Male Coach’s Gender Discrimination Claim Falls Short Because of Lack of Comparators
A federal judge from the District of Connecticut has granted Sacred Heart University’s (SHU) motion to dismiss a lawsuit by the former head coach of the men’s tennis team at the university, who claimed that from 2006-16 the university discriminated against him on the basis of his gender, allegedly paying him significantly less and providing him fewer resources than other female head coaches at the school.
Paul Gagliardi was hired for the post in the fall of 2006 by Mike Guastelle, SHU’s senior associate athletic director, director of tennis, and women’s tennis coach. SHU paid Gagliardi an annual salary of $5,000. From the start, Gagliardi said he viewed the position as “a full-time position with part-time pay.” In 2014, he applied for a full-time head coaching job at Fairfield University, but was not selected. By then, he received an annual salary of $12,500 from SHU.
Gagliardi received favorable reviews from his supervisors during 2014 and 2015, all while pushing for full-time status. The latter was wearing thin with some reviewers. Brad Hurlbut, Deputy Director of Athletics, explained to Gagliardi that his position would “not be made full-time in the near future.” Hurlburt allegedly advised Gagliardi to “embrace the program and be more positive.”
In October 2015, Gagliardi wrote and delivered by hand a letter to Rob Hardy, Director of Human Resources in which he claimed that his pay was lower than it should be because of gender discrimination. By then, he received $13,800 per year. A few weeks later, Gagliardi met with Hardy and reiterated that the female coaches were paid and treated better. In late December 2015, Hardy convened a meeting with Gagliardi, Hurlbut, and Athletic Director Robert Valentine, to discuss Gagliardi’s discrimination claims. Gagliardi’s persistence paid off as he received a raise, effective Jan. 1, 2016, with his annual salary being increased to $20,000. He also became eligible to receive part-time employee health, retirement, and tuition assistance benefits.
Nevertheless, in late July 2016, Gagliardi continued to complain to administrators about his compensation. He ultimately received a poor performance review. In roughly the first six weeks of the 2016 season, Gagliardi arrived late to every practice and missed several practices, according to the court. The detrimental behavior continued until September 2016, when SHU fired him. Guastelle assumed his coaching responsibilities for the rest of the season. In 2017, the head coaching positions for men’s and women’s tennis were consolidated into a single full-time job with a $50,000 salary, and a new coach was hired.
On Feb. 22, 2017, Gagliardi received a “right to sue” letter from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). He ultimately filed his lawsuit for gender discrimination under the Equal Pay Act of 1963, 29 U.S.C. § 206(d), et seq.; Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000, et seq.; and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. §1681, et seq. SHU responded with a motion for summary judgment.
Addressing the Equal Pay Act claim first, the court noted that Gagliardi argued that he was paid significantly less than female head coaches in violation of the Equal Pay Act. Sacred Heart argues that there are no appropriate comparisons and that Mr. Gagliardi’s pay reflected Sacred Heart’s legitimate business decision to invest in other sports. The court agreed, noting that Gagliardi “failed to establish a prima facie case of unequal pay.
“ … Gagliardi is not comparing his pay to that of the women’s tennis coach. Nor could he. Guastelle, the women’s tennis coach, is not an adequate comparator with respect to salary. As Gagliardi has acknowledged, Guastelle then served as the senior associate athletic director, director of tennis, and women’s tennis coach. Guastelle also served as Gagliardi’s supervisor, not his peer. Finally, Guastelle is a male colleague, so his unequal treatment could not support a claim of pay discrimination under the Equal Pay Act on the basis of gender.”
Turning to the Title VII discrimination claim, the court wrote that it applies the three-step burden shifting framework to claims of employment discrimination, pursuant to McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 93 S. Ct. 1817, 36 L. Ed. 2d 668 (1973)).
“At step one of the McDonnell Douglas analysis, the plaintiff must establish a prima facie case of discrimination by showing that: 1) he (or she) belonged to a protected class; 2) he (or she) was qualified for the position; 3) he (or she) suffered an adverse employment action; and 4) the adverse employment action occurred under circumstances giving rise to an inference of discriminatory intent.” Id.
Once a plaintiff has established a prima facie case, the burden shifts back to the defendant to demonstrate a valid, non-discriminatory reason for the adverse employment action. … If the defendant makes such a showing, “the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to prove discrimination, for example, by showing that the employer’s proffered reason is pretextual.” Demoret v. Zegarelli, 451 F.3d 140, 151 (2d Cir. 2006).
Gagliardi’s claim fell apart under this test, according to the court, which agreed with the following SHU argument: “Nearly everyone involved in Gagliardi’s hiring and firing was male, that he received continued offers of employment and raises throughout his time at Sacred Heart, and that he was fired for failing to perform his duties as a head tennis coach.”
As for the Title VII retaliation claim, the court noted that the Second Circuit has held that informal complaints of discrimination constitute “protected activity” under Title VII. See Matima v. Celli, 228 F.3d 68, 78-79 (2d Cir. 2000). However, to demonstrate a causal connection, a plaintiff “must typically show that the protected activity occurred in temporary proximity to the adverse employment action,” wrote the court. On this point, the plaintiff’s claim fell short. “Because Gagliardi has not demonstrated a causal connection between his protected activity and adverse employment action, his retaliation claims are dismissed,” wrote the court citing Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., 475 U.S. at 587-88
Lastly, the court considered the plaintiff’s argument, pursuant to Title IX. While conceding that some courts have recognized a private cause of action for employment discrimination under Title IX, the court in the instant case noted that it “need not resolve this issue because no court has developed a body of law for Title IX employment claims, separate and distinct from Title VII’s analytic framework for addressing employment discrimination claims.” See Pejovic, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 125597, 2018 WL 3614169, at *3 In other words, Title IX retaliation claims also depend on “the same burden-shifting framework applicable to Title VII retaliation claims.
“As a result, even if Gagliardi has a cause of action under Title IX, the analysis of his claim would not be different from how this Court already has analyzed his Title VII claim.”
Paul Gagliardi v. Sacred Heart Univ., Inc.; D. Conn.; No. 3:17-cv-857 (VAB), 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 118348; 7/16/19