Twelve more women signed onto a Title IX lawsuit against the University of Montana, Montana University System and John Doe defendants over the summer — one day before a July 30 deadline to add new plaintiffs.

The suit’s updated text explains that John Doe defendants include UM employers, employees or contractors who “may have committed one or more of the acts” alleged in the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs allege that UM President Seth Bodnar created a “retaliatory culture” and that UM’s environment “continues to create wage, promotion, and opportunity gaps for women.”

The Bozeman-based Blackford Carls firm representing the plaintiffs announced the additions on July 29. The suit was originally filed on Aug. 4, 2021. 

The new plaintiffs in July brought the total number of named plaintiffs to 16, up from four in the original suit. The suit’s text states that 30 additional women contacted Blackford Carls with stories similar to the named plaintiffs’. 

Blackford Carls is trying to get the court to certify the case as a class action. A class action suit requires that a common policy or practice harmed a large number of people. The certification hasn’t come yet. It can take over a year to certify a case as a class action. If the case proceeds, a class action suit can take years to go through the court system.

“University of Montana-Missoula (‘UM’) has long fostered and encouraged a culture, and the resulting actions, that ‘on the basis of sex’ denied female employees the benefits of their long dedication to UM’s educational programs. UM did not create a glass ceiling for these women’s careers. UM created a brick wall for these women’s careers,” the suit’s text states.

The four original plaintiffs were: Catherine Cole, former vice president of enrollment management and strategic communication; Barbara Koostra, former director of the Montana Museum of Art and Culture; Mary-Ann Sontag Bowman, a tenured professor in the school of social work; and Rhondie Voorhees, the former dean of students.

Additional named plaintiffs are: Courtney Babcock, UM’s former cross country coach; Laura Berkhouse, a former assistant in the office of UM’s legal counsel; Ruth Ann Burgad, a computer systems analyst at UM; Jennifer Cooper, a professor in the School of Music; Cindy Ferguson, another systems analyst who is retired; Freida Houser, a former Montana University System employee who served as the director of fiscal affairs; Sherrie Lindbo, another former MUS employee who worked as a financial manager; Jennifer McNulty, the former interim dean of UM’s College of Humanities and Sciences; Kathleen Reeves, the retired former office manager at UM’s law school; Vida Wilkinson, the outreach director at Missoula College; and two Jane Doe plaintiffs who were former UM students and employees.

The claims in the amended complaint reach back to employees who left UM as early as 2013.

Babcock, the former cross country coach, listed issues with male coaches and claimed UM repeatedly ignored requests to increase her pay. At the time, the suit claims, she was the lowest paid coach in the Big Sky Conference. 

Berkhouse claimed UM denied her accommodations for her disability, while allowing similar accommodations for male employees. 

The law school’s former office manager, Reeves, claimed the former law school dean, Paul Kirgis, “abused” her. She was “forced to retire earlier than she had planned.” Kirgis stepped down as the dean in Oct. 2021 because students accused him of discouraging them from going to Title IX.

According to the suit’s text, McNulty, who served as interim dean of the University’s largest school, the College of Humanities and Sciences, from 2018 to 2020, described being kicked out of meetings and making less than her permanent dean counterparts. McNulty’s claims also state the permanent dean who was hired for the position in 2020 — Larry Hufford, who stepped down from the position on March 2, 2021 — was a less qualified candidate than she was.

Multiple claims — namely, from Burgad and the two Jane Doe plaintiffs — stated investigations were mishandled by the UM Office of Equal Opportunity (2012) and the Title IX office (2016, 2019). 

And, a number of the new plaintiffs also claimed male counterparts with similar experience and qualifications received raises when they did not. They said the University retaliated against them for complaints and the plaintiffs were called “bullies” when they spoke up.

In October 2021, UM filed a partial motion to dismiss the claims of plaintiff Sontag Bowman that UM discriminated against her by encouraging a male counterpart to apply for the chair position in the school of social work. UM also filed an answer to all the claims in the suit. District court Judge Brian Morris denied the partial motion, according to previous Kaimin reporting. 

In an exclusive interview with the Kaimin last spring, President Bodnar said UM is committed to gender equity. He pointed to his cabinet, where women hold 10 of its 18 spots, along with the S.E.A. (Safe, Empower, Accelerate) Change Initiative started in 2019 as indicators of UM’s culture.

“This has been a priority for our institution and something that I think we’re making progress on,” Bodnar said. “Are we done? Absolutely not. Does sexism exist in the world? Does racism exist in the world? Absolutely, it does — and it’s something we all need to work to address in every way that we can.”

Dave Kuntz, UM director of strategic communications, said UM’s culture is on trial in this lawsuit. To prove its culture hasn’t created a brick wall for women’s careers, Kuntz said UM’s human resources department has examined data going back to 2018. 

HR found 78% of campus promotions since Jan. 2018 have been women employees, Kuntz said. Women made up 59% of new hires since Jan. 2018. He added UM’s new provost, Dr. Pardis Mahdavi, is the first woman to hold the position in over two decades. 

“While I don’t question or undermine or want to scrutinize anyone’s specific experience here at UM and those plaintiffs involved, what this data shows is that that narrative is just not correct,” Kuntz said.

Kuntz said UM has also made efforts to bolster its Title IX office by adding more staff and implementing mandatory trainings on sexual assault for students and University employees. 

The Title IX lawsuit is not the only one UM is facing. Former UM basketball coach Shannon Schweyen filed a Title IX lawsuit alleging sex-based discrimination last November. In May, a Missoula District Court judge denied a motion from UM to dismiss the complaint and compel arbitration, which would have allowed the suit to be settled out of court.