A magistrate judge from the Middle District of Alabama has granted, for the most part, Alabama State University’s summary judgment motion in a case in which it was sued by a former coach, who claimed she was discriminated against on the basis of her gender. The judge did, however, deny the summary judgment motion as to whether the plaintiff suffered discrimination, specifically when she was suspended.
Plaintiff Telma Hall was a female employee of ASU who served as the softball head coach from Oct. 17, 2005 until May 2, 2014. Hall also served as an adjunct professor beginning in the summer of 2013, teaching physical education and wellness classes. During her tenure, Hall served first under Athletic Director Stacy Danley and then Athletic Director Melvin Hines. As an adjunct professor, Hall was a part-time, at-will employee. The length of a contract for an adjunct professor was one semester. As a coach, Hall was classified as a Special Athletic Appointee. Head coaches at ASU are responsible for their programs, including recruiting, making sure athletes have a rewarding experience, requesting budgets, and reporting NCAA violations.
Salaries and fringe benefits for ASU coaches are set when the coaches are hired. Each head coach is given a salary pool that the head coach can divide among the number of paid assistant coaches the NCAA allows for that sport. ASU’s President and Board of Trustees have to approve the assistant coach salaries, however. Each sports team’s travel and recruitment budgets are established with a specific amount set out in the total sport budget. Hall was hired at a salary of $34,000 a year with no performance-based bonuses and no car allowance.
In June 2011, Hall made a request that the salary of the softball assistant coach be increased. In July of that year, she emailed Danley, who was then the athletic director, about increasing the budget and salaries for the softball program. Hall had been making $38,079 since Oct. 1, 2007, but her salary was raised to $45,000.
Mervyl Melendez was a male employee of ASU who was hired as the baseball head coach in 2011 at a base annual salary of $125,000 with a car allowance, a signing bonus, and additional bonuses and performance bonus opportunities. Jose Vazquez and Drew Clark were hired as associate and assistant coach for baseball, respectively. Vazquez was hired at $80,000 per year and Clark was hired at $40,000 per year.
In November 2011, Hall filed a complaint with Danley about gender equity and salary concerns related to the softball program. In January 2012, Hall filed an internal Title IX complaint, which was denied on April 12, 2012, and she was allegedly told there was no avenue for appealing that decision.
Hines became acting athletic director in September 2012. He was hired as athletic director in 2014. In February 2013, Hall filed an EEOC charge alleging gender discrimination in pay and terms of employment. In her EEOC charge, Hall complained about the salary discrepancy between her and the baseball coach.
Hall then signed her first contract that included both performance-based bonuses for her and her assistant coaches and a car allowance. One bonus was based on the Academic Progress Rate (APR) of the athletes. Melendez’s contract still included bonuses and bonus opportunities that Hall’s contract did not contain.
A July 24, 2013 Office of Civil Rights (OCR) Resolution Agreement entered into by ASU required it to “improve its hiring practices to attract more qualified coaches to the women’s programs, by seeking coaches with more coaching experience by increasing compensation packages and other conditions of employment so that the positions offered are equivalent to those provided to coaches hired for the men’s teams,” but did not require that Hall’s salary be increased.
In August 2013, Hines conducted a performance appraisal of Hall and she received a rating of “Requires Improvement” in the areas of quantity and quality of work, and policies and procedures. The appraisal noted that Hall’s overall record as a softball coach was below 40 percent. In addition, the APR rate was below the NCAA’s requirement.
In February 2014, Gwendolyn Boyd became the ASU president. In March 2, 2014, two parents sent e-mails to ASU complaining about Hall, alleging that she did not provide sufficient food to the athletes during team travel, that athletes were left on a bus, and that practice hours prevented students from eating in the cafeteria.
Following those complaints, ASU sent a letter to Hall placing her on administrative leave with pay. The letter further stated that Hall was not “to contact any student at Alabama State University.” It is undisputed that Hall was not allowed on campus to teach or to continue to take her own graduate-level classes.
By contrast, Hall testified in her deposition that while she was at ASU, the tennis coach and a baseball coach, Larry Watkins, were allowed to teach classes after they had been removed as coaches. Willie Dixon, the Director of Human Resources at ASU, testified in a deposition that whether a coach who also is a teacher would be entitled to remain on duty as a teacher if removed as a coach would be a decision for the provost. Hall presented evidence that a parent complained that Melendez was requiring athletes to use performance-enhancing drugs and was investigated for possible NCAA violations, but was not banned from campus or students. Hall also stated that Reggie Barlow and Craig Payne, both of whom were football coaches, were investigated after they left ASU for NCAA violations. Hall contends that Brian Jenkins was hired by ASU as a football coach when he had pending allegations of NCAA violations against him.
On April 28, 2014, Hines recommended that Hall be fired. At the time of the recommendation, the NCAA investigation had not concluded. On Aug. 7, 2014, Hall amended her EEOC charge to include retaliation.
On Oct. 21, 2016, the NCAA issued an ASU Public Infractions Decision stating that the enforcement staff, institution, and former head softball coach agree that the softball program had exceeded practice time limits imposed by the NCAA.
Hall sued on July 19, 2016, alleging discrimination on the basis of her gender and retaliation for complaining about different treatment on the basis of gender in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq. (Title VII). Specifically, she cited the following actions: paying her less than similarly situated male employees, denying her contracts with the same terms and benefits, providing her sport with less financial support, suspending her, terminating her employment, failing to follow university policies, and subjecting her to stricter scrutiny (Count I), and a claim of retaliation also based on actions taken against her during her employment (Count II).
In its analysis, the court noted that “where, as here, a plaintiff asserts circumstantial evidence of discrimination, the court applies the framework set forth in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 93 S. Ct. 1817, 36 L. Ed. 2d 668 (1973). Therefore, Hall first must establish a prima facie case of employment discrimination, creating a presumption that the employer discriminated against her by showing that (1) she belongs to a protected class; (2) she was qualified to do the job; (3) she was subjected to an adverse employment action; and (4) her employer treated similarly situated employees outside of her class more favorably. Crawford v. Carroll, 529 F.3d 961, 970 (11th Cir. 2008).
“If a plaintiff establishes a prima facie case, the burden shifts to the employer to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its employment action. Crawford, 529 F.3d 970. If the employer meets this burden, the plaintiff must then demonstrate that the employer’s proffered reason is merely a pretext for discrimination. Id.”
The court concluded that Hall did suffer an adverse employment action when she was suspended and that there is evidence that her punishment was more severe. “In other words, the testimony of Boyd would allow a reasonable jury to conclude that the two employees could be viewed as engaging in the same infraction with a different reaction from ASU,” wrote the court. Further, the evidence “is sufficient to call into question the articulated reason for Hall’s suspension,” leading the court to deny summary judgment on that claim.
Turning to Hall’s claim that she was treated differently from other male coaches, who had allegations against them, because she was terminated and those coaches were not, the court determined that Hall did not “sufficiently create a question of fact” that ASU’s stated reason was “pretext,” thus granting that part of the summary judgment motion.
Similarly, Hall’s claim of discrimination because of her smaller budget fell short. “ASU has presented evidence of the differences in the number of players as a reason for the difference in the program budgets and has presented evidence that the number of baseball players was substantially greater than the number of softball players,” wrote the court, concluding that Hall has “failed to create a question of fact.”
Initially, the court examined Hall’s claim based on difference in pay. Walker v. Fulton Cty. Sch. Dist., 624 F. App’x 683, 686 (11th Cir. 2015) sets forth an appropriate framework: Plaintiff “must show that (1) she belongs to a protected class, (2) she received low wages, (3) similarly situated comparators outside the protected class received higher compensation, and (4) she was qualified to receive a higher wage.” Id.
While Hall satisfied the first two requirements, the court sided with the university on the third, noting the baseball coach’s experience.
“Under Eleventh Circuit law, a plaintiff cannot substitute her business judgment for an employer’s, and a court does not sit as a super-personnel department to re-examine business decisions,” wrote the court, citing Chapman v. AI Transp., 229 F.3d 1012, 1030 (11th Cir. 2000).
Hall v. Ala. State Univ.; M.D. Ala.; CASE NO. 2:16-cv-593-GMB, Reporter 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 3176 *; 2019 WL 137593; 1/8/19
Attorneys of Record: (for plaintiff) Candis Annette McGowan, LEAD ATTORNEY, Wiggins, Childs, Quinn & Pantazis, Birmingham, AL; Lacey K Danley, LEAD ATTORNEY, Wiggins Childs Pantazis Fisher & Goldfarb, Birmingham, AL; Sabrina LeAnne Comer, Comer Elder Law LLC, LEAD ATTORNEY, Montgomery, AL. (for defendant) Joi Charisse Scott, Kenneth Lamar Thomas, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Office of General Counsel, Alabama State University, Montgomery, AL; Ramadanah Maryum Salaam-Jones, LEAD ATTORNEY, Alabama State University, Montgomery, AL.