Former coach wages her own title fight

Case heads to trial against Brandeis

Mary Sullivan, fired by Brandeis after 32 years, now works on a lobster boat. Mary Sullivan, fired by Brandeis after 32 years, now works on a lobster boat. (David L. Ryan/ Globe Staff)
By Maureen Mullen
Globe Correspondent / October 25, 2009

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On a recent rainy morning, Mary Sullivan looked out from her living room across the harbor in Marshfield to the Edna Grace, a 40-foot lobster boat she and her husband, Richie, would be working. But an impending northeaster had the Edna Grace battened down. The boat and working on the water - her therapy and livelihood for most of the last three years - are poor substitutes for what Sullivan would prefer to be doing.

But that was taken away abruptly when she was fired from her coaching and teaching jobs at Brandeis University in Waltham - positions she held for more than 30 years - in July 2006. Sullivan filed an age-discrimination claim with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination that September, and nearly three years later received notice that the state board had found probable cause for her case to proceed.

“It gives me some hope. It makes me feel a lot better,’’ said Sullivan.

When she was fired by Brandeis she was 54, having completed her 32d year at the university, whose student-athletes compete at the Division 3 level.

“I was and I wasn’t’’ surprised at the MCAD’s ruling, said Sullivan. “I’m the type, since [the firing] happened, ‘Oh, everything’s going to go against me.’ But according to my lawyers and other people I spoke with, I had a lot of good information and good stuff, that they should definitely find in my favor.’’

Sullivan had been at the forefront of the fight to implement the 1972 federal law, known as Title IX, requiring gender equity in every educational program that receives federal funding. At Brandeis, she started a women’s volleyball program, took the softball team to the varsity level, served as the assistant basketball and swim coach, and taught in the physical education department.

The irony is not lost on Sullivan, who finds herself once again battling discrimination, but this time under Title VII, the 1967 federal law that prohibits age discrimination in the workplace.

“Sometimes I think, what was all that fighting for if these things can still happen?’’ Sullivan said. “And in one of my letters from one of my [former players], she says, ‘Coach was there doing all that fighting for us and to turn around and do this, where’s the justice?’ And it makes you think, what was it all for?’’

At the time of her termination, Sullivan’s softball team had just completed a 20-24 season, not a winning year but much improved over the 9-26 record the Judges had posted the previous spring. Sullivan was replaced by Jessica Johnson, then age 30, according to the MCAD ruling. Johnson inherited four top incoming players Sullivan had recruited along with several strong veterans, according to Sullivan.

“The things that are really working in her favor is the fact that she was there so long, had such a good rapport with the alumni, the student body, the other people there,’’ said Harold Lichten, Sullivan’s lawyer. “The year they terminated her she had actually won [20] games, and had done a really great recruiting job, had met all the goals they had set for her, and yet they still terminated her.

“I personally think they were hoping she would fail, but she didn’t and they terminated her anyway. She did have a bad year, the team won-loss ratio was bad the year before she was terminated, and they said ‘You really have to step things up.’ She did step things up, she had a really good year, good recruiting year, excellent record . . . and they still fired her, which made no sense to me.’’

After finding probable cause for Sullivan’s age discrimination complaint in July, the MCAD required a conciliation conference. The two sides met in August but failed to reach a settlement.

“In fact, back when she left the university she was offered a severance package at one point, and she turned it down,’’ said Brandeis spokesman Dennis Nealon, its executive director of media and public affairs. “We’re going ahead with the case as it is.’’

The school maintains that Sullivan - who says she was offered two months’ salary - was terminated for failing to meet established standards.

“We believe that the evidence will show that there has been no discriminatory conduct here at all, whatsoever, and that the decision in her case was made on merit alone,’’ Nealon said.

The case is in its discovery phase - with lawyers on both sides taking depositions, subpoenaing documents - on the way to a trial by the state commission, which “has the same jurisdiction that a court has to hear and decide these cases,’’ said Lichten. “It’s just a little bit more efficient and a little bit less expensive for her. . . . they can award damages, and everything a court could do.’’

Along with her job, Sullivan said, she lost her medical benefits, just as her husband started having serious health issues. First it was spinal stenosis, then malignant melanoma, and this summer an infection that led to a buildup of fluid in his body and lungs, causing congestive heart failure. He’s doing better, he said, but “Mary’s pretty much running the boat now.’’

Sports have been Sullivan’s life for nearly all her life. A Somerville native, she played Little League baseball as a child, “until my brother squealed that I was a girl,’’ she said. At St. Clement High School, she played four years of varsity basketball, the only sport available to girls at the time. She played basketball and softball at Boston State College before getting the coaching jobs in both sports at St. Clement while still a college junior. After graduation from Boston State, she played for nearly 20 years on a fast-pitch softball team in Medford, where she settled after getting married.

The Sullivans never had children, but she considers her former players her “kids,’’ which, she said, makes her situation even more difficult. She received the news of her termination from Brandeis athletic director Sheryl Sousa, who had been a two-sport captain for Sullivan as an undergraduate at the Waltham school. Sullivan attended Sousa’s wedding, but has not spoken to her since that meeting more than three years ago.

“It’s the university’s prerogative, I guess, but also you have to consider her loyalty to the university, her dedication,’’ said Mari Levine, one of the captains on Sullivan’s final softball team in 2006. “I was kind of disappointed they couldn’t have worked it out to kind of give her her due. And really, to me, it just showed a lack of loyalty and as a member of her team for four years I knew how much she dedicated herself to the program.’’

Sullivan thought about finding another teaching or coaching job, “but now they’ve changed all the rules,’’ she said, and she would have to take classes “in order to go back and teach in the high schools, which is crazy, because I’ve been teaching for 32 years. What’s changed?’’

So, instead she spends her days on the Edna Grace, and tries to find the silver lining in the storm clouds that have hovered for more than three years.

For one, she and her husband are “together a lot,’’ Sullivan said. “The good is being home with him and getting a lot more quality time. And a lot of the kids have come out of the woodwork. I’ve always been in touch with a lot of them. It’s unbelievable. If they’re in the area we meet for lunch, dinner. But a lot more of them came out, and that made me feel great, and they’re still doing it.

“I never solicited any of that. I didn’t call people and say ‘Hey, I was fired!’ but letters came in, phone calls came in, so that was great.’’

If Sullivan is successful in her fight, any monetary settlement will be helpful. But there’s more at stake, she said.

“My reputation has been compromised, and I want it back. That’s very important to me.’’