Jailed Coach’s Girlfriend Can Sue for Defamation

     (CN) – A field hockey coach who was fired after her boyfriend was arrested for raping players in another district can pursue defamation claims, a New York appeals court ruled.
     Lyndsey Wilcox worked as a gym teacher and field hockey coach for the Newark Valley Central School District. In 2007, her then-boyfriend and coaching assistant, Todd Broxmeyer, was arrested and charged with raping a female player on another team.
     As an investigation ensued, Wilcox’s alleged knowledge of or involvement in Broxmeyer’s conduct came into question.
     Broxmeyer meanwhile was convicted for possession and attempted production of child pornography with regard to several teenage girls whom he coached in field hockey. The 2nd Circuit eventually reversed several of the convictions, and Broxmeyer’s sentence was reduced by a decade to 30 years. That sentence was upheld last summer.
     That decision noted that three rape charges against Broxmeyer had been dismissed by the time of resentencing, “apparently pursuant to” a plea deal.
     “The sodomy, necessarily criminal because the girl involved was only 15, was proved to a jury’s satisfaction at Broxmeyer’s trial in this case,” according to the ruling. “In addition, the adopted PSR [presentence investigation report] recounts five rapes, two of them statutory, as well as other sexual assaults on teenage girls.”
     After Newark Valley fired Wilcox, she claimed that the school defamed her with four statements: two claiming that she did not contest her firing, one stating that she should take a leave of absence for the “safety of the team,” and one stating that she knew Broxmeyer violated the district’s sexual harassment policy but failed to report his conduct.
     Wilcox also claimed violation of her due process rights, assertin g that the district failed to hold a hearing by which she could clear her name.
     The school district moved to dismiss the case, and the Tioga County Supreme Court found that qualified privilege protected only one of the district’s statements, the one from principal Diane Arbes regarding the “safety of the team.” This decision prompted both sides to appeal.
     The Appellate Division’s Albany-based Third Department agreed with the lower court about the qualified privilege finding.
     “As all of the persons present at the meeting had a common interest in the subject matter and the record lacks any evidence of malice, Supreme Court correctly determined that Arbes’ statement at the meeting was not actionable based on the qualified privilege,” Justice William McCarthy wrote for a four-member panel.
     The school district’s evidence was also sufficient to defeat two other statements in the defamation action, McCarthy stated.
     Wilcox can continue her claim only as to a statement Arbes allegedly made that Wilcox acquiesced to her firing. Arbes testified that she “might have” said it before defense counsel asked the court to allow her to retract that statement.
     “A trier of fact could accept that she was confused by the question and legitimately corrected herself, or could believe that she understood the question and originally answered it correctly but changed her answer after reflection of its implications and discussion with counsel during the break,” McCarthy wrote.
     “This contradictory proof raises a question of fact as to whether Arbes made the acquiescence statement,” the ruling states. “Thus, that statement survives as a basis for the defamation per se cause of action and the underlying derogatory statement for the stigma-plus cause of action.”
     Wilcox cannot, however, pursue due process claims since she could have sought a name-clearing hearing under a different state law, according to the ruling.
     “The availability of such a proceeding defeats her claim that she was deprived of due process,” McCarthy wrote.

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