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Interim director hopes for accountability through sexual harassment, discrimination lawsuit

January 31, 2022
<p>The Beaumont Tower courtyard serves as another place to enjoy the greenery and aesthetics of campus while you study, meet with family and friends, or just take a break from the hustle and bustle of campus life.&nbsp;</p>

The Beaumont Tower courtyard serves as another place to enjoy the greenery and aesthetics of campus while you study, meet with family and friends, or just take a break from the hustle and bustle of campus life. 

Photo by Chloe Trofatter | The State News

Interim director of the MSU Native American Institute Christie Poitra filed a complaint to sue the university due to sexual harassment and discrimination. 

Attorney Elizabeth Abdnour has represented Poitra since her first Office of Institutional Equity, or OIE, complaint against her former boss John Norder two and a half years ago. 

Abdnour said the OIE complaint alleged violations of the relationship violence and sexual misconduct, or RVSM, policy and the anti-discrimination policy, but the hearing officer only found Norder in violation of the RVSM policy.

Poitra didn’t appeal this decision in hopes of moving on from the incident, but Abdnour said the sanctioning decision was to give Norder four weeks of suspension. 

“The idea that four weeks of suspension for creating a hostile environment, even if it’s just based on sex for your direct subordinate for years was an appropriate sanction, was not something that (Poitra) agreed with,” Abdnour said.

By then, Abdnour and Poitra filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which was transferred to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC. Abdnour said from May to December 2021, the EEOC did not complete the investigation, allowing them to request a Right to Sue Letter, leading to this month’s complaint.

MSU spokesperson Dan Olsen said the university is unable to comment on pending litigation. Olsen added the Native American Institute was moved from its previous department under the Office of the Provost, and it is now part of the office’s outreach and engagement. 

Abdnour worked at the Title IX Office at MSU from 2015 to 2018. She said the office continues to have staffing and diversity issues, but she’s unsure why there have been significant delays in Poitra’s investigation.

“Since the time that I haven’t worked there, the timelines have ballooned again,” Abdnour said. “She’s actually the third or fourth client I’ve had who has had a timeline of 500 days or more for their investigation. I honestly do not know why it is taking so long.”

Abdnour said Poitra has been on a three-month family medical leave since November 2021. She’s spent money on the lawsuit, doctor’s appointments and medications and has become emotionally worn-down over the years. Abdnour hopes the lawsuit will not only provide compensation for the missed time but accountability for MSU. 

Now, MSU has the opportunity to answer or motion to dismiss the complaint. The timeline can vary, but the longest Abdnour said she’s waited for a decision like this was two years. 

“She’s really looking to try to make herself whole, to be able to heal herself so that she can move forward and for MSU to not only be held accountable, but for this to not happen to somebody else again,” Abdnour said.

After filing the complaint, Abdnour said Poitra received messages of support from both colleagues and strangers at the university, as well as messages from employees in the same situation thanking her for coming forward. 

“What we know so far is that this is not an isolated situation at MSU,” Abdnour said. “It sounds like there are other people who have experienced situations who haven’t come forward. That’s really sad. I think that part of her goal would be to help anybody she can through this process, even people who don’t feel like they can come forward.”

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