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PUCHALSKI v. SCHOOL DISTRICT OF SPRINGFIELD

March 30, 2001

DAVID PUCHALSKI AND LISA PUCHALSKI
v.
SCHOOL DISTRICT OF SPRINGFIELD, SCHOOL BOARD OF SPRINGFIELD TOWNSHIP, JAMES ASCIUTTO, DR. LEARY, MARTIN MERSKY, HUGH MCGOVERN AND DR. THOMAS STAPLETON.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Waldman, J.

          MEMORANDUM

I. Introduction

This case involves the decision of the principal of Springfield High School ("Springfield") not to renew the contract of David Puchalski as Springfield's head football coach. Plaintiff David Puchalski asserts parallel claims for age discrimination under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA") and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act ("PHRA"), a claim for deprivation of a property interest in his job under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and state tort claims for intentional and negligent misrepresentation, civil conspiracy, intentional interference with a contractual relationship, invasion of privacy — false light and defamation. Plaintiff Lisa Puchalski has asserted a claim for loss of consortium.

Presently before the court are defendants' motion for partial summary judgment and two motions by plaintiffs for partial summary judgment.

II. Legal Standard

When considering a motion for summary judgment, the court must determine whether "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247 (1986); Arnold Pontiac-GMC, Inc. v. General Motors Corp., 786 F.2d 564, 568 (3d Cir. 1986). Only facts that may affect the outcome of a case are "material." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. All reasonable inferences from the record are drawn in favor of the non-movant. Id. at 256.

Although the movant has the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of genuine issues of material fact, the non-movant must then establish the existence of each element on which he bears the burden of proof. J.F. Feeser, Inc. v. Serv-A-Portion, Inc., 909 F.2d 1524, 1531 (3d Cir. 1990) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). The non-moving party may not rest on his pleadings but must come forward with competent evidence from which a reasonable jury could return a verdict in his favor. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248; Williams v. Borough of West Chester, 891 F.2d 458, 460 (3d Cir. 1989); Woods v. Bentsen, 889 F. Supp. 179, 184 (E.D.Pa. 1995).

III. Factual Background

From the evidence presented, as uncontroverted or otherwise taken in a light most favorable to plaintiffs, the pertinent facts are as follow.

Mr. Puchalski was employed as the head football coach at Springfield on a yearly basis for ten years. His direct supervisor was Hugh McGovern, Springfield's Athletic Director. There were at least two other coaches on Springfield's football team staff, Christopher Shelley whose age is unknown and James Farrington who was 24 years old at the time. Mr. Puchalski also worked full-time as an administrator at Carson Valley School ("Carson Valley"), a private school which is a five minute commute from Springfield. Most of the students at Carson Valley are African-American.

At a football game against Chestnut Hill Academy in the fall of 1997, Roger Conduit, a local sports reporter who had been standing on the sidelines, informed Mr. McGovern that Mr. Puchalski had shouted a racist epithet at a football player during the game. Mr. McGovern reported the incident to Dr. Thomas Stapleford, the principal of Springfield, and to Martin Mersky, the assistant principal.

Mr. McGovern and Dr. Stapleford discussed the renewal of Mr. Puchalski's contract at some point after this game. Dr. Stapleford decided not to renew the contract. On January 5, 1998, after the conclusion of the football season, Mr. McGovern and Dr. Stapleford met with Mr. Puchalski and informed him that the School District of Springfield (the "District") would not be renewing his football coaching contract. Dr. Stapleford stated that they "want to take the program in a new direction" and were "looking to hire a young coach who works in the district." Dr. William Leary, the District Superintendent, did not permit Mr. Puchalski to talk with the football team on school grounds after the decision.

Mr. Puchalski's contract was a boilerplate document entitled "Extracurricular Assignment Contract" with blanks for the employee's name and personal information, information about the position, and for the starting and ending dates for the activity. The printed document stated that it was a one-year contract, although the activity was described as beginning on August 11, 1997 and ending on November 27, 1997. The contract also provided that Mr. Puchalski would receive compensation payments beginning after the start of the activity and ending at least two weeks after the activity concluded and when all phases of work were satisfactorily completed. The contract further stated that the last pay day must be scheduled after the activity had been completed. Mr. Puchalski marked November 28, 1997 as his only payday. His pay for the 1997 season was $4,166.

About two months after the January 5, 1998 meeting, Dr. Leary spoke at a public school board meeting regarding his plans and aspirations for the athletic teams in the District. The statement was titled "Springfield Township High School: The Athletic Program". The statement contained no reference to Mr. Puchalski or any particular coach. Dr. Leary discussed the need to exhibit good sportsmanship, to avoid "bad" language, to serve as role models for the students, to ensure student athletes' health by complying with the requirement of physical examinations, to honor the PIAA rules and to work cooperatively with others in the school system.

After offering Mr. Puchalski's former position to one candidate who declined the offer, Springfield accepted resumes and interviewed ten candidates. James Farrington, a teacher and assistant football coach under Mr. Puchalski, was ultimately hired. He was 25 years old at the time.

Mr. Puchalski sent out applications for two head football coaching positions in 1998 and one application in 1999. He did not receive any job offers. He is still employed by Carson Valley.

Mr. Puchalski suffered "depression, anger and obsession." His prospects of obtaining alternate employment and reputation in the community were damaged. Lisa Puchalski suffered loss of "services, companionship and consortium" because Mr. Puchalski's "self-esteem" was injured.

During the summer of 1998, Mr. McGovern told William Travers, a mutual acquaintance of McGovern and Puchalski, that he had made a racist remark. He also stated to about twenty people that "there was more to it [the decision not to renew Puchalski's contract] than what's in the papers."

Several articles appeared in the local newspapers concerning the decision not to renew Puchalski's contract and Dr. Leary's statement to the School Board. All quoted Mr. Puchalski extensively. The articles also contain quotations attributed variously to Dr. Stapleford, Dr. Leary and Mr. McGovern.*fn1

In a January 11, 1998 article in the Springfield Record, Dr. Stapleford is quoted as saying that the administration had "some young folks" who were teachers at Springfield and potential candidates for Mr. Puchalski's position. Dr. Stapleford was also quoted as saying that Springfield would interview candidates for a new head football coach and that Mr. Puchalski was "free to re-apply."

In a January 15, 1998 article in the Springfield Sun, Mr. Puchalski is quoted as stating that Dr. Stapleford spent very little time with him and had never told him there were problems with his coaching. Dr. Stapleford is quoted in response that Mr. Puchalski's comment was "patently untrue," that Springfield wanted teachers to be involved as coaches and noting that Mr. Puchalski had to drive over from Carson Valley School during regular school hours to handle an emergency situation. In discussing the pending departure of two assistant coaches, Mr. McGovern also was quoted as saying that the school was "very concerned with losing the two young teachers."*fn2

In another Springfield Sun article published a few weeks later, it was reported that when asked whether his statement to the school board about the athletic programs involved issues with Mr. Puchalski's tenure as head coach, Dr. Leary responded "I'd rather not get into that. There have been lapses occasionally in all sports." Dr. Leary also is quoted as saying that candidates were being interviewed for the head coach position.

In another Record article published at about the same time, Dr. Stapleford is reported as saying that Mr. Puchalski's job was opened up as part of a movement towards hiring ...


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