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Adkins v. University of Ozarks

United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Fort Smith Division

June 30, 2017




         This action arises out of the decision by the University of the Ozarks (“the University”) to end the employment of plaintiff Laurie Adkins (“Coach Adkins”) at the end of the 2014-2015 softball season. The Court held a bench trial on May 22 and 23, 2017 on Coach Adkins's claim for gender discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Coach Adkins alleged that the University fired her because she was a woman. During the trial, nine witnesses testified and 40 exhibits were admitted. After carefully considering the evidence at trial and the legal arguments made, and based upon observation of the witnesses and an opportunity to weigh their credibility, the Court now makes its findings of fact and conclusions of law pursuant to Rule 52(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. For the reasons set forth below, the Court concludes that the University did not discriminate against Coach Adkins based on her gender.

         I. Procedural History

         Coach Adkins filed this lawsuit claiming that (1) her termination from the University was the result of unlawful discrimination based on her sex in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2, and the Arkansas Civil Rights Act (“ACRA”), Arkansas Code Annotated § 16-123-107;[1] (2) her termination from the University was the result of unlawful discrimination based on her age in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”), 29 U.S.C. § 621 et. seq.; (3) the University impermissibly retaliated against her when she raised the issue of discrimination; and (4) the University breached an employment contract with her. (Doc. 1). The Court entered summary judgment in favor of the University on all but the sex discrimination claim. (Doc. 25). In opposition to the contention that it discriminated against Coach Adkins because she is a woman, the University repeatedly asserted that its legitimate non-discriminatory reason for its decision to no longer employ Coach Adkins was a failure to recruit, retain, and graduate players. (Doc. 16, p. 6; Def.'s's Trial Br., p. 3). Following the trial, the Court took the matter under advisement. (Docs. 22, 23).

         II. Findings of Fact

         The University appointed Laurie Adkins as head women's softball coach in June 2010 for a one-year term of employment subject to annual renewal. Her employment was renewed in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014. Her last contract of employment (Pl.'s Ex. 7) was for the period from July 1, 2014 to June 30, 2015. Coach Adkins was supervised by Athletic Director Jimmy Clark (“AD Clark”), who was also the men's baseball coach. When initially hired, Coach Adkins's job description stated that she needed to “maintain ideal roster size through recruiting and retention (20 softball).” (Pl.'s Ex. 3). However, the ideal roster size was a moving target, as documents reveal that in 2013 Coach Adkins needed to maintain a roster of “18 next opening. 22-25 in fall, ” (Def.'s Ex. 5), and in 2014 it was expected that the “roster size needs to be at 24.” (Pl.'s Ex. 5).

         A 2012 employment evaluation revealed that AD Clark was very satisfied with the work being done by Coach Adkins. (Def.'s Ex. 3, p. 7). AD Clark wrote that Coach Adkins “inherited a program that was in bad shape. She has gotten them competitive.” (Id.). He tempered the otherwise glowing evaluation with the statement that “[t]he only weakness that I have observed is in regard to maintaining the field.” (Id.). Initially, Coach Adkins was meeting or exceeding expectations.

         During a 2013 employment evaluation, AD Clark communicated to Coach Adkins that he was “very concerned about retention.” (Def.'s Ex. 5, p. 7). Under the category for recruiting, Mr. Clark checked the box for “needs improvement” but did not check the box for “does not meet expectations.” (Id.).

         During a 2014 employment evaluation, AD Clark once again rated Coach Adkins as “needs improvement” under the category of “recruiting, ” writing in the comment section that “retention needs to improve.” (Def.'s Ex. 11, p. 2). At the end of the 2014-2015 school year, AD Clark told Coach Adkins that she would no longer be employed by the University.

         AD Clark testified that at the end of the 2013-2014 school year Coach Adkins was not performing satisfactorily, as shown by her retention of players and her win-loss record, which was 3-37 for that season. Also, AD Clark cited poor communication skills as a reason that he was not satisfied with her performance, and testified that he asked Coach Adkins to “over communicate” in the future. AD Clark testified that he could have fired Coach Adkins at the end of the 2013-2014 year based on that performance, but he wanted to give her another chance to improve. AD Clark testified that Coach Adkins would have to improve in these areas, but that he thought it was possible. He characterized these events as being a situation where Coach Adkins was essentially on probation, and that failure to improve would quite possibly lead to termination. While this testimony is supported by the retention numbers and the win-loss record, it is inconsistent with the employment evaluation contemporaneously completed by AD Clark. The evaluation that AD Clark completed at the end of the 2013-2014 school year rates Coach Adkins as “meets expectations” in six categories and “needs improvement” in four categories. (Def.'s Ex. 11). There is not a single category for which AD Clark rated Coach Adkins as “does not meet expectations.” (Id.). While AD Clark wrote in the comment section that “retention needs to improve, ” he did not make mention of her record of 3-37. (Id.). Under the category of “public relations, ” AD Clark rated Coach Adkins as “meets expectations” and he wrote in the comment section that she was “good around campus.” (Id.). AD Clark's rating and comment in the “public relations” category is at odds with his testimony that at that exact same time he was concerned with Coach Adkins's communication and the number of complaints that were being directed to the President's office and trickling down to him.

         AD Clark testified that Coach Adkins was not handling problems on her team thus creating issues for the administration. While the Court does not give much weight to AD Clark's testimony in light of his poor credibility, President Richard Dunsworth also testified about these complaints. In her cross examination, Coach Adkins also acknowledged these complaints.[2] The specifics of every one of these complaints are not entirely clear, nor are those specifics entirely relevant, but there is sufficient testimony in the record for the Court to find that these complaints were lodged, and that they created problems for the University.[3] What matters is that parents and softball players were complaining to AD Clark and President Dunsworth, presenting them with problems that should typically be handled by a coach.

         As evidenced by the discussions that took place at the 2013 and 2014 employment evaluations, at the time that the University ended the employment of Coach Adkins in 2015, she had been aware for two years that the University was concerned about the size of her roster and the number of players retained from year to year. (Def.'s Ex. 5, p. 7; Def.'s Ex. 11, p. 2). At trial, both parties went to extraordinary lengths to document which players were playing softball over the various years. (Pl.'s Ex. 22; Def.'s Exs. 12, 13). The retention numbers reflected in these exhibits show that there was a large amount of attrition from the women's softball roster while Coach Adkins was in charge of the program. This finding coupled with the extemporaneous employment evaluations documenting this problem demonstrate that the University was genuinely concerned about this issue at the time that they ended the employment of Coach Adkins. At the end of the 2014-2015 season, AD Clark informed Coach Adkins that the University was “going in a new direction” and would no longer be employing her services.[4]

         III. Analysis

         A. Applicable Law

         Because Coach Adkins presented no direct evidence of discrimination, her claims are analyzed under the burden-shifting McDonnell Douglas[5] test to determine whether the evidence supports an inference of unlawful gender discrimination. Under McDonnell Douglas, a plaintiff must first establish a prima facie case of discrimination by presenting evidence showing that: “1) she is a member of a protected group; 2) she was qualified for her position; 3) she suffered an adverse employment action; and 4) she was discharged under circumstances giving rise to an inference of discrimination.” Wierman v. Casey's Gen. Stores, 638 F.3d 984, 993 (8th Cir. 2011). In establishing a prima facie case, “the plaintiff's burden ‘is not onerous.'” McGinnis, 496 F.3d at 873 (quoting Tex. Dep't of Cmty. Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 253 (1981)). If a prima facie case is established, the burden of production shifts to the defendant to articulate a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for its adverse employment action. Wierman, 638 F.3d at 993. If the defendant can do so, the prima facie case is rebutted and no inference of unlawful discrimination is created, unless the plaintiff can produce sufficient evidence to create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the articulated reason is pretext for unlawful discrimination. Id. Although the burden of production shifts between the parties, the burden of persuasion remains on the plaintiff at all times. Fatemi v. White, 775 F.3d 1022, 1041 (8th Cir. 2015).

         1. Prima Facie Case and Legitimate Nondiscriminatory Reason

         In ruling on the University's motion for summary judgment (Doc. 14), the Court concluded that Plaintiff made a prima facie case to survive summary judgement on the gender discrimination claim. (Doc. 25). The Court also found that the University had articulated a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its adverse employment action. (Id.). At trial, assuming that Coach Adkins presented sufficient evidence to make a prima facie showing, and that the University sufficiently articulated a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for its actions, the Court concludes that Coach Adkins fails to show pretext. Therefore, the dispositive issue analyzed by the Court herein is whether Coach Adkins can show that the University's proffered reason for her termination was pretext for unlawful discrimination.

         2. Showing Pretext

         Showing that a defendant's proffered reason is pretext for an unlawful purpose involves clearing a high bar under Eighth Circuit precedent. Establishing pretext requires a plaintiff to “demonstrate that a discriminatory animus lies behind the [defendant's] neutral explanations ... [E]ven if an employer fires an employee based upon a mistaken belief, the employee still must offer some evidence that [discriminatory] animus was at the root of the termination.” Arnold v. Nursing & Rehab. Ctr. at Good Shepherd, LLC, 471 F.3d 843, 847 (8th Cir. 2006). Showing unfair treatment of an employee does not necessarily give rise to a Title VII cause of action. Johnson v. Ready Mixed Concrete Co., 424 F.3d 806, 812 (8th Cir. 2005). Even where an employer overstates an employee's shortcomings and points to deficiencies that are due to factors beyond the employee's control, there still must be other evidence supporting the conclusion that the stated reason was merely pretext for unlawful discrimination. Stone v. McGraw Hill Fin., Inc., 856 F.3d 1168, 1176 (8th Cir. 2017). “[A] reason cannot be proved to be a pretext for discrimination unless it is shown both that the reason was false, and that discrimination was the real reason.” St. Mary's Honor Center v. Hicks, 509 U.S. 502, 515 (1993) (emphasis in original, quotations and citations omitted), abrogated in part on other grounds by Gross v. FBL Fin. Servs., Inc., 557 U.S. 167 (2009); see also Twymon v. Wells Fargo & Co., 462 F.3d 925, 935 (8th Cir. 2006). Even showing that “the employer's proffered reason is unpersuasive, or even obviously contrived, does not necessarily establish that the plaintiff's ...

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