Judge: Coach's dismissal wrongful
By ANTONYA ENGLISH
© St. Petersburg Times,
TAMPA -- A Florida administrative law judge ruled Monday that former South Florida women's basketball coach Jerry Ann Winters was wrongfully dismissed in December and should be reinstated.
But late Monday afternoon, USF President Judy Genshaft said she stands behind the decision to fire Winters and will not accept the judge's recommendation.
Winters, 52, was fired after USF's Equal Opportunity Affairs department ruled she dismissed point guard Dione Smith from the team in retaliation for racial discrimination claims against Winters. Winters said she kicked Smith off for insubordination.
In February, Winters filed a petition with the Division of Administrative Hearings -- a legal avenue for state employees to appeal administrative actions -- asking that a judge determine if USF had just cause to fire her.
Monday afternoon, administrative law Judge William F. Quattlebaum said USF did not prove it did.
"Obviously, we think it's the correct decision based on the facts and the law and we're pleased," said Robert F. McKee, Winters' attorney.
Winters could not be reached for comment.
Genshaft said in a statement that the university still thinks it had just cause to dismiss Winters.
"In October 2000, after an extensive investigation, USF's Office of Equal Opportunity Affairs found reasonable cause to believe that Jerry Ann Winters retaliated against a student of the university," Genshaft said. "We believe that was and remains a valid reason to dismiss her from coaching and university service."
McKee said if the university does not honor the judge's recommendation, Winters, who is now a real estate agent, will be forced to take the case to court.
"It's a recommended order that has to be either adopted or rejected," McKee said.
"She wants her job back and that's what has been recommended," McKee added. "If they don't, we obviously have the right and would pursue it through the district court of appeals."
Quattlebaum ruled that Winters is entitled to reinstatement and back pay. At the time she was fired, Winters earned a base salary of $70,000. She received one-twelfth of that, just less than $6,000, as part of a buyout clause in her contract.
In his ruling, Quattlebaum noted that EOA administrator Camille Blake did not take sworn statements when conducting interviews with Winters, former players and athletic department employees during her investigation. The only records of the telephone calls are notes Blake prepared at some point after her conversations, Quattlebaum said.
And while noting that there is no evidence that Blake failed to follow USF procedures in completing her investigation, "unsworn testimony is not competent evidence," Quattlebaum wrote.
USF officials said it is state university policy not to use sworn statements in EOA investigations and Blake followed that procedure.
"Today's finding by an administrative hearing judge is a technical disagreement with USF's policies, as well as the standard procedure for state universities conducting this type of investigation," Genshaft said. "No quibbling over policy can change the facts. We stand behind the Equal Opportunity Affairs finding."
Neither Smith, former assistant athletic director Hiram Green or former athletic department secretary Lisa Walker -- who were considered central to USF's case -- were called to testify in the administrative hearing.
Since last August, eight former women's players, including Smith, have filed federal lawsuits against Winters and USF, alleging racial discrimination. Former athletic director Paul Griffin was forced to resign in March after seven months of controversy and allegations he tried to cover up complaints about racial discrimination within the women's basketball program.
Jonathan L. Alpert, the attorney who represents those players, said Monday's decision illuminates the fundamental predicament USF finds itself in. In one sense, the university is saying Winters did something wrong and deserved to be fired, Alpert said. But in fighting its lawsuit against the former players, it will not acknowledge wrongdoing.
"This is a wake-up call that they (USF) need to resolve this not just with Jerry Ann Winters, but with these kids," Alpert said. "This indicates the fact that there has been no dialogue or even a sincere or genuine effort with the kids -- they didn't even testify. There has been no discussion with them about what happened. This is so regrettable that so many lives have been tarnished and damaged, including Jerry Ann Winters and Paul Griffin. When there is racism, there are no winners. It's so destructive."
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