Auburn Athletic Dept: Federal Court Racism Claim

The 2010 opening of the new Auburn basketball arena was a triumph for the school’s athletic department.

Auburn Athletic Department Faces Racial Discrimination Charge By Nine Former Employees

But Auburn Athletic Department staff layoffs during the transition from the Beard-Eaves Coliseum to the new facility has precipitated an ugly dispute now scheduled to play out in Federal Court.

Of the 11 employees who lost their Auburn Athletic Department jobs during the move, 10 were black, according to a racial discrimation lawsuit against Auburn filed in a U.S. District Court in Alabama earlier this year. The plaintiffs in the case, represented by Montgomery lawyer Julian McPhillips, are nine of those 10 black individuals no longer in the employ of Auburn Athletics.

The case is currently scheduled for an early-2012 jury trial in a small town a few miles from the Auburn campus: Opelika, Alabama.

Auburn Athletic Department Faces Racial Discrimination Charge By Nine Former Employees

In its initial response to the Federal Court legal action, Auburn acknowledged the layoffs from the AU Athletic Department but denied racial discrimination as a factor in the process.

In the Federal Court complaint against Auburn, each of the nine plaintiffs made specific claims as to having received less pay than white employees with similar jobs and various other negative treatment by their Auburn Athletic Department employers attributable only to their race.

I’ve obtained the Federal Court complaint against Auburn. Here’s an excerpt of some of the claims made by the nine plaintiffs against Auburn:

STATEMENT OF FACTS

(a) As to All Plaintiffs

22. All plaintiffs aver that, based upon their experience, they can say with certainty that there is a rampant actual discrimination against African-American employees in the Auburn University Athletic Department. Plaintiffs further aver that only 2% of the employees of the defendant’s Athletic Department were African-Americans, even before a reorganization in May, 2010 eliminated ten (10) more, and notwithstanding that 75-80% of the football players are black, and approximately 95% of the basketball players are black.

23. All plaintiffs aver that, at the time of the filing of their race discrimination charges in June 2010, there were no blacks in the following divisions of the AU Athletic Department: (a) turf management; (b) media relations; (c) marketing; (d) sports medicine; (e) athletic training; (f) equipment; (g) ticket office; and (h) recruiting, although in the latter category, some black students were used as Tiger hostesses, but not as full-time black employees.

24. All plaintiffs aver that, when defendant Auburn University’s football tickets were made available for employees, all white employees were offered tickets with no restrictions. However, African-American employees had to “put their names in a hat,” where only five (5) black employees would receive tickets for any particular game, and said African-American employees were also subject to having to sign their names to a list, something which white employees did not have to do.

25. All plaintiffs also aver that, in the reorganization which took place in May, 2010, eleven (11) employees of the Athletic Department were terminated, and ten (10) of those employees were black. Plaintiffs also aver that at the new basketball arena, at the time of the
reorganization, only one (1) black employee, namely Roger Tate, was moving over. This does not include coaches.

26. All plaintiffs aver that the race discrimination practiced against them has been  systematic, endemic, and reflective of a long-term practice of intentional race discrimination practiced by defendant Auburn University against black employees, especially in the Athletic Department.

Of particular interest in any lawsuit such as this is an allegation that can be verified as non-contestable fact.

If Allegation #24 is indeed fact, that …

when defendant Auburn University’s football tickets were made available for employees, all white employees were offered tickets with no restrictions. However, African-American employees had to “put their names in a hat,” where only five (5) black employees would receive tickets for any particular game, and said African-American employees were also subject to having to sign their names to a list, something which white employees did not have to do.

… then the Auburn Athletic Department has some serious explaining to do.

That said, in its official response to the Federal Court complaint, Auburn flatly denied that such a method for the dispersal of football tickets within the AU Athletic Department existed.

Auburn Athletic Department Faces Racial Discrimination Charge By Nine Former Employees

More specifically, Auburn’s official legal response to Allegation #24 in the Federal Court-filed complaint was: “DENIED.

So what are the plaintiffs seeking as retribution for the Auburn Athletic Department’s alleged racial discrimination?

From the Federal Court complaint:

WHEREFORE, PREMISES CONSIDERED, plaintiffs respectfully pray that this Court grant the following relief:

a) Judgment declaring that the defendant discriminated against plaintiff, due to their black race;

b) An injunction reinstating the plaintiffs into their jobs with the Auburn University Athletic Department, and granting plaintiffs compensation for all back pay, benefits, and other rights to which plaintiffs would have been entitled, had they not been the victims of race discrimination, effective from the date of final judgment, together with lost pay for the period plaintiffs were out of work and not receiving income;

c) An award of all court costs and reasonable attorneys’ fees, including those incurred for seeking administrative relief

d) An award of compensatory damages, including for mental anguish, to which plaintiffs may be entitled;

e) An award of punitive damage; and

Such further, other and different relief as the Court may deem appropriate and necessary.

Auburn in its response to the complaint denied all of the racial discrimination charges and, at least publicly, appears to have no plans for a settlement or mediation of any kind.

Though, if a day-old local media report is any indication, that stance may be softening.

Saturday the OPELIKA-AUBURN NEWS reported:

At a council meeting earlier this month, Ward 1 Councilman Arthur Dowdell threatened to lead a sit-in on campus if AU President Jay Gogue did not meet with employees who filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against the university in federal court.

Dowdell, who is black, has since backed off the threat:

Dowdell said he called off the sit-in after speaking with the employees’ lawyer and Gogue’s office earlier this week.

“I think they wanted to do the thing that is right,” Dowdell said.

The employees’ attorney, Julian McPhillips, said he could not discuss any developments in the lawsuit, which is tentatively scheduled for trial in February 2012.

I think there are some positive movements toward a resolution, but I don’t want to say more at this time,” McPhillips said.

Earlier this month after Dowdell made his demands, McPhillips and AU officials said there were no plans for mediation in the case at the time.

If it isn’t guilty, why would Auburn consider settling the racial discrimination case?

Auburn Athletic Department Faces Racial Discrimination Charge By Nine Former Employees

Let’s countdown the reasons, shall we?

#7) Despite repeated objections from Auburn’s legal team, Auburn President Jay Gogue and Athletic Director Jay Jacobs may soon be faced with providing depositions in response to the wide-ranging racial discrimation charges.

In its attempt to convince the court that Gogue should not be deposed, Auburn lawyer Kelly Pate wrote in court documents:

Forcing the depositions of Auburn’s highest-ranking officials would impose an undue burden and annoyance, especially given that they have no unique personal knowledge. It would place an unreasonable burden upon President Gogue, and cause significant and unnecessary disruption to Auburn, if he were forced to be deposed in every instance, like this one.

Auburn has proffered a similar defense for Jacobs, claiming he had no personal knowledge of why exactly 11 Auburn Athletic Department employees - 10 of them black - were laid off during the school’s high-profile transition to a new arena.

Auburn Athletic Department Faces Racial Discrimination Charge By Nine Former Employees

Pate’s efforts may ultimately prove fruitful for Gogue and Jacobs, as Judge Terry F. Moorer on Friday ordered that the plaintiffs must immediately “show cause” as to why depositions from Gogue and Jacobs would be material to the case.

#6) According to court documents, two current Auburn professors have agreed to testify against their employers in the case: Dr. Evelyn Crayton and Dr. Paul Waddy. Also on the witness list submitted by the nine individuals suing Auburn in Federal Court for racial discrimination: Current Auburn academic instructor Shirley Sydnor, former Auburn professor Dr. Tony Guarino, former Auburn professor Dr. Shirley Barnes and former Auburn Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employment Director Janet Saunders - who the plaintiffs claim in a court filing will detail her knowledge of past racial discrimination complaints made against the school by employees.

#5) None of the above accounts for the extensive local and perhaps national coverage of the Federal racial discrimination case - coverage that might not portray Auburn in a flattering light even if it scores a decisive legal victory.

#4) Court documents already provide clues as to what that media coverage could entail, like the fact that Auburn quietly settled another racial discrimination lawsuit involving six black employees last year. And that the school has so far refused to release any records of racial discrimination complaints made against the school the past six years - despite repeated requests by the Julian McPhillips, the lawyer for the plaintiffs.

Why won’t Auburn give up those records? Federal Court documents for the case included this defense from Auburn attorney Kelly Pate:

The broad request is not relevant to the subject matter of this litigation.

Even if the court finds that Auburn does not have to release such records, its public refusal to do so doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in its claims of racial tolerance in the workplace.

#3) Equally uninspiring is Auburn asking the presiding judge to prevent the lawyer for the plaintiffs, Julian McPhillips, from asking Auburn’s current Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employment Director Kerry Taylor in her upcoming deposition about any racial discrimination complaints made by Auburn employees besides the nine plaintiffs in question. To that end, AU lawyer Pate wrote in court documents: 

Such unlimited inquiry would be used, instead, to annoy, embarrass or burden Auburn and, particularly, Ms. Taylor.

Auburn has agreed to allow Plaintiffs to inquire as to Ms. Taylor’s credentials and her methodology for conducting internal investigations of complaints that are brought to Auburn’s AA/EEO office.

Discovery beyond these two subjects should not be permitted, as it would not be reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence and would serve only to annoy and burden this witness and her employer.

Uh, okay.

#2) Submitting to the relatively nominal demands (at least for now) of the plantiffs seems a logical option for the school in lieu of a protracted legal battle against an attorney in McPhillips who, if court documents are any indication, will dedicate his case to portraying Auburn as one of the South’s last remaining vestiges of institutional racism.

Auburn Athletic Department Faces Racial Discrimination Charge By Nine Former Employees

#1) Recruiting.

Brooks can be reached on Twitter, Facebook and directly at sportsbybrooks@gmail.com