Former San Diego State women’s basketball coach Beth Burns won her wrongful termination lawsuit against the university Wednesday, receiving a $3.35 million judgment from a San Diego Superior Court jury for whistleblower retaliation after complaining about potential Title IX violations.
The trial lasted four weeks. The five-woman, seven-man jury deliberated two days before voting 9-3 in Burns’ favor – the minimum required in a California civil court – on the key question in the verdict instructions from Judge John Meyer.
“For me, I had no choice,” Burns, SDSU’s winningest women’s basketball coach, said of her three-year legal battle. “No one wants to do this. But I didn’t think I had a choice because they were saying that I hit somebody, that I was a bad person, and I just couldn’t live with at least not trying to clear my name.
“You feel relief. You feel a sense of vindication.”
SDSU released a statement saying “we respect the deliberative process and the findings of the jury,” adding “the university is reviewing the verdict and is in the process of determining next steps as it relates to this case.”
Burns was fired in April 2013, a month after her team won a school-record 27 games and nine months after SDSU granted her a contract extension through 2016-17 that paid her $220,000 per year plus benefits and bonuses. She was out of work for a year, then took a job as an assistant coach at USC for $150,000 per year.
SDSU ultimately identified two central reasons for her termination – a video from a February 2013 home game in which Burns elbowed assistant coach Adam Barrett, seated to her immediate right, after a defensive lapse; and an internal investigation that chronicled an alleged “history” of mistreating subordinates.
Burns, 57, characterized the elbow as incidental contact on a crowded bench, and her attorneys called the athletic department probe “a sham … to find a way to fire Coach Burns.” She sued for breach of contract and whistleblower retaliation for lodging complaints about gender equity – saying her career, and life, have been turned upside down.
“If it was a movie, I’d walk out,” Burns told the jury early in the month-long trial. “It’s hard to believe that it’s your own life.”
The breach of contract claim was dropped last Sunday, the day before closing arguments, in what amounted to a brash gamble by Burns’ legal team. It essentially forced the jury into an all-or-nothing decision by eliminating its ability to deliver a compromise verdict – finding for Burns in breach of contract, where monetary rewards likely would be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, but not for whistleblower retaliation, where punitive damages could quickly climb into the millions.
The result was a verdict form with six questions, all of which had to be answered in Burns’ favor for her to prevail. Even if the jury found that Burns qualified as a whistleblower for making what are called “protected disclosures” of potential Title IX violations and that they were a contributing factor to her termination, it also had to answer no to whether she would have been fired anyway “for legitimate independent reasons.”
California State University attorney David Noonan likened it to “running the gauntlet.”
Both sides made it clear that SDSU was not on trial for Title IX, the 1972 legislation that guarantees equal opportunity and treatment of the sexes in entities, like universities, that receive federal funding. Instead, 12 gender equity “communications” were identified in the jury instructions, ranging from game-day giveaways to ticketing to equipment, and the jury was tasked with determining whether they were made in good faith, constituted protected disclosures and were a factor in her dismissal.
The jury found that five of the 12 Title IX communications qualified, including one about how the men’s basketball team was on its fifth set of game uniforms midway through the season while the women’s team still had not received travel sweat suits ordered months earlier. After voting 10-2 that the Title IX issues were “a contributing factor” in her termination, the jury faced the key question of whether she would have been fired anyway.
It voted 9-3 that she wouldn’t have.
To reach the $3.35 million judgment, the jury awarded Burns $468,500 for past and $887,750 for future economic losses, plus $2 million for past and future non-economic damages.
“It’s hard to always have to fight for things,” Burns said afterward. “It’s hard. But if it becomes where you do and you might get terminated over it, then it would seem like we’re going backwards. I would hope across the board this will make it easier for the next person.”
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