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Bird v. Cascade County

Supreme Court of Montana

December 27, 2016

STACEY BIRD, an individual, Plaintiff and Appellant,
v.
CASCADE COUNTY, a political subdivision of the State of Montana; and CASCADE COUNTY BOARD OF COMMISSIONERS, the governing body of Cascade County, Defendants and Appellees.

          Submitted on Briefs: October 19, 2016

         District Court of the Eighth Judicial District, In and For the County of Cascade, Cause No. ADV 13-888 Honorable Greg Pinski, Presiding Judge

          For Appellant: Hollie Del Vecchio, Ph D, Adaptive Law Firm PS, Mount Vernon, Washington

          For Appellees: Mark F. Higgins, Jordan Y. Crosby, Ugrin, Alexander, Zadick & Higgins, P.C., Great Falls, Montana

          OPINION

          Beth Baker, Justice

         ¶1 The Cascade County Board of Commissioners terminated Stacey Bird from her position as the County's Human Resources Director. Bird filed a wrongful discharge claim against the County and the Board of Commissioners. The Eighth Judicial District Court held that the County had good cause to terminate Bird. It granted the County summary judgment. Bird appeals on the ground that a jury must determine the issue of good cause.

         ¶2 We affirm.

         PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         ¶3 The County hired Bird as Human Resources Director in October 2008. Bird directly supervised four employees and managed a $350, 000 budget. Bird oversaw typical human resource functions, including: supervising payroll for all County employees; administering and enforcing collective bargaining agreements; ensuring compliance with state and federal employment laws; drafting and implementing human resource policies; and administering the County's benefits programs. Bird also was responsible for redrafting the County's Policy and Procedures Manual, which she never completed.

         ¶4 As a department head, Bird reported to the Board of County Commissioners. In December 2010, the Board sent Bird a letter expressing several elected officials' concerns regarding their working relationship with the Human Resources Department. The letter identified four issues the elected officials wanted Bird to address:

. Improving the transparency of the hiring process;
. Ensuring that engagement in preferential hiring practices is not occurring;
. Aligning personnel policies with established procedures; and
. Seeking a more collaborative approach to problem-solving.

         Board members also met with Bird individually to discuss how they could improve their working relationship with her.

         ¶5 In October 2012, a group of department heads-which Bird helped to organize- wrote a letter to the Board requesting to meet and discuss various issues they had regarding the "appearance of unfair, disparate, and unequal treatment regarding merit and market adjustments" to compensation. The Board declined to meet with the department heads as a group given that the department heads "represented] six different departments, each having a diverse range of responsibilities, job descriptions, budgets, number of subordinates, educational backgrounds, training, experience, and longevity with the County." The Board instead offered to meet with them individually to evaluate their compensation. In response, these department heads took "a unanimous vote of 'no confidence'" regarding two of the three Board members. Shortly after the "no confidence" vote, two other department heads informed the County Attorney of their concern that the group had leaked confidential employee information to the media. The County Attorney recommended that the Board conduct an investigation into the allegations.

         ¶6 On October 26, 2012, the County placed Bird on administrative leave while it investigated allegations that she used public time and resources to organize support for one of the Commissioner's election opponents, disclosed confidential employment information, and disclosed or used confidential information to further her personal economic interests. Upon conclusion of the investigation, the County sent Bird a "due process" letter that provided detailed information regarding the results of the investigation, notified her of additional allegations that were investigated, and advised her of potential disciplinary actions. Bird responded in writing, denying the allegations.

          ¶7 On November 27, 2012, the County sent Bird a termination letter signed by two of the three Board members. The six-page termination letter addressed Bird's response to the "due process" letter and further detailed the reasons for her discharge. The reasons included: use of public time and resources for political purposes, disclosure of confidential employee information, use and disclosure of confidential information to further her own economic interests, improper management of staff, implementation of policies without the Board's formal approval, inconsistent implementation of informal policies, failure to update the Policy and Procedures Manual, and failure to understand key aspects of her position.

         ¶8 A year later, Bird filed a complaint against the County pursuant to the Wrongful Discharge from Employment Act. The County moved for summary judgment. The District Court concluded that, as Human Resources Director, Bird held a sensitive managerial position. It held that the County had good cause to terminate her. The court ...


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