A lawsuit between a former employee of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West has taken some unexpected twists and turns since it was filed.
Former employee Bonnie Smith said a number of items she loaned to the Center were not returned upon her termination, most notably two super 8 film movies her father shot of John Wayne serving as the Fourth of July parade marshal in 1976, along with his visit to the then Buffalo Bill Historical Center. She said she loaned them to the Center to become digitized.
Despite claiming they did not have the films in previous court filings, the Center informed Smith in May they had found the films “buried on a cluttered desk.” The films were soon returned to her attorney Christopher King.
“Now if they’ll just return the rest of my property that they don’t have,” Smith sarcastically remarked on her Facebook shortly after. “There’s a higher power at work and I am appreciative.”
Smith, who was a curatorial assistant at the Draper Natural History Museum in her final role, filed a civil case against the Center in Park County District Court in January. In May she also filed a federal lawsuit against the Center, alleging discrimination in her March 2019 firing.
The Center is being represented by Cheyenne attorneys Amanda Esch and Grant Rogers in the case.
Smith was a curatorial assistant in the Draper Natural History Museum and claims she was terminated due to what she asserts were false allegations made about her by five employees. She said Rebecca West, now executive director of the Center, fired her while serving in the role of a temporary supervisor. Smith said West had a “known and stated vendetta” against her that was unbeknownst to the executive director of the Center at the time, Peter Siebert.
Smith said West colluded with others to fabricate claims against her and fire her because Smith is a woman, because of her age, and as retaliation for reporting to federal agencies the Center’s mishandling of artifacts.
In a July filing, the Center said charges of discrimination based on age or gender, retaliation, breach of contract, defamation of character, intentional infliction of emotional distress should be dismissed for failure to state proof and lack of criminality.
“Many of the allegations supporting plaintiff’s intertwined theories are nothing more than conclusory, formulaic recitations that the court should disregard,” the defendants said.
Smith submitted a discrimination charge against the Center in December 2019 with the U.S. Department of Labor on the basis of sex, age and retaliation. By law, an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claim “must contain facts concerning the discriminatory and retaliatory actions underlying each claim” to preserve the claim for suit in federal court.
The Center also said Smith’s claims should not be taken at face value, and lack substantive proof for the allegations made. In regards to her accusation of a less-qualified, younger male being hired over her for a position, the Center said she provided no proof that she ever applied for, was qualified for, or ever rejected for the position that the man was given.
The Center further went on to say even if Smith’s allegations are true, she hasn’t made any claims that constitute discriminatory practice, defamation, infliction of emotional distress or harassment on face value.
In the Center handbook, it reserves the right to end an employee’s employment “at any time, for any reason.”
The plaintiffs submitted a motion to oppose the Center’s motion to dismiss on July 29.
“The plaintiff does not have to prove her case in her initial complaint,” King wrote. “The plaintiff does not have to plead with specificity each and every allegation. That is simply not the standard.”
A week later, the Center responded to this and said the plaintiffs don’t appear to be contesting their argument about retaliation, and continued their motion to dismiss all charges.
“They are attempting to basically make the plaintiff prove that she has a high likelihood of winning a case which has expressly been rejected as the requirement for pleading as set forth above,” attorneys for the Center wrote.
U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Freudenthal was called on to preside over the federal case after a conflict of interest was found involving Judge Alan Johnson.
Park County District Court Judge Bill Simpson recused himself from the county case on June 25 due to his family’s involvement with the Center. Judge Bobbi Overfield is now presiding over that case.