A federal appeals court on Tuesday required Iona College to defend itself against charges that it had discriminated against a former men's basketball coach in 2004 by firing him, in part, because he was married to a black woman. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit , overturning a lower court's judgment two years ago, ruled that Craig Holcomb, who is white, had provided "sufficient evidence to permit a reasonable jury to conclude that the college's decision to terminate [him] was based, at least in part, upon a racially discriminatory motive."
In a statement, Iona officials strongly disputed the court's finding that race may have played a factor in Holcomb's firing. "Iona College has reviewed the determination of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and is extremely perplexed by this decision, in that it conflicts and is inconsistent with decisions of other courts, and is not supported by the evidence produced for the record in this case. Diversity is one of the tenets upon which Iona's foundation and history is built and, therefore, the college is firm in its resolve to vigorously defend itself in this case, as it has in the past, and is confident that it will prevail."
The decision to dismiss Holcomb was made in a context that ultimately confronts most institutions with sports teams: how best to turn around a losing program. Its men's basketball program, long successful, had in the early part of this decade suffered several years of losing and a rash of off-court problems, too. As described in the court's ruling, the university's leaders -- its president and vice presidents, advised by those overseeing the sports program -- decided that "drastic action" was needed to turn the program around, and that changes in personnel were required.
(The athletics director, Shawn Brennan, and his boss, Vice President Richard Petriccione, had initially argued against dismissing any of the coaches, but the senior officials decided otherwise.) Iona chose not to fire the head coach, Jeff Ruland, largely because he had just signed a 10-year contract (making him the college's highest paid employee) and would therefore be expensive to dismiss. Instead, the college fired two of its three assistant coaches, and it was that decision that prompted the lawsuit.
The result was clear: Iona fired its one black assistant coach and Holcomb, who is white but is married to a black woman, and retained another white assistant, Rob O'Driscoll. But the rationale for the decision is disputed, and is at the core of Holcomb's lawsuit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. (The black assistant coach who was fired, Tony Chiles, did not sue.)
The college's explanation, as laid out in the court records and in the appeals court's decision, is that O'Driscoll was asked to stay "as a connection to the rest of the program and also because the athletics director thought he was doing an adequate job," as Iona's president, the Rev. James Liguori, told the court. Holcomb and Chiles were selected for dismissal, Brennan told Ruland at the time, because they "have not provided you the proper level of support that you and our basketball program need to be successful."
But at the lower court level and before the three-judge appeals panel, Holcomb offered evidence suggesting other reasons. At the summary judgment stage of a lawsuit, where this one stands, federal courts base their rulings on the reading of the presented evidence that is most favorable to the plaintiff (Holcomb). Using that standard, the court, in a unanimous opinion written by Judge Guido Calabresi, decided that Holcomb had submitted sufficient evidence to "permit a reasonable jury" to conclude that Iona had discriminated against him because of his marriage to a black woman.
It cited several reasons for reaching that conclusion. Although the court found that Iona had offered a "non-discriminatory explanation" for firing Holcomb and Chiles and not O'Driscoll, the appeals panel said that Holcomb was not obliged to prove that he was terminated "solely because his wife was black... [H]e needs only to prove that the decision was partly so motivated to prevail on the ultimate merits of his claim."
The ex-coach provided enough evidence to give the jury in an eventual trial a reasonable chance of siding with him. Specifically, the court ruled, a reasonable jury could conclude that both Brennan and Petriccione, the vice president for advancement and external affairs, "possessed a racial motive to discriminate against Holcomb." The court describes Petriccione as being "apparently in the habit of making racially questionable remarks," having allegedly referred to a Nigerian employee in alumni giving as a "jungle bunny" and "African princess," and as having made a "strikingly racial remark to Holcomb about him and his wife." Holcomb testified -- and the court said that a third party confirmed -- that Petriccione had expressed surprise that Holcomb was "really going to marry that Aunt Jemima," and followed that by saying, "You really are a nigger lover." Petriccione did not respond to an e-mail request for comment, but in past articles about the case,  he has vigorously denied making those statements.
Holcomb testified that Brennan had stopped letting local high school players, and Holcomb's wife, from attending post-game gatherings of an athletics department fund raising group. The university asserted that Brennan had barred the players (most of whom, in Iona's locale north of New York City, are black) after one event in late 2003 when their number included a potential recruit, fearing that the student's presence violated NCAA recruiting rules. Holcomb said that Brennan had also told him that his wife should stop attending the events, and that as with the high school players, he believed Brennan wanted to limit the number of black people at events involving Iona's mostly white alumni. The court said that Brennan had denied discouraging Holcomb's wife from attending the events.
The appeals court also said Holcomb had provided adequate evidence that Brennan and/or Petriccione had played a "meaningful role" in the decision to fire Holcomb, even though Iona asserted that Brother Liguori, the president, had actually decided to dismiss him and Chiles rather than O'Driscoll. Although the two men had initially opposed firing any of the coaches, the appeals panel noted, Petriccione was among the vice presidents who joined with Brother Liguori in making the final decision to fire Holcomb, and Brennan had told the president that he would keep O'Driscoll if only one could be retained.
The judges dismissed as inconsequential the fact that Ruland, the head coach, also was dating a black woman at the time, and that one of the three new assistant coaches hired to replace those who were dismissed (and O'Driscoll, who left for another job even though he had not been fired) was black.
"A jury might count this as evidence that the defendant did not base its termination decision on the fact that Holcomb's wife was African American," the appeals court's decision said. "Then again, a reasonable fact finder might determine that the college hired a black coach as a way of concealing its prior discrimination. Alternatively, the jury might conclude that the relevant actors were animated, not by racism per se, but instead solely by their disapproval of interracial relationships.... In each of these cases, a reasonable jury could find that the termination decision was motivated, at least in part, by the fact that Holcomb was married to a black woman."
Bottom line, the court suggested, there is enough smoke in Holcomb's charges to let a jury decide if they indicate fire.
Jeffrey Udell, a lawyer for Holcomb, who is now a physical education teacher in Westchester County, where Iona is located, said the former coach was gratified by the appeals court's decision.