Baron suit against VCSD to move forward

Enterprise file photo — Michael Koff
On Thursday, Dec. 27, the lawsuit filed by Robert Baron — shown here coaching varsity basketball players — against the Voorheesville Central School District got a judge’s ruling to move forward; the suit claims the district fraudulently induced Baron to resign as coach. 

VOORHEESVILLE — The suit filed by Robert Baron — the girls’ varsity basketball coach who claims the school district here fraudulently induced him to resign — will move forward, a judge ruled on Thursday, Dec. 27.

Five of Baron’s six claims have merit, wrote Kimberly A. O’Connor, an acting Supreme Court justice in Albany County Court. This week, Baron’s lawyer withdrew the claim the judge said had no merit, and added two more. The court is the bottom rung in the state’s three-tiered system.

In addition, O’Connor also allowed Baron’s June 14 motion to amend his original complaint by adding a cause of action against Voorheesville for fraudulent inducement and defamation. Since the school district is a public corporation, the decision said, Baron can’t be awarded punitive damages.

“Obviously, this is not a ruling on the merits of Mr. Baron’s claims,” William Nolan, attorney for the school district, told The Enterprise this week. “The district acted appropriately at all the relevant times and is confident that it will prevail in the litigation.”

Baron could not be reached for comment.

In March 2017, Baron filed a lawsuit claiming that the district fraudulently induced him to resign as coach of the girls’ varsity basketball team. At the time, he was seeking reinstatement as coach as well as payment for lost wages and damage to his reputation. Jennifer Harvey, a lawyer for Baron, said that Baron is still seeking to be reinstated as coach.

Harvey said that Baron had re-applied for the job after Andrew Karins, who was appointed to the position after Baron’s resignation in November 2017, stepped down as head coach in September 2018. In his only season as head coach of girls’ varsity basketball, Karins led the team to the Section II, Class B championship.  

But Baron did not receive an interview for his old job, Harvey said. In October, Thomas Maxwell was hired to replace Karins.        

A separate motion made by New York State United Teachers seeking to be dismissed from the lawsuit altogether was also denied in the Dec. 27 ruling.

In an emailed statement from NYSUT to The Enterprise, spokeswoman Kara Smith wrote: “Coach Baron is not a NYSUT member. And when asked to provide proof supporting his claim of membership, he failed to provide any evidence supporting his contention. In light of this fact, NYSUT is confident his claims against the statewide union will be dismissed.”

O’Connor ordered that, on March 7, both sides appear in her chambers for a scheduling conference, where she will set deadlines for depositions and the discovery process.  

Asked if the entire Voorheesville Board of Education will be deposed, Harvey said, “I don’t know if we will be deposing the entire school board at this time; it’s going to depend on where the paper discovery leads us.”

Asked specifically if Hunt and Doreen Saia, the school board president, would be deposed, Harvey said, “At this point, our discovery is in its beginning stages, so, I don’t want to say that we’re going to depose or not depose anyone. But I can’t rule anybody out at this time.”

What allegedly happened

The story surrounding the situation that led to Baron’s resignation began to take shape at a December 2017 Board of Education meeting.

Robert Burns, a friend of Baron, said that Baron checked the pre-season availability of his team members and then adjusted practice start times to accommodate as many girls as possible.

The players, Burns said, indicated they had no conflicts.

After practice times were set, according to Burns, one of Baron’s players came to him and said, “I can’t make it” to practice. Baron, in an April 2017 deposition, said that the player had a post-season soccer game.

Baron, in his deposition, recounted the Nov. 7, 2018 interaction: “So at that point we get up to do our warmups, some stretching in place and so forth, and as I’m walking by Student 1 [throughout the deposition, the players’ names are used, but in the transcript they are identified by numbers], she says Student 1 says, ‘Coach, I have a conflict on Friday morning. I have a senior all star game.’ I was disappointed as she had been dishonest and not told me the previous night. So I say, ‘Student 1, if I had a gun, I could shoot you,’  just so disappointed she didn’t tell me up front. So I kind of took a breath and said, ‘But if you are going to play, if you want to go and you want to play, just be careful and don’t get hurt.’ And she said, ‘Okay.’ And then I walked on.”

On Nov. 8, 2017, before practice started, Baron was called into a meeting with Superintendent Brian Hunt and Athletic Director Joseph Sapienza who told him a complaint had been filed against him by the parent of the player, according to court documents. Baron was told that what he had said was verified by Karins, who was the junior-varsity coach at that time. It was also verified by Baron himself.

“You don’t have to get verification from Andy Karins,” Baron said in his deposition. “I don’t lie.”

In his April 2017 deposition, Baron said that three meetings took place between Nov. 8 and Nov. 16 of that year, at which Hunt, Sapienza, and Baron were all present. Over the course of those three meetings, according to Baron, he went from being notified that a complaint had been filed against him by the parent of a player (who said that Baron had told her daughter: “If I had a gun, I could shoot you”) and he was being placed on administrative leave by Hunt to, just a week later, being told by Hunt: “I don't think it’s going to work. We are going to go in a different direction.”

In his November meetings with Hunt and Sapienza, Baron, according to his deposition, said he was led to believe that the “floodgates” had “opened,” and that there had been several complaints made against him. However, Baron claimed that the district spoke to only two players (out of 10) in its investigation of the parent’s complaint. Baron also claimed to have spoken with the parents of six members of the team, who told him that neither they nor their daughters had ever made any complaints against him.

“I resigned based on the fact they talked about a floodgate of complaints. They led me to believe this was from the current team, that they actually did a true investigation and that they talked to the members of the team, which they did not; they only talked to the two girls, did not talk to the other eight,” Baron said during his deposition.

Baron said that he asked if he could resign rather than be fired, and was told that he could. He had two conditions: his reputation would be protected and he would receive at explanation about alleged complaints made about him.

Baron’s resignation, after 10 years as varsity coach, was accepted by the four present members (three were absent) of the Voorheesville School Board members present at an early-morning special meeting on Nov. 21, 2017. At that same meeting, Karins was named as Baron’s replacement.

Causes of action

In her Dec. 27 ruling, O’Connor dismissed only one of Baron’s six claims, the first, in which Baron wanted the court to declare that the school district had fraudulently induced him into resigning. He was seeking a declaratory judgement, which defines the legal relationship between parties and their rights in the matter before the court, according to the Legal Information Institute of Cornell Law School; however, “a declaratory judgment does not provide for any enforcement. In other words, it states the court’s authoritative opinion regarding the exact nature of the legal matter without requiring the parties to do anything.”

This claim was denied.

This week, Harold D. Gordon, Baron’s lawyer, filed an amended complaint with the Albany County Supreme Court that withdrew Baron’s first cause of action. The Jan. 7 filing included two new causes of action based on Judge O’Connor’s Dec. 27 decision; a seventh cause of action for defamation based on what Baron claims to be false statements made by Saia during a board meeting, and an eighth cause of action that claims Baron was fraudulently induced to resign.

Pursuant to an Article 78 proceeding, Baron’s second cause of action seeks to nullify and invalidate his resignation as well as the district’s acceptance of his resignation, while also reinstating him as coach. In New York State, an Article 78 proceeding is a device for citizens to challenge an administrative action and have it reviewed in court.

In a May 10, 2017 court filing, the district stated that Baron’s second cause of action was not reviewable as an Article 78 proceeding because it was Baron’s “own decision to resign.”

The district said the action should be dismissed for three reasons: First, Baron resigned, so there is no administrative action to review; second, under New York law, once a district accepts an employee’s resignation, it is permanent unless it is shown to be involuntary, which according to the the filing, “New York courts have only deemed employee resignations to be involuntary under very narrow circumstances, which are not present here”; and third, Baron would have lost his job whether or not he chose to resign, “and whether or not any misrepresentations were actually made to him as he claims. The District cannot be subjected to liability for threatening to exercise its right to terminate Baron from his position.”

The court disagreed with the district.

According to O’Connor’s Dec. 27 decision, in a Jan. 9 letter from Whiteman, Osterman, and Hanna, the law firm representing the school district, to Harold Gordon, Baron’s attorney, the district asserted that Baron did not have the authority to rescind his resignation, which he tried to do in a Dec. 27 letter.

In the court’s opinion, the district, by saying that Baron did not have the authority to rescind his resignation, was essentially rejecting Baron’s retraction of his resignation, which “constitutes a final agency determination, which Baron is challenging and is reviewable in an Article 78 proceeding.”

In addition, citing existing case law, O’Connor writes: “Although a resignation ‘would ordinarily be beyond [the Court’s] review, exceptions exist where ... the resignation was allegedly ineffective and involuntary.”

For the second cause of action, Baron alleges that his resignation was fraudulently induced and coerced, according to the Dec. 27 decision, which would make it an involuntary resignation. The district’s motion to dismiss this claim, the Dec. 27 decision says, would not allow the court the ability to properly review the merits of Baron’s claims, and so the motion to dismiss was denied.

Baron’s third cause of action, citing the state’s Human Rights Law, alleged the district has a pattern of terminating coaches after age 60; Baron was 67 when he resigned. This cause was not disputed by the district.

Baron’s fourth cause of action asked the court to declare that he is covered by the collective-bargaining agreement between the school district and the Voorheesville Teachers’ Association, which would entitle him to representation from the union and make him subject to the grievance procedures in the collective-bargaining agreement.

In its May 10 filing, the school district said that Baron’s claim failed and should be dismissed because he had been never a teacher or professional staff member in the district; he was never a member of the Voorheesville Teachers’ Association bargaining unit; and he never paid union dues or agency fees.

The court dismissed the school district’s claim, and said that the district does not “have standing to move for relief that properly belongs to [NYSUT].”

Finally, the court denied dismissal of Baron’s fifth and sixth causes of action.

In his fifth cause of action, Baron asked that he be awarded damages for a breach of the collective bargaining agreement’s Evaluation Procedures, which outlines how an employee’s job performance is to be assessed. Baron asked for damages in “the amount of his lost coaching wages and an amount to be determined at trial for the damage to his reputation, including his professional reputation as a coach in the community.”

In the sixth cause of action, Baron is seeking similar damages for a breach of the collective bargaining agreement’s Grievance Procedures.

Voorheesville, in its May 10 filing, takes Baron’s fourth, fifth, and sixth causes of action together and, again, states that they fail because Baron was never a teacher or member of the district’s professional staff and has no right to enforce the terms of the collective-bargaining agreement.

However, the court said that the plain language in the “recognition clause” of the collective-bargaining agreement “does not conclusively establish that Baron’s position does not fall within its purview.”

Furthermore, the absence of limiting language in the collective-bargaining agreement’s recognition clause regarding “other professionals” and “other approved positions,” raises a question as to whether the coaching position is covered by the Voorheesville Teachers’ Association bargaining unit, “which cannot be resolved by the CBA alone,” the court said.

In addition, according to the Dec. 27 ruling, just because the school district and union agree that a non-teacher, part-time coach is not part of the Voorheesville Teachers’ Association bargaining unit, “is not a basis upon which to dismiss Baron’s claims at this early stage in the litigation.”

“Affording [Baron] a liberal construction, accepting these alleged facts as true” — that Baron is covered by the collective-bargaining agreement; that the district, under the collective-bargaining agreement, has a duty to its covered employees, including Baron, to engage in the evaluative and grievances procedures laid out in the contract; that the district breached those duties by failing to engage in the evaluation and grievance procedures with respect Baron,  despite his request that the district do so; and that, as a result of those breaches, Baron was fraudulently induced to resign, which resulted in significant injury to his reputation, and is entitled to damages — “and giving Baron the benefit of every possible favorable inference, his fifth and sixth causes of action for breach of contract as plead are sufficient to survive pre-answer dismissal,” the court said.

The court, citing its reasoning in denying the school district’s request to dismiss Baron’s fourth, fifth, and sixth causes of action, also denied a separate dismissal claim made by NYSUT that it is “not a proper party to this litigation.”

 

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