Thursday, August 12, 2010

Judge Dismisses Retaliation Case Against Montana State

A federal district court judge in Montana has dismissed former women's basketball coach Robin Potera-Haskins's case against Montana State University-Bozeman, in which she alleged she was terminated in retaliation for complaining about gender inequities within the department. After a bench trial, the judge issued of findings of fact consistent with the university's allegations that Potera-Haskins was fired instead for being hard -- specifically, manipulative and verbally abusive -- on the players. According to the opinion (which I have read but cannot link to), the judge did not believe, as Potera-Haskins claimed, that she had been forced by the Athletic Director to grant a scholarship to his daughter, but rather, that she had done so in order to curry the AD's favor. He did not believe that MSU terminated Potera-Haskins for pressing Title IX issues.

The judge acknowledged that Potera-Haskins's testimony refuted his findings, but found generally as a matter of fact that she was not a credible witness (the judge made no mention of the credibility of other witnesses who testified on Potera-Haskins's behalf, or how/whether he weighed their testimony). Trial judges make credibility findings all the time, and they are usually granted deference by appellate courts, because they do not hear witness testimony first hand. But trial judges usually explain the basis for their credibility findings, and such an explanation was, rather astonishingly, missing from this opinion. Nowhere does the judge explain why the testimony of former players and athletic department officials was more credible than Potera-Haskins's own. As a result, the credibility finding, which was the linchpin to the judge's decision to accept MSU's version of the facts over Potera-Haskins's, seems to me rather vulnerable on appeal.

Moreover, the judge's decision to deny a jury trial in the first place is also highly questionable. Recall that that the decision to hold a bench trial instead flowed from the judge's determination that no economic damages were at stake in the case -- highly unusual for an employment discrimination case.

So even though the first round in this fight goes to Montana State, I think the plaintiff -- who I understand intends to appeal -- has a good chance of convincing the Ninth Circuit that the decision should be vacated and remanded with instructions for a jury trial.