Hall & Evans’ attorney Jill Gerdrum recently obtained a favorable appellate decision on behalf of a financial services company after Montana’s Eighteenth Judicial District Court granted summary judgment to her client and denied the plaintiff’s Motion for Leave to Amend to add new claims.

In 2019, the financial services company terminated its Vice-President of Marketing for lack of professionalism and violation of company policies.  The company’s President, VP of Human Resources, and VP of Sales & Marketing attended the termination meeting and provided the plaintiff a copy of the company’s internal grievance policy, which required a grievance be filed within 5 days.  The plaintiff did not file a grievance and instead sued the company under Montana’s Wrongful Discharge From Employment Act (WDEA) and filed a separate age discrimination claim with the Montana Human Rights Bureau (HRB).

Ms. Gerdrum filed a Motion for Summary Judgment on grounds the company had good cause for the termination and the claim was barred for the plaintiff’s failure to grieve.  In briefs and at hearing, the plaintiff disagreed with the company’s interpretation of its policies and pointed to evidence that he was promoted, had been given a raise, and performed well in some areas.  The plaintiff also argued that the company should not be entitled to assert the failure to grieve defense on multiple grounds.  Specifically, the plaintiff contended that the company did not provide him with both “notice and a copy” of its grievance procedure, as required by statute, and that the grievance would have been futile because the decision-makers were present at the termination meeting and indicated their approval of the termination.

Shortly after Ms. Gerdrum filed her Motion for Summary Judgment, the HRB dismissed the age discrimination claim for lack of reasonable cause to believe discrimination occurred.  The plaintiff then sought to amend the District Court action to add the age discrimination claim and additional claims under the WDEA.  The District Court then granted summary judgment solely on the failure to grieve defense and denied the plaintiff’s Motion for Leave to Amend because the additional WDEA claims would be barred and the plaintiff’s age discrimination claim would be futile because he admitted at deposition that he was terminated for reasons other than age.  Plaintiff then appealed the District Court’s ruling.

The Montana Supreme Court affirmed summary judgment for Ms. Gerdrum’s client on the WDEA claim, holding that providing a copy of the grievance policy satisfied both the “notice” and “copy” requirements.  It also rejected the plaintiff’s argument that he was exempted from the grievance process because the company decision-makers were involved in the termination.  The Court also affirmed the denial of the plaintiff’s Motion for Leave to Amend, although on different grounds than the District Court provided. The Montana Supreme Court stated that the company presented evidence in briefs and at hearing that the plaintiff was unprofessional and violated company policies and while the plaintiff disagreed with the company’s assessment of him and interpretations of its policies, he did not present anything more than speculation that the company’s reasons for termination were a pretext.  The Montana Supreme Court clarified and re-affirmed an earlier holding that in terminations of high-level managerial employees, such as the plaintiff, the company need not prove the truth of every fact underlying its termination decision, but rather need only establish it reasonably lost trust in the manager’s abilities.  The Montana Supreme Court held that the District Court could have granted summary judgment to the company on both grievance and good cause grounds, and that the plaintiff’s proposed amendments would have been futile because his age discrimination claims would have failed under either Montana or federal law.