University of Iowa Athletics Employee Wins $1.4M Discrimination Claim

Worker’s partner was threatening legal action against the university

By Allen Smith, J.D. May 17, 2017
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​A jury recently rejected the University of Iowa's policy of firing employees whose partners threaten legal action against the school and awarded $1.43 million to the university's associate athletics director on her state law sexual orientation discrimination, sex discrimination and equal pay act claims.

The award may be just the tip of the iceberg, as her attorney intends to also ask the court for triple the $374,000 already awarded in back pay plus attorney fees and front pay or a return to work. "We had an expert testify that her front pay to retirement is worth $3.9 million," her attorney, Jill Zwagerman of Newkirk Zwagerman in Des Moines, Iowa, told SHRM Online.

The verdict may be notable from a societal standpoint. "We are not aware of other sexual orientation discrimination cases in Iowa that have been tried before an Iowa jury," Zwagerman noted. "We see this as a sign that perhaps the tide is turning and people are more accepting. It's a landmark case."

An Iowa district court on May 4 entered a verdict of $374,000 in back pay, $444,000 for past emotional distress and $612,000 for future emotional distress in favor of Jane Meyer, who was removed from her position one day after she made a discrimination complaint to Gary Barta, Iowa's athletics director. Barta announced to the rest of the athletics staff that the reason Meyer was being removed from the department was because her partner, Tracey Griesbaum, might file a lawsuit against the university over Griesbaum's termination from her position as Iowa head field hockey coach. Zwagerman represents Griesbaum in that lawsuit as well, which is set for trial in June.

Meyer had disclosed her relationship with Griesbaum to the university. Meyer did not have any supervisory authority over Griesbaum.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Equal Employment Opportunity]

Alleged Sexism

Meyer asserted that since Barta became the director of athletics in 2006, he let staff make sexist comments during meetings. She raised concerns that he was providing more advancement in career opportunities to male than female coaches. Meyer also asserted that he favored football and other male-dominated sports, as seen by creating new staff and administrative positions within the male athletic teams. And she protested that Barta permitted gender inequities in the budget in favor of male over female sports. Barta also fired or forced out at least six female coaches who he learned were lesbian, according to Meyer's complaint, which noted that none of the coaches were under Meyer's supervision. Female student-athletes also allegedly approached Meyer and indicated they thought Barta discriminated against them. Meyer said she saw a female coach allegedly being discriminated against and questioned the reasons for her termination. And Meyer said that as she continued to speak out about gender inequities, she received a poor performance evaluation for the first time in more than 13 years of employment.

Meyer alleged that she was stripped of her job duties and title in the athletics department after her partner challenged the university based on gender and sexual orientation. Meyer served as the No. 2 position in the athletics department from March 2001 until August 2014 when a man was hired to take over some of her job duties. Gene Taylor, the new deputy director of athletics, took over providing operational support to football and men's basketball—two of the highest profile sports at the university. Meyer maintained that she performed more work than Taylor before and after he was hired but that he earned $70,000 annually more than she did. After he received a $15,000 increase in salary following his first year of employment, the pay gap between Taylor and Meyer was more than $83,000.

Formal Complaints

All of this prompted Meyer to file a complaint to Barta on Dec. 4, 2014. She was removed from the athletics department and placed on administrative leave the next day. Meyer made a formal complaint of wage discrimination, gender discrimination and retaliation, and sexual orientation discrimination and retaliation with HR, the university's equal opportunity and diversity office, and its board of regents but was, according to Meyer's complaint, "ignored."

Barta terminated her employment following her reporting of concerns to the board of regents. She was given notice on June 9, 2016, that her employment would end Sept. 9, 2016, with a promise that Meyer would be returned to the athletics department once her partner's lawsuit was resolved. The university told its employees that it could remove them from their jobs if family members, partners or spouses had threatened legal action against the university, according to the complaint.

Lawsuit and Verdict

Meyer sued for gender discrimination, sexual orientation discrimination and retaliation in violation of the Iowa Civil Rights Act, and unequal pay based on gender discrimination and retaliation in violation of state law.

Zwagerman said the jury verdict in Meyer's favor was "huge for women. Women are generally forced into lawsuits in athletics because they have no other alternative. Hopefully, this will give the necessary wake-up call to athletic directors and college presidents across the country."

She said that the University of Iowa "made a recommendation to investigate but never did."

Investigation Factors

It's essential to take the right steps after a complaint has been made, noted Michelle Phillips, an attorney with Jackson Lewis in White Plains, N.Y. "In addition to interviewing all the relevant witnesses and reviewing the pertinent documents, the documentation of the investigation will be critical later on if there is any challenge to the investigation process," she said.

HR should bear in mind that it may have to testify about the investigation process, she added, saying that key factors to consider are:

  • Have I interviewed all the right people?
  • Have I reviewed any document or e-mail that might tell a different story from what the complainant, the accused and other third-party witnesses are telling me?
  • Have I properly assessed the credibility of everyone involved?
  • What is the appropriate disciplinary action, taking all factors into account?
  • Do my findings of fact and recommendations logically flow from my interview notes?

Bruce Harreld, president of the University of Iowa, has announced that the university will hire an independent firm to conduct an external review of university employment practices as defined by the Iowa Civil Rights Act. The review will begin with the university's athletics department.

 

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