The South Carolina Supreme Court recently decided that a high school football coach was not a public official or a public figure for purposes of a defamation claim. The decision meant the coach was able to pocket a $200,000 damage award.
In 2011, Jeff Cruce became the head football coach and athletic director for South Carolina's Berkeley High School. For the 2015 season, he adopted a controversial "no punt" offensive scheme for the football team. According to the court's decision, "[this strategy stirred intense debate among followers of the team and was covered in local and even national sports pages."
The strategy turned out to be a spectacular failure, as Coach Cruce's team suffered a series of lopsided defeats. In December 2015, the Deputy Superintendent of the Berkeley County School District (the District) sent Cruce a letter advising him he was being relieved as coach and athletic director and reassigned to a position as a middle school guidance counselor because he had failed to meet certain performance goals. The District never revealed the reason for Coach Cruce's reassignment to the public. Coach Cruce requested the District reconsider his reassignment.
On January 7, 2016, Berkeley High athletic trainer Chris Stevens sent an email to forty-five people, including administrators, athletic department employees, and volunteer coaches, questioning the integrity and completeness of student athlete files Coach Cruce had maintained. In the email, Stevens remarked the filing issues were a potential "liability" to the District.
On January 8, the District Superintendent sent Coach Cruce a letter upholding his reassignment. Although Coach Cruce completed the rest of the year at the middle school, he resigned at the end of the school year, noting in his resignation letter how the District had humiliated him and destroyed his career by removing him from his coaching and athletic director positions without any public explanation. Coach Cruce later brought a lawsuit against the District, alleging wrongful termination and defamation. His defamation claim was based on several things, including Stevens' email. The trial court granted the District a directed verdict as to his defamation claim, except the portion of the claim related to Stevens' email. In sending the defamation claim based on Steven's email to the jury, the trial court rejected the District's contention that Coach Cruce was required to prove actual malice, ruling Coach Cruce was not a public figure.
The jury awarded Coach Cruce $200,000 in actual damages. The District appealed. The court of appeals reversed, holding Coach Cruce was a public official for purposes of defamation law and the District was therefore entitled to immunity because the South Carolina Tort Claims Act immunizes the District from losses caused by employee conduct amounting to "actual malice." In effect, the appellate court found that Coach Cruce was a public figure, such that Stevens acted with actual malice. This finding immunized the District from liability – admittedly a counterintuitive result.
The South Carolina Supreme Court reversed the appellate court, thereby reinstating the jury verdict.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court found that Coach Cruce was not a "public official." In its view, a public official holds a position that attracts public scrutiny above and beyond that of the rank and file government job, such that "the public has an independent interest in the qualifications and performance of the person" holding the position. A high school football coach – even one who adopts a losing strategy – simply does not fill that bill. As the Supreme Court noted, "[n]o matter how intense the public gaze may be upon sports figures, they do not have any official influence or decision-making authority about serious issues of public policy or core government functions, such as defense, public health and safety, budgeting, infrastructure, taxation, or law and order."
For similar reasons, the Supreme Court found that Coach Cruce was not a "public figure." A public figure "voluntarily inject[s oneself] into and play[s] a prominent role in a public controversy, defined as a controversy whose resolution affects a substantial segment of the public." As the court noted, "[t]he merit of Cruce's coaching strategy was not a controversy that affected large segments of society. Second, even if a public controversy existed over Cruce's coaching strategy, Stevens' defamatory comments related to Cruce's paperwork skills, not his gridiron acumen."
As a result of this case being punted up to the South Carolina Supreme Court, Coach Cruce gets to fair catch $200,000.