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National Center for Lesbian Rights wins landmark Title IX retaliation lawsuit on behalf of former head basketball coach

(SAN DIEGO)— The National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) yesterday secured a favorable jury verdict on behalf of Lorri Sulpizio, the former head coach of the women’s basketball team at San Diego Mesa College (Mesa), a college within the San Diego Community College District (District). The California State Court jury awarded $28,000, the equivalent of one year’s salary, in damages, finding that the District had retaliated against Sulpizio when she complained that Mesa engaged in gender inequities in violation of Title IX, a federal statute that prohibits discrimination based on sex in any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance in the United States.

Sulpizio was represented by the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Leslie Levy of Boxer & Gerson, LLP, and Mattheus E. Stephens of Stock Stephens, LLP.

“I am very pleased with the verdict,” said Sulpizio. “This is a victory for the student-athletes who work so hard to succeed on the court and in the classrooms. They deserve nothing less than fair and equal treatment. I remain committed to Title IX and ending gender discrimination in sports, and this verdict inspires me to continue working for equality.”

Filed on July 24, 2008, the lawsuit alleged that Mesa officials retaliated against Sulpizio after she repeatedly raised concerns about unequal treatment of female athletes and faculty, and ultimately fired her. The complaint was brought against the San Diego Community College District as a defendant at trial. The jury found that the District violated federal and state laws.

“This verdict should underscore for coaches and athletic directors in the California community college system—and in two-year colleges across the nation—that the protections of Title IX apply just as strongly as in any four-year college,” said NCLR Senior Staff Attorney Amy Todd-Gher, one of the trial attorneys on Sulpizio’s case. “Title IX is a statute that should be used to continue to open the doors wide for women to participate equally in college athletics, and to protect employees from retaliation when they have the courage to speak up in the face of gender inequities. Gender equity needs to be taken seriously under Title IX and federal law. The verdict shows that an employee who is willing to stand up and fight for student athletes and faculty members will be protected by the law and by a jury.”

“The reason this case is so important is because with the current state of the economy, many students can’t afford to go to a four year school,” said Stephens. “Enrollment at community colleges is way up and community colleges are serving more people. It is important women students are being accommodated.”

Lorri Sulpizio served as head coach of the Mesa women’s basketball team for six years, from 2001-2007, after spending three years as an assistant coach. She led the team to championship play at tournaments, and secured several high-level finishes in the Pacific Coast Conference, including an undefeated conference Championship in 2002.

“This verdict vindicates a dedicated coach who has an excellent track record running successful basketball programs,” said NCLR Sports Project Director Helen Carroll. “In a sports world with fewer and fewer women coaches, this verdict will hopefully put a stop to retaliation against coaches who advocate for gender equality.”

“This was not an easy case”, notes Leavy. “[There were a number of hurdles we needed to overcome], especially because in this day and age discrimination and retaliation are not done explicitly- supervisors don’t make comments like ‘you’re a lesbo’. Our client spoke out against violations to Title IX compliance and because of that she was fired. In cases like this the evidence is almost always circumstantial.”

Another hurdle in the case came in the form of Supulizio having been offered her job back- but with conditions. Although Supulzio had recently received a performance review which described her as being among the top 2% Mesa College staff members, were she to return, she would need to agree to being re-hired on a performance plan.

Said Stephens, “She was offered to return with the stipulation of doing so on a performance plan- but was not told about the terms of that plan. One of the jurors referred to it as being asked to sign off on a blank sheet of paper and agree to terms without ever being told what those terms were, and being told supervisors would just fill it out later. It was a total setup, and she clearly couldn’t take her job back under those circumstances. They were offering her to return to her position solely due to the lack of documentation from the Dean due to her first firing. They were setting her up to get the appropriate documentation the second time around.”

Todd-Guher feels that although a victory had been achieved, the court battle could have been avoided.

“Our client tried to talk it through with the district and tried to do the right thing, yet the district ignored her,” she said. “It’s a sad thing that this had to go to trial because so much money was misspent by the district and this all could have been avoided.”