MISSOULA — Attorneys representing Missoula County Sheriff’s Deputy Rebecca Birket filed a lawsuit Thursday seeking damages for the violation of privacy and humiliation Birket allegedly suffered during an internal investigation into a kiss she shared with another deputy while she was off duty.
The lawsuit came one day after the state Human Rights Bureau ruled in favor of the Missoula County Sheriff’s Department, clearing the department of gender discrimination in its handling of the incident.
“We disagree with the human rights investigator’s analysis,” Birket’s attorney, John Kutzman, said Thursday night. “And that is why we filed this lawsuit today.”
The 18-page suit claims the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office violated the deputy’s right to privacy and exhibited gender discrimination during its monthlong investigation into the kiss.
“(Birket) brings this lawsuit to stop the practice of the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office of using unlawful policies to create hostility in the workplace by invading the fundamental right of all citizens to be private in their homes when they are behaving lawfully,” the lawsuit states.
During the investigation, the lawsuit claims, leadership of the sheriff’s office repeatedly demanded more details about Birket’s private life and the kiss with her co-worker. In addition, they allegedly shared information about the incident with a number of other deputies, mocking and humiliating Birket.
However, the Human Rights Bureau’s 33-page report in response to Birket’s original complaint found no evidence that she was the target of discrimination as a single female. It further stated that Birket failed to prove that other sheriff’s deputies retaliated against her for filing the complaint with the Human Rights Bureau.
“Other than (Sgt. T.J.) McDermott, who supports Birket’s claim of retaliation, but admits he has no direct knowledge, no other witnesses acknowledge Birket has been or is being ostracized in retaliation for complaining about discrimination,” Montana Human Rights investigator Tam Newby wrote in the report.
The complaint is the third investigation conducted by the Montana Human Rights Bureau into the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office during the past year. The first two complaints were filed by McDermott and Detective Jason Johnson. Those investigations led to a finding that McDermott and Johnson were discriminated against for their political beliefs, and resulted in a $120,000 settlement with the county.
McDermott subsequently won June’s winner-take-all primary election for Missoula County sheriff. He has said Johnson will be his undersheriff when he takes office in January 2015.
In July of last year, the sheriff’s department began an internal investigation to determine whether a relationship between a male deputy and Birket violated the office’s marriage and relationships policy.
According to Birket’s initial complaint to the Human Rights Bureau, administrators also were attempting to find cause to fire the male deputy, referred to in all the documents as Deputy Doe.
“They were after me and used her to get to me,” Doe told Newby. “They investigated me a year prior to that because they thought I was having a relationship with a dispatcher.”
Birket and Doe were subsequently interviewed by Capt. Brad Giffin and Capt. Mike Dominick, but Birket stated she was treated differently. She said that Dominick and Giffin believed she was trying to deceive them by not providing more details about the kiss. They asked her to write a detailed description of the kiss, and she complied with an 11-word statement they perceived as “indignant.”
She further contended that Sheriff Carl Ibsen changed the department’s relationship policy in the midst of the investigation to further incriminate her.
And when an all-male review board convened, she said Undersheriff Josh Clark pounded his fist on the table and demanded more details about the kiss – an assertion later refuted by Newby after a reviewing the video recording of the board’s inquiry.
“Clark’s questions, and Birket’s answers, regarding Birket’s written statement lasted one minute and two seconds,” the report stated. “Clark does not raise his voice or pound his fist on the table.”
The internal review panel ultimately recommended firing Birket, who was a new employee and still in her probationary period, but Ibsen didn’t follow their lead. Instead, he disciplined both deputies: Birket received two days of unpaid suspension and Doe received 12 additional days of suspension for not responding to a 9-1-1 call while he was at Birket’s house.
“Ultimately, the Missoula County commissioners rescinded Birket’s two-day suspension, extended probation and removed any reference to disciplinary action from her personnel file,” Newby wrote. “The sheriff and the commission both stepped up to protect Birket’s employment at MCSO.”
“Based on my investigation, I find no reasonable cause to believe unlawful discrimination occurred, as alleged in Rebecca Birket’s complaint,” Newby added.
The lawsuit filed Thursday seeks compensation “for her emotional distress, shame and humiliation” and assurances that neither Birket nor others will be subjected to such humiliation or discrimination in the future.
“She brings this lawsuit because she does not want her daughter, or anyone else’s daughter, ever again to be subjected to the treatment described in this complaint by a Missoula law enforcement agency,” the suit says.