ROCHESTER - A City Council member has filed a federal lawsuit against city officials alleging ongoing discrimination against her due to her attention disorder.

Molly Dennis alleged in a suit filed Monday that city officials and the Rochester City Council intentionally discriminated against and punished her for behavior related to her attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), including censure for most of last year that prohibited her from speaking to city staff except through department heads and administration.

"Defendants have repeatedly engaged in reprisals and retaliation against Dennis making it virtually impossible for her to discharge her duties as an elected public official," Dennis wrote in the suit.

Dennis also says city officials defamed her, citing an instance when Mayor Kim Norton told a third-party investigator looking into Dennis' discrimination claims last summer that Dennis has tried to fix parking tickets.

Norton's comment was included in the investigator's report in a section where the mayor described how she felt Dennis "micromanages and abuses her authority" by getting personally involved in incidents rather than directing residents to staff members. Norton said Dennis had demanded information in the past on confidential police matters.

The suit is the latest development in an ongoing fight between Dennis and city officials. City officials say Dennis has harassed staff and acted inappropriately as a public official while Dennis says she faces retribution for her efforts to make city business more transparent, pointing out city spending issues and the way local officials operate.

"My allegiance is to the taxpayers," she said in an interview Tuesday morning. "And I get retaliated against for that."

Rochester officials said in a statement that the city "is committed to defending itself from Council member Dennis' claims." Rochester has retained outside counsel through the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust.

"Due to the litigable nature of this item, the City of Rochester cannot comment further at this time," city officials said.

Dennis had petitioned the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to take her case, but the agency declined because her status as an elected official ― not an employee ― represents a legal gray area when it comes to employment discrimination claims. The agency offered her a 90-day window to file a lawsuit and settle the matter in court, which expired Monday.

Dennis said in the suit that the city continues to treat her as an employee, pointing out an email from City Administrator Alison Zelms last month that outlined protocols for how City Council members should interact with staff and what topics should be discussed in virtual meetings organized by Zelms or other officials.

Growing grudges

Tensions between Dennis and the city spilled into the open after the council censured her last year, though emails and other public records show Dennis has had issues with other colleagues and staff in the past. Each side claims the other has escalated tensions over the past few months with embarrassing public revelations that could jeopardize the public's trust in the city's ability to function.

A city-funded outside investigation found no merit in Dennis' discrimination claims, instead outlining several instances where Dennis appeared to be hostile toward other council members and staff — including a February council meeting where Dennis repeatedly confronted Zelms and fellow City Council members over concerns the meeting wasn't recorded. Several council members later told the investigator they felt physically threatened.

Dennis denied threatening her colleagues, saying these instances didn't happen or were purposefully misconstrued to damage her reputation. She says she talks with her hands and can be blunt and direct, but she would never physically threaten anyone.

One major incident was a contentious July 2022 meeting between Zelms, City Attorney Michael Spindler-Krage and Dennis over her behavior.

Dennis brought along a witness to help her process information city staff gave her. She said she asked to end the meeting early as she had trouble focusing and got up to shut a door, which caused Zelms and Spindler-Krage to become alarmed.

Dennis said Zelms and Spindler-Krage wouldn't allow her to leave at first, so she sat with her witness. She later said she heard Zelms warning staff in nearby offices to keep their doors closed "for their safety."

Rochester officials say Dennis became agitated at the meeting, and Zelms and Spindler-Krage tried to de-escalate the conversation for 10 minutes before ending the meeting, when "Dennis abruptly got out of her chair and moved toward" Zelms, who was only a few feet away, city officials wrote in a document outlining the reasons behind Dennis' censure. Spindler-Krage stepped in front of Dennis, "out of concern that she was out of control and that she may have hit or pushed City Administrator Zelms."

Dennis has in the past declined to publicly name the witness, citing the witness' desire to keep private. Yet Dennis said in an interview last month the witness would be willing to testify in a lawsuit against the city.

In previous interviews, Rochester officials have said Dennis refuses to accept responsibility for bad behavior and is purposefully spreading misinformation about city business to garner sympathy.

Dennis maintains city officials are trying to publicly smear her reputation for her attempts to keep residents informed and have more say in how the city is run. She's concerned with how media attention has affected her family, but she said she still feels called to serve area residents.

"I signed up to make good government," Dennis said Tuesday. "This incredible attack that I believe I've been enduring ... I never want to play the victim but I really feel like this is very wrong."