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Judge denies plaintiffs' class action certification in Title IX suit against UM

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A U.S. District Judge denied class action certification in a sex-based discrimination lawsuit against the University of Montana involving over 70 current and former employees on Monday.

Through a series of legal tests on current precedent, Chief Judge Brian Morris ultimately decided that the plaintiffs did not meet the requirements to grant them class status in terms of typicality and that they did not demonstrate the university’s liability “is subject to common proof.”

“Even after a year of litigation, there continues to be no evidence that supports the Plaintiffs’ class claims,” said Dave Kuntz, the university’s director of strategic communications. “This holds true despite the months of discovery and litigation that Plaintiffs have pursued.”

Chief Judge Morris’ decision was made without prejudice, meaning the plaintiffs could make another motion for class action status in the future.

“The court believes it appropriate to permit plaintiffs ‘a second bite at the class-certification apple,’ given the importance of the issues in this case and the previously discussed evidentiary difficulties discrimination cases present,” Morris wrote in conclusion.

The plaintiffs' legal team, Hillary Carls and Sherine Blackford of Blackford Carls P.C. in Bozeman, said they are preparing their case. 

"On behalf of our 16 clients, we look forward to their day in court," the attorneys said in a statement to the Missoulian. "Regarding the Court’s recent order discussing the women who are not named plaintiffs in this case, we are pleased that the Court has given us clear guidance in the early stages of this litigation on the evidence needed and the path to advocating for these absent women if and when we request class certification in the future." 

The Title IX suit was initially filed last August by three former and one current university employee and alleges that UM and the Montana University System fostered and encouraged a culture that resulted in unequal treatment of female employees. The original plaintiffs in the suit include Catherine Cole, Barbara Koostra, Mary-Ann Sontag Bowman and Rhondie Voorhees.

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

Within about two weeks of the filing, 18 more women joined with similar allegations of gender discrimination and harassment. At a hearing in June, the plaintiffs' lawyers said they had identified more than 70 other current or former UM employees as eligible class-action members.

Following the June hearing, 12 more women formally joined the suit, bringing the total number of plaintiffs to 16 current and former employees.

“Looking forward, the university remains confident that the allegations are not supported by facts, that class certification will not be granted in the future and that the claims themselves lack merit,” Kuntz said.

“The university continues to be committed to empowering its employees and creating opportunity for all,” Kuntz added. “This includes the proactive diversity, equity and inclusion work embraced by the university.”

Since Seth Bodnar took the reins as president of the university, 78% of campus promotions have been female employees and a majority of new hires have also been women, according to Kuntz.

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