Case Type: Employment Discrimination
Organization: San Diego State University
September 28, 2016 – Beth Burns, the winningest women’s basketball coach in San Diego State University history (SDSU), racked up another huge victory today – this one totaling $3,356,250– in California Superior Court in San Diego. SDSU terminated Burns in April 2013 after Burns had 16 years of success as head coach of the Aztecs women’s team. The favorable verdict marks a victory in the fight for gender equity in college athletics, as the jury found that SDSU acted improperly by firing Coach Burns as a result of her express concerns about gender equity.
Sanford Heisler Sharp LLP and Patterson Law Group successfully tried the case to verdict. Lead counsel Ed Chapin of Sanford Heisler Sharp said, “As we demonstrated to the jury, SDSU’s explanation for letting Coach Burns go was fabricated in response to her outspoken and unapologetic advocacy for equality in women’s athletic resources at the University. Although no verdict or award can undo the tremendous harm done to her career by SDSU’s unconscionable actions, this is an appropriate award based on SDSU’s character attacks on Coach Burns.”
A five-woman, seven-man jury delivered the verdict today, after two days of deliberation following four weeks of testimony, including that of the Aztecs’ men’s basketball coach Steve Fisher, SDSU’s former senior associate athletic director Don Oberhelman, and many of Burns’ former coaching staff, SDSU colleagues, and players, who supported her claims.
“This verdict brings a measure of justice to Coach Burns after a years-long struggle to vindicate her rights,” commented Allison Goddard. She continued: “It is also hard to miss the signal a verdict like this sends to schools and coaches across the country. This verdict reaffirms the principle, embodied in laws like Title IX and the Whistleblower Protection Act, that coaches who stand up for female athletes should not have to fear retaliation by their employers. This protection is the cornerstone of Title IX, and cases like this prove how important that is.”
The popular head coach was terminated by the University with four years left on her new 5-year contract after the women’s Aztecs basketball team completed a record-breaking 27-win season. The institution initially claimed its decision to remove Burns was based on her actions during a 2013 home game between her Aztecs and Colorado State University, during which she had incidental physical contact with a male assistant coach on the Aztecs’ bench during the heat of the close game.
Chapin, Goddard, and other members of Burns’ legal team – including Danielle Fuschetti and Talia Stender of the national civil rights law firm Sanford Heisler Sharp LLP– demonstrated during the trial that SDSU terminated Burns’ contract because of her persistent complaints about the absence of gender equity between the institution’s male and female athletic programs. Chapin persuasively argued it was Burns’ protected activities as a whistleblower, not her personal interactions with assistant coaches or other individuals, that resulted in the University’s decision to terminate the 2012 contract.
“Coach Burns’ frequent communications about the pervasive, ongoing gender inequalities she observed in San Diego State’s athletic programs were protected disclosures under the California Whistleblower Protection Act. That Act prohibits retaliation against government employees who report possible violations of the law. Coach Burns’ communications implicated Title IX, the federal legislation requiring equal treatment of males and females in institutions receiving federal funds,” said Danielle Fuschetti, a Sanford Heisler Sharp attorney and a member of the trial team. “SDSU’s decision to remove her from a position for which she is supremely qualified and in which she was performing exceptionally well was a punitive effort to silence these legitimate complaints.”
The verdict achieved in this case adds to the wins and favorable settlements secured by coaches and other athletic department staff who faced retaliation after attempting to speak up for their female athletes. Their stories reveal not only widespread tolerance for discrimination against women in college athletics but substantial resistance among academic institutions to engaging in a dialogue on this issue of gender equity in athletics.
“We are delighted the jury did the right thing,” said Ed Chapin. “We never doubted that the jury would see in one month of testimony what the world saw three years ago: Coach Burns brought her concerns of gender inequity to SDSU, and, as a result, SDSU manufactured a reason to terminate her.”
Discrimination in athletics is not unique. As SDSU’s witnesses reminded the jury on several occasions throughout this trial, women’s sports usually draw much smaller crowds than men’s sports. This may, in turn, reinforce institutional biases against women’s sports within money conscious Universities. Coach Burns’ success here reaffirms the basic safeguards that are necessary to combat this strong current.
Coach Burns, who is currently Associate Head Coach of Women’s Basketball at USC, expressed gratitude to her legal team, the jury, and countless supportive colleagues and players: “There aren’t words to express my appreciation to Ed Chapin, Ali Goddard (Patterson Law Group), Danielle Fuschetti, Talia Stender and our entire Sanford Heisler Sharp team, for their tireless efforts and unwavering support throughout my case. I also have much respect and gratitude for the jury, who interrupted their lives for over a month. Thank you. I am forever indebted to all the family, friends, and colleagues who have encouraged me, and supported me for the last three years. Thank you, USC, especially Cynthia Cooper-Dyke and Donna Heinel, for your support and leadership. Most of all, thank you to my Aztec players and coaches. It is your belief in me, and what we did together, that matters the most. Together.”
Reflecting on the significance of this case, David Sanford, Chairman of Sanford Heisler Sharp, remarked, “Coach Burns is a most courageous woman and a great role model for girls and women throughout the United States. She deserved this verdict. We are thrilled for her and all people who now have more protection as they speak out against injustice.”