On August 1, 2014, U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate issued an opinion awarding former college basketball coach, Denise Taylor-Travis, $200,000 in damages for the mental distress she suffered as a result of the invasion of her privacy while undergoing the process of her termination from the University. This award followed a December 2013 verdict where a jury had awarded Coach Taylor-Travis $182,000 against JSU for breaching her employment contract.
Coach Taylor had been the women’s basketball coach at Jackson State University for over ten years. During that period, she had been selected coach of the year four times. However, by the end of that period, the program was in complete disarray and team members had begun to complain to the Administration about their coach. The Athletics Department had not only provided the student-athletes a forum for their gripes, but also refused to advise the Coach of the specifics of the complaints.
On May 20, 2011, JSU wrote to Coach Taylor and informed her that they intended to terminate her employment pursuant to the “for cause” section of her employment contract. As a basis, they cited a litany of alleged violations of University policy including claims of sexual gender stereotyping, emotional and verbal abuse, threats and coercion, and misappropriation of University funds. Several weeks later, the Clarion Ledger, a statewide newspaper, sent JSU a request for public documents related to the rumors swirling around about Coach Taylor’s further employment with the University.
In response to the public records request, JSU sent the paper several emails, letters and other documents that described the dialogue between JSU and the Coach and how JSU was handling the situation. These documents contained statements from Coach Taylor accusing the University of violating Title IX, notification from the University that they were putting the Coach on administrative leave pending an investigation into “professional misconduct,” and an agenda of a meeting which included references to sexual orientation harassment, emotional and verbal abuse, and misappropriation of funds. On June 27, 2011, the Clarion Ledger published a story about Coach Taylor on its blog and posted the documents it had received from the University. It is the release of those documents that was the basis for her claim of invasion of privacy. Two days later, on June 29, 2011, Coach Taylor was terminated.
Coach Taylor brought suit against Jackson State alleging retaliation under Title VII; retaliation under Title IX; breach of contract; breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing; and invasion of privacy. A jury trial was held on all of the counts except for the invasion of privacy claim, to which the parties agreed to a bench trial. On December 3, 2013, the jury returned a verdict in favor of JSU on the retaliation claims, but in favor of Coach Taylor on the breach of contract claims. The jury did not find JSU’s given reasons for terminating Coach Taylor to be credible. They awarded Coach Taylor $182,000---her salary she would have earned if she had been allowed to complete the remaining two years on her current employment contract.
The remaining invasion of privacy claim is the subject of Judge Wingate’s August 1, 2014 order. Judge Wingate made several comments about the weakness of the University’s defenses at trial and how it affected the invasion of privacy claim. Specifically, the opinion notes that “although this ‘evidence’ of sexual harassment was the main public megaphone for this litigation to reach the public ears, at closing arguments, this evidence did not rise to a whisper.”
Under Mississippi law, a defendant can be liable where it gives publicity to a matter concerning the private life of another and the matter disclosed is the kind that would be highly offensive to a reasonable person and is not of legitimate concern to the public. The Court found that the circumstances surrounding a person’s termination, especially when based on accusations of sexual harassment and misappropriation of funds, are matters that a reasonable person would find offensive if made public. The Court went on to examine the release of the documents by the University to the newspaper. The opinion points out that “personnel records” may be considered documents to be exempted from disclosure under Mississippi’s Public Records Act, depending on their content. Judge Wingate reviewed opinions of the Mississippi courts and its Attorney General and held that documents related to internal evaluations and discipline, at least in this context, should be exempted from public record requests. Those documents related to a confidential personnel decision that contained “highly offensive” information and therefore, the release of them to a statewide-published newspaper was an invasion of privacy by the University.
With regard to the damages suffered by Coach Taylor as a result of the invasion of her privacy, the Court heard testimony from numerous individuals including Coach Taylor’s pastor, her husband and even her twelve year old son. All of the witnesses described how the termination process and the disclosure of the documents to the newspaper caused her great stress and fear of never being able to find another job. Several witnesses even described her discussions of suicide. Based on that testimony, the Court awarded her $200,000 for her mental anguish as a result of the disclosure of the personnel documents.
The jury verdict and the subsequent court opinion on invasion of privacy may be the end to a very heated and very public employment dispute. A university coach’s struggles on the field or court of play are usually of great interest to the press. As this litigation shows, however, a school must be very careful as to how it airs its dirty laundry, if at all.
Republished with permission. This article first appeared in the subscription-based online site, Sports Litigation Alert, Volume 11, Issue 18, on October 3, 2014.