The University of Southern Mississippi has received a favorable ruling from the Mississippi Supreme Court in three cases involving former coaches with the women’s soccer program.
The former soccer coaches—John Vincent, John Mollaghan and Ged O’Connor—had made various allegations under federal and state law of wrongful termination, sexual harassment, gender discrimination, retaliation, violation of due process and equal protection rights, slander and the intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress against the University, (former President) Dr. Horace Fleming, (former Director of Athletics) Richard Giannini and current Senior Associate Athletics Director Sonya Varnell. Their lawsuits were originally filed in late 2000 and early 2001 in the Circuit Court of Forrest County.
Prior to trial, the Circuit Court dismissed many of the claims of the three plaintiffs, leaving only O’Connor’s sexual harassment claim, Vincent and Mollaghan’s procedural due-process claims, and all three plaintiffs’ gender-discrimination and retaliation claims.
At trial, the plaintiffs received a combined award of $1.2 million against Giannini and Varnell. However, following these verdicts, the Circuit Court granted Giannini and Varnell’s post-trial motions, nullifying the verdicts Vincent and Mollaghan received, but leaving the $300,000 verdict received by O’Connor against Giannini and Varnell on his sexual harassment claim intact. Vincent and Mollaghan appealed the rulings of the Circuit Court nullifying their verdicts, while Giannini and Varnell appealed the verdict received by O’Connor.
On appeal, the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld the Circuit Court’s rulings nullifying the verdicts received by Vincent and Mollaghan, holding there was no evidence to support their claims that they were denied any property right or suffered any damages as a result of their alleged deprivation of procedural due process.
The Supreme Court also held that each failed to prove the gender discrimination claims, since each was replaced by another male coach, and that neither incurred retaliation by Giannini or Varnell.
The Supreme Court also reversed the $300,000 verdict in favor of O’Connor against Giannini and Varnell, finding that the isolated comments allegedly made by Varnell to O’Connor were not physically threatening, did not interfere with his work performance and did not rise to the level of sexual harassment.