Thursday, May 10, 2012

Court Won’t Dismiss Retaliation Case Against Ball State

Kathleen Bull, former women’s tennis coach at Ball State, sued the university under Title IX and other laws, alleging that her employment contract was terminated because of her outspoken advocacy for gender equity.  The university claimed that she was in fact fired because she had asked students to lie to athletic department officials about a practice that exceeded NCAA limit on weekly practice hours.    

Last week, the court denied Ball State’s effort to have the case dismissed without a trial, on summary judgment.  (Earlier, the court dismissed similar claims against individual university officials, in contrast to claims against the institution itself at issue in this most recent ruling.) On the Title IX claim, the court determined that Bull’s raised sufficient evidence that the university's stated reason for firing her was actually a pretext for retaliation such that a jury should have the opportunity to ultimately decide whether retaliation occurred.  

The trickiest requirement for retaliation plaintiffs is to show a causal connection between the adverse consequence (here, getting fired) and the protected conduct (here, advocating for gender equity, which Bull satisfied by filing a complaint with OCR).  The court explained that plaintiffs can use three types of circumstantial evidence to establish that relationship: 
(1) suspicious timing, ambiguous statements, and behavior toward other employees from which an inference of retaliatory intent may be drawn; (2) evidence that similarly situated employees received systematically better treatment; and (3) evidence that the plaintiff did not deserve the adverse employment action and that the employer's stated reason is a mere pretext for retaliation. 
Bull's evidence goes to the third of these options.  She argues that she did not deserve to be fired for asking students to help her cover up the NCAA rule violation, because other coaches engaging in similar conduct were treated with more leniency. Specifically, she points to the case of another coach at Ball State who lied to NCAA investigators.  Though not an identical infraction, that coach's infraction was, in the court's determination, of "similar seriousness" to Bull's.  Yet, that coach was given a letter of reprimand rather than fired.  This creates a sufficient inference that Bull was not really fired for lying, but for retaliatory reasons instead.  Barring settlement prior to trial, the jury will have a chance to decide whether that was indeed the case.

Decision is: Bull v. Bd. of Trustees of Ball State Univ., 2012 WL 1564061 (S.D. Ind. May 2, 2012).