Pattern of hostility at Fresno State alleged in Vivas case

June 25, 2007 

The attorney representing former Fresno State volleyball coach Lindy Vivas lambasted the university Thursday for what he described as more than a decade of hostility toward women in the athletic department and a culture of discrimination toward coaches rumored to be lesbians.

Attorney Dan Siegel's opening statements in Vivas' civil trial marked the inauguration of a string of civil cases against Fresno State that are scheduled to be heard this year in Fresno County Superior Court. The legal battles are expected to shed light on how school administrators have handled complaints of gender discrimination.

Three women -- Vivas, former women's basketball coach Stacy Johnson-Klein and former associate athletic director Diane Milutinovich -- all have filed lawsuits that say they were fired for raising such concerns.

On Thursday, Siegel aimed his opening salvos straight at former athletic director Scott Johnson and -- in a complicated twist -- at Johnson-Klein.

In the spring of 2002, Siegel said, Johnson told Johnson-Klein that "we need to get rid of the lesbians" -- a reference Siegel said was to Vivas and Milutinovich.

Siegel also said that in 2004 Johnson-Klein once told Sharon Welty, the wife of university President John Welty, "I can't wait until those lesbians are gone."

The university's attorney, Dawn Theodora, said Johnson never talked about Vivas' or Milutinovich's sexual orientation. She described Johnson-Klein's comments to Sharon Welty as an isolated and "unsolicited conversation."

"If there were any rumors, they haven't come out in evidence," Theodora said. "Frankly, I think it's all in Lindy's head."

Johnson, now the director of Fresno's Economic Development Department, did not return calls late Thursday. He is scheduled to testify in the trial.

Johnson-Klein's attorney, Warren Paboojian, said his client will also testify in Vivas' trial, but would not comment Thursday.

After 14 seasons as a Bulldogs coach, Vivas, 49, lost her job in 2004 when her contract was not renewed. Siegel said Vivas reapplied for her job, but was not granted an interview since she was not one of the top three candidates -- who were all men.

Theodora said Vivas, the winningest volleyball coach in the school's history, was let go because she failed to meet basic goals for improving the volleyball program -- or at least outline a road map for how she intended to meet those goals.

But Siegel said the goals set by the university amounted to "a poison pill to justify a way to get her out of there."

Vivas' lawsuit asks for up to $2.8 million in damages and attorney fees, but Siegel said Thursday the figure will be much higher -- up to $4.1 million.

The civil suit says Vivas was let go because of her outspoken advocacy for gender equity in university sports and for her "perceived sexual orientation" -- a subject she has declined to elaborate on.

Johnson-Klein -- who was fired during the 2004-2005 season amid accusations of drug abuse, misuse of university funds, and other allegations -- filed her lawsuit in 2005. It is scheduled to go to trial in October.

Milutinovich -- who is also represented by Siegel -- filed her suit in 2004, claiming she was reassigned to the Student Union director post in 2002 and fired from the school last August because of her advocacy for gender equity.

In an interview this week, Vivas said she, Milutinovich and current Fresno State softball coach Margie Wright were "lightning rods" for criticism of women in the athletic department. Johnson-Klein was not among the group because "administrators wanted to keep her separate from us," Vivas said.

Vivas pinned much of the blame on the school's higher-ups -- including President Welty -- for fostering what she says is gender discrimination in the athletic department.

"The coaches do a good job, but you have to look at the administrators," Vivas said Thursday outside the courtroom. "Until the perpetrators are removed, this will keep happening."

Scheduled to testify in Vivas' trial are: John Welty, Sharon Welty, Vivas, Milutinovich, Wright and former Fresno State basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian.

In 1994, after a two-year investigation, the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights concluded that Fresno State's athletics program had violated Title IX laws, which were established as part of a 1972 civil rights statute prohibiting sex discrimination at institutions that receive federal funds.

Siegel said the school implemented a corrective action plan that would, among other things, increase funding for women's athletics programs and build a new facility for the volleyball team and the men's and women's basketball teams -- the Save Mart Center.

But the changes sparked "vicious" arguments among the athletic department staff over how school resources should be divvied up among the teams, Siegel said. He said Vivas and other women felt threatened by male colleagues to the point that Vivas once considered buying a gun to protect herself.

Other incidents followed, including what Siegel says was a party in the athletic department's business office that was dubbed "Ugly Women Athletes Day." He said it featured cut-out pictures of female athletes with the pictures of male administrators pasted over their heads.

Theodora described the incident as a foolish prank spearheaded by secretarial staff that got out of hand.

Siegel said that when the Save Mart Center opened in 2003, Vivas assumed she would be able to use the facility because the school had "promised" it would be home to the volleyball team. Theodora said the school never made such a guarantee.

In the end, the team was allowed just one match in the new arena that year.

Siegel said the university also discriminated against Vivas by limiting her to a two-year contract while some male coaches received five-year contracts.

Theodora will present her opening statements Monday -- something she says she's eagerly anticipating.

"[Siegel] referred to this case as a puzzle," Theodora said. "He lost a lot of pieces along the way."

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