Court Grants Summary Judgment in White Football Coach’s Title VII Case
(The following is shared from the pages of Sports Litigation Alert. The Alert publishes every two weeks, featuring approximately 15 case summaries, articles and news briefs.)
By Rachel Silverman, M.A.
Plaintiff Alan Rodemaker began his career at Valdosta High School in 2010 as an assistant football coach and gym teacher. In 2016, he became the head football coach. In that same year the football team won the Georgia State Championship for Division 6A for the first time in eighteen years. They reached the state championship quarterfinals for two of the next three years.
The Valdosta Board of Education renewed Rodemaker’s teaching and coaching contract for ten years. However, in January 2020, the school board voted 4-5 not to renew Rodemaker’s contract, despite the recommendation to renew by the superintendent. The five black members of the board were the ones who voted not to renew the contract. The board members did not explain their decision. Due to a public outcry, the contract was up for a vote again at the February 2020 meeting. The board again voted 4-5 not to renew the contract, and the decision remained divided along racial lines. The plaintiff alleges that the school board chose to end his employment based on racial prejudice because he is white and those that voted against his contract are black.
Rodemaker filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on April 24, 2020, and filed a second charge on July 15, 2020. On April 23, 2020, Rodemaker filed a lawsuit against Defendants Lee, Brown, Howard, Shumphard, and Brown, the five school board members who voted against renewing his contract. The defendants moved to dismiss the plaintiff’s original lawsuit, but the court denied the motion. On June 8, 2021, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the court’s decision, dismissed Rodemaker’s case, and granted the defendants’ motion for judgment on September 8, 2021. After Rodemaker’s lawsuit failed against the individual board members, he filed another lawsuit naming the school board and the five black members as agents of the school board. He alleged that the defendants violated Title VII by racially discriminating against him.
The plaintiff alleged that the school board wanted to fill the head coach position with a black man, but it was initially unable to do so. They extended an offer to Rush Probst, a white man, but they rescinded the offer after a scandal dealing with Probst. Then the board hired Shelton Felton, a black man, as the new head coach. The plaintiff claimed that the University of Tennessee fired Felton and that he was an inferior coach compared to Rodemaker.
The Eleventh Circuit has consistently held that individual school board members cannot be sued using their individual capacities under Title VII. Recovery under Title VII is against the employer, not the individual employees. Therefore, the court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s Title VII claims against the individual defendants.
The plaintiff also alleged a conspiracy claim against the individual defendants. He claimed that the five black school board members agreed not to renew his contract because he is white. The plaintiff argued that the members knew their block vote would accomplish their goal of removing the plaintiff and replacing him with a black coach. The plaintiff’s complaint did not specify a legal basis for his conspiracy claim. In response to the defendants’ motion to dismiss, the plaintiff stated his claim is under 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3). However, the defendants argued that the plaintiff failed to state a claim based on § 1985(3) and that the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine barred the plaintiff’s conspiracy claim.
The Supreme Court has stated that § 1985(3) may not be invoked to redress violations of Title VII. Therefore, the plaintiff’s claim failed to invoke § 1985(3) and did not show any allegation of being deprived of a constitutional right. The allegation falls under Title VII, and thus, the plaintiff’s § 1985(3) claim is preempted by Title VII. Again, the court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the conspiracy claim.
Even if Title VII did not preempt the § 1985(3) claim, the conspiracy claim would be barred due to the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine. The intracorporate conspiracy doctrine states that it is not possible for a single legal entity, which includes a school board, to conspire with itself. The school board members acted as agents of the school board, so their actions are considered those of a single legal actor.
The plaintiff could not provide any facts supporting his claim that the defendants had a personal stake in removing him as the head football coach. Also, he could not show that the defendants had engaged in a series of discriminatory acts over an extended period. Therefore, none of the exceptions to the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine applied, and the court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss.
Attorney’s Fees and Punitive Damages
Since the plaintiff failed to state a claim under Title VII, the court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s attorney fees claim. There was no award for actual damages, so the plaintiff was not entitled to punitive damages. The court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s demand for punitive damages.
The defendant, City of Valdosta Board of Education (“School Board”), moved for summary judgment for counts one, four, and five of the plaintiff’s complaint. The defendant argued that the doctrine of res judicata barred the plaintiff’s Title VII claims so, the plaintiff’s claims for attorney’s fees and punitive damages should be dismissed. The court agreed and granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment.
Res judicata is a doctrine that gives finality to parties who have already litigated a claim and encourages judicial economy. The moving party must show that the prior decision was determined by a competent court, was final, involved the same parties, and involved the same cause of action. The court found that the school board met the elements of res judicata and granted summary judgment.
Rachel Silverman is a Sports Management doctoral student at Troy University. She has her master’s degree in Kinesiology and Sports Management from the University of South Dakota and her bachelor’s degree in Studio Art and Art History with a minor in Journalism from Brandeis University. She is an adjunct faculty member in the Physical Education Department at Fullerton College in California. Her research interests are sports law, ethics, and sociological aspects of sports, focusing on gender issues.