U fights $5,000 penalty in Brenny case

Former women’s golf coach Katie Brenny is seeking compensation for legal fees resulting from her 2011 discrimination lawsuit.

Nate Gotlieb

The University of Minnesota argued in Hennepin County Court last Tuesday against paying $5,000 for mishandling text messages as part of a 2-year-old discrimination lawsuit filed by former women’s golf coach Katie Brenny.

Brenny sued the University’s Board of Regents and former director of golf John Harris in January 2011, alleging that the University and Harris violated her rights as a member of a protected class under the state Human Rights Act. The lawsuit claims that Harris did not allow Brenny to perform the role of associate head coach and relegated her to administrative duties once he found out she was a lesbian.

The text messages in question might have contained evidence in Brenny’s case against the University and Harris, according to Brenny’s lawyer, Donald Chance Mark Jr.

“We wanted to look at what discussions Mr. Harris had had regarding Katie Brenny and particularly her sexual orientation,” Mark said.

The University disagreed that the text messages were pertinent to the case.

“We had already examined the cellphone and determined that there was no relevant evidence about this case on it,” University General Counsel Mark Rotenberg said.

Mark had asked the University to preserve evidence for the case, including Harris’ text messages, in December 2010. He said the University didn’t originally object to his request.

Mark said he later submitted two requests for documents, which included specific requests for Harris’ text messages.

He said the University objected to his first request for the text messages and responded to his second request by saying it had produced all relevant evidence.

Mark said the University didn’t tell him the data on Harris’ phone had been erased until September 2012.

“It’s inappropriate to destroy evidence, particularly when you’ve been put on notice to preserve it,” Mark said.

A specially appointed judge ruled last month that because the University had wiped data from Harris’ phone, it should pay Brenny’s $5,000 legal fees as a punishment.

University Associate General Counsel Brent Benrud objected to the $5,000 penalty during last Tuesday’s hearing, arguing that the phone had already been examined and found not to contain relevant evidence.

While Rotenberg conceded that erasing the phone’s memory had been a mistake, he disagreed with the claim that the University destroyed evidence.

“We should have kept the phone,” he said. “But that is not the same thing as destroying relevant evidence.”

Harris hired Brenny, 32, as associate women’s head golf coach in August 2010.

In mid-September 2010, the University gave Brenny a new job description that essentially stripped her of coaching duties.

Brenny met with then-athletics director Joel Maturi the next month. Maturi allegedly gave her two choices: to quit or comply with Harris’ demands. Brenny resigned in late October 2010 and sued the University’s Board of Regents and Harris three months later.

The suit hasn’t gone in Brenny’s favor thus far.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled in May 2012 that Brenny couldn’t sue Harris because his actions fell within his duties as a University employee. Brenny did not appeal the decision.

Last month a judge threw out Brenny’s claims of sexual harassment, gender discrimination and retaliation. Only the sexual orientation part of the suit remains intact.

A civil trial is scheduled to begin April 29, but Mark said the suit could go on for a while.

“I’m not optimistic it’s going to end anytime soon,” he said.