A federal judge from the District of Kansas has granted summary judgment to a community college, which was sued by a coach, who claimed his termination violated that state’s public policy against retaliatory discharge for whistleblowing, and breached an express contract and an implied contract for continued employment.
One rationale used by the court in reaching its decision was that the plaintiff, Marc Benjamin, was an at-will employee of the defendant, Barton Community College, meaning he could be fired without cause.
Benjamin, the former head softball coach for the defendant, was employed in that capacity from Aug. 1, 2013 to May 8, 2017. Athletic Director Trevor Rolfs supervised the plaintiff.
Benjamin’s contract at the time of his termination stated that the parties “understood that the head coach is an employee at will and . . . hold[s] their position during the term of the Contract . . . unless relieved of their duties prior to the expiration of the Contract or unless he/she resigns.” The 2016-2017 Coaching Contract also provided that: (1) “[i]n the event of termination, notice shall be given in writing and the employee shall be entitled to no further compensation as a result of the termination;” and (2) “[t]he College may, at its option, terminate the employment agreement without cause and without prior notice when said termination is necessitated by decisions of the College’s Trustees to deal with budgetary shortfalls and that said termination is needed to live within Legislative and enrollment budgets.” The plaintiff understood that the 2016-2017 Coaching Contract stated he was “an employee at will,” and he testified in his deposition that he understood the terms of the 2016-2017 Coaching Contract, according to the court.
The beginning of the end of Benjamin’s employment at Barton Community College may have begun when he learned that his fellow coaches at the school were violating rules set forth by the National Junior College Athletic Association concerning the travel expenses of student-athletes and he decided to inform the administration.
The plaintiff met with Rolfs on Feb. 20, 2017 to inform him that he had learned that the college’s men’s and women’s basketball coaches had paid for student flights to and from home, which violated the rules. Rolfs was suspicious of the plaintiff’s reports of violations because he believed the plaintiff was unhappy with his employment, particularly with Rolfs, but accepted the plaintiff’s report and investigated his allegations. The plaintiff emailed Rolfs to document his report, concluding his email with “I hope you will handle this matter professionally and that I will not be treated unfairly within the department.” In March 2017, Rolfs told the plaintiff that he had looked into the misuse of funds report and spoken with Roderick, and that the college was okay. The court noted that Benjamin complained to other administrators outside of the athletic department about alleged violations.
On a parallel course, Benjamin was having performance issues during the 2015-2016 season, noted the court, such as a “negative attitude, … (a) failure to adequately maintain the softball facilities, and (an) inability to manage the budget.” Nevertheless, Rolfs recommended that the plaintiff’s contract be renewed for the 2016-2017 academic year, and agreed with the College’s decision to give him a raise in compensation.
However, the problems persisted as Benjamin inexplicably stopped recruiting. By mid-April 2017, Rolfs had received complaints from softball players and parents about the plaintiff’s behavior, and was concerned that he “was taking his frustrations with his job and Rolfs out on the team.”
On May 8, 2017, Rolfs met with the plaintiff and informed him that the College was terminating his employment immediately. Rolfs provided Benjamin the May 8, 2017 memorandum written by Dr. Heilman regarding his termination. According to the memorandum, Barton Community College terminated the plaintiff’s employment due to: (1) insubordination; (2) verbal harassment; (3) unprofessional conduct; and (4) his inability to manage the Softball Program in an appropriate and professional manner. Although it terminated the plaintiff’s employment before the expiration of the 2016-2017 Coaching Contract, Barton Community College paid Benjamin the full compensation required under the contract as if he had provided services through May 31, 2017.
The plaintiff sued.
Benjamin alleged two breach of contract claims under Kansas law—one arising out of an express contract with Barton Community College and the other arising out of an alleged implied contract for continued employment with Barton Community College.
The express contract failed because the plaintiff was an at-will employee of the College at the time of his termination. When employment is terminable at will, “the employee states no cause of action for breach of contract by alleging that he has been discharged,” ruled the court.
Similarly, the court ruled the claim that Barton Community College breached an implied contract for the plaintiff’s continued employment lacks merit because Kansas “has long adhered to the doctrine of employment at will.”
Turning to the retaliatory discharge claim, the court wrote that “Kansas courts recognize a common-law tort for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy when a terminated employee has acted as a whistleblower.” It added that wrongful discharge claims under Kansas law are analyzed using the three-part framework established in McDonnell Douglas v. Green.
The plaintiff established prima facie claims under the law, and then the defendant set forth a legitimate reason for its decision.
“At this step of the McDonnell Douglas inquiry, the burden shifts back to Plaintiff to show that a reasonable jury could find the college’s proffered reason for termination pretextual. A plaintiff can show pretext by pointing to “such weaknesses, implausibilities, inconsistencies, incoherencies, or contradictions in the employer’s proffered legitimate reasons for its action that a reasonable factfinder could rationally find them unworthy of credence.” A plaintiff typically makes a showing of pretext in one of three ways: (1) evidence that defendant’s stated reason for the adverse employment action was false, i.e. unworthy of belief; (2) evidence that defendant acted contrary to a written company policy prescribing the action to be taken under the circumstances; or (3) evidence that defendant acted contrary to an unwritten policy or contrary to company practice when making the adverse employment decision affecting plaintiff. “[T]he relevant inquiry is not whether the employer’s proffered reasons were wise, fair or correct, but whether it honestly believed those reasons and acted in good faith upon those beliefs.”
“As noted, the college maintains that it terminated the plaintiff because the plaintiff was insubordinate and engaged in verbal harassment and unprofessional conduct, demonstrating an inability to manage the college’s softball program in an appropriate and professional manner,” wrote the court. “The court finds that the record does not contain clear and convincing evidence to create a genuine issue of material fact and support an inference of pretext.”
Thus, it found that “a reasonable jury could not find that the college’s proffered reasons for terminating the plaintiff are unworthy of belief as the record does not contain clear and convincing evidence that reveals a genuine issue of material fact as to pretext. The college is therefore entitled to summary judgment on the plaintiff’s claim of retaliatory discharge.”
Benjamin v. Bd. of Trs. Cmty. College; D.Kan.; 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 16345, Case No. 2:17-CV-2557-JAR-JPO; 2/1/19
Attorneys of Record: (for plaintiff) Michael Stipetich, LEAD ATTORNEY, Smith Mohlman Injury Law, LLC, Kansas City, MO. (for defendant) Derek S. Casey, LEAD ATTORNEY, Triplett Woolf Garretson, LLC – Wichita, Wichita, KS.