Quinnipiac University is once again embroiled in a legal dispute involving its women’s athletics program.
One year after settling long-running litigation sparked by the school’s attempt to eliminate its women’s volleyball team, the Hamden school now faces a lawsuit filed by a former women’s softball coach who testified for the plaintiffs in the initial case and was fired just three weeks after its completion.
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.
Fairchild’s lawyer, Lewis Chimes, of Stamford, said it’s clear the university was upset by his client’s testimony in the volleyball case. The firing was “totally in retaliation for her cooperation in the case,” he said.
John Morgan, Quinnipiac’s associate vice president for public relations, said the school does not comment on pending legal matters.
The federal judge handling Fairchild’s case, Stefan Underhill, also presided over the previous Title IX case.
“Fairchild has pleaded sufficient facts to support a Title IX retaliation claim and a [state law] claim against Quinnipiac,” Underhill wrote in late April. “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 solely to air personal grievances; she did so pursuant to a subpoena.”
Fairchild was a softball star at the University of Tulsa and also played in women’s professional leagues. After serving as an assistant coach at Quinnipiac, she was elevated to head coach in October 2001 by Quinnipiac Athletic Director Jack McDonald. During her tenure, the team made it to the Northeast Conference tournament seven times and to the finals four times, but never won a league championship.
In a 2012 performance evaluation, McDonald rated Fairchild’s performance as “high,” according to court documents. However, Chimes said the university has cited complaints from players as the basis for Fairchild’s termination. “They basically were relying on student evaluations,” Chimes said. “They had a disappointing year and she had some bad student evaluations.”
Chimes added that the firing “came as a surprise” to Fairchild. “She had been there for a number of years and had decent success,” he said. “She had been in the playoffs a number of times.”
The lawyer said Fairchild is now working as an assistant coach in New Jersey, being paid minimum wage and trying to get her career back on track.
Last August, the Quinnipiac Chronicle student newspaper quoted an unnamed former player as saying that while Fairchild knew a lot about the sport, she didn’t always communicate well with the players. The former player added that there were complaints that some players who played well in practice never got a chance to prove themselves in games, and that a group of former and current players had meetings with the athletics department to discuss the softball program.
In 2009, members of the women’s volleyball team and its coach filed a class action under Title IX after Quinnipiac announced it would eliminate the team. Underhill initially granted the plaintiffs a preliminary injunction preserving the team’s varsity status. The following year, after a bench trial, Underhill 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. Underhill 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 Underhill approved the decree last June 20, Fairchild was fired.
Among the claims in the volleyball-inspired lawsuit were that Quinnipiac told certain coaches to manage their rosters to make it appear more women were participating in sports than there really were. Fairchild testified about the roster-management policies, making it clear that she didn’t like them.
For example, Fairchild testified that she kept 26 women on the team in the fall of 2007. Then, after the roster size had been reported to federal education officials for Title IX purposes, she reduced the number to 17 and told the remaining players they could not have uniforms, equipment or travel with the team. The players quit, Fairchild said.
Quinnipiac has never announced publicly why the coach was fired. But in court papers, it argues that Fairchild’s testimony in the original case was not protected under federal or Connecticut law. Those laws bar institutions from retaliating against employees who speak out against Title IX violations or about “a matter of public concern.” The school said its roster-management policy was “a lawful practice” and did not constitute a complaint about a Title IX violation.
The judge disagreed. He said he had found Fairchild’s testimony critical in determining Title IX violations had been committed. “I found Fairchild’s testimony to be credible,” wrote Underhill, “and expressly relied on it in my ruling to issue a preliminary injunction.” He noted his ultimate ruling concluded that “students filling the extra roster spots are not receiving genuine opportunities to participate at Quinnipiac.”•