Appeals Court Affirms Ruling Concerning Athlete’s Transfer

May 19, 2006

A Michigan state appeals court has affirmed a trial court’s ruling, dismissing the claim of a star high school athlete, who sued officials at his former high school, claiming they inflicted emotional distress when they bad-mouthed him to the media after he transferred to another school.
The appeals court found, specifically, that the facts did not support the plaintiff’s “infliction of emotion distress” claim and that the information shared by officials with the media was in the public domain.
The impetus for the lawsuit was Brandon Cassise’s decision to transfer at the beginning of the second semester in his junior year from Walled Lake Central High School (Central) to St. Mary Preparatory High School in Orchard Lake, Michigan (St. Mary). Before his transfer, Cassise told Central’s football coach and defendant Chuck Apap, that he believed Central’s basketball program was in disarray and he was considering a transfer for that reason. The plaintiff made similar statements to others.
When the plaintiff’s mother approached Central’s principal, defendant David Barry, to sign transfer papers, however, she said that the transfer was academically motivated. Barry had received contrary information from Apap, the parents of other Central students, and an office secretary, whose children saw instant messages from plaintiff regarding his dissatisfaction with the basketball program. Barry also knew that plaintiff had a high grade point average at the time of his transfer.
Barry filed a complaint with the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA), asserting that plaintiff’s transfer was athletically motivated, which would require Cassise to sit out two semesters following the transfer, instead of one. The MHSAA, however, concluded that there was insufficient evidence that plaintiff’s transfer was athletically motivated.
The controversy continued when the media contacted Barry and Apap for comment, and published an article criticizing the MHSAA decision. Both Apap and Barry denied that they provided specific information to the reporter. Rather, “they disclosed or affirmed general information, specifically that plaintiff was a good student, he had no discipline problems, and his parents had never complained about his academic progress, Central’s programs, or Central’s teachers.”
Cassise sued Walled Lake Consolidated Schools, Barry, Apap, and Central’s athletic director Nick Conti, alleging a violation of MCL 600.2165, intentional infliction of emotional distress, defamation, abuse of process, and invasion of privacy.
After the trial court granted defendants summary disposition on all claims, the plaintiff appealed.
The appeals court quickly dispatched of the appeal on the cause of action related to MCL 600.2165. “The plain language of MCL 600.2165 makes clear that it does not apply when a school official discloses information outside of court proceedings,” it wrote.
Turning to the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim, the appeals court wrote that while some defendants spoke to reporters, “the reporters were already aware of the story, and talking to them did not rise to the outrageous level of behavior required to sustain a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress. VanVorous v Burmeister, 262 Mich App 467, 481-482; 687 N.W.2d 132 (2004).
“Furthermore, to satisfy the element of severe emotional distress, the distress must be so severe that no reasonable person could be expected to endure it. Haverbush v Powelson, 217 Mich. App. 228, 230-233; 551 NW2d 206 (1996). In determining its severity, the intensity and duration of the distress should be considered. Id. In this case, plaintiff testified that he was ‘offended’ and ‘annoyed.’ He thought people changed their attitude about him, and some people called him a traitor or a ‘sell out.’ Plaintiff discussed the issue with school counselors on approximately five occasions. This was insufficient to establish that plaintiff suffered distress of the intensity and duration necessary to sustain a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress.”
Similarly, the plaintiff claim that the trial court erred in summarily dismissing his claims of defamation and invasion of privacy on governmental immunity grounds also failed. “Defendants’ statements that plaintiff was a good student, had no disciplinary problems, and transferred for athletic reasons, did not constitute defamation per se. Defamation per se includes words charging the commission of a crime or words imputing a lack of chastity. Burden v Elias Bros Big Boy Restaurants, 240 Mich. App. 723, 727-728; 613 N.W.2d 378 (2000). Further, there was no evidence of special harm caused by publication. There was no showing that plaintiff’s reputation was damaged or third persons were deterred from dealing with plaintiff. While plaintiff complained that some unidentified people called him names, it was not possible to connect this name calling with defendants’ statements to reporters when plaintiff openly spoke about his transfer at school, and it was the subject of many rumors. Because plaintiff failed to demonstrate the existence of a genuine question of material fact on his defamation claim, defendants were entitled to summary disposition. Bergen v Baker, 264 Mich. App. 376, 381; 691 N.W.2d 770 (2004).”
Lastly, the court quashed the appeal regarding the invasion of privacy claim.
“In this case, the subject matter that sparked the disclosures was already a matter of public interest. Plaintiff was a popular star athlete by all accounts. His potential transfer, which he discussed at school, resulted in gossip among students, parents, and staff. A complaint related to the transfer was made to the MHSAA, to which Central belonged. The rejection of that complaint became known to the reporters, and they explored the issue. The record does not divulge how the reporters came into possession of the story. Nevertheless, the subject matter, plaintiff’s reason for transferring from Central High School was a matter of ‘genuine, even if more or less deplorable, popular appeal’ and was not private. Swickard v Wayne Co Medical Examiner, 438 Mich. 536, 550-551, 554; 475 N.W.2d 304 (1991).”
Bandon Cassise v. Walled Lake Consolidated Schools et al.; Ct. App. Mich.; No. 257299; 2//23/06


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