Posted September 29th, 2016.
By BLAKE TOPPMEYER
Former San Diego State women’s basketball Coach Beth Burns won a $3.36 million judgement against the school Wednesday, concluding her lawsuit for wrongful termination and whistle-blower retaliation. Missouri Athletic Director Jim Sterk had fired Burns during his tenure as SDSU’s AD.
Sterk said in multiple interviews this month that he stood by his decision and testified as such during the trial.
A 12-person San Diego Superior Court jury sided with Burns.
“As we demonstrated to the jury, SDSU’s explanation for letting Coach Burns go was fabricated in response to her outspoken and unapologetic advocacy for equality in women’s athletic resources at the University,” Burns’ lead attorney, Ed Chapin, said in a news release. “Although no verdict or award can undo the tremendous harm done to her career by SDSU’s unconscionable actions, this is an appropriate award based on SDSU’s character attacks on Coach Burns.”
Sterk had testified that he fired Burns in 2013 after an internal investigation that examined Burns’ treatment of subordinates, including one of her assistant coaches, Adam Barrett.
“I’d do it again,” Sterk said last week in regards to firing Burns. “I felt like I had to protect the employees within the department. I had to make a decision that was a hard decision, because” she was a “successful coach that had been to a Sweet 16, but” it was “a situation that had escalated to a point that we had to do something.”
Burns, 57, sued SDSU and its university system board of trustees for breach of contract, gender discrimination and whistle-blower retaliation, contending she was fired without legitimate cause after she complained for years about what she perceived as SDSU’s lack of equal treatment for her program.
“If it was a movie, I’d walk out,” Burns told the jury, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune, during the trial, which began Aug. 29. “It’s hard to believe that it’s your own life.”
Burns dropped the gender-discrimination claim after the judge ruled against her in a pretrial motion pertaining to that claim, the Union-Tribune reported. The newspaper reported that Burns also dropped the breach-of-contract claim before the verdict, leaving the jury to rule on the remaining claim of whistle-blower retaliation, which carried larger punitive damages.
Burns did not argue that SDSU violated Title IX, a federal law that ensures protections for equal opportunity and treatment among both genders and applies to universities receiving federal funding. But she contended her program did not receive equal treatment to its male counterpart.
Sterk, according to the Union-Tribune, admitted during his testimony to destroying notes he had kept pertaining to Burns’ dismissal.
Among the evidence the two sides disputed was video footage of a February 2013 game in which SDSU played Colorado State. The video showed Burns smacking a clipboard that was on Barrett’s lap and later elbowing Barrett in the arm after a CSU basket.
Burns contended the actions were incidental contact that occurred in the heat of coaching.
Sterk saw otherwise.
“I saw a vicious hit,” Sterk testified, according to the Union-Tribune, calling it “totally inappropriate.”
SDSU is part of the California State University system. The Union-Tribune reported that CSU attorney David Noonan said during his closing argument that Burns’ whistle-blower retaliation claim was “an excuse to wash away her years of mistreatment of subordinates and staff.”
SDSU men’s basketball Coach Steve Fisher testified in support of Burns and said she was “held in very high esteem,” according to the Union-Tribune.
Missouri hired Sterk in August after he’d served as SDSU’s AD since 2010.
Under Sterk’s watch, Burns received a five-year extension to her contract in 2012 that was set to keep her on the SDSU bench through the 2016-17 season. Burns was fired in April 2013 — though it was labeled a retirement — in the first year of that contract after a 27-7 season in which the Aztecs reached the second round of the Women’s NIT.
Burns coached SDSU from 1989-97 and again from 2005-13, posting a record of 295-186 during her 16 seasons. She’s now the associate coach at Southern California.
“This verdict brings a measure of justice to Coach Burns after a years-long struggle to vindicate her rights,” attorney Allison Goddard, a member of Burns’ legal team, said in a release. “It is also hard to miss the signal a verdict like this sends to schools and coaches across the country. This verdict reaffirms the principle, embodied in laws like Title IX and the Whistleblower Protection Act, that coaches who stand up for female athletes should not have to fear retaliation by their employers.”