Former Cal athlete allowed to sue her coach and university in a 'precedent-setting case'

A California state appeals court has now ruled that a sexual harassment lawsuit against Cal Women's Soccer Coach Neil McGuire and UC Regents can move forward. 

The plaintiff Renee Thomas played soccer for Cal Soccer as a freshman and then, in 2019, she and four other non-scholarship players were released from the team. She filed a lawsuit against the coach and the school.  

Court documents allege that he "degraded" the entire team, "belittled the physique of one player in front of the team and called her ‘weak’ despite her compliance with the training program, made unwelcome and inappropriate comments about players’ bodies," and "berated a young woman for having what he perceived as a hickey on her."

The case was dismissed at the federal level and was then refiled at the state level. It was then dismissed by an Alameda County judge who said there was no evidence that Thomas had been sexually abused or defrauded. 

However, in a 2-1 decision, the 1st District Court of Appeals just reinstated the case allowing her to sue, saying "To plead a cause of action for sexual harassment in the form of a hostile environment, it is only necessary to show that gender is a substantial factor in the discrimination, and that if the plaintiff had been a man she would not have been treated in the same manner."

Thomas's attorney Dan Siegel says that the 82-page ruling reframes the issue of sexual harassment in cases that don't involve a workplace, but instead include situations where there is an athlete and a coach, or a student and a professor, saying "they wrote a decision which in the future will be cited by thousands of women who allege that they suffered sexual harassment or some version of that in their interactions at a school or university or in a business relationship or many others, as the court says, analogous, relationships."

It is a decision that Siegel says establishes a precedent that will be used in thousands of cases moving forward.

Thomas was one of more than two dozen players who spoke to KTVU as part of a yearlong investigation into the treatment of players by McGuire and the university.

"It wasn't an issue of a yeller, it was emotional and mental abuse because he treated some girls, so poorly they started coming depressed and mentally not stable," Thomas told KTVU.

Multiple players said they had to seek therapy and even medication to deal with the stress and anxiety that McGuire created among the team. 

Former Cal player Indigo Gibson was a starter and an All-American athlete from 2014 to 2018. She wrote in a letter to KTVU that to this day "it is the fear of Neil that sticks out in my head."

Hannah Koski went to Cal on a scholarship in 2013. She describes verbal abuse, conversations that left the team in tears, and being punished for standing up to McGuire when she disagreed with him. 

"I'm mentally tough and this was the first time I had been broken down," she said. She ended up quitting after what she described as emotional abuse, because "I was so scared of this man." 

Several players say they went to the university for help, but call the response unsatisfactory.  Multiple players told KTVU they reached out to athletic department heads, the Office for Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination, the NCAA, and UC Regents. They believe Cal never took those reports seriously. 

At the time of our 2020 investigation, Thomas was still hoping for a chance to play on the Cal women's soccer team. She has since graduated from college and is pursuing a career in the medical field. 

Her lawyer says Thomas is "excited about the fact that we won, [and] is eager to move forward."

U.C. Berkeley Womens soccer team player Renee Thomas

"She is also moving forward with her life…it is one thing to be a freshman now, she's a graduate. Now she is thinking about a career in medicine, becoming a physician…she has her life ahead of her…fortunately, I think it is great that her life has not stopped while she recovers from her treatment by Neil McGuire and others at Cal," said Seigel.

The next step in the case will be to set a trial date. 

When it comes to the case, Seigel and Thomas will "have to prove it, and we will, by showing that male coaches do not treat male athletes the same way that some of these coaches treat female athletes, that there there's a style of their behavior which is typical of the ways in which men bully women."

Neil McGuire has been the head coach of the women's soccer team for 17 years. In 2022, Cal renewed McGuire’s contract through January 2026 and raised his annual base salary by 17%, to $180,000.

KTVU reached out to UC Berkeley for comment and was told by a university spokesperson that they do not have a comment on this case at this time.