This week we are exploring the case of the Mississippi football coach who lost his job due to “immoral conduct.” As we told you yesterday, the coach signed up for an account with Ashley Madison, a website that promotes adulterous affairs. That’s not what got the coach canned. It was the fact that his account with A/M included a nude photo of the coach—“full frontal” as the court delicately explains. The coach’s wife (later ex-wife) took the picture during happier times.
Stuff like that causes people to talk. No doubt the superintendent must have heard from a lot of people when this became public, including a state senator who informed the superintendent that his constituents did not want Coach Wallace to continue to work for the district.
Apparently the superintendent and board agreed with that. They terminated Coach Wallace’s employment, citing “immoral conduct.” Since they had kept him on board for a full year after learning that he had signed up with Ashley Madison it appeared that the “immoral conduct” was about the nude photo. It wasn’t about the fact that the photo existed—the court acknowledged that “The fact that consenting married adults would photograph each other in a state of nudity does not strike this court as being 'immoral.'"
So the termination was not based on his having an account with Ashley Madison. It wasn’t about the fact that there was a picture of him in the altogether. It was about the fact that it got posted on the internet. Thus the critical issue: who put it there?
Coach Wallace presented evidence indicating that he did not post the photo. He claimed that his ex-wife and her friend did it. In fact, the court noted that the coach produced “very substantial, bordering on overwhelming” proof that this is how it went down. For example, there was a text message to the ex-wife from her friend:
That sign in and password that u had. Are you not worried that they can trace that? I know I did it one time. Wouldn’t look good huh.
The ex-wife acknowledged that she had taken the racy photograph—while they were married—and that she knew the password to his Ashley Madison account. Then the text message makes it look like she passed it on to her friend. (Coach Wallace thinks that fellow is more than a “friend.” He’s also a defendant in the case).
Coach Wallace made two main arguments. First, he asserted that he was denied due process because the district did not allow him to have a hearing before they fired him. Schools have to provide due process if they take away a person’s property or liberty. Normally, the termination of a contract would be considered a deprivation of property, sufficient to require due process. But in this case, the coach had allowed his certification to lapse. His contract was contingent on him getting the certificate renewed, and he failed to do this prior to the termination. So the court reasoned that the coach did not have a “property interest.”
That was not the end of it though. The court held that the coach presented an arguable case for a “liberty” interest. School employees rarely succeed with a claim like that. A school employee is entitled to due process to protect a “liberty” interest only if 1) the employee is fired; 2) stigmatizing charges are made against the employee; 3) those charges are false; 4) the employee was not given a hearing; 5) the charges were made public; 6) the employee requested a hearing; and 7) the employer denied that request.
Bingo. Coach Wallace had some evidence to support all seven of those components. Importantly, the court held that “made public” did not necessarily mean that the school district made it public. There just had to be some evidence that the stigmatizing charges were publicly known. Oh boy, were they ever!
That was enough for Coach Wallace to keep his case alive and get it to a jury. His second argument was based on sex discrimination. He claimed there was another racy photograph of a school employee making the rounds, and that the school treated the subject of that photograph very differently. The other photograph was of a woman—Coach Wallace’s new girlfriend.
To tune in tomorrow for the conclusion of this soap opera!
DAWG BONE: YOU CAN’T MAKE THIS STUFF UP.
Tomorrow: backsides of women vs. frontsides of men. The same? Or different?