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2008 June 2 - 12:00 am

Wash. Court Allows College Coach to Sue for Wrongful Termination Over Title IX Complaints

The former coach of the  women’s basketball coach at Clark College can pursue claims that he was wrongfully fired for complaining about unequal treatment between his team and the men’s team, the Washington Court of Appeals has ruled.

In a unanimous decision, the three-judge panel said Trev Kiser produced enough evidence for his case to go forward, despite the college’s argument that he was justifiably fired for financial irregularities.

The college has asked the court to reconsider the ruling, said Assistant Attorney Gen. El Shon Richmond, who represents Clark. If that request is unsuccessful, he said the college will decide whether to seek state Supreme Court review or return to the trial court as the appeals panel ordered.

Clark hired Kiser in 1997 under renewable annual contracts to coach the women’s team, and terminated him in March 2002, according to the decision.

Before his firing, Kiser contends he complained to college officials, including the athletic director who also coached the men’s basketball team, about a pattern of inequality between the programs, including a disparity in financial resources and coaching staff size.

He contended there were differences in the caliber of referees, budgets, travel accommodations and the athletic director’s alleged hostility toward the women’s team. For example, the men, but not the women, received new sweatsuits and the men had access to more college vans for road games. In addition, the women’s team was told it had to sleep four to a room at the Northwest Athletic Association of Community Colleges playoffs, while the men were assigned two to a room, although the college relented after a female player’s father wrote to the athletic director.

On one occasion, the athletic director allegedly told Kiser to “quit with the Title IX complaints” or he would be fired and never coach again, the decision said, adding that “the college does not deny that the athletic director threatened Kiser with losing his job if he did not refrain from making Title IX allegations.”

Richmond said he does not know of any formal Title IX complaints against Clark.

Although Kiser was canned as basketball coach, the college initially kept him on to teach billiards and bowling under his contract, the court said. Richmond said that was because the college’s investigation was not yet completed and the college wanted to keep Kiser from having contact with the basketball players he had coached.

Kiser’s lawyer, Jean Huffington, of Bellevue, said elimination of coaching duties meant a reduction in pay and attributed his temporary retention to teach the other classes as “a way to control him.”

In the suit, the college denies any wrongdoing and counters that it had a “legitimate, non-retaliatory reason for terminating his employment,” namely misappropriating student per diem funds and misusing his college gas card privilege to pay for fuel for his personal vehicle, according to the decision.

After an internal audit, Kiser repaid almost $350 to the college but denied any intentional wrongdoing or fraud, the court said. Huffington said Kiser had been under the “mistaken impression” that he was entitled to use the card because he used his personal vehicle to drive players to away games.

After unsuccessfully challenging his discharge through the grievance process, he sued the college for retaliatory discharge in violation of Title IX and a state law prohibiting gender discrimination in intercollegiate athletics, and for wrongful discharge.

Huffington said the suit seeks monetary damages, lost pay and reinstatement.

“He was never able to find another job in college coaching,” Huffington said.

A lower-court judge dismissed the case without trial.

In reinstating the suit, the appellate court said there is a significant factual dispute between the two sides, justifying a trial.

“The record does not show conclusively as a matter or law that Kiser’s termination was based on his alleged theft and fraud or that his Title IX complaints were not a substantial factor on the decision to relieve him of his coaching duties,” Chief Judge Elaine Houghton wrote for the court.

The court also said there was circumstantial evidence to support the claim that the college had a “retaliatory motive,” including a dispute over whether the college began investigating possible financial misconduct before or after Kiser made his Title IX allegations. 

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