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Employment Law Do’s and Don’ts Regarding High School Coaches

By Lee Green, J.D. on April 06, 2021 hst Print

Employment Law Key Issues

Several legal claims leading to lawsuits typically arise related to the suspension or termination of coaches. The first issue is whether the coach was wrongfully punished or terminated – allegations are often made that the suspended or discharged plaintiff was deprived of due process or suffered a breach of their contracts to teach and/or coach.

The second common question is whether the plaintiff was discriminated against on the basis of protected class status related to race, color, ethnicity, religion, age, gender, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity.

A third concern is whether the suspended or discharged coach was defamed or sustained “false light publicity” (a release of information placing the individual in a false light in the public eye) during the process.

Another issue is whether the adverse action against the suspended or fired athletic personnel was in retaliation for protected “whistleblowing” actions by the plaintiff (e.g., the filing of a Title IX complaint regarding sports inequities or sexual harassment).

The following civil lawsuit, Anderson v. Oak Ridge Schools, litigated before a U.S. District Court in Tennessee, initially resulted in a March 18, 2019, $1.715 million jury award in favor of a coach who alleged he was deprived of due process, suffered a breach of contract, was discriminated against based on his age, was defamed, sustained false light publicity, and had been retaliated against when he was constructively discharged after 36 years of service as a chemistry teacher and head track coach at Oak Ridge High School. The school district tried to “appeal” by filing a motion for a JNOV (a Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict, in which the presiding judge overrules a jury’s decision) or, in the alternative, for a new trial. On January 30, 2020, the District Court issued a written ruling analyzing each of the coach’s claims in the case.

Anderson v. Oak Ridge Schools

In April 2015, Oak Ridge (Tennessee) High School chemistry teacher and head track coach Edward Anderson was suspended and demoted for misconduct related to a track meet in South Carolina to which he and three assistant coaches had taken the Oak Ridge team. Allegedly, Anderson failed to adequately communicate to parents the team’s travel plans for the meet, including the name of the hotel at which they would be staying, its location, meal plans for the student-athletes, and other details regarding the trip.

On the team’s night of arrival, with the meet scheduled for the next day, assistant coaches supposedly notified Anderson that the hotel was unsafe and that both drug-dealing and prostitution was taking place on-site, advising him that the team should find other lodging site. No advance arrangements had been made to feed the student-athletes and the lack of restaurants in the area led to them being taken to Walmart to buy food for their stay, despite the lack of refrigerators or microwaves in the hotel rooms. The athletes were allowed to stay in whichever of the team’s hotel rooms they wished, leading to a girl spending the night in a boy’s room and engaging in inappropriate conduct which other athletes photographed on their phones and later shared with other students and school administrators.

Throughout that first night at the hotel, several parents were informed by their children on the team about the incidents that were occurring, but Anderson allegedly failed to answer phone calls and text messages from those parents, instead the next morning driving the boy and girl who had engaged in the inappropriate conduct home to Tennessee and leaving the other 55 student-athletes under the supervision of the three assistant coaches.

Within two days of the April 11 track meet, Anderson was suspended for three weeks and demoted to assistant coach. Toward the end of April, allegations surfaced that in 2003, Anderson had inappropriately touched a female student (12 years earlier), an assertion denied by Anderson and regarding which the County District Attorney chose not to take action because of the time lapse and lack of substantiating evidence. District administrators, however, indefinitely suspended Anderson without pay from both teaching and coaching pending a thorough investigation, at which time he decided to retire both from his academic and athletics positions.

Anderson sued the district and several of its administrators who had been involved in the decision-making related to the temporary suspension and demotion following the track meet and the later-imposed, unpaid, indefinite suspension, seeking front pay and back pay for constructive discharge, monies related to the breach of his contracts to teach and coach, compensation for deprivation of his constitutional rights (age discrimination), punitive damages for defamation and false light publicity, compensation for retaliatory discharge, and all attorneys’ fees, court costs, and litigation expenses.

After a seven-day trial, on March 18, 2019, a jury awarded Anderson $1,715,097. Pursuant to the motion by the defendants for the District Court Judge to either overrule the jury or order a new trial, on January 30, 2020, the court issued a written opinion analyzing each of the coach’s claims in the case, again resulting in a victory for the coach in the case. The Oak Ridge District then filed an appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, but instead of incurring the additional litigation costs of the appellate process, on May 23, 2020, settled the case by agreeing to pay Anderson $1.75 million.

The following are the conclusions contained in the January 30, 2020, District Court decision analyzing each of the coach’s claims, with the ruling serving as a template for what schools and athletic administrators should expect when disciplining or terminating coaches and thereby illustrating some of the important do’s and don’ts of sports employment law.

Due Process and Constructive Discharge

In his January 30, 2020, written decision, District Judge Bruce Guyton stated, “the court finds that [the sanctions imposed on Anderson] triggered his due process rights, which he did not receive. Further, the court agrees that there is sufficient evidence to find that he was forced to retire or constructively discharged. No procedures were used and [the defendants] did not provide him with a copy of the charges and a statement of his legal rights, duties and recourse before taking the adverse action.”

The court’s extended analysis made it clear that an important “Do” is for schools, if possible, to structure employment agreements with coaches to be “terminable at will.” A significant “Don’t” is that the appointment should not be rolled into a teaching contract, because if it is, then the coach will have extensive due process rights that would not have applied if the deal had been one-year, terminable-at-will, and non-renewable-at-the-discretion- of-the-school. The terminable-at-will appointment should include a specific statement that renewal of the coaching position is not guaranteed, non-renewal does not require any sort of “just cause,” and that the school may choose not to renew for any reason whatsoever. It is important to note that in some states, coaching appointments may be subject to collective bargaining agreements and termination-at-will principles may be modified by a CBA.

Breach of Contract

With regard to Anderson allegedly breaching specific terms of his teaching and coaching contracts, the court stated, “there was sufficient evidence in the record that [Anderson] was vindicated [against all charges of breaching his contracts].”

The court’s extended analysis made it clear that even with annual terminable-at-will appointments, in the event that a coach (like Anderson) is suspended or dismissed mid-season for misconduct, then the school may need to demonstrate “just cause” for the punishment. An important “Do” for schools to establish in advance the critically important duties of the coach’s job, the failure of which to fulfill would give rise to the school’s authority to impose sanctions. A corresponding “Don’t” is that the school must avoid failing to carefully follow proper procedures if the choice is made to impose sanctions on athletics personnel “for cause.”

The following is a non-exhaustive list of specific duties that might be imposed on coaches and included as conditions in employment contracts and coaching handbooks that may give rise to a “breach” justifying suspension or termination:

  • Knowing participation in any violation of NFHS, state association or school district rules or federal, state or local laws.
  • Violation of any provision of the school’s coaching handbook, including student-athlete eligibility requirements, protocols for protecting the health-safety-welfare of student athletes, requirements regarding the protection of student-athletes from discrimination, hazing, sexual harassment, or abusive treatment by athletics personnel.
  • Conviction of or pleading guilty to felony criminal charges or to any misdemeanor crime against minors.
  • Wagering on sports events in violation of gambling laws.
  • Conviction of or pleading guilty to the use of controlled substances.
  • Misconduct in violation of the stated mission of the school’s athletic program.
  • Fraud or financial mismanagement in the performance of the coaching duties.
  • Any act of violence or abusive treatment of a student-athlete, coach, school staff member or community member.
  • Failure to adequately supervise assistant coaches, volunteer coaches, athletic trainers, or other athletics personnel resulting in their violation of any of the above-stated duties.

Protected Class Discrimination (Age)

Title VII (the part of federal civil rights law applicable to employment) prohibits adverse actions against an employee based on race, color, ethnicity, religion, gender, age, disability, and – as of the June 2020 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Bostock case – LGBTQ status.

Anderson claimed that his initial suspension, demotion and later-imposed unpaid suspension were partially conditioned on the fact that after 36 years of teaching and coaching, he was one of the oldest staff members at Oak Ridge High School. However, in its May 2019 disposition of the dispute, the jury decided that age had not been a factor in the sanctions levied against Anderson and declined to assign any damages for such discrimination, a determination upheld in the court’s January 2020 written opinion in the case.

An important “Do” for schools in structuring contracts for coaches is to avoid including any reference that would imply that the hiring decision, treatment on the job, or evaluation for continuing employment, are in any way conditioned on the age or stage of life of the athletic personnel. A significant “Don’t” is to avoid making any oral comments to coaches, even in jest, regarding youthfulness, energy level or other characteristics that might be interpreted as related to age. In EEOC complaints and federal lawsuits, it is often casual language and joking banter that “boomerangs” back to result in a successful age discrimination claim.

Defamation and False Light Publicity

The January 2020 written opinion by the court upheld the jury’s May 2019 decision that Anderson had been defamed and victimized by false light publicity (communications placing him in a false light in the public eye) and awarding him – out of $1,715,097 total, $880,000 for the damage to his reputation based on the two causes of action.

The important “Do” for schools is to refuse to make any comment to the media regarding employment decisions and to avoid any internal gossiping among athletic personnel and staff regarding such issues with coaches. The $880,000 for defamation and false light publicity was largely conditioned on the comments by one district administrator that Anderson “was going to jail,” when he was in fact never even charged with a crime. The most significant “Don’t” is to avoid any communications to outsiders or insiders that would support proof of a false and defamatory statement having been made against a coach with actual malice (reckless disregard for its truth).

Retaliation

Anderson’s retaliation claims were dismissed both by the jury and in the court’s written opinion, because he was unable to establish that he had engaged in any protected whistle-blowing or complaint activity that was used by the district to support the sanctions levied against him. The most important “Do” related to retaliation is to have a procedure in place for athletics personnel to submit written complaints about any aspect of the school’s athletic program and the most significant “Don’t” is to avoid refusing to accept complaints submitted per procedure and to avoid denigrating those complaints, especially where there is a clear legal right to make the complaint (e.g. Title IX issues, student-athlete constitutional rights, hazing or sexual harassment concerns, student-athlete disability accommodations, and other such protected activities).