Gender equality: A winning fight for a women’s basketball coach

Gender equality: A winning fight for a women’s basketball coach

Mary Burns worked as the women’s basketball coach at San Diego State University (SDSU) for 16 years, and was considered the “winningest coach in SDSU women’s basketball history.”  However, during her tenure, Burns lodged several complaints to the school regarding unfair treatment of the women’s basketball program, because the school “prioritized men’s sports over women’s basketball.”

On April 16, 2013, Burns was told: “to resign, retire, or be fired.” She was told that she was being fired because she “allegedly struck a subordinate” during a game. When she denied intentionally striking anyone, Burns was told that if she was fired, she could lose her retirement benefits. Faced with this “choice,” Burns retired. She tried to find work as a women’s basketball coach, but prospective employers chose not to hire her after talking to SDSU.

Burns later filed a lawsuit against the university for wrongful termination and retaliation. Burns argued that she was a whistleblower who reported on the school’s violations of anti-sex discrimination laws.

At trial, the university claimed that it fired Burns for elbowing an assistant coach during a game, and due to an internal investigation by the university that uncovered an alleged “history” of Burns mistreating subordinates.  Burns argued that elbowing the assistant coach was an accidental contact on a crowded bench, and that the investigation was “a sham” so that the university can have a reason to fire her.

Employees have the right to report violations of the law. California’s anti-retaliation law protects whistleblowing employees who complain within a company about unlawful practices. If an employee is fired because of whistleblowing activities, he or she may have a claim for retaliation. In order to succeed in such a claim, the employee must prove all of the following:

1) The employee engaged in a protected activity, such as claiming wages due, reporting discrimination, or standing up against violations of the law

2) The employer knew or believed that the employee engaged in such protected activity.

3) The employee was fired, demoted, or denied benefits as a result of the protected activity

4) The employee’s protected activity caused the employer to fire, demote or deny benefits to the employee.

The jury had to decide whether Burns engaged in a “protected activity” by complaining about sex discrimination, and that this was a substantial factor in her firing. If the jury found in favor of Burns, the jury then had to decide whether she would have been fired anyway for a business reason.

The jury found that Burns engaged in several protected activities. In one instance, she complained about how the men’s basketball team was on its fifth set of game uniforms halfway through the season while the women’s team still had not received travel sweat suits ordered months earlier. The jury further found that her complaints were a substantial factor in her dismissal. As to whether Burns would have been fired anyway (for allegedly mistreating subordinates), the jury voted 9-3 that she would not have been fired for this reason.

Employees who prove they were wrongfully terminated may recover loss of earnings, emotional distress, and in certain cases, attorneys’ fees and punitive damages. The jury awarded Burns $3,356,250.00 in damages.

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The Law Offices of C. Joe Sayas, Jr. welcomes inquiries about this topic. All inquiries are confidential and at no-cost. You can contact the office at (818) 291-0088 or visit www.joesayaslaw.com. 

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C. Joe Sayas, Jr., Esq. is an experienced trial attorney who has successfully obtained significant recoveries for thousands of employees and consumers. He is named Top Labor & Employment Attorney in California by the Daily Journal, consistently Aselected as Super Lawyer by the Los Angeles Magazine, and is a member of the Million Dollar-Advocates Forum. 

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