Seventh Circuit: School Board Was Within Its Right To Fire Coach

Sep 15, 2006

The 7th U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed the ruling of a lower court, which granted summary judgment to a school district that was sued by a disgruntled coach, whose contract was not renewed.
Plaintiff Thomas Ott was hired on a one-year contract to teach special education and coach the boys’ football and girls’ basketball teams at Edinburgh High School in Indiana for the 2001-2002 academic year.
Ott was hired, in spite of the fact that he had a criminal record, which he disclosed to the school board before he was hired. Nevertheless, when the new superintendent, Rebecca Sager, was hired later that academic year, she was troubled by that fact and asked the school board not to renew Ott’s contract.
“As word of the nonrenewal of Ott’s teaching contract spread to the media, Ott’s coaching duties came under fire,” wrote the court. “School board members voted to terminate Ott as the girls’ basketball coach effective immediately, but allowed him to remain as the boys’ football coach through the 2002 season on the condition that he submit to biweekly drug tests.
”Meanwhile, Ott tripped on a piece of carpet at school and injured his back, causing him to resign as football coach on September 6, 2002.”
Ott sued the Edinburgh Community School Corporation, Sager and Dale Bowers, a member of the school board, for denials of equal protection and due process under 42 U.S.C. § 1983; a violation of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq.; breach of contract; defamation; and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
The defendants then successfully moved for summary judgment at the district court level.
“On his equal protection claim the court determined that Ott was not a member of a protected class and had not shown that there were similarly situated employees who were treated more favorably,” wrote the district judge. “As for his due process claim, the court held that Ott had no property right in continued employment given that his contract was for a single academic year. The court also found nothing in the record to suggest that Ott ever sought medical leave under the FMLA following his injury. The court granted summary judgment dismissing Ott’s contract claim because the contract had expired on its own terms and Ott was given statutory notice of its nonrenewal. Ott’s defamation claim faltered because Ott himself had been the first to disclose his criminal record and, in any event, the information was true. Finally, the court dismissed Ott’s claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress because there was no evidence that Sager and Bowers had acted so outrageously as to shock anyone’s conscience.”
The appeals court noted that Ott’s only argument on appeal is his assertion that “the school board singled him out by requiring him to take drug tests. Ott claims the athletic director was caught stealing from the school and yet was never required to take a drug test. But Ott and the athletic director are not similarly situated. Ott has a felony drug conviction on his record, whereas the athletic director was never prosecuted for any crimes.”
The court summed up the case as follows:
“The nub of this case is that Ott feels cheated. He was up front about his criminal record, and Bowers assured him that it was not an issue. Later, under a new superintendent, it became an issue. But Ott’s contract was for one year only, and when it expired, the school board could do as it chose.”
Thomas E. Ott v. Edinburgh Community School Corp., et al.[ 7th Cir.; No. 05-4479; 2006 U.S. App. LEXIS 16227; 6/26/06
Attorneys of Record: (For plaintiff) Thomas E. Ott, pro se. (for defendant) Steven D. Groth of Bose, McKinney & Evans in Indianapolis, Ind.
The Attorneys Speak
(from Steve Groth of Bose McKinney & Evans LLP)
“The Edinburgh School Corp is pleased with the result. The most relevant portion of the ruling is the recognition that the teacher was hired as a special ed teacher on a limited license, which expired after one year, and when the position was posted, there were several qualified candidates who were licensed to teach in the area of special education. It was this, along with his negative relations with co-workers, that prevented Mr. Ott from continuing his employment with the school corporation. His felony criminal record became the focus of the public debate over his coaching duties, but was not a primary factor in the decisions of the school board as to his non-renewal as a teacher or his continuation as a coach.”


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