Judge orders new trial unless former coach accepts smaller award

Updated: February 8, 2008, 7:53 PM ET
Associated Press

FRESNO, Calif. -- A judge on Friday tossed a $19.1 million judgment awarded to a former Fresno State women's basketball coach who had sued the school claiming gender discrimination and ordered a new trial unless she accepts a smaller sum.

While the judge reduced the jury award to former coach Stacy Johnson-Klein, the panel's verdict still stands. The judge said Johnson-Klein has until Feb. 22 to decide whether she'll accept a $6.6 million award instead.

Johnson-Klein sued California State University, Fresno claiming her higher-ups groped her and retaliated against her because she advocated equality for her female players.

The university said Johnson-Klein was fired because she was abusive to her players, violated NCAA rules and received pain medication from a player.

In December, a jury found that the Division I school did wrongfully terminate the coach and discriminate against her and awarded Johnson-Klein the historic judgment.

Fresno State attorneys asked the judge to overturn the verdict, saying Johnson-Klein's lawyers hadn't proven their case and alleging jury misconduct.

Johnson-Klein -- the third woman in the school's athletics department to sue for discrimination under Title IX -- said she hoped the judge's ruling would encourage women coaches and athletes to stand up for their rights.

"I've proven that I'm a fighter and a believer in my faith and in the system," Johnson-Klein said. "If you're wronged you have to make it right."

University officials also claimed the decision as a win but vowed to pursue an appeal.

"We are pleased that the court recognized that the verdict in this case was excessive and reduced the award," said the university's attorney Dawn Theodora. "We will continue to explore our legal options, including appeal, and hope this dispute can be resolved expeditiously."

Leaders at the central California campus have come under fire from powerful state legislators in the last year since a string of high-profile cases thrust its athletics department into the spotlight.

Democratic Sen. Dean Florez has called for Fresno State president John Welty to be fired in light of three sexual discrimination suits filed against the school.

"This is an outrage,'' said Democratic Sen. Darrell Steinberg, member of a select committee formed to investigate the problem. "My faith is shaken that anything can change moving forward."

In July, a jury awarded former volleyball coach Lindy Vivas $5.85 million -- which a judge later reduced to $4.52 million -- in a lawsuit claiming she was fired because of her advocacy for gender equity and her perceived sexual orientation.

Fresno State agreed in October to pay $3.5 million to settle a sexual discrimination lawsuit filed by former athletic administrator Diane Milutinovich.

An administrative assistant recently filed suit as well, claiming gender discrimination and retaliation for her complaints of misconduct within the men's basketball program.

In a 61-page order issued Friday, Fresno County Superior Court Judge Donald Black described what he saw as a "generally demeaning atmosphere tolerated and even fostered" by sports administrators toward women but said he found no legal justification for allowing such a large payout.

Johnson-Klein was terminated in "a very public, humiliating and degrading way," Black wrote, but "even in this state famous for runaway juries, nothing was found approaching this award."

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press