Court date set for gender discrimination case against University of Montana, university system

By: - June 5, 2023 5:21 pm

Fall morning light shines upon Main Hall at UM. (Provided by the University of Montana)

A trial date is set for early next year in the lawsuit a group of women filed against the University of Montana and Montana University System alleging gender discrimination.

In August 2021, one current and three former high-ranking employees from UM alleged the flagship created a “discriminatory and hostile” environment for women, preventing their career advancement, forcing them out of jobs, shorting their pay compared to male counterparts, and retaliating against them.

UM and the MUS have defended themselves in the strongest language against the Title IX claims. Title IX is the 1972 amendment to the federal education act prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex by institutions that receive federal funds.

UM spokesperson Dave Kuntz earlier described the accusations filed in U.S. District Court in Missoula as “baseless” and “without merit,” and last week, he said UM will continue to fight the allegations.

“After nearly two years and receiving over 45,000 documents, the plaintiffs in this case have failed to come up with the evidence for their class action claims against UM,” Kuntz said in an email.

Since the case first was filed, 12 more plaintiffs are included, as many as 76 altogether have contacted the lawyers with gender discrimination claims, and their lawyers continue to argue the problems are similar enough, the judge should certify the group as a class.

In general, the plaintiffs argue they are women who, because of a discriminatory culture, were “treated unfavorably, treated differently from men, harassed, retaliated against, or discriminated against.”

In October last year, federal Judge Brian Morris ruled the gender discrimination case wasn’t a “class action” because the claims were too broad, but he also left the door open for the plaintiffs to try again if they find more evidence.

Generally, plaintiffs need to show a similar type of discrimination appears common among their group, or subgroups, that tie the class together, such as a policy of retaliation or disparate treatment.

In a court hearing in April, the judge asked the plaintiffs if they had made progress identifying a class, according to a transcript of the proceeding provided by UM. Lawyer Hillary Carls told the court the team was still reviewing records for evidence of UM’s practices and culture, and she anticipated a team of experts could help identify possible patterns.

“As it relates to class certification, I’ll be frank with your honor, we do not know yet if we will have the evidence necessary to meet your order,” Carls said about class certification.

​​However, she also said even if a class didn’t come together, the named plaintiffs would proceed with their lawsuit.

In May, a flurry of documents were filed in the case, including another amended complaint and the argument against the allegations, and an amended scheduling order from the judge that sets the trial date for Feb. 26 in the federal courthouse in Helena.

In an order on May 4, Judge Morris also ruled on a request to allow three additional plaintiffs to join the lawsuit. In the case of two, he found the complaints were too old and outside the statute of limitations, as the defendants argued, at best from 2013 or 2015.

However, Morris also agreed to allow another woman to be part of the lawsuit even though the defendants said she wasn’t ever employed, and the deadline to add her had passed.

In his order, the judge acknowledged this plaintiff, Vandi Theriot, “differs from all other named plaintiffs” as not having been employed at the university. However, the judge said her allegations are similar enough to be included, as plaintiffs’ lawyers had argued, and the reason for the late request is reasonable.

Theriot alleged gender discrimination surfaced during a hiring process at UM in late January 2023, shortly after the deadline to amend pleadings. She argued she was vetted for a top job at UM but promised a contract she never received; UM argued it decided to tap internal resources after the recruitment and split the duties among current staff.

“The court accepts that there exists some parallel between Theriot’s claims and those of plaintiffs,” the judge said in the order.

The order also found the allegations came to light after the deadline: “As a result, the court determines that plaintiffs could not have joined Theriot significantly sooner than the timing of their motion to amend.”

In response to a question from the judge, Carls said the plaintiffs don’t intend to add anyone else, and she also said they have rejected some people who have called.

“But frankly, I’m not in control of the defendants’ actions,” Carls said in the transcript. “And if they discriminate against another woman, and we see the case and the timing is right, we have ethical obligations to pursue that.”

The plaintiffs are represented by Carls and Sherine Blackford of Blackford Carls in Bozeman.

UM is represented by the Williams Law Firm and lawyers Susan Moriarity Miltko, James Johnson and Hannah Higgins of Missoula.

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.