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High Court Weighs Dallas Coach's Race-Bias Claims

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Washington--A white football coach in Dallas who was removed from his job at the urging of his high school's black principal does not have to prove that the school system has a "policy or custom" of supporting racially motivated dismissals in order to collect damages from the district, a lawyer for the coach told the U.S. Supreme Court last week.

Under a Reconstruction-era civil-rights law, school systems become automatically liable for the racially tainted actions of their employees, Frank M. Gillstrap, the lawyer for the former coach, told the Justices during arguments in the case.

A federal appeals court, he said, erred three years ago when it established a "policy or custom" requirement for determining municipal liability for violations of constitutional rights in cases brought under Section 1981 of Title 42 of the U.S. Code.

But according to Leonard J. Schwartz, the lawyer for the Dallas district, the Congresses that passed both Section 1981 and a related civil-rights law, Section 1983, in the years immediately following the Civil War "clearly held" that the common-law theory of automatic liability--known as respondeat superior--was not to be used to hold a local government entity liable for violations of constitutional rights.

Even if the Court rejects that position, Mr. Schwartz added, the school district cannot be held liable for damages because it has a policy against racially based transfers. The district's superintendent, he said, broke that policy when he granted the black principal's request to reassign the white coach to another school.

The two cases argued in tandem last week, Jett v. Dallas Independent School District and Dallas Independent School District v. Jett (Case Nos. 87-2084 and 88-214), are rooted in part in the deep-seated passions that surround high-school football in Texas.

Norman Jett was a highly successful coach at the predominantly black South Oak Cliffs High School for more than a decade, but his teams never won the state championship.

According to court records, the school's principal, Frederick Todd, became upset in late 1982 when the football team lost a playoff game for the championship that was held before thousands of spectators in the Cotton Bowl.

Mr. Jett alleged he was relieved of his duties because Mr. Todd felt a white could never be an effective recruiter of black middle-school athletes. He also claimed that the principal was upset over remarks attributed to the coach in the local media concerning the impact of collegiate academic-eligibility requirements on black high-school athletes.

Mr. Todd's request to reassign Mr. Jett to a new school was granted by Linus Wright, then the district's superintendent. The coach resigned rather than accept a post as a freshman football and track coach.

Mr. Jett then sued both Mr. Todd and the school district in federal district court, claiming his reassign4ment was tantamount to a firing and that the action violated his 14th Amendment right to equal protection under the law and his First Amendment right to free speech. He sought damages for those violations under Section 1981.

A jury held for Mr. Jett on all counts and ordered Mr. Todd and the district to pay him a total of $850,000 in damages, which was later reduced to $560,000 by the judge hearing the case. Mr. Todd settled with the coach, but the district challenged the ruling.

A federal appellate court overturned the judgment against the district. The lower-court judge, it said, should have instructed the jury to decide whether it was the district's "policy or custom" to support dismissals on the basis of an employee's race or speech.

The High Court is expected to issue its opinion in the cases by late June.

In other action, the Court last week made it easier for plaintiffs in civil-rights cases to collect attorney's fees.

The case before the Court, Texas State Teachers Association v. Garland Independent School District (No. 87-1759), involved attempts by the union to invalidate district policies that barred union officials from meeting with members on school grounds and prohibited employees from discussing union business during the school day.

A federal appeals court struck down the policy prohibiting teacher-to-teacher communications, but upheld the policy regarding union officials' access to its members.

After the Supreme Court summarily affirmed the appellate court's decision, the union filed a motion seeking attorney's fees. The appeals court denied the motion on the grounds that the union had not prevailed on the "central issue" in the case.

The High Court overturned that ruling in a unanimous opinion. According to the Court, plaintiffs are entitled to an award of attorney's fees if they "succeed on any significant issue in the litigation which achieves some benefit [they] sought in bringing the suit."

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