Court Allows Coach’s Wrongful Termination Suit to Continue

Feb 13, 2009

A federal judge from the Northern District of Illinois has delivered a mixed ruling in a messy legal brouhaha involving a highly decorated high school basketball coach and his athletic director and principal.
Specifically, the court denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, letting core aspects of plaintiff Lamont Bryant‘s civil rights lawsuit to continue. Among the key findings of the court was that the defendants’ stated reason for firing Bryant may have been “pretextual” and separately that the defendants failed to preserve evidence, an act of spoliation, which may have supported Bryant’s claim.
In 2003, Bryant was hired as the boy’s varsity basketball coach at John Marshall High School in Chicago, Illinois, ostensibly to turn around a struggling Marshall boys’ basketball program, which had won only three games in the previous season. The plaintiff coached the team for the next four seasons, and the team’s record improved dramatically.
Even so, Bryant did not have a good relationship with Marshall’s athletic director Dorothy Gaters, a defendant in the case. After co-defendant Juan Gardner became principal in the fall of 2006, the plaintiff complained to him approximately three or four times a month about problems he had with Gaters, who also served as the women’s basketball coach, including that she:
• made the boys’ team travel on substandard buses;
• refused to provide expense money for the team;
• refused to allow the boys’ team equivalent access to practice facilities;
• failed to attend the boys’ away games;
• and generally failed to support the boys’ program.
The court went on to identify multiple incidents where the plaintiff and the AD bumped heads, leading Bryant to look for other career opportunities. Trying to prevent his departure, Gardner worked with the plaintiff to memorialize a document that would allow him to return to the school for the 2007-08 season. Among the many conditions set forth in the document was participation in certain tournaments and allowing student athletes to participate in other sports without being punished.
Bryant, however, allegedly failed to meet those conditions. On October 2, 2007, Gardner, along with other school officials, met with the plaintiff and informed him that he would no longer coach the boys’ basketball team at Marshall. On the day of Plaintiff’s termination, Gaters stated publicly that Marshall has a “code of conduct for all of our coaches” and that “Coach Bryant had breached that agreement.”
The following day, Gaters stated publicly that Bryant’s termination had nothing to do with Plaintiff wanting to play in a Christmas tournament in Detroit. Sometime before October 15, 2007, Gaters prepared a document entitled, “Case Against Lamont Bryant,” which criticized the plaintiff on several issues, including, among other things: threatening players; failing to submit volunteer assistant coaches for background checks; failing to prohibit a person with three felony convictions and seven arrests for possession and distribution of drugs from serving as a volunteer assistant coach; failing to meet with Gardner and student’s parents; failing to follow guidelines established by the principal; and knowingly playing ineligible players.
On October 15, 2007, Gaters publicly discussed these accusations at a meeting of Marshall students, athletes, and parents. This meeting occurred two days before the plaintiff spoke at a press conference announcing the filing of this lawsuit. On October 18, 2007, Gaters called Bryant a “liar” to the media in regards to his allegation that the boys’ team had traveled on substandard buses.
The plaintiff ultimately sued, raising seven claims: in Count I, Plaintiff alleges that Gaters and Gardner retaliated against him in violation of the First Amendment based on his complaints about open gym and Gaters’ alleged mismanagement of the MLK Foundation; in Count II, Plaintiff alleges that the Board violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (“Title IX”), 20 U.S.C. § 1681, by retaliating against him based on his complaints of unequal treatment of male and female athletes; in Count III, Plaintiff alleges that Gaters violated his 14th Amendment due process right to occupational liberty by publicly and falsely accusing him of misconduct; in Count IV, Plaintiff alleges a state law breach of contract claim against Gardner and the Board based on their alleged violation of the agreement permitting him to serve as coach for one final year; in Count V, Plaintiff raises a promissory estoppel claim against Gardner and the Board based on the same conduct; in Count VI, Plaintiff raises a claim against Gaters for tortious interference with contract based on her alleged [*20] interference with his agreement with Gardner and the Board; and in Count VII, Plaintiff raises a state law defamation claim against Gaters based on her public statements accusing him of misconduct. (R. 92, SAC PP 1-114.)
Various defendants moved for summary judgment. Also before the Court was Bryant’s motion to compel or, alternatively, for default judgment against defendants on the contract-related claims. Specifically, he asserted that Gardner and the Board failed in their duty to preserve evidence contained on Gardner’s school laptop; that the defendants actively destroyed evidence contained on the laptop; and that Gardner submitted a fraudulent declaration to the court pertaining to a letter he received from Coach Gray, which a forensic evaluation revealed was created on Gardner’s own computer after this action was filed.
The court addressed the plaintiff’s federal claims first. Among them were that his termination violated the First Amendment and Title IX.
On the first claim, it found that Bryant “did not engage in protected speech, and his First Amendment claim therefore fails. Because the claim fails on this threshold issue, the Court does not reach Defendants’ other arguments for granting summary judgment on this claim.”
Turning to the Title IX claim, the court found “there is evidence in the record from which a reasonable jury could infer that the stated reasons for Plaintiff’s termination were pretextual and that the real reason Plaintiff was terminated was in retaliation for his complaints about perceived unequal treatment between the boys’ and girls’ basketball teams.” It thus denied the defendant’s motion for summary judgment on the Title IX retaliation claim.
Turning to the state law claims, the Court noted that it must first address the plaintiff’s motion to compel or for default judgment on the contract claims (Counts IV-VI) based on Defendants’ alleged spoliation of evidence.
On this point, the court concluded “that Gardner and the Board failed in their obligation to preserve evidence relevant to this litigation. The record shows that Gardner continued to work on her laptop from the time this action was filed in mid-October 2007 until early January 2008. She did so (and was allowed to do so by her attorneys) even though it was apparent from the beginning of this lawsuit that the laptop likely contained evidence pertinent to Plaintiff’s contract claims.”
Further, the court seized upon Gardner’s position that “she did not draft the document in question and never saw it until her attorney showed it to her after this case was filed. An examination of the laptop would have revealed whether Gardner drafted the document in question. However, the parties’ independent computer examiner has determined that files were deleted during Gardner’s use of the laptop in the months following the filing of this lawsuit. Deleted files can usually be recovered, but in this case some of the deleted files were overwritten during a spike of activity occurring in late December 2007, which involved the deletion and creation of multiple files, thus making some of the deleted files permanently unrecoverable.”
While disdaining the “harsh sanction” of default judgment, the court did find “that the imposition of a sanction is warranted. Because of Defendants’ actions, it is impossible to determine whether Gardner’s laptop contained the agreement Plaintiff claims Gardner drafted. Based on Defendants’ failure to preserve potentially relevant information which would have resolved this dispute, the Court finds it appropriate to preclude Defendants from arguing in this litigation that Gardner did not draft the document forming the basis for Plaintiff’s contract claims. The Court further finds that Plaintiff should be awarded his costs and fees incurred in bringing this motion, and in paying the forensic examiner to examine Defendants’ computers.”
The court went on to deny the summary judgment motions as they pertained the plaintiff’s breach of contract and defamation claims, while granting summary judgment on the claims for promissory estoppel and tortious interference with a contract.
Lamont Bryant v. Juan Gardner, et al.; N.D. Ill.; No. 07 C 5909; 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 96137; 11/21/08
Attorneys of 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; Terry A. Ekl, Ekl Williams PLLC, Lisle, IL. (for defendant) Jennifer Y Wu, LEAD ATTORNEY, Board of Education of the City of Chicago, Law Department, Chicago, IL;. 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; Mark A. Trent, LEAD ATTORNEY, Chicago Board of Education, Chicago, IL; Sabrina Louise Haake, Law Department, Chicago Board of Education, Chicago, IL.


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