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Fired Women’s Hoops Coach Sues SDSU

SAN DIEGO (CN) - San Diego State University basketball coach Mary Burns claims in court she was forced to resign in retaliation for her demands that the school give her women's teams equal treatment with the men.

Mary Elizabeth Burns sued SDSU and the California State University Board of Trustees in Superior Court, alleging retaliation, breach of contract and breach of faith and fair dealing.

Burns's teams compiled a 295-186 record (.613) in her 16 years as head coach. Her teams won more games than any others in SDSU history, and won six regular season conference championships, four league tournament titles, and was invited to seven NCAA tournaments, making it once to the Sweet 16.

"Coach Burns' commitment to success went beyond the basketball court," she says in her 31-page lawsuit. "Under her leadership, SDSU had an unprecedented 100 percent graduation rate for all students who played for four years on the women's basketball team."

But Burns says this came at a cost. She claims that for years "she had to fight a dysfunctional athletics administration that prioritized men's sports over women's basketball. In her last eight years at SDSU, the athletics department had five different athletic directors. This frequent turnover resulted in significant deficits for the women's basketball program in terms of support infrastructure for academics, housing, facilities, equipment, promotion, and staffing.

"The athletic directors focused their time, efforts, and priorities on football and men's basketball, to the detriment of women's athletics.

"Coach Burns refused to remain silent in the face of the inequities she witnessed.

She regularly complained regarding the department's disparate treatment of the women's basketball program. In response, department leaders and SDSU personnel criticized Coach Burns for being 'rough around the edges.'"

Burns says she was "blindsided: on April 16, 2013, when SDSU athletic director Jim Sterk "summoned" her to his office "under the guise of an annual review," then demanded that she "agree to resign, retire or be fired."

During the meeting, Burns says in the lawsuit, SSU Associate Vice President Richel Thaler told her "that the sole reason for SDSU's decision to terminate her was because Coach Burns had allegedly struck a subordinate. Sterk told her there was video evidence. Coach Burns had no idea what they were talking about, because she has never intentionally struck a subordinate, athlete, or any other SDSU personnel.

"Given this Hobson's choice, and considering Sterk's warning that Coach Burns would lose retirement benefits if she forced SDSU to fire her, Coach Burns 'opted' to retire."

Burns says she "has suffered substantial damage" from SDSU's retaliation and bad faith termination."

She claims it was pretextual: "SDSU fired her in retaliation for her unwavering demands that SDSU put women's basketball and men's athletics on an equal footing. In a feeble attempt to cover up the real reason for firing her, SDSU fabricated a pre-textual explanation for her termination that was intentionally and devastatingly harmful to her. As a result, Coach Burns has not been able to secure another coaching position, despite her incredible record of success."

As for the alleged striking of a subordinate, Burns says in the complaint: "Days after her termination, SDSU reluctantly provided Coach Burns with a copy of the video that it stated was the 'sole cause' for its decision to terminate her. The video was taken during a game in February 2013, two months before her termination.

"The video does not show Coach Burns striking any other person. During the video, Coach Burns makes incidental physical contact with Adam Barrett, a member of her staff. This insignificant contact was made in the heat of watching the game and coaching the team. The video makes it clear that this contact was not intentional or malicious. It was a spontaneous, harmless response from a coach in the middle of a basketball game."

Burns says she was receiving an annual salary of $220,000 and was entitled to a minimum of $880,000 in additional base salary under her July 2012 contract extension.

She wants that money, and punitive damages and attorney's fees.

She is represented by Edward Chapin with Chapin Fitzgerald.

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