Coach’s Complaints About Accounting Procedures Lack Constitutional Protection

Apr 13, 2007

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed a ruling of a district court that an athletic director and head football coach at Pinkston High School in the Dallas Independent School District was acting within the scope of his duties when he complained to the PHS principal about the school’s accounting procedures.
Thus, his speech was not protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments, effectively gutting his retaliation claim against the school district.
The stage was set for the litigation during the months leading up to the 2003 school year, when Williams repeatedly asked the school’s office manager for information concerning the funds appropriated for athletic activities. Despite these requests, the office manager did not give Williams specific information on the athletic account. In late September of that year, Williams wrote a memorandum to the office manager (copied to the school principal, J.L. Wright) in which he protested the manager’s “failure to provide him with any information and/or balance pertaining to the athletic account.” He further noted that the office manager’s “failure … has hurt my ability to provide our student/athletes with critical items and/or materials necessary for competition.”
Williams’ dissatisfaction was escalated a few months later when he wrote a memorandum to Principal Wright, expressing further concern regarding the handling of school athletic funds. In that document, he wrote that he had talked about the problem with other athletic department staff in the district. He also attacked that school’s accounting approach, writing that “I have found that there is a network of friends and house rules, which govern practices here at L.G. Pinkston High School.”
Four days after receiving the memorandum, Principal Wright removed Williams as Athletic Director. Williams sued in the district court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that DISD removed him as Athletic Director in retaliation for engaging in speech protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of DISD, holding that Williams’s memorandum to principal Wright did not “address a matter of public concern” and therefore did not receive First Amendment protection, spawning the present appeal.
The 5th Circuit honed in on whether the memoranda Williams submitted to the office manager and principal are speech protected by the First Amendment. The panel relied heavily on the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Garcetti v. Ceballos (, which emphasized the distinction between a speaker acting in her role as “citizen” and her role as “employee.” Specifically, Garcetti held that the First Amendment does not protect “expressions made pursuant to their official duties.” Id at 1960. Even if the speech is of great social importance, it is not protected by the First Amendment so long as it was made pursuant to the worker’s official duties. Id. at 1960.
“In the instant case, DISD concedes that an Athletic Director is not required to write memoranda to his principal regarding athletic accounts. Thus, we must determine the extent to which, under Garcetti, a public employee is protected by the First Amendment if his speech is not necessarily required by his job duties, but nevertheless is related to his job duties.
“We must therefore decide whether Williams wrote his memoranda in the course of performing his job as Athletic Director. Williams’s statements in his memoranda focus on his daily operations. He needed information regarding the athletic account so that he could ‘operate the athletic department based on standard operating procedures and norms throughout the State of Texas.’
“He accused the office manager of ‘hurt[ing his] ability to provide . . . student/athletes with critical items and/or materials necessary for competition.’ Moreover, Williams was responsible for buying sports equipment and for arranging and paying tournament fees. Because the office manager and principal were in charge of allocating and monitoring the athletic accounts (Williams obviously did not have exclusive control of the accounts), in order for Williams to purchase equipment and enter competitions, he needed to consult with his superior about his budget. We thus find that Williams’s speech was made in the course of performing his employment.”
Thus, Williams’ speech was not protected by the First Amendment.
Gregory D Williams v. Dallas Independent School District, 5th Cir.; No. 05-11486, 2007 U.S. App. LEXIS 3186; 2/13/07
Attorneys of Record: (for plaintiff) Gregory D. Williams, Pro se, Fort Worth, TX. (for defendant) Leslie Louise McCollom, O’Hanlon & Associates, Austin, TX.


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