The Supreme Court of Kentucky has dealt a serious and likely deciding blow to the University of Louisville Athletic Association in relation to a retaliatory firing lawsuit that’s been ongoing since 2008.
The unanimous Supreme Court decision was rendered Aug. 20 in favor of the plaintiff, Mary Banker, in most of the claims levied against the U of L Athletic Association.
This decision makes it clear the state Supreme Court believes the university’s athletics department fired Banker, a former U of L track coach, in a retaliatory way after she alerted staffers to what she believed was sexually discriminatory behavior by fellow coaches. The court also believes this firing caused Banker emotional distress.
In its ruling, the court mostly overturns a prior successful appeal U of L had lodged against Banker.
Banker first started working for U of L in September 2007 as an assistant track and field coach. Her one-year contract said she’d get paid $37,500 per year and would be notified by April 30, 2008, if the university wasn’t going to renew her contract. The contract also said U of L Director of Athletics Tom Jurich could terminate her employment without cause upon recommendation of the head coach by giving her 30 days notice.
After starting work, Banker complained to the head coach, Ron Mann, about language used by male coaches, saying they called athletes “pussies” or said they “ran like a girl,” among other offensive statements. Banker claimed Mann told her to deal with it herself.
Banker also claimed she was asked to make party decorations, help Mann’s wife in the kitchen, and flirt during recruiting visits — all things male coaches didn’t have to do.
Getting nowhere with the head coach, Banker complained to then-senior associate athletic director Julie Hermann, who discussed her complaints with the other assistant coaches. After Hermann’s talk, according to Banker, fellow coaches became hostile or shunned her.
(As IL reported in 2013, Hermann has had a long, checkered career as an athletic coach and administrator at multiple universities.)
Then Banker complained to Malinda Durbin, the university’s affirmative action/sexual harassment officer. In turn, Durbin referred the investigation back to Hermann, who concluded Banker’s allegations were meritless.
In May 2008, head coach Mann told Banker her contract wasn’t being renewed, which Banker said violated the 30-days notice clause in her contract. As a result, she was briefly reinstated, but then ultimately discharged.
Banker filed suit against Jurich and the U of L Athletic Association shortly thereafter, claiming breach of contract, gender discrimination, retaliation, hostile work environment, wrongful discharge and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The case went to trial in September 2010. The jury found for Banker on the retaliatory discharge claim, and awarded her $300,000 in damages for emotional distress, and $71,875 for lost wages.
The athletics department then appealed to the Kentucky Court of Appeals, which overturned the trial court’s ruling. But this new decision mostly reverses that reversal.
The Supreme Court justices addressed each charge. For the retaliatory discharge claim, it went over U of L’s argument that Banks was let go because she was a terrible coach, confrontational, and horrible at recruiting. The judges found these points not believable, given how long it took the athletics department to get rid of Banker. “Based on that evidence, a jury could have reasonably inferred that it made no sense to delay getting rid of such a disastrous coach,” they wrote. “It would have been implemented sooner rather than later.”
The court also upheld Banker’s claim she suffered emotional distress. “And while we might not have awarded the amount this jury did, we cannot say that the damage award bore no relationship to the evidence of loss,” the court wrote.
Banker lost her claim, however, for the $71,875 in lost wages, because the Supreme Court said she didn’t present proof that she looked for work after being let go.
IL contacted Nancy Allison Worley, associate director of sports information at the University of Louisville, for additional information and comment, but she did not immediately respond.