By Michael Howell
On September 13, former County Road Supervisor David Ohnstad amended his lawsuit against the Ravalli County Board of Commissioners for wrongful termination of employment, adding some charges against Commissioners Ron Stoltz, Suzy Foss and Matt Kanenwisher as individuals. Ohnstad claims that these three commissioners were privately pursuing his ouster even before taking office in January 2011. Ohnstad’s employment was officially terminated on January 20, 2012 after these three commissioners found that he had made false statements about repairs on Upper Woodchuck Road and failed to obtain appropriate engineering.
In his lawsuit, filed in federal court, Ohnstad denies those allegations and instead alleges that it is the commissioners who are lying and that they violated county policies, open meeting laws, state and federal laws and his constitutional rights in their zealous attempts to fire him.
Ohnstad claims that both Foss and Kanenwisher, after being elected and before taking office, conducted a meeting with road department employees to solicit complaints against him or the management of the department. After taking office, he claims, Foss and Stoltz began making false and baseless accusations against him. First, he states, Stoltz accused him of failing to report a snowplow accident on West Fork Road. Ohnstad claims the charge was baseless because state law requires the plow operator to report the accident. Then Stoltz allegedly arranged a private meeting with road department employees to discuss his concerns about the department and then accused Ohnstad of acting improperly in a clearing project on West Fork Road. That accusation, according to Ohnstad, also turned out to be baseless. He claims Stoltz later distributed a questionnaire to road department employees which was designed to elicit employee complaints about him.
Ohnstad also claims that an investigation of his activities related to the Upper Woodchuck Road repairs was initiated without any public consideration or decision by the board of commissioners and that Stoltz’s removal of the Upper Woodchuck Road project file as part of that investigation was in violation of county policy. He argues that the decision to initiate that investigation and take those files was done in violation of open meeting laws. Ohnstad also claims that Stoltz should not have participated in the vote to fire him since he (Stoltz) directly participated in the investigation and collection of evidence.
Ohnstad did pursue an internal grievance procedure over his termination but claims that that decision, to uphold the termination, was also illegal. He claims the decision letter, signed by Commissioner Kanenwisher, which he received in response to the grievance meeting, did not actually reflect what happened at that meeting, but instead contains detailed factual arguments about the alleged basis for the firing which were not discussed, even in cursory fashion, at the grievance meeting. He could find no public record, he states, of any open discussion by the commissioners of those alleged facts. He claims this is in violation of the open meeting laws and asks the court to void that decision.
Ohnstad claims the Board of Commissioners deprived him of his property interest and liberty interest by failing to provide due process in accordance with both the state and federal constitutions. He claims that his discharge was in retaliation for his unwillingness to engage in actions that were in violation of county policy. He states that it would have violated public policy for him to have performed work on the road other than per the terms of the settlement agreement and the previous commission’s instructions, to have not followed the grading and drainage plans for the road, and to have allowed the fence in the roadway contrary to encroachment regulations. He claims he was fired without good cause, since the allegations about his lying and incompetence were baseless.
Ohnstad is asking for damages. His pay, with benefits, was estimated at the time of termination to be about $83,984.60. He has since found other employment, but was unemployed from January 20, 2012 through July 23, 2012. He plans to seek 6 months of wage and benefit loss at approximately $6,998.71 per month, a total of $41,992.26. He is also seeking general damages for the unnecessary and unwarranted humiliation and other emotional distress he suffered. Those damage awards are set by the jury but Ohnstad states he believes a jury could fairly award $500,000 to $1 million.
Ohnstad is also seeking punitive damages against Stoltz, Foss and Kanenwisher that could total $500,000 to $1.5 million. This amount is also at the discretion of the jury, however. Ohnstad is also seeking attorney’s fees under the Private Attorney General Doctrine.
In a preliminary pretrial statement, the county denies the charges, claiming that no policy or custom of Ravalli County caused any alleged violation of rights under either the state or federal constitutions. The county claims that the individual county defendants are entitled to immunity under the law and that any award of punitive damages would also violate state and federal law and the constitutions. The county claims that the Private Attorney General Doctrine does not apply and that when Ohnstad waived his right to privacy regarding the proceedings he gave up his claim to a liberty interest regarding negative information about him being made public. The county claims it may not be held liable under the law and that claimed injuries and damages allegedly sustained by Ohnstad were not proximally caused by any conduct of the commissioners or other elected officers of Ravalli County.