Quinnipiac University is once again under fire for the handling of its women’s athletics program.
One year after reaching a settlement in a federal lawsuit brought after the Hamden-based school tried to eliminate its women’s volleyball team, Quinnipiac now faces a second lawsuit, this one from a former women’s softball coach who says she testified in the initial case and then was fired just three weeks after its completion.
John Morgan, Associate Vice President for Public Relations at Quinnipiac University issued the following statement when asked about the case: “The university does not comment on pending legal matters.”
Germaine Fairchild is claiming retaliatory discharge under the federal gender-equity-in-education law known as Title IX, as well as under Connecticut state law. Late last month, a judge rejected Quinnipiac’s attempt to have the suit dismissed.
Her lawyer, Lewis Chimes, of Stamford, said his client was retaliated against by the university.
“It was totally in retaliation for her cooperation in the case, under title IX,” Chimes said. “She testified in court about it.”
Chimes said that the university is claiming they dismissed her because some student evaluations were bad. “They basically were relying on student evaluations,” Chimes said. “They had a disappointing year and she had some bad student evaluations.”
The year before she was fired, she got a very good evaluation. “This all came as a surprise to her,” said Chimes, who said that his client had always been an advocate for female student athletes.
“She had been there for a number of years and had decent success,” Chimes said. “She had been in the playoffs a number of times.”
Chimes said she is now working in New Jersey as an assistant coach at minimum wage and trying to get her career back on track.
“Fairchild has pleaded sufficient facts to support a Title IX retaliation claim and a [state law] claim against Quinnipiac,” wrote Judge Stefan Underhill. “The complaint alleges that Fairchild testified as a witness at a preliminary injunction hearing and at a deposition in a Title IX lawsuit brought by female student athletes and their coach against Quinnipiac. Fairchild did not engage in this speech soley to air personal grievances; she did so pursuant to a subpoena.”
Fairchild was hire in October 2001 by Quinnipiac Athletic Director Jack McDonald. During her tenure, the women’s softball team made it to the Northeast Conference tournament seven times and to the finals four times. In a 2012 performance evaluation, McDonald rated Fairchild’s performance as “high,” according to court documents.
In 2009, members of the women’s volleyball team and its coach filed a class action under Title IX after the school attempted to eliminate the team. Underhill would initially grant the plaintiffs a preliminary injunction preserving the team’s varsity status. The following year, after a bench trial, Underhill ruled again in favor of the plaintiffs and issued a declaratory judgment that Quinnipiac was violating Title IX by failing to provide equal athletic opportunities to female athletes.
In 2011, Quinnipiac moved to have the injunction lifted. Another trial was held in June 2012. Underwood again ruled against Quinnipiac, a decision that led the parties to negotiate a settlement in which Quinnipiac promised to bolster women’s sports by adding scholarships, improving locker rooms and other facilities, and hiring more coaches and academic support staff.
Three weeks after Underwood approved the decree last June 20, Fairchild was fired.
Among the claims in the initial volleyball-inspired lawsuit were that Quinnipiac told certain coaches to manage their rosters to make it appear that more people were participating than really were. Fairchild testified that as part of that effort she had been ordered to carry 25 players, when the normal size of a women’s softball team is between 17 and 19.
Fairchild said she was given no additional money or coaches to handle the extra players. She said she kept 26 women on the team in the fall of 2007 until after its size had been reported to federal education officials for Title IX purposes. After that, she reduced the roster to 17 and told the remaining players they could not have uniforms, equipment or travel with the team. The players quit, Fairchild said.
Quinnipiac does not deny firing Fairchild. Instead, it says that her testimony in the original case was not protected under federal or Connecticut law. The school said the laws bar institutions from retaliation against employees who speak out against Title IX violations or about “a matter of public concern.” The school said the university’s roster-management policy was “a lawful practice” and did not constitute a complaint about a Title IX violation.
The judge disagreed. Referring to the previous case, he said he had found Fairfield’s testimony critical in determining Title IX violations. “I found Fairfield’s testimony to be credible,” wrote Underwood, “and expressly relied on it in my ruling to issue a preliminary injunction,” concluding that ‘students filling the extra roster spots are not receiving genuine opportunities to participate’ at Quinnipiac.”
In the volleyball suit, the players and coach were represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, by attorneys Jonathan Orleans and Alex Hernandez of Pullman & Comley, and by Kristen Galles, of Equity Legal in Alexandria, Va.