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McCollough v. Noblesville Schools

Court of Appeals of Indiana

November 2, 2016

David McCollough, Appellant-Defendant, Cross-Appellee
Noblesville Schools and Jeff Bryant, Appellees-Plaintiffs.

         Appeal from the Hamilton Circuit Court Trial Court Cause No. 29C01-1409-CT-8761 The Honorable Paul A. Felix, Judge

          Attorneys for Appellant S. Matthew Cook Stephen W. Cook Noblesville, Indiana

          Attorneys for Appellees Andrew A. Manna Alexander P. Pinegar Brent R. Borg Noblesville, Indiana

          Altice, Judge.

         Case Summary [1]

         [¶1] David McCollough filed a complaint against Noblesville Schools and Jeff Bryant, Principal of Noblesville High School (Bryant) (collectively, the Defendants) in which he asserted claims for defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence, breach of contract, and tortious interference with a contract/business relationship. McCollough also claimed that his due process rights were violated. The Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment. The trial court held a hearing and thereafter denied summary judgment as to McCollough's defamation claim, but granted summary judgment in favor of the Defendants on all remaining claims. In this interlocutory appeal, McCollough challenges the grant of summary judgment while the Defendants cross-appeal the denial of summary judgment with regard to the defamation claim.

         [¶2] We affirm.

         Facts & Procedural History

         [¶3] McCollough was the head boys basketball coach for Noblesville High School for twenty years, and for each year, he executed and worked under a coaching contract with a fixed term. During basketball practice on January 28, 2014, players were engaged in a drill when McCollough called a foul on one of them. As described by witnesses, the player then threw a basketball more forcefully than appropriate at McCollough. McCollough admits that "out of frustration" he threw the ball back toward the player. Appellant's Appendix at 297. Some of those who witnessed the incident indicated that the player reached high for the ball and the ball grazed his fingertips. Those same witnesses indicated that had the player not reached for the ball, the ball would not have touched the player.

         [¶4] According to McCollough, on January 29, 2014, Bryant notified him that "a disgruntled player . . . had alleged that [McCollough] threw a basketball in the manner of a baseball throw at [him] in anger and intentionally struck [him] in the head with a ball. . . ." Id. at 296. McCollough claims that he "promptly denied that [he] ever threw a basketball at any player in the manner of a baseball pass, threw a pass in anger, or ever hit a player in the head or face with a ball." Id. According to Bryant, he and McCollough watched a video recording of the incident, which apparently shows that the ball stopped when it reached the player indicating that it did indeed hit the player in some fashion.[2]McCollough did not respond to Bryant's observation, but continued to maintain that he was not aware the ball hit the player. McCollough claims that Bryant stated he would conduct further investigation into the matter.

         [¶5] McCollough asserts that Bryant failed to conduct a thorough investigation in that he did not interview witnesses to the incident. Rather, McCollough claims that Bryant relied solely on the information conveyed to him by the basketball player. McCollough further claims that Bryant led administrators and others to believe that he had conducted a thorough investigation, including interviewing players and assistant coaches who were present and/or witnessed the incident. Bryant, on the other hand, asserts that given McCollough's admission that he threw a ball toward the player and a player's description of what occurred, there was sufficient evidence to inform him of what had transpired and thus, no further investigation was necessary.

         [¶6] On January 31, 2014, Bryant advised McCollough that he was being placed on administrative leave for five days as a result of the incident. McCollough was also asked to attend a press conference on the morning of February 1, 2014, to address the incident involving the player. He could not attend however because he became physically ill as a result of the suspension. Instead, McCollough agreed to work with a public relations director for Noblesville Schools to draft a statement that would be released to the public. The statement to which McCollough agreed provides:

An incident occurred at basketball practice earlier this week in which, out of frustration during a drill, I threw a basketball and the ball allegedly hit a player. My actions were unacceptable, and I greatly regret that I allowed this to happen. I am sorry and publicly apologize to my players, families, and fans. This is not the behavior that I want to model for my players, and it will not happen again.

Id. at 297 (emphasis supplied). Later that day, Noblesville Schools sent the above statement to media outlets in Central Indiana and elsewhere. However, the word "allegedly", which McCollough claims he was adamant about including, had been removed without McCollough's knowledge or consent. McCollough maintains that the word "allegedly" was removed at the direction of Bryant[3] and that its removal completely changed the meaning of McCollough's statement such that it read as an admission by McCollough to hitting a player with a basketball.

         [¶7] On February 4, 2014, McCollough was called into a meeting with Bryant and an assistant superintendent and was instructed to sign a memo, the substance of which McCollough claims he did not agree with.[4] McCollough maintains that he was told that his signature was required before he could return to teaching and coaching the basketball team. McCollough asserts that he signed the memo as an acknowledgment of what was alleged and with the further understanding that he could submit a letter for his file that contained his version of events. On February 18, 2014, McCollough did just that and submitted to Noblesville Schools a "[s]tatement for file - to be attached to signed paper from suspension letter" that set forth his version of what transpired during practice on January 28, 2014. Id. at 76.

         [¶8] McCollough's written contract for his position as the head basketball coach expired by its own terms on March 24, 2014. After that date, McCollough maintains that he continued to act as the head basketball coach as he had done for the previous nineteen years by identifying himself as the head coach, corresponding with others in his capacity as head coach, working with returning players, and talking to college basketball coaches and scouts. McCollough also notes that at a school board meeting on April 15, 2014, he was introduced as the head coach of the boys basketball team.

         [¶9] On April 16, 2014, Bryant handed McCollough a letter that informed McCollough that he was not being recommended for the head coaching position for the following school year. McCollough claims that he appealed the decision in writing and asked the Noblesville School Board to review the matter. However, a hearing was never held. Thereafter, McCollough claims that he applied for approximately thirty-one basketball coaching positions at high schools and colleges around Indiana. McCollough asserts that the main reason he did not receive any of the coaching positions is directly related to the public statement issued by Noblesville Schools that read as an admission by him to throwing a ball at and hitting a player.

         [¶10] On September 4, 2014, McCollough filed his complaint against the Defendants, asserting claims for defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence, breach of contract, and tortious interference with a contract/business relationship.[5] McCollough also claimed the Defendants violated his due process rights. On December 22, 2014, the Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment. The trial court held a hearing on October 29, 2015, and issued its order on November 17, 2015, granting the Defendants' motion for summary judgment as to all of McCollough's claims except for defamation. McCollough filed a motion to reconsider or in the alternative a motion to certify the court's summary judgment order for interlocutory appeal. After a hearing, the trial court denied the motion to reconsider, but granted the request for certification. This court accepted jurisdiction on February 1, 2016.

         Discussion & Decision

         [¶11] In this interlocutory appeal, we are asked to consider the appropriateness of the trial court's summary judgment ruling. We begin by noting that Indiana follows a heightened summary judgment standard. As our Supreme Court has recently recognized:

Summary judgment "is a desirable tool to allow the trial court to dispose of cases where only legal issues exist." But it is also a "blunt ... instrument" by which "the non-prevailing party is prevented from having his day in court". We have therefore cautioned that summary judgment "is not a summary trial"; and the Court of Appeals has often rightly observed that it "is not appropriate merely because the non-movant appears unlikely to prevail at trial." In essence, Indiana consciously errs on the side of letting marginal cases proceed to trial on the merits, rather than risk short-circuiting meritorious claims.

Hughley v. State, 15 N.E.3d 1000, 1003-04 (Ind. 2014) (citations omitted).

         [¶12] Summary judgment is appropriate if, after reviewing the designated evidence, "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and ... the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." T.R. 56(C). A fact is material if its resolution would affect the outcome of the case, and an issue is genuine if a trier of fact is required to resolve the parties' differing accounts of the truth, or if the undisputed material facts support conflicting reasonable inferences. Williams v. Tharp, 914 N.E.2d 756, 761 (Ind. 2009). When the trial court has granted summary judgment, the nonmoving party has the burden on appeal of persuading us that the grant of summary judgment was in error. Adams v. ArvinMeritor, Inc., 48 N.E.3d 1, 9 (Ind.Ct.App. 2015). We review an order granting summary judgment de novo. Id.

         Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

         [¶13] The tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED) occurs when the defendant "(1) engages in extreme and outrageous conduct (2) which intentionally or recklessly (3) causes (4) severe emotional distress to another." Bah v. Mac's Convenience Stores, LLC, 37 N.E.3d 539, 549 (Ind.Ct.App. 2015) (quoting Curry v. Whitaker, 943 N.E.2d 354, 361 (Ind.Ct.App. 2011)), trans. denied. The requirements to prove this tort are rigorous, and at its foundation is "the intent to harm the ...

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