After a bench trial, a federal judge from the Western District of Arkansas has ruled the University of the Ozarks articulated legitimate non-discriminatory reasons for firing its softball coach, concluding that the school did not discriminate against her based on her gender as she had claimed.
The University appointed plaintiff Laurie Adkins as head women’s softball coach in June 2010 for a one-year term of employment subject to annual renewal. Her employment was renewed in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014. Her last contract of employment was for the period from July 1, 2014 to June 30, 2015. Coach Adkins was supervised by Athletic Director Jimmy Clark, who was also the men’s baseball coach. When initially hired, Adkins’s job description stated that she needed to “maintain ideal roster size through recruiting and retention (20 players).” However, the ideal roster size was a moving target, as documents reveal that in 2013 Adkins needed to maintain a roster of “18+ next opening. 22-25 in fall,” and in 2014 it was expected that the “roster size needs to be at 24.”
A 2012 employment evaluation revealed that Clark was very satisfied with the work being done by Adkins. Clark wrote that Adkins “inherited a program that was in bad shape. She has gotten them competitive.” He tempered the otherwise glowing evaluation with the statement that “the only weakness that I have observed is in regard to maintaining the field.” Initially, Coach Adkins was meeting or exceeding expectations, summarized the court.
During a 2013 employment evaluation, Clark communicated to Adkins that he was “very concerned about retention.” Under the category for recruiting, Clark checked the box for “needs improvement” but did not check the box for “does not meet expectations.”
During a 2014 employment evaluation, Clark once again rated Adkins as “needs improvement” under the category of “recruiting,” writing in the comment section that “retention needs to improve.” At the end of the 2014-2015 school year, Clark told Adkins that she would no longer be employed by the University.
Clark testified that at the end of the 2013-2014 school year Adkins was not performing satisfactorily, as shown by her retention of players and her win-loss record, which was 3-37 for that season. Also, Clark cited poor communication skills as a reason that he was not satisfied with her performance, and testified that he asked Adkins to “over communicate” in the future. Clark testified that he could have fired Adkins at the end of the 2013-2014 year based on that performance, but he wanted to give her another chance to improve. Clark testified that Adkins would have to improve in these areas, but that he thought it was possible. He characterized these events as being a situation where Adkins was essentially on probation, and that failure to improve would quite possibly lead to termination. While this testimony is supported by the retention numbers and the win-loss record, it is inconsistent with the employment evaluation contemporaneously completed by Clark. The evaluation that Clark completed at the end of the 2013-2014 school year rates Adkins as “meets expectations” in six categories and “needs improvement” in four categories. There is not a single category for which Clark rated Adkins as “does not meet expectations.” While Clark wrote in the comment section that “retention needs to improve,” he did not make mention of her record of 3-37. Under the category of “public relations,” Clark rated Adkins as “meets expectations” and he wrote in the comment section that she was “good around campus.” Clark’s rating and comment in the “public relations” category is at odds with his testimony that at that exact same time he was concerned with Adkins’s communication and the number of complaints that were being directed to the President’s office and trickling down to him.
Clark testified that Adkins was not handling problems on her team thus creating issues for the administration. While the Court does not give much weight to Clark’s testimony in light of his poor credibility, President Richard Unsworth also testified about these complaints. In her cross examination, Adkins also acknowledged these complaints.
“The specifics of every one of these complaints are not entirely clear, nor are those specifics entirely relevant, but there is sufficient testimony in the record for the court to find that these complaints were lodged, and that they created problems for the university,” wrote the court. “What matters is that parents and softball players were complaining to Clark and President Dunsworth, presenting them with problems that should typically be handled by a coach.
“As evidenced by the discussions that took place at the 2013 and 2014 employment evaluations, at the time that the university ended the employment of Adkins in 2015, she had been aware for two years that the university was concerned about the size of her roster and the number of players retained from year to year.”
Adkins alleged that in terminating her employment, the university discriminated against her because of her gender.
In considering the claim, the court relied on the McDonnell Douglas test, in which a plaintiff must show that “she is a member of a protected group; 2) (that) she was qualified for her position; 3) she suffered an adverse employment action; and 4) (that)she was discharged under circumstances giving rise to an inference of discrimination.” Wierman v. Casey’s Gen. Stores, 638 F.3d 984, 993 (8th Cir. 2011).
“… If a prima facie case is established, the burden of production shifts to the defendant to articulate a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for its adverse employment action. Wierman, 638 F.3d at 993. If the defendant can do so, the prima facie case is rebutted and no inference of unlawful discrimination is created, unless the plaintiff can produce sufficient evidence to create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the articulated reason is pretext for unlawful discrimination. Id. Although the burden of production shifts between the parties, the burden of persuasion remains on the plaintiff at all times. Fatemi v. White, 775 F.3d 1022, 1041 (8th Cir. 2015).”
While the court concluded that the plaintiff made a prima facie case to survive summary judgement on the gender discrimination claim, it also “found that the University had articulated a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its adverse employment action.” Thus, Adkins then failed to demonstrate that the university’s reason was “pretext” for discriminating against her.
In sum, “Adkins has not shown that any of the university’s reasons is pretext for unlawful discrimination. For the reasons set forth above, the court concludes that the University did not discriminate against Coach Adkins based on her gender.”
Laurie Adkins, v. University of The Ozarks; W.D. Ark.; Case No. 2:16-CV-2088, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 101935; 6/30/17
Attorneys of Record: (for plaintiff) Allison Koile, LEAD ATTORNEY, Sanford Law Firm, Russellville, AR; Josh Sanford, LEAD ATTORNEY, Sanford Law Firm PLLC, Little Rock, AR; Vanessa Kinney, LEAD ATTORNEY, Sanford Law Firm PLLC, Russellville, AR. (for defendant) Don A. Smith, LEAD ATTORNEY, Matthew Horan, Smith, Cohen & Horan, PLC, Fort Smith, AR