Former Ref Sues Tennis Association, Saying Male Officials Given Higher-Ranked Events

Laura Mattson also alleges wrongful discharge under a whistleblowing complaint.

Sept. 19, 2013 — -- A former tennis umpire and referee is suing the U.S. Tennis Association's Pacific Northwest Section, saying she was retaliated against for complaining that men typically officiate higher-ranked matches.

Laura Mattson, who became certified to umpire college tennis matches in 2010 and became a USTA referee in 2011, filed a lawsuit with the Oregon circuit court in Multnomah County earlier this month alleging gender discrimination, wrongful discharge under a whistleblowing complaint under state law and other charges.

She claimed the USTA "has a clandestine policy of discriminating against female umpires and referees," despite having a written policy forbidding gender discrimination when assigning officials to events, according to her complaint.

Mattson is seeking damages of $5.6 million plus attorney fees, and also reinstatement to her former position.

The USTA has not yet filed a response. In a statement to ABC News, the USTA's Pacific Northwest Division said that rather than discriminating, it promotes diversity.

"The USTA/PNW has a longstanding reputation of promoting an inclusive culture in which individual differences are respected and valued as qualities that strengthen our tennis communities and contribute to promoting and developing the growth of tennis at every level in our section," the statement read. "We are working with legal counsel to review the merits of this case."

According to Mattson, she was rejected because of her gender when she asked to work at particular high-ranking matches. In an email included in the lawsuit, one USTA supervisor allegedly responded to Mattson in 2010, "Here's my problem. Those Senior Men seem to have issues with female officials. It has nothing to do with any specific official...It just seems to work better with male umpires."

That employee wrote in the same email, "It's not necessarily 'right,' but that is how it is. I get lots of complaints from old men that aren't necessarily related to the officiating work being done...It's just a bunch of sexist old men."

In the lawsuit, Mattson said she was selected to officiate at several high school state finals tournaments.

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"Throughout the tournaments, [she] was assigned to umpire matches between lower division women players," the lawsuit said. "In contrast, less qualified male officials were selected over plaintiff to umpire matches between higher division male and female players."

Mattson complained about the discrimination when a supervisor "blatantly admitted" to selecting male officials over females for certain tournaments, she said.

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One supervisor defended the alleged discriminatory practice as a way "keeping players happy and their complaints to a minimum," the complaint alleged.

The employee, the complaint said, "explained that male players in certain age groups often complain about female officials being assigned to their games and specifically request men to be assigned to their games. The USTA's policy of favoring male officials was allegedly an attempt to please the players and avoid these complaint."

"I may not be one of the top tennis players in the country," Mattson said in a statement to ABC News, "but I am a damn good umpire and deserve the same opportunities as the men."

She included other examples in the lawsuit that she said showed gender discrimination. In one, she said she was reprimanded for wearing pants that were "too dark" and "had too many pockets," while at least two male umpires had "clear uniform violations, one of whom was wearing six-pocket pants."

Mattson said she was suspended for six months last year after failing to provide a detailed account of a disputed call she made at a match in February 2012 involving a coach for the University of Portland.

She "was devastated and reached out to a few officials for their input," according to the complaint, and she "was advised to lay low and let it go as she was against a powerful 'good old boys' network," the lawsuit stated.

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Mattson claimed she was "singled out for criticism for minor infractions because of her gender," according to the lawsuit, and that she was retaliated against "for standing up for her rights."

After the six-month suspension, Mattson was not assigned to events, nor notified of training opportunities, and was not allowed to have her certifications reinstated on the USTA website, her complaint said.

In her lawsuit, Mattson "reasonably estimates that she was denied access to 95 percent of the USTA events for the 2012-2013 season," and she was not assigned "for a single event until on or about August 15, 2013."

She claimed that "less qualified male individuals" were placed at the event she requested on Aug. 15.

Mitra Shahri, Mattson's attorney, said, "I read once that 'Sports don't build character, they reveal it.' That could not be more true with USTA. Our female tennis players have come so far because they were finally given a fair chance to compete, and this lawsuit is asking the same for our hard working female umpires."