Jurors hear starkly different portrayals in opening statements of Jane Meyer's case against Iowa

Mark Emmert

Jurors in Jane Meyer’s lawsuit against the University of Iowa were presented Tuesday with two starkly different portrayals of the onetime Hawkeye athletics official.

Meyer’s attorney, Thomas Newkirk, used his opening statement to paint his client as a prototypical hard-working Iowan who had ascended to the No. 2 position in the Iowa athletic department only to have her career taken from her by a supervisor uncomfortable with her gender and sexual orientation.

Assistant Attorney General George Carroll, representing the university, countered that Meyer was a once-valuable employee who became insubordinate toward her boss, Gary Barta, after he fired field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum, with whom Meyer has been romantically involved since 2004.

Jane Meyer's lawsuit against the University of Iowa began Monday in Des Moines with the selection of an eight-member jury and opening statements.

Carroll also said Meyer had created rifts with several Hawkeye coaches because of her intractable personality.

Meyer, 57, was Iowa’s senior associate athletic director from 2001-14, before she was reassigned outside the department and ultimately had her employment end in September 2016.

She is suing the university for discrimination based on her gender and sexual orientation, for retaliation after she complained about gender disparities in the athletic department, and for being paid $70,000-per-year less than a male employee who took over some of her duties in June 2014.

Her trial is being held at the Polk County Courthouse.

Newkirk, Meyer's attorney, told the 10 jurors that the case “involves sports, power, money, a lot of pride … and loyalty.”

He noted that Meyer, who grew up in a Catholic family of nine children in Granger, was an accomplished and hard-driving professional who earned master’s and doctoral degrees in athletic administration and then rose through the ranks in a male-dominated profession.

She was hired at Iowa by then-athletic director Bob Bowlsby, who consistently praised her work. When Barta replaced Bowlsby in 2006, a change gradually ensued.

Barta started distancing himself and complained that others were telling him that Meyer was “heavy-handed” and “demeaning” in her treatment of others, Newkirk said. 

Iowa athletic director Gary Barta's relationship with former top aide Jane Meyer is front and center during Meyer's ongoing case.

Nevertheless, she was never officially disciplined by the university. In 2013, Barta decided to create a new position of deputy athletics director and informed Meyer that he didn’t consider her a qualified candidate.

Their relationship soured even further after Barta fired Griesbaum on Aug. 4, 2014, claiming that she had been abusive to some of her players. Griesbaum is also suing the university, with a trial scheduled to begin June 5.

Meyer pushed back after Barta’s decision. Four months later, Barta had her reassigned, citing Griesbaum’s litigation against the university. Newkirk said it was obvious Barta never intended for Meyer to return to her previous role.

“Mr. Barta expects 100 percent blind loyalty and trust in his decisions,” Newkirk told the jury.

“Jane’s career in athletics is done regardless of what this verdict is. … The law and Iowa values support Jane.”

Carroll’s version of events varied markedly.

He said it was Meyer’s clashes with coaches, including Kirk Ferentz (football), Rick Heller (baseball) and Tom Brands (wrestling) that led to an uncomfortable work environment. All three of those coaches — and more — are expected to testify.

Carroll said Ferentz was dismayed when he asked Meyer to provide an illustration of a new football practice facility that he could show to potential donors. Ferentz said Meyer dawdled in the task, and then handed in a poor replica of what the university was seeking, and eventually built.

Heller expressed similar concerns about plans for a renovated baseball stadium, Carroll said. And Brands was upset when Meyer prevented him from entering Carver-Hawkeye Arena during a construction project, which led to an inferior result.

Carroll said Barta spoke to Meyer about his concerns, but nothing changed.

At the staff meeting at which Barta announced Griesbaum’s dismissal, Carroll said Meyer berated her boss in a manner that could have led to her being fired on the spot, since she was an at-will employee.

Tracey Griesbaum

“This was open insubordination toward her boss,” Carroll said. “Gary had the full right to fire her on Aug. 4 with that outburst. He chose not to.”

Carroll said the mood of the department improved after Meyer was reassigned, and agreed that when her job in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences ended Sept. 9, there was no thought of bringing her back to athletics.

“The ‘why’ is the critical inquiry in this case,” Carroll told the jury. “It had everything to do with her behaviors and the fact that the Iowa athletic department was ready to move on. …

“Mr. Barta did not care about her same-sex relationship. That’s a red herring in this case.”

Earlier Tuesday, a jury of six women and four men was finally seated after the opening day of the trial Monday was spent questioning a pool of 50 potential jurors. Attorney Jill Zwagerman, also representing Meyer, probed them regarding their views on homosexuality, and questioned whether they had strong allegiances to Hawkeye sports teams. Carroll, meanwhile, wanted to make sure that jurors understood the three-week time commitment they were making, and that the defense would present its case last, asking jurors to be careful not to make up their minds early in the proceedings.

Two pastors on the jury pool were struck from consideration, as were a pair of men who admitted they struggled to accept gay marriage. Of the 10 jurors who were selected — two are alternates — four work in the financial services industry, one is an optometrist, one a salesman, one a nurse, one a medical technologist, one a school custodian and one a forklift operator.

After opening statements Tuesday, the jurors heard from:

  • Monica Nassif, one of Meyer’s older sisters. Nassif, a successful businesswoman in Minneapolis, said she has long been Meyer’s “career counselor” and described her younger sister’s devastation after the loss of her job. “Here’s a very accomplished woman at the peak of her career. That is shell-shocking. Jane felt she was really knocked out of the job market,” Nassif said.
  • Joseph Kearney, an associate dean of Iowa's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, who supervised Meyer for the final 17 months of her employment. Meyer helped Kearney’s department with the cleanup from the 2008 flood. Kearney had high praise for Meyer’s organizational skills and said “she was creating order out of chaos.”
  • Kevin Ward, an assistant vice president in the university's human resources department. Ward was present when Griesbaum was fired and when Meyer was reassigned and later terminated.

In three hours of questioning Ward, Newkirk pressed a few points:

  • That Barta was aware of the Meyer-Griesbaum relationship in May 2014, before an investigation was launched into complaints about Griesbaum’s coaching methods.
  • That Barta sought Ward’s counsel in October 2014 before completing Meyer’s annual review, complaining of a “difficult environment, poor attitude and (the) effect on staff.” Barta told Ward at the time that he wanted to discuss with Meyer the difference between a healthy and unhealthy conflict in an office setting. The resulting job review was negative — after years of positive reviews, Newkirk said — and included the words “argumentative” and “antagonistic.” But Ward admitted that Meyer was neither reassigned nor fired because of her work skills.

“The conversation that I recall was about how to present her performance (in the review) and was not directed toward termination,” Ward said.

Ward’s testimony will continue when the trial resumes Wednesday morning. Meyer is expected to take the stand later in the day. Barta is scheduled to testify Thursday.