By Erica J. Zonder and Emily J. Houghton
Courtney Connor, the former women’s lacrosse coach at Arizona State University, sued the University and the Arizona Board of Regents (collectively, “ASU”) for Title VII and Title IX retaliation, as well as wrongful termination. Shortly after she was hired, Connor claims that she reported Title IX violations occurring in the athletic department to NCAA investigators. While Connor continued to report Title IX inequities within the athletic department, her male supervisor and Athletic Director created a hostile work environment.
Connor claims that she reported sexual harassment to human resources and “followed the appropriate routes” but the complaints were never fully investigated by the university (Field, 2022). Connor was fired from ASU in April 2019. She appealed her termination to Human Resources in May 2019. Connor argued that it took ASU 10 months to investigate her claims that she was retaliated against for engaging in protected conduct (reporting Title IX and Title VII violations).
In 2022, Connor filed a lawsuit in federal district court against ASU bringing claims for: 1) retaliation in violation of Title VII 42 U.S.C. §2000e against all defendants; 2) retaliation in violation of Title IX 20 U.S.C. §1681 against all defendants; and 3) wrongful termination against all defendants.
Connor was hired in 2015 to build a brand-new women’s lacrosse program at ASU. According to the complaint, the lacrosse program was created to address some existing gender inequities within the athletic department (Connor v. ASU, *14). Shortly after she was hired, she was interviewed as part of an NCAA investigation into gender equity complaints. Her “truthful” responses “angered” her supervisor and the Athletic Director, who then made the inequities among programs worse (*20). The male supervisor and Athletic Director also created a hostile work environment by subjecting Connor and other female colleagues to sexually explicit comments, touching and propositions. Connor reported the sexual harassment, hostile work environment, and disparities in resources, equipment, facilities among men’s and women’s athletic programs to human resources and was fired “immediately after and because of” (*23) in April 2019. In May 2019, Connor appealed her termination. The university rejected her appeal 10 months later in March 2020, stating that there was “no violation” of the ASU policy that prohibits retaliation in relation to making Title VII and/or Title IX complaints.
First Cause of Action: Retaliation in Violation of Title VII
According to the complaint, Connor made “numerous reports and complaints” of employment practices that she believed to be unlawful under Title VII, and as such, the complaints were protected conduct (*31). Specifically, she reported her male supervisor’s persistent sexual overtures, persistent sexual comments, and both her supervisor’s and Athletic Director’s “approval of, participation in, and ratification of the severe and pervasive sexual harassment” (*32b). She was then subject to an adverse employment action, ultimately leading to termination. Further, according to the complaint, the termination was “ratified and condoned” some 10 months later in the school’s determination that no violation of Title VII or ASU’s Discrimination, Harassment, and Retaliation policy occurred (*34). Finally, the complaint alleges that ASU’s campaign of adverse treatment against Connor is reasonably likely to deter other employees from engaging in protected activity (*36).
Second Cause of Action: Retaliation in Violation of Title IX
In addition to Connor’s sexual harassment complaints, she complained of gender inequity in athletics, specifically: a) gross disparities between the resources afforded to the ASU’s men’s and women’s programs, including facilities, equipment, training, staff, and more; and b) responding truthfully about the failure to provide essential resources to the women’s lacrosse program when interviewed by NCAA investigators (*43). As such, Connor reasonably believed that both the sex discrimination (sexual harassment) and gender inequality violated Title IX, and therefore her complaints were protected conduct. And then therefore, as with the Title VII cause of action, the adverse actions taken against her, specifically termination and ratification thereof, constituted a violation of Title IX. Connor is seeking equitable relief and damages for compensable harms including emotional distress, past and future lost wages and benefits, and other related costs for both the Title VII and Title IX claims.
Third Cause of Action: Wrongful Termination
Connor utilizes the language of both the Arizona Employment Protection Act (AEPA) and Arizona Civil Rights Act (ACRA) to claim that she was wrongfully terminated by ASU in violation of the State of Arizona’s public policy. §23-1501(A)(3) of the AEPA states that an employee has a claim against an employer for termination of employment if (c) The employer has terminated the employee in retaliation for (ii) the disclosure by the employee that the employer has violated, is violating or will violate the statues of this state (ARS, §23-1501). The ACRA §41-1463(B)(1) makes it unlawful for an employer to discharge or otherwise discriminate against an employee on the basis of sex (ARS §41-1463) – the complaint specifically references §§41-1461to 41-1468 here. According to the complaint, ASU was aware of discrimination in violation of the statutes, and refused to take prompt action or respond appropriately, instead retaliating (*60-62). And further, ASU retaliated against another employee who was similarly situated (See below). Connor is seeking damages here and additionally, due to “the willful and malicious conduct” of ASU (*66), punitive damages as well.
David Cohen Lawsuit
The Connor suit comes six months after the filing of a 2021 lawsuit (following an initial notice of claim filed in 2020) by David Cohen, the former Senior Associate Athletic Director at ASU, claiming that he was discharged in retaliation for his “repeated requests” that ASU promptly investigate claims of sexual assault and harassment made by three wives of athletic department employees, allegedly perpetrated by an ASU booster in 2019 (Tochterman, 2021). Specifically, Cohen claims retaliation in violation of Title VII and wrongful termination in violation of public policy (Cohen v. Arizona State University et al, 2021). The booster filed his own claim in 2020, accusing ASU of damaging his reputation and making false statements (Ryman, 2020).
Arizona Revised Statutes (ARS) §23-1501. Retrieved from https://www.azleg.gov/viewdocument/?docName=https://www.azleg.gov/ars/23/01501.htm
Arizona Revised Statutes (ARS) §14-1463. Retrieved from https://www.azleg.gov/viewdocument/?docName=https://www.azleg.gov/ars/41/01463.htm
Cohen v. Arizona State University, et al. Case 2:21-cv-01178-MT. (D. Ariz., 2021).
Connor v Arizona State University and Arizona Board of Regents. Case No. 2.22-cv-0006-JAT (D. Ariz., 2022).
Fields, K. (January 12, 2022). Former ASU lacrosse coach files lawsuit claiming wrongful termination. Statepress.com. Retrieved from: https://www.statepress.com/article/2022/01/former-asu-lacrosse-coach-sues-for-wrongful-termination-in-2019
Ryman, A. (May 1, 2020). ASU booster accused of sexual harassment files $5 million claim against university. AZcentral.com. Retrieved from https://amp.azcentral.com/amp/3058206001
Tochterman, L. (July 13, 2021). Former ASU Athletics Official Files Lawsuit Against University, Ray Anderson. Statepress.com.
Erica J. Zonder, J.D., M.S. is an Associate Professor of Sport Management at Eastern Michigan University.
Emily J. Houghton, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Sport Management at Minnesota State University, Mankato.