Volleyball coach sues university, state system over wage gap, discrimination

Category:  News
Wednesday, February 7th, 2018 at 6:15 PM

Melissa Soboleski, Edinboro University’s head volleyball coach, is suing the university, along with the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE), citing gender discrimination, retaliation and unequal pay.  

Soboleski, head coach since 2005, filed the lawsuit on Jan. 25 with The United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. Court documents obtained by The Spectator read, “At the start of 2016, [the] plaintiff’s (Soboleski’s) annual salary was $64,344.” The lawsuit then stated the three other “Tier-1 [Edinboro University] head coaches, who are all male,” held salaries of $74,959, $104,706 and $120,872, at the time. The document also states that Soboleski has “demonstrated tremendous success and comes off one of the finest [volleyball] seasons in the school’s history.” Soboleski’s teams went 31-7 in 2015 and 25-9 in 2016.  

The other tier-1 sports at Edinboro, according to the lawsuit, include women’s basketball, men’s basketball and wrestling, while tier-1 teams are “provided with the highest level of funding and are considered the most competitive” and tier-1 coaches “tend to receive the highest compensation.”

According to court documents, the head women’s basketball coach, Stan Swank (in his 31st year of coaching) currently earns $110,198; the head wrestling coach, Tim Flynn (21st year), earns $130,880; and the head men’s basketball coach, Pat Cleary (5th year), earns $78,561; while Soboleski, (13th year), earns $73,251. 

It’s also argued that because “Edinboro University contributes over 9 percent of each coach’s annual salary towards his or her retirement…male counterparts [then] receive additional contributions to their retirement savings.”

The following statements and dates are according to court documents:

— The lawsuit claims Soboleski raised concerns to Edinboro University Athletic Director Bruce Baumgartner regarding a disparity in pay between her and her coaching counterparts in January of 2015.

— In April of 2015, Soboleski “followed up with Baumgartner regarding the status of her inquiry…and was informed that he had not yet reviewed the situation.”

— In January 2016, Soboleski raised concerns again, according to the lawsuit.

— In March 2016, Baumgartner “convened a committee to examine pay disparity in athletics.”

— On April 8, 2016, Soboleski, along with two male coaches of women’s athletic teams, filed a “formal Social Equity Complaint with Edinboro University’s Director of Social Equity and Title IX Coordinator,” Ronald Wilson. This was, according to the lawsuit, “in light of concerns surrounding Baumgartner’s motivations in appointing himself to chair the committee.”

— According to the lawsuit, Wilson submitted these findings and it was determined that PASSHE would conduct a separate investigation. 

— In Fall 2016, PASSHE conducted an investigation into the matter, with court documents stating they “concluded with findings that [the] plaintiff’s gender-based pay disparity complaints had merit.” The lawsuit goes on to state that PASSHE recommended “substantial raises for [the] plaintiff and other coaches,” which were approved by university President Dr. H. Fred Walker. 

According to Pennwatch.pa.gov, Soboleski’s salary increased from $64,344 in January of 2016, to $66,275 in February of 2017, then to $71,275 in May of 2017, to $73,251 in September of 2017, and to $75,266 in January of 2018. The complaint describes this as a “meager” salary adjustment, “far lower than the increase initially recommended by Edinboro University’s Director of Social Equity and Title IX Coordinator and approved by the President of Edinboro University.”

The document claims the disparity between Soboleski’s compensation and “that of her male counterparts has actually increased” since she filed her first complaint to Edinboro.

Additionally, the lawsuit claims Baumgartner has “attempted to impede Plaintiff’s ability to continue to do her job” since learning Soboleski had retained legal counsel; it also claims threats were made to the volleyball program.

A section in the court documents labeled, “facts pertaining to unlawful retaliatory conduct directed toward plaintiff,” claims that after filing the social equity complaint on April 8, 2016, “Baumgartner began approaching plaintiff (Soboleski) in a threatening manner with the intent of intimidating her, referring to the social equity complaint as ‘very interesting’ and ‘full of inaccuracies.’”

The lawsuit claims Baumgartner “continued and increased his pattern of retaliation” against Soboleski in issues such as recruitment, passes for home athletic events, and an Aug. 8, 2017 internal complaint against Soboleski “for a purported misuse of funds,” filed by Baumgartner’s secretary. Soboleski “ultimately was cleared of any wrongdoing; nonetheless, her colleagues within the athletic department continue to ostracize her as a result of the accusations,” claims the lawsuit.

And in a section labeled “exhaustion of administrative remedies,” the document reads, “Plaintiff exhausted remedies through her attempts to utilize internal and organization administrative processes.”

In an email to The Spectator, Assistant Vice President for Marketing and Communications Angela Burrows stated, “The university cannot comment on pending lawsuits or personnel matters.” Baumgartner and Wilson also declined to comment when reached via email.

The court documents read that Soboleski “hereby demands relief in the form of economic damages, compensatory damages, punitive damages, equitable relief, attorneys’ fees and costs, and such other relief as the court deems appropriate.” It also claims Soboleski has suffered “economic harm, emotional distress, mental anguish, and loss of reputation.”

Sunshine R. Fellows of the Levicoff Law Firm, who are representing Soboleski in the lawsuit, provided the following statement to The Spectator:

“Coach Soboleski has enjoyed tremendous success as Edinboro University’s head volleyball coach. Now in her 12th season, she has led her team to eight NCAA Division II Atlantic Region playoff berths, along with trips to the PSAC Playoffs seven times. She ranks second all-time in career wins. Unfortunately, despite her impressive experience, unwavering dedication and many outstanding professional achievements, Coach Soboleski is paid substantially less than her similarly situated male counterparts for equal work. Coach Soboleski has been attempting to work with University officials to correct gender-based pay disparities within the athletic department for over three years. Regrettably, her concerns have not been adequately addressed, and she is now pursuing resolution of the issue in federal court.

“This lawsuit is meaningful not only for Coach Soboleski, but for female coaches across the nation, especially those at universities that receive Title IX funding. A strong judgment could send a much needed message that discrimination driven by sexism will not be tolerated in college athletics. Suing one’s current employer is an understandably daunting task. Fear of reprisal and retaliation quiets many who would otherwise raise legitimate concerns. We applaud Coach Soboleski’s courage and strength in bringing the issue of pay discrimination to light, and are incredibly proud to be representing this remarkable woman.” 

Dakota Palmer can be reached at eupnews.spectator@gmail.com.

Tags: lawsuit

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