Lawsuit against Buffalo Bill museum dismissed


CODY — A former Buffalo Bill Center of the West employee has had her federal lawsuit thrown out against the museum, as U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Freudenthal described her claims of gender discrimination lacking proof, and said her other claims of breach of contract, defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress were brought forth in an improper venue of jurisdiction. 

Powell resident Bonnie Smith was fired from her position as curatorial assistant in the Draper Natural History Museum in the spring of 2019, a position that paid her an annual salary of $41,000. 

The museum said she was fired for insubordination, gross misconduct and violation of company policies. Smith claimed these reasons were fabricated and said she was actually fired as retribution. She said she reported to a BLM archaeologist that historical artifacts had been mishandled by another museum employee. She also said the museum has a history of age and gender discrimination, but offered no proof for this statement.

Smith said her coworkers started turning on her when she was asked by a museum human resources employee on Facebook if she was a Wiccan. Conversations this employee, Terry Harley, had with others related to Smith’s religion, Smith said, created “a toxic work environment,” with a meeting also held on the matter. Freudenthal said since these claims pertain to religious discrimination, they did not connect to Smith’s allegations of gender and age discrimination, and furthermore do not prove discrimination on face value. 

“The bare allegation that Harley’s conversation with unnamed individuals created a toxic work environment is conclusory and does not put defendants on notice of the parameters of the claim,” Freudenthal wrote in her decision, adding that her coworkers shifting their behavior towards her doesn’t equate to harassment. 

Smith said she was also told she could not write grants because she was a woman, but provided no proof for this claim. She also accused coworker Nate Horton of laying his “hands on her in a violent and aggressive manner,” but said her supervisor and Draper Curator Charles Preston did nothing to address the situation. Freudenthal criticized this alleged event as having nothing to do with age or gender discrimination.  

Smith said Horton and coworker Melissa Hill “conspired” against her to make false allegations that led to her eventual termination. 

When Preston retired at the end of 2018, Smith said current Center director Rebecca West became her direct supervisor and started targeting her as part of a “personal vendetta.” Smith said prior to this change, she had never had received poor performance reviews or had any disciplinary action taken against her. 

Smith pointed to a younger museum employee, Corey Anco, being promoted over her, as proof of age and gender discrimination. Although Anco had worked at the museum for a shorter period of time, he had more educational qualifications than Smith. It was this employee Smith reported to federal authorities for his handling of artifacts at the Marquette Mammoth site.

In 2019 Smith submitted a discrimination charge against the Center with the U.S. Department of Labor, on the basis of sex, age and retaliation. In February 2021 the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission sent Smith a Right to Sue letter. A Right to Sue letter is issued when the agency cannot determine whether the employer discriminated against an employee.

In May, Smith entered her federal lawsuit against the Center. She requested pay for lost and future wages, damages and reimbursement for attorney’s fees.

In an earlier ruling, Freudenthal dismissed Smith’s retaliation claims against the museum, and continued that ruling in her final Oct. 28 dismissal of the case. 

However, Freudenthal did leave the door open for Smith to pursue her claims of breach of contract, defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress with a state level court. In contrast to the gender discrimination claim, these claims were dismissed without prejudice.

Smith’s Park County civil case against the museum, alleging it stole Super 8 films and other property belonging to her, is still active, although no action has taken place on the case since the middle of last summer after the museum returned those films to her.

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