Friday, December 04, 2009

Mesa Coach Wins Damages in Retaliation Case

A jury in San Diego Superior Court found that Mesa Community College retaliated against former basketball coach when it terminated her position for speaking out against inequities in women's athletics, in violation of Title IX. Lorri Sulpizio's complaints had triggered an investigation by the Office for Civil Rights, which lead to an agreement by the college to remedy disparities in support and resources between men's and women's teams.

However, the jury did not find that the college discriminated against her directly on the basis of sex and sexual orientation, as she had alleged. This is not entirely surprising to me, given how hard it is for discrimination plaintiffs to successfully prove that an employer was motivated by bias. I did not witness the trial, but I am guessing the jury heard evidence that athletic director Dave Evans fired Sulpizio and her partner Cathy Bass, an assistant coach, soon after having been identified in a local news story as domestic partners. But the timing alone does not demonstrate that Evans acted with bias. The jury may have also may have heard testimony that suggested Evans had in the past asked questions and made derogatory statements about the sexual orientation of Sulpizio, given that these allegations are contained in the complaint as well. However, the jury could have found this evidence insufficient to support a conclusion that Evans was biased at the moment he fired his lesbian coaches. I think that the jury's finding that the college retaliated but did not directly discriminate against Sulpizio suggests that a retaliatory mindset may be an easier one to prove, given that it is response to the plaintiff's demonstrable conduct, i.e., complaining, whereas direct discrimination requires a link between the response and the plaintiff's membership in a particular group.

The jury awarded her $28,000 in damages. Attorneys fees and costs are not included in this award. While this award seems paltry in comparison to the million dollar jury verdicts in retaliation cases against Fresno State in recent years, the difference does not so much reflect a lesser culpability of Mesa than it does the degree of economic harm to Sulpizio that the retaliation caused; $28,000 is the equivalent of a year of Sulpizio's salary.