Warmington v. Board of Regents of the Univ. of Minnesota U.S. Dist. Ct., D. Minn. (April 21, 2020)
Warmington, a highly accomplished and nationally recognized track and field coach, resigned in August 2018 from her position as head coach at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD) under threat of imminent termination, after an investigation into allegations reported by various student athletes resulted in a recommendation for her removal. Warmington then filed suit against the University in October 2019, alleging not only that her constructive termination constituted sex discrimination in violation of Title VII, Title IX, and the Equal Pay Act, but that she had, herself, been subject to a hostile work environment on the basis of sex during her employment. In December 2019, the University filed a motion to dismiss, and on April 21, 2020, the court granted the motion, dismissing Warmington’s complaint with prejudice.
SUMMARY OF FACTS:
- Warmington was a highly decorated coach, coaching numerous teams and individual athletes to both national and conference titles, and herself winning several national and conference Coach of the Year awards over a roughly 10-year tenure at UMD.
- After receiving allegations that Warmington created “an unwanted sexual atmosphere,” and had “inappropriate discussions with athletes about their eating habits and weight,” UMD engaged an outside law firm to investigate, the results of which recommended termination. The university gave Warmington the opportunity to sign a release of claims and resign, noting in a letter to her that termination “would immediately become public under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act.” Warmington resigned but did not sign the release of claims.
- The basis for Warmington’s lawsuit came not from the investigation or its findings specifically, but from the contention that her constructive termination was a pretext for sex discrimination and potentially retaliatory. Warmington alleged that UMD had wanted her gone “for some time” due to her consistent complaints about the unequal treatment of the female athletes and teams she coached, including specific instances of preferential programmatic treatment of men’s teams, more coaching pay for her less-qualified male counterpart, and inequitable athletic budgets.
- She also claimed that she had personally experienced instances of sexual harassment from colleagues such that it created a hostile working environment.
FINDINGS & SIGNIFICANT ISSUES
- It is important to note that Warmington’s complaint was not light on allegations of specific conduct and circumstances indicating potential discrimination, a dynamic plainly acknowledged by the court. The fatal flaw here was her inability to causally connect the alleged discriminatory conduct to the university’s decision to terminate her.
- The court found that Warmington’s Title VII claims were not based on “direct evidence” of discrimination, but instead relied on a still actionable “overarching theme” of discriminatory conduct. The court explained that when Title VII claims are not based on direct evidence, it applies what is called the McDonnell Douglas framework, wherein a plaintiff must show that: (1) she is a member of a protected group; (2) she is qualified for her former position; (3) she suffered an adverse employment action; and (4) the circumstances give rise to an inference of discrimination.
- While the court found that Warmington met the first three prongs, as a woman who was clearly qualified for her position and was indeed constructively terminated, it determined that she failed to provide evidence sufficient to infer discrimination. The court said, “It is true that Warmington’s allegations show plausibly that her women’s teams received unequal treatment in comparison to other UMD teams. […] The problem is that the sex of the athletes Warmington coached, their unequal treatment, and her advocacy for their better treatment say nothing about whether Warmington’s sex was a motivating factor in the university’s decision to terminate her employment.”
- Regarding her claims of having personally experienced a hostile working environment, Warmington not only described several instances where she felt the male coaches and their teams were treated preferentially, but detailed “always-inappropriate, always-offensive statements [that were] sometimes graphic and included the basest of remarks about female athletes, a female UMD compliance officer, and Warmington.”
- The court, however, found these examples insufficient to establish a Title VII violation, both because the complaint ambiguously alleged that these instances “occurred over a number of years,” making it difficult to show a defined period of pervasiveness, and because nowhere in the complaint did it allege that UMD either knew or should have known of these concerns such that it could have taken proper responsive action.
- Warmington’s Title IX claim centered around alleged retaliation and rested wholly on the likeness of her circumstances to that of Roderick Jackson, the girls’ basketball coach from Birmingham, Alabama who the Supreme Court found to have been retaliated against after he complained of sex discrimination on behalf of the girls he coached. Warmington’s complaint cited only the Jackson case in support of her Title IX claim.
- The court explained that “[t]o state a claim for retaliation, a plaintiff must establish (1) that she engaged in protected activity, (2) that the funding recipient took a materially adverse action against her, and (3) that there was a but-for causal connection between her protected activity and the materially adverse action.”
- The court again found that while Warmington’s allegations plausibly met the first two prongs, her complaint failed to assert a “but-for causal connection” between the protected activity and her termination, noting both the considerable “time gap between the protected activity and the adverse employment action” and the lack of direct evidence supporting what was otherwise “[her] conclusion” that her “Title IX-protected activity was a determinative factor in her termination.”
- The court explained that the crux of Warmington’s argument, namely that she was terminated specifically because she had long been a “voice for equality,” essentially undercut her complaint regarding causality, because she had neither experienced adverse action while having previously engaged in protected activity, nor had she pointed to “more recent protected activity [as] the catalyst for her termination.”
- Lastly, Warmington argued that the pay disparity between her and her male counterpart violated the Equal Pay Act. However, even per the complaint, this pay disparity was remedied by UMD in 2016, nearly 3 years prior to this lawsuit, which, according to the court, rendered her claim moot because it was outside the 2-year statute of limitations.
- Sufficiency of the pleading was a notable theme throughout the court’s opinion, consistently pointing to the lack of evidence and/or persuasive arguments as to why Warmington’s complaint satisfied all prongs for her Title VII and Title IX claims, particularly those related to the causal connection between the alleged sex discrimination and her injury (i.e., termination). This aspect was driven home by the court’s final point in the opinion, which highlighted that Warmington, through her counsel, decided to “stand on her original complaint and declined the opportunity to amend.” The result of that decision was full dismissal of her claims, with prejudice.
- Another interesting take-away was the court’s discussion and extensive citation regarding constructive termination, clearly establishing that “a threat of termination may amount to a constructive discharge if the threat ‘place[s] the employee under duress, leaving [them] no option but to resign.’” UMD essentially fired Warmington.
- But perhaps the biggest take-away here is that while Warmington’s sex discrimination claims regarding her specifically may have proven unsuccessful, the concerns she raised regarding the disparate treatment of female athletes and teams at UMD did not go unnoticed by the court, and certainly raise the specter of potential non-compliance with Title IX, particularly if raised by the student athletes allegedly affected.
 McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973)
 Jackson v. Birmingham Bd. of Educ., 544 U.S. 167 (2005)