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Human rights bureau: Director created atmosphere of sex discrimination at Billings nonprofit

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Posted at 5:43 PM, Nov 18, 2021

BILLINGS -- After a seven-month investigation, the Montana Human Rights Bureau found reasonable cause that the executive director for a Billings-based, state-contracted program created an environment of sex discrimination and retaliation for three former female employees.

But now, questions remain for what the ruling means for the future of the Montana Professional Assistance Program, which helps medical professionals recover from substance abuse in the state.

The investigation began back in March when the three women- Meg McGauley Amber Roane and Cecilia Zinnikas- filed dozens of pages of allegations saying their boss, Mike Ramirez, made inappropriate and offensive statements and jokes about women and showed preferential treatment toward a male employee and program participants.

For the three former employees of the Montana Professional Assistance Program, or MPAP, the Oct. 28 ruling from the Montana Human Rights Bureau was a win.

“It's important because of several reasons, but it was really the first time that we got a sense of validation,” said McGauley, a former clinical coordinator for the MPAP.

But she adds her fight is not over.

“I’m not going to be just silenced. Until there’s a change made you know, I don’t feel comfortable walking away,” said McGauley. “I think that we continue to go towards a trial.”

The Montana Professional Assistance Program is a private, nonprofit agency that contracts with the state to help rehabilitate healthcare workers with addiction and substance abuse. Ramirez has headed the program for decades.

McGauley started her work as MPAP’s clinical coordinator in 2017. By January of 2021, she was fired by Ramirez.

McGauley asserts in the investigation she was fired from her position for speaking out against Ramirez to the MPAP board of directors after instances of what she says was blatant sex discrimination, among other things.

"The retaliation was clear that after we brought up, you know, the complaints with the board of directors about his discriminatory and abusive behavior," McGauley said.

“Just this underlying discrimination and belittling from him all the time,” she added. “But it came back around to because ‘they're female.’ Really, it was just clear there's just blatant, blatant discrimination.”

But McGauley is not alone. Former employees Amber Roane and Cecilia Zinnikas were also victims of sex discrimination and workplace hostility at the hands of Ramirez, according to the ruling from the Human Rights Bureau investigation.

“Sexist jokes, that would be, like, a blind gentleman walks into a fish market, tips his hat and says 'good morning, ladies,'” said Roane.

“Bullying,” said Zinnikas. “Stomping on the desk, getting in your face, screaming and intimidating, in the office, such that we made it where we wouldn't go in the office alone.”

MTN News reached out repeatedly to Ramirez and his legal representation, Billings-based attorney Calvin Stacey for comment. At one point in May, Ramirez was reached on the phone and directed MTN News to his attorney. Neither has returned phone calls or emails requesting comment on the investigation and ruling.

In the Human Rights Bureau ruling, Ramirez said in witness testimony that “the women engaged in behavior that was undermining and divisive to the program.”

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Human Rights investigator Barry Ivanoff wrote in his ruling that the harassment toward the women was so severe that it created an abusive working environment. Also, the women were subject to offensive conduct that amounted to actual discrimination because of their protected class.

Ivanoff also noted in the ruling that the motivation behind the discrimination was “clearly based on a protected class.”

He also noted that the harassment by a supervisor was unwelcome by the women and that it altered their conditions of employment.

McGauley believes Ivanoff got it right.

“Because isolated incidences are, you know, you’re like, that wasn't an appropriate comment, but I feel like the investigator was able to really put it together and see how hostile the work environment was,” said McGauley.

Another piece of evidence that surfaced from the Human Rights investigation is a similar case from 2002. In that instance, a former clinical coordinator named Linda Rupp also filed a discrimination complaint with the Human Rights Bureau alleging that Ramirez used derogatory name-calling and that he was “emotionally and verbally abusive.”

However, it’s unclear how that investigation was resolved.

In July, officials with the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, the agency that contracts with MPAP, said it was aware of the investigation into Ramirez. The agency decided at that time to renew MPAP’s contract for another six months as the Human Rights Investigation was ongoing.

The future of the program is now undetermined. Spokesperson Jessica Nelson with the Department of Labor and Industry said in November that “the department’s contract with MPAP is presently set to expire at the end of the calendar year and is being reviewed.”

But for the plaintiffs, in this case, that is exactly the problem. With no oversight to the program, they fear it’s the participants, including Montana doctors nurses and pharmacists, who suffer.

“We talk about how much we value health care professionals, and especially after this past year, and, you know, they suffer from the same conditions that everybody else may suffer, you know, substance abuse or mental illness, and they deserve a safe place to go for help,” said McGauley. “Unfortunately, that place is Montana Professional Assistance Program.”