Coach’s Constitutional Claim Survives AD’s Summary Judgment Mo

May 9, 2008

A federal judge has ruled that a former basketball coach has shown sufficient evidence that an administrator’s damning remarks prevented him from securing another job, thus quelling the administrator’s motion to dismiss.
The plaintiff, Lamont Bryant, had been the head basketball coach at John Marshall High School. The school, noted the court, had a rich tradition in high school basketball. But its boys program had fallen on hard times in recent years, while the girls’ program had continued to excel.
Bryant was recruited by then athletic director Luther Bedford in 2003 to resurrect the boys’ program. Bryant accomplished the stating objective, coaching the program to a no. 1 state ranking at one point.
The girls’ program, meanwhile, began to struggle under the coaching of Dorothy Gaters.
Friction within the athletic department emerged when, in 2004, Gaters became Marshall’s AD. According to the Plaintiff, Gaters gradually began to “undermine the plaintiff’s accomplishments and assume control of the boys’ basketball program in order to ensure that the girls’ basketball team would regain its previous status as the dominant force in Marshall high school athletics as it had been prior to the plaintiff’s assuming leadership of the boys’ program.”
Among the examples identified by the court were: “awarding scholarships only to girls’ basketball players and male athletes in sports other than basketball; providing lower quality travel arrangements to the boys’ team; and denying the boys’ team the same access to practice facilities given to the girls’ team.”
Meanwhile, other schools began recruiting Bryant and the school’s administration began searching for his replacement. Bryant met with the school’s principal and the two sides worked out a deal where the plaintiff would decline other opportunities for one year.
The plaintiff was required to agree in writing to adhere to certain conditions: “wear a shirt and tie at all ‘high profile’ games; honor the school’s commitment for the boys’ team to play in two tournaments scheduled in December 2007 and January 2008; allow his players to participate in other sports; refrain from demeaning other coaches; and ensure that his assistant coaches were board-certified.”
The two sides didn’t even make it into the start of the season before controversy erupted regarding the pre-season open gym restrictions that had been placed on the boys’ team.
On October 2, 2007, the plaintiff was called to a meeting with the principal and was accused of violating the conditions to which he had previously agreed to adhere, an assertion the plaintiff challenged. Nevertheless, Bryant was told he was being relieved of his duties as head coach, but could continue at Marshall as a gym teacher.
The court noted that “immediately following the plaintiff’s termination as head coach, Gaters made public statements, printed in the news media, that the plaintiff had “breached a code of conduct expected of Marshall coaches, that Plaintiff was guiding the boys’ basketball program under his own agenda, and that the program had ceased to become Marshall’s program, and was now functioning as Plaintiff’s program.”
Later the same month, in a meeting with the boys’ basketball players, their parents and alumni to discuss the appointment of a new head coach, Gaters allegedly made further statements about Bryant, which he claimed were “intended to discredit Plaintiff and destroy his reputation in the eyes of the Marshall basketball community.”
On October 18, 2007, the plaintiff sued Marshall, the administrators and Gaters under Section 1983. On October 26, 2007, the plaintiff filed an Amended Complaint raising the following claims: a First Amendment retaliation claim alleging that Defendants fired Plaintiff from his coaching position because he spoke out about the alleged disparate treatment of the boys’ and girls’ basketball teams (Count I); a Title IX claim alleging that the Defendants denied male student athletes access to the same activities, facilities, and funding provided to female athletes (Count II); a Fourteenth Amendment claim alleging that Gaters deprived Plaintiff of his occupational liberty when she publicly slandered him in the context of his termination (Count III); and pendent state law claims for breach of contract (Count IV), promissory estoppel (Count V), tortious interference with contract (Count VI), and defamation (Count VII). By stipulation of the parties, Count II against the Board has been dismissed, and Marshall has been dismissed as a Defendant.
Gaters moved to dismiss Count III, arguing that the plaintiff has not sufficiently alleged a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, a motion that is reviewed in the instant opinion.
The court began by noting that the Fourteenth Amendment “imposes constraints on government actions which deprive an individual of ‘liberty’ or ‘property’ interests within the meaning of the Due Process Clause. U.S. Const. amend. XIV; Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, 332, 96 S. Ct. 893, 47 L. Ed. 2d 18 (1976). The concept of liberty protected by the Due Process Clause includes one’s occupational liberty, or ‘the liberty to follow a trade, profession, or other calling.’ Wroblewski v. City of Washburn, 965 F.2d 452, 455 (7th Cir. 1992). The government violates an employee’s occupational liberty interest when, in the course of a discharge, failure to rehire, or other adverse employment action, the employer stigmatizes the employee by making public comments that impugn “the individual’s good name, reputation, honor, or integrity’ or impose a ‘stigma or other disability on the individual which forecloses other opportunities.’ Board of Regents v. Roth, 408 U.S. 564, 573, 92 S. Ct. 2701, 33 L. Ed. 2d 548 (1972). The Fourteenth Amendment protects only the individual’s liberty to pursue a particular occupation, however, and not the individual’s right to any one job. Townsend v. Vallas, 256 F.3d 661, 670 (7th Cir. 2001); Meer v. Graham, 524 F. Supp. 2d 1044, 1052 (N.D. Ill. 2007). Thus, the critical issue for purposes of an occupational liberty claim is whether the defendants’ actions will prevent the employee from pursuing other opportunities in their chosen profession. Townsend, 256 F.3d at 670; Wroblewski, 965 F.2d at 455.
“To sufficiently plead the deprivation of an occupational liberty interest, the plaintiff must allege: (1) the employer made stigmatizing comments; (2) the comments were publicly disclosed; and (3) the plaintiff suffered a tangible loss of other employment opportunities as a result. Townsend, 256 F.3d at 669-70. If all the elements necessary to make out an occupational liberty claim are met, the remedy is an opportunity to refute the charge, which allows the person an opportunity to ‘clear his name.’ Roth, 408 U.S. at 573 & n.12; see also Strasburger v. Bd. of Educ. Comm. Unit Sch. Dist. No. 1, 143 F.3d 351, 356 (7th Cir. 1998).”
Taking the above into consideration as well as the evidence, the court found that Bryant has “adequately alleged an alteration in legal status sufficient to trigger a protectible occupational liberty interest.” Accordingly, the court turned to the specific elements of the occupational liberty claim, that the defendants had the effect of ‘stigmatizing Plaintiff in his chosen profession and substantially interfering with Plaintiff’s ability to pursue and secure another job in the basketball coaching profession commensurate with his experience, success, and until having been publicly smeared by Defendant Gaters, his reputation in the basketball community.’ At this stage, this is sufficient to satisfy the third prong of the analysis.
“Eventually, Plaintiff will be required to demonstrate that Gaters’ comments had some tangible effect on his job opportunities. If it turns out that Plaintiff has been offered or has accepted a comparable coaching position since being terminated by Marshall, he would not be able to show that he has been “blacklisted” from the coaching profession. Townsend, 256 F.3d at 670 (plaintiff failed to show that prospective employment had been foreclosed to him where he did not seek other employment opportunities following his discharge); Lawson, 725 F.2d at 1139 (an offer of re-employment at an equivalent level would negate occupational liberty claim). At this stage, Plaintiff has pled enough to state a plausible claim for deprivation of his occupational liberty, which is all that is required under Bell Atlantic.
Lamont Bryant v. Juan Gardner, et al.; N.D. Ill.; No. 07 C 5909; 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 18506; 3/7/08
Attorneys or record: (for plaintiff): James Gus Sotos, LEAD ATTORNEY, James G. Sotos & Associates, Ltd., Itasca, IL; Julie K. Bisbee, James G. Sotos & Associates, Itasca, IL; Kevin J. Golden, Dudley & Lake, LLC, Chicago, IL. (for defendant Gardner) Jennifer Y Wu, LEAD ATTORNEY, Board of Education of the City of Chicago, Law Department, Chicago, IL. (for defendant Board of Education of the City of Chicago) James Jordan Seaberry, Jr., LEAD ATTORNEY, Chicago School Reform, Board of Trustees, Chicago, IL; Patrick J. Rocks, Jr., Susan Margaret O’Keefe, Chicago Board of Education, Chicago, IL. (for defendant Gaters) Mark A. Trent, LEAD ATTORNEY, Chicago Board of Education, Chicago, IL. (for third-party defendant MLK Friends of Basketball, Inc.) Camille B. Conway, LEAD ATTORNEY, Steven Edward Anderson, Barnes & Thornburg LLP, Chicago, IL.


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