Judge Dismisses Richardson Suit, Finding Stated Reasons for Firing Were Legit

Aug 13, 2004

A federal judge in Arkansas has dismissed the lawsuit brought by former University of Arkansas basketball coach Nolan Richardson, who had alleged that he was terminated from his position because he was black and outspoken.
Central to District Judge William R. Wilson’s finding in the non-jury trial was that Richardson was fired because of a diatribe he unleashed on February 23, 2002, when he claimed that he answered to no one and that the university could buy him out. The defendants argued successfully that Richardson had “undermined” the program and should have been fired for what was determined to be unprotected speech.
The incident occurred during a press conference after a game against University of Kentucky. Richardson’s comment that “if they go ahead and pay me money, they can take the job tomorrow” got nationwide play on both the airwaves and in newspapers. Richardson was fired and litigation ensued as Richardson charged that he “was fired because of his race, and because he spoke out on matters of public concern (race).” He named the university’s AD, Frank Broyles; President, B. Alan Sugg; and Chancellor , John A. White, Jr., as defendants as well as The Razorback Foundation.
The trial before Judge Wilson began on May 5 and lasted less than a month.
In his memorandum and order, Judge Wilson reviewed whether Richardson could establish a prima facie case of discrimination by showing that he was treated differently than a similarly situated employee, who is not a member of protected class. The employee being compared to Richardson was Football Coach Houston Nutt. The court found that their positions were substantially similar, noting, for example, that they had similar salaries and each oversaw revenue sports. Thus, Richardson did establish a prima facie case of discrimination.
Thus, the burden fell to the defendants to articulate a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the firing. The court noted that Richardson’s remarks on February 23, according to the defendants, “showed a lack of interest and lack of commitment to (the university), undermined public confidence and support for the program and had a negative impact on recruiting for all (university) sports. With these explanations, (the university) has met its burden of articulating a legitimate reason for the termination.”
This shifted the burden back to the plaintiff to prove that the stated reasons were pretext and that “race was the real reason for his firing.”
This is where chronology came into play. Judge Wilson deemed it important to determine the exact date when a decision was made to fire Richardson, since it would help determine why Richardson was fired. The defendants contended that a decision was made to fire Richardson on February 24 in specific response to his comments the day before, while the plaintiff argued that the incident was a pretext to the real reason – because he was black and outspoken.
The “clincher” in determining whether Richardson’s diatribe was pretext for another reason for Richardson’s firing was that President Sugg, who professed to “have a great deal of respect” for Richardson, was the catalyst in removing Richardson. He had “testified that he was distressed at the remarks, and thought them to be an embarrassment to the university.” The court wrote that it could not “find that Sugg was motivated in any way by race.”
This solidified a decision for the defendants.
Judge Wilson, who was clearly pained at having to decide the case as judge and jury, wrote that he “was inclined to believe that the firing could have been avoided, or postponed considerably, if there had been more and better communication by (Richardson’s) supervisors.
“I hasten to point out, however, that my resume reflects no experience as an AD, Chancellor or President of a university. As long as the firing did not violate constitutional or statutory standards, the matter is to be filed under the (university’s) business, not that of a federal judge.”
Richardson v. Sugg et al., E.D.Ark., 4:02CV00779-WRW, 6/8/04


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