The Montana Department of Justice this week said it is investigating allegations by a former state trooper that he was fired after reaching out for assistance to handle his work-related post-traumatic stress disorder.
Zach Miller alleged in a wrongful discharge lawsuit filed in Lewis and Clark County District Court last week that he was fired from the Montana Highway Patrol in Polson in November 2021. Earlier that year, Miller had sought help for his PTSD and additional mental health afflictions just two months after the state justice department began an internal campaign encouraging troopers to do so, according to the lawsuit.
Emilee Cantrell, a spokesperson for the Montana Department of Justice, said in an email Monday the department was looking into Miller’s allegations.
“There’s no doubt our Montana Highway Patrol troopers have a difficult, stressful, and dangerous job,” Cantrell said. “We are investigating the allegations.”
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The Montana Department of Justice is the only listed defendant in the court filing; it does not specify from whom Miller sought mental health resources, or at what level in the agency the decision was made to terminate Miller’s employment.
Reached by phone on Monday, Miller declined to comment.
According to the lawsuit, Miller was sworn into the state highway patrol in 2014, received numerous awards and recognition for his service over the next seven years without discipline or reprimand before he was terminated. During that time, his job duties included instances of being threatened, investigating gruesome fatal crashes and performing CPR on at least five individuals, including a 34-day-old infant who did not survive, according to the filing.
Miller’s subsequent diagnoses included PTSD and other conditions which, according to the lawsuit, were identified by physicians and mental health providers to be a result of his work as a trooper. Those conditions deepened in 2021, the filing states.
In May 2021, the justice department began a mental health awareness campaign described in Miller’s lawsuit as an encouragement to reach out for resources and help.
Sgt. Jay Nelson, a spokesperson for MHP, on Tuesday said that campaign included a series of emails from Col. Steve Lavin during Mental Health Awareness Month.
“The welfare of troopers has always been a priority for the Patrol, and we have a robust program to help troopers who may be experiencing mental health crisis,” Nelson said, including a peer support program.
According to a 2020 report by the US Department of Justice, 228 officers died by suicide, compared to a total of 135 who died in all other line-of-duty deaths.
“That tells us the most dangerous time for law enforcement officers is off duty, at home,” the department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services report states. “Agencies need to offer resources that will help improve officers’ mental wellness.”
As a result of that state outreach campaign, Miller met with supervisors at an undescribed level and informed them of his diagnoses. Miller was placed on administrative leave, but declined a year-long leave of absence.
State law requires the highway patrol to provide salary benefits for up to one year if a trooper goes on a leave of absence following an injury. That section of law mentions “an injury that necessitates medical or other remedial treatment and that renders the member unable to perform the member’s duties,” and Miller’s lawsuit claims supervisors denied him the leave because the law does not apply to mental health injuries.
Instead, Miller alleges he was told he would be terminated unless he resigned from the highway patrol. Miller then applied for disability retirement from the Montana Public Employee Retirement Administration. That application was denied, according to the lawsuit.
Miller was terminated in November 2021. At the time, according to the lawsuit, the trooper’s Collective Bargaining Agreement had expired and the union was without a new contract, so he had no grievance policy with which to pursue recourse.
Miller has asked a District Court judge to award him damages in lost wages and benefits with interest, as well as damages for physical and emotional distress. He’s also asked for a short order preventing similar occurrences from happening to troopers in the future.