An MHP claims he was fired for searching for mental health resources

The Montana Department of Justice said this week that it is investigating claims by a former state trooper that he was fired after seeking help dealing with work-related PTSD.

Zach Miller in a wrongful death lawsuit filed in Lewis and Clark County Court last week that he was fired from the Montana Highway Patrol in Paulson in November 2021. Earlier that year, Miller sought help for PTSD and additional mental health disorders. Two months after the state Department of Justice began an internal campaign encouraging soldiers to do so, according to the lawsuit.

Emily Cantrell, a spokeswoman for the Montana Department of Justice, said in an email Monday that the department is looking into Miller’s allegations.

“There is no question that Montana Highway Patrol has 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 defendant included in the court filing; It does not specify to whom Miller sought mental health resources, or at what level in the agency the decision was made to terminate Miller’s employment.

Miller, who reached him by phone Monday, declined to comment.

According to the lawsuit, Miller was sworn into the state highway patrol in 2014, and received numerous awards and recognition for his service over the next seven years without discipline or reprimand before his termination. During that time, his job duties included cases where he was threatened, investigating horrific fatal accidents and performing CPR on at least five individuals, including a 34-day-old infant who did not survive, according to the report.

Miller’s later diagnoses included post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions that were determined by doctors and mental health providers, according to the lawsuit, to be a result of his work as a soldier. Those circumstances deepened in 2021, according to the lawsuit.

In May 2021, the Department of Justice began a mental health awareness campaign described in Miller’s suit as encouraging access to resources and assistance.

Sgt. Jay Nelson, a spokesperson for the MHP, said Tuesday that the campaign included a series of emails from Col. Steve Lavin during Mental Health Awareness Month.

Including the Peer Support Program, “The well-being of the troops has always been a priority for the Patrol, and we have a robust program to help soldiers who may be experiencing a mental health crisis,” Nelson said.

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 deaths in the line of duty.

“This tells us that the most dangerous time for law enforcement officers is off-duty, at home,” the Office of Community Guided Police Services report read. “Agencies need to offer resources that will help improve the mental health of officers.”

As a result of that government awareness campaign, Miller met with supervisors on a nondescript level and informed them of his diagnoses. Miller was placed on administrative leave, but refused a year’s leave.

State law requires the Highway Patrol to provide salary benefits for up to one year if a soldier goes on leave after being injured. that law Department He states “an injury that necessitates medical or other remedial treatment and renders the member unable to perform the duties of the member,” and Miller claims that the supervisors refused to grant him permission because the law does not apply to mental health injuries.

Instead, Miller claims he was told he would be terminated unless he resigned from the Highway Patrol. Miller then applied for a disability retirement from the Montana Public Employees Retirement Administration. The request was denied, according to the lawsuit.

Miller was terminated in November 2021. At the time, according to the lawsuit, the troopers’ collective bargaining agreement had expired and the union was without a new contract, so it did not have a grievance policy to pursue recourse.

Miller asked the District Court judge to award him damages for lost wages and benefits with interest, as well as damages for physical and emotional distress. He also demanded a court order preventing similar incidents from happening to soldiers in the future.

Montana State News Bureau

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