Labor & Employment Law Daily Wrap Up, DISCRIMINATION—W.D. Pa.: Jury to decide if assistant basketball coach was fired due to routine 'overhaul,' or because he was older and white, (Dec 17, 2021)

By Marjorie Johnson, J.D.

However, the college coach’s Title IX reprisal claim failed given that two years had passed since he complained that the men’s team treated the women’s team unfairly by leaving a messy weight room and conducting drills during their practice.

A former strength coach for a university’s womenȁ ...

By Marjorie Johnson, J.D.

However, the college coach’s Title IX reprisal claim failed given that two years had passed since he complained that the men’s team treated the women’s team unfairly by leaving a messy weight room and conducting drills during their practice.

A former strength coach for a university’s women’s basketball team defeated summary judgment on claims that his firing was not due to “routine coaching staff overhaul,” but because of his age (46) and race (white). A federal district court in Pennsylvania found sufficient evidence that he was treated less favorably than his black counterpart for the men’s basketball team, and replaced by someone 20 years younger. A jury could also infer pretext from evidence of suspicious circumstances surrounding the decision, including the key decisionmaker’s lack of recollection and the employer’s inability to identify precisely who terminated him, as well as alleged references to his older age (Beltz v The University of Pittsburgh, December 15, 2021, Ranjan, J.).

For nearly 19 years, the employee worked for the university’s athletic department as a strength coach for a variety of sports. After working primarily with the men’s basketball team from 2000, in March 2016 he transitioned to the same role with the women’s basketball team after a new men’s head coach was hired and brought on a young black male as the men’s strength coach.

Complains about treatment of women’s team. The employee and the black strength coach had a contentious relationship. In the fall of 2016, the employee complained that the men’s team was treating the women’s team unfairly by leaving the weight room messy and conducting drills while the women practiced. He also brought the issue to their supervisor and a senior administrator. While neither elevated his complaints, his supervisor noted the conflict between the men in the employee’s performance review.

New athletic director cleans house. In March 2017, the university installed a new athletic director. Due to both basketball teams’ less than stellar records, she fired both teams’ head coaches in March and April of 2018, respectively, as well as their staffs. The new men’s coach subsequently decided to keep the black strength trainer on as part of his new staff. However, the employee did not receive a job offer from the new women’s coach, and was ultimately replaced by a while male who was 20 years younger than him.

Inference of bias. In arguing for dismissal of the employee’s race bias claim, the university argued that the black strength coach was not a proper comparator since the two men supported different teams and coaches and operated under different employment conditions (at-will vs. contract). It also argued that their respective terminations were evaluated independently, and at separate times, and were based on the needs and interests of different basketball programs.

Non-white comparator. Nevertheless, the court found sufficient evidence for a jury to conclude that the two coaches were similarly situated. They held the same job title, worked with basketball players who played on teams with poor records, reported to the same supervisor, shared an office, and worked under the same athletic director. While they were not identical in every respect, they performed nearly identical roles in the university’s athletic department and were evaluated according to the same standard: whether their basketball team performed well.

The court rejected the university’s argument that the employee could not “cherry-pick” among others who were also terminated, including white staff. The black coach was “the most direct – and therefore the most relevant – comparator.” The university also argued that the employee had the opportunity to seek the same position with the new head women’s coach. However, he presented evidence that the black coach’s termination was a mere formality and that he received favorable treatment by being encouraged to continue working for the remainder of his contract term and being sent on professional development trips. Finally, insofar as the university mentioned that the employee’s replacement was white, that was “for a jury to weigh,” as the employee did not need to prove as a matter of law that he “lost out to a person outside of their class.”

Pretext. Additionally, the employee cast sufficient doubt on the university’s assertion that he was terminated as part of the legitimate “shake up” in staff following the hiring of a new head women’s basketball coach who had the authority to select his own staff and who decided the best thing for the program was a “clean break from the prior staff.” First, the employee presented evidence undercutting the university’s version of events as certain documentation suggested that staffing changes within the strength and conditioning program were already in the works before any head coach shake-up. The record also suggested that the employee was personally targeted.

Evidence he was targeted. For instance, on the morning of March 27, the “final version” of the transition outline listed him as a member of support staff and not a candidate for termination. But by late afternoon that same day, his name had moved to the termination list. During discovery, neither the athletic director nor the administrator who prepared the document could recall discussions that took place between drafts, and the university failed to specifically state what person(s) ultimately participated in the decision to fire the employee. The court found that denial of summary judgment was supported by the key decisionmaker’s lack of recollection and the employer’s inability to identify precisely who terminated the employee.

There was also evidence tending to show that bias played a role. For example, the employee’s supervisor perceived that the department was “not looking for someone who is at the end of their career, essentially,” and wanted “people on their way up in the profession.” Additionally, the director of sports performance—who recommended candidates to the new women’s head coach during the interview process—opined that the employee did not have sufficient “energy” for the position, a comment a jury could find references older age.

Title IX retaliation claim fails. However, because he couldn’t demonstrate a causal connection, the employee failed to advance his Title IX claim that the university fired him partly because of his complaints about unfair treatment of the women’s basketball team. There was no suggestive temporal proximity since he was terminated nearly two years after his complaints, and he failed to establish sufficient evidence of an intervening pattern of antagonism so as to nevertheless connect his protected activity with his firing.

Significantly, there was no evidence of retaliatory mistreatment in the time between his performance review following his complaints and his termination, which occurred nearly a year after the review and almost two years after he first complained to his supervisor. Though he suggested that the university was simply biding its time until the opportunity to retaliate presented itself, the court explained that “many months of silence does not indicate a pattern of antagonism.”

The case is No. 2:29-cv-01572-NR.

Attorneys: Samuel J. Cordes (Rothman Gordon) for Timothy Joseph Beltz. Jonathan D. Marcus (Marcus & Shapira) for The University of Pittsburgh.

Companies: The University of Pittsburgh

Cases: Discharge Discrimination AgeDiscrimination RaceDiscrimination Retaliation PennsylvaniaNews GCNNews