Although she was fired legitimately, a softball coach's Equal Pay Act lawsuit is still alive.

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While there are a number of legal issues surrounding the compensation of coaches, the issue that causes athletic administrators the most difficulty is whether male and female coaches of comparable teams should be paid equally. This issue is of particular importance since the office that regulates gender discrimination claims in the workforce, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), has determined that all coaching jobs are substantially equal. Therefore, in order to pay one coach more than another, there must be legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons. A good example of some of the legal issues surrounding unequal compensation between male and female coaches of comparable teams is Hankinson v. Thomas County School System [2007 U.S. App. LEXIS 28205].

In 2000, Cara Hankinson was hired as head coach of the Thomas County (Ga.) High School varsity softball team. Beginning in 2002, Thomas County school administrators began receiving complaints about her performance as coach. As a result of those complaints, school administrators on Jan. 29, 2003, advised Hankinson in writing that she needed to improve her performance. While they outlined specific behaviors for Hankinson to avoid, such as making disparaging remarks about her players, the complaints continued. Under pressure from several board members whose relatives were on the softball team, school administrators fired Hankinson in late 2003.

Believing that she had been treated unfairly, Hankinson sued the school system, alleging that she was fired based on her gender in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In addition, Hankinson claimed that Thomas County, prior to her termination, had violated the Equal Pay Act by paying her less than the male baseball coach for substantially similar work. The two-pronged claim meant that even if a court found that there was a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for firing her, she might still be able to collect back pay by winning the Equal Pay Act claim. However, the district court rejected both and granted summary judgment in favor of the school system.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit began its deliberation of Hankinson's appeal by noting that Title VII prohibits an employer from discriminating against an individual on the basis of "race, color, religion, sex or national origin." In order to bring a successful Title VII claim against her employer, the court ruled that Hankinson must not only establish that she was discriminated against based on her gender, but also that Thomas County did not have any legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its actions.

In support of her discrimination claim, Hankinson argued that:

  • She belonged to a protected class;
  • She was subjected to an adverse employment action;
  • Her employer treated similarly situated employees outside her classification more favorably; and
  • She was qualified to do the job.
After reviewing the facts, however, the appeals court held that even if Hankinson could show that she was discriminated against based on her sex, she was unable to present any evidence showing that the Thomas County School System did not have a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for firing her. In support of this conclusion, the court pointed to the numerous complaints the school system received about her performance as softball coach. Indeed, the court noted, Hankinson herself believed that complaints from one particular player's parents were the driving force behind her firing. The court also pointed to the letter Hankinson received, months before her termination, in which she was informed that her performance had to improve and given a list of specific behaviors to avoid. Finally, the court noted that after Hankinson was fired, Thomas County initially offered the softball coaching position to another female.

In examining Hankinson's second claim - that even though the softball and baseball coaching positions were substantially similar, she was paid less than the male baseball coach, a violation of the Equal Pay Act - the court held that in order to succeed, Hankinson would have to show that her employer paid different wages to an employee of the opposite sex for equal or substantially equal work. When comparing jobs, a court must focus on the primary duties of each, not duties that are incidental or insubstantial. In addition, while formal job titles or descriptions may be considered, the court held that the controlling factor must be actual job content.

If an employee were able to establish that the employer paid an employee of the opposite gender a different wage for equal work, the court stated that employers could still avoid liability if they could prove that the pay differential was justified by one of four exceptions:

  • A seniority system;
  • A merit system;
  • A system that measures earnings by quantity or quality of production; or
  • A differential based on any factor not specified here, other than gender.
In applying this standard, the court noted that there were certain differences between the softball and baseball teams. To cite a few examples: The baseball team played a total of 13 more games than the softball team; the baseball team had five to 10 more players than the softball team; baseball games tended to run longer than softball games. The evidence also showed that the baseball coach had more qualified assistants than Hankinson did, which the court said offset those differences. In addition, the appeals court found that the district court's inclusion of field maintenance and revenue generation as primary duties of the baseball coach was improper in determining whether the baseball and softball coaching positions were substantially similar.

Therefore, because there was some question as to whether the two positions were substantially similar, the appeals court held that it was improper for the district court to grant summary judgment.

Although the Eleventh Circuit sent the case back to the trial court on the Equal Pay Act question, there may still be any number of factors other than gender to justify why Thomas County paid Hankinson less than the baseball coach. To help the courts and school athletic administrators understand what some of those reasons are, the EEOC in 1997 issued enforcement guidance (EEOC Notice Number 915.002) on gender discrimination in the compensation of sports coaches in educational institutions.

The EEOC Notice, which is advisory only, concluded that all coaches perform similar duties, such as teaching, counseling and advising student-athletes; general program and budget management; public relations; and, at the college level, recruiting. Therefore, the EEOC Notice determined that all coaching jobs are substantially equal. However, the EEOC Notice also recognizes that there are some legitimate justifications for paying coaches different salaries, such as marketplace; superior experience, education and ability; and a greater range of duties.

As was the case in Hankinson, the "greater range of duties" rationale may only work if there are real differences in responsibilities. If a coach is paid more because he or she has additional duties, the pay must be related to those extra duties. And, as the EEOC Notice makes clear, the gender of the coach - or of the athletes under the coach's care - is not considered an acceptable factor in trying to justify paying one coach less than another.

Attorney John T. Wolohan (jwolohan@ithaca.edu) is a professor of sports law and chair of the Sport Management & Media department at Ithaca College, where Laura Bowman is a graduate student.