Appeals Court Remands Discrimination Case Involving College Coach

Aug 14, 2009

A Louisiana appeals court has reversed a jury’s decision to award more than $2 million to a former head football coach, who had sued the Board of Supervisors for the University of Louisiana System (Board), the University of Louisiana at Lafayette (ULL), and Athletic Director Nelson Schexnayder for race discrimination.
Specifically, the panel of judges found that “the fact finding process (had been) tainted and a determination of a preponderance of the evidence cannot fairly be reached based on a review of this cold record. Under these circumstances, a de novo review would not be meaningful. A fair, impartial resolution requires a new trial, one in which the multiple credibility determinations of the type particularly dependent on first hand observation, including those from qualified expert witnesses, can be decided by a competent, impartial jury.”
Plaintiff Jerry Lee Baldwin was hired by ULL in December of 1998 as the school’s head football coach. On November 26, 2001, after three losing football seasons, Baldwin was relieved of his duties as head coach. However, his salary was paid throughout the remaining term of his contract. On July 21, 2003, Baldwin filed a suit alleging breach of contract, intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, tortious interference with a contract, and abuse of rights. By petition on September 17, 2004, he also alleged racial discrimination.
On March 21, 2005, the defendants filed a motion for summary judgment asking that the plaintiff’s claims be dismissed. The trial court, in dismissing the discrimination claim, found that the “university separated its employment relationship with Mr. Baldwin for reasons that are not illegal or unlawful.” Subsequently, the trial court denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on the claims of intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress, tortious interference with contract, and breach of contract. The plaintiff appealed the grant of the summary judgment dismissing his racial discrimination claim.
On appeal, “Mr. Baldwin asserted that ULL’s reasons for the firing were pretextual, and that the termination was actually based on race. In reviewing the correctness of the partial summary judgment on appeal, we followed the analysis from McDonnell Douglas Corporation v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 93 S.Ct. 1817, 36 L.Ed.2d 668 (1973).
“Initially, we found that Mr. Baldwin had presented to the trial court a prima facie case of racial discrimination. Specifically, he offered evidence to show that he was an African-American, his background as a high school football coach and assistant coach at Louisiana State University (LSU) qualified him for the position of head coach at ULL, he was removed from his duties, and he was replaced by a white male.”
Further, the court found that the plaintiff demonstrated that the defendants’ stated reasons for firing him could have been pretextual. “(M)any issues of material fact remained” on this point.
The appeals court thus reversed and remanded the ruling on the discrimination claim back to the trial court for further proceedings. Baldwin v. Board of Supervisors for [Pg 4] University of Louisiana System, 2006-0961, pp. 11-12 (La.App. 1 Cir. 5/4/07), 961 So. 2d 418, 424-25.
After a 2007 trial awarded the plaintiff more than $2 million.
“After the jury verdict was read in open court, the defendants asked that the jury be polled,” note the panel. “As a result of the poll, some inconsistencies in the verdict form were revealed.”
On January 2, 2008, the defendants filed a motion “to correct the verdict to conform to the jury polling. The motion was denied. Subsequently, defendants also filed a motion for a Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict (JNOV) or for a new trial. In part, defendants argued that the jury incorrectly found that the defendants had discriminated against Mr. Baldwin based on race. The trial court denied the motion. In the denying the motion, the trial court stated that the case was ‘almost totally about credibility’ and the jury’s assessment of the credibility.” The defendants appealed.
On appeal, the defendants assigned multiple errors to the jury’s finding against the defendants, “including confusing or inconsistent responses in finding for plaintiff on the racial discrimination claim, and the lack of nine affirmative votes for (two of the other claims). In addition, defendants assigned the following errors and argued that these errors prevented the jury from reaching a fair and impartial verdict, which requires reversal or possibly remand:
“1. By allowing Dr. William Davis and Mr. Max Emfinger to testify as plaintiff’s experts, the trial court abused its discretion;
“2. By excluding testimony sought by defendants on the issue of firing practices at other schools, the trial court abused its discretion; and,
“3. A structural error was committed when the trial court refused to grant defendants’ peremptory strike to a black prospective juror who had an unresolved belief that she had been racially discriminated against by her white supervisor.”
On the third error, the court agreed with the defendant, finding that “it is clear that the (defendants’) peremptory challenge was not based on impermissible race discrimination, but rather on the ‘possibility of bias’ or conflict caused by the candidate’s discrimination experience.”
“The trial court was clearly wrong in granting the Batson challenge. More importantly, we recognize that, in this particular case, the defect in the jury selection appears to be the type of structural error that taints the fact-finding process and creates the possibility of impermissible prejudice against the defendants.”
Turning to the first and second proposed errors, the appeals court expressed reluctance to “disturb” a trial court’s determination of the validity of experts. True to form, it declined to find for the defendants regarding testifying expert Max Emfinger, noting that “the trial court had sufficient information before it to accept Mr. Emfinger’s testimony as adequately reliable.”
The appeals court, however, was reluctant to endorse the lower court’s handling of the other expert — Davis,
“In this case, Dr. Davis was a key witness whose testimony was critical to two issues at the heart of the case: whether Mr. Baldwin had been damaged by being fired, instead of being allowed to resign, and whether the firing prevented him from obtaining another coaching position and caused him damage in other ways. His opinion on those highly disputed issues was admittedly his own personal view, without any investigations, or even preliminary surveys or polls, to provide some demonstrable foundation for his conclusions or some indicia of reliability. Devall, 2007-0156 at pp. 3-4, 979 So.2d at 502. Such an unsupported opinion can provide no assistance to the trier of fact. Carrier, 2008-1092 at p. 4, 6 So.2d at 897; Miramon, 96-1872 at p. 6, 701 So.2d at 478.
“Unfortunately, the erroneous designation as an expert in the disputed areas placed an unwarranted level of importance on unsubstantiated and admittedly subjective opinions. Where the testimony of a key witness is deemed unreliable, the possibility of prejudice is significantly increased, and the jury’s ability to fairly determine the facts is not only negatively impacted, but is interdicted. Franklin v. Franklin, 2005-1814, pp. 7-8 (La.App. 1 Cir. 12/22/05), 928 So.2d 90, 94, writ denied, 20060206 (La. 2/17/06), 924 So. 2d 1021; Rivere, 93-1132 at p. 4, 647 So.2d at 1144. In such cases, a remand may well be required. 3 See Franklin, 2005-1814 at p. 8, 928 So.2d at 94; Adeola, 2001-1231, p. 9, 822 So.2d at 728.”
The court also found merit in the defendants other arguments made on appeal, which centered on errors that were made based on the jury verdict. The defendants successful argued that the jury’s answers to the question of racial discrimination “were confusing or misleading. Secondly, the trial court erred in failing to recognize the absence of the requisite number of votes for a finding in favor of plaintiff on two of the causes of action.”
Jerry Lee Baldwin v. The Board of Supervisors for The University of Louisiana System; COURT OF APPEAL OF LOUISIANA, FIRST CIRCUIT; 2008 CA 2359 (La.App. 1 Cir. 06/30/09); 2009 La. App. Unpub. LEXIS 471; 6/30/09
Attorneys or Record: (for plaintiff/appellee) Eric L. Register, G. Karl Bernard, New Orleans, Louisiana and Marshall J. Simien, Jr., Lake Charles, Louisiana. (for Defendants/Appellants) Lawrence E. Marino, Stephen J. Oats, Robin L. Jones, George O. Luce, Special Asst. Attorneys General, Lafayette, Louisiana, Counsel, Board of Supervisors for the University of Louisiana System and Nelson Schexnayder.


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