[A] Vermont State Police officer has filed a lawsuit against the Department of Public Safety and several of her supervisors alleging she faced discrimination based on age and gender while serving with the K9 team.
Corporal Michelle LeBlanc, 49, of Williston, alleged that in her 20 years on the force, she has repeatedly been denied promotions and participation in the K9 team because of her age and gender. LeBlanc also charged that she was retaliated against for complaining about the discrimination and for engaging in “whistleblowing behavior.”
LeBlanc was the only female police dog handler for the Vermont State Police from 2005 through 2015, when she worked with the K9 unit in Williston. As a handler, LeBlanc and her dog made 172 felony arrests, 460 misdemeanor arrests, seized more than $200,000 worth of drugs and cash, and made 23 “life-saving finds.” But LeBlanc struggled for years to be assigned to the unit, and was ultimately forced out against her wishes in 2015, which she alleges was because of her age and gender.
In LeBlanc’s complaint, she alleges that early in her career, she was told by supervisors that “as a female, she was not suitable for the K9 team.” Between 2000 and 2005, LeBlanc was denied a position on the K9 team three times in favor of “similarly situated” male applicants, she argues.
She was told by colleagues that there was a widely held belief that women should not be K9 handlers.
In 2005, when supervising officer Gary Genova left the K9 unit, LeBlanc finally got a position as a K9 handler. She was the third female K9 handler in the history of the state police.
LeBlanc alleged that in 2010, when Genova returned to the unit, he immediately put her work under more scrutiny than that of her colleagues, requiring a supervising officer to authorize her to respond to calls — something that was not required for male handlers. She further alleged that Genova told her to reduce her veterinary expenses or risk expulsion from the unit, forcing her to foot the cost of her dog’s bills, something other officers did not have to do.
In September 2010, LeBlanc witnessed a colleague drink alcohol while in uniform and in charge of a police cruiser. She reported the incident, causing her colleague to be investigated and disciplined. LeBlanc alleged that after the incident, the colleague displayed his letter of reprimand on his desk so that their colleagues would see that it was her who reported him, causing her to be ostracized at work. In 2012, she reported three officers for timesheet fraud and was again subject to hostility from her coworkers.
LeBlanc further alleged that in 2013, when Timothy Oliver took control of the K9 unit, he sent her an email that said, “Wow, you’re getting old.” LeBlanc alleged that Oliver repeatedly denied her requests for a meeting and singled her out for unnecessary additional assessments.
In 2015, Oliver posted LeBlanc’s position on the K9 unit as vacant, though she still held the role. Her dog was healthy and active, and she did not express interest in leaving the position. Oliver then required her to interview for the position that she already held, giving the role instead to a less-qualified male candidate, according to the suit.
Later that year, LeBlanc’s dog was injured and ultimately retired, so LeBlanc again reapplied for the position, though it was given to a less-qualified female candidate. LeBlanc ultimately had a meeting with Oliver, where he allegedly said he would block all her applications for a second dog, both because of her protests about discrimination, and because she was “too old.” LeBlanc was 44 at the time.
According to the suit, every male K9 handler’s request for a second dog has been accepted. LeBlanc noted that Oliver’s refusal to grant her a second dog cost her financial damage of $1,000 per month.
In 2016, another K9 handler allegedly told LeBlanc that an email had been sent to all of the state’s K9 handlers instructing them to ostracize her.
Later that year, LeBlanc was told she had to apply for a transfer from the Williston Barracks to the New Haven Barracks because of the complaints she’d made about her treatment in Williston. She was told the transfer would be temporary, but all of her requests to transfer back to Williston have been denied. LeBlanc alleged that this caused her financial harm, as did a shift change that she did not apply for, from the night shift to the day shift.
In New Haven, LeBlanc alleged she has had traffic ticket quotas, a lack of backup, and an undermining of her authority that her male colleagues did not face.
Captain Michael Manley of the New Haven Barracks allegedly told LeBlanc that her career is over, that she will never get a second dog, and that she should just “do her time and retire.”
Le Blanc’s suit against the Department of Public Safety, Genova, and Oliver seeks injunctive relief and compensatory and punitive damages.
The Vermont State Police referred comment on the case to the attorney general’s office. Calls to the attorney general’s office for comment were not returned Friday.
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