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Wednesday, June 12, 2024 | Back issues
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Ousted Football Coach Given Reduced Award

(CN) - A Division I college football coach can keep just a fraction of the $503,500 that a jury awarded him for wrongful termination, a Louisiana Appeals Court ruled.

Grambling State University hired Melvin Spears Jr. was hired to serve as head football coach of the historically black, public university in January 2005. His five-year contract, among other things, stipulated that he was to receive 60-day advance notice of termination.

Spears did enjoy some success as coach of the Grambling Tigers for three seasons, compiling a record of 20 wins and 14 losses. Nevertheless, his tenure was marked by controversy, and the school fired him in December 2006 with just 13 days' notice.

In a February 2007 complaint, Spears claimed that the University of Louisiana System - the board that oversees Grambling - fired him without cause, or notice, in the face of his successful performance as head football coach.

At trial, Spears further asserted that the university board made false statements about him that damaged his reputation. He said it did so to harm him, his reputation and his coaching career.

The former Grambling coach sought $486,000 in damages, equivalent to the $13,000 per month he would have been paid for the remaining 36 months on his contract, plus wages he claimed to have earned but was never paid.

In its rebuttal, the board explained that it terminated Spears with cause. It said Spears sent letters to some of the player's parents, telling them their sons failed a drug test when, in some cases, they had not even taken the test.

Spears' actions while coach also triggered an investigation that led to fines from the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the board said.

Amid some examples of unsportsmanlike conduct, the board said that Spears disparaged a Mississippi school that wanted to reschedule its game against Grambling in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

After a four-day trial before Judge Wilson Fields in the 19th Judicial Circuit of East Baton Rouge, a jury awarded Spears $449,500 for the remainder of his salary under the contract, $11,000 in penalty wages, and $139,000 in attorneys' fees. Fields later increased the penalty wages to $54,000.

But a three-judge panel of the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal partly reversed Monday, finding numerous errors in the trial the jury's damages calculation.

In one example, the trial court would not let Grambling submit into evidence certain newspaper articles that allegedly showed how Spears made the school look bad. Judge Fields had excluded the articles on the basis of lack of foundation and hearsay.

But the appeals court found that, under the law, newspaper articles are "self-authenticating documents."

"Thus ... there was no need for Grambling to lay a foundation to introduce the newspapers articles as evidence," Judge J. Michael McDonald wrote for the panel.

Fields had also misapplied the hearsay exception, according to the ruling.

"The newspapers were not offered into evidence to prove the truth of the matter, but rather, to show evidence of the adverse impact of Mr. Spears; actions on Grambling's reputation," McDonald wrote.

Though the trial evidence suggests that Grambling fired Spears with cause, it also showed that termination violated the terms of his employment contract.

"Thus, Mr. Spears was owed 60 days wages from the notice of his termination," McDonald said.

As such, the court said Spears could collect just $20,087 for the remainder of his salary, reduced from the jury award of $449,500.

The judge also found that the penalty award of $54,000 relied on a misinterpretation of the penalty wage statute under Louisiana law, and reduced it to $38,466.

It was also excessive to award $139,000 in attorneys' fees for a four-day trial in a case where the "legal principles ... were not unduly complex," the court found. Using the record of the trial as its guide, the panel concluded the fees should be reduced from $139,000 to $34,500.

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