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Former election administrator sues Lincoln County, alleging wrongful termination

by SCOTT SHINDLEDECKER
Hagadone News Network | June 4, 2024 12:00 AM

Lincoln County’s former election administrator has filed a lawsuit against the county alleging wrongful termination.

Paula Buff, through her attorney Ann C. German, filed the suit in March 2024. The suit was served on Wednesday, May 29.

According to the court filing, Buff brought the suit against the county pursuant to “The Wrongful Discharge from Employment Act.”

Buff alleges she was “constructively discharged, as defined by Montana Code Annotated 39-2-903 (1) by the county on March 24, 2023.” 

The code states that “constructive discharge” means the voluntary termination of employment by an employee because of a situation created by an act or omission of the employer which an objective, reasonable person would find so intolerable that voluntary termination is the only reasonable alternative.

She also alleges that acts and omissions by the county were “malicious.”

Buff is seeking compensation for lost wages and other benefits as well as punitive damages.

Buff was one of three county employees who submitted letters of resignation on March 24, 2023. Former county Clerk and Recorder Robin Benson and Buff’s assistant, Amanda Eckart, also submitted their letters that day. Benson and Eckart are not part of the suit. Eckart works in the Clerk of District Court office.

Buff now serves as an election advisor for Flathead County. She was hired March 19 on an interim basis. According to the job summary, the advisor assists the elected clerk and recorder in ensuring that functions of the office meet statutory responsibilities as outlined in state code. 

The person who holds the position provides advice and assistance with a range of professional administrative services for ongoing department operations and activities, among others.

Buff declined to comment for this story.

Buff began as Lincoln County’s election head on Jan. 17, 2021, following the resignation of Chris Nelson less than a week after the 2020 general election. According to a previous story in The Western News, Nelson didn’t respond to requests for comment, but then-County Administrator Patrick McFadden said Nelson left the job for personal reasons.

Nelson only served in the position from August 2020 to November 2020. He was appointed following the resignation of previous Election Administrator Leigh Riggleman.

At the time, county officials gave no reason for Riggleman’s resignation. She departed after county commissioners switched from her proposed all mail-in election — meant to avoid the spread of the coronavirus on Election Day — to a traditional poll election. After Riggleman’s resignation, commissioners changed course again, favoring a mail-in voting process.

In Buff’s suit, she contends the county subjected her to acts and omissions which she found so intolerable that, “voluntary termination of her employment was the only reasonable alternative.”

The suit also alleged that the acts and omissions by the county were material violations of express provisions of its own written personnel policy.

District 3 Commissioner Josh Letcher alleged Buff falsified election documents at a March 1, 2023 meeting, though Benson said she had no idea of what documents Letcher was referring to and was not provided a copy of any specific documents.

Benson, in her resignation letter, wrote that, “There is zero respect or even common courtesy from commissioners to county election employees or myself. My job has never been political, both on the clerk and recorder side and especially elections. Now, politics is being shoved down my throat and I refuse to comply with someone else’s world view.”