School Climate & Safety

Suit Tying Demotion to Comments On Hazing Allegations Is Reinstated

By Andrew Trotter — April 18, 2006 1 min read

A federal appeals court has reinstated the employment lawsuit of a New York high school athletic director who claims that his job was abolished in retaliation for his statements about a school hazing incident.

In 2001, Louis J. Cioffi III investigated complaints of serious hazing, involving alleged sexual assault, of members of the Averill Park High School football team. He wrote a letter to the Averill Park Central School District’s superintendent that was critical of the football coach and his supervision of the team, according to court papers.

Later, as the hazing allegations became public, the school board, which also received the letter, voted to abolish Mr. Cioffi’s position as athletic director in the budget for the next school year, 2002-03.

Before that decision was finalized, Mr. Cioffi held a press conference and charged that his position was being cut in retribution for his criticisms of the coach and his investigation into the hazing.

In court, the district argued that it cut the athletic director’s position for budget reasons. But Mr. Cioffi, who as a tenured teacher exercised his right to remain employed as a teacher, though at a lower salary, disputed whether eliminating the athletic director’s job in fact saved money. The 2002-03 budget also created a new position, athletic director/assistant principal.

A lower court threw out Mr. Cioffi’s suit on the grounds that his statements were not protected speech, and that even if they were, he had shown no causal connection between his statements and the abolition of his position.

On April 4, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, in New York City, agreed unanimously that Mr. Cioffi’s suit should proceed to trial.

The opinion by Judge Richard J. Cardamone said that Mr. Cioffi’s speech in both his letter and the press conference were protected forms of speech on an issue of public concern.

“With no budgetary crisis, a reasonable jury could find that the defendants would not have taken the same action against Cioffi absent the letter and press conference,” the judge wrote.

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