A jury has ordered California State University at Fresno to pay $5.85-million to a former women’s volleyball coach who sued the institution for sex discrimination.
Lindy Vivas coached the volleyball team from 1990 until 2004, when Fresno State opted not to renew her contract. University officials have said the decision was based on her “unwillingness to improve the volleyball program,” specifically its noncompetitive schedule, unsuccessful postseason performance, and low attendance at games, by their measure.
The coach has maintained Fresno State discriminated against her. The team had a win-loss record of 59-27 in Ms. Vivas’s final three years. The reason for her de facto firing, she said, was athletics officials’ perception of her sexual orientation, as well as their retaliation for her advocating equal treatment for female athletes. She sued the university in the California Superior Court in Fresno County in 2006.
The trial, which started last month, generated considerable local publicity, as the judge allowed camera crews into the courtroom.
“The entire case was run sort of like a circus,” said Dawn Theodora, a lawyer for the California State University system who represented Fresno State. Each day a crowd of Ms. Vivas’s supporters in the courtroom loudly cheered and booed, Ms. Theodora said. The coach’s description of discovering male administrators celebrating “Ugly Women-Athletes Day” — apparently a holiday of their own creation — sparked particular fury.
Ms. Vivas and her lawyer, Dan M. Siegel, welcomed the jury’s verdict, reached on Monday. “I think it’s a huge victory,” Mr. Siegel said in an interview on Tuesday. He thought the damages awarded may be the largest for a coach who sued for discrimination.
Ms. Theodora called the verdict outrageous. “We are just incredulous,” she said on Tuesday. “It is a verdict without basis in the evidence. We think this jury became inflamed by passion and prejudice.”
Public institutions in California are not liable for punitive damages under state law, but the damages awarded to Ms. Vivas are classified as compensation for lost pay and emotional distress. The university plans to file a motion with the court to reduce the award, which Ms. Theodora said “smacks of punitive damages” even without that specific label.
The university also plans to appeal the verdict. “We believe firmly and wholeheartedly there is no merit to this case,” Ms. Theodora said.
Two more discrimination cases against Fresno State are set to go to trial soon. Diane Milutinovich, a former associate athletics director, sued the university in 2004 for firing her as director of the student union, a post to which she said she was transferred after complaining of unequal treatment for female athletes. Her trial is scheduled for September.
Stacy Johnson-Klein, a former women’s basketball coach, sued Fresno State in 2005 after she was fired during her team’s season (The Chronicle, March 25, 2005).
The university’s current softball coach, Maggie Wright, has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights accusing Fresno State of retaliating against her for advocating equal treatment of female athletes.
The civil-rights office investigated Fresno State’s athletics department in the early 1990s and concluded that it was out of compliance with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the law that bans sex discrimination at institutions that receive federal funds.
The university drafted a corrective-action plan, but Ms. Milutinovich thought its follow-up was inadequate. “For all of the university’s transgressions, there have never been any real consequences,” she said.
Mr. Siegel is also Ms. Milutinovich’s lawyer. The verdict for Ms. Vivas, he said, “will have huge implications for Diane’s case.”
A case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court two years ago — Jackson v. Birmingham Board of Education — established a precedent for coaches suing for retaliation under Title IX (The Chronicle, April 8, 2005).
That decision, in favor of the coach, Roderick Jackson, may have given more coaches the courage to speak up, said Dina Lassow, senior counsel for the National Women’s Law Center. Before the Jackson decision, she said, “there were courts that were totally throwing out these cases.”
Lisa M. Maatz, director of public policy and government relations for the American Association of University Women, has noticed an increasing number of lawsuits from coaches referred to her organization’s legal-advocacy fund in the past three years.
“They do it for themselves,” Ms. Maatz said of the coaches’ decisions to sue, “but they do it very much with an eye toward the bigger picture.”
That picture, she said, is one of weak administrative enforcement of gender-equity law. The Office for Civil Rights has “pulled back significantly” on reviewing athletics departments’ compliance with Title IX, Ms. Maatz said.
“The enforcement that they do, the sanctions they provide, don’t have any teeth,” she said. “So where is the incentive for a school to comply unless someone complains further?”