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Lesbian golf coach proved U of M discrimination, judge rules


MINNEAPOLIS — The University of Minnesota’s ham-handed treatment of its new women’s golf coach in 2010 was illegal, and the man who hired her essentially forced her to resign after he found out she was a lesbian, a judge has ruled.

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Former associate coach Kathryn Brenny, who spent less than two months as the university’s women’s golf coach, is entitled to double her back pay and compensation for mental anguish — in all, $359,588 plus attorneys’ fees, Hennepin County District Judge Thomas Sipkins ruled Tuesday.

In a strongly worded order, Sipkins said Brenny’s treatment by the school and by John Harris, a former pro golfer who was then head of Minnesota’s golf program, was discriminatory and broke the law.

“These adverse actions by Harris as the University’s director of golf were intentional and motivated by his discriminatory animus toward Brenny because of her sexual orientation,” the judge found.

Sipkins’ 38-page ruling said Harris’ treatment of Brenny “made the working environment plainly intolerable. She was demeaned, belittled and prevented from performing the job that Harris had recruited her to fill.”

The ruling comes four months after a nine-day trial before Sipkins; there was no jury. Harris and Brenny were two chief witnesses; the judge said Harris wasn’t believable in key parts of his testimony and that he cooked up reasons to get rid of Brenny.

Harris resigned as head of the school’s golf program in June 2011, five months after Brenny sued. She originally named him as a defendant, along with the university, but in May 2012 the Minnesota Court of Appeals dismissed the claim against him.

Harris did not respond to an email request for comment.

The judge found that university officials, including then-Athletics Director Joel Maturi, “consistently deferred to Mr. Harris’s wishes” and “this deference permitted Mr. Harris’s conduct toward, and treatment of, Ms. Brenny.”

The judge also chastised the school for destroying what could have been key evidence.

“The university destroyed the text messages and other data from Harris’s university-issued cellphone, which would have been relevant to the issues presented in this case,” Sipkins wrote.

A spokesman for the school, Chuck Tombarge, said the school was “disappointed with the decision” and will review the ruling to “determine the appropriate steps.”

Donald Chance Mark Jr., the lawyer who represented Brenny, said he and his client were “absolutely gratified” with the ruling.

“We feel it is a complete vindication for what Katie has been saying all along about her treatment at the university,” he said.

Brenny now works for the U.S. Golf Association in New York.

Brenny, 33, was a standout golfer at Little Falls High School; she played varsity golf for six years and was the 1998 Minnesota state high school champion. She went on to play at Wake Forest University and finished second in the 2001 Atlantic Coast Conference championship.

She was playing on the women’s professional tour and working as an instructor in North Carolina in 2010 when Harris recruited her for the associate head coach’s job at Minnesota.

At the trial, she testified she considered it her “dream job.” In his ruling, Sipkins said she was “well-qualified” for the position.

When Harris offered her the job Aug. 21, 2010, he didn’t know she was a lesbian, the judge wrote.

The issue arose a few days later when Ernie Rose, Harris’ son-in-law, was discussing the final two candidates for the job with outgoing women’s coach Kris Wessinger. Rose had mentioned the choice came down to Brenny and a woman who was a lesbian.

Wessinger told him that Brenny was gay, too, the judge said.

Rose testified at trial in November that he didn’t mention Brenny’s sexual orientation to his father-in-law. Sipkins said Rose wasn’t credible on that point and that his testimony “was not supported by the evidence.”

Brenny began her job Aug. 30, 2010. In her first week, Harris had cooled to her, the judge found.

“Brenny testified credibly that Harris’s demeanor and tone were noticeably changed,” Sipkins wrote. “Unlike in their prior conversations and meetings, Harris avoided eye contact with Brenny; generally avoided her altogether; and when he should have been meeting with Brenny for her orientation and to discuss her duties ..., he did not.”

The day after she started work, the men’s coach told Brenny that she wouldn’t be accompanying her team to Charleston, S.C., for the season’s first tournament.

“There were no performance-based reasons for this severe limitation of her duties,” the order said. “The only event that had occurred prior to Harris’s decision ... was that Rose had learned from Wessinger that Brenny is lesbian, and that Rose ... told Harris about that conversation.”

Harris then “undertook a series of adverse employment actions intended to force her resignation,” Sipkins wrote.

Among those actions: Harris told Brenny she wasn’t to coach or talk to players and could email them only once a day. He told her she couldn’t travel with the team and that she could talk to them only about “boys, life and school,” the judge found.

By Sept. 13, 2010, Harris was talking to others at the university about giving Brenny an opportunity to resign. Two days later, Harris revised her job description and eliminated coaching duties.

By October 2010, Brenny went to Maturi “to seek relief from the harsh conditions created by Harris,” Sipkins wrote. “Maturi told her that she could comply with Harris’s demands or quit.”

By Oct. 20, Maturi told Brenny she could accept a severance and quit. Brenny was told that if she didn’t resign, she’d be assigned to TCF Stadium to sell football tickets.

Brenny felt her only recourse was to resign. Shortly after she did, she was told by people at the school that Harris wanted to get rid of her because she was gay.

Sipkins said the university violated the Minnesota Human Rights Act’s prohibition against discriminating against a person on the basis of sexual orientation.

He said she was entitled to lost wages of $167,294, and that “based on the university’s conduct, the court holds that it is fair to double those damages.”

He also said she should get $25,000 for mental anguish and that the university should pay for her lawyers. He said punitive damages weren’t warranted.

Mark, Brenny’s lawyer, said the ruling should help her.

“It’s been an emotional roller coaster for her,” he said.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.