The flexibility of private college coaches to eject team members based on criticism

From a decision on Tuesday Doe v. Haverford CollegeHanded down by Judge Gerald Austin McHugh (ED Pa.):

Plaintiff is a senior at Haverford College… and has been a member of the varsity sports team since his first semester as a freshman. Plaintiff became a captain of his team during his junior year. The parties agree that the plaintiff had no problems with his coach and teammates during the first two and a half years of the team.

During the spring semester in 2022, a rumor began to circulate that the plaintiff had sexually assaulted an unnamed female student on the Haverford campus. According to Plaintiff, the rumor contains no specific details about the alleged assault and Plaintiff has consistently denied having physical or sexual contact with the student identified as the victim of the assault. In early February 2022, two of John’s vice-captains reported the complaint to their coach. Coach advised John that because of his position he should file a sexual misconduct complaint and notify Haverford’s Title IX office of the complaint. The coach advised John that he withdraw from the team until this was resolved, and on the same day the plaintiff informed his teammates via email of his intention to withdraw from the team summarily.

The Title IX office reviewed the information provided by John’s instructor and considered whether it would initiate a formal investigation of the complaint. At some point, the office also contacted the alleged victim, who said she did not want to file any formal charges against the plaintiff. After conducting this initial investigation, the Title IX office did not open a formal investigation and informed the plaintiff that she could continue her life as normal in Haverford.

Shortly thereafter, plaintiff met with his coach, informed him of the Title IX office’s conclusion, and asked him to rejoin the team. The coach, however, advised John that he was no longer welcome in the team, as the other captains did not want him to rejoin. In a follow-up meeting on March 15, the coach reportedly suggested to John that the other captains’ positions were driven by their belief in the veracity of the sexual assault allegations. A week later, on March 22, plaintiff held another meeting with his coach, the Title IX coordinator, the athletic director, and the vice-captains. At this meeting, his co-captains asserted that their opposition to plaintiff’s return to the team was driven by (1) allegations of sexual harassment and (2) plaintiff’s unspecified misogynistic behavior. The coach, relying on this statement from the vice-captains, told the meeting that the plaintiff would not be allowed to rejoin the team.

Since the March 22 meeting, Plaintiff – along with her parents, grandmother and counselor – has engaged in numerous communications and meetings with Haverford staff and administrators to seek reinstatement on the team. In early May, plaintiff met with Haverford’s dean and athletic director to request that he be allowed to rejoin the team. But the dean stood by the coach’s actions, insisting that participation in athletics is a privilege, not a right, for students, and said John’s return would lead other team members and coaches to resign. In August and September, the plaintiff’s parents and counselors reached out to Haverford officials in hopes of resolving the issue before the fall semester. Plaintiff also proposed a plan whereby Haverford would hire a senior administrator who would ensure that the coach would allow Plaintiff to return to the team.

In response, the administration rejected Plaintiff’s proposed plan and instead proposed a possible path to reinstatement that involved persuading Plaintiff, along with his coach and an assistant captain, to allow Plaintiff to rejoin the team. Plaintiff next met with her coach on October 24, 2022. During the meeting, the coach acknowledged that the sexual harassment allegation was not a valid basis for keeping the plaintiff off the team, but his teammates also raised other concerns about the plaintiff’s return to the team. The group was unrelated to the alleged assault. The coach would not elaborate and insisted that the plaintiff would discuss these concerns directly with his teammates. The plaintiff did not meet the team’s two vice-captains until several weeks later on December 2, after the start of the winter season. During the meeting, one of the vice-captains—Captain A—remained steadfast in his belief that plaintiff should not return to the team. When questioned as to why, Captain A stated that he had expressed general concern about the plaintiff’s behavior towards women but did not identify any specific past events or incidents demonstrating this behavior….

The court concluded that the refusal to reinstate Doe to the party was not likely a breach of contract:

[T]That coach does not invoke the assault allegations as grounds for excluding Doe from the current season. Instead, the coach urged the team to react negatively to Doe’s possible return. Indeed, in his affidavit, the coach represented that his decision not to reinstate Doe to the team was intended to prevent disruption. Specifically, coaches avoid that:

A significant number of Doe’s former teammates told me they were deeply uncomfortable with Doe’s rejoining the team. Many said they would resign if Doe was reappointed. I have determined that Doe’s participation in the team will negatively impact the team environment and seriously inhibit or eliminate the team’s ability to perform to its full potential…

Based on my discussions with Doe, my discussions with co-captains and team members, and my own personal observations of team dynamics, I determined that denying Doe’s request to rejoin the team was in the best interest of all concerned …

My decision was not intended to be punitive to Doe, but rather a necessary operational decision to pursue optimal team performance. My decision was not based on an assessment of whether Doe engaged in conduct that, if true, would have violated Haverford’s sexual misconduct policy. This was based entirely on my deep and sincere concern that allowing Doe to rejoin the team would negatively impact team performance and become an incapacitating distraction.

… Moreover, I am persuaded by Haverford’s argument that the coach’s actions throughout the process constitute a reasonable exercise of the broad discretion that teams vest in coaches in managing their teams. Coaches typically have to consider a number of factors—both objective and subjective—in managing a team, and these factors include distractions, team cohesion, and morale…

Many of the arguments Doe raises are justiciable in nature, denouncing “mob justice” and emphasizing how unfair it is that he lacks a process to protect his reputation. But on that claim Doe seeks injunctive relief at law, not equity, and my role is not to determine what is consistent with the traditional values ​​of Haverford College or what a coach should follow when faced with a discrepancy. His athletes and his team. The specific legal question before me is whether Doe has established a reasonable chance of success on his breach of contract claim, and I conclude that he has not….

And the court also held that Doe had not sufficiently shown irreparable harm:

Courts are divided on whether denial of athletic opportunity constitutes irreparable harm. If I am persuaded that Doe’s absence from the team resulted directly from Haverford’s failure to follow Title IX procedures, a finding of irreparable procedural harm would readily follow. But the record here does not strongly support such a conclusion. Doe’s college career is quickly coming to an end, and in that case, it can be said that the opportunity to compete for Haverford will be lost unexpectedly. But Doe points to any future consequences flowing from his disqualification, such as the loss of future opportunities as an athlete {[s]ome courts have even held that such damage is too speculative to constitute irreparable harm}, and even at this stage he can compete as an unaffiliated athlete in some competitions, as his coach noted in an email.

Ultimately, the harm that Doe most seeks to redress is reputational, and it is unclear that an injunction would provide such relief…. It is difficult to see how an order of this court inserting itself into the matter of a college athletic team would provide such relief, as teammates may express their views in a variety of ways beyond the court’s control.

Congratulations to Joshua Richards and Levi Shea representing Haverford.