University of Indianapolis Secures Legal Victory Against Former Coach

Jun 20, 2008

A federal judge has granted a motion for summary judgment submitted by the University of Indianapolis in a case where the school was sued by an assistant football coach, who alleged that the university discriminated against him based on his race and retaliated against him for filing complaints of discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 42 U.S.C. § 1981.
Specifically, the court agreed with the defendant that plaintiff Cleveland Witherspoon failed to demonstrate a material issue of fact on several prima facie elements of his claims.
Central to the case was the university’s Staff and Employee Handbook, which includes an off-duty conduct policy that provides:
“Employees who engage in inappropriate, criminal or unprofessional off-duty conduct may be subject to disciplinary action up to and including termination.
If you are involved in one of the circumstances below, you must notify your supervisor immediately:
• Arrested for or convicted of criminal conduct
• Lose or are threatened with the loss of a certificate or a license that is required to perform your job.”
Witherspoon, who had signed the handbook, began working for the University in August 1996 as a part-time assistant football coach. Over the next decade, Witherspoon had participated in multiple incidents involving violence or otherwise questionable behavior. He also felt he was wronged by the university and was discriminated against..
The friction came to a head on May 21, 2004 when Witherspoon was arrested at Mike’s Car Wash in Indianapolis and subsequently charged with felony battery and carrying firearms without a permit.
On, May 22, 2004, university administrators met to discuss Witherspoon’s status as an employee. They considered the current incident as well as others at the University in which “he had exhibited anger management problems that became physically confrontational.” They ultimately suspended Witherspoon, prompting his lawsuit based on Title VII and § 1981.
The court began by noting that “because the analysis for Witherspoon’s claims under Title VII and § 1981 are the same, the Court makes only a single analysis.”
It then wrote that where a plaintiff “has no direct evidence of discrimination,” as in the instant case, the plaintiff “must present sufficient evidence to establish a prima facie case of discrimination under the burden-shifting methodology of McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 93 S. Ct. 1817, 36 L. Ed. 2d 668 (1973). To prove a prima facie case of discrimination with respect to his claim that the University suspended him because of his race, Witherspoon must show that: (1) he was a member of a protected class; (2) he was performing up to the employer’s legitimate expectations; (3) he suffered an adverse employment action; and (4) the employer needs to find another person to perform that job after the employee is gone. See Pantoja v. Am. NTN Bearing Mfg. Corp., 495 F.3d 840, 846 (7th Cir. 2007) (citing Matthews v. Allis-Chalmers, 769 F.2d 1215 (7th Cir. 1985)). Once Witherspoon has established his prima facie case, then the University must offer a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its adverse action. See Lawson v. CSX Transp., Inc., 245 F.3d 916, 922-23 (7th Cir. 2001). If the University does so, Witherspoon ‘must rebut that reason by showing that [the University’s] proffered reason is actually pretext for discrimination.’ Id. ‘The plaintiff must meet each prong of the prima facie test before it becomes necessary to reach the issue of pretext.’ Brummett v. Lee Enterprises, Inc., 284 F.3d 742, 744 (7th Cir. 2002).”
The court wrote that Witherspoon’s argument was that “the University’s proffered explanation is pretext for discrimination for three reasons: (1) similarly situated white employees were treated better after exhibiting similar conduct; (2) there is other circumstantial evidence that the University discriminated against Witherspoon in other matters; and (3) there is an issue of material fact as to whether Witherspoon was the aggressor in the incident with Dr. Pennell, which the University relied on to support its finding that Witherspoon had a history of confrontational conduct.”
With regard to the first argument, the court found that the other employees cited weren’t legally comparable.
In short, “Witherspoon’s claims are not sufficient to establish an issue of fact as to these allegations. Rule 56 requires ‘something more specific than the bald assertion of the general truth of a particular matter, rather it requires affidavits that cite specific concrete facts establishing the existence of the truth of the matter asserted.’ Hadley v. Du Page County, 715 F.2d 1238, 1243 (7th Cir. 1983).”
Among its other findings, the court also found “Witherspoon has failed to show sufficient evidence to avoid summary judgment on his failure to promote claim” as well as his retaliation claim.
Cleveland Witherspoon v. University of Indianapolis; S.D. Ind.; 1:06-cv-1423-LJM-WTL, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 30254; 4/9/08
Attorneys of Record: (for plaintiff) Denise K. LaRue, Meghan Uzzi Lehner, Haskin Lauter & Larue, Indianapolis, IN. (for defendant) Brian R. Garrison, Roberta Sabin Recker, Baker & Daniels, Indianapolis, IN.


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