Court Rules Coach Can Proceed with Sex Discrimination Claim

Feb 1, 2008

The former women’s basketball coach at Montana State University can proceed with her Title IX claim against her former employer after a judge held that Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 should be construed broadly and that the plaintiff has met the required threshold to defeat the defendants’ summary judgment motion on that specific claim.
It was a small victory for plaintiff Robin Potera-Haskins, however, as the court granted the defendants’ motion on the plaintiff’s remaining two claims – that her Constitutional right of free speech had been violated and that she had been discriminated against in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The plaintiff was hired as the school’s head women’s basketball coach on April 13, 2001. She was terminated on April 7, 2004. In between, “on- and off-campus concerns regarding the women’s basketball program developed. A university committee was appointed to review the situation. A report was rendered upon completion of that review. Issues within the program that needed to be addressed were identified. Meetings were held with Plaintiff to address the issues. Follow-up directives issued by (Athletic Director Peter Fields) in November 2003 instructed Plaintiff not to retaliate against the players, to limit practice time, and to permit players to talk to assistant coaches.”
The plaintiff felt victimized by Fields and other and subsequently fired of a series of memoranda, containing “the substance of her claims of violation of rights as asserted in this case.” The court noted that “all of the memoranda are directly related to Plaintiff’s performance as head women’s basketball coach.”
The plaintiff was nevertheless fired, and her assistant, a male, was appointed as interim head coach, pending conduct of a national search and hiring of a permanent replacement. A female permanent replacement coach, Tricia Binford, was hired on April 13, 2005. The plaintiff went on to find other employment at Palm Beach Atlantic Community College.
Among her claims, the plaintiff asserted:
• that her treatment and termination were sexually discriminatory and in retaliation for her complaints to various MSU administration members, statements she characterizes as “protected speech,” in violation of the First Amendment and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. She also claims that the defendants retaliated against her by providing derogatory information about her to prospective employers.
• that Fields’ actions associated with his daughter and interference with the team, the plaintiff’s termination, and MSU’s interference with the plaintiff’s future employment were sexually discriminatory in violation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. § 1681.
• that the actions were unlawful employment practices in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1).
Addressing the first, the court wrote that “the record as a whole is clear that free speech undertaken by the plaintiff came about because of the plaintiff’s own perceptions of her professional responsibility as head women’s basketball coach. The record simply does not support that the plaintiff engaged in constitutionally protected free speech in raising or pursuing the matters in issue. All the defendants are entitled to summary judgment on Count I on qualified immunity grounds.
Regarding the Title IX claim, Title IX, the court wrote that “the issue before the Court is not whether the plaintiff will ultimately prevail, but whether she should be able to present any available evidence to the finder of fact. The plaintiff may well have a significant challenge in establishing this claim. However, the actual reason for Plaintiff’s termination remains an issue of material fact yet to be resolved.”
Lastly, the court addressed the Title VII claim.
“Three elements must be satisfied to establish a prima facie case of discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1): (1) the Plaintiff belongs to a class protected by Title VII; (2) she was qualified for her job; and (3) a male with similar qualifications replaced her. See Jones v. Los Angeles Community College Dist., 702 F.2d 203, 205 (9th Cir. 1983) (citing Lynn v. Regents of the University of California, 656 F.2d 1337, 1340-41 (9th Cir. 1981) cert. denied, 459 U.S. 823, 103 S. Ct. 53, 74 L. Ed. 2d 59 (1982)).”
None of the parties contested the first two elements.
On the third, the plaintiff asserted that “the fact that the interim (temporary) coach named when (the plaintiff) was terminated was a male is sufficient to avoid summary judgment for MSU. That assertion, however, is too broad and fails to address or satisfy the Hagans test. The day the plaintiff was terminated, MSU announced that the plaintiff’s former assistant would serve as interim coach for the 2004-2005 basketball season. The hiring of an interim coach is a common practice when an athletic department is faced with an untimely coaching vacancy that, due to shortened time periods related to recruiting and other deadlines, prevents a university from conducting a full-scale search for a permanent replacement.”
The interim coach “was invited to apply for the permanent position. He was not accepted. Rather, MSU hired a female, Tricia Binford, as the permanent coach in April 2005. (the assistant coach) was not a replacement for the plaintiff. He merely served as interim head coach until a permanent replacement was hired. The national search for the best qualified person to fill the permanent replacement role was both reasonable and necessary. It resulted in a female replacement. Under such circumstances, the elements of a Title VII claim are not present and the Hagans test requirements have not and cannot be met.”
Robin Potera-Haskins v. Geoffrey Gamble, et al.; D. Mon.; CV 05-22-BU-SHE; 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 75848; 9/28/07
Attorneys or Record: (for plaintiff) David K. Colapinto, LEAD ATTORNEY, KOHN KOHN & COLAPINTO, Washington, DC; Elizabeth A. O’Halloran, LEAD ATTORNEY, MILODRAGOVICH DALE, STEINBRENNER & BINNEY, Missoula, MT. (for defendants) W. Anderson Forsythe, LEAD ATTORNEY, MOULTON BELLINGHAM LONGO & MATHER, Billings, MT.


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