Fired swim coach Teri McKeever preparing to sue UC Berkeley
Attorneys for former Cal and U.S. Olympic team swimming coach Teri McKeever are preparing to take the first steps toward filing a civil lawsuit against the university and possibly the Los Angeles-based law firm that conducted an eight-month investigation of McKeever that led to her firing Tuesday.
A formal complaint alleging gender discrimination and bias by the university will be filed with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing on McKeever’s behalf in the coming weeks, according to Thomas Newkirk, her attorney.
McKeever was fired after the university-commissioned investigation substantiated reports of bullying and discrimination based on race, disability and national origin over a period of decades first disclosed by the Southern California News Group last May.
In firing McKeever, who led the Golden Bears to four NCAA team titles during her 29-year career in Berkeley, Cal failed to consider allegations of gender discrimination and bias the former coach detailed in a formal complaint to the university last November, Newkirk said.
McKeever is also considering a lawsuit against Munger, Tolles & Olson, the law firm hired by Cal, for what Newkirk described as the attorneys’ failure to consider gender bias as a factor in the allegations against McKeever, to investigate the behavior of male coaches at Cal, and being negatively influenced by complaints made by McKeever and Newkirk to the university about the attorneys’ conduct of the investigation that Cal officials shared with the law firm.
Newkirk also took issue with Cal athletic director Jim Knowlton apologizing in a letter to Cal swimmers Tuesday explaining the decision to fire McKeever.
Current and former Cal swimmers as well as influential Cal boosters, and faculty members said that the university’s decision to fire McKeever did not go far enough. The swimmers allege that McKeever’s bullying and discrimination were enabled by Knowlton, Cal senior associate athletic director Jennifer Simon-O’Neill, a close, longtime friend of McKeever’s, and other university officials who repeatedly dismissed or ignored credible complaints of bullying and abuse.
“I was disturbed by what I learned in the course of reading through the report’s 482 pages that substantiate far too many allegations of unacceptable behavior,” Knowlton wrote in the letter to swimmers. “I want to apologize, on behalf of Cal Athletics, to every student-athlete who was subject to this conduct in the past, and I want to thank everyone who had the courage to come forward and share their story with the investigators.”
“Jim Knowlton, why he is apologizing to athletes when he knew how Teri coached the entire time he was there is beyond me,” Newkirk said. “It makes no sense.”
Knowlton has been Cal’s athletic director since May 2018.
“Jim Knowlton felt strongly that an apology was needed for conduct described in the report,” Dan Mogulof, Cal’s assistant vice chancellor, said in an email. “When the current leadership of Cal Athletics has been made aware of allegations that policies have been violated, or of complaints about employee behavior, they responded as a department, when appropriate, or referred the matter to appropriate campus investigative offices, consistent with policy.”
After interviewing 147 people and reviewing 1,700 documents, attorneys hired by the university found “by a preponderance of the evidence that Coach McKeever discriminated against certain student-athletes, in certain instances, on the basis of race, national origin and disability” creating a “hostile environment.” The report substantiated SCNG reporting in May that McKeever used the “n-word” in front of swimmers last spring.
The attorneys also found McKeever’s behavior “toward some, but not all, student-athletes in some instances was abuse and violated University policy.”
The investigation also found that McKeever routinely “used humiliating and belittling language that a reasonable person would find hostile, offensive, and unrelated to the University’s legitimate business interests.”
There is no financial settlement between McKeever and the university, according to a Cal spokesman. The investigation will cost the school approximately $2 million.
Under California law, litigants are required to obtain a “right to sue” notice from the CDFEH or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission before filing a civil lawsuit.
“The campus will be ready to defend a lawsuit in court, should the need arise,” Mogulof said.
A decision on the formal complaint McKeever filed with the university’s Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination in November is likely still months away, according to Newkirk.
“The campus doesn’t comment on specific OPHD complaints,” Mogulof said. “OPHD considers complaints pursuant to a uniform process.”
Newkirk said once Cal placed McKeever on paid administrative leave on May 25, the day after the initial SCNG report was published, and commissioned an investigation, the coach’s firing became inevitable.
“Once Cal pushed the button, once they said, ‘We will investigate,’ it became a train you can’t turn around,” Newkirk said. “Once you push the investigation button there’s nothing they can do.”
That investigation, Newkirk said, was conducted by the “wrong investigators.”
The McKeever probe was directed by Munger, Tolles & Olson attorneys Hailyn Chen and Lauren Bell.
Chen was one of the first female coxswains for the Yale varsity crew team and was named the program’s MVP in 1996. She is a graduate of UCLA Law School.
Bell joined the firm in March after previously working as senior counsel in the Justice Department’s criminal division. Bell has a B.A. in economics from Harvard and master’s and law degrees from Stanford.
“They were the wrong investigators because they had no sports context,” Newkirk said. “They had no knowledge of how gender influences not only complaints but responses to complaints. And they were personally involved.”
Newkirk said that it was “surprising that our complaint that was critical of the investigative team was sent to the investigative team by the university.”
Munger, Tolles & Olson did not respond to a request for comment.
Newkirk, who has represented fired college coaches in a number of high profile cases, said he generally discourages clients from suing individual athletes.
The focus, he said, should be on Cal.
“The university should have known better,” Newkirk said. “The adults in the room should have known better.
“A lot of coaches want to go after athletes. I tell them to keep their eyes on the prize, which is the university. If the university had a better protocol this never would have happened. If they had a better complaint protocol it would have been caught earlier and Teri would have learned from her mistakes earlier.”