ibarra_lawsuit-response

The University of Montana filed three documents in court Monday regarding an August lawsuit filed by four named and 18 anonymous employees at UM alleging that the University perpetuated gender-based discrimination.

The University of Montana filed three documents in Missoula District Court Monday challenging an August lawsuit alleging the University discriminated on the basis of sex. 

UM filed a partial motion to dismiss, a brief in support of the motion to dismiss, and an answer to claims in court Oct. 18, all documents that challenge accusations that UM and President Bodnar perpetuated a “good old boys club” and discriminated against female faculty and staff on the basis of sex.

Four plaintiffs filed the August suit: Catherine Cole, UM’s former vice president of enrollment management and strategic communication; Barbara Koostra, formerly the director of the Montana Museum of Art and Culture; Mary-Ann Sontag Bowman, who still currently holds a tenured professor position in UM’s school of social work; and Rhondie Voorhees, UM’s former dean of students.

At the end of August, 18 more women came forward with similar claims. The plaintiffs petitioned to re-file the suit, seeking class action status. The additional 18 women signed on anonymously. 

“Today’s action really is the starting point in the University’s defense,” said Dave Kuntz, UM’s director of strategic communications and the spokesperson for the suit. “Since the suit was filed over the summer, the University has been working to put this together, identify the legal strategy and ensure that we’re able to bring the facts to light to show that these accusations are without merit.”

Kuntz said the University is seeking to dismiss the claims made by Bowman. She claimed in the suit that the only tenured male colleague in the school of social work was encouraged to apply for the position of department chair, essentially ending Bowman’s professional growth. Bowman did not apply for the department chair position. 

The brief supporting the motion to dismiss, filed on Oct. 18 by the University’s lawyers, states: “An employee’s own decision to not seek a position cannot constitute an adverse employment action as a matter of law. As such, Dr. Sontag Bowman’s Title IX claim for breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing should be dismissed.”

Kuntz said the University is choosing to press forward with the legal process for the other three claims to ensure the facts are brought to light. Kuntz added that at this time, the University will not be proceeding with any kind of settlement. 

“We’re really confident that when the facts are shown, that we’ll be able to disprove these accusations,” Kuntz said. 

The suit filed in August against UM states President Seth Bodnar created “a retaliatory culture” in which women were punished for “expressing challenging or dissenting statements.” The suit also claims “UM created a brick wall for these women’s careers.” 

The answer to claims document filed by UM states: “Defendants had legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for employment actions involving the plaintiffs.”

The document also states plaintiffs’ claims of “sexual harassment/a hostile work environment” are null because they did not inform UM of any complaints, and therefore UM could not take “corrective action.”

UM’s defense is based on the argument that UM did not do anything to violate Title IX with respect to the plaintiffs.  

The judge will be making some decisions regarding this suit in the coming days, according to Kuntz’s understanding from discussions with the University’s lawyer. These decisions will include either approving or denying the motion to dismiss Bowman’s claims, determining whether the August suit will count as a class action and asking plaintiffs and the University for additional evidence, according to Kuntz.

Susan Miltko, an outside lawyer, was hired to head the University’s defense because UM legal counsel, Lucy France, was named in the August lawsuit. 

According to previous Kaimin reporting, a class action suit can be filed when a large number of individuals have been harmed by the same policy or practice. Filing a class action allows the court to handle a case more efficiently. 

However, the process of seeking class action status can take months to a year. The sexual discrimination suit is still in the class certification phase. 

If the plaintiffs are identified as a class by the court, and the suit proceeds, it could take a couple of years to be decided in the courts. 

Kuntz said in the next few days, the court will be coming out with a scheduling order, which will allow the University to begin putting all their information forward. 

“The University is confident that when the facts are made public, that it will show that there is no legal basis for the plaintiffs’ claims here,” Kuntz said. 

He said the University will be as transparent as possible moving forward.