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Arguments heard for motion to dismiss claim in University of Montana Title IX lawsuit

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A Title IX suit against the University of Montana went before a federal judge on Wednesday in Great Falls to hear arguments over a motion to dismiss one of the plaintiff's claims. 

The lawsuit, filed in early August in federal court in Missoula by three former and one current UM employee, accuses the university and Montana University System of sex-based discrimination and Title IX violations. This is the first time the case has been heard in person.

Saying UM fostered a toxic environment where women were discriminated and retaliated against, the four plaintiffs — Catherine Cole, Barbara Koostra, Mary-Ann Sontag Bowman and Rhondie Voorhees — describe treatment from the university they say is part of the “good ‘ol boys’ club.” They also specifically point to President Seth Bodnar creating a campus environment adverse to women.

On Oct. 18, UM filed a response refuting the allegations and asking for Sontag Bowman claims to be thrown out of the suit, saying they are false and fail to establish a viable claim under Title IX.

Federal Judge Brian Morris presided at Wednesday’s motion hearing. He did not make a ruling.

Sontag Bowman’s complaint surrounds the School of Social Work.

“At the encouragement of UM leadership, the only male faculty member and current chair sought a second 5-year term; effectively, foreclosing female leadership in the School of Social Work for a decade,” Sontag Bowman’s complaint reads.

It goes on to say, “Had UM not discouraged other applicants by selecting its preferred choice, Dr. Sontag Bowman would have applied for this leadership position.”

Since Sontag Bowman did not apply, UM’s argument is that Title IX does not apply in this situation.

In order for a Title IX complaint to have merit, there needs to be an “adverse” action on the part of the defendant, and Sontag Bowman fails to identify such adverse action on the university’s part, UM spokesman Dave Kuntz said.

Title IX of the federal Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex.

On Nov. 11, a suit was filed against Voorhees in federal court in Arizona by a student at an Arizona university alleging Voorhees retaliated against her for reporting a sexual assault.

A date for a new hearing in the UM Title IX case has not been set yet. The plaintiffs are represented by Hillary Carls and Sherine Blackford of Blackford Carls P.C. in Bozeman. 

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