The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed a jury’s decision to award damages to a female basketball coach, who had claimed that a school district discriminated against her on the basis of her gender when it hired a male to coach of the district’s boys’ varsity basketball team.
Just as significantly, the appeals court affirmed the trial court judge’s decision to force the school district to install her as the current and future boys’ basketball coach.
The dispute surfaced in 1999, when Charles Kirkland, the boys’ varsity basketball coach at Hazel Park High School, announced that he would retire from coaching at the end of the year. Two coaches applied for the position – plaintiff Geraldine Fuhr and John Barnett.
Fuhr had been the head coach of the girls’ varsity basketball team for a decade as well as the boys’ junior varsity and assistant coach of the boys’ varsity basketball teams for eight years. By contrast, Barnett had only coached the boys’ freshman basketball team at the school for two years.
The hiring committee included the district’s superintendent, assistant superintendent and athletic director as well as the high school’s principal and newly hired athletic director.
During the interview process, the court noted that “some members of the school board” did not want Fuhr to get the position. In fact, the school board’s president was quoted as saying he was “very concerned about a female being the head boys’ basketball coach in Hazel Park.” That sentiment allegedly led to Barnett being hired.
In October 1999, Fuhr sued the school district in the Eastern District of Michigan, seeking compensatory damages, punitive damages, judgment for past and future lost wages and benefits, an order of the court placing her in the position of boys’ varsity basketball coach, attorneys’ fees, and any other appropriate equitable relief.
Hazel Park responded with a motion for summary judgment, arguing that “Fuhr had failed to establish a prima facie case of sexual discrimination and that the District had legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for the decision to hire Barnett.” The federal judge denied the defendant’s motion, and the case proceeded to jury trial.
The jury returned a verdict in Fuhr’s favor, awarding her $ 245,000 in present damages and $ 210,000 in future damages. The district court thereafter granted Fuhr’s request for injunctive relief, ordering Fuhr named boys’ varsity basketball coach. However, it struck the jury’s award of future damages in its entirety.
Hazel Park appealed the monetary judgment and the installment of the plaintiff as head coach, while Fuhr cross-appealed the district court’s order striking the award of future damages.
Hazel Park argument centered on the belief that (1) Fuhr failed to establish a prima facie case of gender discrimination and that (2) Hazel Park articulated legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for its failure to hire Fuhr.
Hazel Park claimed specifically that Fuhr did not suffer an adverse employment action, and could not prove a prima facie case of gender discrimination. At the core of this argument is “a determination of whether there was evidence from which the jury could have concluded that the action of which Fuhr complains was adverse to her.” Hazel Park argued that “obtaining the position would have been only a lateral move for Fuhr, and that denial of a lateral move is not ‘adverse’ as a matter of law.”
The court, however, agreed with Fuhr, however, that there was evidence at trial that “clearly established a pay differential between the position that she already had and the position that she sought. Both before she applied for the varsity boys’ position and after she was denied that job, Fuhr coached the boys’ junior varsity team. In that job, she was paid 9 percent of her teacher’s salary. Had she been hired for the boys’ varsity position, she would have been paid 11 percent of her teacher’s salary.”
Turning to the question of whether the defendant offered legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for its failure to hire Fuhr as the boys’ varsity basketball coach, the appeals court noted that the defendant had argued that it had a policy in place designed to prevent any one individual from holding more than one of four major varsity coaching positions.
The appeals court noted the aforementioned evidence that gender was a factor in the decision process and that the trial court judge had recognized that evidence. Turning to the applicable standard when, the appeals court wrote that it “must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party . . . The weighing of evidence, and the drawing of legitimate inferences from the facts are jury functions, not those of a judge.
“Using this standard, we conclude that the jury had sufficient evidence to support its verdict. The jury was entitled not only to disbelieve Hazel Park’s proffered non-discriminatory reasons for denying Fuhr the position she sought, but to believe her direct evidence that the school district’s true reason for that action was her gender. Hazel Park’s contention that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law is without merit.”
It next turned to the defendant’s argument against instatement. To that end, it wrote that “a district court has wide discretion to impose equitable remedies in order to ‘fashion the most complete relief possible’ designed to ‘make the victims of unlawful discrimination whole.’ Shore v. Federal Express Corp., 42 F.3d 373, 377 (6th Cir. 1994) (quoting Albemarle Paper Co. v. Moody, 422 U.S. 405, 421, 45 L. Ed. 2d 280, 95 S. Ct. 2362 (1975)). The availability of instatement or reinstatement is therefore entrusted to the sound discretion of the district court, and a decision granting such relief is reviewed by this Court only for abuse of discretion. Shore, 42 F.3d at 377-78.
“Furthermore, as Fuhr has noted, the central purpose of the state and federal anti-discrimination laws on which this suit is based is ‘to make the person whole for injuries suffered on account of unlawful employment discrimination,’ and the general rule is therefore that ‘the injured party is to be placed, as near as may be, in the situation she would have occupied if the wrong had not been committed.’ Albemarle Paper Co. v. Moody, 422 U.S. 405, 418-19, 45 L. Ed. 2d 280, 95 S. Ct. 2362 (1975). We have held that victims of discrimination are presumptively entitled to instatement or reinstatement, Thurman v. Yellow Freight Systems, Inc., 90 F.3d 1160, 1171 (6th Cir. 1996); Shore v. Federal Express Corp., 777 F.2d 1155, 1159 (6th Cir. 1985), and that reinstatement is the preferred equitable remedy in cases where discrimination has been proved. See E.E.O.C. v. Yenkin-Majestic Paint Corp., 112 F.3d 831, 836 (6th Cir. 1997); Schwartz v. Gregori, 45 F.3d 1017, 1023 (6th Cir. 1995).”
Fuhr v. School District of Hazel Park, Nos. 01-2215/01-2606/02-1367, 6th Cir., 3/24/04
Attorneys of Record: (for appellant) Timothy J. Mullins of Cox, Hodgman & Giarmarco in Troy, Michigan. (for appellee) Mark Granzotto in Royal Oak, Michigan and Deborah L. Gordon in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.