The MHP soldier claims he was fired for seeking mental health resources

The Montana Department of Justice announced this week that it is investigating claims by a former state police officer that he was fired after asking for help to manage his work-related post-traumatic stress disorder.

Zach Miller alleged in a wrongful dismissal lawsuit filed in Lewis and Clark County District Court last week that he was discharged from the Montana Highway Patrol in Polson in November 2021. Earlier this year, Miller had just sought help for his PTSD and other mental illnesses, two months after the state Justice Department launched an internal campaign to encourage soldiers to do so, the lawsuit says.

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

“There is no doubt that our Montana Highway Patrol officers 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 named defendant in the court record; it is not disclosed to whom Miller sought mental health resources or at what level within the agency the decision to terminate Miller’s employment was made.

Reached by phone on Monday, Miller declined to comment.

According to the lawsuit, Miller was sworn into the State Highway Patrol in 2014, receiving numerous awards and recognition for his service over the next seven years without discipline or reprimand before being fired. During that time, his professional responsibilities included threat cases, investigating gruesome fatal accidents, and performing CPR on at least five people, including a 34-day-old infant who, according to the record, did not survive.

Miller’s later diagnoses included PTSD and other conditions identified by doctors and psychiatrists as a result of his work as a soldier, according to the lawsuit. Those conditions have deepened in 2021, the filing said.

In May 2021, the Justice Department launched a mental health awareness campaign, which Miller’s lawsuit described as encouraging people to seek resources and help.

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

“Soldier welfare has always been a priority for the Patrol and we have a robust program to assist Soldiers who may be experiencing a mental health crisis,” Nelson said, including a peer support program.

According to a 2020 U.S. Department of Justice report, 228 officers died by suicide, compared to a total of 135 who died in all other on-duty fatalities.

“This tells us that the most dangerous off-duty time for law enforcement officers is at home,” the department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services report said. “Agencies need to offer resources that help improve the mental well-being of officers.”

As a result of this government awareness campaign, Miller met with supervisors at an undescribed level and updated them on his diagnoses. Miller was granted a leave of absence but declined a one-year leave of absence.

State law requires highway patrol officers to pay up to a year’s salary if a soldier is furloughed after being injured. That section of the law mentions “an injury requiring medical or other curative treatment that renders the member incapable of performing the member’s duties,” and Miller’s litigators denied him leave because the law does not apply to mental health impairments.

Instead, Miller claims he was told he would be fired if he didn’t resign from the highway patrol. Miller then applied to the Montana Public Employee Retirement Administration for a disability pension. That request was denied, according to the lawsuit.

Miller was terminated in November 2021. At that point, according to the lawsuit, the trooper’s contract had expired and the union didn’t have a new contract, leaving him with no grievance policy to take recourse.

Miller has asked a district court judge to award him compensatory damages for lost wages and benefits with interest, and damages for physical and emotional distress. He has also asked for a court order to prevent similar incidents from happening to soldiers in the future.

Montana State News Bureau