State Finds NorVal GM Harassed, Retaliated Against Employee

Source: A.J. Etherington. Glasgow Courier, 10/30/19.

The Montana Human Rights Bureau (HRB) released the decision of the Office of Administrative Hearings on the case of Shalaine Lawson against NorVal Electric Cooperative on Oct. 22. The decision ruled in Lawson’s favor and determined that NorVal general manager Craig Herbert had sexually harassed and discriminated against Lawson and then retaliated against her after she attempted to report her claim to Herbert, Norval’s board and the HRB.

The findings highlight a long and slow escalation of harassment from May to October 2017 that show Herbert made inappropriate comments and inquiries into Lawson’s sex life and appearance. Those comments included alluding to her having affairs or suggesting that her appearance meant she wanted to have an affair. The escalation culminated in Herbert inviting Lawson up to his hotel room while they were at the Montana Electrical Cooperative Association Convention in 2017. Lawson refused to meet him in his room following the request.

Following the convention, Lawson informed Herbert of her views about his behavior and sought to report his behavior. Under NorVal’s sexual harassment policy, the only method of reporting for an employee is to their direct supervisor. Unless the supervisor is the harasser, then the report can be made to the general manager. In Lawson’s case, Herbert was both. As a result, Lawson was unsuccessful in reporting her claim or in having it investigated. She then attempted to make a report to the NorVal board, however Herbert blocked her from making the report and instead stated she must make the report solely to him.

Eventually, Lawson attempted to bring her complaint to the attention of NorVal’s attorney, Matt Knierim, but he too refused to hear her complaint and sent her back to Herbert. The findings noted that after exhausting all other options of making a report, Lawson eventually filed a claim with the HRB, sat for depositions, investigations and the three days of hearings in the case.

After her attempts to report to Herbert and her subsequent report to the HRB, Lawson alleged she suffered what was described in the hearing findings as, “a constellation of retaliatory acts as a result of her protesting Herbert’s harassing conduct.” The documents ruled that Lawson was subject to “adverse employment action” after Herbert attempted to intimidate Lawson and told other NorVal employees and Lawson herself that he was investigating her for fraud.

“Herbert’s efforts to malign and to defame Lawson after she complained of his conduct had a direct effect on her ability to return to her position,” wrote the hearing officer, before going on to say, “No professional can or should tolerate an individual’s effort to diminish his or her reputation based upon fabrications and exaggerations. Calling into question Lawson’s ability to ethically and effectively perform her job duties had a material and adverse effect on Lawson’s employment and her potential future employment in that region of Montana.”

The hearing officer described Herbert’s defense against the complaint as illogical and self serving. Writing in the decision, the officer even highlighted concerns that evidence presented by NorVal was inconsistent with the same evidence presented in discovery. Specifically, detailed sentences about the complaint and Herbert’s response had been removed from a timeline produced by Herbert to support his testimony.

The officer wrote, “Herbert testified he begins a timeline on every employee at or near the employee’s time of hire to ‘protect himself.’ While that may be the case, Herbert offered no credible explanation as to the discrepancies between the two timelines NorVal produced during discovery and for hearing.”

Reached for comment, NorVal Attorney Max Davis, stated that any decision about an appeal or Herbert’s employment was up to the board. He denied knowing when the next board meeting would be. Herbert was also reached for comment and, on Oct. 28, said the board was scheduled to meet at the end of October, but he declined to say what day. In regards to whether the board would discuss an appeal he stated, “I’m sure they are going to discuss it.” Both Herbert and Davis provided no comment on the HRB decision.

Phone calls were placed to all eight board members but, at press time, only Lee Risa had been reached by the Courier and he referred all questions to NorVal attorney Max Davis.

The state’s decision follows on the heels of the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filing a federal lawsuit in Great Falls on Oct. 16 against NorVal for the same incidents. It was unclear at press time whether the decision by the HRB in Helena would affect the federal lawsuit, but questions were sent to EEOC attorney Amos Blackman. The HRB decision also follows on a suit filed in Valley County District Court by Lawson against NorVal, Herbert, the eight board members, Chris Christiansen, Lee Risa, Sam Gundermann, Rick Molvig, Kurt Breigenzer, Ron Reddig, Gary Meyer and Rocky Kittelson, NorVal Attorney Matt Knierim and 10 John Does. (For more on those lawsuits see EEOC Sues NorVal in the Oct. 23 edition of the Glasgow Courier).

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