Coach Gets Partial Victory in Defamation Claim Against Parents

Nov 21, 2007

The Utah Supreme Court delivered a partial victory to a former high school basketball coach, who had claimed that a player’s parents defamed him.
The high court ruled specifically that since he was not a public figure he did not have demonstrate that the parents acted with actual malice. However, while the court sided with the plaintiff in one area, it found against him in another, concluding that the parents’ statements were protected by the conditional privilege for family relationships. Thus, it remanded the case to determine whether the coach sufficiently carried his burden of showing the existence of a genuine factual dispute regarding whether the parents abused that privilege.
Plaintiff Michael O’Connor was the women’s basketball coach at Lehi High School in Utah. Commencing in November 2003 and continuing until the school dismissed O’Connor as the women’s basketball coach before the start of the 2004-2005 school year, certain parents, extended family members, and friends of basketball team members (the parents) undertook a persistent and multifaceted campaign of complaints against O’Connor. They criticized his coaching demeanor. They questioned his use of money allocated to the team for travel and other team expenses. They accused him of extending unfair preferential treatment to (one of his players – Michelle Harrison) both on and off the basketball court. They claimed that he had improperly recruited a player from another school.
O’Connor’s detractors took their grievances to the school principal and administrators. Dissatisfied with the school administration’s determination that O’Connor had done nothing wrong and put off by the principal’s letter setting out ground rules for complaining about the coach, the parents directed their complaints to a new audience: the Alpine School Board. Although the school board took no formal action against him, the high school administration dismissed O’Connor from his role as the women’s basketball coach. They cited, as grounds for its decision, his refusal to promise that he would not deny team membership and playing time to the women in retaliation against the parents.
O’Connor sued the parents for defamation. The parents successfully moved for summary judgment before the district court based on their contention that O’Connor was a public official and, consequently, could not proffer a case for defamation without demonstrating that the parents made their statements with actual malice — a showing the record did not permit. O’Connor appealed.
The court began its analysis by noting the landmark case N.Y. Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 84 S. Ct. 710, 11 L. Ed. 2d 686 (1964), “which placed public officials on notice that they could seek redress for defamatory statements made about them only if actual malice animated those statements.”
The Utah court went on to highlight other U.S. Supreme Court rulings in reaching the following conclusion: “We view the constitutional standard for public official announced by the Supreme Court to be limited to those persons whose scope of responsibilities are likely to influence matters of public policy in the civil, as distinguished from the cultural, educational, or sports realms.”
“Today we hold that a women’s high school basketball coach is not a public official and that, therefore, defamatory remarks made about such a coach are not entitled to heightened constitutional protection,” the court wrote.
However, the court did conclude that the defendants are entitled to a conditional privilege for communications relating to familial relationships, thus remanding the case for further proceedings.”
Michael P. O’Connor v. Gary W. Burningham, et al.; S.Ct.Utah; No. 20060090; 2007 UT 58; 583 Utah Adv. Rep. 3; 2007 Utah LEXIS 139; 7/31/07
Attorneys of Record: (for plaintiff) Joseph C. Rust and Matthew G. Bagley of Salt Lake City. (for defendant) Harold L. Peterson of Salt Lake City. (for other defendants) Gary and Jeanna Burningham, Michael W. Homer, Jesse C. Trentadue, John D. Luthy of Salt Lake City.


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