Court Dismisses Claim of Jilted Coaches for Failure to State a Claim

Dec 5, 2008

A federal judge has dismissed the claims of a pair of assistant basketball coaches, who had been implicated and investigated for their connection in a recruiting scandal in the greater Seattle area.
The court found that the due process and civil rights claims of the plaintiffs, Amos Walters and Laura Fuller, fell short because they did not assert a “cognizable Constitutional wrong” in association with their claim, among other things.
Walters and Fuller were African-American assistant coaches of the girls’ basketball teams at Chief Sealth High School. In early 2006, the Seattle Times began investigating allegations of a recruiting scandal involving the girls’ basketball program at Chief Sealth. The plaintiffs contend that when the recruiting scandal broke in February 2006, that the media coverage was focused solely on them. On February 15, 2006, the Times published an article that alleged that the head coach of the girls’ basketball team, Ray Willis, along with his assistants, the plaintiffs, were engaging in illegal recruiting of high school students for their basketball teams. Private investigator John Ellis was hired to investigate the allegations. After the investigation, the plaintiffs’ coaching contracts were not renewed by the School District.
The plaintiffs argued, among other things, that the Times “was acting as a state actor and under color of law when it assisted . . . Ellis in investigating, reporting, and disseminating false and malicious, and defamatory statements against (the plaintiffs), placing them in a false light and publishing confidential information about the investigation before the investigation was completed, violating their substantive and procedural due process rights.”
They also claimed the defendants deprived them “of their federal rights of procedural and substantive due process when the Times Reporters had clandestine conspiratorial meetings with the school’s investigator at coffee houses and other locations; assisting the investigator as a state actor under color of state law.”
Further, “John Ellis purposely, intentionally, and with malice aforethought and surreptitiously conspired to hide from public view the second report that would have exonerated the assistant coaches” as well as deprived the plaintiffs “of the 14th Amendment Liberty interest in their reputations, their right to privacy, and procedural and substantive due process rights when they purposely, intentionally, and with malice aforethought and surreptitiously conspired to hide from public view the investigative report which exonerated the assistant coaches and the Human Resource’s Director’s finding that no recruiting had occurred; thus causing the severe and intentional infliction of emotional distress and isolation from friends and family.”
The defendants moved to dismiss this omnibus action, citing Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).
Addressing the claim that they had been deprived of their procedural and substantive due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 first, the court honed in on the requirement that “a liberty or property interest protected by the Constitution be at stake.
“Adopting an argument articulated by the Seattle Times, (Ellis) claims that dismissal is proper because Plaintiffs have failed to assert a protectable liberty or property interest. Citing Paul v. Davis, 424 U.S. 693, 701-02, 96 S. Ct. 1155, 47 L. Ed. 2d 405 (1976) he argues that reputation is not a cognizable property interest. In Paul, the Court held: ‘While we have in a number of our prior cases pointed out the frequently drastic effect of the “stigma” which may result from defamation by the government in a variety of contexts, this line of cases does not establish the proposition that reputation alone, apart from some more tangible interests such as employment, is either “liberty” or “property” by itself sufficient to invoke the procedural protection of the Due Process Clause.’ Paul sets out a reputation plus standard. In opposition to Mr. Ellis’s argument Plaintiffs cite the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Orloff v. Cleland, 708 F.2d 372, 378 (9th Cir. 1983). Orloff is distinguishable from this case in that the court there held that the plaintiff in that case had a property interest in continued employment as well as his reputation. Id. at 377.
“At oral argument Plaintiffs’ counsel conceded that Plaintiffs are not asserting that they had a property interest in their jobs, they are asserting a property interest only in their reputations. The court finds that Plaintiffs have alleged deprivation of their interest in their reputations but have not asserted the ‘plus’ required by Paul. A cognizable constitutional wrong must be joined with a defamation claim in order to state a stigma-plus claim. See Miller v. California, 355 F.3d 1172, 1178 (9th Cir. 2004). The court finds that Plaintiffs have failed to allege a cognizable constitutional wrong in association with their defamation claim and dismisses the § 1983 claim against Mr. Ellis.”
Turning next to the defendant Ellis’ argument that the plaintiffs have not alleged and cannot establish the elements of a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1981, the court again favored the defendants.
“Plaintiffs do not have a contract with Mr. Ellis. Their § 1981 claim is based on an alleged conspiracy between Mr. Ellis and the Seattle School District, among others, to deprive Plaintiffs of their right to make and enforce contracts. In cases alleging a conspiracy to deprive individuals of their civil rights the plaintiff must state specific facts to support the existence of the claimed conspiracy. See Burns v. County of King, 883 F.2d 819, 821 (9th Cir. 1989). Plaintiffs need to allege an agreement or meeting of the minds to violate their constitutional rights. See Woodrum v. Woodward County, Okla., 866 F.2d 1121, 1126 (9th Cir. 1989). Mr. Ellis argues that Plaintiffs’ conspiracy claims are wholly conclusory and do not allege facts supporting the existence of a conspiracy. He is correct. Besides using the words ‘conspired,’ ‘conspiracy’ and ‘conspiratorial’ the complaint does nothing to inform the court regarding any agreement or meeting of the minds between the School District and Mr. Ellis or any of the other defendants to violate Plaintiffs’ constitutional rights. As a result, Plaintiffs’ §1981 claim against Mr. Ellis fails. The court dismisses the §1981 claim against Mr. Ellis.”
Amos Walters, et al. v. Seattle School District No. 1, et al.; W.D. Wash.; CASE NO. C08-264JLR, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 84960; 9/15/08
Attorneys of Record: (for plaintiffs) Brenda Joyce Little, Lead Attorney, Law Office of Brenda J Little, Seattle, WA. (for defendants) Lawrence B. Ransom, Tracy M. Miller, Karr Tuttle Campbell, Seattle, WA. Ambika K. Doran, Bruce E.H. Johnson, Davis Wright Tremaine, Seattle, WA.


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