Lawsuit Against Outgoing Athletic Director Hickey Details Alleged Sexism, Title IX Violations

Lawsuit Against Outgoing Athletic Director Hickey Details Alleged Sexism, Title IX Violations

By Luke Pickett, Reporter

Following her 17th season as head coach of women’s basketball at Eastern Washington University, Wendy Schuller felt that she was more than qualified for the vacant Senior Women’s Administrator position at EWU. 

Instead, her direct superior, athletic director Lynn Hickey, told her “not to bother,” even applying for the position, according to court documents. 

That event in May of 2018 turned out to be a mere precursor of the alleged unfair treatment of Schuller and women’s athletics for the following three years, Schuller said in a lawsuit against EWU.

In her 20 years as head coach of women’s basketball at EWU, Schuller upheld a resume that made her the all-time winningest coach in EWU women’s basketball history and the 4th all-time winningest coach in Big Sky women’s basketball history. In the peak of her coaching career, she was named the 2010 Big Sky Coach of the Year, and coached EWU’s women’s basketball team to four post-season appearances, including the only two post-season wins in EWU’s history. After Hickey became the Eastern’s athletic director in 2018, Schuller coached her worst three seasons at EWU before being abruptly fired in 2021.

Now, Schuller claims ageism, sexism, Title IX violations and more against her former boss in her $5 million federal discrimination lawsuit against EWU and Hickey. 

“Defendant Hickey’s discriminatory animus toward female athletes is evidenced by her own comments disparaging EWU’s female athletes,” Schuller’s 45-page Spokane County Court complaint reads.

EWU and Hickey announced she will be leaving Eastern at the end of May. The university and Hickey declined to comment on this story. Alexandria Drake, Schuller’s lawyer, declined to comment on the behalf of Schuller and Dunn & Black, PS. 

“I am sorry, but at this time I cannot respond to your questions for EWU does not comment on matters that are in litigation,” Hickey said in a response to an interview request. 

Administration Changes

When longtime athletic director Bill Chaves left Eastern for the same position at North Dakota in January of 2018, former EWU President Mary Cullinan hired Hickey to replace him. She was hired as the interim athletic director before she became the permanent Associate Vice President and Director of Athletics at EWU. Hickey had been in charge of the athletic department at the University of Texas at San Antonio for 18 years before coming to Eastern. 

Despite Schuller’s 17 years of coaching experience at EWU and previous experience as Senior Women’s Administrator at Northwestern State University before coming to Eastern in 2001, the lawsuit alleges that Hickey hired a younger woman candidate who had no coaching experience and only four years experience as a Senior Women’s Administrator at a different university. 

Schuller’s lawsuit states that she was discriminated against on the basis of sex, as she was paid far less than Men’s Basketball Head Coach Shantay Legans. At the time that both coaches signed their contracts in 2017, Schuller had been head coach at EWU for over 17 years, and Legans had never been head coach. Yet, according to Schuller’s claim, her contract provided a base pay of just “$110,000, which was $20,000 less than the $130,000 offered and paid to Legans.”

Further claims infer that, in the Fall of 2020, all EWU sports teams were asked to take a 30% budget cut.

Due to Hickey’s budgeting restrictions on the women’s basketball team, they had to pay for their own meals the night before games, and were often forced to take vans and taxis to games. Meanwhile, the men’s football team was permitted to take five expensive charter buses to transport the team and coaching staff for a single game, and EWU paid for the teams meals the night before and the day of games, according to the lawsuit.

Despite the alleged unfair allocation of funds, Schuller and the Women’s Basketball Team were excluded from discussions and matters regarding budgetary issues, and were not provided with any resources to cover budget overages, according to the lawsuit. 

Schuller’s lawsuit claims that Hickey’s distaste for female athletics had been expressed throughout the years. Hickey had allegedly been overheard by other unidentified EWU coaches stating she “hates girls and girl things – drama”, and that “people should learn to come straight to her if anything happens.” Hickey has also allegedly referred to EWU’s female athletes as “weak” and “whiners” who “complain too much.” 

When the University’s women’s volleyball and basketball teams identified the need for a new court due to the floor’s condition being inadequate and causing injury to female athletes, Schuller and coaches of the other affected female teams approached Hickey to petition for better facilities. 

Yet, despite many requests for guidance and assistance, Schuller and the women’s volleyball coach were denied and refused access to critical donors by Hickey, they say in the lawsuit. Instead, Hickey personally and actively engaged in fund-raising efforts to build a replacement football field, the lawsuit alleges. 

Title IX Violations

The lawsuit alleges that Hickey had a habit of retaliating against employees who complained of Title IX violations. 

Schuller’s lawsuit details that then EWU Women’s Soccer Coach, the late Chad Bodnar, who passed away suddenly in July of 2022, sought to address the disparity issue between men’s and women’s athletics on multiple occasions. In response, Schuller claims he was bullied and retaliated against by Hickey and Football Head Coach Aaron Best. 

According to the lawsuit, she emailed EWU’s weight room trainer to apologize to him for the inconvenience caused by Bodnar’s efforts to secure equal access for the women’s soccer team. She allegedly went on to email EWU coaches, suggesting that they needed to prove their loyalty by disavowing Bodnar’s complaints. In the email, Hickey stated she would “know who their leader is” if coaches did not agree. 

Days later, Hickey, Assistant Athletic Directors Sarah Adams and Devon Thomas emailed one another about how to get rid of Bodnar. Adams went on to propose that Hickey could “let him go ” due to the clause in Bodnar’s contract which allows EWU to terminate him early “for convenience,” the lawsuit alleges. 

“Or you can let him go when his contract expires in three months, either way he gets three months,” Adams’ email to Hickey stated. “Question is, what’s your threshold for tolerating this behavior, and his behavior is also influencing other individuals behavior.”

Ultimately, Hickey failed to renew Bodnar’s contract despite his unprecedented success at the helm of the women’s soccer team, according to court documents. Bodnar was let go in May of 2021. 

In February of 2019, Schuller reported domestic violence allegations involving EWU’s football players after one of her players told Schuller that she was extremely concerned about the safety of her close friend, who was dating an EWU Football player. After the player showed Schuller social media post evidence of the alleged abuse, she immediately walked down the hall to Hickey’s office to report what she had been told by her player, she said in the lawsuit. 

Allegedly, Best was then seen entering Hickey’s office, where he was presumably summoned for the purpose of discussing the allegations made against one of his star players. When Schuller followed up with Hickey a week later, Hickey was visibly annoyed at her concern and inquiry about the Title IX report, according to court files. 

Schuller claims that EWU and Hickey failed to appropriately investigate or discipline the football player. Instead, within weeks of the report, EWU and Hickey allegedly launched an aggressive PR campaign, which appeared to be designed to rehabilitate the image of the football player at issue.

Unlawful Termination

Following another Title IX report from Schuller to Hickey about members of the football team, Hickey allegedly failed to report or investigate the “rape” comments posted on Snapchat by some football players, the lawsuit claims. Instead, she allegedly referred to the incident as “kids being kids” and “joking around.” Hickey then allegedly retaliated more against Schuller, going out of her way to ignore her, the lawsuit says.

On March 16, 2021, Hickey notified Schuller that she wanted to meet with her the following day for a performance review. Hickey canceled the meeting at the last second. 

The day after receiving the final report of the Title IX Assessment Summary from an audit performed the preceding September, which confirmed that EWU needed to “review the administrative support for men’s and women’s basketball,” Hickey messaged Schuller that she wanted to reschedule her performance review for the following afternoon. 

On March 31, 2021, Schuller was terminated on the spot. Schuller claims that Hickey never once identified an issue with her performance as coach of the women’s basketball team. 

In her termination letter signed by Interim President David May, it allegedly stated that EWU “is exercising its authority pursuant to Article 8, Termination of Convenience to terminate your Employment Contract as Head Coach effective March 31, 2021, end of shift.”

Shortly after learning of Schuller’s firing, EWU Golf Coach Brenda Howe sent an email to the administration saying she believed Schuller had been terminated as a result of “retaliation, grudges, and poor leadership.”

During the Title IX audit, which started in September of 2020, Howe disclosed that Hickey also treated some of the older female coaches on staff in a condescending and hostile manner, specifically identifying Schuller as one of the targets.

Howe allegedly informed the auditor that the reason Schuller had not mentioned this during her own interview, was that she feared further hostility and retaliation from Hickey.

Howe’s email to administrators after Schuller’s termination further documents her shock and concern that her own comments during the Title IX Audit had been shared with Hickey. 

She noted that it “resulted in a meeting with (Hickey) telling me that I need to stay out of Wendy Schuller’s drama, and in a way, she tried to convince me that what I’m perceiving is not really the true perception of what is happening.”

As for further comments about Schuller’s lawsuit against Hickey and EWU in 2023, Howe declined to elaborate on Hickey’s mistreatment any further.

“At this time, while Lynn Hickey is still employed, I don’t feel comfortable talking about the lawsuit,” Howe told The Easterner.