Title IX complaint amended, 18 more women contacted plaintiffs, lawyers

UM: Women have advanced, been promoted on campus

By: - August 19, 2021 5:57 pm

Another 18 women with similar allegations have contacted the four plaintiffs or lawyers involved in filing a Title IX gender discrimination and harassment lawsuit against the University of Montana and Montana University System, according to an amended complaint filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Missoula.

The amended complaint requests a class certification for female employees who have experienced harassment, discrimination and retaliation at UM: “Upon information and belief, the defendants have discriminated against multiple dozens, if not hundreds, of women, limiting and adversely impacting their career paths and opportunities.”

Describing a “good ol’ boys club,” the four named plaintiffs — former high-ranking UM administrators Cathy Cole, Barbara Koostra, and Rhondie Voorhees, and current associate professor Mary-Ann Sontag Bowman — allege a hostile educational environment and retaliatory culture against women. First filed on August 4, the complaint also cites “John Doe defendants 1-50.”

Thursday, UM spokesperson Dave Kuntz said the campus and university system disagree with all the allegations, including the argument the case should be certified as a class. Under the leadership of UM President Seth Bodnar, Kuntz said the majority of the deans at the campus are women, and since Bodnar took the helm in January 2018, 78 percent of all promotions at UM have been female, and 59 percent of all new hires have been female.

The Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education could not be reached for comment Thursday afternoon via voicemail. However, UM and MUS earlier said the claims are “baseless and without merit.”

“We look forward to vigorously defending our institutions in court,” said UM and MUS. “The University of Montana is committed to providing a working and learning environment that is free from all forms of discrimination.”

Title IX of the federal Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

The amended complaint doesn’t name additional female staff or former employees, nor does it identify John Does. However, it notes the plaintiffs or legal counsel have been advised that another six women, in addition to the 18 who contacted them directly, have shared experiences with harassing, discriminatory and retaliatory conduct.

The lawsuit describes the class as individuals employed by the university at any point since 2013; as having experienced harassment, retaliation, and/or discrimination on the basis of sex; and who were forced to resign, had their position terminated, and/or had their options for professional advancement limited.

“Defendants’ culture of retaliation and intimidation against women who speak out continues today,” said the court document, arguing for class certification. “Defendants’ disingenuous attempts to discredit the named plaintiffs directly threatens and discourages other potential plaintiffs from joining this lawsuit. Understandably, many women fear publicly joining this lawsuit because of these threats, which makes joinder of all class members impracticable.”

The nature of the threats was not clear in the complaint.

Lawyers Hillary Carls and Sherine Blackford of Blackford Carls in Bozeman could not be reached for comment Thursday via email.

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. In Montana since 1998, she loves hiking in Glacier National Park, wandering the grounds of the Archie Bray and sitting on her front porch with friends. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana. She worked there from 2006 to 2020. As a Missoulian reporter, she was named a co-fellow by the Education Writers Association to report on a series about economic mobility; grantee of the Society of Environmental Journalists for a project on conservation from the U.S. to Africa; and Kiplinger Fellow in Digital Media and Public Affairs Journalism. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune and Missoula Independent, and she earned her master’s in journalism from the University of Montana. She lives in Missoula with her husband, Brock, who is also her favorite chef, and her pup, Henry, who is her favorite adventure companion. She believes she deserves to wear the T-shirt with this saying: “World’s most mediocre runner.”

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