The former part-time Director of Operations for a college hockey team was sure that her employer fired her because she was gay.
Consider the following:
- During the 2014-15 season, the women’s hockey team had five staff and coaches, all of whom were gay women.
- The part-time Director of Operations (also a gay woman) openly dated the head coach.
- Sometime in the summer or fall of 2014, the school’s Athletic Director decided to fire the head coach, the part-time Director of Operations, and four other staff members (all gay women).
- Ultimately, the Athletic Director did not renew the contracts of the head coach, the part-time Director of Operations, and two other gay coaches.
So, the part-time Director of Operations — let’s just call her “Plaintiff” now — sued, alleging violations of Title VII. Before the Supreme Court decided Bostock v. Clayton County, the lower court granted summary judgment to Defendant. The Eighth Circuit had not yet recognized sexual orientation as a protected class under Title VII.
The case went up on appeal to the Eighth Circuit, which remanded the case to the lower court in light of the ruling in Bostock. But the lower court reached the same outcome: no discrimination. So, Plaintiff appealed again.
On appeal, the Eighth Circuit considered whether Plaintiff had established that Defendant’s legitimate reason for terminating her employment — “cleaning house” — was a pretext for discrimination.
(“Cleaning house,” or firing other staff members who work with the head coach, allows the incoming head coach to select their own staff.)
Plaintiff first argued that “cleaning house” in college hockey is typically limited to coaches, not operations personnel like a part-time Director of Operations. But the Eighth Circuit didn’t give two you-know-whats about practices at other universities.
Plaintiff then identified three coaches whom Defendant did not fire. One had a different title, duties, and reporting relationship. The other two were gay. Nonetheless, Plaintiff tried to distinguish herself by arguing that she was the live-in partner of the gay head coach who Defendant also fired. But, the Eighth Circuit underscored that Title VII does not protect romantic involvement with a particular person.
Cases like these reaffirm that even post-Bostock, courts generally won’t sit as super-personnel departments and second-guess legitimate business decisions — no matter the type of discrimination claim. Absent direct evidence of discrimination, the plaintiff bears the ultimate burden to produce evidence sufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether an employer’s proffered nondiscriminatory justifications are mere pretext for intentional discrimination.