Kalispell officer sues city over sexual harassment claims

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A longtime Kalispell police officer has sued the city and the police department, alleging sexual harassment and lost wages because she wasn’t promoted when she said she should have been.

Michelle O’Neil filed the lawsuit Nov. 27 in Flathead County District Court against the city of Kalispell, Kalispell Police Department and John Does 1-100, described as employees or agents of KPD and the city. She is currently the student resource officer at Kalispell Middle School.

O’Neil, who has been with the Kalispell Police Department since 1999, alleges the sexual harassment against her occurred over a number of years and that the police department declined her request to investigate her complaints. She then filed a complaint with the Montana Human Rights Bureau.

In a report released in August, however, the Montana Human Rights Bureau determined that “based on its investigation, the Bureau finds no reasonable cause to believe unlawful discrimination and retaliation occurred as alleged in [the] charging party’s complaint.”

In the lawsuit, O’Neil alleges, among other things, that the department made her wear a cumbersome “service belt” in 2012 while she experienced difficulties with her third pregnancy, and that she received two emails that were described as “sexual in nature” from department email accounts belonging to two different patrol officers at the time. A service belt typically contains a gun, radio and other equipment needed on the job.

O’Neil alleges she shared the email messages with police department administrators, but that despite her claims, there was no investigation to determine who sent the emails and there were no repercussions as a result of her sexual harassment complaints.

The complaint also maintains that at morning meetings, officers engaged in inappropriate sexual banter and on more than one occasion when she spoke up, KPD administrative officers would end the meeting by announcing something along the lines of “on that note, we are done before I get named in the ‘suit.’” She claims the inaction of administrative officers fostered a workplace environment where sexual harassment was openly tolerated.

O’Neil also said that a note containing biblical scripture that dictates “a woman’s place is at home and not in the work place” was left in her KPD locker.

According to the complaint, in 2008 O’Neil said she was assigned to the Patrol Division and completed a temporary assignment as an acting sergeant, for which she claimed she received favorable reviews from superior officers, including then Chief Roger Nasset and Patrol Lt. Wade Rademacher, both of whom have retired from the force after each serving more than 20 years.

In 2008, O’Neil said the department was testing for a patrol sergeant promotion, and when she told Nasset she was pregnant with her first child, she didn’t receive a promotion to sergeant and didn’t make the eligibility list on which she previously had been included.

O’Neil also alleged that in 2017 she was placed on an Employee Improvement Plan for failing to meet KPD’s and the city of Kalispell’s alleged “illegal quota system” that she claims mandates officers make a certain minimum number of traffic stops, issuing a minimum number of citations and making a minimum number of arrests.

O’Neil also alleges Nasset told another officer that O’Neil would never be promoted to sergeant because male officers would not follow a woman’s leadership.

She also alleges she had been subjected to retaliation and hostility as a result of filing her complaint with the Montana Human Rights Bureau.

O’Neil is seeking a judgment against the defendants, for each count in an amount to be determined at trial, as well as compensatory damages, including future and past money losses, emotional pain, suffering, inconvenience, mental anguish, emotional distress, attorney’s fees and costs and punitive damages.

Kalispell City Attorney Charlie Harball said once the lawsuit is served on the city, it has 20 days to file a response. He said the city typically would hire an outside firm to handle the complaint and it could request an extension to have more time to examine the suit before filing a response.

Reporter Scott Shindledecker may be reached at 406-758-4441 or sshindledecker@dailyinterlake.com.

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