Former lacrosse coach files discrimination suit against George Fox
Former George Fox University women's lacrosse coach Natalie Harrington, who resigned following the 2017 season, revealed why she left the program she helped found by filing a sex discrimination suit against the school in federal court in May.
Harrington, who coached the Bruins to two Northwest Conference championships in four years, alleges in the suit that GFU promoted less successful male coaches from part-time to full-time and paid them more than similarly situated female coaches like her.
Harrington also initiated a Title IX complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and the filed suit May 16 in U.S. District Court in Portland. The move came on the heels of George Fox entering into a resolution agreement with OCR on April 3 to investigate and address whether it discriminated against female athletes by unequally assigning and compensating coaches for its male and female sports teams.
While not commenting on the lawsuit itself, George Fox Director of Marketing Communications and Public Information Rob Felton pointed out that Harrington's complaint filed with the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industry (BOLI) was dismissed for lack of evidence.
"I would note that we re-hired a woman at a full-time position," Felton added last week.
Dara Kramer was initially hired to be George Fox's first lacrosse coach in Nov. 2012 but changed her mind within a couple of months and served as a consultant prior to the school hiring Harrington, a former player of Kramer's at Oregon City High School, in Aug. 2013. According to the suit, she was hired part-time at an annual salary of $20,000.
Despite being unable to recruit new students to the team, Harrington led the Bruins to a 6-6 record in the spring of 2014 and, according to the suit, requested to be promoted to full-time. That request was denied by then athletic director Craig Taylor, but she was given a $1,000 increase in salary.
The Bruins, who compete in NCAA Division III, improved to 11-5 overall and 5-3 in Northwest Conference in Harrington's second season in 2015, but again her request to be promoted to full-time was not granted.
After leading to Bruins to a share of the program's first NWC title in 2016 with an overall record of 9-5 and a league mark of 7-1, Harrington's third promotion request was denied, but she did add additional responsibilities as director for intramurals and her salary increased $6,000 annually.
The lacrosse team went 12-2 and was unbeaten in league play to win its first outright NWC championship in 2017, bringing Harrington's career record to 38-17 overall and 20-4 in conference (in three official seasons).
According to the suit, Harrington was working two additional jobs at the time while also spending 50 to 60 hours per week coaching, so when her latest request to be promoted was not granted, she "was forced to resign the position at George Fox, since she could no longer endure the unfair and unequal treatment she had been receiving."
The suit paints a contrasting picture, in particular, as to the school's treatment of women's soccer coach Cory Hand, who was also hired prior to the 2013-2014 school year. Despite posting an overall record of 6-29-3 in two seasons, he was promoted to full-time in May 2015. Although not included in the suit, that promotion came with the additional title of director of facilities and responsibilities for handling game-day operations in the winter and spring seasons.
After resigning on April 25, 2017, the suit asserts that Harrington was contacted by George Fox Vice President for Student Life Brad Lau, who Felton said had recently taken the athletic department under his purview, to inquire why she had stepped down.
According to the suit, Lau told Harrington the reason she hadn't been promoted was not due to her level of experience or the team's record, but because the athletic department lacked a strategy for determining promotions to full-time.
"This 'lack of strategy' led to a de facto policy of George Fox completely ignoring the qualifications of those it promoted and disproportionately favored male candidates," the suit states. "Hopeful that their conversation meant George Fox intended to remedy the discrimination, Ms. Harrington stated that she would return to George Fox, if given full-time status. Mr. Lau demurred and stated George Fox wouldn't do that."
According to Felton, Lau feels he was not accurately portrayed in the suit. Felton also explained that when Harrington's final request for promotion in 2017 was denied, it was done so because of budget constraints.
After Harrington resigned, Felton said the athletic department identified operating funds that were freed up from tennis court rentals that would no longer be necessary with construction of a school's new indoor tennis facility. Those funds were used to make the lacrosse coaching position full-time when it posted the opening. Furthermore, Felton said last week that George Fox offered Harrington the full-time position, but that she declined.
That information is also contained in documentation of the BOLI investigation, but Harrington's attorney, Christina Stephenson, disputes that Harrington was actually offered the job.
According to BOLI's dismissal summary memo, the job was posted May 26, 2017, and George Fox reached out to Harrington's attorney, who at the time was Zachary Brunot, and asked if Harrington "would be interested in returning."
The BOLI document, which was written by BOLI senior investigator Mimi Perdue, continues on to state that Brunot reported back to George Fox that she "did not wish to return" to George Fox.
Although not her lawyer at the time, Stephenson said she has the information that was basis for that judgement.
"There has never been an unconditional offer of re-employment," Stephenson said. "I don't believe that there has ever been a good faith offer. Perhaps there was a litigation tactic employed by an attorney at one point related to that, but I've never seen an offer of re-employment."
According to the memo, because Harrington was judged by BOLI to have been "provided the opportunity to return to the position in a full-time capacity but declined the offer," she was unable to prove constructive discharge, which is when an employee resigns due to a hostile work environment created by their employer. For that reason, BOLI considered Harrington's resignation as voluntary.
"I would definitely contest the voluntary nature of it," Stephenson said. "This woman was working like crazy to get this team to the place where they were. She was working two extra jobs, 45 to 60 hours, thinking that as long as I can just demonstrate my worth I won't have to say anything extra, it will be self-evident. And season after season of this success and just killing herself and they still say no, you're not good enough. And there's no objective reason. That's what we all want, to be judged on our merits."
Stephenson added that BOLI is not well suited to making determinations on contested issues like the legitimacy of the job offer in question. She added that as an attorney who focuses almost exclusively on representing employees, she rarely expects a BOLI investigation to result in a judgement in favor of the employee. Rather, they are more useful in terms of discovery ahead of a lawsuit.
According to the BOLI memo, George Fox employed 11 male head coaches and four female head coaches during the period in question.
Of the male head coaches, eight were full-time, with two (football and women's basketball) exclusively full-time as head coaches. The remaining six were part-time but were assigned other jobs in order to bring them up to full-time status. The other three coaches were solely part-time.
Of the four female head coaches, two were full-time after the addition of other duties, while two were solely part-time, including Harrington.
Those numbers do appear to have veered slightly from year to year during and after Harrington's four-year tenure, with Hand being promoted to full-time status in 2015 and Emily Davis (Palkert) replacing longtime volleyball coach Steve Grant, who also taught and served as associate athletic director, in 2016.
According to the BOLI memo, George Fox featured five female head coaches, all of which were full-time, as of its report in February of this year. That includes Katie Mastropaolo, who succeed Harrington as coach of the lacrosse program, and Natalie Turner, who was hired in August 2017 to launch the new school's new swim program, which has yet to compete. It is not clear if Mastropaolo or Turner have other duties outside of coaching.
Harrington also alleges female coaches weren't paid as well as their male counterparts, but Stephenson said that information likely won't come to light until discovery for the trial is completed in the coming months.
According to a letter from OCR to Harrington, its investigation of possible Title IX violations was halted when George Fox entered into its resolution agreement, but did include some preliminary findings based on budget data provided by George Fox. Those included discrepancies in pay for the male and female cross-country coaches (though GFU currently lists head coach Randy Dalzell and two male assistants for the combined men's and women's program) and that the men's golf team featured two assistant coaches compared to one for women's golf.
The letter also notes a discrepancy between the number of baseball and softball assistant coaches, but states that OCR had not completed factual findings needed to determine if they resulted in a Title IX violation.
In the resolution agreement itself, George Fox agreed to complete a full review of all current coaches that must include specific information in several areas, including the number of coaches assigned to each team, their part-time or full-time status, secondary duties and a breakdown of time spent on those and coaching duties, qualifications and years of experience for each coach and salary, benefits and other compensation for each coach.
By Oct. 1, George Fox must provide OCR with a self-assessment of whether the athletic department's assignment and compensation of coaches "provides equivalent benefits and treatment to both sexes participating in athletics."
If in reviewing the university's review and assessment OCR determines that George Fox isn't providing equivalent benefits, the school will have 60 days to submit an action plan to address the issue. If OCR approves the action plan, GFU must provide a report on the steps it is taking every 180 days until the plan is completed.
The agreement includes provisions that during monitoring of the agreement, OCR may visit the Newberg campus to conduct interviews and request additional data. It also makes clear that George Fox is not admitting to any Title IX violations.
George Fox did not comment when asked about signing the resolution agreement.
Harrington's federal lawsuit seeks relief in the form of economic damages, non-economic damages, attorney costs and fees, a permanent injunction preventing George Fox from the alleged constitutional violations, and punitive damages.
The case has been assigned to U.S. District Court Judge Marco Hernandez and the deadline for discovery is Sept. 17, with alternate dispute resolution reports and a pretrial order due by Oct. 15.