Former Pitt wrestling coach Jason Peters has filed a federal lawsuit against the University of Pittsburgh for racial discrimination and termination without just cause after he was fired last January.
In the lawsuit, Peters claims Pitt violated his employment contract by firing him “without ‘just cause,’” according to a redacted version of the lawsuit filed Monday. The lawsuit also alleges racial bias, saying Peters, who is black, was “discharged and otherwise discriminated against on the basis of his race.”
A University spokesperson said Pitt does not comment on pending litigation.
Peters was fired from the position of head coach Jan. 19, 2017, amid controversy surrounding an incident which took place during winter break. While the team was competing in a tournament in Evanston, Illinois, local police responded to a call at a hotel from a 22-year-old man. He said one of his two 19-year-old friends had $100 stolen from him, and law enforcement said the suspects were three women whom the men had met on backpage.com — a now-defunct classified advertisement website popular among sex workers, which federal authorities seized in April as part of a sex trafficking investigation.
Law enforcement never released the identities of the three men, who chose not to pursue charges.
Pitt suspended Peters and three wrestlers on the team Jan. 13, 2017. Administration fired Peters Jan. 19, 2017, releasing a statement on the incident that same day linking Peters’ firing to the winter break incident in Illinois.
“On the morning of January 13, the Pitt Athletic Department became aware of an incident that took place during the wrestling team’s trip to Illinois for a competition on December 29-30,” the statement said. “An investigation was immediately launched and, while the details of that process will remain private, the university was compelled by its findings to make a change in the program’s leadership.”
Peters’ lawyer, John Stember, said that he doesn’t believe that Pitt had just cause to fire Peters.
“He had a contract with Pitt that, like [former Pitt basketball head coach Kevin] Stallings’ [contract], it said you can only be fired for just cause and we don’t think there’s just cause. We don’t think he really did anything wrong,” Stember said.
The complaint is heavily redacted because Pitt contends it includes confidential information, according to a supplementary statement regarding the redactions. Peters’ attorneys say he “does not believe there is sufficient … basis to withhold the identified information about the University of Pittsburgh, a public institution, from the public docket.”
In order to bring the case to a court, Peters’ attorneys redacted the supposedly confidential information — but the supplementary statement says Peters will “file an un-redacted on June 15,” unless Pitt obtains a protective order.
Information regarding “The Evanston Holiday Tournament,” as it is referred to in the complaint, is nearly all redacted. The complaint confirms that Peters traveled to Evanston in 2016 for the tournament and that he stayed in a room a floor above the team. The rest of the information regarding the tournament is withheld.
A section following the tournament, called “Post-Tournament Events,” is also heavily redacted. The only non-redacted point in the section says, “from January 5 through January 13, 2017, neither [then-senior associate athletic director Marcus] Bowman nor anyone else from the Athletic Department contacted Peters nor said anything further about events in Evanston.”
It is unclear from the redacted complaint what kind of contact Pitt and Peters had prior to Jan. 5.
The complaint says Bowman had given Peters “assurances,” but later “turned against [him],” in a Jan. 17 meeting in which Bowman allegedly said, “Peters had not ‘properly responded’ in Evanston.” Two days later, Peters received a termination letter which “alleged that Peters ‘intentionally withheld information’ and that Pitt had ‘just cause’ for termination,” according to the complaint.
Peters also alleges racial discrimination in the complaint, which says “Caucasian coaches at Pitt have not faced termination in similar situations …” It goes on to say “Caucasian coaches at Pitt involved in similar situations [redacted] have continued to be paid by the University.” The complaint also provides a redacted alleged instance of a Caucasian Pitt athletics employee who did not face termination in a situation involving “their own alleged misconduct.”
According to the complaint, Pitt “deprived Peters of a hearing and chance to respond” to the allegations against him. The complaint seeks for Pitt to reinstate Peters to his position as head coach or award front pay. It also requests “compensatory damages including … amounts for pain, suffering, embarrassment, [and] humiliation.”
Peters has not taken a job at another university since his firing. He is demanding a jury trial “on all claims so triable,” according to the complaint.