Legal Commentary
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Legal Commentary

University must pay former basketball coach $182K for breach of employment contract, Fifth Circuit says

On January 6, 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit issued the latest decision in a long running legal battle between Jackson State University and its former basketball coach, Denise Taylor-Travis. The Fifth Circuit upheld a breach of contract verdict in favor of Taylor-Travis, awarding her $182,000 because she was improperly fired before her contract ended. However, the Fifth Circuit decision was not completely positive for the coach. Taylor-Travis unsuccessfully petitioned the Fifth Circuit for a new trial on a claim that previously failed — her allegation that Jackson State retaliated against her for filing Title IX complaints. Likewise, Taylor-Travis lost a $200,000 award when Jackson State appealed the trial court’s finding that the university violated privacy laws when it gave a local newspaper documents concerning her termination. Jackson State argued that they violated no privacy laws and the Fifth Circuit agreed, taking away the $200,000 award.

Taylor-Travis became the head coach of the Jackson State University women’s basketball team in 2001. She has enjoyed professional success, as a head coach in the Women’s National Basketball Association’s inaugural season and a winner of three regular season conference championships while coaching for Jackson State. In 2011, student-athletes began complaining about Taylor-Travis’ misconduct. An internal investigation discovered that Taylor-Travis misappropriated $4,544.44 of university funds. A local newspaper submitted an open records request concerning the investigation and Jackson State obliged, providing nine pages of information. Five of those pages outlined Taylor-Travis’ allegation that Jackson State supported its men’s teams more than the women’s teams, and the other four concerned the university’s intention to fire Taylor-Travis. After the university fired Taylor-Travis, the newspaper published a blogpost claiming that her termination was due to her misappropriation of university funds, sexual orientation harassment, and emotional and verbal abuse.

Jackson State fired the coach with two years remaining on her contract and Taylor-Travis sued the university, alleging, among other things: breach of contract, invasion of privacy, and retaliation under Title IX.

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi heard the case. After a six-week trial, the jury awarded Taylor-Travis $182,000 for Jackson State’s breach of her employment contract. But, the jury decided that Jackson State did not retaliate against the coach and, as such, did not violate Title IX. The invasion of privacy claim never went before the jury. Instead, the district court judge found Jackson State liable and awarded the coach $200,000 in damages.

Jackson State and Taylor-Travis filed cross-appeals, asking the Fifth Circuit to review various portions of the trial court judgment.

Breach of Contract: The Fifth Circuit upheld the $182,000 award to Taylor-Travis

Jackson State asked the Fifth Circuit to overturn the $182,000 award and render judgment as a matter of law in the university’s favor, arguing that the university had cause to fire the coach. Judgment as a matter of law would have been appropriate only if there was no legally sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to find that the university breached the contract. Here, the Fifth Circuit decided that Taylor-Travis’ evidence was sufficient.

The evidence of player mistreatment was not clear cut and a reasonable jury could decide that Taylor-Travis did not mistreat the players. The trial testimony conflicted and the coach’s own testimony showed that she did not abuse or harass players for any reason, including sexual orientation.

The jury had legally sufficient evidence to conclude that Jackson State had no cause to terminate for misappropriation of funds. The employment contract only permitted the university to fire Taylor-Travis for a “deliberate, serious and willful violation” of her duties or a “refusal or unwillingness to perform such duties in good faith.” Taylor-Travis testified that the ways in which she managed funds were (a) consistent with instructions from Jackson State’s business manager, (b) a longstanding practice about which the university had never complained, and (c)identical to how male coaches managed funds without university complaint.

The Fifth Circuit refused to disturb the breach of contract finding in favor of Taylor-Travis.

Invasion of Privacy: The Fifth Circuit overturned the $200,000 award to Taylor-Travis because it is not an invasion of privacy to inform the media of public matters regarding a public person

Jackson State argued that the Fifth Circuit should overturn the $200,00 invasion of privacy award because Taylor-Travis failed to prove the required elements of her claim. Because the district court judge — and not the jury — decided the invasion of privacy claim, the Fifth Circuit reviewed this part of the ruling for clear error, asking whether the district court’s factual findings are plausible in light of the entire record.

Taylor-Travis argued that Jackson State invaded her privacy when it released documents to the newspaper regarding her potential termination. Jackson State only gave the newspaper information on two topics: Taylor-Travis’ allegation that the university supported its men’s teams more than the women’s teams, and the university’s intention to fire Taylor-Travis for policy violations which were defined in generic terms. Because the head coach of a public university’s basketball team is a “public figure,” Taylor-Travis had no right to privacy for matters of public interest. Jackson State’s reasons for terminating its coach was news — a matter of public interest rather than one of private concern. Therefore, Jackson State did not violate Taylor-Travis’ right to privacy when the university released documents to the newspaper. The Fifth Circuit reversed the district court’s award of $200,000 to Taylor-Travis.

Title IX Retaliation: Taylor-Travis requested a new trial because of a faulty jury instruction, but the Fifth Circuit denied her request, noting that the instruction was substantially correct

The district court instructed the jury that Jackson State was guilty of retaliation if the jury found that Taylor-Travis was terminated “solely as a consequence” of her Title IX complaints against the university. Taylor-Travis requested a new trial on her Title IX retaliation claim, arguing that this jury instruction erroneously applied a sole causation standard. Taylor-Travis claimed that three U.S. Supreme Court decisions established a but-for causation standard for all retaliation claims. Jackson State disagreed, arguing that the Fifth Circuit’s 1997 decision Lowrey v. Texas A&M University System established a sole causation standard.

The Fifth Circuit sidestepped this debate on the appropriate standard entirely and made three observations. First, Lowrey did not announce a sole causation standard. Instead, Lowrey merely suggested that the causation standard for Title IX claims and Title VII claims should be the same. Second, a new trial is not warranted because the district court’s instruction “substantially covered” the correct standard: there must be a causal connection between the Title IX complaint and the adverse employment action. Third, the purpose of the phrase “solely as a consequence” was not to establish a causation standard, but to distinguish complaints about the university’s Title IX non-compliance from other complaints against the university. The Fifth Circuit noted that the district court simply wanted the jury to know that it could only rely on the university’s reaction to Title IX complaints to determine whether the university had retaliated against Taylor-Travis.

The Fifth Circuit denied Taylor-Travis’ request for a new trial on the Title IX retaliation claim.

Takeaways

Denise Taylor-Travis v. Jackson State University, No. 17–60856 (5th Cir. January 6, 2021)

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CJ

Lawyer. Always working on and writing about the law behind business, entertainment, and higher education.