Dismissal Based On Psychological Exam Undermined By Employer’s Coordination With Psychologist

Written on 02/03/2024

Rhonda Staton was a detective at the Butte-Silver Bow Law Enforcement Department in Montana. She alleged that, prior to her dismissal in 2020, she was subjected to years of sex- and disability-based discrimination at work. She claimed that some officers “drew penises on her car, placed tampons in her home and work mailboxes, pointed a laser at her chest, told her where she ‘ranked’ on the SWAT’s ‘Fuckable List,’ and placed a calendar with a topless male coworker with a gun superimposed near the groin area by her office door.”

Staton alleged other disparate treatment including that the Department forbade Staton from having other women in her office with the door closed and prohibited women from riding in the same patrol car. Staton also claimed that the Department required her to check in and check out and to inform dispatch of her location even when she was off duty when male employees were not required to do so, refused to assign her “callouts” at the same frequency as men, and subjected her conduct to heightened scrutiny than that of her male counterparts. Staton complained to Human Resources several times beginning in 2018, with her final complaint occurring in October 2019. In January 2020, Staton sent an email to an HR representative challenging the Department’s investigation into her complaint. That email was forwarded to Sheriff Ed Lester.

In February 2020, Lester ordered Staton to go on paid administrative leave and submit to a psychological Fitness for Duty Evaluation (FFDE). In the months preceding this order, Staton allegedly “threw away evidence at a homicide scene, collected evidence from a scene that warrants did not cover, lost her taser, fell behind on her caseload, and incorrectly stored cases and evidence.” The psychologist administering the FFDE determined that Staton was unfit for duty in an April 2020 report. One month later, Lester informed Staton of his intent to terminate her employment. Staton filed a claim with the EEOC and the analogous Montana agency alleging discrimination, harassment, and retaliation. On August 24, 2020, Lester terminated Staton, who sued the Department for sex discrimination under Title VII. The Court denied the Department’s motion for summary judgment.

The Court determined that Staton had presented sufficient evidence to establish a prima facie case of discrimination, and that the Department’s proffered justification for her termination was pretextual. The Court focused on two types of evidence in coming to this conclusion. First, Staton presented communications between Department leadership and the psychologist responsible for the FFDE, suggesting an inappropriate level of coordination throughout the FFDE process. The psychologist explained that Staton’s FFDE was unusually thorough and expressed concern to Lester over legal risk and indemnification, supporting Staton’s claim that the Department directed the psychologist to deem her unfit for duty in an effort to support her termination.

The Court also found that the timing of key events cast doubt on the Department’s explanation. There was one month between Staton’s final HR complaint and her order to submit to the FFDE, and less than one month between her EEOC complaint and her termination. The Court found that this timing was suspicious enough to raise a question of fact over whether the Department’s justification for Staton’s termination was genuine or pretextual.

Staton v. City & County of Butte-Silver Bow, CV-20-60-BU-BMM, 2023 WL 7428297 (D. Mont., 2023).