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A federal judge has dismissed a sex discrimination suit brought by one of the highest-ranking women ever in college sports administration, who alleged that she was ousted from her position as director of athletics at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., after 12 years on the job because she complained about gender inequity in the funding of the college’s sports programs. In his 23-page opinion in Atkinson v. Lafayette College, U.S. District Judge Ronald L. Buckwalter found that “no reasonable jury could find that [Eve] Atkinson’s gender played a role in her termination, in the denial of her claim that she had lifetime tenure, or in the denial of her request for a faculty appeal.” Buckwalter also rejected Atkinson’s claim that Lafayette had breached her contract by firing her from a post as a tenured professor without affording her a hearing before a faculty committee. Instead, Buckwalter found that Atkinson was never awarded tenure and that her initial appointment specifically said that she served “at the pleasure of the President of the College and the Board of Trustees.” Although Atkinson’s appointment included three job titles — director of athletics, professor and head of physical education and athletics — Buckwalter found that the appointment letter applied to all three. “The appointment letter is clear that all three titles are part of the same single ‘position’ to which plaintiff was appointed. Plaintiff cannot parse out her title and rank as ‘professor’ from the other aspects of the position to which she was appointed,” Buckwalter wrote. “The modifier ‘at the pleasure of the President’ refers to the position as a whole, and it cannot be segmented to apply only to Atkinson’s role as director of athletics and department head,” Buckwalter wrote. Atkinson’s lawyers — Alan B. Epstein and Jennifer L. Myers of Spector Gadon & Rosen — argued that Lafayette’s own rules call for all “professors” to have tenure. As a result, they said, Atkinson’s 12 years of service entitled her to tenure. Buckwalter disagreed, finding that while the faculty handbook provides that “professors shall have tenure,” the college’s rules also explicitly state that “in no case … will tenure be granted by default.” Since Atkinson was never formally considered for and awarded tenure, she cannot claim to have it, Buckwalter found. Atkinson also alleged a claim of retaliation, but Buckwalter concluded that it was flawed since it alleged only that Atkinson was fired for opposing the college’s gender discrimination in sports funding. Under the law of the 3rd Circuit, Buckwalter found, a plaintiff suing under Title VII cannot bring a retaliation claim that alleges she was punished for speaking out about violations of Title IX. The ruling is a victory for attorneys John G. Harkins Jr. and Neill C. Kling of Harkins Cunningham and Barry Simon and Dara Penn Newman of Simon Moran. According to the suit, Atkinson was the first woman in the United States to hold the post of director of athletics of a combined men’s and women’s program at a school in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division I level with an NCAA I-AA football program. She was also the current president of the Eastern College Athletic Conference, the nation’s largest athletic conference, the suit said. Atkinson claimed that after she publicly spoke out against the unequal funding of men’s and women’s sports at Lafayette, she was physically threatened by a high-ranking administrator and that college officials did nothing about it. When she continued to press for equal funding for women, the suit said, she was suddenly informed that she was being fired after 12 years of service. In their motion for summary judgment, defense lawyers argued that Atkinson failed to make out a prima facia case since she had no direct evidence of gender bias and her circumstantial evidence fell short of proving anything. Atkinson’s lawyers argued that the case should go to trial since Atkinson can point to four male employees whose treatment differed from hers. Her male predecessor, Olav Kollevoll, who was hired in 1965, was given tenure for performing the same job — professor and director of athletics — but Atkinson was denied tenure, they argued. But Buckwalter found that Kollevoll’s case was different because he was specifically appointed to two separate positions. And Kollevoll was formally considered for tenure after five years, and received it only after he received a favorable recommendation, Buckwalter noted. Unlike Kollevoll, Buckwalter found that Atkinson’s appointment letter “does not separate her role as professor from the other two titles” and made no mention of tenure. Atkinson also claims that another non-tenured male faculty member was offered a buyout deal upon termination, but that she was not afforded the same opportunity. Buckwalter disagreed, saying the evidence showed that “Atkinson was treated the same as her male counterpart, as she too was offered a buyout.” The plaintiff’s lawyers also argued that another male teacher without tenure was nonetheless afforded hearings before the faculty committee, while Atkinson was denied any hearing. But Buckwalter found that the male teacher was not a valid “comparator” for Title VII purposes because, unlike Atkinson, he was “reappointed yearly, and did not serve a term at the pleasure of the President and the Board of Trustees.” Likewise, Buckwalter found that Atkinson could not claim that the male who succeeded her was a “comparator.” Lafayette, Buckwalter said, had articulated a valid reason for firing Atkinson. In court papers, college officials said her firing was “based on the conclusion that new leadership was needed in the athletics department” and that Atkinson’s “leadership and management skills were deficient.” The college’s president said he believed that Atkinson’s management style “alienated others and led to poor relations and low morale,” and that he also believed Atkinson had “exercised poor judgment in a variety of situations, which lessened his confidence in her abilities.” Buckwalter found that Atkinson failed to muster any evidence that could be used at trial to prove that the college’s stated reasons were a pretext for discrimination. “The evidence presented to the court establishes that the College’s decision was made solely on the basis of Atkinson’s terms of employment. Plaintiff presents no evidence, direct or circumstantial, that her gender played a role in the denial of a faculty review of her termination,” Buckwalter wrote.

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