Due Process Claim of Student Athlete’s Parent Is Dismissed

Oct 23, 2009

A federal judge in the Southern District of New York has granted summary judgment to a school district in a case involving a parent suing the district after his student athlete son was disciplined for misconduct.
In so ruling, the court found that plaintiff John Sala’s due process claim failed because he was given sufficient opportunities to appeal the penalties within the framework of the district, but chose not to. His retaliation claim failed for lack of evidence.
John Sala, Jr. was dismissed from the Warwick High School football team in the middle of the 2006 season after two run-ins with law enforcement and school authorities. In response to his son’s dismissal, Sala asserted Constitutional and breach of contract claims against the Warwick Valley Central School District, Superintendant Frank Greenhall and football coach James Sciara. Specifically, he alleged that the defendants violated his son’s procedural and substantive due process rights, violated the First Amendment by retaliating against him for his use of the legal system in an attempt to vindicate his son’s rights, and breached a signed agreement that was meant to address the appropriate sanction for the first of the two incidents.
Shortly thereafter, the defendants moved for summary judgment
The first incident that contributed to the litigation occurred in early September 2006 at the Sala’s home when police responded to a disturbance and found teens, including Sala, drinking alcohol. Sala was suspended from the football team for the remainder of the 2006 season.
Sala Sr. appealed to Superintendant Greenhall, and the suspension was commuted in a signed settlement agreement to four weeks, conditioned on, inter alia, Sala, Jr. adhering to the school’s code of conduct.
A few weeks later, District Athletic Director John Russo observed Sala, Jr. driving too fast in a school parking lot after a football game and asked him to slow down. Russo maintained that Sala, Jr. responded by directing profanity at him. Sala, Jr. was then ticketed by a police officer in the parking lot for driving after 9:00 p.m. in violation of the terms of his “junior license.” The following Monday, the Salas met with Coach Sciarra and several of the assistant coaches to discuss the incident, and Sciarra dismissed Sala, Jr. from the football team. Represented by counsel, the Salas appealed the dismissal to Superintendant Greenhall. The plaintiff claimed that Russo had a “longstanding antipathy toward the Sala family” and that his son “had done nothing to warrant his dismissal from the football team.” The court noted in this instant opinion, however, that “not a scintilla of evidence was provided to support this allegation.”
The next day, Greenhall sustained Sciarra’s decision to dismiss Sala, Jr. from the team, and advised the plaintiff that he could appeal the decision to the School Board. The plaintiff opted instead to file a lawsuit, where he sought, among other relief, a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction enjoining the defendants from disallowing Sala, Jr.’s participation on the football team. Two days later, the District consented to a temporary restraining order that reinstated Sala, Jr. to the football team, pending further order of the court.
Following a hearing, the presiding judge granted the injunction, which allowed Sala, Jr. to rejoin the football team. But Coach Sciarra played him infrequently and only on defense, even though he had previously acknowledged to the plaintiff that Sala, Jr. was “one of the stars” of the team.
Reviewing the due process claim first, the court noted that the plaintiff “was afforded an opportunity to speak with Coach Sciarra both before and after the coach dismissed John Sala, Jr. from the team. Thereafter Plaintiff was permitted to appeal the decision to Superintendant Greenhall prior to the date John Sala, Jr. would have been eligible to rejoin the team pursuant to his earlier suspension. The District’s attorney sent a letter to Plaintiff’s counsel that expressly stated counsel’s understanding of the specific reason for the dismissal: namely, that after being told to slow down in the parking lot, John Sala, Jr. ‘responded by directing profanity at Mr. Russo [and] continued to drive inappropriately on school grounds.’”
The plaintiff “was represented by counsel at the October 2, 2006 meeting with Superintendant Greenhall and, according to his own pleadings, he was offered an opportunity to ‘present [his] side of the story’ at that meeting. One day later, Superintendant Greenhall set forth his decision to uphold the dismissal in a letter that detailed not only the arguments raised by Plaintiff at the meeting, but also the specific basis for his decision. The letter also expressly informed Plaintiff of his right to appeal the matter to the Board of Education. Under these circumstances, Plaintiff was provided with the adequate and timely due process consistent with not only the decisions of courts in this Circuit, see Mazevski, 950 F.Supp. at 72, n. 2, but also those of the New York State Commissioner of Education. See, e.g., Appeal of Latterell, N.Y. Ed. Dept. Rep. Dec. No. 13,608 (May 17, 1996) (no formal evidentiary hearing required where student athlete dismissed from team on the basis of ‘conduct unbecoming of an athlete;’ opportunity for parents to meet with appropriate school committee was sufficient).” Thus, the court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s procedural due process claims.
The court also found that the plaintiff’s substantive due process claims also fell “woefully short. It is well established that ‘[t]he Fourteenth Amendment does not protect a public education as a substantive fundamental right.’ Handberry v. Thompson, 446 F.3d 335, 352-353 (2d Cir.2006) (citing San Antonio Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1, 35 (1973); Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202, 221 (1982). If public education generally is not a ‘right granted to individuals by the Constitution.’ Plyler, 457 U.S. at 221, Plaintiff’s claim that his son has an individual and constitutionally protected right to play high school football or to receive precisely the same disciplinary treatment as other members of the team involved in the beer incident borders on the absurd. Furthermore, Defendant’s conduct cannot be plausibly considered ‘so egregious, [or] so outrageous, that it may fairly be said to shock the contemporary conscience.’ Velez v. Levy, 401 F.3d 75, 93 (2d Cir.2005) (quoting County of Sacramento v. Lewis, 523 U.S. 833, 847 n. 8 (1998)). Finally, even if the conduct were “conscience-shocking,” the rights alleged to be violated are protected by other more specific constitutional provisions which is alone fatal to Plaintiff’s substantive due process claims. Id. at 94.”
In addition, the retaliation claim failed. The plaintiff “cannot point to evidence that tends to establish the link between the protected activity of filing of this law suit and the alleged act of retaliation, i.e. Coach Sciarra’s decision not to give John Sala, Jr. substantial playing time once he returned to the team,” according to the court.
Finally, the breach of contract claim was inadequate. “The settlement agreement did not immunize John Sala, Jr. from discipline for future misconduct, but rather set the conditions precedent to his reinstatement to the team after the … incident. The dismissal thus could not have violated the Settlement Agreement. Plaintiff fails to point to evidence that establishes a genuinely disputed factual issue as to whether the Settlement Agreement was breached.
Sala, Jr., v.Warwick Valley Central School District et al.; S.D.N.Y.; Slip Copy, 2009 WL 2252493 , No. 06 CV 8185(HB); 7/29/09


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