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Male tennis coach fired for showing up late can’t claim gender or pay bias

The university tennis coach, who complained of pay discrimination based on gender and was later fired after he consistently showed up late, cannot advance his Equal Pay Act, Title VII, or Title IX claims.

A male university tennis coach who complained he was underpaid relative to female coaches, and who was later fired after he consistently came late to or missed practices and critical parts of regional tournaments, cannot not claim discrimination or retaliation under the Equal Pay Act, Title VII, or Title IX, a federal district court in Connecticut ruled. The court granted the university’s summary judgment motion, finding that the coach failed to identify any suitable comparators or show any evidence of anti-male animus and that he was legitimately fired for his tardiness and absences. Nor was there sufficient temporal proximity between his complaints to the university and his termination to support his retaliation claim (Gagliardi v. Sacred Heart University, Inc., July 16, 2019, Bolden, V.).

Salary complaints. The employee was hired at-will in 2006 to coach a university men’s tennis team. The university initially paid him $5,000 a year. The coach believed the position required full-time work, and asked for a raise and full-time appointment. In response, the university increased his salary to $12,500 by 2014, and to nearly $14,000 by 2015, but did not change the position to full-time.

In October 2015, the coach complained in writing to HR. In a subsequent meeting with the HR Director, he complained that his salary was lower than it should be due to gender discrimination and that female coaches were paid and treated better. HR convened two meetings to discuss the coach’s gender discrimination claims; his annual salary was subsequently increased to $20,000 and he became eligible for benefits.

Outside work. In July 2016, the coach again complained to HR about his compensation. Around that time, he also received a lower performance review than he had previously, with an overall rating of “needs improvement.” He then took on work outside the university, and in August, assumed a full-time position at a local high school. He also informed the university that because he was a part-time employee, he intended to work part-time hours.

Consistently late. During the first six weeks of the 2016 season, the coach was late to every practice and missed several practices completely. He also missed the first day of two regional tournaments. In late September, the university terminated him and in 2017, it consolidated the men’s and women’s coaching positions into a full-time job with a $50,000 annual salary.

Equal Pay Act. The court dismissed the coach’s Equal Pay Act discrimination claims, concluding there were no appropriate comparators and the coach’s pay resulted from the university’s legitimate business decision to invest in other sports. The women’s tennis coach was male, and so any unequal treatment could not support an EPA discrimination claim based on gender. Nor could the women’s coach serve as a comparator, as he also served as senior associate athletic director and director of tennis, and was the coach’s supervisor.

The coach also did not show that his work was comparable to any female coach’s work. He had experience only with tennis, and he admitted he lacked the qualifications to coach any of the women’s sports teams for which he sought a comparison. Additionally, several of the women’s teams contained significantly more athletes than were on the coach’s tennis team.

The university also offered a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for any alleged differing pay and treatment as it specifically chose to develop its women’s rowing team and had a nationally recognized women’s bowling team. The university did not invest heavily in men’s tennis, and the coach produced no evidence suggesting that his pay and gender were the reason for the university’s underinvestment.

Title VII discrimination. The coach’s Title VII discrimination claim also failed. The coach received his right to sue letter for his Title VII claims well over a year after he first complained of gender discrimination to HR, and so his claim likely was time-barred.

However, because the EEOC’s right to sue letter did not state when the coach filed his complaint, the court went on to analyze the merits of his claim, which it found deficient. Although he alleged he was treated differently from female coaches throughout his tenure, and was fired while the female coaches were not, nearly everyone involved in his hiring and termination was male, he was given continual raises, and ultimately was fired for failing to fulfill his responsibilities.

As with his EPA claim, the coach failed to offer a suitable comparator, or show the university made its athletic allocations based on his gender. Additionally, the university proffered a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for firing him, as he arrived late to every practice, missed several practices, and missed important parts of regional tournaments. The coach provided no evidence of anti-male animus at the university, and so no discriminatory intent could be inferred from the circumstances of his termination.

Title VII retaliation. The court also granted summary judgment on the coach’s Title VII retaliation claim. Although he complained of gender discrimination to the university and was later given a poor performance review and then terminated, there was no causal connection between his protected activity and adverse employment actions given the lack of temporal proximity. The coach alleged gender discrimination to the university at least 11 months before his termination, and possibly earlier. Such a long time period was insufficient to show causation between his discrimination complaints and termination.

Significantly, after the coach complained of gender discrimination, the university re-hired him for the 2016-17 school year. In response to his earlier complaint in 2015, the university convened meetings to discuss his claims, and then awarded him with an over 40 percent pay raise.

Title IX. Because analysis of Title IX claims was identical to Title VII claims, the court dismissed the coach’s Title IX claims as well.