White Coach’s Discrimination Claim Against Western Illinois University Fails

Dec 3, 2021

A federal judge from the Central District of Illinois has granted Western Illinois University’s motion for summary judgement in a case in which the university was sued by a white tennis coach for discrimination.

WIU and its student athletes compete in the Summit League, a Division I intercollegiate athletic conference. WIU’s Director of Athletics is Danielle Surprenant. Surprenant is white. Holly Van Vlymen is Assistant Athletic Director for Academics and Student Athlete Development, and also white.

The women’s tennis coach, and plaintiff, is Mirko Bjelica (Bjelica) is white. He was first hired as the coach in February 2016, pursuant to a contract expiring June 30, 2016. After Bjelica’s initial contract expired, he subsequently received additional one-year contract appointments.

In June 2018, Bjelica again received and accepted a one-year coaching appointment for the period between July 1, 2018 and June 30, 2019. Bjelica’s appointment letter indicated that his duties included “the organization and administration of all phases of a Division I program, the recruitment of prospective student-athletes, supervision of assistant coaching staff and the promotion of positive public relations.”

WIU did not “contest there were some ways in which the women’s tennis team was successful during Bjelica’s coaching tenure.” Under Bjelica’s leadership, “the team had its first overall winning record in ten years and made the conference tournament,” according to the court. “Off the court, the team was twice recognized by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Intercollegiate Tennis Association for its academic achievement. The team’s fundraising also improved.”

Despite these successes, Surprenant reported that she became concerned about whether Bjelica possessed “important leadership factors that build a successful program outside of just wins and losses.” Her concerns, according to the court, included what she perceived as poor communication with student athletes; failure to demand accountability; lack of concern for student health; and poor student athlete retention — “all perceptions Bjelica challenges or disputes.” Surprenant also developed concerns related to an October 2018 incident during which Bjelica said the racial epithet “n—” and was found to have violated WIU’s non-discrimination policy.

Discrimination complaints at WIU are handled by the Office of Equal Opportunity and Access (EOA). Chocoletta Simpson, who is African American, directs WIU’s EOA office.

In a letter dated January 2, 2019, Simpson informed Bjelica of the complaint, by a player’s mother, against him and its two allegations: first, that he used the word “n—” during practice, and second, that he dismissed the player from the tennis team when she confronted him. Simpson directed Bjelica to set up a meeting with her and pointed him to WIU’s policies to explain the procedure that would follow. Her letter contained the word “n—” in full.

After an investigation, Bjelica received notice of his termination in a letter from Surprenant on May 1, 2019. The letter indicated his termination was effective that day and he would be paid out on June 1, 2019. On May 3, 2019, Bjelica received a second, revised termination letter from Director of Academic Personnel Amy Chambers, whose race is unspecified in the record. That letter described Bjelica’s termination as a nonrenewal of contract and stated that Bjelica would no longer report to work but would be paid and receive benefits through his contract’s original end date of June 30, 2019. On August 12, 2019, Shawn Hyden was hired by Surprenant as the new head women’s tennis coach. Hyden is white.

Bjelica filed a discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on December 26, 2019, and he was issued a right to sue letter on January 8, 2020. On April 6, 2020, proceeding pro se, Bjelica brought this employment discrimination suit against WIU under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e—2000e-17. See Compl. 1, 3, 5. Bjelica alleged that he would not have been terminated but for his race—had he been African American, he would not have been terminated. WIU moved for summary judgment, arguing that Bjelica cannot provide evidence that would support an inference of discrimination or show that WIU’s stated reasons for his termination—Surprenant’s concerns about his leadership and performance—are pretext for a discriminatory motivation.

In its analysis, the court turned to the oft-used McDonnell Douglas framework for evaluating discrimination, which “remains an efficient way to organize, present, and assess evidence in discrimination cases.” Johnson v. Advoc. Health & Hosps. Corp., 892 F.3d 887, 894 (7th Cir. 2018).

Under this framework, the plaintiff “carries ‘the initial burden . . . of establishing a prima facie case of . . . discrimination.'” Coleman v. Donahoe, 667 F.3d 835, 845 (7th Cir. 2012) (second alteration in original) (quoting McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802, 93 S. Ct. 1817, 36 L. Ed. 2d 668 (1973)). To establish a prima facie case, “a plaintiff must offer evidence that: ‘(1) she is a member of a protected class, (2) her job performance met [the employer’s] legitimate expectations, (3) she suffered an adverse employment action, and (4) another similarly situated individual who was not in the protected class was treated more favorably than the plaintiff.'” Id. (alteration in original) (quoting Burks v. Wis. Dep’t of Transp., 464 F.3d 744, 750-51 (7th Cir. 2006)). If the plaintiff establishes a prima facie case, the burden shifts to the employer to articulate a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its action—then, if the employer does so, the burden returns to the plaintiff to show that the employer’s proffered reason is pretextual. See Johnson v. Gen. Bd. of Pension & Health Benefits of United Methodist Church, 733 F.3d 722, 728 (7th Cir. 2013).

The court noted that “Bjelica presents no evidence beyond speculation to suggest that an African American employee in his situation would not have been sanctioned for a similar infraction. See Fischer v. Avanade, Inc., 519 F.3d 393, 401 (7th Cir. 2008).

“Because Bjelica cannot satisfy the fourth prong of the prima facie case, the Court need not continue its analysis under the McDonnell Douglas framework.”

Bjelica’s challenge that WIU failed to comply with its non-discrimination policy similarly failed because the court did not “find WIU’s deviation from its procedures either significant or evidence of pretext.”

Bjelica’s other argument that the performance issues that Surprenant “identified are pretextual because those reasons are dishonest and not factually accurate” also failed.

Taking the “the evidence as a whole,” the court wrote that Bjelica’s “argument relies on the assumptions that all white people would have felt one way about his case, that all African Americans would have felt another, and that every administrator in this case actually held the opinions that Bjelica believes should be ascribed to them on the basis of racial identity alone. But this is speculation unfounded in the record—and in any event, the decisionmaker who terminated him was white. Therefore, considering the evidence as a whole, the court does not find Bjelica has met his burden to provide evidence from which a reasonable trier of fact could infer racial discrimination. Summary judgment for WIU is therefore appropriate.

Bjelica v. W. Ill. Univ.; C.D. Ill.; Case No. 4:20-cv-04084-SLD-JEH; 10/22/21

Attorneys of Record:  Mirko Bjelica, Plaintiff, Pro se, Republic, MO. For Western Illinois University, Defendant: Roy G Davis, LEAD ATTORNEY, Abby J Clark, DAVIS & CAMPBELL LLC, Peoria, IL.

Articles in Current Issue