Thrown for a Loss
John T. Wolohan
Historically, courts have refused to interfere with the decisions of high school and other voluntary athletic associations, unless the decisions violate federal or state law or are enforced in an arbitrary or capricious manner. One of the reasons cited for this lack of judicial intervention is the fear that if given the chance, individuals would come into court and challenge (for example) basic coaching decisions such as who makes the team and who plays.
An example of this worst-case scenario is Cronk v. Suffern Senior High School [809 N.Y.S.2d 480 (2005)]. Dustin Cronk, a member of the Suffern (N.Y.) High School varsity football team, had separated his shoulder and, several days after suffering his injury, was standing on the sidelines watching practice. Jokingly, Cronk stood in front of assistant coach Dave McNally, blocking his view. Unamused, McNally grabbed Cronk and threw him to the ground. When he got home, Cronk related the incident to his parents and his mother telephoned Patrick Faherty, the school principal, that night; Cronk's father then spoke with the principal the following day.
Before practice that next day, McNally and the head football coach, William Delaney, isolated Cronk and told him that he should have worked out the problem immediately after the incident. Cronk alleged that he was told that he should not have gotten his parents involved because he was "going to have to grow up" and "learn to deal with problems on his own."
After this, nothing further was said regarding the incident, and Cronk played the remaining three games of the football season.
In the spring, Cronk tried out for the varsity baseball team and, having played in past years, was stunned when he did not make the team. Cronk claimed that he was a better player than a number of other students who made the team. Even though McNally was not involved with the baseball team, Cronk believed that since the school's coaches are friends, he did not make the team because of the incident with McNally.
Cronk and his parents then filed, on or about March 19, 2003, a report with the Ramapo Police Department relating to the Oct. 22, 2002, incident involving McNally. After investigating the matter, the police concluded that there was a lack of evidence to support the Cronks' complaint and closed the case. Dustin's mother, however, believed that the initial police investigation was compromised by the investigating officer's familiarity with McNally.
As a result of being cut from the baseball team and disappointed with the criminal investigation, Dustin Cronk and his mother filed a civil suit against the school district. The Cronks alleged two distinct claims: that denying Dustin the opportunity to play on the school's baseball team constituted intentional infliction of emotional distress, and that the school district's conduct wrongfully excluded Cronk from the baseball team and amounted to retaliation.
The school district denied both allegations and asked the court for summary judgment. The district argued that even if everything Cronk and his mother alleged were true, they had failed to state a valid cause of action.
When ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the court must assume that all the facts alleged by the party opposing the motion (in this case, the Cronks) are true. If there is any doubt as to the existence of a triable issue of fact, then the court must deny summary judgment.
In examining the Cronks' first claim, intentional infliction of emotional distress, the court held that in order to prevail, the Cronks would have to show that an employee of the school district engaged in extreme and outrageous conduct and that such conduct intentionally or recklessly caused severe emotional distress. In seeking to determine what constitutes extreme or outrageous conduct, the court cited Klinge v. Ithaca College [235 A.D.2d 724, 652 N.Y.S.2d 377 (3rd Dept. 1997)], in which it was held that the conduct must transcend the bounds of decency and be regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized community.
The courts have shown to be reluctant to award damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress, absent a deliberate and malicious campaign of harassment or intimidation. In addition, it is essential that the injured party support his or her claim by medical evidence, not the mere recitation of speculative claims. While contemporaneous medical treatment is not required, there must be evidence that the alleged conduct caused mental or physical symptoms that indicate the presence of emotional distress.
Based on that standard, the court ruled that the Cronks' claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress must be dismissed. In support of its ruling, the court noted that Cronk did not undergo any psychological counseling or suffer any mental or physical symptoms that indicate the presence of emotional distress as a result of this incident.
As for the Cronks' second cause of action, that Dustin was improperly cut from the baseball team, the court, while sympathetic, could find no other cases of a student's exclusion from a sports team, allegedly motivated solely by retaliation, to legally support a favorable ruling. In particular, the court noted that the Cronks failed to cite any authority or case law supporting the existence of such a claim. In addition, the court noted that the alleged damages - that Cronk was hindered in gaining further recognition and/or prospective college scholarship offers - were highly speculative and completely unsupported by the record. Therefore, even after accepting everything the Cronks alleged as true, the court granted the school district's motion for summary judgment.
The Cronk case involved more than just a student being cut from the school's varsity baseball team, and yet the case is a classic example of the problem with any type of court intervention. Even if Cronk were better than some of the players on the team, there could have been any number of legitimate reasons why he was cut. To allow someone to challenge this sort of coaching decision in court would not only open a floodgate of litigation, but would also drive away from the field many coaches unwilling to have his or her every move second-guessed by a judge.
Finally, this case should also serve as a warning to school district officials and athletic administrators. While the district and coach were found not liable for any damages, the court made it clear that if not for the looming one-year statute of limitations, it would have allowed Cronk's lawsuit for battery against the coach to be heard. Therefore, it is essential that athletic administrators remind their coaches that they should never shove or physically abuse any athletes under their care.
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