Here’s why a lesbian golfer just won $359,000 from the University of Minnesota

By Tony Ortega
Thursday, March 20, 2014 8:00 EDT
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UPDATE: Katie Brenny responds — see the bottom of the post.

This week, a remarkable trial concluded with a detailed finding of facts by a judge in Minnesota. He awarded a woman named Katie Brenny almost $360,000 after a three-year lawsuit. And while there’s been a small amount of media attention paid to Brenny’s victory, it’s received little national media exposure.

And that’s a shame, because the 38-page decision by Hennepin County Judge Thomas M. Sipkins contains interesting details that describes a startling case of overt discrimination on a college campus.

In 2010, Kathryn “Katie” Brenny was a 30 year old professional golfer living in North Carolina when she was approached that July by John Harris, the new director of golf at the University of Minnesota.

Harris was a pro golfer himself, and today, at 61, he plays on the Champions Tour.

But in the summer of 2010, he needed a new coach for the university’s women’s team. He wanted to know if Brenny was interested. He told her that she would be responsible for the things a head coach does: helping players improve, recruiting new players, and traveling with the team to tournaments, as well as doing the other administrative duties that come with the job.

Brenny had played four years at Wake Forest before turning pro, and figured she knew something about what coaching a college team would be like. Excited at the opportunity, Brenny sent her resume. Harris, meanwhile, sent her a list of job duties which were identical to those for the coach of the men’s team, John Carlson.

Harris needed a new women’s coach because he’d driven away the previous one, a woman named Kris Wessinger. The university’s “swing instructor,” Ernie Rose, had told Harris that he didn’t think Wessinger was up to the job, so Harris essentially demoted her, giving her the job of “Director of Communications” and asked her to take a $13,000 decrease in salary. Wessingner turned down the new job and left for another school instead.

John Harris

John Harris

Harris had trusted Rose’s judgment about Wessinger, and no wonder: Rose was married to Harris’s daughter, and Harris had brought his son-in-law on with him, even though it was technically against the university’s policy for a non-college-graduate like Rose to hold such a position.

Before he had snagged the swing instructor job, Rose had spent three years as his father-in-law’s caddie. He was also father to Harris’s two grandchildren.

Brenny soon found that she needed to impress both Harris and Rose to get the coaching job. But she did just that, passing an interview with Rose with flying colors, and then even playing a round of golf with Rose.

After the round of golf, in August 2010, Brenny was offered the job. And it’s clear from court testimony that at this point, everyone involved was thrilled with the situation. Harris and Rose were convinced they had hired the right person for the job.

About a week after Brenny decided to take the job, Rose had a telephone conversation with Kris Wessinger, the previous women’s coach.

Wessinger testified that Rose told her he had made the decision to hire Brenny after facing a choice between a woman of about 50 he believed was a lesbian, and a woman of 30. (In other words, for Rose it was an easy decision — he picked the young non-lesbian.)

Wessinger could tell by what Rose was saying that he didn’t realize that the woman he had hired, Brenny, was also a lesbian. So she told him.

(There was testimony by two team members that Rose had told them it was Harris who said to him, “Who should I hire, the 50-year-old lesbian with kids or the one who is 30 and fit?” Rose and Harris each denied saying these things, but the judge didn’t believe them.)

Judge Sipkins noted that at the same time this was happening, Harris was pushing the university to increase his son-in-law’s salary. Although they were already making a “major exception” because Rose wasn’t a college graduate, the administration raised him to $49,500 — more than either head coach was making.

Rose claimed in testimony that he didn’t tell his father-in-law about what he’d learned in the phone call from Wessinger — that Brenny was a lesbian — before Brenny started her job.

But the judge didn’t believe him. In fact, he seemed to find very little Harris or Rose said under oath credible.

Brenny started her job on August 30, 2010 and she immediately sensed that something was different. She saw very little of Harris that first week, and he avoided eye contact with her.

On her second day on the job, Brenny found out from the men’s coach, Carlson, that she wouldn’t be traveling with the women’s team to a tournament in South Carolina, which she had been told would be one of her job’s major responsibilities.

Instead, she was told she’d be helping out with a men’s tournament at home.

Harris had decided to change Brenny’s job duties by her second day on the job — too soon for it to be a result of her performance, the judge pointed out.

Over the next few days, it became obvious that Harris was looking for any reason to justify further changes to Brenny’s job in the hopes, the judge believed, that Brenny would quit on her own.

On September 7, for example, Brenny accompanied one of the women’s team players, Michele Edlin, during a tournament qualifying round. Later, Harris called her and asked her what Edlin had shot. Brenny said she was driving in her car and didn’t have the score handy, but that it was “about 77.” When she got done driving, she confirmed the actual score for him.

But Harris pounced on Brenny not knowing the score as evidence that she was not up to being head coach.

The judge didn’t buy it. He understood that Harris was just looking for reasons to get rid of her, and he had made up his mind about her after learning that she was a lesbian.

The judge called it a “pretext” for Harris’s “discriminatory treatment” of Brenny. Another example was that Harris claimed Brenny had asked to go home early on her first day on the job. The judge instead believed Brenny and the team golfers, who said she came to work early and left late.

Rose claimed that two players came to him in September, saying they were concerned about having a lesbian for a coach, and asked if they would have to shower in front of Brenny.

The judge didn’t buy that, either. The players themselves testified instead said that the conversation never happened, and they were supportive of Brenny.

It was clear to the judge what had happened: Harris and Rose thought they were hiring a non-lesbian, and when they found out Brenny’s actual sexual orientation, they decided to find a way to force her out of the job.

On September 9, Harris told Brenny that she couldn’t even talk to the players on the team, and she should limit her communications to one mass e-mail to the team per day.

Harris told her she better make it a good e-mail.

The next day, after Brenny and Rose disagreed about the way she’d handled some instruction for one of the women, Harris told her that she could no longer talk to the women about golf. From then on she should talk to them only about “boys, life, and school.”

He also told her she wouldn’t be traveling to any tournaments and wouldn’t be involved in answering recruiting e-mails.

After berating her at that meeting, Brenny went back to her office in tears. But she had to drive two players to the airport, so she wore sunglasses to conceal from them that she’d been weeping.

Somehow, Harris then seized on Brenny wearing sunglasses during that drive as another example of her not performing her job properly. (Clearly, he was looking for any reason to axe her.)

A few days later, Brenny began complaining to the school’s athletic director about the way she was being treated. Here she was, only two weeks into her job, and things were becoming unbearable. Instead of the coach of a Division I women’s golf team, she had become an administrative assistant. She would never have moved from North Carolina if she knew this was going to happen.

Harris, meanwhile, complained to those same administrators that Brenny was not the person he had hired, and that he was unhappy with her performance.

After Brenny met with administrators, they presented her with a new job description — one that reinforced what Harris had done to her duties.

She then wrote up a letter, explaining that she had been hired to be a coach, but then her duties had been taken away. She pointed out that the men’s coach, Carlson, wasn’t going through the same thing. He still had the job that she was hired to do for the women. She asked the school to reconsider the situation, and let her do the job she was hired for.

She presented the letter at a meeting with Harris and two other administrators.

“After reading Brenny’s letter, Harris firmly jabbed his finger at the letter, flicked it across the table and stated: ‘I hate this.’ Harris told Brenny that the women players on the team were scared of her and hated her,” the judge wrote, and said Harris’s assertion simply wasn’t credible.

The judge also found that after the meeting, Harris wrote a letter to the other administrators explaining why he’d changed Brenny’s job duties, and accused her of things that were not true.

After that, things only got worse. And then, on October 27, Brenny had a meeting with Harris in his office, with the men’s coach, Carlson, present.

“Brenny was asked by a ‘smirking’ Harris, ‘did you really think I would let you travel alone with those five girls?’,” the judge wrote.

Brenny could no longer work in that kind of environment, and she decided to quit. She asked for a severance, and signed a separation agreement.

But after she did so, she heard from one of the players that she believed Harris had wanted Brenny out because he’d found out she was gay.

For the first time, Brenny heard about what Rose had told a couple of players in September about it. And Wessinger, who first told Rose about Brenny’s orientation, apologized to her for doing so.

Brenny rescinded her severance, and told the university she’d changed her mind: she wasn’t quitting, and she wanted to be allowed to do the job she was first hired to do.

But the university told her that if she tried to return, they would assign her to a job selling football tickets at the school’s stadium.

She confirmed her termination.

Then she sued.

After moving back to North Carolina, Brenny began working with children at a golf instruction business, The First Tee in Charlotte. When her partner moved to New York for a job, Brenny then went to work for The First Tee’s New York location. She’s reportedly thriving there.

Harris resigned from the University of Minnesota in June 2011, only 11 months after he had started the job. His son-in-law, Ernie Rose, also left soon after. Brenny originally named Harris in her lawsuit along with the Board of Regents of the University of Minnesota, but the court later dropped Harris from the suit. (That was before the original judge was replaced by Sipkins.)

Judge Sipkins this week awarded Brenny more than $160,000 in lost wages (doubled to $334,588), $25,000 for her mental anguish, and interest on her lost wages dated back to October 27, 2010, as well as her attorneys’ fees, and costs.

We sent a message to Brenny, hoping to ask her about winning the case, but she hasn’t responded. She hasn’t spoken to other media either. We can’t blame her if she’s just hoping to put the entire matter behind her.

We’ll give the last word to Judge Sipkins, who attached a ‘memorandum’ to the end of his decision, which reads like a final emphasis on his finding…

In its closing argument and post-trial memorandum, the University argues that Ms. Brenny ‘never gave the job a chance.’ In fact, the contrary is true…But for these illegal actions, the Court is persuaded that Ms. Brenny would still be the coach of the women’s golf team at the University.

UPDATE: Katie Brenny e-mailed us this statement… “I’m grateful for the judge’s ability to discern the truth. This is a win for me, but it’s so much more than that — it’s a victory for those who believe in equality, and it’s progress for college athletics. Hopefully, my experience and this lawsuit will help others by serving as a deterrent for discrimination in the future. It’s clear that we are moving forward. I just can’t tell you how grateful I am that the judge was able to see through it all and write up the decision he did. This is a huge win for coaches and student-athletes.”

Tony Ortega
Tony Ortega
Tony Ortega is Raw Story's executive editor. From 2007 to 2012 , he was editor-in-chief of The Village Voice. He also worked at Voice Media Group's other newspapers in Phoenix, Los Angeles, Kansas City, and Fort Lauderdale. He lives in New York City and is originally from Los Angeles.
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