Jane Meyer lawsuit will put University of Iowa athletic department on trial

Mark Emmert

The University of Iowa athletic department power structure will be put under a microscope during a high-profile trial that begins Monday at the Polk County Courthouse.

Jane Meyer, who spent 13 years as the highest-ranking woman in the athletic department, is suing over the loss of her job, claiming discrimination based on her gender and sexual orientation, and retaliation after she complained about the situation to the Iowa Board of Regents.

Among those scheduled to testify in a jury trial expected to last at least two weeks: Iowa athletic director Gary Barta, his predecessor Bob Bowlsby, Iowa Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter and former university president Sally Mason. In addition, the witness list includes many prominent Hawkeye coaches — Kirk and Brian Ferentz, Fran McCaffery, Tom Brands and Chris Doyle among them.

Jane Meyer, leading a tour of Iowa's indoor football practice facility in 2012, is suing her former employer for discrimination. Meyer was Iowa's senior associate athletic director for 13 years. Her trial begins Monday in Des Moines.

A lengthy list of exhibits figures to lay bare the inner workings of the $116 million Iowa athletic department. Jurors will see job descriptions, performance reviews, organizational flow charts and a slew of internal memos and correspondence.

Meyer, 57, filed her lawsuit in November 2015 and was dismissed from university employment last September. The university contends it had the right to do so because she was an at-will employee who had become a divisive presence in the department.

The dispute began in August 2014 when Barta fired field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum, claiming she had been abusive to players. Griesbaum denied the charges and filed a wrongful termination lawsuit. Barta reassigned Meyer in December 2014 in light of the Griesbaum suit, noting that the two are in a long-running romantic relationship. That reassignment came one day after Meyer sent Barta a memo detailing what she viewed as discriminatory practices against female and gay coaches and athletes in his department. She repeated those claims to the Board of Regents later that winter, never getting a response.

Meyer, whose title had been associate athletic director, worked first in the university’s facilities management department and later in its College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, maintaining her salary of $173,000 per year. Her employment was terminated when her position was no longer needed, the university said.

Iowa athletic director Gary Barta took the stand for parts of four days in the Jane Meyer trial.

Meyer is also suing over unequal pay, pointing to the hiring of deputy athletics director Gene Taylor in June 2014 at a salary that was $70,000 higher than hers. She said Taylor, whose position was newly created, was performing many of the same duties she did. The university has countered that Taylor had more responsibility and experience. Taylor, who will be called to testify at Meyer’s trial, accepted a job as athletic director at Kansas State on Friday.

Meyer is seeking equal pay to Taylor, back wages, plus compensation for past and future emotional distress. An eight-person jury will be selected Monday morning to hear her case and determine the amount of damages, if any. If Meyer wins, she could then seek to get her job back.

Griesbaum’s lawsuit is scheduled to go to trial June 5. But the circumstances surrounding her firing will play a pivotal role in Meyer’s trial as well. Griesbaum will be called to testify, and Iowa District Court Judge Michael Huppert issued a pretrial ruling Thursday saying:

“It is clear that Griesbaum’s relationship with both the plaintiff and the University of Iowa is intertwined with the issues in the present case … It is obvious that there will be considerable overlap in the factual presentations in both trials. The court cannot say at this stage of the proceedings that the “Griesbaum investigation” can be arbitrarily truncated in terms of what the jury in this case needs to know about it.”

Assistant attorney general George Carroll, who is representing the university, had argued that Griesbaum’s presence at Meyer’s trial should be limited since she has her own day in court coming up.

“They were trying to keep out everything surrounding the Griesbaum termination. It’s just far too connected to Jane Meyer, since they used Tracey’s litigation against her when she was reassigned,” Meyer’s attorney, Jill Zwagerman, told the Register. “We don’t want to try both. But (Griesbaum) has facts that are relevant and important to this case.”

Meyer’s case is similar to that a decade ago of Diane Milutinovich. The longtime Fresno State athletics administrator claimed she was reassigned because of her vocal advocacy of gender equity in sports. The university said it was eliminating her position as a cost-saving measure. Milutinovich sued the university and received a $3.5 million out-of-court settlement in which Fresno State admitted no wrongdoing.

Zwagerman said Meyer was open to a settlement as well, but the state never offered one.

Zwagerman and her law partner, Thomas Newkirk, are veterans of civil rights lawsuits against university athletic departments. Newkirk is representing Griesbaum.

The Des Moines-based duo previously represented former Iowa State softball coach Ruth Crowe after she was fired in 2005. Crowe said it was in retaliation for her complaints about inequities in pay for coaches of women’s sports teams. A Polk County jury agreed, awarding her $287,000 in damages.

“We’re hoping that there’s a shift in society and (the jury) can see that people need to be held responsible, and women shouldn’t be treated differently,” Zwagerman said.

“It’s time to get this resolved, to get it in front of the jury.”

Carroll did not return a call for comment.