Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Brutish coaching does not violate the Constitution

The football coach was a brute, that's true. His players brought a federal lawsuit against him. The factual allegations are disturbing, but they do not establish a constitutional violation, so the case is dismissed.

The case is Votta v. Castellani, a summary order decided on January 23. The constitutional theory here is substantive due process, which says the government cannot treat you arbitrarily in a shocking way. This is the hail-Mary way to win a constitutional claim, when no other constitutional theories will work, which is why courts are so reluctant to recognize claims for substantive due process. Two points of interest here.

First, the Second Circuit has held that government officials (like schoolteachers) can violate the Constitution if they infringe on your bodily integrity. In Johnson v. Newburgh Enlarged School District (2001) (a case I briefed), the plaintiff schoolchild had a claim because the gym teacher beat the hell out of him. But in Smith v. Half Hollow Hills School District (2002), the student did not have a claim because the school instructor had merely slapped him in the face full-force, "allegedly causing the student both great physical pain and severe emotional pain for which he underwent psychotherapy."

Johnson and Smith are guideposts for this case. But the Second Circuit (Katzmann, Winter and Marrero [D.J.]) says this case is not even as bad as Smith. "This conduct included handling the players roughly, grabbing their facemasks and shoulder pads, shaking them, and screaming at them in such close proximity
that he spat on them. Such minor infringement, even considered in the aggregate, is certainly insufficient to permit a reasonable jury to determine that it shocked the conscience."

The Court does pause to note that the plaintiffs allege that the coach directed them to brutalize opposing players, i.e, breaking their bones, etc. The Court of Appeals says these allegations may give the opposing players a constitutional claim. But they are not the ones bringing the lawsuit. The Court reasons:

This alleged conduct is repugnant and, if proved at trial, such outrageous misbehavior, by itself or in combination with other offensive actions, could permit a reasonable jury to find that it shocked the conscience and caused serious emotional and physical harms to a player who was the victim of such intentional conduct ordered by the coach. However, none of these plaintiffs was a victim of such conduct. While these plaintiffs allege emotional and psychological injuries, these injuries are stated in such general and conclusory terms as not to permit a plausible inference that they were caused by Ward’s infringing on their fundamental rights.

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