Former athletic director Jaime Hoffman sues Occidental

Former Athletic Director Jaime Hoffman speaks to alumni, family, staff and students at the Occidental College Athletics Hall of Fame event, part of Homecoming weekend, Oct. 24, 2015 on Patterson Field. (Photo by Marc Campos, Occidental College Photographer)

This story is part of an ongoing series.

Jaime Hoffman, former Occidental athletics director, filed a lawsuit against Occidental College and President Jonathan Veitch Sept. 24.

Hoffman, who has been employed by Occidental since 2005, is suing the college as a corporation and Veitch as an individual on 16 causes of action. The allegations include harassment and discrimination on the basis of gender, sexual orientation and disability; intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress; failure to prevent, investigate or remedy discrimination, harassment or retaliation; and wrongful termination.

“Let’s put it this way, this certainly was not the preferred method of action,” Hoffman said. “I am suing Oxy to initiate change. I have been silenced within this community by the administration. As a gay woman, I feel as though Oxy has failed me. As a woman with a disability, Oxy has failed me. And by telling my story I feel as though perhaps folks will be held accountable and that may inspire change.”

Marty Sharkey, vice president of marketing and communications, offered a public statement on behalf of Occidental College Oct. 1.

“Respect, together with equity, fairness, compassion and an adherence to process are key principles that guide the College and have been paramount in our actions involving Jaime,” the statement said. “While we respect Jaime’s right to tell her story, the actions taken by the College are mischaracterized, and we would like to provide pertinent aspects of this matter for the community’s understanding.”

According to Director of Human Resources Danita Maxwell, Hoffman has not been terminated from Occidental, but she cannot return to her position as athletics director. Hoffman received a phone call from Maxwell Aug. 17 informing her that she would not be returning as athletics director. According to Maxwell, Hoffman is not on the payroll and will no longer receive benefits from the college. Hoffman said that during the Aug. 17 phone call with Maxwell, she was told the benefits for her and her daughter would end in two weeks and that she had 60 days to move out of her current house, which is provided to her by the college.

The lawsuit, filed in the Los Angeles Superior Court by Gunn Coble LLP, maintains that the defendants violated the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), the primary state law that provides employees with protection from discrimination, retaliation and harassment in work environments.

Hoffman took a leave of absence for undisclosed medical reasons in October 2017. The lawsuit alleges that her leave also resulted from the cumulative effect of unmitigated sexist and homophobic harassment toward her as well as the college’s failure to protect her.

Sept. 25, Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students Rob Flot said that Hoffman has not been terminated or fired and remains on a leave of absence. Flot, who is also the interim athletic director, sent a campus-wide email Sept. 28 with details about the search process for a new athletic director. Flot and associate kinesiology professor Marci Raney are the co-chairs of the newly formed committee responsible for reviewing candidate applications for the athletic director position.

The announcement of the search process set off an uproar among faculty, according to Critical Theory & Social Justice (CTSJ) professor Mary Christianakis.

“The faculty were really shocked, and so I sent out a letter saying ‘Hey, what’s going on?'” Christianakis said. “We never used to do this as a community, this kind of administration where you throw someone away and make them disposable because you don’t want to meet their accommodations and you’ve deemed them unreasonable based on largely subjective criteria. I think [this] is a new kind of practice and largely leveraged against women.”

According to Flot’s Sept. 28 email, there will be three public listening sessions for the campus community to provide feedback about the qualities of potential athletic director candidates. These sessions will take place in the Morrison Lounge of the JSC noon–1:00 p.m. Oct. 12, noon–1:00 p.m. Oct 16, and 3:00–4:00 p.m. Oct. 17.


‘Completely sold on Oxy’

Hoffman said she did not always have an adversarial relationship with the school. She started at Occidental as head women’s basketball coach in 2005, noting that interacting with student-athletes during her interview process drew her to the college.

“I felt like I was among the Ivy League with these student-athletes. Meeting with them was probably the most challenging part of the day, they were so thoughtful,” Hoffman said. “I was sold. I was completely sold on Oxy after that lunch with 10 student-athletes.”

Then-College President Susan Prager asked Hoffman to serve as interim athletics director in 2007. Six months later, Prager appointed Hoffman as permanent athletics director. According to a statistic from Women Leaders in College Sports cited in the lawsuit, the athletic director position is rare for women. In 2018, only 269 of 1,101 athletic directors at NCAA-governed schools are women.

According to the lawsuit, the hostile work environment Hoffman experienced at Occidental began after the termination of former football coach Dale Widolff. In 2013, Widolff was involved in an NCAA recruiting violation which subsequently resulted in the football program being placed on probation for two years, according to the NCAA public infractions report. Veitch, the board of trustees and Hoffman made a joint decision to terminate Widolff’s contract, as any further violation of NCAA rules could have resulted in Occidental losing its ability to play any NCAA sport, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit alleges that although this decision was collective, Veitch characterized Widolff’s termination as Hoffman’s decision, “consciously scapegoating” her.

After Widolff’s termination, Hoffman said she complained to Veitch and then-Director of Human Resources Richard Ledwin about sexist and homophobic harassment on Occidental-sponsored websites, including comments with slurs such as “dyke,” “bitch,” and “witch” as well as an email from an alumnus that said “she made him sick,” according to the lawsuit.

The college’s statement provided by Sharkey said that Veitch sent emails last fall to football players, parents and alumni backing Jaime. The statement said that Veitch’s emails read, “Let me be clear: Jaime Hoffman has my full support. I believe she has the skills, vision and commitment needed to move us forward.”

Veitch referred any comments to Sharkey’s statement.


Claims of ‘benign neglect’

In 2014, Hoffman presented a strategic plan for the athletics department to Veitch, according to the lawsuit. Hoffman raised concerns in the plan about the safety of Occidental’s football program, including the small size of the football roster and the likelihood of injured players. The lawsuit alleges that Veitch responded with “benign neglect” and failed to authorize resources needed to change the football program or other athletic programs lacking support.

The lawsuit alleges that overall “benign neglect” from the Occidental administration is a primary cause of the faltering of the football program in the Fall 2017 season.

“We had a football coach that left in July of 2017. There had been a number of players that quit, so the roster size was going to be low. I met with senior leadership at Oxy to talk about the potential for safety issues. We established a protocol to look at the football roster each week, after each game, to determine if it would be safe to put a team on the field,” Hoffman said. “After the first game, given injuries and a diminishing roster, it was clear that we could not produce a safe environment or situation for the team.”

In mid-September, with only 36 eligible football players remaining, Hoffman met with then-Interim General Counsel Rachel Cronin, head athletics trainer Joe Gonzalez, head football coach Rob Cushman and Veitch, who unanimously decided to cancel the game scheduled for Sept. 16, 2017, according to the lawsuit. Hoffman asked the administration to participate in delivering the message to the football team to demonstrate that the decision was made collectively, but the lawsuit alleges that Veitch refused.

Hoffman announced the cancellation of the Sept. 16 football game in a meeting with the football team Sept. 14 — she was joined by Cushman, Gonzalez, Flot and Vice President for Equity and Inclusion Rhonda Brown, according to the lawsuit.

Gonzalez and Brown declined to comment. Cushman and Cronin did not respond to interview requests. Flot would only discuss the ongoing search process to fill the athletic director position and referred all additional questions about Hoffman to Human Resources and Sharkey’s statement.

The lawsuit listed the Sept. 14 meeting as one of the reasons that Veitch is being sued as an individual — alleging that Veitch was aware of traumatic events in Hoffman’s childhood, and that despite this knowledge, he chose to send her into a potentially aggressive male environment (the Sept. 14 meeting) without his presence.

“That meeting was followed up by relentless attacks from parents, alums, and players, on social media, all over the place,” Hoffman said. “Parents [of football players] wrote a letter to the board of trustees declaring that I was unfit for the position, referencing my partner, and widely distributed this letter. While I was enduring these attacks, the leadership at Oxy did nothing to address it or condemn it. In fact, they acknowledged it to me, the sexism and homophobia, but did nothing to condemn it.”

According to Sharkey’s statement, the college hired an external investigator in October 2017 to examine Hoffman’s concerns.

“This investigation involved interviews with Jaime as well as ten additional witnesses and a review of numerous documents, and concluded that the conduct did not constitute gender or sexual orientation harassment,” the statement said.

The college provided Hoffman with increased security such as regular patrols by Campus Safety and a security camera installed at her house, according to the statement; the statement did not specify when this increased security was provided.


Accommodations versus essential functions of the job

Hoffman said she attempted to return from her leave of absence in July 2018, with specific accommodations prescribed by her doctor. She met with Maxwell, Flot and Human Resources Manager of Benefits and Compensation Karen Salce to discuss her proposed accommodations July 23.

The accommodations, presented at the July 23 meeting, included a flexible in-office schedule to accommodate health-related appointments, installation of a “panic button” at her desk prior to the start of the football practice season, delegation of the responsibility for handling in-person interactions with football student-athletes and members of the football community to an assistant athletic director, accompaniment by a senior administrative staff member at administrative meetings and a security escort for her and her family to attend football games, according to the lawsuit.

Under FEHA, it is unlawful for employers to fail to identify and provide reasonable accommodations for a known physical or mental disability of an employee.

“They’re required by law to engage in an interactive process when someone has a doctor’s note suggesting a disability and accommodations, and not once did they come back to me with alternative accommodations,” Hoffman said. “There was a meeting on the 23rd, and the next time they talked about my accommodations was when they fired me.”

According to the college’s statement, the college engaged in an interactive process with Hoffman but ultimately decided that Hoffman’s accommodations would not allow her to perform essential functions of the athletic director position.

Maxwell said the college could not meet all the accommodations Hoffman asked for, but added that Hoffman’s employment status is active, meaning she still has access to the gym, the library and her Oxy email.

Hoffman said that the real missed opportunity in her experience with Occidental College is in the conscious inaction by the administration.

“I want the student body to carry this and to hold people accountable and not accept the status quo,” Hoffman said. “Demand for change, because these dynamic women on campus deserve better.”

Sharkey said that the college has 30 days from the filing of the lawsuit to file a formal response with the court.

Julian Willnow contributed to the reporting of this article.