Case Type: Employment Discrimination
Organization: San Diego State University
Beth Burns, the winningest women’s basketball coach in San Diego State University history (SDSU) inked a final settlement agreement with the University, putting a period on a long and contentious litigation which began in 2014.
The settlement follows a September 2016 victory in California Superior Court when a jury awarded Coach Burns $3,356,250 in damages.
“This settlement is a milestone in the fight for gender-equity in women’s college athletics as well as a warning shot to university athletic departments across the country, said, Ed Chapin, partner at Sanford Heisler Sharp. “Athletic Departments need to follow the rules. If they want to fire a coach or anyone else in their departments, there is a right way and a wrong way, right reasons and wrong reasons. San Diego State fired Beth for the wrong reasons in the wrong way. This settlement should put universities on notice that if they don’t follow the rules, it will be costly.”
In the fall of 2016, Sanford Heisler Sharp LLP and Patterson Law Group successfully tried Beth’s case to verdict. A five-woman, seven-man jury delivered the verdict, after two days of deliberation following four weeks of testimony, including that of the Aztec’s 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.
“We are pleased that Beth will be able to put this difficult chapter behind her and look forward,” said Allison Goddard of the Patterson Law Group, co-counsel in Beth’s case. “Beth is with a great program now in Louisville, with many years ahead to continue to make an important contribution to women’s athletics. We were honored to work with her and represent her.”
“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,” added Chapin. “This protection is the cornerstone of Title IX, and cases like this prove how important that is.”
In 2013, 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 the SDSU 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.
Burns’ legal team 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.
The California Whistleblower Protection 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.
According to Chapin, “Discrimination in athletics is not unique. As SDSU’s witnesses reminded the jury on several occasions throughout the 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.”
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. We are thrilled for her and all people who now have more protection as they speak out against injustice.”