Posted October 3rd, 2016.
By Suevon Lee
Law360, Los Angeles (October 3, 2016, 6:45 PM EDT) — The former coach of the San Diego State University women’s basketball team has recently won a $3.36 million judgment against the school after a state jury found she was retaliated against for protesting alleged inequity in the treatment of the men’s and women’s teams in violation of Title IX.
Mary Elizabeth Burns, who coached the Aztecs for 16 years and was the winningest coach in SDSU’s women’s basketball history until her forced retirement in April 2013, prevailed in her gender discrimination and retaliation claims under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act when a 12-member jury found in her favor on Sept. 28, according to a copy of the verdict sheet from San Diego Superior Court.
Burns, now the associate head coach of the University of Southern California’s women’s basketball team, alleged she was wrongfully terminated from her coaching position at SDSU with four years still left on her contract after protesting the university’s inferior treatment of its women’s basketball team compared with the men’s team. The university maintained that Burns’ removal was spurred by an incident in which she struck a subordinate member of her coaching staff during a 2013 game.
“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,” lead counsel Ed Chapin of Sanford Heisler LLP said in a statement.
The Sept. 28 verdict awarding Burns $3,356,250 came after two days of deliberation by a five-woman, seven-man jury following four weeks of testimony, according to a statement from her lawyers.
Burns’ coaching career at SDSU began in 1989. She coached the women’s basketball team through 1997, left to serve as head coach of Ohio State’s women’s basketball team, then returned to SDSU in 2005 until her departure in 2013, according to her second amended complaint.
Burns, who led the Aztecs to six regular-season conference championships, four league tournament titles and seven NCAA tournaments, and boasted a 295-186 record, claimed in her lawsuit that the university’s athletics department prioritized men’s sports over women’s sports, saying there were “significant deficits” for the women’s basketball program.
Specifically, Burns claimed that the women’s team didn’t receive the same benefits, quality of equipment, practice time scheduling, travel budget, number of coaches, locker room and practice facilities, housing support and publicity as the men’s team.
Her second amended complaint alleged that she personally used thousands of dollars of her own funds to buy food, gear and practice equipment for the female players and personally subsidized staff working lunch outings and staff parking passes.
She claims San Diego State stiffed the women’s basketball team of the publicity it reserved for the men’s team, used “leftovers” from the men’s games for things like fan giveaways for women’s games and only set up an online ticket ordering system for the women’s team after Burns complained.
Her complaint also alleged that Burns was required to count male athletes as female in the school’s annual mandatory gender equity report to the U.S. Department of Education.
According to the suit, she was vocal about what she perceived as inequality of treatment of the women’s and men’s sports teams and that department leaders personally referred to her as “rough around the edges.”
It was her vocal protests about these things that led to her ultimate removal from her $220,000 a year position in 2013 despite having just negotiated a five-year contract extension on July 17, 2012, according to her complaint.
According to the complaint, she was called into the athletic director’s office on April 16, 2013, and given the choice to either agree to resign, retire or be fired, for the reason of purportedly striking a subordinate coach, Adam Barrett, during a February 2013 game.
The former Aztecs head coach maintained in her complaint the contact amounted to “incidental physical contact” and that the school’s reasons for firing her were just a pretext for her raising complaints about the inequity of the school’s athletic programs.
“SDSU fired her in retaliation for her unwavering demands that SDSU put women’s basketball and men’s athletics on an equal footing,” her second amended complaint stated.
Burns sued the Board of Trustees of California State University, the athletic director of SDSU and its senior associate athletic director.
A spokesman for San Diego State told Law360 Monday the university is reviewing the verdict and in the process of considering next steps. “San Diego State University takes every personnel matter very seriously as we work to provide an environment that supports the academic and professional development for every member of our community, and one that treats all individuals with dignity and respect,” he said.
Burns is represented by Edward D. Chapin of Sanford Heisler LLP and Allison H. Goddard of Patterson Law Group APC.
California State University is represented by David Noonan of Noonan Lance Boyer & Banach LLP.
The case is Mary Elizabeth Burns v. San Diego State University et al., case number 37-2014-00003408, in the Superior Court of the State of California, County of San Diego.
–Editing by Jack Karp.