Katie Brenny was behind the wheel when her attorney Don Mark called March 18 to deliver the news. A ruling finally had been delivered in the sexual-discrimination trial that Brenny brought against her former employer, the University of Minnesota. It was overwhelmingly in Brenny’s favor.
“I pulled over and I burst into tears,” she told Golfweek on March 20 in her first media interview. “So vindicating.”
Nearly three years after Brenny brought a lawsuit alleging the school had fired her as women’s golf coach after learning she is a lesbian, she was awarded a maximum of $359,000 by Judge Thomas Sipkins of Hennepin County District Court in Minneapolis.
Brenny, a native Minnesotan and former state amateur champion who had played at Wake Forest, was hired Aug. 30, 2010, on a one-year contract worth $44,000. She resigned two months into the job, claiming that her role had been reduced to administrative functions and that she was prohibited from traveling with the team. She sued the university and former director of golf John Harris on Jan. 12, 2011, alleging sexual bias and citing the Minnesota Human Rights Act. The university and Harris denied Brenny’s allegations.
Harris, a former U.S. Amateur champion and a legendary figure in Twin Cities sports, ultimately resigned and subsequently was dropped as a defendant in the lawsuit.
A message left by Golfweek on Harris’ cellphone had not been returned.
The university released a statement March 19 acknowledging Sipkins’ ruling: “With due respect to the court, we are disappointed with the decision and will closely review the findings, conclusions and order, and determine the appropriate next steps.”
An appeal is possible, though Brenny’s attorney said it would be difficult.
“My read of the decision,” Mark told Golfweek in a phone interview, “is there’s certainly nothing for them to appeal.”
In his ruling, Sipkins wrote that Brenny was singled out by Harris and subjected to disparate treatment because of her sexual orientation. The judge wrote that the case turned “on the credibility of the witnesses and the totality of the circumstances.” Brenny’s award consists of $334,000 for lost wages and $25,000 for mental anguish. She also can seek to recover her attorney fees. Still, to Brenny, the case was not about money but rather closure. That she received from Sipkins’ ruling.
“He totally nailed it,” Brenny said. “He listened.
“To be able to tell my story was a really big deal for me. That job at the U, it was something I thought I was going to be there forever,” said Brenny, a former state champion at Little Falls (Minn.) High School. “I thought this was going to be such a great opportunity, but it turned out to be a nightmare.”
The nine-day trial in Hennepin County District Court took a physical and emotional toll on Brenny, 33, who now serves as manager of special projects and outcomes for The First Tee of Metropolitan New York. She delivered 10 hours of testimony that she conceded was as exhausting as it was therapeutic. Brenny’s parents, Richard and Sally, plus two aunts, a sister and a brother-in-law remained by her side throughout the trial.
Though Brenny served as the primary witness, women’s golfers who were at the university while Brenny was on staff also testified on her behalf, as well as local expert witnesses. Upon hearing of Brenny’s story, legendary tennis player Billie Jean King also gave a pre-trial deposition on Brenny’s behalf. In the days before Brenny’s case went to trial in November, the defense offered a settlement, which King persuaded Brenny to decline. Brenny later conceded that she knew she would never be happy knowing she had settled.
“This whole thing turned into a much bigger deal than just me,” Brenny said. “It’s really great for the college athletic community.”
Brenny had called the University of Minnesota coaching position her dream job, but says she won’t rush to return to college coaching. For now, she’s happy growing the game in New York. The First Tee’s Girls Golf and FORE initiative that she created is designed to empower young female golfers – and she says is going strong. It has grown to five locations in the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut area, and for the second time this summer, Brenny will cart a vanload of young girls to walk the grounds at the U.S. Women’s Open.
“The experience that I had at the University of Minnesota, it stripped me of my confidence,” Brenny said. “I have grown over the last three years to regain that confidence and realize that I’m not the person they made me out to be. It took a long time.”
Brenny recently added to her plate a high-school coaching position at Westfield (N.J.) High School. It’s been bittersweet, knowing what could have been.
“It’s my true love, and I don’t know that I could rush back to college coaching,” she said. “… It makes me see that I would have made such a good coach.”