Mistrial declared in former UL-Lafayette head football coach’s discrimination lawsuit _lowres

Advocate staff file photo by ARTHUR D. LAUCK -- Former UL-Lafayette head football coach Jerry Baldwin, as seen in 1999.

The firing of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette's first black head football coach in 2001 was motivated not by race but by his 6-27 record and a decline in attendance and income that threatened the future of the Ragin' Cajuns' program, an appeals court has ruled.

Jerry Baldwin's racial discrimination lawsuit, initially filed in 2003, was dismissed by state District Judge Tim Kelley, of Baton Rouge, in mid-2018 following a five-day judge trial.

A three-judge panel of the Baton Rouge-based state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal backed Kelley's decision on Feb. 21, saying his ruling was "reasonably supported by the record and should be affirmed."

"The trial court found that Baldwin failed to show that race was the true reason for his termination; rather, ULL terminated Baldwin because of his losing record, as well as declining attendance and income that was jeopardizing ULL's Division 1A status," Circuit Judge Toni Higginbotham wrote for the panel.

"After thoroughly reviewing the evidence presented, we cannot find any manifest error in the trial court's determination," Higginbotham added. She was joined on the panel by Circuit Judges Allison Penzato and Walter Lanier III.

Baldwin's attorney, former UL and NFL running back Karl Bernard, said Friday his client has two remaining options: end the long-running case or file an appeal with the Louisiana Supreme Court.

"We're contemplating and discussing the options," Bernard said.

Former UL President Ray Authement, who is white, hired and fired Baldwin.

Bernard had argued to Kelley that Authement is not a racist, but he said race “played a role” in his firing decision.

Baldwin was terminated after the third year of his four-year contract but was paid for the final year of the contract.

He claimed the university’s stated reasons for his firing were a pretext and a lie to cover up racial discrimination.

"No witness, other than Baldwin himself, indicated that they had seen or heard of any kind of racial issue while Baldwin was head coach," the 1st Circuit said.

UL has said Baldwin was terminated because of his poor overall record, a decline in football attendance and a drop in revenue, along with lackluster community support for the struggling football program that he inherited in 1999 from coach Nelson Stokley. He died in 2010.

Under Baldwin, UL's football team was 2-9 in 1999, 1-10 in 2000 and 3-8 in 2001.

Baldwin's case has had many twists and turns.

In 2007, an East Baton Rouge Parish jury found that university officials beached Baldwin's contract and awarded him $2 million. Jurors also decided race played a role in Baldwin’s firing but wasn't the sole reason for him losing his job.

The 1st Circuit threw out that verdict two years later — citing jury selection, verdict form and expert witness issues — and ordered a new trial.

State District Judge Todd Hernandez ruled in 2011 that UL acted within its contractual rights in firing Baldwin. The 1st Circuit later overturned the judge, but the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that the school did not violate Baldwin's contract.

A second East Baton Rouge Parish jury deadlocked in 2016 on the issue of whether Baldwin was fired because he is black, setting the stage for the third trial that Kelley presided over.

Baldwin, who worked as an assistant coach at Louisiana Tech and LSU before going to UL, is now a pastor at New Living Word Ministries in Ruston and principal of New Living Word School.

Email Joe Gyan Jr. at jgyan@theadvocate.com.