Legal Updates


COURT HOLDS THAT PUBLIC SCHOOL COACH IS NOT A PUBLIC OFFICIAL FOR PURPOSES OF A DEFAMATION CLAIM

September 24, 2019

The Minnesota Supreme Court recently had the opportunity to consider the legal structure applicable to a claim by a coach that a parent had engaged in unlawful defamatory conduct towards him.  McGuire v. Bowlin, 2019 WL 4180048 (Minn. Sup. Ct., 09/04/2019), provides an interesting discussion of the status of a public school athletic coach, specifically, whether coaches are public officials and what level of protections they have against attacks on their reputation.

Serving as a high school athletic coach is both rewarding and at times thankless.  Public School Athletic Directors repeatedly report finding and retaining qualified coaches as their number one challenge.[1]  They cite parental behavior as one of the primary factors contributing to this difficulty.  It does not take much work to find a story or an article discussing the difficulties youth sports programs are having finding and retaining coaches and officials due to frustration with often out of control behavior by parents.

Coach Accused of Wrongdoing

In the spring of 2014, four parents filed complaints with the Woodbury High School Board of Education alleging that the high school girls’ basketball head coach, Coach McGuire, engaged in swearing during practice, making inappropriate physical contact with players, and flirting with the players.  As to the inappropriate contact, the parents accused Coach McGuire of moving players by their shoulders and hips during practice and giving one girl a backrub during a game.

It is unclear from the Court’s opinion whether the school conducted an investigation, and if it did, what its findings were, but immediately after receiving the parents’ complaint, the school placed Coach McGuire on administrative leave and shortly after that, the school did not renew his appointment.

Two of the four parents also filed complaints with the Minnesota Department of Education (Department) under Minnesota’s maltreatment-of-minors statute (similar to Wisconsin Chapter 48, child abuse and neglect statute).  The Court record reflects that the Department conducted an investigation into one parent’s complaint (Bowlin), and found that nothing inappropriate had occurred.  As to the other parent’s complaint, the Court found that there was nothing in the record to suggest that the Department reached a different conclusion on that complaint.[2]

In addition to filing the complaint with the school board and the Department of Education, Bowlin also made several statements to others regarding the coach’s conduct. Specifically, she told one individual that Coach McGuire was in jail and to another, she forwarded a newspaper article titled “Woodbury man sentenced to jail in stolen funds case”.  The communication suggested that the article somehow involved Coach McGuire although it was undisputed that it did not.

Coach Filed Defamation Suit Against Parents

In December 2015, the coach filed a defamation lawsuit against the four parents.  The trial court and the court of appeals dismissed all of the claims.  The courts dismissed the claims against three of the parents for several reasons, including that the Coach was a public official.  As to Bowlin, the court dismissed her claims on the basis that the coach was a public official and that no evidence of actual malicious intent had been introduced.

If a plaintiff in a defamation claim is designated as a public official, he or she must meet a far higher standard to establish liability on the part of the defendant.  Standard defamation claims require that a plaintiff prove that the false and defamatory statement made by the defendant “had a tendency to harm the plaintiff’s reputation” and that the defendant was negligent in making the statements.  A public official, however, must show that the false and defamatory statements were made with actual malice, i.e., the intent to harm; and that the defendant knew the statements were false or acted with reckless disregard for the truth.

Court Found that Coach is Not a Public Official

The “public officials” standard for defamation claims was first announced by the U.S. Supreme Court in New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1966).  Essentially, a public official has placed him or herself in a position where the public has a protected First Amendment right to criticize them.  The importance of public discourse on matters of public interest outweighs a public official’s reputational interest, unless that official can prove that the false statements were made for the express purpose of harming the official and the false nature of the statements was known or should have been known.

Designation of a person as a public official goes beyond just those who are elected officials. It includes those whose position satisfies at least one of the following: (a) they serve in a position requiring they perform governmental duties directly related to the public interest; (b) they have substantial ability to greatly influence the outcome of matters of public interest; or (c) they are government employees who have or appear to have substantial responsibility for or control over the conduct of governmental affairs.  As to this last category, the Court noted that it is not sufficient just to show that the individual “received a government paycheck”.  In other words, not all government employees are public officials.

In evaluating the factors pertinent to whether a person is a public official, the Court noted that there was undoubtedly some public interest in the coach’s performance and that school sports are a matter of public interest.  However, the Court noted that these were insufficient to overcome the coach’s interest in his reputation – and in the public’s interest in protecting the reputational interests of those who perform coaching duties.  Ultimately, the interest in the free debate of matters of public interest is not sufficiently present to render a high school coach a “public official”.

Importantly, the Court noted that the analysis focuses on the role of a coach – not the type of conduct at issue.  The disturbing nature of the allegations, i.e., allegations of inappropriate physical contact with students/minors – do not bear on the analysis of whether the individual is a public official.

Court Found that Coach is Not a Limited-Purpose Public Figure

The Court also addressed the argument raised by the defendant that, even if not a public official, the coach qualified as a limited-purpose public figure.  A limited-purpose public figure is also required to establish actual malice in order to establish liability in a defamation claim.

A person can become a limited-purpose public figure if they are not otherwise a public official, but thrust themselves into a public debate and acquire, by their actions, significant influence over that issue.  In this case, the Court noted that the only controversy involved was that manufactured by the defendant – namely, the accusation of the coach’s wrongdoing.  Absent those allegations, there was no controversy.  In other words, there was no evidence of any controversy related to his success as a coach. In short, the Court noted, “a party cannot stir up controversy by making defamatory statements and then point to the resulting controversy as a basis for assigning the defamed party public figure status”.

Case was Sent Back for Trial

After successfully defeating Bowlin’s argument that he was a public official, the coach is now afforded the opportunity to pursue his defamation claim against the parent without having to establish that she intended to harm him or that he she knew the allegations were false.  Whether he can establish compensable damages as a result is a separate matter.  He will; however, have the opportunity to defend his reputation to some degree.

Conclusion

High school athletics has and will continue to be an integral part of the high school experience.  Unfortunately, that means that dealing with overbearing and often belligerent parents will continue to be a part of coaching.  But, with this case, and others like it around the country employing similar analysis, coaches subjected to false accusations and defamatory statements may be more able to defend themselves.

For districts, this poses a balance between respecting parents’ involvement and not discouraging reporting of legitimate concerns, with the coaches’ right to protect themselves from efforts to permanently damage their reputations by irresponsible parental behavior.  One important takeaway from this case, is the importance of conducting investigations into allegations of wrongdoing and making efforts to resolve these disputes before they escalate as things did in this matter.

For questions regarding this article, please contact the author, Attorney Geoffrey A. Lacy (email: glacy@strangpatteson.com; telephone: 844.833.0824), or your Strang, Patteson, Renning, Lewis & Lacy, s.c., attorney.

[1] Breaking down the top five concerns of athletic directors, Coach and A.D. Magazine, January 28, 2018.

[2] Of the original four parents involved, this case only deals with the allegations between the coach and one parent, Bowlin.  The proceedings involving the other three parents did not make it to the Supreme Court due to a number of procedural reasons not pertinent for this discussion.

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