Court Sides with University and AD in Hiring Dispute

May 23, 2008

A Minnesota state court judge has denied an appeal of a college basketball coach, who had claimed he was “treated unfairly” when he was offered an assistant coach position at the University of Minnesota and “then terminated shortly after he quit his prior job and moved to Minnesota.”
The court did not review the merits of the claim, but rather noted that employment decisions made by the university are “reviewable by certiorari only; plaintiff’s remedy was to seek review by the court of appeals.” Noting case law, the court felt “compelled” to dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction.
The impetus for the litigation was the alleged decision of current Head Basketball Coach Tubby Smith to offer plaintiff Jimmy Williams. The plaintiff subsequently resigned his position at Oklahoma State University in April of 2007 and moved to Minnesota.
The plaintiff claimed that Athletic Director Joel Maturi then overruled his alleged hiring, citing NCAA violations that had occurred within the Gopher basketball program when Williams was an assistant from 1971 to 1987
In considering the defendant’s motion to dismiss, the court considered the plaintiff’s arguments, such as his contention that the decision was not quasi-judicial and thus should have been subject to the court’s jurisdiction. The court picked apart that argument, and then turned to the plaintiff’s contention that Maturi violated his Constitutional rights, pursuant to 42 USC 1983.
Specifically, the plaintiff claimed that he became a university employee and possessed a constitutionally protected property interest in continuing employment with the university. However, the court noted that a requirement for such a claim is that a plaintiff “avail himself of the post-termination process that was available.” Winskowski v. City of Stephen, 442 F.3d 1107 1110 (8th Cir. 2006). The plaintiff “failed to utilize the university’s grievance procedure.”
Williams also alleged that Maturi’s allegedly defamatory statements to the media violated his protected liberty interests. To prove such a claim, the court, citing Coleman v. Reed, 147 F3d 751, 754-55 (8th Cir. 1998), noted that the plaintiff would have to show:
“that the reason for the discharge stigmatized the plaintiff,
“the administrators made the reasons public, and
“the plaintiff denied the charges for which he was terminated.”
The court wrote that the plaintiff’s claim failed, first, because he did not deny that he committed NCAA violations. Second, the claim failed because the alleged statements “did not reach the level of stigmatization necessary.
“… Here, Maturi simply said that Tubby Smith had not hired the plaintiff because of NCAA violations that occurred many years ago. The plaintiff was not accused of dishonesty or immorality.”
Finally, the court found that Maturi was entitled to qualified immunity, “a powerful defense for government officials, as it protects ‘all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.’ Hunter v. Bryant, 502 U.S. 224, 227 (1991).
“Maturi’s refusal to meet with the plaintiff after the termination decision does not violate clearly established law. The plaintiff’s remedy was to file a grievance, which he did not do.”
James R. Williams v. The Board of Regents of the University of Minnesota et al; Minn. Dist Ct., Hennepin Co., 4th Dist.; Case No. 27-CV-07-22194; 3/18/08
Williams was represented by attorney Dick Hunegs.
University of Minnesota attorney Mark Rotenberg represented the defendants


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