Softball Coach Wins Reversal of Summary Judgment Motion

Jul 31, 2009

Justice Saufley of The Supreme Judicial Court of Maine has held that there was a fact question that precluded summary judgment in the case of a high school softball coach who alleged that her contract was not renewed by the school district because of her sexual orientation.
Kelly Jo Cookson, a lesbian, was the head coach of the Brewer High School varsity softball team between 1993 and 2005. Her teams were generally successful, only missing the playoffs in one season. In 2005, Betsy Webb, the school district’s superintendent at the time, received a complaint from the mother of a player who had recently quit the team. Cookson was accused to verbal abuse and hazing. The complaint accused Cookson of bringing the players to a farm where they touched and walked in sheep feces. During Webb’s investigation, she discovered that there were similar accusations made against Cookson prior to the previous season. The complaint and investigation resulted in Webb issuing a letter of reprimand to Cookson.
Daniel Lee became the new superintendent of the Brewer School Department in September 2005. A month later, Lee learned that a tort claim had been filed by the family that had made the complaint to Webb. Lee had a meeting with Cookson and the athletic director in which Cookson made Lee aware of hazing incidents on other teams. Lee conducted an investigation into the tort claim and learned of the earlier complaint and letter of reprimand. At this same time, Lee was considering whether to recommend Cookson as coach for the 2006 season. Lee learned of Cookson’s sexual orientation some time before he made his hiring recommendation to the School Committee. During this time period, Lee met with parents who expressed support for Cookson. Lee decided not to nominate Cookson for the coaching position. Lee asserted that his decision was based primarily on Cookson’s hazing activities which were in violation of the school’s anti-hazing policy. Lee also believed that Cookson did not provide a “balanced” sports program to the team. Lee nominated Skip Estes, who is straight, for the position. The School Committee then hired Estes as the head softball coach.
Cookson filed suit against the school district alleging employment discrimination in violation of the Maine Human Rights Act.
The Act requires that the employee must establish a prima facie case by demonstrating that (1) the employee is a member of a protected class; (2) the employee applied for and was qualified for the job that the employer was seeking to fill; (3) the employee was not hired for the job; and (4) the job was later filled by a person who was not in the protected class. If the employee makes this showing, a presumption of illegal discrimination is established, and the burden shifts to the employer to produce evidence that the adverse employment action was taken for a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason. If the employer produces such evidence, the presumption of discrimination is rebutted, and the inquiry shifts to the ultimate burden of persuasion on the issue of intentional discrimination, which remains at all times with the employee. To meet this burden, the employee must demonstrate that the reason asserted by the employer was a pretext and that the true reason was illegal discrimination.
The Superior Court determined that Cookson had established a prima facie case of discrimination and that the School Department and Lee had articulated a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for declining to rehire Cookson. The court then ruled, viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to Cookson, that she had failed to present sufficient evidence that the stated reason she was not rehired was a pretext for illegal discrimination based on her sexual orientation.
The Supreme Judicial Court agreed that Cookson had established a prima facie case and that the School Department had articulated legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for not rehiring Cookson. The Supreme Court wrote that “an employee can survive a motion for summary judgment by presenting sufficient evidence from which a jury could reasonably conclude that either (1) the circumstances underlying the employer’s articulated reason are untrue, or (2) even if true, those circumstances were not the actual cause of the employment decision.” Cookson did not dispute that she participated in hazing. She argued that the decision was caused by illegal discrimination based on her sexual orientation. Saufley wrote,
An employee need not convince the court on summary judgment that she was subjected to an adverse employment decision because of her protected status, or even that her version of events is more plausible. Rather, the employee need only assert sufficient facts, supported in the summary judgment record, from which a reasonable fact-finder could disbelieve the employer’s proffered rationale and conclude that illegal discrimination was the true motivating factor.
The Supreme Court held that Cookson has generated a genuine issue of material fact on the issue of pretext. The court noted that there is a material disputed fact as to when Lee learned of Cookson’s sexual orientation relative to his final decision. The Superior Court’s decision was vacated.
Kelly Jo Cookson v. Brewer School Department et al.; Me. Super. Ct.; Pen-07-706; 6/02/09


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