Judge Bounces Female Basketball Ref’s Civil Rights Suit

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Charles Toutant, New Jersey Law Journal

A female basketball referee’s discrimination suit claiming she is barred from officiating boys’ varsity basketball games based on gender has been dismissed after a federal judge ruled that a school district and basketball officials’ organization don’t amount to employers.

Tamika Covington claimed that the Central Jersey District Board 193 of the International Association of Approved Basketball Officials and the Hamilton Township Board of Education discriminate against women basketball referees in violation of Title VII the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD). Her suit was filed in July 2008.

On June 15, U.S. District Judge Freda Wolfson dismissed Covington’s federal claims and declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over her state-law claims. The judge granted Covington a 30-day tolling of the statute of limitations to refile the LAD claims in state court.

Covington claimed she possessed the proper certification and training to officiate boys’ varsity basketball games—an assignment that pays better than other games. Her suit said she was regularly assigned to boys’ varsity games elsewhere but not by Board 193, the body that assigns officials in Mercer County and neighboring areas.

Covington claimed Board 193 told her she lacked the requisite experience to handle boys’ varsity games, even though others with less experience were handed those assignments. Covington also claimed she was told, when she complained, that her skills were insufficient. The Hamilton school district, which pays referees’ wages, was accused of aiding and abetting the discrimination by Board 193.

U.S. District Judge Garrett Brown Jr. dismissed the case in 2010, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reinstated it in 2013, remanding to give Covington an opportunity to provide more facts in support of her claims.

The defendants later moved for summary judgment. Wolfson granted Hamilton’s motion for summary judgment on the civil rights claim after concluding that Covington is an independent contractor, not an employee, of the school district and therefore not subject to liability as an employer under Title VII.

The judge reached that conclusion after applying 13 factors from Nationwide Mutual Insurance v. Darden, a 1992 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Those factors include the duration of the relationship between the parties, the extent of the hired party’s discretion over work hours, the method of payment, and the provision of employee benefits.

Wolfson also granted Board 193’s motion for summary judgment on the civil rights claim after rejecting Covington’s assertion that the board is liable under a subsection of Title VII pertaining to employment agencies. To be considered an employment agency, Board 193 “must regularly undertake to procure opportunities for employees to work for an employer,” but the plaintiff failed to demonstrate that Board 193 ever undertakes such a task, Wolfson said.

“The only potential employer to which plaintiff has pointed is [the Hamilton Township Board of Education], which the court determined did not have an employer-employee relationship with plaintiff, but rather hired plaintiff as an independent contractor,” the judge said.

“Therefore, Board 193 cannot be held liable as an employment agency under Title VII and, thus, plaintiff’s discrimination claims premised on Board 193 being an employment agency must fail,” she added.

Wolfson declined to hear Covington’s LAD claims but said they could be refiled in state court.

Covington’s lawyer, David Zatuchni of Zatuchni & Associates in Lambertville, did not return a call about the ruling.

Neither did Anne McHugh of Pellettieri, Rabstein & Altman in Princeton, representing Board 193; or Gregory Giordano of Lenox, Socey, Formidoni, Giordano, Cooley, Lang & Casey in Lawrenceville, who represented the school district.

Contact the reporter at ctoutant@alm.com.

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