Investigation finds reasonable cause of discrimination and harassment by state contractor

By: - November 12, 2021 4:10 pm

Illustration by PXhere (Creative Commons)

The Montana Human Rights Bureau has found reasonable cause to believe that three former employees of a medical nonprofit that contracts with the state were subject to a years-long pattern of gender-based harassment, discrimination, and retaliation by the organization’s director, according to an investigative report.

The three former employees, all women, filed their complaints with the Montana Department of Labor and Industry’s civil rights bureau on March 17, claiming harassment by the clinical director of the Montana Professional Assistance Program spanned more than two years and ranged from sexist remarks about women to allowing a recently hired male employee to receive mileage reimbursements to boost his take-home pay.

“Witness accounts support [the women’s] claim that Ramirez routinely made offensive comments and jokes that were clearly specific to females,” an investigator for the Human Rights Bureau wrote in the investigative report.

Amber Roane, Meghan McGauley, and Cecilia Zinnikas all filed complaints against their supervisor, Michael J. Ramirez of Billings, saying he made sexist remarks, was threatening and demeaning, denied the women in the office opportunities for advancement, made light of a suicide attempt by a program participant and then retaliated when the complaints began mounting.

The investigation was completed on October 28. As of Friday, Ramirez is still employed at MPAP, according to a secretary who was reached by phone. The secretary said Ramirez was out of the office until Monday and unavailable for comment.

None of the women are still employed by the program.

The former employees said they suffered lost wages, humiliation, and discrimination, and that they believe Ramirez violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Montana Human Rights Act “by engaging in disparate treatment, discrimination, sexual harassment, and retaliation.”

The women have not received any financial compensation yet, but their lawyer, Eric Holm, of Holm Law Firm in Billings, said they would be requesting that from a hearing officer in the future.

To establish unlawful harassment by a supervisor, the following must be satisfied:

1) [The women] must be a member of a protected class;
2) [The women were] subjected to offensive conduct that amounted to actual discrimination because of her protected class, and the motivation behind the discrimination was clearly based on her protected class;
3) the harassment was unwelcome;
4) the harassment was so severe or pervasive that it altered the conditions of the women’s
employment and created an abusive working environment; and,
5) the harassment was by a supervisor.

In all three cases, the investigation found the women satisfied all five elements.

MPAP is a private nonprofit organization currently under contract with the Montana Department of Labor and Industry. It serves to administer assistance programs for Montana’s Boards of Dentistry, Medical Examiners, Pharmacy and Nursing.

DLI did not immediately respond to a voicemail asking if it was aware of the findings of the investigation.

The nonprofit organization seeks to help “the distressed healthcare professional whose ability to practice is diminished due to chemical dependency or substance abuse, psychiatric illness, disruptive behavior, sexual misconduct or problems associated with the process of aging,” according to MPAP’s website.

According to tax paperwork filed for the 2019 fiscal year, a substantial portion of the program’s funding comes from the state and other public sources. It reported a total revenue of $667,000 that year, of which the vast majority came from contributions and grants. Ramirez posted an annual compensation of $108,000.

Ramirez, who holds a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling, has been with MPAP since the 1990s.  McGauley, a former clinical coordinator, joined MPAP in 2017, followed the next year by Zinnikas, while Roane started work in 2019.

The investigation found Ramirez made sexist jokes about a blind man mistaking a fish market for females, calling un-popped kernels of popcorn as “old maids,” and referring to cookies his daughter made as “raging bitch cookies.”

Ramirez is also alleged to have made comments specific to females, such as “you want to either f*** ‘em or kill ‘em,” “you want to either f*** ‘em or fight ‘em,” referring to the female staff members as “girls,” referring to certain female participants as having “daddy issues,” that a male participant was “crying like a little girl,” as well as saying that women perceive things differently than men and was not going to “tiptoe around a woman’s feelings,” according to the final investigation report.

Ramirez did not deny that he made such types of comments, according to the report.

Additionally, the women alleged Mikhail Joutovsky, a retired surgeon now serving as the clinic’s interim medical director, made offensive sex-based comments as well.

“Though Joutovsky’s comments do not rise to the level of being severe or pervasive enough to alter the work environment, the fact that Joutovsky indicated he does not recall whether Ramirez ever spoke to him about any complaints made against him by the female staff, which it is clear there was at least one complaint, strongly suggests that Ramirez did not take such complaints seriously, providing further evidence of the hostile work environment Ramirez created,” the report says.

On September 23, 2020, the report says Ramirez met with a female participant in the program who had recently attempted suicide. During the meeting, Ramirez allegedly dismissed the attempt as a “cry for help” and then went on to roll up his sleeve and illustrate how to commit suicide properly.

Zinnikas reported Ramirez to MPAP’s Board of Directors over the incident, according to the investigative report. Then, on October 13, 2020, Ramirez wrote Zinnikas up for the first time, which she believes was retaliation for her reporting him to the Board.

In response, Zinnikas and McGauley wrote a letter to the board complaining about Ramirez’s discriminatory behavior leading to MPAP hiring an outside HR firm, BlueFire, to investigate their complaint.

After the conclusion of BlueFire’s investigation, Ramirez wrote a letter to the board saying, “Throughout this ordeal, Meg and Cecilia have shown their true colors, and I don’t want any part of it. I cannot work with these women,” referring to McGauley and Zinnikas.

“This is solid evidence of Ramirez showing a retaliatory motive when he fired McGauley on January 22, 2021. It was around this same time that Ramirez restricted Roane’s access to the employee files, as well as Zinnikas’ access to information on her laptop,” the investigative report says.

The report continues, “the most damaging evidence … is the fact that the two of individuals who had complained about Ramirez engaging in discrimination, Roane and McGauley, were fired from their employment within approximately a month and a half of BlueFire’s investigation being completed. Similarly, there is solid evidence suggesting that Ramirez also was seeking a way to get rid of Zinnikas, as indicated in his January 11, 2021, letter he submitted to the Board stating that he could no longer work with ‘these women.'”

As a result of its investigation, BlueFire provided several recommendations, including Ramirez’s possible termination. However, the report says, “rather than be receptive and immediately implement such, MPAP/Ramirez terminated McGauley and Roane’s employment, which led to Zinnikas’ resignation.”

The women also alleged MPAP discriminated against them based on their sex and retaliated against them for engaging in protected activity by treating them differently in the terms and conditions of employment, ultimately leading to her resigning their termination or resignation, and were treated differently than Joutovsky regarding business-related travel, attendance, pay, and less favorable treatment.

When Zinnikas and McGauley joined MPAP in 2018 and 2017, respectively, they were both told by Ramirez they would take over his position as director when he retired — the complaints allege that Ramirez had made similar claims to other previous employees.

Joutovsky was hired as a clinical coordinator, like Zinnikas and McGauley, but made $3,000 more a year than McGauley even though neither of them had clinical experience, the complaints say.

The difference in pay, according to the report, “suggests a disparity, but it also seems reasonable that Ramirez would want to increase Joutovsky’s pay given his experience and qualifications as a medical doctor, not because Joutovsky is male.”

The report found allegations that Ramirez would grant Joutovsky luxuries like traveling to work events around the state, letting him boost his mileage to increase his take-home pay, and allowing him to clock in while commuting to Billings from Whitehall not to be sex-based discrimination.

“On some level, Ramirez’s justification for approving Joutovsky to travel makes sense given Joutovsky’s recent arrival at MPAP and Ramirez’s desire to provide him exposure to MPAP’s stakeholders,” the report says. “This is also the plausible explanation that Ramirez approved Joutovsky for travel pay to and from his home in Whitehall when he met with program participants in Butte, which sits approximately 27 miles west of Whitehall.”

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Keith Schubert
Keith Schubert

Keith Schubert was born and raised in Wisconsin and graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2019. He has worked at the St.Paul Pioneer Press, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and most recently, the Asbury Park Press, covering everything from local craft fairs to crime and courts to municipal government to the Minnesota state legislature. In his free time, he enjoys cheering on Wisconsin sports teams and exploring small businesses. Keith is no longer a reporter with the Daily Montanan.