Appeals Court Extends New Life to Coach’s Gender Discrimination Claim

Feb 15, 2008

The 7th U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals has vacated part of a district court’s decision to grant summary judgment to Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) on a discrimination claim brought by a former coach.
The plaintiff’s gender discrimination claim was remanded back to the lower court after the appeals court found an extenuating “question of fact.” However, the appeals court ruled for IUPUI on the age discrimination claim, affirming the lower court’s finding that the university and the board were immune from suit.
Plaintiff Debbie Peirick, the head coach of the women’s tennis team at IUPUI, had had a tremendous year in her 13th season as the coach, according to the court. “Her team maintained the highest grade point average of all athletic teams, achieved its best season in history, and, for the first time, qualified for the NCAA tournament,” wrote the court.
“Despite this record, Peirick, 53, was fired when the season ended. Within a month of her termination, IUPUI hired the 23-year-old sister of the men’s tennis coach to coach the women’s tennis team.”
Peirick then sued IUPUI, the athletic department, and the Board of Trustees of Indiana University, claiming that her termination was motivated by gender and age. The district court granted summary judgment for the defendants on both claims.
The plaintiff appealed. In reviewing the lower court’s decision, the appeals court noted IUPUI’s argument “that deficiencies in Peirick’s professional conduct overshadowed all of the (aforementioned) virtues.
“According to (Athletic Director Michael) Moore, events occurring during the two-month window between April and June 2003 led to Peirick’s termination. On April 6, 2003, the parents of Emily Dukeman, a team member, sent Moore an email message complaining that Peirick used ‘negative, foul language,’ ‘lacked professional qualities,’ and made being on the team a ‘very unpleasant and degrading experience.’ The message also claimed that ‘several players may not return next year.’
“Next, IUPUI says that five of the eight members of the team met with (Denise O’Grady, Assistant Athletic Director and Senior Women’s Administrator) on April 10, 2003, to complain about Peirick. During that meeting, which the students requested, they said that Peirick used abusive language, ‘would yell at them and scream at them, and tell them to shut up,’ and directed profanity towards the students and coaches of other teams.
“O’Grady claims she took the complaints seriously because it was uncommon for a group of students to come forward with complaints, and because athletes were often reluctant to complain at mid-season when their playing time could be adversely affected.”
Further, “IUPUI claims that Peirick’s handling of a scheduling conflict involving the Indianapolis Tennis Center was the key factor in her termination. In early April 2003, the women’s tennis team was on target to win the Mid-Continent regular-season crown, an achievement that would entitle them to host the Mid-Continent Conference Tournament. The team practiced and played at the Tennis Center, an exceptional facility, and it expected to host the Tournament there. When Peirick sought to reserve the Tennis Center, she learned that it was already booked and conveyed this fact to Moore and O’Grady. After trying to resolve the scheduling conflict, Moore and O’Grady decided that they would have to secure an alternate, off-campus location for the Mid-Conference Tournament. Peirick asked Moore and O’Grady not to share this information with the team for fear that the disappointment might affect their play in remaining matches.
“On April 15, 2003, after the regular season ended, Peirick informed her players that they would not be able to host the Mid-Continent Tournament at the Tennis Center. Later that day when two team members confronted O’Grady about the situation, O’Grady was surprised by the extent of their anger and asked them to explain their feelings. According to O’Grady, the team members stated that ‘Coach Peirick had informed them that the tennis center was not going to be available for the conference tournament, and indicated to them that it could have been available, but that the athletic administration would not pick up the phone and make the call to reserve the center. . . .’ Moore and O’Grady thought Peirick had lied, and Moore claims this was the final straw requiring her termination.”
On June 10, 2003, Moore fired Peirick, replacing her with Andrea Lord, the 23-year-old sister of the men’s tennis coach. “Although she had never coached a team and finished college only a year before accepting the position, Lord was paid $ 14,000 annually, nearly $ 3,000 more than Peirick had been paid during the preceding year,” according to the appeals court.
Peirick sued the IUPUI, the IUPUI Athletics Department, and the Board of Trustees of Indiana University, alleging violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e to 2000e-17, and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), 29 U.S.C. §§ 621 to 634.
Shortly thereafter, the defendants successfully moved for summary judgment, spawning the present appeal.
Considering the ruling on the gender discrimination claim, the appeals court reviewed the plaintiff’s argument that similarly situated male coaches were treated differently, especially in the area “progressive discipline.” The appeals court ultimately found that “the university’s post hoc explanations, delay, exaggeration, and unusual conduct more than enough to create a question of fact concerning the legitimacy of its explanations for the employee’s termination.”
Turning to the age discrimination claim, the appeals court found that the university and the board were immune from suit. The instant court reasoned that the Eleventh Amendment usually barred actions in federal court against a state, state agencies, or state officials acting in their official capacities, and the employee failed to establish that an exception applied.
Debbie A. Peirick v. Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis Athletics Department et al.; 7th Cir.; No. 06-1538, 2007 U.S. App. LEXIS 28900; 12/14/07
Attorneys of Record: (for plaintiff) Kevin W. Betz, BETZ & ASSOCIATES, Indianapolis, IN USA. (for defendants) Ellen E. Boshkoff, BAKER & DANIELS, Indianapolis, IN USA.


Articles in Current Issue