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Denied: Former varsity basketball coach’s case against District 833

 Nathan Craig McGuire’s case against District 833 went nowhere in federal court. 

On Monday, a U.S. District Court judge dismissed the former Woodbury High School varsity girls basketball coach’s federal and state claims against his employer, as well as the parents of a player he previously coached.

A longtime kindergarten teacher at a Cottage Grove elementary school and for two seasons the varsity basketball coach, McGuire, 39, sued the district for monetary damages and a return to his coaching position. 

The lawsuit, filed Dec. 11, 2014, also named Julie A. and Thomas M. Bowlin, who allegedly made defamatory statements about their daughter’s former coach, and sought monetary damages from them. 

Amid parent complaints and an internal investigation, the District 833 School Board voted to make official the nonrenewal of McGuire’s coaching contract in March 2014. 

Prior to completion of tryouts for the basketball season that had just concluded, the Bowlins had complained about their child’s playing time, calling a meeting with coaches and administrators, then continuing a barrage of complaints to state, league and district officials, and — along with the coach’s dismissal — triggering the lawsuit.

In what McGuire contested as a knowingly and recklessly false statement, the Bowlins complained to the state Minnesota Department of Education under the Maltreatment of Minors Reporting Act. 

McGuire claimed in the lawsuit that the school board’s decision was not based on the facts of the investigation and that his employer, South Washington County Schools, violated his constitutional rights by failing to follow a constitutional due process to which he was entitled.

McGuire sued the district for alleged violations of the Minnesota Data Practices Act and for allegedly violating his constitutional rights, under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The district refused to provide public data to McGuire, allegedly violating state law and putting its employee at a disadvantage when applying for future coaching positions, the lawsuit said.

Statements by the Bowlins led to McGuire’s failure to get other coaching jobs. 

He took a job as the varsity girls basketball coach at Minneapolis South High School this season, after applications for half-dozen coaching openings, all for which he was well qualified and some of which he was unable to achieve even an interview, said Don Mark Jr., McGuire’s attorney. The new gig is less convenient, further away and at a smaller school, he said.

In September 2015, the school district filed a motion to dismiss the case — at “our first opportunity,” District 833 attorney Mick Waldspurger said.

>He added in an email: “For purposes of our motion, the Court was required to assume that the facts, as alleged in the Complaint, were true. Even with that assumption, the Court concluded the lawsuit lacked merit and dismissed it.”

U.S. District Court Judge Richard H. Kyle, granted the district’s motion for judgment on the pleadings this month, saying: “... McGuire’s federal claims … are dismissed with prejudice. The Court declines to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over McGuire’s remaining state-law claims ... and those claims are dismissed with prejudice.”

McGuire does not have protected property interest in the renewal of his coaching contract, the judge’s analysis said.

A coaching position is unlike a teaching job, Waldspurger said, in that the contracts are typically signed on a year-to-year.While McGuire claimed he was entitled to constitutional due process, specifically a pre- and post-termination hearing, court precedence did not support a claim of entitlement to re-employment for anyone with a one-academic-year contract, Kyle wrote in the judgment. McGuire’s contract was effective for the basketball season only, unless further renewed, according to the judge, and the contract explicitly stated it was not subject to continuing contract law. 

“A contract that naturally expires is a legitimate basis for its nonrenewal and is not an unlawful termination that gives rise to procedural-due-process protections,” wrote Kyle, citing case law.

Should a different outcome be achieved, via appeal if necessary, McGuire’s case would be a landmark case in Minnesota. Two similar cases cited by Kyle failed to support McGuire’s position. 

“It doesn’t mean that this case is over,” Mark said. “We are evaluating an appeal. There is a distinct possibility” McGuire will appeal the decision. It was a confusing situation, with a lot of uncertainty, during which no one was forthcoming, Mark added.

State law restricts coaches from being terminated solely based on parent complaints. 

McGuire argued that if the sole reason for nonrenewal is parent complaints, a coach is entitled to contract renewal and continued employment. The automatic renewal creates property interest, McGuire’s attorney argued.

Kyle decided that the claim of contract renewal was illegitimate and that the law gives the school board broad discretion to not renew the coach’s contract as the board sees fit.

State statute does not allow a coach the right, after notice of a contract nonrenewal, to overturn a school board decision, Kyle added, citing another past case.

“We are pleased that the district’s position was upheld by the courts,” Superintendent Keith Jacobus said in a statement.

To negotiate, or not

McGuire’s camp approached the school district to negotiate, but McGuire said there were no talks about a settlement. 

“There was virtually no response,” Mark said.

The lawsuit suggested more than $1 million in damages, Waldspurger said. The coach’s contract paid about $6,700. 

“You’d have to work a whole lot of years to get to $1 million,” Waldspurger said, suggesting the claims were too high.

Estimated damages were based on loss of reputation and emotional distress, as well compensation, Mark said. The opportunity to run camps also significantly enhanced McGuire’s coaching salary.

“Sometimes,” Mark said, “the response is to do an equally low offer. There was no offer. My question to you is, What monetary amount do you put on your reputation?”

McGuire’s attorney said he would welcome sincere, genuine attempts to settle.No appeal, nor a separate action in state court, is imminent. “We haven’t filed,” Mark said. 

The next move will be decided within weeks. 

Certainly, McGuire will pursue the defamation claims against parents and other individuals, Mark said.

Playing time

The player, unnamed in McGuire’s lawsuit, had played varsity for McGuire as a seventh grader at Holy Angels. She transferred to Woodbury in 2013 and expressed interest in playing on McGuire’s team as a ninth grader.

Before a game was played in the 2013-14 season, a meeting was held with the girl, her parents, the high school principal, the athletic director, two assistant coaches and McGuire during which the parents complained about playing time, the lawsuit alleged. The coaching staff hadn’t decided who had made the team, who would start, and how playing time would be handled. Still, the parents wanted an update about their child’s status on the team.

McGuire said the Bowlins talked to an influential parent in the program, leaving the other parent with the impression that they were trying to get the head coach fired. The Minnesota State High School League referred the Bowlins’ complaints back to Woodbury High School. The parents demanded high school administration remove McGuire as head coach, then involved the Minnesota Department of Education.

The player attended one more practice. Within a week, the player had transferred, without competing for Woodbury.

McGuire was placed on administrative leave from the team for the final two months of the 2013-14 girls basketball season, as complaints were investigated. 

The last game in which McGuire coached Woodbury took place on Jan. 3, 2014, at East Ridge High School, and by formal action by the school board that March, his contract was not renewed. 

In January 2014, the Bowlins filed a complaint with the state Department of Education alleging that McGuire was responsible for emotional or mental maltreatment of a player. In the lawsuit, McGuire denied the Bowlins’ claim. False statements were made by the Bowlins, who intended to negatively impact the former coach’s teaching or coaching licensure with the state of Minnesota, according to the lawsuit.

McGuire addressed the school board in May 2014, providing 19 statements of support from players and parents and unsuccessfully arguing for the board to reconsider his coaching contract renewal, which he said was unjustified.

During district and state investigations, McGuire was unaware of the reason for his leave, according to the lawsuit. The leave was not disciplinary, he and the Bulletin were told by district officials.

McGuire did not receive a hearing prior to being placed on leave, and he was neither informed of nor asked to respond to any allegation against him — acts that he claimed are violations of the U.S. Constitution. 

The investigation was initiated by the Bowlins’ complaints about him, the lawsuit alleged, and the primary case to remove McGuire as coach was built through disputed statements made during the investigator’s interview with the Bowlins. All other players were interviewed as the district allegedly built a case to remove McGuire as head coach.

When McGuire was interviewed by state and district investigators, the questions were bizarre and based on fiction about his coaching and personal life, the lawsuit alleged.

The investigation report — even a redacted version, or a summary — was not provided to McGuire upon request, a violation of state law, according to the lawsuit.

McGuire received two letters from Linda Plante, then the principal at Woodbury High School — one informing him that his leave would continue through the 2013-14 season, the other documenting his contract nonrenewal as “based on the results of a recent investigation,” not solely based on parent complaints. 

The letters said the former coach “failed to meet the administration’s expectations,” that the administration “would like Woodbury High School girls basketball to move in a different direction,” and that McGuire’s “methods differ from the leadership style, coaching philosophy, conduct and coaching methods that are desired by administration.”

McGuire’s lawsuit argued to the contrary, that his nonrenewal as coach was solely based on parent complaints.

“He didn’t have any meritorious claims,” Waldspurger said.

On the court

The former coach sought injunctive relief reinstating him to his coaching position.McGuire inherited a 10-18 team in 2012, but went 19-10 in his first season as coach, leading the Royals to the section championship.

The Royals went 1-17 after McGuire went on leave and finished 6-21 overall in 2013-14.

“They certainly affected those kids,” Mark said of the school board, “and they affected the outcome of their season.”

McGuire joined the Woodbury girls basketball program in September 2012 after two years head coaching girls basketball at the Academy of Holy Angels in Richfield. Prior to that, McGuire head coached at Henry Sibley High School and Minnesota Business Academy, a charter school in St. Paul.

McGuire has worked at Armstrong Elementary since 1998, and he was also hired as a junior high track-and-field coach in 1999. The coaching contract nonrenewal didn’t affect his teaching status.

McGuire did not immediately return the Bulletin’s call seeking comment on the case. On his voicemail greeting Wednesday, Nov. 18, McGuire still identified himself as a kindergarten teacher and the head coach of Woodbury High School’s varsity girls basketball team.

McGuire is considering the next steps in federal or state court, he might have a chance for some payback on the basketball court. His Minneapolis South team won’t play Woodbury this year, but he is set to face East Ridge at his team’s home court on Jan. 30.

>Scott Wente contributed to this report.