A Louisiana Appeals Court has affirmed a ruling that Southern University at New Orleans (SUNO) discriminated against one of its coaches on the basis of her gender and that the university retaliated against her when she filed a complaint.
The court also increased the award for damages, which the trial judge gad revised to $65,000, to $200,000.
The plaintiff in the case was Jean Brooks, who was hired by SUNO in August of 1992 to be both an instructor in the Health and Physical Education Department and coach of the women’s basketball team. With respect to the coaching position, her immediate supervisor was Earl Hill, the university’s Athletic Director and men’s basketball coach.
The legal conflict began in the spring of 1997 when Brooks filed and dropped two separate written complaints against Earl Hill, alleging gender discrimination and sexual harassment. The court noted that her decision to withdraw the complaints was based on “an effort to cooperate with SUNO’s attempts to work things out between herself and Hill.”
Such goodwill began to evaporate with the third complaint, which was filed in the spring of 1998. That complaint was heard by a SUNO grievance committee and was found to be without merit. If that wasn’t enough, she was notified by SUNO’s Chancellor that her contract as both an instructor, which was a full-time position, and coach would not be renewed when they expired in June of 1998.
Brooks filed a complaint in February of 1999 against SUNO alleging gender discrimination, sexual harassment and retaliation. A jury concluded that SUNO was guilty of both sexual harassment and gender discrimination toward the plaintiff, and that its decision not to renew her contracts as instructor and coach was made in retaliation for her claims against Hill. The jury awarded her $8,000.00 in damages for lost income and $475,000.00 in general damages for emotional pain and suffering, mental anguish, humiliation, shame, loss of self-esteem, embarrassment, and injury to her reputation.
After the jury verdict, SUNO moved for a judgment not withstanding the verdict (JNOV), for remittitur and for a new trial. From the bench, the trial court denied the motions for JNOV and for new trial, but granted a remittitur reducing the amount of general damages to $65,000.00.
An appeal, brought by both sides, followed. Significantly, the university argued that the trial court erred by finding SUNO liable for sexual harassment and gender discrimination, and that it erred in concluding that SUNO’s failure to renew the coach’s contracts constituted retaliation.
In its analysis, the court began by reviewing one of the university’s specific arguments of appeal that the trial court made evidentiary rulings that warrant a de novo review of the finding of liability.
One of its arguments was that the court erred when it did not grant the university’s motion in limine to exclude the testimony of two former SUNO students, Alicia Porter and Orlinda Stansberry Jackson, each of whom had filed a formal sexual harassment complaint against Earl Hill in the spring of 1992.
Porter testified at trial that then-Coach Hill made her uncomfortable by “repeatedly asking her if she thought he was attractive. He also called her on the phone and asked what she wanted for her birthday and whether she wanted something special, saying he could do a lot for her. He also told her not to tell anyone it was him on the phone. When she made it clear she didn’t want anything from him and then said she had to go and hung up, he told her he would call her later. Another day he called her into his office and asked whether she was married, to which she responded that she was. He said that maybe he shouldn’t have said anything to her because ‘you know there’s a lot of sexual harassment charges going around.’ When she responded she wasn’t the type to file charges, he tried to get her to come around the desk and give him a hug and kiss, but she refused. Ms. Porter testified that all of Coach Hill’s advances were unwelcome, and that she refused them all.”
Jackson, in a deposition, claimed that “Coach Hill told her that she was beautiful and that he wanted to be with her; invited her to his apartment and told her he had keys for her; sneaked up behind her while she was studying at a desk and kissed her; and finally, suggested that she take a peppermint he was eating right out of his mouth (in response to her asking whether she could take a peppermint from the jar on his desk). She testified that these incidents were unwelcome, that they always occurred in private, and that Coach Hill repeatedly asked her not to tell anyone about them.”
SUNO argued on appeal that “even if the testimony of the two work-study students is relevant, it nevertheless should have been excluded under Louisiana Code of Evidence article 403 because its probative value was outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice.” The appellate court would have none of it, writing that “considering that the plaintiff has alleged that she was sexually harassed by her male supervisor in a work environment, evidence that the same supervisor exhibited similar behavior toward other females who worked under his supervision is clearly relevant. … (T)he probative value of this type of evidence clearly outweighs any prejudice to the defense.”
The specific evidence regarding Brooks and Hill centered on the AD’s alleged advances in the mid-1990s, such as his asking her to go out with him. “He continued to ask, about once a month, and then questioned her as to why she did not want to go out with him. He told her he was big and handsome, he didn’t smoke, drink, use drugs, or beat women, and he took care of his children. He also periodically made comments about her appearance, such as suggesting she should wear a shorter dress. Once he asked her if she was wearing a bra, saying that he could see her nipples through her t-shirt and it turned him on.”
He also allegedly told her that “if she was ‘nice,’ she did not have to worry about losing her job, and he would buy her nice things.”
As she rebuffed his advances, she claimed “he began to interfere with her coaching of the basketball team in ways she believed to be unfair. For instance, he made her cut her practice time from three hours to two hours daily, and he sent her a letter requiring her to wear a uniform shirt to practices, although the male coaches did not have to wear a particular shirt. She believed he forced her to coach with student assistants rather than a regular assistant and deliberately did other things, such as waiting until the last minute to sign her requisition forms, or making her girls’ basketball team late for important games, apparently to sabotage her record. He also ceased communicating with her directly, forcing her to go through others or to communicate solely in writing.”
The tension escalated with the two quibbling over coaching issues, culminating with Brooks’ initial letter to the chancellor, formally charging Hill with “Sexual Discrimination/Harassment” based on his having singled her and her program out with unfair restrictions, causing her undue stress and anguish, and noting his “documented history of placing undue pressure and stress on the majority of females he [had] supervised.”
After reviewing the record, the court wrote that it found “no manifest error in the jury’s determinations that Jean Brooks was subject to unwelcome sexual harassment from Earl Hill, which culminated in SUNO’s non-renewal of her contracts of employment, and that SUNO’s failure to renew those contracts was retaliation for Ms. Brooks’ having filed claims of sexual harassment against her supervisor.”
The court next turned to the appropriateness of the jury’s original $475,000 and the trial court’s revision to $65,000.
“Because of Coach Hill’s harassment and the loss of her job at SUNO, Ms. Brooks suffered anxiety, depression, humiliation, short-term financial distress, and a year-long diminution in her standard of living,” wrote the court. “She also lost her dream of coaching at the college level, although it is impossible to say if she would have ultimately been successful as a coach at SUNO in the absence of Earl Hill’s offensive behavior. In light of the evidence, we find that $ 200,000 is the lowest amount of general damages that is reasonably supported by the record. Therefore, we amend the trial court’s judgment to award the sum of $ 200,000 in general damages.”
Brooks v. SUNO, Ct. App. La., 4th Cir., NO. 2003-CA-0231, 7/14/04
Attorneys of Record: Victor R. Farrugia of New Orleans for plaintiff. Richard P. Ieyoub, Attorney General, M. H. Gertler, Assistant Attorney General, Jill D. Trahan, Assistant Attorney General.