LCCP Attorneys Obtain Defense Verdict in Essex County Superior Court

Lead by LCCP partner Steve Pfaff our attorneys obtained a defense verdict following a five-day jury trial in the Essex County Superior Court – Salem. Our client was Hamilton-Wenham Regional School District, previous employer of the Plaintiff. In May 2017 a girls’ varsity softball player submitted to the high school principal a formal complaint of bullying and harassment against the Plaintiff. An investigation was conducted, and it was deemed that the Plaintiff had fostered a hostile environment for a number of the student-athletes in the softball program over a number of years in violation of the District’s harassment prevention and response policy and the athletics handbook. Based on the finding that the Plaintiff fostered a hostile environment in violation of District policy, the District terminated the Plaintiff from her position as girls’ varsity softball coach. The Plaintiff remained employed in her physical education teaching position as well as her position as girls’ junior varsity soccer coach. Later in the summer, the Plaintiff informed the District she was resigning.

The Plaintiff alleged that the District discriminated against her on the basis of sexual orientation and gender when it terminated her from her position as girls’ varsity softball coach in violation of the Massachusetts anti-discrimination statute, G.L. c. 151B. The Plaintiff asserted that the student’s complaint was exaggerated and untrue, the District conducted a rushed investigation, and that the District used vague and inapplicable rules and policies as a pretext to terminate the Plaintiff. The Plaintiff further averred that a male coach at the high school was the subject of multiple student and parent complaints and was not similarly terminated from his coaching position. The Plaintiff claimed damages in the form of emotional distress, medical costs, lost wages, lost opportunities, and punitive damages.

At trial, we argued that the Plaintiff failed to exhaust her administrative remedies at the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination with respect to her claim of sexual orientation discrimination as required by statute, and the Court dismissed that claim, precluding it from the jury’s consideration. Regarding the gender discrimination claim, we presented credible evidence that the Plaintiff was terminated from her softball coach position based on legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons. The District terminated the Plaintiff after a thorough investigation conducted pursuant to District policy and after consultation with school counsel. We also provided evidence that while the Athletic Director did receive complaints regarding a male coach, they were not complaints of bullying or harassment. Rather, the complaints concerned playing time, the intensity and length of practices, and the fact that he had the team watch film of their opponents and work in the weight room, which is a much different type of “complaint.” We presented further evidence that male coaches who did in fact receive complaints of bullying or harassment were similarly investigated and dismissed from their coaching positions, just like the Plaintiff. We argued that the Plaintiff offered no evidence of discriminatory animus by way of comments directed toward her or about her, or by way of her replacement; the Plaintiff’s replacement, a male, was the one and only candidate for the position.

After 3-4 hours of deliberations, the jury found that the District did not discriminate against the Plaintiff based upon her gender and returned a verdict in favor of our client.

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