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7th Circuit rules on IUPUI discrimination case

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The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals vacated one grant of summary judgment and affirmed another in favor of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis in a discrimination suit. A former women's tennis coach had brought the age and gender discrimination suit against the university after she was fired.

In Debbie A. Peirick v. Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis Athletic Department, et al., No. 06-1538, the federal appellate court heard the appeal of Peirick, who was the women's tennis coach at IUPUI for 13 years. Peirick was fired after her best season as head coach without any warning. She sued IUPUI, its athletic department, and Indiana University's Board of Trustees, claiming her termination was motivated by gender and age. The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants on both claims.

Peirick always met IUPUI expectations for coaches during her tenure as head coach, including excellent academic performance by student athletes, community service, budgeting, professional conduct, and athletic competition. She never had violated an NCAA rule. It was only in the months before her termination in 2003 did IUPUI's Athletic Director Michael Moore, and Assistant Athletic Director Denise O'Grady decide Peirick should be fired.

Between April and June 2003, Moore and O'Grady heard from students who complained about Peirick's driving while at a competition, use of foul language, and her handling of a scheduling conflict with the Indianapolis Tennis Center, where the team practiced and competed. Peirick wanted to reserve the Tennis Center to host the Mid-Continent Conference Tournament, but it was already booked. When students learned of it, Peirick told the students it was the athletic administration's fault because they didn't schedule the space in time.

Moore and O'Grady claim Peirick's lie to her students about the Tennis Center was the last straw requiring her termination, but Peirick was never given any kind of warning or reprimand because of her behavior. After her firing, IUPUI hired the 23-year-old sister of the men's tennis coach to coach the women's team.

The 7th Circuit vacated the grant of summary judgment in favor of IUPUI because questions of material fact existed on Peirick's gender discrimination claim. Peirick named two other male coaches at IUPUI that were similarly situated with her as far as questionable conduct. These two male coaches engaged in serious violations of Indiana University's Statement of Principles on the Conduct of Participants in Student Athletic Programs, like Peirick, but they were given progressive discipline instead of being fired without warning and were treated more favorably than Peirick. The school's delay in explaining why Peirick was fired and its unusual conduct create a question of fact concerning the legitimacy of its explanations for Peirick's termination, wrote Judge Anne Claire Williams.

The federal appellate court did uphold the summary judgment in favor of IUPUI on Peirick's age discrimination claim because the defendants are immune from suit. The 11th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution shields them from suit under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, 29 U.S.C. 621 to 634. The athletics department is a division of the university and cannot be sued. IUPUI and Indiana University's Board of Governors are agencies of the state and also cannot be sued. The 11th Amendment usually bars actions in federal court against a state, state agency, or state officials acting in their official capacities, so the District Court was correct in granting summary judgment in favor of IUPUI, wrote Judge Williams.

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