment and hostility based on her gender and lists examples, including:

• Putting tampons and other offensive items in her mailbox.

• Posting a calendar on her office door showing a male employee with a superimposed Glock handgun in front of that man’s genitals.

• Taking photos of her on an exercise fit ball and displaying one in the office saying she was in the Special Olympics.

• Shouting and screaming at her but not male employees and throwing and breaking expensive equipment in response to her comments.

Staton said she tried to resolve those matters through chain-of-command, to no avail, then made written and in-person complaints in 2018 and 2019 with the county’s Human Resources Department.

Her supervisors, co-workers and the sheriff became aware of a complaint submitted in October 2019 but the harassment got worse, Staton claims.

She said she was given undesirable work shifts and assignments, was excluded from training, meetings and events, was verbally abused in front of the public and colleagues and was mocked for her complaint, among other things. Later, she said, someone took her Taser and other items.

She said she met with Lester and Human Resources in January 2020 and was told no actions would be taken to protect her from the claimed harassment and discrimination.

She protested in writing and said further retaliation affected her health “to the point that I am barely functioning.” She then requested paperwork for seeking family leave.

Staton said she met with Lester last February and several things were discussed, including the missing Taser and a damaged pistol, and was ordered to go on “punitive leave” and undergo a psychological evaluation due to her health claims.

The exam by a department-hired psychologist was invasive and not job-related, she claims, and Lester contacted her July 16, 2020 and said she needed to resign or would be terminated.

Staton says he sent a July 27 letter to her saying she would be terminated and on July 31, she filed a discrimination charge with the EEOC. Lester fired her on Aug. 24 even though there was no formal discipline in her personnel file, she said.

The lawsuit, filed by the Rabb Law Firm in Bozeman, says numerous federal and state civil protections were violated. It seeks special and punitive damages and attorney fees.

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