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Samir Bitar

Bitar

A longtime lecturer at the University of Montana has sued the faculty union, alleging discrimination based on his Arabic ethnicity and Islamic faith — but he failed to produce a key document to support his claim in an earlier human rights investigation.

Samir Bitar, who has worked at UM in various capacities, filed the complaint against the University Faculty Association, a labor organization representing UM faculty members.

The Montana Human Rights Bureau investigated the complaint before it was filed in Missoula County District Court and found "the allegations of the complaint were not supported by a preponderance of the evidence," according to its final report. The report also said Bitar did not produce evidence to support his claims.

The documents filed in Missoula County District Court show the dispute is related to the faculty's collective bargaining agreement with UM.

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In the complaint filed in September, Bitar alleges the faculty union failed to file a grievance on his behalf in 2015 when he said the university violated the collective bargaining agreement.

He said UM informed him in August 2015 it would not award him an annual contract for the upcoming academic year, 2015-2016, according to the complaint. He said the contract offered to him — which he never produced to the Human Rights Bureau — was for only one semester, contrary to the union's agreement with UM to hire lecturers "for a full academic year rather than on a semester-to-semester basis."

Bitar "immediately brought the violation to the attention of his UFA representative" and asked if a grievance could be filed, the complaint said. But the complaint said UFA representative John Bardsley "refused to pursue a grievance for UM's violation."

However, in August 2017, UM sent a similar notice to all its lecturers about not hiring them for the spring 2018 semester, according to the court document.

"In response to the 2017 letter, the UFA immediately filed a grievance, complaining that UM's decision was a violation (of) the collective bargaining agreement with UM, as well as UM policy and past practice," the complaint said.

In declining to file a grievance on his behalf, Bitar alleges the faculty union discriminated against him on the basis of ethnicity, national origin and religion. The complaint said he "discovered this discriminatory intent only in August 2017, when the UFA filed a grievance in the face of the exact same treatment of the rest of the UM lecturers."

In its response, the faculty union notes it declined to pursue a grievance on Bitar's behalf in 2015, but it did so for legitimate reasons.

The faculty union said UM had offered Bitar a contract for the entire year, but with fewer hours, according to the Human Rights Bureau investigation. The report said Bardsley told Bitar he did not believe a violation of the collective bargaining agreement had occurred, but he proceeded to advocate for Bitar's employment with UM officials.

"As a result, Bitar ended up working 0.93 FTE (full time equivalent) that year," the report said.

In court documents, the faculty union argues it made decisions based on legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons. The faculty union also noted its officers knew Bitar was an Arabic speaker and Arabic in ethnicity, but the union representatives didn't know about his faith.

"The Association's officers and officials who dealt with Bitar had no direct knowledge of and never inquired as to Bitar's religious beliefs," the court document said.

The report from the Human Rights Bureau notes Bitar was included in the grievance the faculty union filed in 2017. Additionally, the report notes Bitar was not the only lecturer to have his hours reduced as student enrollment dropped.

The report noted Bardsley provided "credible witness testimony" that he received several complaints from faculty union members about UM's actions, but he "commonly refused to file grievances … when those complaints were not based on a violation."

In the court complaint, Bitar asks for an award for lost income and job opportunities, and damages for humiliation and emotional distress. He also asks for costs and attorneys' fees.

In the response filed late last month, the faculty union asks the complaint to be dismissed and the court to award reasonable attorneys' fees.

Bitar's lawyer, Quentin Rhoades of Rhoades, Siefert and Erickson, could not be reached by press time about the precise status of Bitar's current employment with the university. UM's human resources office also could not be reached late last week about his status.

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University of Montana, higher education