Timothy Mullins, Kenneth Chapie and John Miller of the law firm of Giarmarco, Mullins & Horton, P.C. had a significant victory in the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.
A female high-school basketball coach in Michigan failed to show she experienced unlawful retaliation after she won a previous sex discrimination lawsuit against the school district, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled March 19, 2013 (Fuhr v. Hazel Park Sch. Dist., 6th Cir. No. 11-2288, 3/19/13).
In March 2004, the Sixth Circuit upheld a jury’s $245,000 award to Geraldine Fuhr, a varsity girls basketball coach for Hazel Park High School. Fuhr had sued the school district under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act for failing to hire her as coach of the varsity boys basketball team ( 364 F.3d 753, 93 FEP Cases 769 (6th Cir. 2004). The appeals court also affirmed Fuhr’s instatement as head coach of the boys’ team.
Several years later, Fuhr again sued the Hazel Park School District, this time under Title VII, the ELCRA, and Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments, alleging that she was removed from her position as the varsity girls basketball coach and was subjected to harassment in retaliation for her prior legal victory. The purported harassment included discipline of her best players, lack of access to an ice machine, denial of permission for her team to use a certain locker room and the school gym, and a late order for team uniforms.
Affirming summary judgment for the school district, the Sixth Circuit found that Fuhr failed to present direct evidence of retaliation based on an ambiguous statement by the high school’s principal that a “good old boys network” existed and that unspecified people were trying to “get back at [her] for winning the lawsuit.”
Additionally, the court held that Fuhr did not establish a triable retaliation claim with circumstantial evidence, as she could not demonstrate a causal link between the court judgment in her favor and her removal as the girls varsity coach about two years later. The court added that the school district offered legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for its other alleged bad acts.
Judge Damon J. Keith wrote the opinion, joined by Judges Boyce F. Martin and John M. Rogers.
COACH ALLEGED RETALIATORY REMOVAL, HARASSMENT
During Fuhr’s first lawsuit, which began in 1999, Michigan parents sued the Michigan High School Athletic Association in 2001 for Title IX violations because the girls and boys basketball seasons were not played at the same time.
After winning her sex discrimination suit at the district court level in 2001, Fuhr began coaching both the boys and the girls varsity basketball teams until June 2006, when Hazel Park removed her as coach of the girls team. Hazel Park claimed it proactively removed Fuhr in anticipation of a court order in the MHSAA case that would realign the boys and girls basketball seasons for contemporaneous play. Such an order was made final in April 2007.
Fuhr, however, believed her removal was in retaliation for winning her prior sex discrimination suit against the school district.
She also alleged that Hazel Park High School’s athletic director, Tom Pratt, subjected her to a hostile work environment by ordering the boys basketball team’s uniforms late, failing to provide her with annual evaluations, not notifying her when parents began circulating a petition for her removal as the boys team coach, and not telling her about the existence of a second ice machine located in the football coach’s office.
In addition, Fuhr claimed that high-school officials unfairly disciplined her best players, denied her team permission to use the football locker room and school gym, and denied her request for funds to pay an athletic trainer to conduct player injury evaluations. She alleged that the school board president also set up a room for community members to complain about her.
In November 2005, Fuhr said Don Vogt, the high school’s principal, told her the following:
“[T]his is a good old boys network. They are doing this to you to get even, you know …. They are doing this to you to get even because you stood up for your rights. They are doing this to you to get back at you for winning the lawsuit.”
Fuhr sued Hazel Park in April 2008 for retaliation under Title VII, the ELCRA, and Title IX, but the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan granted summary judgment to the school district.
COURT FINDS NO DIRECT EVIDENCE OF RETALIATION
Affirming on appeal, the Sixth Circuit explained that the same legal framework applies to Fuhr’s retaliation claims under all three laws.
First, the court found that Fuhr failed to present direct evidence from which a jury could conclude that retaliation was a motivating factor in the school district’s actions. It rejected Fuhr’s reliance on Principal Vogt’s “good old boys network” statement as such direct evidence.
Vogt’s comments, the court said, are ambiguous as to who is part of the “good old boys network” and what acts were retaliatory.
“He could be referring to all of the collective acts that occurred prior to [Fuhr’s] removal as the varsity girls coach or only some of those or only her removal as varsity girls coach or her removal and some combination of the other acts,” the court said. “These ambiguities do not require a conclusion that these unspecified acts by unspecified people were based on unlawfully retaliatory motives.”
NO CAUSAL LINK, RETALIATORY HARASSMENT
The Sixth Circuit also ruled that Fuhr’s claims cannot survive summary judgment based on circumstantial evidence because she failed to establish a prima facie case of retaliation.
The court said Fuhr did not demonstrate a causal link between the previous judgments in her favor and her removal as coach of the varsity girls team. It said the “multi-year gap” between Fuhr’s removal and the previous district court and appellate rulings in her favor “proves fatal to Fuhr’s assertion that there is a causal connection.”
“[W]hile temporal proximity alone cannot establish a causal connection, a lack of temporal proximity alone can be fatal to an attempt to establish a causal connection under circumstances such as these,” the court said.
In addition, the appeals court observed that the district court had found that the other bad acts cited by Fuhr did not rise to the level of severe or pervasive retaliatory harassment.
It rejected Fuhr’s contention that the lower court erred in analyzing only retaliatory harassment and not whether the school district took other adverse employment actions against her. Fuhr’s arguments below focused only on retaliatory harassment, the Sixth Circuit said, and she thus cannot raise an adverse action argument for the first time on appeal.
SCHOOL PROFFERED LEGITIMATE REASONS, COURT SAYS
Finally, even if Fuhr had demonstrated a prima facie case, the appeals court said Hazel Park rebutted a presumption of retaliation by offering legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for its alleged bad acts.
For example, Hazel Park contended that it removed Fuhr as the girls team coach in response to the MHSAA case, believing it would be “impractical” for one coach to be responsible for both teams at the same time.
In addition, Fuhr’s complaints about access to the ice machine in the football coach’s office as well as the football locker room “affected all non-football sports teams equally,” while the denial of funds for an athletic trainer and denial of gym access had affected all of the high-school sports teams equally, it said.
The school district also offered evidence to support its disciplinary actions against certain basketball players and to show that the athletic director’s “lackadaisical completion of his duties–the untimely submission of the order for the varsity boys basketball uniforms and irregular job evaluations–has affected all of Hazel Park High’s teams and coaches,” the court said.
Furthermore, Fuhr’s remaining complaints about the parents’ petition and the school board president are “meritless because Defendant could not suppress community members’ free speech without raising First Amendment concerns with respect to impermissible viewpoint discrimination,” it said. The court said since Fuhr failed to meet her initial prima facie burden, it would not address whether she could prove that Hazel Park’s stated reasons for its actions were pretextual.