Former Assistant Football Coach Sues University of Southern California over Firing

Sep 13, 2019

By Professor John Miller, Ph.D.
A former University of Southern California (USC), assistant football coach sued the school claiming that he was terminated from his position after he reported possible NCAA violations within the program. Rick Courtright, a coach who had 33 years of experience in intercollegiate and professional football interviewed at USC for a “10th position” coach in 2016. Courtright was informed it was anticipated that the NCAA was going to provide a 10th position coach to Division 1 football staffs in 2017. As defined, a “position coach” is a contract position with an annual salary ranging from $250K- $900K for two years with a bonus, raise, and possible contract extension if the team has a successful season (Courtright v. University of Southern California, 2019). However, when Courtright interviewed for the 10th position coach the NCAA had not officially passed it. Yet, according to the lawsuit, USC interviewers brought up the subject during the interview with Courtright and implied that he would be eligible to fill the position when it was officially created.
A year after his hire to USC, Courtright asserted that USC retaliated against him after he reported the football department had conducted practices of compensating undergraduate assistants to pose as Graduate Assistants (GA) in online courses to make it appear that the actual GA’s had fulfilled their enrollment requirements when they did not. To clarify, GA’s at USC were required to be enrolled in a minimum of 50 percent of the regular graduate program of studies offered at the University to be able to coach and receive a stipend for their work (Courtright v. University of Southern California, 2019).
According to the lawsuit, Courtright claimed that he overheard two graduate assistants conversing about the presumed understanding with Clancy Pendergast, USC’s defensive coordinator. According to the lawsuit, Courtright allegedly overhead a football GA state words to the effect that he needed to get more money from Pendergast to pay an undergraduate student for the classwork he was doing on behalf of the GA. Courtright further charged that he witnessed Pendergast handing one of the GA’s an unspecified amount of cash that was to be passed to one of the students.
A year later, in 2017, following the observed actions by the GA’s, Courtright informed two University compliance officers about the incidents. The compliance officers assured Courtright that they would notify their supervisor about the alleged violations while keeping his identity anonymous. Further, Courtright contended that the GA’s drove Pendergast to recruit sites and also drove courtesy cars for personal reasons while working at a USC football camp. In addition to being against NCAA rules, Courtright believed that these incidents violated state and/or federal laws. Finally, Courtright reported to Pendergast that some USC players, managers, and student assistants were running around the field with no supervision nor protective equipment during a pre-game warm-up. Allegedly, Pendergast told Courtright not to be concerned, although “players were not allowed to be unsupervised on the field without a full-time coach present in light of the imminent risk to the health and safety of players, student assistants, and employee staff” (Courtright v. University of Southern California, 2019, para. 31). Unfortunately, later that season two USC players suffered concussions after colliding with each other before the official pre-game warm-up against Washington State University. The players were not supervised, nor were they wearing protective gear. Courtright reported this incident as well believing that the USC football department was negligent in protecting the safety and health of the football players and staff members.
Following a meeting between Pendergast and the compliance office, Courtright asserted that actions to isolate him from the team occurred. Courtright claimed that in addition to other football staff members refusing to interact with him, he was subjected to “harassing incidents in the office including but not limited to someone gluing his mouse to the table, someone logging into his computer and moving it to a different location in the department and someone stealing Courtright’s ski cap and jacket from his locker” (Courtright v. University of Southern California, 2019, para. 36).
Courtright alleged that by making these assertions, USC head coach Clay Helton informed him he did not want him back for the following season because “things weren’t working out.” As such, Helton gave Courtright the option to resign or be terminated from his position. Finally, according to the lawsuit, due to his forced resignation Courtright suffered not only physical and mental harm but also “economic harm, and he believes he is unlikely to be hired as a football coach by another college or university” (Courtright v. University of Southern California, 2019, para. 41).
Cause of Actions
As a result of the perceived violations, Courtright brought the following seven causes of actions against USC.
Two of the causes Courtright alleged dealt with retaliation. The first cause related to retaliation as a violation of the California Labor Code. According to the state of California Labor Code, “An employer, or any person acting on behalf of the employer, shall not retaliate against an employee for disclosing information . . . to a person with authority over the employee or another employee who has the authority to investigate, discover, or correct the violation or noncompliance . . . if the employee has reasonable cause to believe that the information discloses a violation of state or federal statute, or a violation of or noncompliance with a local, state, or federal rule or regulation, regardless of whether disclosing the information is part of the employee’s job duties” (§ 1102.5). Additionally, the second cause of action was associated with retaliation in direct violation of California public policy. California Labor Code further states, “the purpose of which is to encourage reports of unlawful acts which affect the public’s opinion of the integrity of the educational system, the safety and health of students and staff participating in Tier 1 Division athletic activities, and the general ethics behind academic collegiate sport programs and its departments, without fearing retaliation” (§1102.5).
To that extent, Courtright perceived that the alleged payments to undergraduate students to complete graduate courses constituted a conspiracy, academic fraud, fraud with the NCAA, negligent supervision, falsification of records, and possible misappropriation of university funds. Moreover, Courtright contended that allowing football players and staff to participate in unsupervised pre-game actions jeopardized their health and well-being.
Violation of California’s Bane Act
The third cause of action brought by the plaintiff was the Bane Act. The Bane Act offers that anyone who “interferes by threat, intimidation, or coercion, or attempts to interfere by threat, intimidation, or coercion, with the exercise or enjoyment by any individual or individuals of rights secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States, or of the rights secured by the Constitution or laws of California” may be sued (Civil Code § 52.1). The lawsuit states that after reporting the supposed violations Courtright was wrongfully harassed at work with contemptible pranks, invasion of his personal locker space, openly exhibited defamatory remarks, blacklisted by department members, and barred from the premises at USC. Additionally, the lawsuit asserts that defendants deliberately caused physical and emotional distress, including depression, insomnia, embarrassment, discomfort, and anxiety by interfering with his rights without concern to the after-effects of his livelihood as a football coach or his overall emotional welfare.
Negligent Supervision
The fourth cause of action brought by Courtright regarded negligent supervision. Citing Doe v.Capital Cities (1996), an employer has a duty to supervise its staff in a way to prevent exposing an employee from harm that the employer knows is likely to occur and does occur. Courtright asserted that USC was negligent in its supervision of Pendergast who allegedly committed academic fraud, common law fraud, endangered the health and safety of students and employees, as well as retaliated and harassed employees in protected activities. As a result of the defendant’s direct, proximate and legal conduct, the lawsuit contends that he suffered economic damages for more than $2 million due to loss of salary and future income, loss of medical benefits, and loss of retirement income and benefits. Such an allegation will be addressed and proven in the future trial.
Common Law Negligence
The fifth cause of action brought was common law negligence. The court in Flores v. AutoZone (2008) reported that an employer could be vicariously liable for the negligent actions of their employees while in the scope of their employment. Courtright asserted that Pendergast was negligent in allowing or instructing others to harass and intimidate him. USC was vicariously responsible for Pendergast’s actions as they took place during the scope of his employment.
Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress and Unfair Business Practices
The final two causes of actions related to intentional infliction of emotional distress and unfair business practices. For both of these causes of action, Courtright alleged that Pendergast and others worked as agents and employees of the USC behaved in such a way that was totally outside the conduct accepted by society. According to Courtright, Pendergast endorsed others in the department to ostracize and shun as well as ban him from the football department which instigated Courtright’s termination and forced resignation. Due to these actions, Courtright asserted that he suffered extreme emotional distress from being robbed of his employment, being publically humiliated in his professional circle, and facing hardships in his personal relationships because of financial hardship and the need to move and start a new career.
As of June 2019, the plaintiff asked to have a trial by jury on the described causes of action. However, in August 2019 the Los Angeles County Superior Court granted USC’s motion to compel arbitration for the lawsuit (Fenno, 2019). The rationale behind the ruling was that Courtright signed a document at the time of his hire in which he agreed to all claims he may have against the University be arbitrated. USC had previously employed arbitration between a football coach, Steve Sarkisian and the University (Fenno, 2019). Using arbitration in this way allows testimony for both sides to be heard and any “paper trail” in the dispute to remain confidential. In this case, the Los Angeles County Superior Court judge declared a stay in the lawsuit pending the result of the arbitration.
Dr. Miller is a visiting professor in Sport Management in the College of Business & Economic Development at The University of Southern Mississippi.
Courtright v. University of Southern California. (2019). Jury trial demanded. Superior Court of the State of California, County of Los Angeles.
Doe v. Capital Cities(1996) 50 Cal. App. 4th 1038, 1054.
Fenno, N. (2019, August 23). Lawsuit by former USC football coach ordered to arbitration. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from former-usc-football-coach-ordered-to-arbitration/ar-AAGfAUk
Flores v.AutoZone W., Inc. (2008) 161 Cal. App. 4th 373, 382


Articles in Current Issue