Thursday, November 17, 2011

Coach Files Retaliation Suit Against Central Connecticut State

A former track and cross-country coach at Central Connecticut State University has filed a lawsuit claiming that the university decided not to renew her contract in retaliation for her efforts to secure equal treatment for her team. Brenda Webb was hired by the university in 2006 on a one-year contract, which was renewed annually until it was terminated in 2010. According to her complaint, Webb successfully coached the women's track and cross-country team during that time, improving the team's record and engaging in successful recruiting efforts. Yet despite being promised equal treatment compared to the men's track team, Webb's team allegedly received a much lower budget than the men's team, less access to facilities, and had problems securing transportation to away meets. Webb also noted inequitable support from a "shared" assistant coach who spent his time helping the men's team and not the women's.

Webb claims that when she raised these concerns to a university official with oversight responsibility over athletics, her complaints were mocked and not taken seriously. Rather than investigate her complaints, the compliance officer investigated Webb, while one athletic department official allegedly pressured an athlete to file complaints against her. She was also threatened with "disciplinary action" if she did not "ignore everything that was happening" and continue to press her complaints. Meanwhile, Webb also noted ways in which she was afforded less respect than the male coaches, such as being left off the athletic department website (when newly-hired male coaches were added immediately) and misreporting the men's head coach's title as "Head Coach for Track" (instead of "Head Coach for Men's Track"). Webb claims she was also singled out for budget reductions and the cancellation of one of her athlete's scholarships. She attributes to this hostility to the fact that the athletic department had supported the assistant track coach for her position and was disappointed that the university president had required them to hire a woman instead.

In 2010, an athletic department evaluation committee recommended Webb for another contract renewal, noting the athletic and academic success of her team. But the athletic director did not renew her contract and instead combined the men's and women's track teams back together, as they had been before Webb was hired. The assistant coach who had sought Webb's job was hired as the head coach of the unified team, notwithstanding Webb's longer experience in coaching and coaching in Division I, as well as other superior coaching credentials.

On these facts, Webb's complaint satisfies the elements to establish a prima facie case for retaliation under Title IX. She alleges that she complained about gender equity, and that she experienced adverse employment consequences including being terminated from her position. She also alleges facts that support the inference that those two things are causally connected, including that she was threatened with "discipline" if she did not drop her complaints. The university will likely defend this lawsuit by proffering "legitimate" reasons for terminating Webb, perhaps by arguing that Webb did not meet performance expectations. Webb will then have to prove that the university's proffered reason is actually a pretext for retaliation. For example, if the university claims she was fired because her team was not competitive, Webb could demonstrate this is a pretext by proving the allegations in her complaint that the university did not terminate the coaches of other men's teams that were not as successful as hers.

Webb's complaint also includes counts of direct discrimination under Title IX, as well as comparable claims under state law. She seeks compensatory and other damages exceeding $2 million dollars, a number that is not out of bounds after verdicts and settlements in similar retaliation cases against Fresno State and Florida Gulf Coast University.