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Basketball Coach Fails to Meet Prima Facie Retaliation Burden

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

In 1999, Geraldine Fuhr filed a successful lawsuit to be instated as varsity boys basketball coach at Hazel Park High School, where she had been employed as varsity girls basketball coach. For five years she coached both the girls and boys varsity basketball teams. In 2006, she was removed from her position coaching varsity girls basketball.

Fuhr says she was removed in retaliation for her lawsuit. The school district claimed that she was removed to allow for even more equality.

So who wins? According to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, the school district gets the W because Fuhr failed to state a prima facie case for her claims.

Between Fuhr's initial legal victory and her removal as the girls' basketball coach, Michigan parents sued the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) under Title IX because the girls' basketball season was not held at the same time as the boys' season. Hazel Park High removed Fuhr as the girls' coach as a "proactive measure" while litigation was ongoing, reasoning that it would be difficult to oversee two teams playing simultaneously.

A federal district court eventually ordered that the seasons be played at the same time.

While the Sixth Circuit opinion in Fuhr's latest appeal paints an unfavorable picture of her experience at the high school -- keep in mind, the appeal presents the facts in the light most favorable to her -- Fuhr simply didn't make her case.

The prima facie case consists of four elements:

  1. Plaintiff engaged in activity protected under Title VII;
  2. Plaintiff's exercise of her protected rights was known to defendant;
  3. Adverse employment action was subsequently taken against the employee or the employee was subjected to severe or pervasive retaliatory harassment by a supervisor; and
  4. Causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse employment action or harassment.

If a plaintiff established a prima facie case, the burden shifts to the defendant to rebut the presumption by "articulating some legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its action." But if any of the four elements is missing, the plaintiff's case fails. Here, the Sixth Circuit noted that Fuhr couldn't demonstrate adverse action or causal connection, so it didn't have to bother with burden-shifting.

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