A jury verdict in favor of a former high school football coach and athletic director who sued his former employer for defamation has been reversed by the South Carolina Court of Appeals, which unanimously ruled that the coach was a public official.
As such, the coach had the burden of proving that the district acted with actual malice, and under the state’s Tort Claims Act, school districts are governmental entities that aren’t liable for losses resulting from employee conduct that constitutes actual malice, the court said. It’s the second time in less than two years that the court has sacked a high school football coach’s defamation claim, potentially teeing up the issue to be kicked to the state’s Supreme Court.
Jeffrey Cruce was a teacher, head football coach, and athletic director at Berkeley High School in Moncks Corner from 2011 to 2015. Cruce made headlines for his unorthodox tactics, particularly on fourth downs, where eschewed punting in favor of trying for a conversion. The tactics didn’t generate a noticeable improvement in the team’s fortunes, however, and in January 2016 Cruce was removed from his positions and reassigned within the Berkeley County School District as a middle-school guidance counselor.
As athletic director, Cruce had maintained student eligibility files for all student-athletes. Prior to Cruce’s departure, an audit had showed those files to be in order. But days after Cruce left, the school’s head athletic trainer inspected the files and sent an email to 45 individuals—current and former coaches, volunteers, and administrators—implying that Cruce had improperly maintained the files because some documents (like consent forms, physical forms, and birth certificates) appeared to be misplaced or out of order.
Cruce sued, claiming that the trainer had made false defamatory statements regarding his professional fitness. At trial, Cruce testified that only athletic directors are certified to maintain eligibility files, while head coaches are authorized to review them. As such, the trainer wasn’t authorized to handle the files and most of the 45 email recipients didn’t need to know about their contents.
Cruce also claimed that the email contained misinformation, including the hint of liability, since the “missing” documents weren’t actually missing, as they either weren’t required to be in the file or were attached to other forms within the file.
The school district argued that because Cruce couldn’t show that the trainer had acted with actual malice, his claims were barred because he was “a public official, [a] limited purpose public official, and/or any complained-of speech was on a matter of public concern.” It also denied that the email, which didn’t mention Cruce by name, was defamatory.
The jury found for Cruce, awarding him $200,000 in damages. On appeal, the school district claimed that it had absolute sovereign immunity under the Tort Claims Act because Cruce was a public figure who had to prove actual malice in order to prevail on a defamation claim, and state law establishes that governmental entities aren’t responsible for employee conduct amounting to actual malice.
Judge Aphrodite Konduras, writing for the court in its Sept. 1 decision, cited the Court of Appeals’ decision in Garrard v. Charleston Cnty. Sch. Dist., which was issued in November 2019 and thus unavailable to the circuit court during Cruce’s trial and the consideration of post-trial motions.
In Garrard, the court noted that an important step in analyzing a defamation case is determining whether the individual is a public official, a public figure, or a private figure. In doing so, the court must consider whether the employee’s position invites public scrutiny and discussion of the person holding it, unrelated to the controversy at issue in the defamation suit.
“A public official’s status may be sufficient because of the public interest in that official’s activity in a particular context instead of the official’s place in the organization’s hierarchy,” Konduras wrote.
The employee in Garrard, Eugene Walpole, was a high school football coach who sued a local newspaper for libel after it published two articles about a controversial pre-game ritual performed by Walpole’s players. The trial court granted summary judgment to the paper, finding Walpole to be a public figure as a teacher and two-sport coach who interacted with parents after games, oversaw team activities, and participated in newspaper and television interviews.
Here, the school district claimed that Cruce had sought media attention for his analytically based “no-punt” philosophy based on statistics showing that a team will win more games if it rarely, if ever, punts or kicks the football. It cited hundreds of news articles mentioning Cruce’s football team, although Cruce contended that he’d taken available opportunities to promote the football program and its players, not himself.
The appeals court determined that Cruce, like Walpole, was thus a public official, or a limited public figure, beholden to the higher standard of actual malice and reversed the trial court’s denial of the district’s motion for a directed verdict.
The ruling may not be the end of the ballgame for the state’s high school football coaches, however. Cruce’s attorneys said that they intend to ask the state’s Supreme Court to review the decision. The plaintiff in the Garrard case also has a pending petition for review before the state Supreme Court as well.
Brandon Gaskins of Moore & Van Allen and Joshua Whitley of Smyth Whitley, both of Charleston, and Andrew Lindemann of Lindemann & Davis and Richard Morgan of Burr & Forman, both of Columbia, represented the Berkeley County School District.
“It was our view all along that he [Cruce] had to prove actual malice, and the Court of Appeals correctly found so,” Morgan said.
Lucy Sanders and Nancy Bloodgood of Bloodgood & Sanders in Mount Pleasant represented Cruce. Bloodgood declined to comment on the ongoing litigation beyond confirming the intention to appeal.
The 12-page decision is Cruce v. Berkeley County School District (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-071-21). The full text of the opinion is available online at sclawyersweekly.com.