Havre Daily News - News you can use

By Tim Leeds 

Gerhart sues county, claims wrongful discharge


A former deputy superintendent of schools has filed a lawsuit against the office she once worked for and against the Hill County Commission, saying she was wrongfully discharged from her position last April.

Linda Gerhart alleges in her lawsuit that she was fired by Hill County Superintendent Shirley Isbell due to years of strife stemming from Gerhart's caring for foster children, and that the Commission breached a contract when it first said she could continue to work despite the superintendent's action then reversed itself three weeks later.

Gerhart's lawsuit asks for a monetary judgment for present and future lost wages and benefits, recoverable costs and fees and relief for emotional distress and cost of medical treatment.

Gerhart could not be reached for comment by deadline this morning.

Her attorney, Donald Ford Jones of Great Falls, could not be reached for comment by deadline either.

Hill County Commissioner Kathy Bessette said Wednesday that the Commission had not yet received notice of the lawsuit and could not comment. She referred all questions to the county's attorney on the matter.

Maureen Lennon, legal counsel for the Montana Association of Counties, said MACo Legal Counsel would represent Hill County in the lawsuit.

Lennon told the Havre Daily News that the county had not yet been served with the lawsuit and no comment was available at that time.

Isbell, who is not named as a defendant in the case, also said Wednesday that she had not received any notice of the lawsuit and declined to comment on most allegations.

She did say that one issue raised in the suit — that she had fired Gerhart — was not correct.

Isbell said that, because of the budgetary constraints facing the county due to a decline in revenue, the commissioners had asked all county departments to review their budgets.

Isbell said she determined that a deputy superintendent was not required for her office. She was eliminating the position and replacing it with a clerk and administrative assistant position. Gerhart could have applied for that position once the change was made, Isbell said.

In the lawsuit, Gerhart alleges that Isbell had taunted and harassed Gerhart about her caring for foster children, particularly about her requesting time off to address the foster children's health and disability needs.

After Gerhart filed a grievance, the county ordered Isbell to stop any hostile actions toward Gerhart on the issue, the lawsuit says.

Gerhart alleges that, although Isbell refrained from mentioning Gerhart's foster children after that, Isbell "escalated" her hostile actions, including threatening Gerhart with the loss of her job and refusing to allow Gerhart to use sick leave and vacation time, also alleging Isbell blocked or interfered with Gerhart's access to emails and phone calls related to her job.

The lawsuit says that after Gerhart received notice from Isbell that she was losing her position as deputy superintendent, the Commission sent her a letter dated March 10, 2010 — a copy of which, signed by Commissioners Mike Wendland and Mike Anderson, is attached to the lawsuit — saying they had reviewed Isbell's budget and restructuring plan and were not approving it entirely.

Saying they believed that the office would be better served if at least one current member was in the office in the next year to provide continuity, the commissioners wrote that they would continue the position.

Isbell's term as superintendent expired Dec. 31. In the letter, the commissioners wrote that they understood she did not intend to run for re-election.

Isbell did file as a candidate, although she later withdrew her candidacy, citing health reasons.

The commissioners wrote in the March 10 letter that due to the tension in the superintendent's office, they would allow Gerhart to work out of their office rather than the superintendent's office.

According to the lawsuit, the commissioners reversed their decision April 1, 2010, and told her that her position would be terminated effective April 16, 2010.


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