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JAMES v. DEGRANDIS

March 30, 2001

PAUL JAMES, PLAINTIFF,
V.
ARTHUR DEGRANDIS, MARK J. DEGRANDIS, AND CHRISTOPHER CONKLIN, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Curtin, District Judge.

INTRODUCTION

On August 27, 1997, plaintiff Paul James ("James"), a Canadian citizen and resident of Ontario, brought this diversity action against defendants Arthur DeGrandis ("Mr. DeGrandis") and Mark DeGrandis ("Mark"), residents of New Jersey, and Mary Kate Nugent ("Nugent") and Christopher Conklin ("Conklin"), residents of New York. Item 1. James, formerly a soccer coach at Niagara University ("Niagara") in Lewiston, New York, alleges that the defendants published defamatory statements about him which injured him in his business and occupation and damaged his reputation. He sought compensatory and punitive damages on his six causes of action. Defendant Christopher Conklin, pro se, answered on October 22, 1997, Item 5 and Defendants Arthur and Mark DeGrandis answered on October 29, 1997, Item 6. Defendant Mary Kate Nugent never answered, but settled with plaintiff. The settlement agreement was approved by court order on May 30, 2000. Item 41.

The court heard oral argument on the DeGrandis' Motion for Summary Judgment on October 27, 2000. Having considered the parties' arguments, the DeGrandises' Motion for Summary Judgment is granted in part and denied in part.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff Paul James is an accomplished soccer player. From 1982 to 1985, he played for the Toronto Blizzard, a professional team in the North American Soccer League. In 1987 and 1988, he played professionally for the Doncaster Rovers, a team in the English League. He also played professionally for four teams in the Canadian Soccer League. He was a member of the Canadian National Soccer Team from 1983 to 1993, and served as Captain in 1987. From 1987 to 1991, he was a League All-Star. As a member of the Canadian National Team, he participated in the 1984 Olympic games in Los Angeles and in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico City. Declaration of Paul James, Item 47, 11510. In 1989, James began his coaching career, and was named the Canadian Soccer League Coach of the Year in 1992. Id. ¶¶ 11, 12. Upon his retirement from the Canadian National Team, James decided to pursue a career in coaching, with a goal of becoming a soccer coach at a Division I college or university in the United States. He received a United States Soccer Federation ("USSF") "B" License and "A" License (the latter being the highest certification for soccer coaches in the United States). Id. ¶¶ 13, 14.

James also sought to establish his soccer camp business, the Soccer School of Excellence ("SSE"), which he served as President and Treasurer. SSE ran week-long residential soccer camps for young soccer players. Its goals were to develop player skills through providing high level practices and highly qualified coaching, and create scholarship opportunities for elite players. It also allowed James to evaluate talent and recruit for the college teams he might be coaching at the time. Id. ¶¶ 37, 38. SSE began operations as a Canadian corporation operating in Ontario. In August 1994, it incorporated in Delaware as Soccer School of Excellence U.S.A., Inc. The company's business plan had been to expand into the United States. Id. ¶¶ 39. College coaches often run soccer camps and clinics to supplement their income. Id. ¶¶ 40.

In 1993, the men's soccer coach at LeMoyne College ("LeMoyne") in Syracuse, New York, asked James to visit the school to perform demonstrations and clinics for the soccer players, which James did on a voluntary basis. LeMoyne's soccer coach left and recommended that James replace him. LeMoyne offered him the job as a part-time coach, to begin in August 1994. Id. ¶¶ 15, 18, 19.

FACTS

Once he was offered the job as the LeMoyne men's soccer coach, Paul James began recruiting players for the team in February or March 1994. Item 51, Exh. 7, p. 97. He recruited from his home in Canada (Item 47, ¶ 21) on a voluntary basis and not as an employee of LeMoyne. Item 51, Exh. 9, ¶ 7. James was not employed by LeMoyne during the 1993-94 academic year. Id. ¶ 5. He was hired as head soccer coach at LeMoyne with a term commencing in August 1994 and running for two years. Id. ¶ 7.

James moved to Syracuse during the summer of 1994. He wrote articles on the World Cup for the Syracuse newspapers (Item 47, ¶ 26) and ran soccer camps at LeMoyne. Item 51, Exh. 7, p. 107. During that time, he met and began dating a LeMoyne College senior, Jeanne Dupree, a member of the basketball team. They had a romantic and sexual relationship. Id. pp. 106-07. Ms. Dupree was 21 years old at the time. Item 47, ¶ 21. When James was dating Dupree, he was not employed by LeMoyne and had not begun his coaching duties, which were to begin in August pursuant to his contract. Id. ¶ 27.

Before starting work as LeMoyne's soccer coach, James approached Richard W. Rockwell, the LeMoyne Athletic Director, and asked him what the school's view of his relationship with Ms. Dupree would be when he became a LeMoyne employee. Rockwell told him it would be a "black and white" issue and that he could not be employed by LeMoyne and date a student at the same time. Item 51, Exh. 9, ¶ 13. Rockwell advised James to think about what he wanted to do. Id. Exh. 7, p. 108. James decided to "meet the commitment of LeMoyne and to end the relationship." Id. He chose his career and business goals over his personal life. Item 47, ¶ 30. He then became employed by LeMoyne College. Item 51, Exh. 10, ¶ 14.

After the 1995 season at LeMoyne, James was offered the opportunity to coach at Niagara University, a Division I soccer program. Item 47,. ¶ 32. He decided to take the Niagara position to further his coaching career, even though he could have stayed at LeMoyne because the school was willing to provide him with a contract extension. Id. ¶ 32; Item 51, Exh. 9, ¶ 16. Mr. Rockwell prepared a letter of recommendation for James. Id. Exh. 9, ¶ 17 and Exhibit A.

Mr. Rockwell asserts that he was

unaware of any allegations of sexual misconduct, sexual harassment or any other alleged inappropriate behavior by Paul James while he was employed by LeMoyne College. To my knowledge, Paul James did not engage in any sexual misconduct, sexual harassment or any other inappropriate behavior at any time before, during or after his employment at LeMoyne College. Paul James also did not violate any LeMoyne College rule or regulation at any time of which I am aware.

Item 51, Exh. 9, ¶ 15. James states "I was never accused of sexual misconduct, sexual harassment, or any other kind of inappropriate behavior (sexual or otherwise) while I was employed at LeMoyne College. I was not `let go,' `dismissed' or otherwise terminated from LeMoyne College for any reason." Item 47, ¶ 31.

James became the part-time Head Coach of Niagara's men's and women's soccer teams in January 1996. His first season began in the fall of 1996. Id. ¶ 34. James recruited Mark J. DeGrandis to play on the Niagara University soccer team (Item 40, ¶ 5), offering him a partial scholarship for the Fall 1996 season. Item 47, ¶ 46. When Mark reported to training camp, James found that Mark's and a number of other players' physical fitness level was below what it needed to be to compete. Item 51, Exh. 8, p. 132. During the preseason, James had a conversation with Mark, who he perceived was unhappy. Mark's unhappiness stemmed from the fact that he was not always going to be on the first team. Id. Exh. 7, p. 138. James told him that he was potentially a good player, but physically he was behind and had to catch up. Id. Exh. 8, p. 130.

After the preseason games, Mark called his father and told him that James was harassing him. As examples of the harassment, Mr. DeGrandis related that when Mark would get the ball, James, from the sidelines, would say things like "Oh, come on, Mark" or tell him he was out of shape. Id. Exh. 3, pp. 20, 32. Mr. DeGrandis, a club soccer coach, viewed these comments as evidence of an improper coaching technique, designed to harass. Id. pp. 21, 24, 32.

Following a soccer tournament in Connecticut in early September 1996, James received a message to call Mr. DeGrandis, who expressed to him in

no uncertain terms, that he was very, very unhappy with the situation of Mark not playing. And then he criticized me as a coach. . . . [H]e told me that, in some areas, I didn't know what I was doing, that I was selective with players, that I was making Mark fail the way I was playing him, the position I was playing him, lots of other stuff. But, he was very, very angry and I was angry back.

Id. Exh. 7, pp. 145-46. Mr. DeGrandis demanded that James allow Mark to play 90 percent of the time, and criticized the performance of other players on the team at a game he had not attended. Item 47, ¶¶ 52, 54. During that telephone call, Mr. DeGrandis told James that he had problems with a previous coach of Mark's and that James would not get away with not letting Mark play more. Mr. DeGrandis added that James would not "win this one," which James perceived as a threat. Item 47, ¶ 55.

Following the call from Mr. DeGrandis, James talked to Mark, and told him that he regarded Mark's using his father to raise the issue of playing time and his criticizing other players as disloyalty to the team. James told Mark that such concerns should be raised directly with the coach. Item 47, ¶ 56. James's experience was that successful teams handled disputes internally. Id.

After the James-Mr. DeGrandis telephone conversation, Mr. DeGrandis called both Mike Jankowski ("Jankowski"), Niagara's Athletic Director and Joe Cuda ("Cuda"), Dean of Student Affairs, telling them that Mark had been harassed and threatened by James, who was planning to kick him off the team in November. Item 51, Exh. 3, p. 45, 51. Mark met with Cuda for eight scheduled visits and several unscheduled visits between September and November. Id. pp. 52, 53. Cuda summarized the conversations as Mark venting his frustrations about James. He informed Mark that he could continue venting to him, but that would not lead to resolution since Cuda had no supervisory authority over athletic personnel. Id. Exh. 20. Mark informed his father about what transpired in the meetings with Cuda. Id. Exh. 4, p. 28. Mr. DeGrandis also spoke with Cuda several times about the harassment Mark was experiencing. Id. Exh. 3, pp. 53, 55-56.

On Parents Weekend in October, 1996, Mr. DeGrandis met with both Cuda and Rev. Vincent O'Malley, Niagara's Vice President. Id. Exh. 4, pp. 29, 30. Mark was aware that his father was attempting to talk to people within the Niagara administration about his problems with James. Id. p. 31.

In the fall of 1996, James considered cutting Mark from the team because of his disruption of the team and bad attitude. He eventually cut him in early November 1996 after Mark made a racial remark to a goalkeeper of the Howard University women's soccer team at a game he was watching. Item 47, ¶ 59.

After being cut, Mark discussed with his father filing a grievance against James regarding NCAA violations and harassment. Mr. DeGrandis told Mark he could type up the substance of the conversation and send it to him. Item 51, Exh. 3 pp. 62, 63, 65. The complaint, dated November 18, 1996, was addressed to the Department of Human Resources and charged James with "abusive power in his language . . . [,] mental harassment, . . . intimidati[on], . . . retaliation and revenge, by dismissing me from the team . . . [,] publicly slandering my name . . . [,] violating player/coach confidentiality[,] violating NCAA recruiting rules and regulations and procedures." Id. Exh. 19. The complaint described James as a "negative force" at the University and urged the university to address the issue so as to maintain its "Vincentian heritage." Id.

On November 18, 1996, James arranged an end-of-the-year team banquet in Canada. He prepaid for the dinner, which included wine for students who had proper identification. The legal drinking age in Canada is 19. James did not intentionally purchase alcoholic beverages for students under 19 because he relied on the restaurant's statement that it would check identification. Item 47, ¶ 64. After the dinner, James drove Megan Daley, a student, home. Three other students were in the car. He gave Daley a kiss, although it was not a passionate or romantic kiss. Id. ¶ 66.

Mark was not present at the banquet. Item 51, Exh. 3, p. 84. On November 20, Mr. DeGrandis called Cuda and told him that at the soccer party, minors were drinking alcohol with the coach present, and that James kissed a student on the dance floor. Id. Exh. 20. Mr. DeGrandis stated that James and Daley left the party together, and no one else left with them. Id. Exh. 3, p. 86. This call by Mr. DeGrandis served as a formal complaint about James' behavior, which prompted Cuda to launch an investigation into the incident, "to see if there was any validity to the information given." Id. Exh. 20. During an interview with Cuda, one student told him that there were rumors that the coach was kissing a freshman soccer player at the bar and that they went home together, and further that at a team meeting the next Monday, the coach explained that rumors should not be spread. Id. Over the next few days, Cuda met with additional students, including Megan Daley, the student who was allegedly kissed. She denied that anything happened, did not feel harassed or abused, and did not wish to pursue the matter in any way. Two other students said they witnessed a kiss, and five saw nothing. Id. James met with Cuda, upset at the way he was handling the investigation, particularly since he had heard that Cuda had asked one of his players whether James had slept with any students. Id.

The results of Cuda's investigation were conveyed by Jeannine Brown Miller, the Director of the Office of Human Resources, to the Chairman of the University Judicial Board. Ms. Miller found that there was no complaint of sexual harassment against James and, based on the investigation results, there was nothing to support the "third-party allegation" of improper behavior. Id.

In early 1997, Mark was reinstated to the soccer team by Jankowski on the basis that James had not documented the reasons for Mark's dismissal in November 1996, nor had he correctly followed the procedure for such dismissals. Item 47, ¶ 70. On January 31, 1997, Mr. DeGrandis wrote "Rev. Brian J. O'Connell," as President of Niagara University (even though the President at that time was Rev. Paul Golden). He related that James continues to "retaliate and seek revenge" against Mark, and recounted that "Tony Griffiths stated to several players that `if Mark causes any trouble this year I'll break both his legs.'" Mr. DeGrandis continued, "This does not involve Tony. It comes from Paul James' perspective. So he retaliates by sending a player to do his bidding." Item 51, Exh. 22. He described an encounter between Mark and Tony, in which Mark asked Tony about the remark. In response, "Tony began to taunt and tantalize Mark" and had to be subdued so that he would not strike Mark. The letter ended by saying that "Paul James continues to perpetuate disharmony on campus; and Niagara is not a safe place for teaching and learning." Id. The letter was copied to a New Jersey law firm that Mr. DeGrandis never retained. Id. Exh. 3, p. 77.

On February 5, 1997, Mr. DeGrandis wrote another letter to "Rev. O'Connell," in which he stated that Mark had not yet received a response to his formal complaint against James submitted to the Office of Human Resources. Mr. DeGrandis was seeking a letter of apology from James "for all his transgressions along with a statement concerning Mark's playing time." He cited his January 31, 1997 letter to O'Connell "explaining [James'] most recent dasterdly [sic] deeds are a good enough reason for all of the above." He concluded that James had been acting "with oppression and malice," and that the "University needs to correct this problem in any way possible." Id. Exh. 23.

In February or March 1997, Mark left a voice-mail message for James on his office telephone, in which he said he had "heard through the grapevine" that James was jobhunting, and inquired how he expected to get an interview "within the Federation" in view of "all of these letters and all the rest" in his file. Mark asked James to explain "what happened at LeMoyne, here at N.U., and what about around Williamsville and in the clubs where you do your camps?" Mark stated James "can't set his own terms," that he "put [him]self in a situation to be fired." Id. Exh. 35.

Asked where he received his information about James, Mark said he heard from Jankowski and members of the soccer team that James was job-hunting. Id. Exh. 4, p. 36. Students at Niagara and a LeMoyne student had told him that James left LeMoyne because of involvement with a student there. Id. p. 41. He never talked with anyone at LeMoyne to verify if that information was true. Id. p. 42.

Around the same time that Mark left James the voice-mail message, Mr. DeGrandis also left one. In it he said:

You do not have an agreement anymore with Mike Yost and Dick Rockwell, I changed that. Your two-year contract was cut short because you were involved with a girl on the basketball team. You are in trouble here for the same reasons and more. Your personnel file is a disgrace to humanity. If Mark does not get a letter and a public apology, I am going to expose you for everything that you are and you will never coach again in this country, and you can forget those camps in the summer. They will run you right out of town with your record and you are not going to use Mark's name as a reason to quit Niagara. If you are leaving it's because of all of the above. Its [sic] time you start owning up to your mistakes. You are not going to leave, change your address, lie about the past, just to do it over again somewhere else. Write the letter and publicly apologize or else your case will make the Canadian and ...

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