Former Coach Challenges the Board’s Decision to Terminate Based on Parent Complaints

Mar 3, 2017

A Minnesota state appeals court has affirmed the ruling of a school board to terminate a district employee’s football and baseball coaching contracts and to terminate his employment as activities director, finding that it followed its procedures and relied on appropriate evidence.
Plaintiff Tony Thiel is the former activities director, head baseball coach, and head football coach for Independent School District No. 803 in the state. Thiel was a successful coach in the district for 23 years, pursuant to one-year coaching contracts that were subject to renewal by the school board. His employment as activities director was at will and could be terminated at any time at the discretion of the school board.
The superintendent informed Thiel on Dec. 4, 2015, that the school board did not intend to renew his coaching contracts and that he may be terminated from his activities director position. Thiel sent a letter to the superintendent on Dec. 8 concerning the Dec. 4 conversation. Thiel’s Dec. 8 letter alleges that the superintendent informed him that his coaching contracts would not be renewed “due to parent concerns in both sports.” The superintendent responded to Thiel in a Dec. 10 letter, writing, “I did not say that parent concerns are ‘the’ reason that the Board is considering your non-renewal. Concerns have been expressed by others and the Board wants to move in another direction in the coaching for football and baseball.”
The superintendent conveyed to the school board members the “general nature” of the complaints against Thiel prior to the board meeting, according to the court. At its open meeting on Dec. 14, the school board voted not to renew Thiel’s coaching contracts and approved the termination of Thiel’s employment as activities director. The school board did not discuss the reasoning behind its decisions at the Dec.14 meeting. The school board sent two letters to Thiel on Dec. 21 notifying him of its decisions.
Thiel’s attorney sent a letter to the superintendent and school board chairperson on Dec. 21 requesting that the school board inform Thiel of the reasons behind the school board’s decisions. The superintendent responded in a letter on Jan. 4, 2016, explaining that the School Board “desires to move in a new direction and coaching style; and (b) concerns about your conduct were raised by parents, other coaches and Board members.” The superintendent noted that Thiel’s employment as activities director was at will and the school board was not required to provide a reason for termination of that appointment. In a Jan. 11 letter to the superintendent and chairperson of the school board, Thiel requested an opportunity to respond to the complaints against him.
The superintendent signed an affidavit, dated Feb. 17, summarizing the complaints brought by parents, board members, and other coaches against Thiel. The affidavit also included an attached document of handwritten notes taken contemporaneously by the superintendent while receiving oral complaints regarding Thiel. The affidavit concludes by stating that the superintendent “conveyed the general nature of these complaints to school board members prior to the Dec. 14, 2015 meeting.”
Thiel and his attorney appeared before the school board at an open meeting on March 14. Thiel’s attorney questioned Thiel about the complaints alleged in the Feb. 17 affidavit. The affidavit states that Thiel made inappropriate comments toward student-athletes. Thiel’s attorney asked Thiel if he once told a student, “I bet if you had a plate of pancakes on the plate you’d get there faster.” Thiel dismissed his comments as a “running joke.” Thiel denied that he told a student-athlete “if he wasn’t so fat he would be able to run.” He claimed he has never “called an athlete fat” and has never used “this kind of negative language with any athlete.”
The school board unanimously voted to affirm its decision not to renew Thiel’s coaching contracts.
Thiel appealed, resulting in the appeals court’s decision to review the school board’s quasi-judicial employment decision by writ of certiorari. Dokmo v. Indep. Sch. Dist. No. 11, Anoka-Hennepin, 459 N.W.2d 671, 673 (Minn. 1990). The appeals court noted that it can review such decisions for the misapplication of law, but not to review decisions purely of fact or to determine the weight of evidence, nor to review decisions based upon conflicting evidence.
The appeals court first considered Thiel’s argument that the school board’s Dec. 14 meeting was “procedurally irregular because the school board violated the Minnesota Open Meeting Law by forging a consensus before the Dec. 14 meeting. The school board argues that Thiel has presented no evidence to support his claim and that, in any event, Open Meeting Law claims are outside of disagreed with Thiel.
“Thiel lacks any evidence that school board members met in private or attempted to forge a consensus outside of the Dec. 14 meeting,” it wrote, adding that Thiel “has not met his burden of proving that the school board’s proceedings were irregular.”
The Role of Parent Complaints in a Coach’s Firing
It then turned to Thiel’s argument that the school board reliance violated Minn. Stat. § 122A.33, subd. 3 because the school board relied only on parent complaints in making its decision.
Thiel even presented a letter from Rep. Paul Marquart, who co-authored an omnibus education bill that featured legislation about parental reasons not being a sole reason to get rid of a coach.
“Basically, it was just reminding the school board of the law. I said the intent was so that it wasn’t a parental complaint that was driving this,” Marquart told the media. “I also said that go with intent and don’t try to circumvent by coming up with other reasons later. Here’s Tony Thiel, who was a very successful coach. I got to know him, and I followed the sports because I was a representative there. One of the things they had was they wanted to change direction. What direction do they want to change? That’s what gets me.”
Nevertheless, the argument missed the mark.
“Thiel misconstrues the statute as prohibiting a school board from relying on parent complaints—even complaints of other coaches and board members if their children attend school in the district,” wrote the court. “The school board argues that it would be absurd if the statute estopped the school board ‘from taking any action because the knowledge originated from a parent.’ We agree with the school board’s interpretation. We construe statutes ‘to avoid absurd results and unjust consequences.’ Am. Family Ins. Grp. v. Schroedl, 616 N.W.2d 273, 278 (Minn. 2000). The plain language of the statute bars the school board from basing its decision on the ‘existence’ and not the substance of parent complaints. Id. A broad interpretation of ‘existence of parent complaints’ would bar a school board from basing a nonrenewal decision on serious allegations made by parents that the coach jeopardizes the health and wellness of student athletes. Minn. Stat. § 122A.33, subd. 3, only prohibits a school board from not renewing a coaching contract based solely on ‘the existence of parent complaints.’
“Sufficient evidence in the record establishes that the school board based its decision on the substance of the complaints brought by parents, other coaches, and board members. The school board bears the burden of making a sufficient record to justify its actions. Elston, 214 Minn. at 211-12, 7 N.W.2d at 753. We will reverse a school board decision if it is ‘without any evidence to support it.’ Dokmo, 459 N.W.2d at 673. The Feb. 17 affidavit establishes that Thiel made disparaging remarks about the students and teams he coached. Thiel admitted that he made some of these disparaging remarks but claims to have refuted the allegations against him at the March 14 meeting. The school board may have reasonably found Thiel’s testimony not credible, and we defer to the school board’s credibility assessments. Downie, 367 N.W.2d at 916. The school board also decided ‘to move in a new direction and coaching style.’ Therefore, the school board did not base its decision not to renew Thiel’s coaching contracts solely on the existence of parent complaints. Minn. Stat. § 122A.33, subd. 3.
“Because sufficient evidence establishes that the school board based its decision on the substance of complaints by parents, other coaches, and board members, we reject Thiel’s argument that the school board violated Minn. Stat. § 122A.33, subd. 3. Dokmo, 459 N.W.2d at 673.”
Tony Thiel, Relator, v. Independent School District No. 803, Respondent; Ct. App. Minn.; A16-0753, 2017 Minn. App. Unpub. LEXIS 23; 1/9/17
Attorneys of Record: (For plaintiff) Sharon L. Van Dyck, Andrew T. James, Fafinski Mark & Johnson, P.A. Eden Prairie, Minnesota. (For defendant) Maggie R. Wallner, Adam C. Wattenbarger, Kennedy & Graven, Chartered, Minneapolis, Minnesota.


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