JODI HAUSEN, Chronicle Staff Writer | Posted: Thursday, February 9, 2012
City Manager Chris Kukulski’s former executive assistant has agreed to a $20,000 settlement with the city of Bozeman in a wrongful discharge case, the city’s attorney said Wednesday.
Karen Semerau sued the city several months after she was laid off “as part of a reduction in the city’s workforce due to budgetary reasons,” according to the complaint attorney Todd Shea filed in Gallatin County District Court in 2010.
“At the time of Ms. Semerau’s termination, the city had not prepared its budget for the upcoming year,” Shea argued. No other employees were let go and, in fact, city officials approved hiring three more employees two months after Semerau was laid off. They also gave pay raises to 45 city employees, including Kukulski.
But attorneys Kevin Meek and Cathy Lewis argued the city had legitimate reasons for eliminating Semerau’s position.
And though Semerau’s final day was to be June 30, 2010, she asked to leave at the end of April, defense attorneys stated.
Semerau’s “damages were caused, in part, by her own decision to leave her employment” early, they wrote.
Shea, however, argued that Semerau “quickly realized that the city was no longer interested in fully utilizing her services” and she “did not want to be on the city payroll knowing that (her) position was being eliminated.”
“I was under an enormous amount of stress,” Semerau wrote in an affidavit.
The city further argued that Semerau did not file a grievance per city policies and asked District Judge John Brown to dismiss the suit. State law mandates that prior to filing a lawsuit, employees “must first exhaust an employer’s grievance procedure before he or she can bring a wrongful discharge action,” defense attorneys claimed. But Shea contended Semerau was not adequately informed of city policy despite numerous communications to her before and after her termination.
“Ms. Semerau never understood or was ever made aware that the grievance procedures applied to either the elimination of her position or the termination of her employment,” he wrote, calling the policy “ambiguous.”
“Any ambiguity should be construed most strongly against the party who caused the uncertainty to exist,” he wrote.
“Thankfully Karen has secured a new job and she wanted closure with the city,” Shea said Wednesday.
Meek declined to comment beyond stating the settlement amount, referring the, Chronicle to the Bozeman City Attorney’s Office. A call to that office was not returned Wednesday.