NEW YORK – A jury might conclude that a white former college basketball coach was fired because he was married to a black woman, a federal appeals court said Tuesday as it reinstated a lawsuit that had been dismissed by a judge.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan restored the lawsuit brought by former Iona College basketball assistant coach Craig Holcomb against the school, finding a jury might say he was fired in part due to his wife's race.
The appeals court said Holcomb was entitled to try to prove Iona was motivated by his interracial marriage when it fired him. The college has maintained the firing had nothing to do with race and Holcomb was fired in an overhaul of a poorly performing team.
The three-judge appeals panel wrote that it was the first time it had concluded that an employer can violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by taking action against an employee because of association with a person of another race. Three other appeals courts nationwide have made the same ruling.
Holcomb was hired by Iona as an assistant coach for the men's basketball team in 1995. He was named associate head coach in 1998 after the school hired Jeff Ruland, a former NBA All-Star, as its coach. The team won the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference in 1998, 2000 and 2001 and won a berth each year in the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament.
Holcomb was fired along with another coach in 2004. In a $2 million lawsuit, Holcomb said two of five college officers responsible for his firing had racially inspired motives and a desire to help fundraising among Iona's mostly white alumni, the appeals court said.
A federal judge in White Plains dismissed the lawsuit before trial, saying Holcomb had not established facts linking the alleged racist tendencies to the administration's evaluation of the basketball program.
Holcomb married a black woman, Pamela Gauthier, in June 2000, and Ruland began a relationship in 2001 with a black woman who was her friend, the appeals court said. In his lawsuit, Holcomb outlined examples of racially charged behavior by the school.
The appeals court wrote that he said when he asked one of the college officers if he had received his wedding invitation in February 2000, the man replied by asking him if he was "really going to marry that Aunt Jemima?"
The appeals court noted that the officer insisted the accusation was ridiculous.
The appeals court wrote that at this early stage of the litigation, "these circumstances are more than sufficient to support an inference that Holcomb was terminated on the basis of his interracial marriage."
The appeals court said the fact Ruland, who was also in an interracial relationship, was not fired does not "allay the suspicion that the firings were grounded in an illegitimate motive," especially since firing Ruland would have cost the school a lot of money.
"We emphasize that Holcomb has adduced little evidence to suggest that he was terminated solely because his wife was black," the appeals court wrote. "But he needs only to prove that the decision was partly so motivated to prevail on the ultimate merits of his claim."
A lawyer for the school did not immediately return a telephone message for comment Tuesday.
Holcomb lawyer Jeffrey Udell said his client now teaches health and physical education at a high school in Westchester County.
"He's very pleased with the decision and looking forward to having his day in court and being vindicated," Udell said. "He's looking forward to having the truth come out."