Reinlasoder v. City of Colstrip

Reinlasoder v. City of Colstrip, 2016 MT 175 (July 19, 2016) (Rice, J.) (5-0, rev’d)

Issue: Whether the district court erred in denying Colstrip’s motion for judgment as a matter of law when Reinlasoder did not dispute that he had sexually harassed an employee.

Short Answer: Yes.

Reversed and remanded for entry of judgment for Colstrip

Facts: Colstrip discharged Reinlasoder from his position as Colstrip’s chief of police in May 2012, a position he had held since May 2004. Reinlasoder sued Colstrip for wrongful discharge, and Colstrip answered that it had fired him for good cause. Colstrip alleged numerous instances of misconduct, including pornographic emails, lying on his job application, insubordinate conduct, intimidating a female dispatcher, and sexually harassing a female dispatcher.

At trial, Reinlasoder introduced a letter from a female Colstrip dispatcher to the mayor, complaining about sexually inappropriate statements Reinlasoder had made to her. Kroll testified to the incident as stated in the letter, although on cross she admitted it happened a week earlier than the date she gave in the letter. According to her testimony, Reinlasoder invited her to view pornography with him because he thought she looked like a “freaky kind of girl that would like porn.” Reinlasoder introduced a witness statement corroborating the incident as described by the dispatcher, and the witness testified. Finally, a video deposition of an officer who witnessed the incident was also introduced, and was consistent with the other testimony. Reinlasoder did not dispute that the incident occurred, saying only that he could not recall it. 

Procedural Posture & Holding: Colstrip moved for judgment as a matter of law at the close of Reinlasoder’s case, arguing his undisputed sexual harassment constituted good cause for termination as a matter of law. The district court denied the motion, and the jury returned a verdict for Reinlasoder, awarding him $300,000 in damages. Colstrip renewed its motion for JMOL, and the district court again denied it. Colstrip appeals, and the Supreme Court reverses.

Reasoning: An employer has good cause to terminate an employee when it has a legitimate business reason for the termination. An employer is given substantial discretion when the discharged employee is in a managerial position, as Reinlasoder was. The female dispatcher’s testimony at trial, corroborated by two officers in the department, established that she was sexually harassed. His testimony that he could not recall the event is insufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact. Nor is the dispatcher’s incorrect statement of the exact date sufficient to create an issue of material fact. The crucial material fact was whether Reinlasoder made the comments to the dispatcher. He did not dispute that he did.