Following the legal saga of Lou Campanelli Part 2

Part I

Comes now TwistNHook to bring you more information about Lou Campanelli.  Last we checked in, Campanelli had failed at the lower level.  Remember, he had been fired by Cal for being too mean to the players.  He had sued Cal for violating his due process rights for basically hurting his ability to get a new job.  But he lost!  So, he had to appeal.  Let's take a look at the appeal.

CalBear81, OhioBear, and myself worked jointly on drafting this post.  If you like it, credit them.  If you hate it, blame me.  Go Bears!

The Federal Court Appeal



Campanelli appealed his federal law claim against Bockrath and Boggan for violation of his right to a hearing to clear his name (his “due process” claim) to the federal court of appeals in San Francisco, which is formally known as “the United States Court of Appeal for the Ninth Circuit.” 

In this appeal, the question before the court was not whether Bockrath and Boggan actually said the things that Coach Campanelli claimed were defamatory.  That sort of determination would be for the jury to make at a trial.  But there had been no trial yet in this case-Coach Campanelli's lawsuit had been dismissed without trial on the basis that his complaint did not state an actionable claim.  Thus, the question before the court of appeals in the federal lawsuit was whether Campanelli's factual allegations-if assumed to be true-were enough to establish a due process violation.  If they were, then the case should be returned to the district court for further proceedings; if not, the case should be dismissed.

 Here is the procedural history to date (and we'll try to summarize all the quoted language, so don't hurt your brain too much):

On August 18, 1993, Campanelli filed suit in district court against Bockrath, Boggan, and the University regents. On October 27, 1993, the district court dismissed all claims against the University regents without leave to amend, and dismissed the claims against defendants Boggan and Bockrath with leave to amend. On November 16, 1993, Campanelli filed his first amended complaint, asserting claims against Bockrath and Boggan only under 42 U.S.C. 1983 and various state laws. On March 31, 1994, the district court dismissed Campanelli's section 1983 claims under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) and exercised its discretion to decline jurisdiction over his pendent state law claims.

The Court threw out the lawsuit with a key difference.  The Court threw out the claims against the Regents "without leave to amend," but threw out the claims against Bockrath and Boggan "with leave to amend."  What is the difference?  Without leave to amend means its over.  Period.  You don't get a second chance.  With leave to amend means you do get another chance to amend your claims to try to allege more facts.  While the district Court found that Campanelli could not possibly state a claim against the Regents (because of the 11th Amendment bar to suing a state in federal Court), the district Court opens the possibility that Campanelli could amend his complaint to state valid claims against Bockrath and Boggan.

Then, the Court gives the specific issue on appeal:

In 1993, appellant Louis Campanelli was fired from his job as head coach of the men's basketball team at the University of California at Berkeley. In this action under 42 U.S.C. 1983, he claims that two University officials, Robert Bockrath and Daniel Boggan, deprived him of his liberty interest without due process by making negative public statements regarding his termination. The district court dismissed Campanelli's complaint for failure to state a claim on which relief may be granted. Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). The question on appeal is whether Campanelli has sufficiently alleged the elements of a due process violation.

So, the question on appeal is whether they violated his due process rights. The next step is asking what is the definition of a due process violation.

Definition Of A Due Process Violation

The court of appeals in Campanelli’s case relied on a decision by the United States Supreme Court called Board of Regents v. Roth, 408 U.S. 5644 (1972).  In the Roth case, the Supreme Court had ruled that the due process rights of a government employee can be violated when his employer makes negative comments about the employee related to the employee’s firing.  The appeals court in Campanelli’s case explained what is required for a government employee to show that his due process rights were violated in these circumstances:

 

In Roth, the Supreme Court held that a public employer could be held liable for a procedural due process violation for terminating an employee if the employer made a charge "that might seriously damage [the terminated employee's] standing and associations in his community" or "imposed on [a terminated employee] a stigma or other disability that foreclosed his freedom to take advantage of other employment opportunities." Roth, 408 U.S. at 573. The Court said that the requisite stigma could result from a charge of "dishonesty" or "immorality."4 Id.

To prove a due process violation, Campanelli has to sufficiently allege the following:

1.  Boggan or Bockrath made a charge that might seriously damage Campanelli's standing and associations in his community.

OR

2.  Boggan or Bockrath imposed on Campanelli a stigma that made it hard to find another job.  This stigma could result from an allegation of dishonesty or immorality. 

Again, the question the federal court of appeal was deciding was not whether  Bockrath or Boggan had actually defamed Campanelli such that it became impossible for him to get another coaching job.  The question was whether there was any possibility that Campanelli would be able to prove to a jury during a trial that he had been defamed.  Whether or not Bockrath and Boggan’s statements were false and violated Campanelli’s rights was a question for a jury to decide – but Campanelli would only be allowed to have a jury decide these issues if he could convince the court of appeal that he had enough facts from which a jury could possibly decide in his favor.  This seems like a fairly low bar to me, but let’s take a look through the Court’s discussion of how the three Roth elements applied to Campanelli’s claims:

 

Campanelli complains that he was denied notice and an opportunity to be heard, and as a result, the defendants' public statements regarding his termination have made it impossible for him to secure a new job as a college basketball coach. Campanelli seeks damages for mental suffering, emotional distress, and loss of income due to his inability to get another job.

So, that is the general definition.  But with all Court cases, the Court needs an easily determinable standard to apply to the facts.  They need elements!

Elements To Prove That The Firing Imposed A Stigma That Made It Hard To Find Another Job (Due Process Violation)

The Court then went into further detail regarding three elements to a Roth claim:

First, the court held that Campanelli failed to allege that the defendants' statements stigmatized him within the meaning of Roth. Second, the court held that Campanelli failed to allege that the defendants' statements were made "in the course of" his termination, as required by Paul v. Davis, 424 U.S. 693, 710, 47 L. Ed. 2d 405, 96 S. Ct. 1155 (1976). Finally, the court held that Campanelli failed to allege that the defendants' statements were "substantially false," as required under Codd v. Velger, 429 U.S. 624, 628, 51 L. Ed. 2d 92, 97 S. Ct. 882 (1977).

So, for the Court here to rule in Campanelli's favor they have to find that he could have sufficiently alleged the following three elements:

1.  That Bockrath or Boggan's statements stigmatized Campanelli as described in Roth.

2.  That Bockrath or Boggan's statements were made "in the course of" his termination.

3.  That Bockrath or Boggan's statements were "substantially false."

So, there you go.  These are three elements that go into proving whether a stigma was imposed that made it impossible to get a job.  So, now you have a definition and you have a way to prove the definition.  You just need the standard of proof.  The Court gives their overall standard here:

We will affirm the district court's order of dismissal only if it appears "beyond doubt" that Campanelli can prove no set of facts in support of his claim that would entitle him to relief.'

 

Again, this is not about whether Bockrath or Boggan defamed Campanelli such that it made it impossible to get another job.  It is about whether Campanelli could not prove "beyond doubt" that he was defamed such that it made it impossible to get another job.  That seems like a fairly low bar to me, but let's take a look through the Court's discussion of the three Roth elements.

1.  Roth Element #1:  Stigmatization

Now, the appeal court here is not the finder of fact.  So, they have to take everything alleged by Campanelli as 100% true.  That makes their job fairly easy.  Regarding the first element, whether Campanelli was stigmatized:

The question whether the defendants' statements rose to the level of stigmatizing him within the meaning of Roth is a question of fact.   We believe that Campanelli's allegations, which we must accept as true, satisfy the pleading requirements of Rule 12(b)(6). We cannot say that it is "beyond doubt" that Campanelli can prove no set of facts in support of these allegations that would support a finding that he was stigmatized within the meaning of Roth. See Mountain High, 51 F.3d at 218. The facts alleged in the complaint give him at least a fair chance of proving that the defendants placed a stigma on his name by singling him out as a coach who crossed the line dividing acceptable from unacceptable behavior in coaching. In other words, Campanelli has a reasonable chance of proving that he has been charged with immoral conduct within the meaning of Roth by abusing the young men entrusted to his care and supervision.

The Court here says that Campanelli could prove that Boggan and Bockrath stigmatized him with their comments by saying that it was immoral to abuse Jason Kidd et al.  The Court states that there is a "question of fact" here.  When there is a question of fact, then you need a fact-finder to make a ruling based on the evidence.  That means that the case should not be decided before evidence can be presented.  So, the appeals Court is saying that the Court below, at least based on this element, needs to take a second look at the facts around the case. 

The Court also notes that the statements were so extreme that they could have kept Campanelli from getting another job:

Moreover, the alleged statements that Campanelli continuously abused his young players may be proven to constitute stigmatization if they suggest that Campanelli was himself psychologically unbalanced. Cf. Stewart v. Pearce, 484 F.2d 1031, 1034 (9th Cir. 1973) (holding dean's order to college English instructor to undergo psychiatric examination implied "mental unfitness for the job" sufficient to meet Roth's stigma requirement). As Campanelli argues on appeal, the facts he alleges show he has a chance of proving that his reputation was so severely damaged that he was blacklisted in the world of basketball, see Stretten v. Wadsworth Veterans Hosp., 537 F.2d 361, 366 (9th Cir. 1976):

 

The players are 18 to 24 year old students entrusted to the Coach's tutelage. He is their mentor. A charge that a coach has inflicted psychological abuse upon his players, made them physically ill, torn them down, if true, is likely to deprive that coach of any opportunity to work as a coach.

 

So, on the first element Campanelli wins.  You might be asking yourself if the bar is so low, how did the lower Court ever rule against Campanelli, saying that he could not at all prove what the appeals Court seems to be saying is easy to prove?  The Court of Appeals explained the district Court's error:

The district court, in dismissing Campanelli's action at the pleading stage, seized upon a single argument found in Campanelli's opposition papers as a dispositive concession that the defendants had accused Campanelli only of incompetence, not immorality. The excerpted argument, drawn from Campanelli's memorandum opposing the motion to dismiss, reads as follows:

 

Defendants wish to characterize the charges . . . as a mere failure . . . to get along . . . . Defendants should read the exhibits attached to the First Amended Complaint. What they charged plaintiff with is a general unfitness to coach college players. Fourteenth Amendment protections are not limited to charges of stealing or immorality.

 

Order 15, ER 82 (quoting Plaintiff's Opposition to Motion to Dismiss at 5) (emphasis and omissions in original). The district court held that "general unfitness" was not distinguishable from incompetence, and thus concluded that Campanelli had conceded that the defendants' charges were not stigmatizing under Roth. With all due respect, we believe the district court acted too harshly in pulling a single statement out of Campanelli's argument and interpreting it as vitiating all the factual allegations made in his complaint.

Basically, at the lower Court level, in describing the Defendants' position, Campanelli said that he was accused of "general unfitness," which was incompetence and not immoral.  The lower Court made a key distinction between incompetence and immorality.  It held that pursuant to Roth, the stigmatization had to be relating to immorality.  Since Campanelli himself said he was accused solely of incompetence, the district Court decided he couldn't prove immorality and threw out his claim.  The appeals Court rapped the lower Court on the wrist, saying that analysis was too harsh.  Take that, lower Court!

 

2.  Roth Element #2:  "In The Course Of"

The next element under Roth is that these defamation claims have to be made in the course of the termination.  They have to relate to the termination.  The Court has to define what "in the course of" means.

To survive the defendants' motion to dismiss, Campanelli must also allege that the defendants made their statements "in the course of" his termination. Paul, 424 U.S. at 710. In urging us to dismiss Campanelli's complaint because the statements were made one week after Campanelli's termination, the defendants ask us to adopt a bright-line rule that defamatory statements made by an employer any time after the date of termination are not made "in the course of the termination."

Bockrath and Boggan here are trying to argue that since the statements were made after the termination, they weren't in the course of the termination.  The Court thinks this is a bit too literal:

We hold that the "in the course of" requirement may be met when defamatory statements are so closely related to discharge from employment that the discharge itself may become stigmatizing in the public eye.

 

So, it is not a bright line literal "before or during" the termination definition.  It is that the statements are related to the discharge that it makes the discharge defamatory itself.  However, time is relevant to the definition of "in the course of."

In rejecting defendants' proposed bright-line rule, we do not say that the timing of an employer's statements is of no consequence at all. Common sense and the reasoning of Paul dictate that there must be some temporal nexus between the employer's statements and the termination. At some point, defamatory statements may become too remote in time from the termination to be considered made "in the course of the termination

 

Now, having defined "in the course of," the Court can see whether or not Campanelli could allege sufficient facts regarding this element:

Once we reject defendants' bright-line test, it becomes clear that Campanelli's allegations satisfy the "in the course of" requirement for pleading purposes. The defendants' statements set forth the reasons for Campanelli's termination, and it is not "beyond doubt," see Mountain High, 51 F.3d at 218, that Campanelli can prove that the seven- to nine-day interval between the termination date and the publication of the defendants' statements did not attenuate the temporal connection between the statements and the termination. Therefore, we hold that Campanelli's allegations that Bockrath's and Boggan's stigmatizing statements were made "in the course of the termination" are sufficient to survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim.

Basically, Campanelli argued that the statements clearly related to his termination.  Bockrath and Boggan argued that since they made the statements after the termination, they were not made “in the course of” the termination.  The Court ruled that despite the gap of a week between the termination and the statements, the timing was close enough that a jury could decide that Boggan and Bockrath’s statements were made “in the course of “ the termination.  The bottom line is this: since the term “in the course of” is kind of vague, Campanelli might be able to convince a jury that the statements were made in the course of his termination.  This seems like common sense to me

So, Campanelli wins the second element.  Let's move on to the third!

3.  Roth Element #3:  Substantially False

In order to state a due process claim, Campanelli also must allege that the defendants' statements were substantially false.  The Court noted this and then discussed how the lower Court handled the matter:

In order to state a due process claim, Campanelli also must allege that the defendants' statements were substantially false.  Nonetheless, the district court decided that Campanelli admitted the substantial truth of the defendants' statements in his complaint. The district court relied on Campanelli's statements (1) that he criticized his players "in emphatic language and sometimes in four-letter words," Compl. Par. 24; (2) that he is a "strict disciplinarian," id. Par. 8; and (3) that he "experienced a fit of anger" and "addressed sharp criticism" to his players after the Arizona games, id. Par. 9. According to the court, "plaintiff's characterizations [of his behavior] and defendants' charges are differing descriptions of the same basic behavior." Order 15-16, ER 82-83.

Campanelli admitted in his pleadings at the lower Court level that he had done some not so nice things.  Thus, the lower Court ruled, he had admitted that he did the same stuff that the Defendants' argued.  Truth is an absolute defense here, so the lower Court ruled that the Defendants' allegations were false.  On appeal, the appeals Court disagreed that the lower Court should have even gone there:

By comparing the merits of plaintiff's and defendants' characterizations, the district court impermissibly went beyond the allegations of the complaint to play factfinder at the 12(b)(6) stage.

See, the thing was that the lower Court determined that the Defendants' allegations were true.  They never were supposed to do that!  It wasn't about whether they were true.  At the Rule 12(b)6 stage, it is just about whether Campanelli could prove they were false.  The lower Court was not supposed to actually make a determination whether they were false.  If anything, under the appropriate standard for deciding a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the district Court was supposed to assume they were false, because it was supposed to accept all of Capanelli's factual allegations as true.

Whether the defendants' charges are different from charges of strict discipline, profanity, sharp criticism, or a fit of anger is a question to be resolved on the basis of the evidence, not at the pleading stage.  The words Campanelli used, their context, and his tone of voice, may or may not be in dispute. But whether the defendants' alleged characterization of events -- that Campanelli verbally abused and psychologically damaged his players -- is substantially false is an issue of fact that should not be decided at the 12(b)(6) stage.

From the face of the complaint, we cannot hold at the pleading stage that Campanelli has conceded the truth of the defendants' alleged charges. The question of truth or falsity must be decided on the basis of the evidence.

So, Campanelli wins on the third element!  Which means, he wins totally.  The case is sent back down to the lower Court and he has another chance to have a jury decide his case.  This is only the first half of the Campanelli Odyssey!  We'll have the thrilling conclusion (i.e. years more of law suits) up soon in another post.  GO BEARS!

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