Tuesday, December 27, 2005
Coach’s Suit Against Parent Who Called Him Unstable Held SLAPP
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
Defamation claims by a high school baseball coach against parents who tried to get him fired from his job are barred by the anti-SLAPP law, this district’s Court of Appeal has ruled.
In a Nov. 29 opinion by Presiding Justice Arthur Gilbert, certified Friday for publication, the justices ruled that Ventura Superior Court Judge Thomas Hutchins correctly threw out former Newbury High School coach Michael Lee’s libel claim against Charles and Katherine Fick, but erred in not throwing out Lee’s slander claim as well.
Lee claims the Ficks libeled him in a May 2003 letter by claiming that he was “manipulative,” that players had left the team because of him, that he “threw a fit in the dugout and verbally attacked” the Fick’s son, and might harm players because he suffered from “emotional and mental instability.”
The letters were sent to officials of the Conejo Valley Unified School District, as well as to other parents, Lee alleged.
Called Abusive, ‘Unethical’
The slander claim alleged that between February 2003 and the end of the school year, the Ficks accused him of being “a bad coach” and “unethical,” of having “severe anger and emotional and anger problems,” and of being verbally abusive.
Similar allegations of libel and slander were made against the other defendants, but they were not parties to the appeal.
The Ficks’ son, Chuckie, went on from Newbury Park to pitch at Cal State Fresno. Charles Fick scouts for the St. Louis Cardinals, and his brother—Chuckie’s uncle—is Robert Fick, a major league veteran who played last year for the San Diego Padres.
Lee was initially notified by the district that, despite the complaints, he had been rehired for the 2003-2004 season. But he was fired in July 2003, allegedly after a meeting between the Ficks and the principal, which Lee was not allowed to attend.
In addition to the defamation claim, Lee claimed that Charles Fick assaulted him, and that he did so while engaged in his duties on behalf of the Cardinals, who were also named as a defendant. That claim was not at issue in the appeal.
Gilbert, writing for the panel, said that the Ficks’ efforts to persuade the school district to fire the coach were part of an “official proceeding.” That has two implications, the presiding justice said—it makes the anti-SLAPP law applicable, and it bars the claims under the Civil Code Sec. 47(b) absolute privilege.
“The purpose of the privilege is to provide the utmost freedom of communication between citizens and public authorities whose responsibility is to investigate wrongdoing....Accordingly, communications to an official agency that are designed to induce the agency to initiate action are part of an ‘official proceeding.’...Thus it is well settled that complaints to school authorities about a teacher or principal in the performance of his or her official duties are privileged.”
Slander Claim Fails
The slander claim, Gilbert went on to say, should also have been stricken as barred by the absolute privilege.
The fact that some of the statements were made after the school had already notified Lee that he had been hired did not mean that there was no longer an “official proceeding” to which those statements pertained, the presiding justice explained, because the parents still had the right to ask the district to reconsider.
“A request for reconsideration is part of the official proceedings and is as privileged as an initial complaint,” Gilbert wrote. “In any event, it is manifest that the school officials’ decision to retain Lee as coach was not final. Within a short time, school officials decided to replace Lee. That was the final decision.”
The case is Lee v. Fick, 05 S.O.S. 5796.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company