Results of Background Checks Must Be Guarded to Protectl Volunteers' Privacy
John T. Wolohan
As more youth sports organizations begin to require volunteer coaches to undergo criminal and other background checks before working with children, it is important that these organizations understand some of the potential legal pitfalls involved. A good example is King v. City of Independence [180 Fed. Appx. 627, 2006 U.S. App. LEXIS 12028].
When Kevin King volunteered to coach in the nonprofit Heart of America Pop Warner Football League, the city of Independence, Mo. (which owned the facilities used by the Pop Warner program), required that King, like all Pop Warner volunteers, pass a background check. All results from the background check were to be kept confidential.
When the results of the background check indicated that King had been involved in the sexual maltreatment of a child, the city sent a copy of the report to Richard Grove, a member of Pop Warner's board of directors and the organization's liaison with the city. Grove in turn notified King that he was disqualified from coaching.
While everything up to this point had been handled correctly, King alleged that his disqualification was then aired at a public meeting and that members of Pop Warner's board of directors informed parents of the reason for his disqualification. As a result of this procedural violation, King sued Pop Warner and two members of its board of directors for defamation. He also sued the city for violation of his civil rights.
Before the case went to trial, however, Pop Warner and its board of directors entered into a settlement agreement with King for an undisclosed amount. The agreement, which only involved King, Pop Warner and its board of directors, provided that "King release Pop Warner and their respective agents ... and all other parties from any and all liability claims ... based on or connected in any way with Kevin King's relationship with Pop Warner as a volunteer football coach." The settlement agreement also stated that King was represented by counsel at the time he entered into the agreement, that he was voluntarily entering into the agreement, and that he was fully advised that the execution of the agreement prevented any future claims related to King's relationship with Pop Warner as a volunteer football coach.
Once the agreement was signed, King and Pop Warner and its board of directors filed a joint motion to dismiss all claims against Pop Warner and its board of directors. The motion, however, clearly stated that it did not affect, nor was intended to affect, King's claims against the city. Then, after the motion was filed with the district court, the city moved for summary judgment on King's civil-rights claim, arguing that even if the parties did not intend for the settlement agreement to affect King's claims against the city, the agreement released all of King's claims, including those asserted against the city.
King, however, argued that even though the settlement agreement stated that he released Pop Warner and "all other parties" from liability, it was clear when looking at the motion to dismiss that the agreement was not intended to affect King's claims against the city.
After reviewing the settlement agreement, the district court agreed with the city and dismissed King's civil-rights lawsuit against the city. King attempted to have the suit reinstated by appealing to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, arguing that the district court was wrong to only look at the settlement agreement and that instead it should have examined the totality of the surrounding circumstances to determine whether its execution was knowing and voluntary. For example, since the language in the stipulation of dismissal provided that the stipulation did not in any way affect King's claims against the city, King argued that he did not knowingly release the city from his civil-rights claim.
In reviewing the facts, the appeals court rejected King's argument. In support of its conclusion, the court pointed to a number of factors. First, the court noted that since King did not clearly present this argument to the district court, he did not preserve it for appeal. Contrary to what many people think, the Court of Appeals cannot retry a case; it can only hear issues raised at the lower court. Therefore, if King failed to raise any issues at the district court level, he would be unable to raise them on appeal.
Even if King did preserve the issues for appeal, the court found that under Missouri law the court is required to examine the language of a release in order to determine whether it operates to release claims against any non-settling parties. In the current case, since the language used in the release was unambiguous, the court was forced to determine the parties' intent based only on the release's language, and on no other extrinsic evidence. King's settlement agreement specifically provided for the release of all persons related to Pop Warner, as well as the release of all other parties from any and all liability related to King's relationship with Pop Warner as a volunteer football coach. That clear language served as a general release that, the court ruled, released the city from all of King's claims.
Finally, the court noted that even if it applied the knowing and voluntary standard that King contended was applicable, it would have to conclude that summary judgment was appropriate because, as the agreement specifically stated, King was represented by counsel, entered into the agreement voluntarily and was fully advised that executing the agreement would prevent him from bringing related claims against all other persons.
While King v. City of Independence was settled before it ever got to trial, it still offers sports administrators some valuable lessons. First, while conducting criminal and other background checks on all volunteers is important, it is vital that privacy issues be protected. Any time you are performing background checks, there is the likelihood that you will uncover information that the subjects do not want disclosed. Therefore, it is essential that sports administrators have a policy in place that protects the privacy of volunteers and the confidentiality of any background check.
Second, even though the case ended up in court, sports administrators should not see this result as a reason to stop using criminal background checks. In the present case, the background check discovered a volunteer who had been involved in the sexual maltreatment of a child. Such a discovery clearly offsets any risk of a lawsuit.
Finally, it is important when signing contracts or other legal documents that sports administrators clearly understand what they are signing. As the court in King noted, whenever there is a dispute over the interpretation of a written contact, the court is obligated to use the contract language to settle the dispute, even when that language is contrary to the intent of the parties.
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