Coach Continues with Retaliation Claim After Court Denies Summary Judgment

Aug 1, 2008

A former men’s wrestling coach has survived a motion for summary judgment in a case where the coach alleged that Montclair State University retaliated against him in violation of Title VII and Title IX of the Civil Rights Act, the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act (NJCEPA) and the New Jersey Law against Discrimination (NJLAD) by not hiring him for its Head Wrestling Coach/Coordinator of Student Staffing position.
In so ruling, the court reasoned that there “are issues of material fact relating to the purported reasons for the defendant’s hiring of (two other candidates) when Plaintiff had been a successful head coach at the school and was apparently qualified for the job.”
Joseph Sabol became a volunteer assistant wrestling coach at MSU in 2001. Later that year, he became the school’s assistant wrestling coach. On October 18, 2002, the school hired him to serve as acting head wrestling coach after the head coach was suspended by the NCAA. After the suspension was lifted, the plaintiff returned to his assistant position. Both coaches reported to Holly Gera, the athletic director at MSU.
In early 2004, the head coach notified MSU that he was resigning. The plaintiff submitted an application for the position of part-time head coach, was interviewed by Holly Gera and Robert Chesney, Associate Director of Athletics at MSU, and then hired for that position. While Plaintiff was head coach, the 2004-2005 wrestling team had the second highest grade point average of all men’s athletic teams.
“As head coach, the plaintiff complained about health and safety issues to Gera, such as wrestling mats having been damaged by a leak in the ceiling and the wrestling room being used as a thoroughfare, causing bacteria from the traffic to land on the mats, which could lead to skin infections,” wrote the court. “Also, the plaintiff complained that there was no wall padding along the sides of the wrestling mats and that there were holes in the vents alongside the wrestling mats with sharp metal gratings covered in mold. The defendant asserts that the plaintiff was offered the part-time head coaching position after he made these complaints to Gera, but the plaintiff counters by asserting that he did not make substantial and formal complaints to Gera until he was Head Coach because as Assistant Coach, he felt he was limited in what he could say. The plaintiff admits that he was told these problems would be remedied, but the only action taken to address the problems was to recondition the mats; the problems continued.”
In January 2005, the MSU Administration notified the plaintiff that the wrestling program would be eliminated from MSU’s intercollegiate athletics at the conclusion of that season. Soon after, the plaintiff quit his full time job as an advertising/sales executive in order to devote his time to saving the wrestling program at MSU.
“Through his and other’s efforts, several hundred thousand dollars of funds were donated and dedicated to athletics, saving the wrestling and lacrosse programs,” wrote the court. “The plaintiff was named Metropolitan Coach of the Year for the 2004-05 season and the wrestling team placed third in their conference.”
In January 2005, Sabol’s assistant coach, Rami Ratel, was accused of criminal activity and was subsequently suspended by Gera. The plaintiff claimed that this suspension was unfair in light of Gera’s treatment of female coaches on the MSU staff. The plaintiff claimed that the female basketball coach and her assistant were allowed to resign with no adverse action taken against them after it was uncovered that they were having sexual relations with athletes on their team and drinking alcohol with student-athletes in dormitories on campus. As a result, the plaintiff claimed that there was a different standard applied to male and female coaches at MSU.
In early 2005, the MSU Administration circulated an announcement for the Wrestling Head Coach/Coordinator of Student Staffing, which was a full-time position. This position had additional responsibilities such as coordinating the student staffing for the athletic department and payroll responsibilities. A search committee of five MSU employees was formed to review the applications for the new position and select interview candidates. The committee selected three candidates to be submitted to Gera for consideration.
After offering the job to the first candidate and being turned down, Gera offered the job to the second candidate, who accepted the position, leading to the plaintiff filing a lawsuit.
After considering the motion for summary judgment, the court denied the request, finding that there were issues of material fact concerning “the purported reasons for the defendant’s hiring of (the second candidate) when Plaintiff had been a successful head coach at the school and was apparently qualified for the job.
“The parties agree that MSU has wide discretion to hire the candidate thought to be most qualified for the job. The plaintiff, however, has offered evidence which raises an issue of fact regarding the motive behind the defendant’s decision to not hire the plaintiff for the full-time Head Coach/Coordinator of Student Staffing position. This leaves a question for a jury to determine whether the Plaintiff was unlawfully retaliated against because of his complaints about health and safety, security and sex discrimination.”
Joseph Sabol v. Montclair State University; D.N.J.; Civil Action No. 06-3214(DMC), 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 43682; 6/3/08
Attorneys of Record: (for plaintiff) Eugenie F. Temmler, Lead Attorney, Rabner, Allcorn, Baumgart & Ben-Asher, PC, Upper Montclair, NJ. (for defendant): Jane A. Greenfogel, Lead Attorney, Office Of The Nj Attorney General, Trenton, NJ.


Articles in Current Issue