A federal judge granted in part and denied in part a school district’s motion for summary judgment in a case involving a former high school coach’s allegation that the district discriminated against her because of her gender.
Unified School District No. 233 in Olathe, Kansas, hired Leeann Reed as a track coach for Olathe South High School in August 2000.
The legal controversy involving Reed began on April 19, 2002 at the Kansas University Relays. While there, Reed gave some coaching advice to a student-athlete on another team that angered that student-athlete’s coach. That coach confronted Reed, and Reed agreed to forgo any future conversations with the student-athlete. However, she did talk to her again, offering to put that student-athlete in contact with a coach from another school, who could help her with her technique.
On April 21, the coach sent an e-mail to several people, including Olathe South AD Robert Kersey, complaining about Reed’s conduct at the Relays. He conveyed his feeling that Reed’s advice to Dyke was inappropriate, and wrote that Dyke feared that Reed was stalking her. Kersey called Reed at home, telling her he wanted to meet with her as soon as possible. Kersey also informed Gwen Poss, the Olathe South principal, about the incident.
At their meeting, Kersey told Reed about the other coach’s e-mail, and that Kersey himself thought it was inappropriate for her to coach an athlete from a competing school during a track meet. Reed responded by saying that she didn’t think there was anything wrong with what she had done. At some point during the meeting, Kersey allegedly informed Reed that she would not be back at Olathe South after the school year ended. He also said he would not be comfortable giving her a recommendation to potential employers if she did not acknowledge her actions at the Relays were inappropriate. Furthermore, Kersey told Reed she would not be able to continue coaching at Olathe South for the rest of the school year unless she agreed to several restrictions on her coaching duties, including refraining from coaching athletes at other schools, and a ban on attendance at future track meets.
When the two met again, on April 26, Reed gave Kersey a letter stating her belief that Kersey was discriminating against her because of her gender. According to Reed, Kersey read the letter and became angry and told her that he would not give her a recommendation letter because of her accusation. Reed informed Kersey that she would not agree to the coaching restrictions, and was suspended from coaching duties.
Eventually, Reed did agree to the restrictions, and she returned to track practice on May 6. Later that month, Kersey and principal Poss sent a letter recommending that Reed’s contract not be renewed.
Coach Files Title VII Suit
Reed sued the district, alleging unlawful discrimination in violation of Title VII. Specifically, she charged that the district discriminated against her based on gender by restricting her coaching duties and responsibilities at the end of the 2001-2002 school year; by failing to renew her coaching contract for the next school year; and by refusing to recommend her to potential employers. She also claimed the district’s failure to renew her contract and refusal to recommend her to potential employers were based on her complaint of discrimination and constituted unlawful retaliation under Title VII. The school district moved for summary judgment on all of Reed’s claims.
In its motion, the school district contended Reed’s claims should be dismissed because she could not establish a prima facie case of discrimination. Specifically, it claimed Reed had no evidence that she was qualified for the position, that she had suffered an adverse employment action, or that similarly situated male coaches in the district were treated differently.
The district attempted to show Reed was not qualified for the coaching position because she was involved in several “performance-related incidents.” These incidents, including the one at the Relays, also formed the basis for the decision to place coaching restrictions on Reed and ultimate decision not to renew her contract, according to the district. This reasoning did not persuade the court. The court wrote that, essentially, the district was asking the court to consider its nondiscriminatory reasons for its employment decision in deciding whether Reed had made out a prima facie case for discrimination. To perform such a legal analysis would “inappropriately short-circuit the McDonnell Douglas framework…and frustrate [Reed’s] ability to establish that [the school district’s] proffered reasons are pretextual.”
The court also found genuine issues of material fact existed as to whether the restrictions placed upon Reed in her coaching duties constituted adverse employment actions. It concluded Kersey’s refusal to provide a recommendation for Reed to future employers clearly put Reed’s future employment opportunities at risk and constituted an adverse employment action. Finally, it stated that Reed was not required to show evidence of similarly situated employees to make out a prima facie case for discrimination.
Ultimately, however, the court found Reed had not provided sufficient evidence to create an inference of gender discrimination with respect to her claims that Kersey restricted her coaching duties and refused to provide her with a recommendation letter based on her gender. Reed claimed Coach Quinn intentionally ostracized her based on her gender, but provided no evidence that Kersey was aware of this. She also attempted to show that Kersey had criticized her for leaving out equipment in the hallways, but had not criticized male coaches for the same behavior. However, Reed had no evidence that Kersey knew of the incidents involving male coaches.
Reed brought up Kersey’s occasional use of the terms “sweetie” or “babe” in speaking to her as evidence of discrimination. The court concluded this evidence was insufficient to create an inference of discrimination in the absence of other evidence that Kersey treated Reed differently or devalued her because she was a woman. Accordingly, the court granted summary judgment with respect to Reed’s claims that the school district restricted her coaching duties and refused to provide her with a recommendation based on gender.
The court did find Reed established a prima facie case that the school district failed to renew her contract based on her gender, and denied the district’s motion for summary judgment on that claim. It concluded the district’s nondiscriminatory reasons for its employment decision were suspect, and Reed met her burden of showing that the district’s reasons were pretextual. Significantly, the court noted that many of the incidents that the school district claimed formed the basis for its employment decision were not presented as problems to her or even brought to her attention until after she retained an attorney.
The district alternatively tried to defeat Reed’s claim by showing that the person hired to replace her was a woman, and therefore it could not have discriminated against Reed based on her gender. However, the court noted that, in the Tenth Circuit, in order to bring a claim that the district failed to renew her contract because of her gender Reed only needed to show that her position was not eliminated after the non-renewal of her contract, not that it was filled by a male.
The court also denied district’s motion for summary judgment on Reed’s retaliation claims. Using the McDonnell-Douglas burden-shifting framework, the court concluded Reed showed sufficient evidence to cast doubt on the district’s claims that it had legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for its decisions not to renew her coaching contract and not to recommend her to any potential employers. Specifically, the court found Reed provided evidence indicating Kersey’s knowledge of her discrimination complaint had some bearing on his unwillingness to provide her with a recommendation. Reed v. Unified School District No. 233, Case No. 03-2032-JWL
Attorneys of Record: (for plaintiff) Bert S. Braud and Stephen J. Dennis of the Popham Law Firm, P.C., in Kansas City, MO. (for defendant) Michael G. Norris of Norris, Keplinger & Hillman, L.L.C., Overland Park, KS.