Modest Payment Settles High School Discrimination Case

A school district pays out a small sum but gets what it wants in the settlement of a gender-discrimination lawsuit; "Sports Law" contributor John T. Wolohan explains why settlements are the rule and not the exception.

Case Summary by Andrew Cohen

A gender-discrimination lawsuit filed against the Exeter (Calif.) Union High School District has been resolved with a modest payment and an agreement to part ways - permanently. Former Exeter High School girls' basketball coach Linda Wachter, who did not teach at the school, got $75,000, while the district apparently got what it wanted: It admitted no liability, and Wachter agreed to never seek re-employment at any Exeter public school.

According to The Fresno Bee, Wachter had come under fire during the summer of 2007, when a group of families involved with the basketball program unsuccessfully called for a coaching change during a board meeting. In March 2008, six players chose not to go with the team to Santa Monica for a Southern California Regional playoff game, releasing a written statement that their actions were based in part on their support for teammates "who have been mentally and verbally abused" by Wachter.

Fired after the season, Wachter filed suit in Tulare County Superior Court. She claimed she was fired in retaliation for complaints she made about unequal treatment of the girls' and boys' basketball programs, and alleged that the district failed to take seriously her complaints about discrimination and a hostile work environment.

Wachter's attorney, Warren Paboojian, previously had won settlements worth $9 million and $3.5 million for former Fresno State women's basketball coach Stacy Johnson-Klein and former associate athletic director Diane Milutinovich in their gender-discrimination lawsuits against the university.

Opinion by John T. Wolohan

If you just quickly looked at the headlines, you might be inclined to believe that Exeter Union High School District did something wrong, since they settled the lawsuit filed by their former girls' basketball coach for $75,000. Actually, the vast majority of all civil cases (85 to 97 percent by some estimates) are settled prior to trail, so assumptions of blame are often inaccurate.

Why settle? There could be any number of reasons, even if the defendants (or plaintiffs) believe that they would ultimately win at trial. In Linda Wachter's case, for example, her attorney might have been convinced that her hostile-work-environment and Title IX complaints were not very strong. This is easy to imagine when you consider that Wachter seemed to have lost control of her team, with parents calling for her to be fired and six players refusing to play for her during a playoff game. Even if Wachter had a strong case, she and her attorney may have been worried that a jury would have looked at these other issues as valid reasons for her termination.

The manner in which an attorney is paid may also have an impact on a settlement. If the attorney is paid on a contingency-fee basis, as is typical in most civil cases - that is, he or she is paid only if the plaintiff is paid - he or she may want to settle for less money just to ensure he or she gets some type of payment. On the other hand, an attorney may want to roll the dice looking for a big payday.

The defendants also often have many reasons for settling, even if they believe that they would ultimately win. The first is cost. It is a fact that a lot of organizations are willing to pay a small settlement or nuisance fee just to make the case go away. This allows an organization not only to save on additional legal fees, but also saves lost time by keeping employees away from court. Additionally, the actions of the school district and its employees remain confidential and do not have to undergo the public scrutiny associated with a trial. Yet another reason to settle is the risk and uncertainty of jury verdicts. Since Wachter's attorney had already won two discrimination cases against Fresno State for millions of dollars, the school district may have been unwilling to risk such a financial loss.

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