Tensions have run high ever since nine women associated with the basketball team filed discrimination lawsuits against the University of South Florida. The lawyers, in particular, have sniped at one another, both inside and outside the federal courthouse.
On Friday, U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday warned the lawyers to rise above the personal attacks and superfluous bickering and concentrate on their cases.
The judge did not threaten to sanction any of the lawyers, but he made it clear that he wanted them to be on their best behavior and to do what they could to resolve minor issues in the case.
He urged them to keep their eye on the big picture; spending too much time on peripheral issues only adds cost, individual anxiety and delay, Merryday said.
"It would become you to set a good example in your demeanor, in your (court filings) and in your comments inside and outside the court," Merryday told the attorneys.
Among the allegations in the lawsuit is that the former coach, Jerry Ann Winters, instituted segregated lodging on road trips and punished black players more harshly than white players.
The nine women who have filed suits are represented by attorney Jonathan Alpert. Thomas Gonzalez represents the university. John Goldsmith represents Winters, who was fired after the allegations arose but is fighting to get her job back.
Gonzalez has blasted Alpert for "trying the case in the media" and for changing his mind on exactly which defendants should be included in the suit. He said it's like trying to fire at a moving target.
Alpert has said that the university has been slow in handing over evidence. He has also said that he offered to settle all the suits for a total of about $300,000.
"They're not taking us seriously or they're disregarding any decent instincts," he said in August.
The lawyers were in court Friday to decide whether Alpert should be allowed to add USF President Judy Genshaft and the USF Foundation as defendants in Dione Smith's suit. Without the additions, Alpert argued, his client would not have access to the proper compensation if they won the suit.
Gonzalez said that the additions were not needed to meet that goal and would only act to further complicate the case. The judge did not make a ruling Friday. Whatever he decides, it will likely be applied to the other suits as well.
Merryday seemed agitated at times during the 90-minute hearing, once telling Alpert, "I'll talk. You listen."
The judge expressed concern that unless the lawyers refocus on the bigger issues in the case, Smith's April trial date would have to be delayed. The lawyers all assured him that they were eager to get the first trial under way and that they'll all do what they could to get the process moving.
_ Contact Graham Brink at (813) 226-3365 or brinksptimes.com.